I am a watch – an impressive one at that. The kind that does not tick or tock. Her father picked me up from the jewellers on Mansour Street, the only place in town that you would have found me back then. You could never buy one like me now, not in that city, not by a long shot. Back then, in 1984, there were a few of us.
I was picked up as a gift on a hot Thursday afternoon in June. Abu Hussein, the proud owner of the shop, had opened the glass cabinet, plucking me out of my box, before handing me over to a groomed man with a short moustache and a grey Western suit. He barely looked at me. Back then you did not need to look twice to know that I was the one you wanted. I was carried in a black velvet gift bag, swinging by his side from gold-coloured rope on the short walk to the big house. He knocked as if he were a guest, greeted as if he was the master. After dinner, I was removed from my bag, then my box, and ceremoniously placed on the chubby white wrist of his eldest daughter. It is from this place that I learned all that I can tell you about home.
This woman’s wrist was my first home, with our story spanning over forty years and counting. I have watched a whole life lived, and many deaths died. Starting from the day I was given to her to appease the guilt of an unfaithful father, to the day we rolled our suitcases through customs at Saddam International Airport, when I was the only one who could hear the terrified pulse in her wrist as she was being questioned by border police about the nature of her departure. I was there the day of her small lonely wedding, the only one who saw her silently weep as she adjusted her veil in the mirror, preparing herself for an event so many had refused to attend. On all three days across the seven years during which her babies were born, I watched her feel the most joy she had ever felt as she welcomed each new life into her world and promised to protect each one. I was also there the day the marriage ended when they both stopped pretending they could live together miserably, and the day the children left – when her heart almost stopped beating from sadness. All of the big days.
These are the days that mark a life in retrospect, but these are not the moments in which a life is truly lived. I have come to see and feel, that life is in the quiet and less dramatic moments – the moments where you are safe, where you feel peace. The rest of the time – well, you are simply chasing it, trying to make it home.
The city of her birth and her youth had never known peace. So, she had never even thought to call it home. When “home” is a place riddled with coup after coup, where the markers for time are not years – or the minutes and hours you were carefully built to measure – but wars, you cannot call it so. She was born before that war, went to school after it, graduated before the other war, studied abroad before that one, and came back to escape in the summer between the other two. So, home becomes a make-believe place, constructed through the stories told, marked by points in time. If you try to count the clocks that tell the time, there will be more than you think to find.
We watch the sun. We keep calendars to see how many days there are to come, and diaries to show how we have spent the ones that have been. We bottle history in literature and songs, then tell each other tales that make-believe our world. We buy expensive toys that chop time into smaller pieces – little moments that are short enough to get through painlessly, only to help ourselves forget that in the end, wherever that end takes place, there is only one clock for each of us that matters. It isn’t one you can buy on Mansour Street.
We arrived in London on the morning of Tuesday, 17 July, 1990. The day was dry and hot, but bearable in comparison to the weather we had escaped in Baghdad. In the preceding weeks before our departure, I had witnessed whispered conversations in darkened corridors of the big house. I learned that Saddam had opened up the borders for the summer between that first war and the second one he started shortly afterward. Everyone had seen their chance and seized it with both hands and feet – running for the airport with just enough clothes for a two-week holiday, so as not to arouse suspicion. I was there as she packed three cassette tapes – two Abdel Halim Hafiz and one Abba. I was there when she stuck her head out of the taxi as it raced down the highway. I saw the palm trees she looked back at as she choked on the hot and dusty air. I heard her spit violently at the city as it disappeared quickly behind us. She couldn’t wait to leave.
I felt her deep sigh of relief as she relaxed into her seat on the aeroplane. With her return ticket crumpled in her bag and beads of sweat barely drying on her forehead after a lengthy interrogation at the departure gate, they were finally leaving. Two generations, one mother and two daughters, leaving everything they knew. Home would be with them in the stories they would later tell and re-tell to the children that were to come in later years. Each time, leaving out small details of terror, fear, boredom, depression, and all the other ugly decorations that make a home unsightly. Through the stories, by the time home was passed down to the next set of daughters, it was completely unrecognisable. It had the smell of hot bread, felt like acceptance and looked like the perfect Arabic script.
We left London twenty-five years and two days later. On that Sunday afternoon, in the harsh light of Heathrow Terminal 3, there were a lot of tears. It happened four days after her mother had died in the hospital. I was there for the last breath, could feel the quickening pulse through her wrist as she gripped her mother’s hands tight in those final moments. Three generations were in that room together for the last time, to say goodbye. With her death, her mother took everything of importance with her. She left money, a house, and a small pension fund, but she took with her the stories. If you haven’t understood yet, home is in these stories. You take them with you, you tell them again, and you make new ones until your clock runs out.
We landed in Baghdad International Airport, we had gone back to bury her mother, in the family plot. Two generations, two mothers and three daughters, standing on Mansour Street trying to guess where from this point, the big house might have stood. Returning to Baghdad exhausted me. Whichever route we took through the unrecognisable yet overwhelmingly familiar streets, I knew we were only chasing multiplying ghosts.
Baghdad had become a city that despised itself. Those who were able to had stopped telling the stories. The city did not want to remember. Baghdad had erased its significance as time had continued, with a cloth soaked in the lie of an Islamic golden age that never was. The city had become harsh, the world’s countless cruelties had taken their toll. The poor and hungry roamed the streets with a new ruthlessness that I had never seen before.
I am a watch. Still impressive, even though I now proudly wear a scratch across my face, and I can’t keep up with the exact time. I have lasted longer than any house she ever lived in. I have stayed with her longer than any person she ever believed in. I have been there through it all, and here is everything that I have learned about home:
When home is the rug that is repeatedly snatched from under your feet whilst you are running from lands that still bleed, then inaccurate stories are just as good a home as anywhere else. For those who were born in chaos and somehow brought it with them wherever they ran, almost as if it were in the dust on their luggage or the mud under their shoes, home is simply a word that is sharp and is heavy like lead on their tongues. They may learn to say it, to sing of it and write of it, but they couldn’t tell you what it is.