Time flies: how a pigeon carried my family's memories back to Iraq

When The National reporter Zaineb Al Hassani discovered a selection of family photos from Iraq, it gave her the chance to reconnect with her family and learn about a time gone by.

It all started with a pigeon.

“Those chicks will be flying in a day or two,” my father Nazar said, as we watched the bird tend to her two chicks in the nest she built atop an old barbecue, rusting on our balcony.

Wondering when and where my dad had become a bird expert, we asked him to explain himself. My grandfather, it turns out, had been a pigeon fancier.

Did I want to see some photos? my dad asked as he brought outalbums, envelopes and boxes full of them.

It was late, but there was nothing better for me to be doing.

That single conversation at the dining room table triggered many more over the course of several weeks, as my dad talked endlessly about his life back in Baghdad.

Poring over the photos, we talked about Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s, my grandparents and my father. Each shot – from my granddad standing by a fire hydrant in Boston in the 1950s, to my father and his friends heading home after a day out, their guitars and accordions strung over their backs – offered up another story from my dad. By this point the pigeons had started to fly.

Black and white, some a little faded and tattered, and numbering well into the hundreds, the majority of the photos had not been seen by my dad or his four siblings for almost 30 years. Hidden away in the family home, it wasn’t until my uncle Haithem, the eldest brother, went to Iraq for work that they were collected.

“We weren’t aware what was going on in some of those photos,” said Nazar. “For me, it was almost like seeing them for the first time, especially the ones when he [Nazar’s father] was in Baghdad and in the UK. I know he had photos taken but I didn’t have the chance to see them.”

Having been back to Iraq only a handful of times over the past 30 years, the pictures offer an important lifeline to my dad and his siblings of the life they had when they were growing up.

“I am definitely happy to have them. Definitely happy to see this, and it brings back memories about the life that we lived,” he said.

“We were upper middle class. We were not aware of what was happening to the rest of the country. We were living in a lovely environment,” he said.

“Honestly, it’s those ones taken in the 1940s and 1950s that are my favourite, because I can relate to them.”

One of the first ophthalmologists to work in Baghdad, my granddad, Ahmed, studied in the UK and US before settling back home in Iraq. Seen in a smart suit in most of his pictures, the hint of a smile on his face, I was unable to equate him with the granddad so familiar to me, with his thick-rimmed glasses and shock of white hair.

What I do remember is the man who would slip a Kit Kat to me, hiding under the dining room table, at our home in Abu Dhabi. Our little secret – I was about 3 at the time. I also remember being dragged away from my granddad kicking and screaming as we said goodbye, moving to our new home in Scotland.

We wouldn’t meet again for another nine years, when my family moved back to Abu Dhabi. A changed man – the result of the conflict in Iraq – I was too young to cope with who my granddad had become and shied away.

Shortly after his trip to visit us, my grandfather died. Unable to connect with him face to face during that last meeting, looking at his photos with my dad gave me another opportunity.

Nearing the end of the collection of photographs, we had now reached the stage in my dad’s life when he had made the move to Glasgow, with his Afro hair and red leather bomber jacket, to study engineering. it was a move that would eventually take him back to Abu Dhabi, where he would meet my mother. He would never again live in Baghdad.

“The driving factor for us to spread all over was the political instability, and that had a huge impact on our family. We were a typical Iraqifamily – for that particular reason,” he said.

“You, being half-Iraqi, you will still move, but you will not move for those reasons. You will move in a planned rather than unplanned way. You will not be like us, where we had to take the first opportunity that arose and make the best of it.”

Last summer, shortly after our conversations ended, my dad retired and moved back to Glasgow.

The pigeons, by now, were long gone.

The photos, now safe at home in Scotland, allowed my dad to pass on the family history, he said.

“I suppose it gave me an opportunity to sit with you and with Hyder and Maryam (Zaineb’s brother and sister) and talk individually. And yes, we didn’t have that opportunity often because we were busy with our lives.

“It gave us a fantastic opportunity to connect and re-connect and gave you kids some important information about your family. It forced that kind of history on to you guys and enforced our relationship. It sort of gave us a second chance to know each other better. Even though you were using the house as a hotel.”

* Zaineb Al Hassani