To God we return, part one

I despise sheer dogmatism, the type of ideological blindness you see in those Greenpeace activists on college campuses, who try to persuade you to donate 20 dollars a month to their environmental causes, or tell you the merits of recycling your garbage, as if that will make all the fucking pollution of the world go away. There are some things that are worth fighting for, those things which really probe deep into the consciousness of man, the things that shape you, make you, define you.
I’m not talking about those fucked up ideas of history, the Machiavellis of the world who try to inculcate uniformity through fear and propaganda. You know, things like fascism, colonialism, all that shit about knowledge production and post-structuralism and Foucault-inspired philosophy. Crafting ideas to influence and socialize people, making them believe that there is no other way. Those tricks have been used before on the weak of mind.

I’m talking about fighting for something that runs much deeper, that makes humankind function and progress and carve out a place in this transient world. Something larger than ourselves, something we were destined to do: I’m talking about finding a path to God.


I wasn’t always this way you know. Religion didn’t come naturally to me.

My story started September of 1985, in Baghdad, when my mother would recite the Koran to me in our two-bedroom apartment while I was still in her womb. There’s a saying by the Prophet, that children start learning even before they are born. Who knows, maybe it’s true.

There were three children in our household. Taha, my older brother by eight years, wore glasses and had studied to become an accountant. I remember watching him as a child walk toward the bus station every morning, always dressed in the same pristine red tie and collared white shirt. He no longer worked at his company ever since it was bombed by a British airstrike as a high-value terrorist target, but he still walked to the bus station every morning in his freshly pressed clothes, looking for a job, or maybe looking for himself. Leila, my beautiful sister, was closer to my age, and the two of us were inseparable until she was married at 21.

We lived modestly, but I never felt that we lacked anything. The sanctions had made life difficult during my youth, but we were able to manage with the help of my uncle in London, who would send my father money from time to time, pleading for him to accept it. My fondest memories are of the chilly evenings in the verandah, when Baba would pull out the water pipe, with one or two of his mustachioed friends coming over for a cup of coffee, and my mom would make us all Baklava, with Fairuz purring in the background, and me and my brother and sister running around the house, screaming with laughter. Sometimes my friend Baqir would come over, and we would throw rocks at our neighbors’ houses.

The days are all blurred in my mind now, but I still remember the laughter of those times, the eagerness with which we would walk to school everyday, making trouble for our teachers, rushing back home to eat my mom’s food, going to the cinema on the weekends. Two of my mother’s brothers were taken away by the Mukhabarat, the secret police, during this time, but every Iraqi had a story like that. Everyone’s uncle’s cousin or son of a friend or father had been taken away at some point. Life under Saddam Hussein was like that, but our immediate family still clung together.

And then there was Saadia. You know how they say some things are destiny? I never knew the beauty of Islam before I saw Saadia. It wasn’t just her long, flowing, dark brown hair, always running through her hands, that kept me dazed, or her laugh, which I could recognize a mile away, pocked as it was with small breaths in between, or the tender lips that moved so precisely with her every word.

It was the eyes. Those soft, almond-colored eyes that bounced with excitement, that smiled when you peered into them. We used to go on walks in the evenings, behind our parents backs, when I was seventeen, writing letters for each other. We collected our letters into a small scrapbook, where I wrote her couplets, and she drew me birds. We called the book bumblebee, because yellow was her favorite color. I first met her at a train station, and our communications remained steady for five years. I don’t know what it was – maybe the excitement of an un-chaperoned romance. But when her parents found one of my love notes, they told her to leave, and so we got married.

We tried to have children many times, but my mother says it’s a curse by the devil. Saadia lived with us in the house. She was a teacher, but her school was bombed soon after the invasion, so now she stayed at home with my mom to help her do chores around the house. She never stopped smiling, even though I knew she missed her school and her students.

They took her away one morning, just like that. Two American soldiers broke down our door, and demanded to see our guns. They threw my father to the ground and told him to stay there, if the damn haji wanted to stay alive. They emptied all of our drawers, and shitted in our toilet. And then they took her outside to the yard. We heard her screaming through the window, but none of us moved. They were just performing a routine search I told myself. It would be over soon, they weren’t going to be doing anything wrong.

We found her limp on the ground, breathing but not moving, a red mark on her long skirt, sobbing in short bursts. I called the ambulance and tried to comfort her. Everything will be okay I told her. They’re gone now. She didn’t let me carry her to the house.

My mother wept all night, but Saadia didn’t say a word. We looked everywhere for the soldiers. We tried finding somebody to complain to, but it was always the same response. “We’ll look into it,” if it was somebody decent; otherwise, the Americans refused to even listen to us. “We are professionals,” they said. “Americans don’t act like that.”

I felt like I was opening my eyes for the first time. The war had been going on for three years now, but somehow I had always given Americans the benefit of the doubt. This wasn’t much worse than before, we had told ourselves. Iraq needs this. There were bombings every day, sometimes several within the span of a few hours. But I had willed myself not to see what was around me; willed myself to believe in them. I saw it now though. The hospitals didn’t have supplies. The roads were gone. Babies were screaming. Everything rushed at me at once.

Saadia wouldn’t move anymore. She lay awake for hours on end. Saadia, stop crying, I pleaded. They’re gone now. She wouldn’t let me touch her. When she fell asleep, she would wake up with a jolt, sobbing uncontrollably. Sometimes I slept outside, hoping that she might get up if I wasn’t there. Sometimes I left the room because I couldn’t face her. She never spoke, but I still saw tears streaming down her skin, falling like precious pearls.

Part two of this story will be published on Wednesday.
Mehdi Bundeali graduated from Stanford University in 2010, where he founded Avicenna Society, a student think-tank focusing on foreign policy in the Muslim world. He is currently pursuing a J.D. at UC Berkeley School of Law, and also helps direct Berkeley’s Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.

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