Finding my Iraq, 31 years after I left
My earliest memories of Iraq aren’t really mine. They are stolen from family who have told me about our experiences of war.
Born in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war, my scant childhood memories centre around fear.
My mum tells me that as a toddler I would sleep with my fingers in my ears because the bombing was so loud, I would play hide and seek with my cousins during the constant blackouts, and I would sit by the door waiting for my dad to come home because he was serving in the army.
It wasn’t until the next period of turmoil, the First Gulf War, that we would leave Baghdad for good. I was three or four, unaware that I was fleeing the life I knew for a safer one in the UK.
"We were assaulted by noise – horns blaring, vendors yelling – and armies of shop signs in Arabic and English that marched wonkily along dusty commercial thoroughfares"
The Iraq I have known since is clumsily stitched together from others’ stories, orientalist versions I saw in the media or read about in books – a wonky patchwork of a place I didn’t fully comprehend.
Over the years, I have watched helplessly as Iraq continued to become a battleground, with innocent lives taken during invasions, terrorist attacks, and civil wars.
The land once known as the cradle of civilisation became more like the grave.
But I longed to return. Every time I mentioned this, my parents gave me the same response as an automated answering machine: “It isn’t safe”.
I heard from friends and relatives who had been and came back armed with stories I yearned to own.
Finally, after 31 years, I convinced my mum to visit Baghdad with me last month. Even as we were booking our flights, reports about attacks in the capital amid the country’s ongoing political unrest made us think twice.
Maybe we should put it off. Again.
Until recently, Iraq had been under a caretaker government for more than a year, the political deadlock creating upheaval, administrative chaos and instability.
The feud between Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his rivals, the Iran-backed Coordination Framework, led to violent clashes within Baghdad’s fortified green zone.
Our only knowledge of the conflict during our trip was via the traffic, as bridges and main roads were closed in an attempt to control the hostilities. The country was in permanent gridlock, literally and politically.
When we landed, it dawned on me that I had returned both to my birthplace and that of civilisation. I had read stories about ancient Mesopotamia – where modern-day Iraq sits and where urban settlements began to emerge around 3000 BCE – and its numerous innovations: maths, agriculture, writing, engineering, and the creation of societies.
Like our taxi driver’s front window, this romanticised vision of my homeland was soon shattered as we headed into the belly of the capital and its bustling streets.
The second largest city in the Arab world after Cairo, Baghdad today is a vast place with 7.5 million inhabitants.
Entering the town, we passed countless rows of palm trees wherever we went, their spiky crowns swaying gently like waving hands welcoming us.
We were assaulted by noise – horns blaring, vendors yelling – and armies of shop signs in Arabic and English that marched wonkily along dusty commercial thoroughfares.
The sky was slashed with wires and cables that tangled together like giant spider webs. Roads were a free-for-all: cars and people snaked between each other, always a hairline away from disaster. The city fizzed with life.
"I had never met her family, but we warmed to each other instantly. I wanted to know everything about them, about Iraq, I felt culturally parched and desperate to take huge gulps of the country’s atmosphere. Yet I could never quite quench my desire…"
We stayed with my cousin, who lives near central Baghdad. It had been 22 years since I last saw her but she was the same jovial, sweet-natured woman, now married with three children.
I had never met her family, but we warmed to each other instantly. I wanted to know everything about them, about Iraq, I felt culturally parched and desperate to take huge gulps of the country’s atmosphere. Yet I could never quite quench my desire… trying to satisfy three decades of longing in 10 days was futile.
The next morning, we headed to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, often called the Mecca and Medina of Iraq, where religious figures are buried. Every year, millions of pilgrims visit to mark the death of Imam Hussein.
Last year, more than 21 million people made the trip. I had seen photos of the swelling crowds, their religious chants and rituals, and though the numbers during our visit were significantly fewer, being there was surreal.
As we entered the shrine of the Prophet Muhammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Imam Ali, in Najaf, my jaw dropped. It glistened with gold and crystals that coated the walls, domed ceilings and chandeliers.
Below, a sea of black-cloaked figures surged as we approached the tomb. Women were wailing, praying, and shoving as they grappled to touch it.
I was awed by the scintillating interior, disoriented by the crush of bodies. It was hot, my hijab kept slipping and I stumbled over my abaya.
The same holy hysteria pervaded the shrines of the Prophet’s grandsons, the Imams Abbas and Hussein. Both are revered by Shia Muslims as they were martyred in the battle of Karbala in AD 680.
I couldn’t comprehend why these places of worship, usually associated with serenity, were so chaotic. “It’s just the culture,” I was told as if that made things clearer. My mum and I questioned many things about “the culture”, but at times it felt impenetrable.
Baghdad was different. It was oddly familiar as if I had seen it before but through a thick bar of dust. Speaking with people in my mother tongue was like having a vital cultural exchange that confirmed: “you’re one of us”.
I understood their mannerisms because Iraqis in the UK are much the same – convivial, nosey, boisterous, and soft-hearted. I expected to find a nation emotionally hardened by the country’s rough past but their affability moved me.
Exploring my family’s legacy stirred similar feelings of belonging. Visiting the school that my great-grandfather opened in Najaf in the 1960s and my relatives’ graves beneath it; seeing the street where my grandparents lived in Adhamiya; driving past the hospital where I was born – my heritage, my roots, seemed to meander through Iraq like the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates.
Food was one of the strongest attachments I had to my homeland growing up. I could taste Iraq even if I couldn’t see it.
