I am a watch, and an impressive one at that - the kind that does not tick or tock. Her father picked me up from the jewelers on Mansour Street, the only place in town that you would ever have found me back then. You could never buy one like me now, not in that city, not by a long shot. But back then, in 1984, there were a few of us. I was picked up as a gift on one hot afternoon, when Abu Hussein had opened the glass cabinet and plucked me out of my box, handing me over to a groomed man with a short moustache and a Western suit. He had barely looked at me, but back then you did not need to look twice to know that I was the one you wanted. I was carried in a bag, swinging by his side on the short walk to the big house. He had knocked as if he were a guest, greeted as if he was the master. After dinner, I had been removed from my boxes, and ceremoniously placed on the chubby white wrist of his eldest daughter, and it is from this place that I learned all that I can tell you about home.
See, this woman’s wrist was my first home, and our love story spans over forty years. I have watched a whole life lived; and many deaths died, 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, to the day of her small lonely wedding, to the three days across seven years on which her babies were born, to the day the marriage ended, the day the children left – 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, and so she had never even thought to call it a home. When “home” is a place riddled with coups, where the markers for time are not years, or the minutes and hours I was carefully built to measure, but wars, you cannot call it so. She was born before that war, went to school after it, but graduated before the other war, studied abroad before that one and came back to escape in the summer between the other two. And so home becomes a make-believe place, constructed through the stories we tell, which are 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, and 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, and 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 we end, there is only one clock for each of us that matters, and it isn’t one you can buy on Mansour Street.
We arrived in London on a Tuesday in 1990. 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 afterwards. 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 raise suspicions. I was there as she packed three cassette tapes; two Abdel Halim Hafiz and one Abba, and I was there when she had 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 dusty air, and 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 dry on her forehead after a lengthy interrogation at the departure gate, they were finally leaving. Two generations, one mother and two daughters, leaving everything behind, but taking home with them in the stories they would later tell, and re-tell, each time leaving out small details of terror, fear, boredom and 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 unrecognizable. It had the smell of hot bread and it felt like acceptance and it looked like perfect Arabic script.
The day we left London, twenty-five years and two days later, there were a lot of tears. It happened three days after the old woman had died in the hospital. I was there for her last breaths, could feel the quickening pulse through her daughter’s arm 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. When she died she took everything of importance with her; she had left money and a house, a small pension fund, but she took with her the stories. And if you haven’t understood yet, home is in the 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, 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 may have stood. Returning to Baghdad exhausted me. Whichever route we took through the unrecognizable yet overwhelmingly familiar streets, I knew we were only chasing multiplying ghosts. Baghdad had become a city that despises itself. Those who were able to had stopped telling the stories, and so the city does not want to remember. Baghdad had erased its magnificence 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, and the poor and hungry roamed the streets with a new ruthlessness that I had never seen before. On our fourth night there, I was snatched from the chubby white wrist of my home, and in the struggle my face was shattered on the sandstone walls of the Al-Khasaki sweet shop.
I am a watch, and I lasted longer than any house she ever lived in. I stayed with her longer than any person she ever believed in. I was there through it all, and here is everything I 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 can’t tell you where it is. Home is make-believe, an elusive imaginary, where we go when we close our eyes and breathe, and imagine a kinder place to exist.