by Elen Ghulam
When I immigrated to Canada, I went to the Motor Vehicle office to apply for a Canadian driving license. I showed the employee there my Kuwaiti driving license. Here is the conversation that followed.
employee: Ah! You are Kuwaiti.
ihath: No! I am Iraqi.
employee: Ah! So you were born in Iraq and then you lived in Kuwait.
ihath: No! I was born in Czechoslovakia (Czech republic now).
employee: gets that puzzled look, ok, is this woman crazy? either that or she is just pulling my leg?
ihath: Look I know this is all confusing, I find it confusing myself, but it is a long story and you don’t want to hear it.
Few days earlier I was standing at a bus station, waiting for a bus. A young man starts chatting. After a while he pops the question.
young man: So! where are you from?
young man: Which province is that?
ihath: Iraq is not a place in Canada, it is a country in the middle east.
young man: Oh!
Those were the good old days when people didn’t know what Iraq was - is that a kind of food? Now everybody knows where falujah is. Lucky me, I don’t have to explain that Iraq is a country in the middle east any more. Thank you, Bush.
Few years later, I am married and my husband didn’t have his Canadian citizenship yet. We were about to take a trip to the US and since I worked in downtown, he asked me if I could apply for a visa for him. So I went to the American consulate in downtown Vancouver and stood in the line to apply for a visa, holding his passport in my hand. A man with a red beard approaches me smiling.
red beard: moof moof blem blem blem.
ihath: I am sorry I didn’t understand that, can you please repeat what you said.
red beard: moof moof blem blem blem.
ihath: I am sorry I didn’t catch that, can you repeat. (Now I come really close to him and try to listen attentively.)
red beard: moof moof moof blem blem blem.
ihath: (realizes he is speaking in a foreign language), I am sorry I don’t understand what you are saying. Can you please speak English.
red beard: (yelling) How dare you speak to me in English you bitch! (other profanity followed, walks away in a huff).
I stood there completely shocked. I don’t understand? What did I do? Why was he upset? After about 5 minutes, I finally look down and I see my husband’s Israeli passport in my hands. Aaaah! He thought that I was Israeli, he was probably speaking Hebrew, which I didn’t know at all at that time. When I got home I told my husband the incident.
husband: He thought you were an Israeli pretending not be Israeli.
ihath: But why would I do that?
husband: Some Israelis when they move abroad pretend that they are not Israeli and attempt to blend in. Others become annoyed with such people because they feel that they are selling out.
ihath: But If I was an Israeli and I spoke Hebrew why would I pretend not to speak the language? I still don’t understand.
husband: You have to be Israeli to understand Israeli logic, I don’t know how to explain it.
When I first moved to Canada I was living in student housing on the university campus. Sometimes I would stay late in the library or the computer lab to finish an assignment. Afterwards I would have to walk to the residence in the dark. It was only a 20 minute walk but I always felt a bit afraid. There had been several rape cases on campus reported in the news. So I bought a huge sturdy umbrella. One of those annoying umbrellas that take up too much space when opened. I bought it not because of the rain but rather as a weapon. If anybody tries to attack me I will hit them with this umbrella.
I named the umbrella Saddam, like you would name a pet. Dogs were not allowed at the student's residence. I thought it was an appropriate name considering what I bought it for - banging somebody over the head. In the end, I never did use it for that. I carried Saddam with me everywhere. The first American led war on Iraq happened and Iraq was mentioned on the news every single day. In Canada they keep talking about Iraqi terrorists that will try to do nasty things in North America. I am standing at the bus station holding Saddam and leaning against him. A big, tall and strong man starts chatting with me in a friendly way. We are laughing about something, when he decides to pop the question
tall man: So! where are you from?
tall man: (takes a few steps back, looks horrified, puts his hands on his head as if somebody is about to hit him), oh my god!
ihath: (thinks to herself) Hey this is cool, it is amazing that a woman can scare a big guy like that just by saying the word “Iraq”. I don’t need to carry Saddam with me anymore. If anybody bothers me, I will just tell them I am Iraqi. That will scare them away.
