The snow accumulated on the ground that cold morning whereas the day before it was warm and sunny. The fluctuating weather condition in Michigan did not exist in my birth country, a land famous for its desert sands, where summer lasts nearly all year long. I turned into the parking lot of the Middle Eastern produce market. With the exception of a group of seagulls and a few cars, the area was empty.
Upon opening the entrance door, the aroma of samoon, Iraqi diamond-shaped bread, and a song by the Lebanese singer Fairuz took me to my childhood days in Baghdad, a city known once long, long ago, as the center of learning and commerce where the House of Wisdom was built, imagine that! The House of Wisdom was a key institution in the translation movement where Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, Chinese and Syriac works were translated into Arabic and the concept of the library catalog was introduced. When the Mongols invaded Iraq in 1258, they destroyed the House of Wisdom along with all other libraries in Baghdad—the story of Iraq’s life.
They say love kills time.
They also say time kills love.
My love, let’s leave
before time and before love.
Fairuz’s voice and music carried me to the days when we lived in the district of Al Harthiya and my parents and siblings listened to her and other popular Arabic singers on the radio during the mornings, evenings, and nights. I often missed the wonderful magic I experienced when, as a child, I walked to school in a custom-made uniform, my hair in braids, tied by bright white imitation silk ribbons. I remembered those walks so well: the frosty grass in the winter, birds chirping in spring, the sounds of my shoes click-clacking against an ancient surface that once was famed as the wealthiest and richest city in the world.
I stood in front of the tanoor oven that was in wide view so patrons got to watch the baker place a huge wooden spatula in and out of the fire to make fresh bread. I desired to nail a bench to the ground and sit there for hours on end, watching the tanoor oven, the luminous fire, and thinking about days long gone, of a land I could not easily return to due to all of its political, social, and religious turmoil. It was especially not safe for me, a Christian woman, to visit my birth country where half-a-dozen years ago, my parents’ and grand-parents’ Christian villages were destroyed by invaders. My ancient Chaldean ancestors helped build the cradle of civilization, the area presumably the location of the Garden of Eden which over a period of thousands of years has on-and-off turned into a hell on earth.
Separating myself from Bagdad’s memories, I walked down the flour-dusted aisles, among jars of grape leaves, olives, and tahini. I packed into the shopping cart tomatoes, English cucumbers, jalapeno peppers, clotted cream, and packaged chocolate croissants. I brought the items to the register counter and set them near the tray of freshly made falafel and meat, vegetable, and cheese pasties.
The cashier greeted me, as she did all her female customers, in endearing Arabic or Aramaic terms of love or dear. She was a husky woman with a pretty face and a warm smile. She always wore black.
“How much are the cauliflowers?” I asked, wanting to make pickled cabbage and cauliflower.
“One dollar each.”
She began to weigh and bag my items while I went to grab five cauliflowers. As I approached the counter, she said, “You are one of very few customers who never gave us a hard time, and that’s why I’m about to tell you this. Today is our last day here. We’re closing the store tomorrow.”
We looked at each other. I dropped one of the cauliflowers and picked it up hoping the impact hadn’t crushed any of the florets. Under normal circumstances, I would’ve exchanged the cauliflower for an un-dropped one, but this situation called for sympathy for the woman and little or no concern about a possibly dented floret.
“They refuse to renew our lease,” she said. “We opened this store fourteen years ago, and it took us two years to fill it with groceries.”
She told me her story. She’d been working since the age of twelve, and now in her forties, she’d had less than four months’ time of rest, altogether including maternity leave for her two children. Her children are delighted that from now on, she’ll be home when they return from school. Her husband had wanted her to stop working so they could spend more time together and go to church on Sundays. But her sister, who owned the store with their brother and her husband, needed her there. Their father having passed away when they were young, the two sisters had worked side-by-side since their teenage years.
“My mother pushed us to work,” she said. “Even now, she says that after the store closes I should find a job. My husband is well-off and I don’t really need to work.”
