But there is something that always pulls me back to Iraq, a single strand of connective tissue that no amount of time or distance can seem to sever. I have felt its tug lately more than ever — specifically since last October, the month Iraq’s youth took the fate of the country into their hands. Pro-democracy protests have frequently flared up in Iraq since the height of the Arab Spring, but this time the movement had enough momentum to threaten the political status quo. I closely followed the news as the revolt spread. Demonstrators from all over the country descended on the streets of Baghdad and other major cities by the tens of thousands, chanting, “We want a homeland!” — a rallying cry that emanated from long-festering resentment over rampant government corruption that has reduced much of the population to insurmountable poverty in the wake of the American occupation. Their grievances were only further validated by the regime’s brutal response. Hundreds of peaceful protesters were killed in the crackdown — not just by government troops, but also by the dozens of militias, political groups and foreign paramilitaries who rushed in to exploit the chaos to advance their own agendas.
At first, seeing all those rival factions climb over the shoulders of the protesters to snatch a piece of the pie, I couldn’t help thinking that the movement was misbegotten. Once again it seemed the Iraqi youth were being used as cannon fodder in a geopolitical power struggle that would only exacerbate the dismal conditions that had pushed them into the streets.
Then I realized I was missing the point. A single photograph circulating on social media last year opened my eyes. It was a picture of a teenage boy at a protest, most likely in Baghdad. He was squatting on the asphalt with a small Iraqi flag tucked against his chest and a half-eaten sandwich in his hand, as if he had taken a break from demonstrating to replenish his energy. His weary eyes and unclean clothes and feet suggested that he had been away from home for days, adrift in the tear-gas haze of peaceful rebellion. He looked to be about 13 or 14, certainly too young to have witnessed the last regime collapse. He did not see how the Iraqi people sang and danced in the streets, oblivious of the dark days ahead, unaware that their liberators, those “good-will ambassadors” in tanks and camouflage, would destroy their cities, take control of Iraq’s oil, install a new government just as corrupt as the old one and ignite the fuse of a sectarian war. He was young enough, in other words, to still have hope, to risk his life for a shattered dream. He held the torch of freedom my parents once carried, and, through the same darkness, was continuing the struggle to exorcise this house of horrors so that some day all Iraqis may have a place on this earth to call home. His faith was all that mattered.
Iraq may be the country of origin listed on my passport, but it was never my home. Hussein made sure of that. As far as he was concerned, my family didn’t belong in Iraq. We were traitors. The enemy. Prison was the only place we belonged. So I trace my roots back to Al Rashad. I may never have a country to call my own, but I will always be a prisoner who grew free. I will always belong to those who don’t belong — the rebels, the destroyers of tyrants. I belong to my mother and father, to my “sisters” and “aunties” who perished in Al Rashad, to that boy in the photograph with dirty feet and bloodshot eyes, to the Iraqi youth who triumph in their optimism, who persist toward a life of peace in a country that has known only war for half a century, whose hope is our only hope. I belong to the rebels because they alone give me faith that one day children in Baghdad will walk to school unafraid, that they can keep their families and extended families and that never again will they be diminished because a militia deserts them or a sect threatens them or a dictator wants to drown them in gas. I belong to the rebels of this generation and past generations, even if the parties in the conflicts have sometimes exchanged places, with the oppressed of yesterday becoming the unjust of today. Even so, it is always the rebels’ side I am on.
Hawra al-Nadawi is an Iraqi writer whose most recent novel, “Qismet,” was published in Arabic in 2017.