One summer some time ago, my entire family decided to take a trip together to Washington DC. At the airport, my uncle collected our passports: American, Canadian, British, Swedish, Dutch and Emirati. The puzzled officer looked up from his desk and asked, "All one family?" My uncle nervously laughed off a touchy subject and nodded at the officer politely. Perhaps it is unusual to most people that we hold citizenship of nations different from our native land, but it is a familiar reality for many Iraqi exiles that have left a state plagued by a history of political turmoil. Even for me, born in Abu Dhabi and raised mostly in Canada, never having visited Iraq, I still feel pulled towards the country.
Identifying as Iraqis, we covet these foreign travel documents because they represent liberty from war. Our new "homes" guarantee us the rights to move across international borders freely, a privilege that Iraqis who live inside their own country don't have. But in doing so, we relinquish our freedoms inside Iraq for freedom outside its borders, we estrange ourselves from our homeland. From those brave enough to return, we hear stories about the serious consequences that can be waiting. Inside the insecure state, people immediately recognise the exiles because of their dialect, choice of words and dress; even mere tourist-like excitement over something such as a garden in Baghdad can give it all away.
More than being labelled as collaborators or traitors is at stake. There are stories of abductors auctioning returnees before they've even been kidnapped, to be later sold for the highest price. Messages like the recent fatwa of Sheikh Youssef al Qaradawi, a conservative preacher and long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood, that it is haram for Iraqis to take US citizenship are constant reminders for people like myself about the consequences of return to a politicised Iraq.
Many of those who left carry a romanticised image of Baghdad, forgetting the painful parts. Even I do, lived through my mother's recollections of her mischievous childhood. When she was a little girl, she used to crank call Jwad, the neighbourhood grocer, minutes before she would march into his shop demanding ice cream. Little did she know that years later as a newlywed she would bump into him on the streets of Baghdad. "God help you," Jwad told my father, remembering the bossy little girl of decades before.
The youngest of eight children in a wealthy family, my mother's nostalgia no doubt has an elitist lining. Still, it was heartbreaking for our family when we heard that Jwad had died of a heart attack while trapped in war-torn Baghdad. Iraqis left for any number of reasons: they got in trouble with the regime, or believed there were greater opportunities abroad. Most left around the time of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. My mother was a student at Mosul University then, and day by day she grew more irritable as professors carried on with lectures as Iranian bombs fell across the city.
Having paid a high price for our normal, orderly lives abroad, returning to Iraq means facing the issues that once made life impossible. We no longer have a tyrant, but the mix of insecurity and political openness has produced a circus of thugs: freelance suicide bombers, power-hungry clerics and mini-tyrants dictating how women should go about their lives. How is a return possible for somebody like me? The non-negotiable values that I have embraced as my own, such as individual freedom of movement and personal security, seem to have no place in "liberated" Iraq. The Canadian government has done a better job at protecting my rights than its Iraqi counterpart. In exile I have chosen the better suitor. As André Aciman so eloquently observes in his book Letters of Transit, is this a "state of betrayal" on my part?
Observing Iraq over the past seven years, we have been drowning in nostalgia, moving from the exhilarated feelings of liberation to resentment and fear as the war's true extent and the calamity of its consequences became clear. The government is attempting to build a state after seven decades of failing to secure a solid covenant with the Iraqi people. As it continues this process, I can only wait, knowing that whatever happens to my homeland, I will continue to hope that one day I won't be a stranger there.
Hadeel al Sayegh is a writer based in Abu Dhabi