Saturday, 22 November 2014

After the guests have gone

It started out as a "family reunion" the distant relatives from Bristol were visiting, in addition to his only sibling, my father had made it clear that all the children were expected to make an appearance

Having cooked a rice dish, made the tabouleh, and heated the kubba I packed the car and started the trip to my parents' house, explaining to my son that when adults invited people over they made an effort to show off things they were proud of, his grandfather was proud of his ancestry and so would undoubtably show everyone the numerous yellowing photographs hanging on the walls, some dating back to 1800s.
His grandfather was also proud of his children and grandchildren and would be showing them off as well.

It went, in my father's words "very well", his cousin who was born and raised here, English like her mother, came with her English husband, they saw the pictures, admired the garden, tried the exotic food, and lingered on chatting for almost three hours after the customarily late, mixed Iraqi / English meal which had been followed by an early birthday celebration for the very soon to be five year grandson.

It was almost eight o'clock before everything was cleared, the washing up done and the tea consumed, and having reassured ourselves that our husbands were otherwise occupied, and our children were fed and watered we drifted into the kitchen and started chatting.

We always seem to do this, get together for whatever occasion at our parents' home, maybe once or more a year, and almost without thinking end up regurgitating past memories, tonight it started with a Nik Kershaw song, pop music I had enjoyed and they had heard as children, and progressed through two further decades of music to a time when I had already left, we then moved onto childhood memories of similar family gatherings, people we used to visit during Eid as children..'so how was um-Hamid related to us...I didn't like her", memories childhood "imaginary" friends, and of "haunted" rooms, memories of childhood lies to our teachers and parents, and memories of the subsequent punishments, memories of schools and studies, of struggling to understand what was required, and of helping each other out with homework, of older sisters nagging or bullying younger ones into preparing properly for exams.

We giggle together at our childish ways, we laugh out loud at what at the time seemed like such serious arguments.

"Will you go back for a visit?" our youngest asks, "the only time I would ever consider going back is if I was told I had a terminal disease..."

We talk about our isolation from our surroundings as a family back then, and our worries about our children's isolation here and now, and try to reassure each other that they will fare better than we did

Memories of our shared years, times of relative poverty and family difficulties, memories of our years of separation, times of real poverty and through it all the underlying danger, and as we talk, a trigger, a tear, and then a recollection.....

They brought the martyrs home....a motorcade with the flag draped over the first car....they brought four that day....we waited....the cars came down the main road......then they turned into our road....we were all crying and the cars came closer Mum fainted......the cars drove past our house... it wasn't him.

There was an explosion in our area......he left his base without leave to check on us.....when he came home the next time he had patches of his scalp exposed.....his towel fell off his shoulder as he left the shower and I saw the bruises on his back....they had beaten him up as punishment.......

 "I remember Mum begging him to do something, he is my only son, if you apply he will be excluded from service....but he would not do it...."

"I remember travelling to Stockholm to meet him, armed with all the evidence, the numbers, the facts, hoping I could convince him to somehow somehow get you all out....but he would not do it..."

When we finally collect our sleepy children, our bags and plastic boxes of residual food, we hug each other tighter than usual, and as we kiss each other, we are all fighting back tears...

Our shared memories bind us together, but they separate us from those around us

My distant relatives from Bristol have been my hope, within one generation they managed to adapt, to be assimilated, but they arrived without memories like ours, maybe even two generations will not be enough......

Thursday, 9 October 2014


My love.... everything is fate
My love is not our hands, we were created for misfortune
Perhaps .....our fate..... will bring us together once more
When our desire to meet is stronger
And if lifelong friends
Deny knowledge of each other
And meet as strangers
Then go our separate ways

Do not say we chose...
Rather our fate chose for us

I sit in the corner letting them take the lead and tell myself it is for the best, but wish I could do it myself

I smile in the lift listening to the outcome of the great british bake off and tell myself integration is vital, and wish I really felt it

I lean on the wall watching the parents partake in the wine and nibbles and tell myself it is what is best for him, and wish I had something to say

I stare at the report he is trying to write about music and tell him it is vital for his education, and wish we could share the sounds from my childhood

I check the news for the hundredth time and

I tell myself

I made a choice

I am alive, we are alive

The alternative is but a memory...a...ruin

This song keeps playing in my mind

Did "I" chose?

Am "I" alive?

