The problem of exile: the real rupture happens when you return
For many who remained in Iraq over the past four decades, exile has almost become synonymous with betrayal. As if exile chooses its victims, or had been chosen by them; as if leaving your life behind was desirable. Of course, some of those who left Iraq did want to erase their past. They were exhausted by living in a dictatorship. For others, life in Iraq would have been a death sentence. They had opposed the state, experienced censorship, torture, and the constant threat of imprisonment. Escape was often only the bitter coda to a political life in Iraq. But even if you make it out, exile isn’t a break with the old life – you carry your country with you. The person in exile keeps on leaving forever.
The prospect of escape often came unexpectedly. During the Iran-Iraq war, leaving Iraq was a privilege reserved for members of the Baath party. But by the end of the war in 1991, state borders and institutions were significantly weakened. Years of rebel movement in the Kurdish north and the marshlands in the south had had their effects too. And so if you were wealthy enough, or managed to conjure the help of friends, ’91 offered a window to escape the dictatorship, if only a small one. My family slipped through it.
Life far from Iraq came with its own trauma. I remember a visit to my aunt’s apartment in the south of Germany in the late 90s, long before the second American invasion. There was a documentary on TV about people who had been tortured under Saddam. They were revealing their mutilated bodies, their scarred chests and lashed backs. A woman pulled up her shirt: Acid had eaten and molded her skin unrecognizably. At five years old, I felt as if it was my fault. My mother kept yelling at me, telling me to leave the room, while my aunt insisted that I needed to see “what goes on there”, why we had left Iraq. My aunt had spent years underground, and they had lost a sister to one of the many mass graves. For her, to look away from the screen was to look away from the atrocities of Saddam’s reign. To watch the documentary was to remain vigilant. And so I sat through the program, branding the haunting images and voices of torture into my memory, resisting the comfort of easy distractions.