I was in a supermarket picking up greens, beans and rice for dinner, reflecting on that fateful night in January 1991 when the United States began bombing my father’s homeland and I found out I was pregnant with my first child.
Behind me at the checkout counter was a man in camouflage fatigues and boots, clean cut, in his late 20s: an American soldier home on leave. His jacket listed Iraqi cities — Baghdad, Kirkuk, Fallujah and Mosul. He waited, chatting with a comrade in civilian attire.
My heart clenched as soon as I saw him. From gullet to gut tremors took me over as they have every time I think about the war. Twenty years later my complicit inner American still wrestles with my enraged inner Iraqi. “It was bad enough with Saddam Hussein,” one voice says. “I was against it! I’m sorry,” says another. “You’re not the Mongols; you’re the great democracy! End it!” “It’s out of my control.”
My father was born in Karbala and finished high school in Baghdad. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. Dad never lost the accent that set him apart from the fathers of my friends. He complimented the girls in my class who gained weight — a sign that they had enough to eat at home. (The girls, of course, were mortified.)
My dad, M.T. Mehdi, spent his life defending Palestinian rights. His motherland only became an issue for him during his last years.
We visited Iraq a long time ago: my blonde, blue-eyed mom and her three dark-haired daughters meeting my father’s mother for the first and only time. Baghdad’s perfumed evening air met my Scheherazade-inspired expectations; the bustling book market, the clanging copper souk, the world’s sweetest mint tea, and the girls in jeans and tee-shirts all spun a wondrous, unexpected reality.
That was before Saddam Hussein took power, before the devastating war with Iran, before ’91 and decades of sanctions pummeling the population into purgatory; before foreign forces cleared the way for sectarian violence and a reign of terror by criminal opportunists. Before kidnappings for ransom became all-too-common. Before American soldiers were picking off people in the street from helicopters hovering above as if Iraqis were digital images in a video game.
My younger daughter’s best friend and her family fled Baghdad. Her fondest childhood memory is sitting around a coal stove in a once-luxurious home, all the curtains drawn, eating melted chocolate on bread.
When I saw the man in fatigues my heart began to race.
I tried to hold my tongue, but the inner Iraqi and sympathetic American conspired against it. A snide tone came from my stopped-up throat, like steam from a pressure-cooker.
“Have you been to Karbala?” I jerked my chin toward the list on his coat. It was an accusation, not a question.
The soldier raised his eyebrows. Here, at a supermarket in New Jersey, a stranger was talking to him about a place on the other side of the world, and it wasn’t a pandering “thank you” for defending our nation.
“My family is from Karbala,” I persisted, adding a touch of defiance.
That surprised him even more. There was nothing uniquely Iraqi in my appearance: dark curly hair, a jacket, slacks. I sound like I was born in the U.S.A., which I was.
The biggest surprise, however, was mine. He took a breath and said very gently, “No, I haven’t been there. But I hear it was a beautiful city once.”
My heart missed a beat. That’s not what I expected. Entitlement from a soldier, sure. Scorn, maybe; nonchalance at worst. There was none of that in his voice and no pity either. Only kindness.
“Yes it was,” I confirmed, remembering the gilded dome of the Shrine of Hussein, the rich brocade enveloping his tomb, the detailed, glittering mosaics, the chandeliers and the peaceful courtyard shaded with palm trees. My face twitched into something like an upturned smile and I looked away, my eyes beginning to sting and something salty suddenly rising in my throat.
I paid for my groceries and nodded goodbye. He nodded back. As I left I he turned to his buddy. “No one should be there,” I heard him say. “War is hell.”
By Anisa Mehdi, a journalist and filmmaker living in New Jersey. She was a 2009-2010 Fulbright Scholar in Jordan.