© Photograph by Jane Weitzel
More on The Orange Trees of Baghdad:
Author Q&A—Leilah Nadir
What was the catalyst for you to write The Orange Trees of Baghdad?
The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was deeply traumatic for my whole family, both inside Iraq and in England and Canada. Witnessing that continuing trauma firsthand, as well as through other Iraqis I knew in Canada, gave new power to the catchphrase, “The personal is political.” For me, the war was and is about my family and that entirely transformed my response to the public discussion that was occurring around me in the West. In the lead-up to the war, I felt alienated from the debate about the war because the story was always told from a Western viewpoint and never from an Iraqi one. I felt helpless, so I started contacting media to write articles about the Iraqi perspective; it was the only thing I knew how to do in the face of the coming catastrophe. I knew I had to write a book, because I felt that Iraqis were afraid to come into the open because of the history of political repression in Iraq, and as a Canadian, I had the ability to speak more freely, and I felt an obligation to tell the truth as I saw it.
The Orange Trees of Baghdad really captures the tone and sense of place of Iraq, how were you able to do that without having visited the country?
This was the most difficult part of writing the book for me. I struggled for many months with whether I had the right to write about a country I had never been to and a culture that I didn’t know directly through language and familiarity. In the end, though, I realized that although I didn’t know Iraq, I knew Iraqis, and, in a way, I felt that the quest for me to uncover the story of my family would be a journey that many children of immigrants would relate to. And I think that that blood connection does matter and is crucial to identity. I read many books about Iraq, and I listened to the stories of my family members—the way they used language, the way they told stories, the way they described their life in Iraq, and to the way they felt about what was happening. It felt vivid to me to hear those stories, so I felt I could try and capture that for the reader and it would come alive for them as well. When my friend Farah decided to be in Iraq for the war, I realized I also had a porthole into the country and that she could confirm what I was hearing from other Iraqis. I wanted people to see that Iraq was not just a battleground, but a complex, fascinating country. I wanted readers to be able to experience it firsthand without just being merely reported on about it.
How does it feel to be half-Iraqi and half-English at this time of war?
It feels absurd. War feels absurd and futile: the idea that if I was seen as English, I could be seen as an enemy to Iraqis, and if I was seen as Iraqi, I would be an enemy of American soldiers is beyond my comprehension. Being half-Arab and half-Caucasian, I find it impossible to identify with one side or the other of this conflict on the basis of an emotional, patriotic, or blood connection. I am forced to see the war from both sides, forced to imagine what Iraqis are feeling, how they see the Americans and British, and forced to think of how we in the West see Iraqis. I have lost my easy relationship with Western media, I am aware in everything I read that the way stories are told are from our point of view, viewing another culture from the outside and not the inside, and this is tragic. I have lost faith in the objectivity of journalism to portray a conflict fairly despite there being many terrific journalists who are trying to do just that.
By having your family’s roots in a place of conflict like Iraq, does it affect your own self-identity? Do first-generation Canadians like yourself lose something by being cut off from their family’s origins?
I think there were many Muslims who after September 11th felt that they had to journey to understand their own identities as Muslims in the face of what was going on in the name of Islam in the world. Even though my family is Christian, my own self-identity changed drastically with the war in Iraq. I found myself identifying myself as an Iraqi-Canadian, rather than merely as a Canadian, and I wanted people to know that I was an Iraqi, my family were Iraqi, and that there was a lot more to being Iraqi than what was being portrayed on the news and by those who sold us the war. I absolutely feel that I have lost a whole branch of myself from being completely cut off from my ancestral home. This was due to the ongoing war in Iraq that has been going on since 1980. I wrote this book, in a sense, to salvage what little was left for the future, lest the whole connection was lost forever. I think we are all richer from knowing our complex cultural background, and most are a mixture of many cultures and I find that endlessly fascinating.
How do Farah Nosh’s photos complement the writing and story of the book?
Farah’s photographs translate into images what I am trying to evoke in words about what it feels to be Iraqi and Canadian at the same time. Farah is Canadian like me and didn’t know her family in Iraq until she started visiting the country as a journalist, and then she began to identify with her Iraqi-ness. She has witnessed the war in Iraq through the double lens of both a journalist and an Iraqi, and both a Westerner and an Easterner. Her photographs express the tension of those perspectives and give us an Iraq that is more intimate and more human than many other photographs of Iraq that tend to focus only on the destruction and poverty and not the dignity of the people. People think twice about their assumptions about Iraq when they look at her photographs—I hope they will do the same thing when they read my book.
What has happened to the house in Baghdad that is waiting for you?
The house is still there waiting. My cousins still visit it and look after it despite the dangers of doing so. It hasn’t yet been occupied by militants or rented by a family looking to escape the violence. But if my family does eventually leave Iraq as refugees, I think the house and its contents will be lost forever.
How is this book a lament as well as a search?
A lament is an expression of grief or mourning, usually poetic or in song. The feeling in my heart as I wrote this book was of sorrow and grief: I was mourning for the hideous losses that have been inflicted on Iraq. Even though I was searching for fragments of the past to cling onto to keep the connection with my roots, I was also realizing in that search that whatever was there in my family history was being destroyed day by day and it was impossible to resurrect it. So in a sense, writing this book was an act of grieving. Mesopotamia actually has a history of poetic laments for cities that have been destroyed by war, dating back to the Lament for Ur around 2000 B.C. when the city fell to the Elamites. Iraq has been lamenting its losses for thousands of years.
What was the most surprising thing you learned from your family about how everyday Iraqis are coping with the war?
The absolute terror and fear that Iraqis in Baghdad experience on a continual basis did not come to life for me through the daily news. I was quickly desensitized. The horror comes through, but not what it is like to live every day for fear of your life. I was surprised that they could keep going in that relentless atmosphere of anarchy and terror, that they actually make jokes and have parties, belly dance, and still laugh despite the hopelessness they feel, that they are so resourceful in the way they keep their lives going without electricity, without clean water, without security.
What do you hope the reader with take away from this book?
I hope the book will evoke a curiousity about Iraq, the people, and their history, and encourage readers to find out more about the country in the last century. Even though Canada did not go to war, I think we in the West are responsible for the outcome of the war in Iraq because we are linked to the US and the UK, and we can influence events by our stance. We are more responsible here than we are in other conflicts in which we try and intervene. I’d like readers to see the complexities of the war, and to hold our politicians more accountable to the people. I am appalled that despite the complete breakdown of society in Iraq, Canada still has only taken a few hundred refugees since 2003. I think we have failed Iraqis as Canadians, and we need to lobby our government to do much more for the refugees. This is a catastrophic situation not being addressed because of political concerns. The refugee crisis has been seen as the biggest disaster in the region in the last fifty years in terms of the numbers of displaced people. But the West has done nothing to help them. This is where Canadians can really make a difference.
How is your family in Iraq doing now?
The situation worsens daily. One of my father’s cousins, who is a doctor, has received death threats and wants to flee the country but doesn’t know where to go or how he will look after his family. This kind of story is absolutely normal now for middle-class Iraqis. Often people flee to Syria and try and get visas to Western countries, but often their stories are not believed. I think we are still sheltered from the truth about what is happening in Iraq, despite the relentless coverage of the death of innocent people. The rest of my family want to leave but have been denied access to the US and Australia. The process to come to the UK or Canada takes five years. They are waiting. We are all waiting, to see what will happen next. It would be nice to believe that the situation will improve, but we’ve been hoping for that for four years and so far, it has only become worse.
* This is not for publication purposes.