Sunday, 10 August 2014

But I can' I will cry instead

Just another statistic

The fifth president to authorise air-strickes on Iraq

A long awaited family reunion 

A week of frantic angry calls

A conversation with the foreign office

Just another statistic on the list

Plans and counter plans

A belligerent kurd refusing to descend from the mountain

A seven year old oblivious we hope

I would like to take control, to sort it all out

Protect her from becoming another statistic

But I can't

So I will protect him by a news ban and my silence

And imagine the worst in private

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Iraqis the Endangered species

First they came for the Jews and Iraqis did not stop them—
Because the Jews were not Iraqis
Then they came for the Kurds, and Iraqis did not stop them—
Because the Kurds were not Iraqi
Then they came for the Shia, and Iraqis did not stop them—
Because the Shia were not Iraqi 
Then they came for the Sunna, and Iraqis did not stop them
Because the Sunna were not Iraqi
Then they came for the Turkman, and Iraqis did not stop them
Because the Turkman were not Iraqi
Then they came for the Christians, and Iraqis did not stop them
Because the Christians were not Iraqi
Then they came for the Yazidis, and Iraqis did not stop them—
Because the Yazidis were not Iraqi

Then they came for the Iraqi—
But there was no one left.

In my own lifetime "they' have changed, but the brutal expulsion, destruction and murder has continued and intensified. 
I have personally heard this denial of "Iraqiness" used to justify it all
...... they were Israeli agents .......they were Iranian agents...... they were Saudi agents, ...........they were British agents......they worship the devil.......
Every Iraqi is another Iraqi's foreigner,  spy,  traitor,  heathen or all the above and they are all dispensable unless they become.....refugees.....of another nationality

Monday, 23 June 2014

The view from one family

So what is our family view?

Well the grandfather has oscillated between difficult to comprehend expectation "Baghdad will be liberated, we will be able to go back", to despair "they are shooting the nationalists, it was doomed, religious groups and seculars would never be able to work together for long"

The father has become pathologically connected to the TV and has added numerous new channels to the list, cursing the turbans, the politicians, the foreign media, the government media, in fact virtually everyone

The uncle has become loud again

The aunt confirms that her family in Mosul are feeling temporarily less oppressed (for a detailed update check out mosul eye world press and on Facebook)

The son has taken up residence in the loft watching football games

And the cousin remaining in Baghdad (whose brother was shot in the head a few years back) send a text message from the Officers' city

"sorry we have been unable to call, the internet is disconnected,
will call you once it returns,
don't worry about us we are well,
we haven't been out much but we are well,
there is nothing happening in our street,
we are all well,
a couple of streets away there have been cars dragging away all the young men but we are not affected,
don't worry about us"

Update 26/06
The day after the text was sent, a car drove down the street randomly picking up young men, two of her brother's friends were arrested, he just happened to be out late that night, and he has since made his way into Turkey

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

I can't be bothered

Silence for twelve months
Homes and hospitals bombed
Thousands of "inferiors" in Falouja dead

Then within three days
Mosul, Tikrit, and Kirkuk have changed hands and now

The whole world is talking

If I had time or the inclination I would research the timeline between Russian occupation and Taliban takeover and compare to the timeline between American occupation and multi militia takeover, but
I can't be bothered

If I had the time or the inclination I would research the history of the disintegration of Somalia to predict how old I will be when I see that version in Iraq, but I can't be bothered

If I had the time or the inclination I would respond to the accusations of treason being made against people who "place their trust in a religion or a sect over the land and country" with my first thoughts....I couldn't agree more...if only you had thought of that in 1991, in 2000, in 2002....., but it is too late and I can't be bothered

Monday, 9 June 2014

The inspectors visit

For the past two years she has been talking about her job, only when prompted to be fair, but what she had to say was never positive.

The job was not ideal, she was under a lot of pressure and everything was uncertain.

The classrooms packed, the children challenging, the senior team difficult to read, and the demands somewhat unpredictable.

The area served by the school is deprived, the majority of children coming from homes dependent on financial help, mostly from Pakistani families, usually only one of the parents had grown up in this country, they usually live in close proximity to family members, and within their little villages they led a life not very different from that led by their parents and grandparents back home.

The children arrived at school with no or very limited knowledge of English, limited social exposure that continued throughout their time at school, often totally oblivious to local or national news, most spending up to three hours after school at the mosques reciting verses in yet another foreign language.

By the end of their fourth year at school three quarters has not travelled to the centre of Birmingham let alone outside it, and perhaps not surprisingly their story writing was lower than that expected at the age of 11.

Then it got worse

Further waves of migrants arrived, and in addition to these children, classes now included up to 10 newly arrived Romanians, Algerians, and Palestinians.

Teachers took on additional roles of interpreters, a job advert for an interpreter speeking both English and Romania resulted in not a single applicant, teachers are issued with picture card tags that they carry around their necks, with images of glasses of water, toilets, food etc with which to try and decipher the tearful demands of six year olds.

