x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

In Iraq, my name and language are truly mine

It's been almost a full year since I was last in Iraq, and I had forgotten how bizarre it is for me to be in an airport waiting lounge at the Baghdad flight gate.

It's been almost a full year since I was last in Iraq, and I had forgotten how bizarre it is for me to be in an airport waiting lounge at the Baghdad flight gate. Strange, because while I travel so much, and particularly to other Arab countries, I never feel connected to the people around me in the way I do at the gate waiting to board a flight to Baghdad. The sound of the dialect spoken between family members waiting to go home, the sense that these people use the same vocabulary as I do (words that make other Arabs pay attention, fascinated with the difficulty of our language) is soothing. And the idea that these same strangers are connected to me via a heritage, historical experience, and perhaps painful memories, makes my trips to Baghdad very different from those that take me to Oman, Egypt or Lebanon.

I remember my first trip to Baghdad, a year and a half ago, and feeling anxious at passport control. The officer held my Canadian passport in one hand and looked at me quizzically - the name was Iraqi, my original nationality on the visa was Iraqi, so what was I? And I remember stalling; do I go through the entire story - family is Iraqi, born in Kuwait, moved to Canada, never been to Iraq but I was supposed to be Iraqi but I had no documentation to prove it? It was very confusing for the officer as well.

Driving from the airport I noticed that the changes in Baghdad were subtle. I didn't see as many children on the streets that first time; there were many more out playing during my most recent journey. Small children played with footballs, held their mother's hands while shopping, and dotted the streets with their colourful shorts and t-shirts. There were defintely not as many as one would see on a regular day in Cairo; there, children sell, beg, ride their bikes, walk to the club in groups, joke and chase each other freely after school, their pink and blue uniforms a haze behind them. That's definitely still not the case in Baghdad, where the air crackles with tension. But seeing the few youngsters that I do, lolling near shops and with their parents, definitely softened the harsh scenery of the city, with its brown, blasted walls, destroyed roads and dilapidated homes.

Security checkpoints are a way of life here, with soldiers sometimes outnumbering citizens on many streets. The possibility of a bomb going off is still very real, and electricity remains spotty, with many people stealing the current from neighbouring businesses to illuminate their homes. Most Iraqis I have spoken with have no sense of hope. And nearly every Iraqi I know who works for an American company has asked me what life is like in North America, because they were waiting for their chance to get out. Applying for US government programmes that help Iraqis emigrate has become a goal for many, because most Iraqis see little chance for improvement in their country and are craving a better life for their children.

But in a way, I feel more at "home" here now. It's the only place in the world where people can say my last name without difficulty or having to ask me twice. In fact, sometimes I meet someone who knew a relative of mine or said he used to live near a home owned by my family. When I was a child my last name was always an annoyance at best. Even though I was never ashamed of it and liked its uniqueness, it has always been a pain to have to sound it out a number of times to people or spell it over and over again before it's written properly. My sisters share my frustration. Once, when my youngest sister was on a school ski trip back in Canada, the teacher calling roll on the bus went through all the names but stopped at hers: "Baan ... unpronounceable?!" he called out.

When I moved to Cairo I was sure my name would not be much of a problem. Instead, I found Egyptians so unaccustomed to Arabic names that were different to their own that I had a very difficult time pronouncing it to them and decided to allow them to butcher it, to spell and pronounce it whichever way they wanted ... whatever it took to converse about something other than my name. But Iraq is different. Here I am a known, even though I am personally unknown. My family's name has a history here, a space, a reputation, an origin, and while I don't call this country my home and enter it only as a guest, I know that my name is a part of me that no one can deny or take away.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a reporter for the Associated Press based in Cairo.