I told her that I too started working at age twelve, with my mother prodding me to work, work, and work. Like her, I too was sad when we closed a family video store I’d managed for twelve years. I worked there seven days a week and knew all the customers. But in my case, after I had children, I did not work out of the home. My husband and I made a number of sacrifices for this lifestyle.
We chitchatted a little more, she expressing her grief, hopes, and dreams, and me giving her words of advice and encouragement. We wished each other the best of luck and I walked out, the essence of the past trailing behind me like a long wedding veil. I walked into the snow, into my city, nicknamed “Little Baghdad” because of the large population of Iraqi Americans, primarily of the Christian faith, of Chaldeans and Assyrians, where at every corner were an Iraqi produce market, restaurant, bakery, butcher shop, and hookah lounge. This was where I heard the Aramaic dialect between men and women who, like my family, left our ancestors’ land for freedom and a better life.
As an immigrant, I’ve often felt that I had one foot in one world and another foot in another, with a gap in between. Sometimes that gap narrowed to the point of closure, and other times it opened wider and wider, becoming as wide as a shark’s mouth. When I was a child, I’d spent years wanting to ask my family, “Why did you uproot me from my birthplace?” I felt like a plant taken out of its soil. After repotting, plants often enter a state of shock as they adapt to the new environment and struggle to get over the shock of being uprooted and moved.
We left Iraq in 1980, missing the Iraq-Iran war by an inch. The day we left was so hush-hush, I didn’t even know about it. One day I was in Baghdad, and the next day, poof!, I was in Jordan. I have no recollection of our actual departure. We disappeared as quickly as sugar in a cup of hot tea, and then we began a new life. We lived in Amman, Jordan, for nearly a year as we awaited our visas. Because we were nonresidents in Jordan, my younger brother and I were not permitted to enroll in school. We spent ninety percent of our time indoors, watching Scooby-Doo, Little House on the Prairie, and Charlie’s Angels, and using the Mahjong bone bamboo set that my sister’s Japanese boss gave her for us to play house with.
We ﬁnally set foot on Michigan soil on February 2, 1981, and I was introduced to the real version of America. Until the plane landed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, I thought that America was merely a story. In Baghdad, the word “America” was like a powerful perfume capturing people’s senses, creating an overwhelming surge of emotion that transported you to another place and time. That word entered our home the moment the Baath party came into power in 1968, and my father decided to pack up his family and move out of Iraq. He wanted us to have political and religious freedom as Christians.
My oldest brother was the ﬁrst to leave and immigrate to the United States in the 1970s. Once there, he petitioned for the rest of us to join him. It was a drawn-out process, and during that time, my siblings worked hard, saved up money, and sent it to him and his wife so they could establish a home and business for everyone else once we arrived in the new country.
I remember it was a cold, sunny day with light snow. While the RV that picked up our family of eight from the airport drove on the highway, I, a ten-year-old, watched the snow and empty streets through the window. It seemed vacant—no one was walking, riding a bike, pushing a baby stroller, or sitting on a front porch. The highlight of our ride was the 80-foot, 12-ton Uniroyal Giant Tire off of I-94, near the airport.
“This is a landmark,” said my Americanized brother. “When you see this tire, you know that you’re in Detroit.”
My brother’s brother-in-law, one of the older American settlers in the RV, told us the story of how this tire was once a Ferris wheel for the 1964-1965 World Fair in New York. It was built by the same company that built the Empire State Building, and some of the millions of people who rode it were Jackie Kennedy and the Shah of Iran. When the fair closed in 1965, the Ferris wheel was disassembled and shipped to Detroit. It took four months to put it back together near I-94.
The giant tire was interesting, but where was the excitement that we saw on television? The crowded, congested streets? The taxis and buses, the food stands, the pigeons in the park, the people walking dogs? One of the new arrivals in the van expressed the discrepancy of what we’d seen on television vs. this reality. “That’s in New York,” one of the older settlers explained. “We’re in Michigan, a totally different state.”
