Translation: Tom Abi Samra
Today is the day to say my goodbyes. I packed my bag with the gift Saja, my wife, had given me. It was a print of my drawing dry mounted on board. A creature half water buffalo half human. I called it “Gud,” it was neither Good nor God… It was too big to fit in the suitcase, so I cut it up into sections to make it fit. The hardest goodbye was to my daughter. Hardly a year old, she can barely say “baba.”
That day of goodbyes was bitter, its pain accompanies me to this day. I remember how I cried when I hugged her, unable to let her go. Saja urged me to collect myself. She gave me a tight hug, and I quickly went back out. Descending the stairs of my family home, I saw my father—heartbroken, his hand on the edge of the door—waiting for me. He was wearing an indigo dishdasha. I bid him farewell. He was hiding his feelings behind that mask life had molded upon him. An attempt to teach us to be strong. I embraced his aging body and took in the generosity of his spirit.
I took a taxi to say goodbye to my mother. She was at the hospital, taking care of my brother’s wife who had just given birth. Holding mixed feelings of sadness and happiness, she hid her grief from me under her abaya. After my older brother had immigrated to Miami, it was my turn to travel to a faraway place to try to make a life as an artist.
I am the youngest of 10 children. As my parents got older, they had an increasingly difficult time remembering our names when they called out to one of us. My mom always told me: “Make your art here. We have universities and schools, and you have your family. We would be able to see you at any time.” I didn’t think about what she said; instead, I thought about how difficult it was to explain to her the art world, what it demanded and how exhausted I was battling life in Baghdad. When the time came for me to go, she didn’t walk me out to say goodbye. I congratulated my brother on his newborn and left quickly.
The sun had begun setting behind layers of palm trees and buildings stained gray with dirt. I was cold though my body burned with fatigue. Consumed with the baby and partner I’d left, all I could hear was the sound of the wind through the car window. After a thorough security check, I boarded the plane to Qatar; from there, I took another plane to the Charles DeGaulle Airport in France.
“Immigration is a dangerous experience, capable of ripping you into pieces and turning your parts into Gud?”
It is my third month in Lyon, far from the world I come from. I put on my earphones and a black jacket I bought to tolerate the cold. I saved up three months’ worth of my salary from the French government to buy it. A salary I stretch to cover food.
I walked all around the city with no destination in mind. I listened to the call to prayer (adhan), broadcast on Iraqi state television, then to the theme song of the children’s cartoon Sindbad. I began to feel as if someone was peering over me—an invisible dark mass trying to take control of me, of my body, my feelings. I was scared. Everything around me began to lose its color. It was 10 pm; I watched the last bus home depart and reached for my phone. I called Laith, a friend who lived nearby, to ask if he’d mind hosting me for the night in his apartment that hardly fits one person. He agreed and I headed there, realizing I’d walked 14 kilometers without rest.
My daughter thought I lived inside a computer screen. Whenever I called my family, I was overcome with my inadequacy, my absence. I couldn’t bear her cries because I knew I couldn’t help, could never be a source of consolation. I had to finish my years in asylum, but was unable to reconcile being deprived of the smell of my daughter, the ability to embrace my lover. But it was more than that. It was their deprivation too. I could see children on playgrounds in France, their schools equipped with all they could need to fulfill their potential, knowing she had access to none of this.
How painful it is to feel sorry for yourself. To be consumed by yearning for that elsewhere – for the flat land, the burning sun.
I moved from one residence to another with the migrant housing program. My bag gave in to the wear and tear, and so I took one from a friend. It was smaller than mine, but I managed to fit everything in, except for the “Gud” print Saja had given me. This, my final residence in France, was a monastery. I went to its basement and cut the print up into even smaller pieces so that it could fit into the bag. Is it possible to cut away at parts of yourself in order to fit them into a suitcase?
“Whichever one Gud may choose in the end, in the midst of his doubts, he burns and burns everything along with him.”
A year later I no longer resembled the person who’d left. It was like I’d entered a time portal: everyone remained the same, and nothing changed but me. My body was still young but my soul was worn out. I lost my sense of place—I no longer wondered what was out there but what I saw left me restless when I returned.
I saw smoke rise above Baghdad. The roads were closed; there were protests; a lot of blood was shed. It was the first protest I took part in, and I was overcome with a strange, but beautiful feeling—the feeling of my life being distilled into one moment that encompassed everything that came before it.
I was chanting, moving toward the frontlines of the protest once I got tired of putting out smoke bombs thrown towards Tahrir Square. After I managed to narrowly miss a smoke bomb heading toward me, I found myself in the middle of the bridge. A bomb passed under my feet, another flew high and hit the head of a teenager who died instantly. I ran to the edge of the bridge to a friend who was putting out smoke bombs. He had a scarf on his head but I recognized his thick hair. Everything happened quickly.
Safaa al-Sarai was martyred. I was at work when I learned the news and wept though I only knew of him through his poetry and activism. But I mourned for him and for our dying youth who wanted more. I wrote a post about the beginning of the protests, calling on artists to contribute works at the square where the protests were taking place. I created my first artwork, a graffiti portrait of Safaa al-Sarai’s. The next day, I saw his portrait repeated all over the square, and soon, it spread to all the squares of the uprising like a virus, from central Iraq to its South.
“Gud is sitting on a chair, contemplating the void, paying no mind to the fire scorching his body.
There are no plans for a future. We live for today only—for these few hours that we cannot even grasp. Even these hours we cannot trust. The refrain of Iraq wakes you up every morning; you are to dance like a madman; it gets inside your head, you hit your head against the asphalt to get it out, and you repeat; the refrain of Iraq wakes you up every morning; you dance, like a madman, to its refrain; it gets inside your head, you hit your head against the asphalt to get it out, and you repeat… overwhelming chaos.