The Orange Trees of Baghdad:
in search of my lost family
a memoir by Leilah Nadir
with photos by Farah Nosh
Hardcover: 328 pages
Publisher: Key Porter Books; 1st edition
(Sep 12th 2007)
Excerpt from The Orange Trees of Baghdad
I am alone at home in Vancouver watching Baghdad burning on television. It is March 22, 2003. Fires rage all over the city, and the black night is illuminated by those bonfires. A few nights ago, I am woken from a vivid dream of walking in those streets, along the walls of Saddam’s palace enclosures near where I know my family house is, touching the sand-coloured stone. I felt such relief to be in Baghdad, despite my fear. Now it is all burning; great blazes of yellow light destroying the city. For the first time I can see a live feed of the Baghdad of my father’s childhood, which he hasn’t seen himself for more than forty years. I pick up the phone and call my father. His choked words echo in my mind: “There are people in all those buildings. Those aren’t empty buildings. Just think of that.”
I imagine all the people I know who are trapped and cowering under the threat of those bombs landing on their houses: my great-aunt Lina, my cousins Karim and Maha, their children Reeta and Samir, my other uncles and aunts on my father’s side who I have never met. I think of all their extended families and of my friend Farah Nosh, an Iraqi-Canadian photojournalist who is covering the war for the New York Times and other international publications.
My siblings and I would not exist if the British hadn’t created Iraq from the defeated provinces of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Battles and empire produced our family, and so we are the fruits of war. When I look in the mirror, I try to guess which of my features I inherited from my Iraqi father and which from my English mother. But the same clash of cultures that created me is also part of what makes it impossible for me to visit my ancestral home. Now, as I watch this war, it’s as if one part of me is invading the other. I feel like this war is between two cultures whose blood flows in me, and it makes the experience entirely different. To look at me is to look at both the aggressor and the victim. I am both the enemy and the ally.
“Welcome to Iraq, the worst country in the world, Farah’s uncle Ahmed had said to her when she arrived. But I finally feel like I am at home, she writes to me. Her uncle and his family have fled their Baghdadi neighbourhood to stay with their relatives in another area, just as they had done during the invasion in 2003, three years before. The fighting in their neighbourhood is too intense, and so they will try to rent out their house and find another place to live in a safer area. When her driver brought her to the house from the airport, detouring around roadblocks set up by Iraqi police, he told her, “This neighbourhood has become very bad.”
Farah tells me that innocent Iraqi civilians are being inexplicably murdered. A grandfather sitting in a courtyard with his grandson is shot and no one knows why. The man selling falafel on the street is killed. Why? After three days, Farah has already stopped questioning these crimes.
The headline in Western newspapers today is “New Abu Ghraib Videos Shown,” Yesterday’s lead story was about a video of British soldiers in Basra beating helpless Iraqi teenagers. Farah hangs laundry in the courtyard, looking over her shoulder at the gates for fear of kidnappers lurking on the street. She has already heard story upon story of masked men barging into homes to murder or kidnap civilians, not just Westerners but Iraqi civilians too.
She is woken early the next morning by an explosion and a brief gunfight. Two hours later, her cousin’s wife is dragging her children away from the breakfast table as the battle moves down the street. For the first time since I’ve known her, Farah admits that she is afraid. She has visited Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime of terror, during the 2003 invasion and in the wake of the aftermath, but she has never experienced this kind of fear: adrenalin-pumping, paranoid, heart-racing, dry-mouth, animal fear.