While there, I had the chance to try “real” Iraqi cuisine: soft kebab, tangy masgouf (grilled carp, Iraq’s national dish), flaky kahi and geymar (buttery pastry served with thick cream made from buffalo’s milk). One morning, my cousin’s husband took me to try a few more dishes. We stopped for breakfast in Mutanabbi Street – shawarma in pillowy samoon bread, washed down with sweet chai served in small, sticky glass cups.
He showed me the Friday markets, the only day when hundreds of vendors sell their wares in the lively Shorja district. We were pummelled by a cacophony of sounds from blaring recorded messages that advertised goods on a loop (“Cold water! Fresh juice! Sale items!”).
They sold everything imaginable: clothes, phones, perfumes, and even animals.
People – almost entirely men – pets and paraphernalia tumbled over each other in a frenzy of noise and motion. I embraced the chaos. Somehow, in Baghdad, it thrives.
"Caged or unleashed, Iraq remains volatile. Throughout its turbulent history, it has been held in a socio-political chokehold, each time by different hands: Ottoman Turks, the British, Saddam Hussein, Americans, ISIS"
If Iraq at times felt lawless, I had to remind myself that its lack of governance exacerbated matters. Negligence is everywhere. The day before we arrived a building had collapsed in Karrada, Baghdad’s commercial hub. Reports speculated that it was due to a lack of proper safety standards, a common occurrence as weak government regulation meant building code violations are often ignored, resulting in catastrophic consequences.
Most of the 300 deaths in the 2016 Karrada terrorist attack by an ISIS suicide bomber were not from the blast but because people were trapped inside a building that was constructed without fire escapes.
Passing the location six years on, which was still being rebuilt, reminded me that Iraq’s societal development is crumbling like its public infrastructure, the detritus evidence of a place battered by its dark past and neglected by its present leaders.
Caged or unleashed, Iraq remains volatile. Throughout its turbulent history, it has been held in a socio-political chokehold, each time by different hands: Ottoman Turks, the British, Saddam Hussein, Americans, ISIS. Though all previous rulers held a firm grip, none managed to suffocate the ferocious spirit of the public. Their fire filled me with pride, but the futility of their lives made my heart ache.
One afternoon, a traffic cop threatened our taxi driver with a penalty for driving in the wrong direction. Other vehicles were driving the same way. Bewildered, the driver pleaded with him. “Turn the car around and I’ll waive the fee,” the officer grunted. The driver obeyed so that we were facing oncoming traffic. Cars blared their horns as they sped towards us.
Mum and I gripped each other’s hands in the back seat. It was the only thing we could clasp: every taxi we rode in had covers on the seats that prevented us from wearing our seatbelts.
Even in cars, safety standards were laughable. “See how they treat us?” our driver bemoaned. “I have a master’s degree and I can’t use it. There’s no work. I’m left with this.” His story became familiar; we heard different versions of it from many people while mum and I exchanged looks of pity.
“Why did you come back, what is there to see?” a security woman at a shopping mall asked me. “The country is ruined. They left it for us this way.” A young jewellery salesman, on learning we live in London, pleaded with us: “How can I go there too?” I felt a pang of sorrow at the hope and desperation in his eyes. He seemed to know this dream was more of a fantasy. “What is there in Iraq for me to stay? We have nothing.”
The public lack of faith is justifiable. Iraqis have scarcely known stability or democracy. Though promised to them after Saddam’s brutal Baath regime, corruption remains rife. Voter turnout in elections has steadily declined from 79% in 2005 to 62% in 2010 and dropped again to 45% in 2018.
Last year, following protests that began in 2019 – in which Iraqis called for an end to corruption, unemployment and sectarianism, leading to violent government attacks that killed more than 800 people – their disenchantment with political elites resulted in a 41% turnout, the lowest since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Part of the problem is that Iraq is deeply divided into ethnic, sectarian and political lines. Fractures exist between Arabs and Kurds, Shia and Sunni Muslims. Though Shia make up the majority of the population (64%), Sunnis (34%) have historically retained political and military control, and tensions between them have boiled over into countless conflicts.
One thing unites Iraqis of all generations: trauma. Several times a day throughout our trip, the power supply would cut out for a few minutes before the backup generator kicked in.
Each plunge into darkness and jolt of light felt like flatlining and being resuscitated. Growing up in the war meant having no electricity most of the time. The danger suddenly felt palpable again, not just in my repressed memories. I knew I wasn’t alone, that each of us carries similar emotional scars, but even shared traumas cannot create harmony among the public.
Yet, through the people, I found Iraq’s soul and hope for its future. It may take several generations to develop a flourishing society, but for now, it can be held together by the Iraqi spirit.
People have a deep humanity and resilience that no amount of bombs can destroy. During my visit, I witnessed a frail infrastructure but a strong culture.
On our last day in Baghdad, I stared up at an Iraqi flag billowing in the breeze. I realised that wherever they are, Iraqis across the world would raise it proudly.
We know our land offers more than devastation. The diaspora has a culture of its own; Iraq has shaped us from afar. I discovered I could belong to Iraq’s culture even if I was removed from the country.
While the meagre memories from childhood that I’ve clutched like precious gems may not belong to me, Iraq – its chaos, its charm, its tragic beauty – will always be mine.
Dalia Dawood is a British-Iraqi freelance journalist and editor based in London and a lecturer of journalism and publishing at the London College of Communication.
Follow her on Twitter: @dda_wood