Despite an increase of 30% in those achieving expected standards in literacy and numeracy the school was unable to achieve the target of getting all children up to the national standards in reading writing and mathematics, they were unable to cope with the money they were given, and the solution as approved by governmental decree was that the school be taken over by a more successful nearby Academy school.

The head lost her job and everyone else spent the next six months in turmoil as everyone's job was under threat, every single teaching assistant job was scrapped, as were number of teaching jobs. some select few were re-appointed, and at the last minute so was my sister.

In oder to improve results rather draconian rules were brought in, music and art were replaced by extra study periods, extra lessons were provided after hours, and at weekends to bring everyone up to standard, and the teachers tried there best to keep their jobs.

Appointed to teach Arabic she did what she was asked, despite her own surprise, here were classrooms full of children who couldn't speak english and yet they were being asked to form sentences in Arabic, the books she had written, illustrated and printed were used, and to her delight unlike her previous employers at least here she was allowed to use human and animal images in her alphabet books.

And then it got a whole lot worse

The inspectors descended, every day there was something new, rumours were rife, names of previous teachers appeared in the local papers, and before anyone had really figured out what was happening the press arrived to camp outside the school, to poke microphones through the school gates tempting primary school children with TV appearance in return for answering questions.

The reports are out, the news makes the headlines, the school is inadequate

But what made me smile was the only positive comments in the entire report was about the way Arabic was taught.

Way to go sis :)

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The perfect match

When I first started thinking about my then husband to be as a potential husband one of the things that pleased me most was the fact that we had met, got to know each other, discovered our shared likes and dislikes, and started to fall in love long before anyone else knew.

What displeased me most was when I introduced him to my mother, and she looked at him sidewise, and said "are you related to x and y?" turned out his parents and mine had been college friends and had kept in touch intermittently, they knew that their first borns where both medics, but had not been aware that we had met.

My desire to decide my destiny without familial interference was only partially met.

Times have moved on since, and it seems to me that finding the perfect match just keeps getting more complicated, finding a partner when you are living in a foreign land is difficult enough. Add to that an increasingly restrictive list of prerequisites and it becomes almost impossible.

For years my parents worried about my brother's future, and having chosen to become increasingly more "Iraqi" as time went by, the search became ever more desperate, daughters of friends, sisters of friends, and friends of friends where all considered and rejected for one reason or another, it took a decade before someone suitable was found, a successful marriage but one very much arranged.

And for the past three years a second search has been on in ernest for yet another ideal wife for someone else, the internet is scoured, his mother joined "elderly Iraqi community" groups to meet mothers, and conversations that start with "how many children do you have" are had both with people working at the embassy, and those protesting and waving placards outside it.

He is intelligent, funny, a successful academic, so what can possibly be the problem?

Well like all potential wives she needs to young but not too young, pretty but not too beautiful, intelligent but not too clever, successful but no more than him, add to that the Arabian requisite of being born and raised in the East away from the temptations of the West, being religious but maybe not too much so etc etc.

But the main stumbling block is that she must not only be a Sunni, but ideally should also be from a family who feel persecuted by the Shiite, a pre-requisite that is only discussed openly in private, and yet this shared persecution has become the mother of all pre-requisites, this shared belonging a requirement so basic that it somehow manages to be the starter of every "do you know any eligible women" conversations without it ever being specifically mentioned!

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Dr Q

I remember Alaa' as being one of the most decent of the bunch of people in my year, an outsider from Najaf, very bright, quiet, polite and very generous, he went on to become Dean at one of the newer medical schools, and when he contacted me and asked for my help with one of his trainees I did not hesitate.

Telephone calls, emails and contact with my own ex-supervisor, an Italian medic, and an international research expert in acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, I reassured her regarding the finances, told he came recommended by someone I trusted and eventually an agreement was reached.

The university is pleased, he is pleased, he and his family arrived, a fully paid three year PhD programme starting in September, preceded by a language course and unbeknown to sponsors and supervisor plans to take the registration exams that if passed allow medical practice in the UK.

I had just poured my first coffee of the day, and turned the screen on to scan a few emails before the day started, when the phone rang, no caller ID I answered expecting the on-call doctor updating me on the bunch of in-patients, instead it was Dr Q

"Sorry to call so early, but I need your meeting the head of the department for the first time today and need to write her an understand I am sure, when when I met the team at the institute it seems they did not understand and it was do I phrase it to explain I cannot shake her hand..."

