Bethani and Luli darted barefoot across the street from their house to mine, carrying an enamel bowl of goats milk yogourt and a heap of unleavened bread, fresh from their mother's oven. We often shared breakfast on my veranda, using the international language of small children—an elaborate code of shrugs and shy smiles. On my first visit to their mud house, an old man crouched in the slight courtyard shadows, spitting into the dust, his full-length cotton galabeya stretched across his knees. Nearby, a barebottomed baby crawled in the dirt, while a ragged goat complained at the end of its rope. Bethani, Luli and I played a complicated game involving a very long piece of string and several stones. My ineptitude left us rolling about on the ground, enveloped in wild giggles.
This was in Kirkuk. Or perhaps Basra. It could have been either of the two cities where I lived when my father worked for the Iraq Petroleum Co. in the 1950s. I rarely thought of Bethani and Luli, or Iraq, in the years between our departure in the late ’60s and the Gulf War. If I was asked where I was brought up, I might mention Hailsham, a small Sussex market town, or my Cornish boarding school. But I’d make only brief mention of the Middle East. After all, until 1990, few people had even heard of Iraq, let alone knew where Basra or Kirkuk might be.
But since then, I’ve thought of Iraq almost every day. Eve recalled Mahmoud, the legless man in the wheelchair who guarded the nearby Coke factory. Unable to afford to feed the family’s 11th child, his father left him on the railway tracks. But rather than killing him, the train had cut off both his legs; Mahmoud had been rescued and raised by other villagers. My small brother brought this story home like a mild curiosity, just one more glimpse of the new life we soon grew used to seeing all around us.
When the new season’s figs were in the souk, Zayah, our houseboy, took me on the crossbar of his bicycle to buy a kilo. I remember watching the market baker slapping flatbread into the fiery maw of her mud oven. When the chapati fell to the ashy floor, blistered and steaming, she’d hand me a piece, grinning with a mouth of broken teeth. Once, David the school bus driver stopped off at his house to show us the monkey his sister kept in the kitchen.
I can no longer listen to the tirades against Saddam Hussein, to politicians talking about the plight of the Iraqi people.
Some days I think I cannot bear to know any more of what they suffer. Name me one person you will help, I want to tell the strategists. Name one old woman to whom you will give medicine. Tell me how you will aid my childhood friends. Tell me what you can do in the rubble of the place I left long ago.
While Iraqis still live there, battered and beaten by megalomania and deprivation, it seems churlish to grieve so hard, simply longing for childhood. But in my dreams, date-laden boats still drift down the Shatt al-Auab River, and goatskin tents bloom in the desert. Men still draw on hubble-bubble pipes at market cafés while women carry their laundry to the river in piles on their heads. I listen for the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, hear a donkey braying like a child winding down from a tantrum.
My Kirkuk is gone now—its ancient citadel and much of the city have been demolished. Basra, too, has been battered by war, conflict and poverty. It is hard enough to return to a place you knew, only to find it changed. It is a real grief to know you can never return to the place whose sights, sounds, smells and tastes flow through you, as thick as blood.
For most Westerners, Iraq is just one more name in the news. For them, its story is of politics and tyranny, petroleum and money. But for me, it’s about people who shared so much of their lives with pale English children in cotton shorts and sundresses.
Every day as David drove us across the desert road to school, we’d poke shreds of paper through holes in the floor between the seats. Then we’d run to kneel at the back window, and watch them flurry and flutter behind us like escaping butterflies. Some days I long to release the memories that bind me to a place that no longer exists. Ed like to tear them into small pieces and watch them disappear behind me in the desert winds. But each one remains a small part of a pattern, intricate and evocative, of a place that created the child who became this person who leans toward a few .Arabic words spoken on a Vancouver street, who searches for eyes hidden behind a veil as a new immigrant disappears around a corner. I am still attached to a place that can never be found, however much I long for it. ED
Lois J. Peterson is a library staffer and creative writing instructor in Surrey, B. C, and editor of the literary journal WORDS.
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