We then received an educational history course on the United States. The United States comprises 50 states, and some are so different than one another that when you travel there, you think you’re in a different country. For economic and religious reasons, Chaldeans— Christian Iraqis—began to immigrate to the United States in the early twentieth century. The majority settled in metropolitan Detroit because of its growing automobile industry. Detroit also had an established Middle Eastern community that consisted primarily of Christian Lebanese immigrants. Once they settled in the area and prospered, they encouraged others from their homeland to join them.
I, myself, had not expected Michigan to look like New York. I’d expected it to look like Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara, a ﬁctional plantation near Atlanta, Georgia, featured in Gone With the Wind. Since my younger brother and I weren’t able to go to school in Amman and spent 90 percent of our time indoors, I, at age nine, read my first novel—Gone With the Wind in Arabic. I immediately connected with Scarlett’s southern charm and her tribe, which in many ways resembled mine. That novel gave me the impression that American women wore huge puffy dresses, said “sir” and “madam,” had extravagant barbecues broken up by extravagant naps, and were waited on hands and foot by black people. Seeing how enthralled I was with the novel, my siblings took me to a movie theater for the ﬁrst time to watch Gone With the Wind with Arabic subtitles.
But Michigan in the 1980s was not Georgia in the 1860s, and Shelby Township, where we ﬁrst lived, was not Tara. I lay in my bunk bed that ﬁrst night with my face pressed against the wall, the pillows absorbing a cupful of tears. Reality ﬁnally set in. I would never again live in the neighborhood where I grew up. I was no longer going to see my friends. We never even said goodbye.
I wanted to ask my family, “Why did you uproot me from my birthplace?” But they were so busy acclimating and surviving, I could not express how I felt. For a long time, I struggled to ﬁt into two worlds—my birth country of Iraq and my new home, America. The process made me feel like a yo-yo and, oftentimes, as if I were living a double life. It was especially diﬃcult when I had to witness the American wars in Iraq.
I pulled into our driveway and brought in the groceries through the garage door. The house was lulled into a slumber, with my children off to school, my husband at work, and my mother still sleeping. I put away the groceries, went into her room, and saw her staring at the ceiling.
“Sabah Al ghair,” I said.
“Sabah al ghair,” she said. “Halla ib gawagh.”
We greeted each other with good morning blessings, she using a combination of the Arabic and Aramaic language. I began the ritual of transporting her into her wheelchair, taking her to the lavatory, changing and grooming her, and wheeling her chair to the kitchen table where I prepared a breakfast of sliced Spanish cheese, watermelon and pita bread. Once she finished her breakfast, I brought her to the living room and turned on the Arabic Satellite TV, the movie channel that played many classics.
As I went about my day, writing, cleaning, and cooking Iraqi meals, she and I both traveled to the memories we had in our younger days. We were happy. We’d arrived at a place in our lives where she’d completely surrendered to who she was and I no longer wanted to ask her “Why did you uproot me from my birthplace?” Once I became a mother, I began to understand and appreciate my parents’ decisions. I realized that home is the atmosphere you create and identity is partly your dream and partly someone else’s dream of you.
Born in Baghdad to an ancient lineage called the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonians who still speak Aramaic), Weam Namou is the Executive Director of the Chaldean Cultural Center, which houses the first and only Chaldean Museum in the world. She’s an Eric Hoffer award-winning author of 13 books, an international award-winning filmmaker, journalist, poet, and an Ambassador for the Authors Guild of America [Detroit Chapter]. She hosts a half-hour weekly TV show, and she’s the founder of The Path of Consciousness, a spiritual and writing community, and Unique Voices in Films, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Her feature script “Pomegranate” was selected quarter-finalist by Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope and her essays, articles, and poetry have been published by national and international publications. A keynote speaker, Namou has given readings, lectures, and workshops at numerous cultural and educational institutions. In 2012, Erootha, a local arts organization, honored her with an Outstanding Contributions to the Arts Award.