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.