After that, I discovered that I can have lots of fun by telling people I was Iraqi, I could make them gasp, choke on their food, run away and strike the fear of god in their hearts. Thank you Bush senior for giving me these super powers. It has been so much fun. I have put them to good use..... well! most of the time.
Person at a cocktail party: So where are you from originally?
ihath: I was born in the Czech republic.
Person at a cocktail party: Ah! Beautiful country, been there once.
ihath: (thinks to herself) now I understand why red beard yelled at me at the American consulate. Maybe he could see my future selloutidness in my eyes.
But then there were the people who reacted to my newly acquired super powers in scary and unpredictable ways. Let me illustrate with an example. I was sent with my co-worker Steve to attend a five day training in San Jose, California. There are about 10 people in the class. All of them professional geeks, like me. Steve elects to sit next to the pretty girl in the right row and leaves me sitting on the left row by myself. I get the hippy looking dude with the long pony tail. Thanks, Steve. Well! we are in California after all.
hippie dude: Where are you from?
ihath: I am from Iraq.
hippie dude: (looks at ihath adoringly) Wow! you are a wonderful person, I want to get to know you better.
ihath: How about we go get some coffee.
We stand up to go to the coffee table, I introduce hippie guy to Steve.
hippie dude: You are so lucky to be working with such an amazing person.
Steve: (gets a smirk on his face, he has been working with ihath for a year and knows how plain un-amazing she is).
Steve: Yes! working with her has been… ehm!... interesting.
ihath: (gives Steve a look that says…please come sit beside me….help me!)
hippie guy: (spends the next 5 days looking adoringly at ihath and listing attentively to every single word she says, as if a simple hello coming from ihath becomes a divine word of wisdom. Maybe he is expecting ihath to produce a flying carpet.).
From adoration to revulsion, I have encountered the full spectrum. However, once in a while there are encounters that make it all worth it. My husband and I were visiting Jerusalem on a vacation. This was my first visit to the city and the country. We were on a public bus driving through Jerusalem’s city center. It was a day before eid al-adha (muslim holiday) My husband and I are chatting in Arabic. An elderly Jewish woman is sitting in the seat in front of us. She is wearing a head scarf and a long skirt customary to Jewish women of eastern origins. The woman turns around and says to my husband.
elderly woman: I wish you well on your upcoming eid. May you spend it in joy and happiness.
husband: Thank you.
elderly woman: Where are you from?
husband: I am from Nazareth area.
elderly woman: (looks at ihath) are you from Nazareth as well?
ihath: No, I am from Iraq.
lderly woman: (her eyes widen and shouts) I am Iraqi too. I left Iraq in the fifties as a young woman and came to live here. My children and grandchildren were born and raised in this country.
The elderly woman starts touching my hands, touching my face and caressing my hair. As if she can’t believe that she can see a real Iraqi in front of her.
elderly woman: I grew up in Baghdad. Here in this country we just spend the days, one day after the other. In Baghdad I was really alive.
An elderly man wearing grey jacket, stripped shirt, keppa (head scalp customary for Jewish men) and holding a walking cane gets up from his seat and walks towards us.
elderly man: I am Iraqi too, I left Iraq about the same time.
Me and elderly woman stand up and all three of us stare at each other. After few seconds we all hug. A triangle hug, as if we are all long lost friends. We stand there for several seconds while the bus bounces us back and forth and sideways.
[Advice for kids: Do not give hugs to strangers you don’t know on a public bus, a professionally trained wacky Iraqi was involved in this incident.]
Recently, I have accidentally lost my Saddam, the huge umbrella I mean. I left him at a bookstore near Alma and 4th ave in Vancouver. I am gonna miss him, he has traveled with me to many countries and held the repository of my sense of security for a long time. To whoever found my lost Saddam, please keep him. He never shielded me from bothersome people, not even once. The one time I was almost physically attacked, he wasn’t there. A strong kick to the assailants leg helped me get out of that sticky situation. I was rather surprised by how well I could protect myself without my trusted umbrella. He wasn’t completely useless though. I remember vividly, long walks under the rain while holding my husband’s arm. My husband explaining something about his work or world events and me looking back in adoration, listening attentively to every single word my husband uttered. I can still hear the tapping of rain on top of the umbrella as we huddled together underneath. Sometimes an umbrella is just an umbrella.