On the Road to Baghdad

My Favourite Juice Bar

by Hiyam

Thirty six years after I left my hometown I was heading there again – by car, from Basrah.  It was a delight to see the gradual transformation of the landscape from barren desert to lush greenery.   Palm trees with their heavy-hanging fruit, promising the ripening of honey-sweet dates.   I didn’t get to see much more as I had to lie down in the back seat for most of the journey; my nerves unable to stand the trucks coming straight at us. Were we on the wrong side, or were they? Was there in fact a wrong side?  In any case, Iraq’s highways are a subject for another time.

We were getting closer.  Baghdad.  The name alone conjures up so many romantic images… Baghdad, the City of Peace, The Round City, Caliph Al-Mansour’s city, which he commissioned and built in the year 768. Thousand and One Nights and more.  To me, it is above all else my city, the one I left in 1976 thinking I’d be back in three years. And yes, I did come back; albeit thirty-six years later!

On my 36th birthday, I decided that, as I left Baghdad at 18 and had now spent half my life in Baghdad and the other half in London, I would stop calling Baghdad home.  I had to find a way to cope with the pain of separation.

I would still long though,  for the star-studded sky at night,  the warmth of the winter sun on our faces as my sister and I lay on our backs looking for animal shapes in the clouds above.  I’d dream of the Eucalyptus trees, and imagine the chirping of the crickets on a warm summer evening, competing with the squeaking frame of the ‘swing’ where we sat waiting for our father to come home from work.  I can still taste the cold watermelon and salty cheese he’d eat with us, while swinging us in his ‘dishdash’. I can still smell the flowers.  Nothing since has matched the sounds and smells of a Baghdadi garden at night.  These happy childhood memories are forever intertwined with the memories of the city.

I would lie in bed in London and regularly go over cycling and walking routes  in my head; home to school…  home to the club… to the ice-cream shop, or to my aunt’s house.   I would trace and re-trace the routes over and over to fight the gradual fading of my memories. I wanted to cling on to them and to the places they represented.I once got lost (in my head) going to Shari’ al Nahar (Nahar Street) and I was inconsolable.  It was as if my grip on Baghdad was loosening, as if it was slipping through my fingers.   My beautiful city was turning into vapour, one too fine for me to hold on to.

But back to today.  Trepidation, excitement and fear.  What is it going to be like? Will I recognise anything? Being a tourist in your hometown is painful.  I looked around me, tears flowing down my cheeks. I was so joyful at being here though, in Baghdad.  ‘Bag Dad’, the ‘Fair Garden’ or ‘God Given’ ( depending on how you translate it from Persian)…. the fair green city of Baghdad.   No, I did not recognise anything.  We were in an area that I was not familiar with.  I did not have the strength to go to our street and walk past our home.   But, even though it was a different area, it was still my Baghdad ..the trees … the hedges …. the houses …. yes, yes yes … this is it.  This is my city.  And I love it still.

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