Travelling to Iraq shaped me. It was strangely comforting. I was amidst family and people who spoke my language. I felt home, but I knew that I would never belong.
I will never forget the guys in the prime of their life volunteering to fight against ISIS. Dressed in camouflaged clothes, they entered the mosque and were guided by an imam who blessed their fate. I saw them praying. Their hands lifted towards the sky, only God would be beside them during battle.
Religion was a strong recurring theme during my stay in Najaf. I only ever saw mosque constructions. No roads that were improved, no schools that were renewed, no infrastructural progress. The city is known for its holy grounds and religious past. Pilgrims from all over the globe travel to Najaf to visit the holy shrines, and commemorate the woeful tale of Shia history. People build their lives on faith.
Baghdad was a different story. It was a surreal experience. Terror attacks are a real threat. I was reminded by this because of the many security checkpoints, the ruins alongside the road, the military tanks and the soldiers. Terror is an everyday reality, but people learnt to live with it.
It felt surreal to keep that in mind, because I was also enjoying the freedom. Baghdad is a worldly city. There used to be a saying in the Arab world: “Egyptians write, Lebanese publish and the Iraqis read.” Although it is no longer the case today, there was an emphasis on culture. There were museums and famous literature and poetry places like Mutanabbi square, named after one of the most influential Arab poets Al-Mutanabbi. There were musicians playing the oud and charming book markets selling Shakespeare, Kant, George Orwell…
It felt surreal because despite the internal chaos the region is going through, people still seek out joy and happiness. Despite the violence, bombings, checkpoints and instability, it does not hold back the youth. I saw what a typical Friday evening was like in Baghdad and I wish I could experience it again, hopefully in better times as well.
We left Baghdad April 9, the day of liberation of Baghdad, the day Iraq went from being a tyranny to a peaceful democracy, but the reality nowadays is brutal. In the distance, I heard music and cars honking. Another reason to celebrate. The Iraqis are amazing. So wounded is their past, so scarred is their present, yet they take every opportunity to celebrate life. They are unhappy, but they are striving for change.
After coming back to Belgium, I felt grateful, I felt relieved for coming back to basic needs such as safety and freedom. Baghdad lacked safety and Najaf lacked freedom, but I would still go back, because it is my language, and therefore part of my identity.
Below, a video of a glimpse of the past.