I was seven. In a frilly dress, as wide around my ankles as my discomfort. The chatter of my family members, more buzzing than chitchat, hung thick over the cruise ship table around which we gathered. But when the music stopped, my fortune changed. The announcer launched a dancing competition for children. I stepped onto the stage, followed by my two brothers and a couple of cousins. I won first place.

Cradling my trophy, I pictured myself as a belly dancer. I mean professionally. To live out the rest of my life shaking and sashaying from one cruise ship to the next, stepping aside to allow younger dancers to flex, and then dubbing them as professional belly dancers as well.

Some days later I determined to reveal my new raison d’ȇtre at a family gathering. I practiced saying “I’m going to be a belly dancer” in front of a bathroom mirror.

I’d already disclosed my secret to my cousins and the challenge was now convincing the adults. One of the most daunting moments of my life morphed into a farce, as aunts and cousins laughed and mocked my goal. Of course, I wallowed in a cloud of victimhood. How can adults be so big and so dumb at the same time?

Then I received a present: a pink, plastic sewing machine. My grandfather had been a ship captain before his passing, so my grandmother spent the long months during his absence knitting and sewing, to pass the time and to generate additional income. Because I adored my maternal grandmother, I believed it was destiny.

I too would work as a tailor. The best in fact! And I would then knit and sew amazing new apparel that would unravel static perceptions of gender roles, and what is considered age and race appropriate.

Communicating my idea to my cousins was easy. The difficulty lay in convincing the bigger children, known in the vernacular as “grownups.” 

Over the next few months, I wanted to become a war general, a criminal, a robot, a superhero, an orphan (blame Annie, Oliver and Sara), an artist, an alien, a father, a cat, and a vampire, among others.

But most of all, I wanted to be loved by my parents.

Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. My family decided to leave the country after a few months. I was four, stowed in the car with my siblings and whatever luggage we could bring along. I don’t know what I said or did—my parents never explain my role in the tale—but they do not fail to mention that my father, ostensibly angry with me, stopped the car next to an Iraqi soldier and told him to take me away—to “unburden him.”

He changed his mind, thankfully. My mother says it was she who convinced him. Either way, they tend to laugh in unison and quip at the end of the tale, “Imagine if the soldier had taken her … Nada would have grown up as an Iraqi.”

I wanted to be many things as a child. But that was never one of them.