Sixteen years old and a naïve devout typical Sunni Iraqi boy, I had a big solid identity with all sorts of strongly-held beliefs. An average Iraqi teenager, with a regular mix of nationalism, belonging, and a general tribal tendency of connectedness with everything and everyone around me, although with a dash of rebelion. Being a person in general and a man in particular was clearly defined for me; my family taught me a lot about integrity, courage, caring for others, and an array of healthy and not-so-healthy dogmas.
On a breezy but scary Spring night, on March 3rd, 2006, the Sunni mosque nearby our house in Baghdad was being blasted by Shia militia SUVs. I liked this particular mosque and prayed there more times than I could count. This minaret stood tall, 500 m away from our house, 100 m from my middle school. Throughout the years, all you heard from its piercing speakers was the call for prayer and the occasional Quran recital. But late on that night, and for the first time in my 16 years, the Imam had broken this so far reliable tradition.
At 21:50, the Imam had resorted to the minaret speakers to shout and beg for help from “all the Muslim brothers who could hear this”. One moment you heard the RPG-7 projectiles hitting the mosque exploding, shaking you and the glass of your windows, and the following moment you heard the Imam literally crying for help on the speakers. The whole area was echoing explosion booms, bullet shrieks, and the Imam’s cries for help. I remember his tone as distinctly as a mother remembers her baby’s giggle. And I remember his choice of words like it was yesterday, at least according to my memory.
In a similar naïveté to that of the Americans who joined the military after 9-11, I could feel boiling blood coursing through my veins, genuinely considering leaving our house and run to help the people stuck in the mosque, ready to die for the cause. This moment is so vivid and poignant in my memory; it changed my whole worldview forever. My father had given me a stern “No! Shut up and stay put, this isn’t our fight”. Respect and love for my father were infinite, but I couldn’t stop the nagging feeling of disappointment, helplessness, excitement, disbelief, anger, and pure animalistic fear.
The Imam survived that night but was assassinated a while later walking down the street.
In the following relatively calm morning, my friends were naturally discussing what had conspired the night prior, and my Shia friends in the neighborhood told me to my face that “your time is finally over” – us being the Sunnis. It wasn’t one guy, there was a clear consensus among the Shia part of the group, I was shocked that people whom I considered friends knew all along that I was not one of them; when I thought we were the same. This was a major revelation. An overdose of reality way above than my psychological liver could handle. That night and the following few days were probably the last time I was ever connected to anything bigger than myself and my family this strongly. Not because I cared this deeply about the mosque, but because many things that I considered to be constants and givens, turned out to be none of that.
Six days later, we were in beautiful Damascus – Syria, away from all this bloodshed and chaos. I spent seven happy years there. In those, I questioned almost every belief I adhered to. I was left with no choice but to question my nationalism, connection to Iraq, my accent, and the entire concept of “home country”.
Some beliefs I lost rapidly, some gradually. Some I regret losing, some I’m proud of getting rid of. Although I had a magnificent time in Syria and built great and ever-lasting friendships, I never truly felt Syria was my home country, because it wasn’t. Even though I connect with Syrians as well as I connect with fellow Iraqis, if not better.
After so long, I developed an internal vacuum of beliefs and traditions, I found myself needing, and frankly wanting, to reconstruct an identity nearly from scratch. Religion, superficial traditions, and the concept of “home country” were not part of this identity, I decided to pick and choose whatever I thought made sense, and “home country” didn’t. And I was, for better or worse, free, with a small and resilient identity.
Ever since, among other concepts, I have been consistently trying to understand “home”. For years, I touted the classic Metallica’s lyric “where I lay my head is home”. But is it really? How would I know when I have been an immigrant my entire adult life, and not just an immigrant, but an immigrant who can’t (and won’t) go back home.
My interest in this concept gave me a keen eye for how people with stable home countries behaved, whether its Syrians before the war or Polish people now. Their experience was my only source of truth. They for sure acted differently. There is a sense of stability that I used to arrogantly despise, it’s easy to notice that this stability induces laziness and some removal from real life, in Nassim Taleb’s sense: “Real life is risk-taking”. And every move I made was riskier than that of someone with a home country. I always had to maintain some status, whether it’s a student status, employment status, or whatever status to preserve my legality in the place I lived in. I was perplexed when my Turkish friend in Poland said that he wouldn’t apply for a residence permit here to avoid the hassle. Rather, he’d go back home for a week, see the family, and come back with a new visa. This sounds like putting a man on the moon, I thought to myself.
Now that I’m seven years here in Poland, although still held back by my Iraqi passport, I’m more stable than ever.
At 31, I finally started to feel and appreciate a vague proto-feeling of “home”. And I started to notice that this affects every serious and semi-serious decision you make, in direct and indirect ways.
Not so long ago, the word “contract” sent me running. Yearly gym contract? No way on this green earth! I’ll pay 20% more for a monthly subscription. Buy a car? Are you outside of your mind?! Buy a home?! Hell no! I think you see the pattern, commitment, in general, was a no-no. Before my first serious job, when I was extremely desperate, I was offered a salary that I was ready to accept 25% of it. And even though a year-long contract was on the table, I specifically asked for a three months contract, to be renegotiated when it ends. There was indeed a frontend of ambition, but also a backend of fear of commitment.
Now I’m slowly learning, my dear reader, that not having a home country is a significant source of this fear of commitment.
Having a house is considerable collateral for enabling financial credit, but having a home country is collateral for enabling your entire life.
More and more I’m seeing that while being an immigrant is extremely powerful and educational, having a stable home country is as important.
Yesterday, I finally applied for my permanent residency here in Poland, this will be my biggest graduation towards having a permanent home that I could always come back to. Poland is my third attempt at having a home, and it seems the third time is indeed a charm.
I love Warsaw, and I really enjoy living here. I love the culture, the people, and almost every detail of my life. Albert Camus once wrote “it is a well-known fact that we always recognize our homeland at the moment we are about to lose it”, lucky for me, I recognized it when I found it.
Looking forward to the PhD of having a home, the citizenship.
P.S: I wholeheartedly believe that being an immigrant has been absolutely a net positive. I lost a few privileges, but I grew infinitely more than someone stuck in their home country. This post was about regaining these lost privileges, but my gratitude for what I gained is acknowledged and overwhelming.