I remember the first time a man refused to shake my hand, I was shocked, and deeply offended, to me it felt like a personal snub, I was not good enough, not clean enough... how dare he I wondered.
I am still uncomfortable about that first meeting, he was elderly and thankfully his son and grandson both of whom studied in the UK were different.

I gave a few words of advice.. don't say I am sorry...the British don't start letters in that way, explain that you don't want to cause offence or embarrassment....say that your religion prevents it...
all the time I am thinking back to that meeting in Baghdad, that elderly man who had refused to shake my experience I would rather not repeat.

"Thank you so much dictora... I am so grateful... really you must come to visit us some time..."

I am sure we will meet one day, maybe at the institute, maybe at a meeting..good luck with your meeting.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The embassador

Many years ago I entered into a rather unpleasant online dispute with an Iraqi doctor who had been plucked from a rather mediocre job in the British health service and appointed head of the Medical City teaching hospitals in Baghdad, I was angered by the lies and exaggerations, and following a post here exchanged several emails with the since obscure surgeon

I remembered those feelings last week

Someone had started a new Facebook group, and I had been included in the invitees

These were some of my fellow university students, a list of a hundred people, some instantly recognisable, others rather less so, photos and families, memories and anecdotes, I found myself smiling and clicking on the little red numbered messages that kept popping up


People started to write resumes of their lives over the past twenty-five years since we graduated, medical specialities, children in universities, travels around the globe in search of safety and career, struggles with new languages and cultures, so much success all around the world, and a lots of congratulations and reflected glory

And then he placed his resume....

The fifth top graduate...travelling to the UK ....consultant position....head of department... followed by a change in career....and current position as ambassador of Iraq in....all interspersed with the political jargon- the -previous criminal government- the recent dramatic changes-his excellency the so and so-

The theme is religious rather than nationalistic but the general feel was all so familiar it instantly took me back thirty years

I instantly google the name (and initially find nothing from his medical background because like so many of us he has changed his surname to emphasise his religious subgroupe) I eventually find the hospital but very little else. 

But I do find the youtube that apparently went viral of his bodyguards manhandling a young cyclist who came too close to his diplomatic car.

Unlike previously I did not enter into debates, I didn't send him this

I simply left the group and unfriended the people who felt obliged to congratulate him

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The F word

While the world is watching Kiev intently, and occasionally remembering Syria

Somewhere else is close to exploding
The most feared city in the world
The birthplace of my children's grandfather

Haweeja is the new Halabcha

The mass deaths there changed the balance, the protracted and mainly peaceful sit in became more than just that, and in all likelihood the calls for "revenge" in a land where there has never been any justice made the "fighters" more welcome

The websites are active again (between episodes of hacked shut down), and in addition to the words we now have images
Filled mortuaries, crowded hospitals, and mutilated bodies in the streets

The videos are multiplying, with or without the insignia or the haunting music, planes are downed in the dark, tanks emptied and burning, military positions vacated, and rockets blaze over pedestrians in the streets, all with the common commentary AllahuAkbar...and Baghdad we are on our way

Rumours are rife, "anyone trained by the Americans is to report to F.....""Defections are becoming more common despite the death sentence", tapped phone call of farewells, of resignation to fate mixed with fear of execution

The prime minister calls the events "the battle between the grandsons of Hussain and the grandsons of Muawyia", and now his government has lost control over a strip of land extending from the western border to Abu Ghraib on the outskirts of the capital, passing via Ramadi, and it is spreading; a few shots in Mosul, a few skirmishes in Yousifyia "the city that according to the song penned for the elder Hakim was a source of fear to other Iraqis"

To the outside world this is not happening, not a word of it is spoken, because in the centre of all the events, is one city, a city no-one dares even mention, not even in a whisper, F........

Saturday, 11 January 2014


I slept in the sleeping bag, on the floor in N and A's flat
I slipped down before they woke, unable to sleep
Waiting for the envelope
That dropped through the letter box
-I can work-

I returned to the room several times before lunch
Checked the post room again
Waiting for the brown envelopes
That were delivered by the warden
-I can progress-

I watched the phone in clinic
Desperate for it to ring
I had even visited the multi faith room
Pinned a prayer on the notice board
-She had crossed-

And now I am waiting again
Watching the phone for three days
Willing it to ring
Desperately waiting

Worse than all previous waits

I have to convey

-It has not arrived-
-You have not been selected-

I am alert to the phone's sudden jolt
Hidden caller ID
She is eleven, previously well, bleeding and pale, there are no blasts, but nothing else either

They always present to me
These sickening reminders
The worst results you will ever receive
Are the one you were not waiting for