Twenty-seven years ago, I left Iraq on the first leg of a journey that would take me to the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and finally the United States. Today I am an American citizen, a businessman, and the father of three sons. Because my small business, Sindbad’s Café and Market, has become a crossroads for people from all over the Muslim world, and for non-Muslims as well, I am often invited to speak at schools and churches.
Although I don’t consider myself a spokesman for the Muslim or Arab community, I have tried to be a bridge-builder between cultures. But I hadn’t actually been back to Iraq since I left three decades ago. Over the years, I have kept in touch with my sisters and mother in Iraq, and sent money when I could, though the U.S.-imposed sanctions made that difficult and sometimes impossible. My sisters accepted the help, but not my mother. “I don’t want money. I don’t need money,” she told me. “I want you. I want to fill my eyes with you before I die.”
Though I wanted to return for a visit, I postponed the trip again and again, held back by the demands of my business, responsibilities to my American family, and fear that if I returned to Iraq, I would not be allowed to leave. In the past year, the calls from Iraq became more urgent—my mother had become gravely ill. But the danger of a trip heightened with the war and occupation. On September 12, my mother passed away. A few days later, my sister Samiah called from Karbala. “We have no mother or father any more,” she said, sobbing. “You are the oldest now. We need you. Please come.” I could wait no longer. On November 11, I left Minneapolis on a one-month journey to my homeland.
As the plane lifted up into the sky, my memories brought me back to the hot summer day in 1976 when I left Baghdad. I was twenty-five years old. My friends from Najaf had accompanied me to the airport, and as we waited to board, they laughed and chanted, Allah wayak Abossi, “God protect you, Abossi, go and don’t return. You are a lucky man.” Abossi was a comedian popular on Iraqi TV at the time. That was my nickname because I was the funniest one among them.
Then somebody said, “Sami, be careful, ask your friends to quiet down. If the mukhabarat (secret police) get curious, they could cause some trouble and prevent you from leaving. Get on the plane, make sure it takes off, and then your friends can party on without you.” The festive mood died down, and when the time came to board the plane, I hugged and kissed my friends and said my last goodbyes.
Remembering that day three decades ago, I thought of my friends Bassem al Har and Fadhel Sunbah. They were classmates of mine at the teachers college in Karbala. After we graduated, Bassem al Har and I met at the teachers club in Najaf almost every night to talk about politics and philosophy, and to play Ping-Pong, backgammon, and billiards. Fadhel was a roommate of mine in the college dorm. He was an artist—quiet, polite, and shy, the best calligrapher in my school. Arabic calligraphy was my passion, too, so there was a bit of a rivalry between us, but he was always better than me. I would look for them when I got to Najaf.
Peering out the window of the airplane, I could see nothing, but I imagined mountains, and I thought of John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” As I dozed, I dreamt I was a giant bird, soaring over mountains, ignoring the borders between countries.
In Amsterdam, where I boarded a KLM flight to Damascus, the change of airlines felt like a change of countries: While the Northwest flight attendants had been businesslike and unsmiling, the KLM attendants were relaxed and friendly, and they chatted with the passengers. Some practiced their Arabic.
We landed in Damascus at two a.m. The Syrian customs officials hardly looked at my bags, even though they were crammed full of gifts for family and friends in Iraq. I hadn’t booked a room, but at the taxi stand, two Pakistani-American ladies from California on pilgrimage, reluctant to travel alone late at night, asked me to share their cab to the Safir Hotel. I jumped in front with our cabby, Tawfik. When he learned that I was an American, he begged me to take him with me when I went home. “Save me!” he said with mock desperation. He grabbed my belt, like a drowning man lunging for a life raft. The Pakistani women, who didn’t speak Arabic, were alarmed by this sudden gesture, but I reassured them—Tawfik was not attacking me.
The Safir Hotel is a gleaming glass and marble edifice near the Sayeda Zaynab shrine, where Zaynab, daughter of Imam Ali, is buried. (Imam Ali is the cousin of prophet Muhammad and is revered by Shiite Muslims as his rightful successor.) The Pakistanis booked the Safir’s special Ramadan rate, $89 a night. But at the front desk, I discovered a better rate: $39 a night for Arabs. Luckily, I had my old Iraqi passport with me, so I got the discount. My room had all the amenities of a Radisson or a Marriott, and a few more: a copy of the Koran, a set of prayer beads, a prayer rug, disposable slippers, and an arrow on the desk, pointing in the direction of Mecca. Too excited to sleep, I channel-surfed, flipping from Al Jazeera to Al Arabiya. The day’s big news was a truck bombing in Nasiriyah that killed eighteen Italian soldiers.
The next morning, as I looked out over the city from the balcony of my room, a powerful feeling came over me suddenly, from my feet to the top of my head—I felt like I was home again, or like a fish back in the water.
After a few hours of sleep and a hot shower, I was ready to hit the road. People asked me if I was afraid to travel to Iraq, but I felt no fear, just a sense of urgency to get on the road—first to see my sister Bushra in Amman, Jordan, and then to keep going until I got to Karbala in Iraq. I was a man on a mission, with Samiah’s pleas ringing in my ears. I checked out, loaded my bags into a taxi, and headed for Al Bramkah Square, to find a taxi for the four-hour ride to Amman.
The square was noisy, crowded, chaotic. I was soon surrounded by a swarm of boys, offering to carry my bags. A foreigner, somebody who probably has some money, is a target they can’t pass up. Some were as young as eleven. It was sad to see such young children not in school but out in the street, hustling to support their families.
Inside the taxi terminal, customs officers inspected bags. The young boy who helped me with my luggage suggested a small tip to expedite the inspection process. Fifty Syrian lira—about one dollar—changed hands, the inspector pulled open the zipper of one of my bags, pulled it shut again, and waved us on.
I offered my young helper the same tip, but he argued for more; after all, he had actually worked for his money, while the customs officer had done nothing. So I gave him another fifty lira, enough to buy a couple of chicken shawirma sandwiches at one of the food stalls on the square.
At least ten taxis waited for passengers to Amman. None would take just a single fare; three were half full, but none of the drivers were willing to leave without a full car. With a little cooperation, the cabs could be filled one at a time, but that is not the way things work here. The other passengers in my car had been waiting for at least an hour, but I quickly lost my patience. I demanded my passport back from the driver, but, desperate for my fare, he refused. He insisted that another passenger was on the way and we would be leaving shortly.