SPEAKING TO THE STRANGER IN EVERY ONE OF US

My memoir, THE STRANGERS WE BECAME, is about my personal experiences as a refugee, but it also speaks to the stranger in every one of us.

At the age of nine, my family was forced to leave our native Iraq. By the time I was 14, I had lived in five different countries.

What I have found is that the way I am perceived in new places – as THE stranger — has been consistent throughout my journey….and you know how a stranger makes you feel, right? Threatened, uneasy, perhaps invaded. (As if your environment is your very own, your property…..)

Cynthia as a baby in her mother’s arms, her father and three siblings in their home in Baghdad

In Holland I was called a BUITENLANDER! In Dutch it means not from this country. And of course the teenage years are tough to navigate, never mind that of a BUITENLANDER!!!

By talking about my “strangeness” — the struggles and humiliations I experienced after being uprooted from my native country — I hope to spread awareness of the humanity within every one of these “strangers.”  I may help you see who We really are.

Because truly, when people hear relatable stories from “the other side” — stories told in a generous, vivid, and non-threatening way — they subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) experience a kind of equilibrium so that they don’t feel threatened.  In turn, instead of resentment and fear, it may evoke compassion.

And to bring it closer to home. If not you and your personal exile, how about your parents’ or grandparents’ exile that was never told? The silent strangers that silenced your family’s roots and heritage? After all, we all have traveled to America from afar … now let’s acknowledge who we are and retell the stories of perhaps just a generation or two ago so we can relate to the stranger within each of us. It is THIS country that welcomed so many refugees like me and strung our histories together in the beautiful tapestry that is the USA.

MY MOTHER THE ARCHITECT

Initially published on The HBI Blog, Nov. 12, 2015

On October 18th, I spoke at the Iraqi Synagogue in Queens to celebrate the publication of my book, The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq’s Last Jews. There were at least 70 people in attendance, and after reading a passage from the book in which I describe being interrogated by prison officers when I was nine years old — looking for a recording device with which to accuse me of espionage, they tore apart a doll my father had given me — I pulled the broken doll out of a plastic bag and showed her to them.

When I’d finished speaking, I asked if anyone had questions. A hand went up in the front row; it belonged to my mother, who is 81 years old. “Don’t just bring out your doll,” she said. “Tell them what wedidn’t take with us. Tell them what we had to leave behind.”

Cynthia’s childhood doll ripped apart by an Iraqi police officer searching for a spying device

You see, we did not leave Iraq because we wanted to. We left Iraq because we had been persecuted there, for our Judaism, and when we left we were not allowed to take anything except for a few suitcases packed as though we were only going on vacation. Who takes photo albums on vacation? Who takes rugs, or heirloom furniture acquired over generations, or — in my mother’s case — her most precious jewelry? No one. So we left ours behind in Baghdad, because if the authorities had come across any evidence of our intending to flee forever, they would have arrested us again.

My mother got married when she was eighteen. It was an arranged marriage, to a man 24 years older. She had been coloring in a notebook with Iraq’s young King Ghazi on the cover when she was called downstairs to be introduced to her groom. The detour in life lasted much longer than she’d anticipated.

She still talks about the dormant architect in her, the unfulfilled desire to pursue a desire. It wasn’t just her marriage that derailed her: it was also our exile, which threw her dreams an even greater distance away.

Cynthia’s mother Layla on a Baghdad rooftop

Mehandeesa, she will occasionally still say, with a sigh. I wanted to be an architect.

Only two years after we fled Baghdad and had settled as refugees in Amsterdam, my father died of a heart attack. Now my mother was widowed, in a strange country, with four children in tow. How would it ever be possible now to fulfill her dreams of designing the arc of liberty?

How I wonder what her style might have been, what bridge she might have built! But then, who would have told me all those bedtime stories, and analyzed my dreams? In Amsterdam, we lived largely in a vacuum. For Mama, the focus was on survival, on providing for her family. Her role as a mother was intensified, in a sense. There was no room for being what the Westerners call a Supermom. Even though she was. She is. She decorated my spirit. She built bridges no one can see.

Cynthia and her mother in a photo booth in Amsterdam just after they arrived

I remember when she came home from the first day of a potential job that our Dutch social worker had arranged for her. It was as if someone had died. This was shortly after my father had passed away. The social worker had told her that it would be good for her to get out for a few hours a day, to have a purpose, but it wasn’t clear to Mama until she arrived that the job was as a cleaning woman. When she got home, her mood was as if Papa had passed away all over again. She could never even mention that dusty day again. It was if she were in mourning — mourning for her potential.

Today, Mama lives near me, in Queens, where I have a husband, a dentistry practice, and five children of my own. I see clearly now that my having a family and a profession (two professions, if you count writing) is a well-rounded existence that was robbed from her. It was robbed from her like our life in Iraq was robbed from us, like our rugs and furniture and baby pictures and menorah and jewelry were all robbed from us, by anti-Semitism. It was difficult for me, being a child in a strange country, going to a school full of children who looked nothing like me and spoke a different language. But still, compared to my mother, I have enjoyed the express lane in life. When you are derailed as she was — when life is not architecture school but instead learning a new language at 40, familiarizing yourself with new soil, new hurdles, digging deep for courage and chutzpa you didn’t know you had, as though you’d arrived ex nihilo — suddenly it’s too late for your turn, your chance to celebrate your own G-d-given potential.

Or maybe she fulfilled her potential in a different way, building intangible things, through her inspiring nature and her children.

