Huda Al Safwani
Iraqi Kiwi Huda Al-Safwani wrote lovingly last month about summer nights in Baghdad - and struck a chord amongst émigrés and Kiwis alike.
Huda's story was almost a song of remembrance about a very different Baghdad, one that war has destroyed. But memories - whether of Baghdad or a bygone Algeria - have a life of their own as the feedback shows. (The term UM HALA as an address, means mother of the first born - in this case Hala).
What a lovely, yet poignant piece, full of the lingering memories of all of us displaced people, weaving back into the recesses of our minds (too busy filing annual returns for the Inland revenue, juggling mortgage payments and monthly bills, getting in the rat race, etc…) the golden threads of our childhood and early teenage years.
Of course I was not brought up in Baghdad, but your writing has conjured up the same memories for me: the long lazy "siestas" forced upon us by the adults, which we whiled away by playing puzzles, or reading comics (banned in our household, so we used to tuck them between the pages of children novels!), the fights amongst sisters and cousins about whose turn it was to spray the patios and courtyards with water to cool them and sweep them ready for the men to sit there in the evening to sip their after dinner tea or coffee.
Summer holidays in Algiers were magical: the sea, the tiny stretch of beach welcoming us like a mother's embrace after much perilous hopping over the rocks leading to it, the frantic race to the tiny island which we had baptised Cap Kennedy (an early childhood fixation with all things American, perhaps?) and which would crown the fastest swimmer amongst us, the fierce competition in gathering as many sea-urchins and shellfish as we could. In the evening we would light a fire and wait for the "big boys" (my uncles and older cousins and their friends) who would have gone deep sea diving and wondering what monster they would be bringing to the surface: a giant groper or a terrifying muray-eel with jaws so wide open it seemed ready to swallow one of us children whole!!
All stuff to be dutifully recorded to provide excellent material for the sacrosanct piece of homework in French written expression on the first day of school. And so much more…it breaks my heart that in Iraq, as in Algeria, in so many Arab countries in fact, this tenuous peaceful quality in our life has all but vanished. When I visit my family now, my memories are still there, I still visit the same beach and swim with my younger nephews and nieces, but their stories are somewhat different.
They tell me about shootings near their street, or the disappearance of some of their schoolmates from school (forced by emigration or moving to a safer area perhaps?) the girls removed from school or forced to wear "hijab" as a condition of their continued schooling, the hasty collection of unwanted clothes, toys and books for their new classmates, the children victims of terrorism, the constant traffic jams clogging the city streets because of the permanent police checkpoints, and most of all, the pervading atmosphere of fear and unease that, in the Nineties, settled on the city at dusk, when everybody rushed to the safety of their home before the curfew.
Years before it was the hour when everyone wanted to be first on the sea front for a stroll to take in the breathtaking views of the Bay of Algiers ablaze under the setting sun, its white balconies and cafe terraces alive with laughter (and yelling so associated with the Mediterranean temper), the coffee and ice-cream stalls and the horrible screech of the old blue and white buses hurtling towards the "Corniche".
While it is true that some peace has come back to this city (during my last trip in September last year to visit my family, I religiously retraced my steps back to the places of my childhood, including Cap Kennedy and the old Casbah in the Turkish quarter and my primary school in Eastern Algeria!) the sense of unease and latent unrest prevails.
Coming back to London, as the plane veers towards the sea, leaving behind the blue mountains hugging the city, I am always overwhelmed by an unbearable sadness and sense of loss. My children say I have too much of a romantic vision of Algeria, but I cannot expect them to understand.
Much love and keep the memory alive!!
Dear UM HALA
Your article about Baghdad life in a past golden days, was exactly like we are all living under one roof, It's very very common lifestyle we shared, and still living in that shadows when a tiny reminder, crosses us during the day of our normal life.
UM HALA thank you very much for lovely article…you brought back our best of the best golden days which never will repeat itself again, not wishful thinking but we still hope,there is always sunshine after dark.
UM HALA keep up a good work, you are the one who let us inhale the original breath of Baghdad, which we lost a long time ago.