The anatomy my mother was sketching the day she met my father was left unfinished, but she did have time to color in the heart. And the handwriting in that notebook is beautiful, the envy of every high school girl today. She was on her way to liberation and choices. But that was only in the beginning. The beginning is always like this, my mother often says. Hopeful. Still now, when she visits my home, she makes little suggestions as to where I should position my furniture, or she comments on a window’s aspect, its light, the house’s location on the block. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. “Min el sharq illah el gharb,” my mother says with a sigh. They used to tell me I was good with design.

FROM IRAQ TO AMERICA, IN A CORSET

FROM IRAQ TO AMERICA, IN A CORSET

Initially published in The HBI eZine Oct. 6, 2015

Why my warm memories of being Jewish in Iraq have, to an extent, washed away.

In 1963, I was born in Baghdad to Jewish parents. By the time I was five, Iraqi-Jewish assets were being frozen, Iraqi-Jewish men had begun to lose their jobs, and Iraqi universities would not accept Jewish students. My family tried to escape Iraq over the Iranian border, but we were captured and jailed for five weeks. At one point, an officer took me alone into an interrogation room and, looking for a recording device, dismembered the doll I was carrying. I was only nine years old, but he accused me of being a jasoosa, a spy.

 

Cynthia in Baghad at five years old

Upon being released, my family found that many of our belongings in Baghdad had been confiscated. We moved in with a friend and applied for passports for a ten-day vacation to Turkey. From Istanbul, we fled to Tel Aviv and then to Amsterdam. As an adolescent, I went to school in England for a year, and eventually immigrated to America, where I have lived since 1991, and where I now have my own dentistry practice and five children.

Throughout my life in exile, the effort of trying to hold on to the immaterial aspects of my culture, of my homeland and my roots, has felt like having my body squeezed into a corset. I have to hold my breath in order not to assimilate too much, but also in order not to lose my memories of what it was like to be Jewish in Iraq.

When my family arrived in Amsterdam from Tel Aviv, we had never heard of Reform Judaism. The first Dutch synagogue we walked into – on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday – contained women who were singing, mixing with the men, and reading the Torah. We were stunned. It was as if we had landed on the moon. My G-d, I realized, had always been an Iraqi-Jewish G-d. I had a hard time identifying Him here – the voice was not the same. He had an accent now; massa became matzoh, shabbath became shabbos, miswa became mitzvah. And whereas in Iraq we’d always eaten rice on Passover, in Holland this was taboo, kitniyos. In other words, in our new home, our religion was inauthentic. Illegitimate. What was “normal” and familiar about Judaism we had left behind.

Amsterdam was generally a jolly place; the children I went to school with were blond, lighthearted, and happy. But I was dark and tainted with fear; I no longer had even the G-d I’d long counted on to comfort me. So I began to wonder: Who needs that “souvenir” we call Jewishness? Why not simply drop it altogether? I wanted to be like all the other kids around me – simply to be – not loaded down with the weight of history and religion you can’t even see. On the other hand, who was I to relinquish the heritage that my ancestors had toiled over and died for? Wasn’t that precisely why we had left Iraq? To practice our Judaism freely?

I went through the motions of attending a Jewish school, but because of the culture shock, combined with the language barrier, I did terribly. It was when I was 12 that a kindly rabbi accompanied me to London so that I could spend a year attending school there and living with an Orthodox family. This was a transformative experience, and after returning to Holland, I began to explore my heritage more deeply. By the time I’d graduated from dental school, I was like a dog that hadn’t previously known how to dig, but once he did, he dug whatever he could.

Eventually, after moving to America, I married an Ashkenazi Jewish man and became an Orthodox Jew in the West. At first, I felt I’d given up my Middle Eastern G-d for an Ashkenazi G-d. Reconciliation did not seem possible, like the teeth of a zipper that just won’t close. There were differences in the order of prayers, and in the prayers themselves; some were spoken, others sung, and the melodies were unrecognizable. In America, the melodies sung at services are upbeat, whereas back home, they were earthy. In Iraq, they sounded like drums, or like camels marching forth; in fact, everything about Judaism in Iraq seemed more relaxed, not as calculated, not so stringent. As if the Iraqi custom were embodied by a bohemian artist and the conservative Western one by a mathematician.

As I’ve moved around in life, my warm memories of being Jewish in Iraq have, to an extent, washed away, as if with the very saltwater that, at the seder, reminds us of our tears of slavery in Egypt. Indeed, I felt as if my Jewishness were being introduced to me anew every time we entered a new country. Paradoxically, even in Israel it was different: Judaism faded into the background because, of course, the very state was Jewish; everyone was used to it. But I have also learned to feel proud of my origins, which, after all, are the geographical origin of all things Jewish. When someone refers to The Babylonian Talmud, I take pleasure in knowing that I, too, come from Babylonia. Or, when reading the Torah, I come across the Hebrew word for river, nahar, which is the same in Arabic, and the delicious language of my youth comes flooding back.

Today, I try to incorporate the old Iraqi customs into my Jewish life. I like hearing the Megillah read on Purim, which we called Eid el Mesjallah, and sometimes I close my eyes and picture the sukkah in the backyard of our Baghdad home, bedecked with the leaves of palm trees and ripe dates hanging down. I enjoy watching my children learn and practice their motley heritage, in which holidays have more than one name, and a bounty of different symbols prompts us to remember and reflect. I now understand that G-d speaks many dialects. He accepts tiny tweaks to His foundations. And His language is universal.

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