The Mother Country: Visiting the Middle East

On a trip together to the Middle East, an American journalist and her Iraqi-born mother view the same turmoil through very different eyes.

A Journey to the Middle East

I don’t know when I decided to invite my mother along. The mere fact that I was seriously considering it felt as though it were proof of incipient middle age. I used to travel to exotic places to get away from my family.

There were obvious difficulties to making my plan work. Arthritic knees were slowing her down. She was deeply afraid of flying. My mother had flown to New York from Chicago, where she lives, on the night my son was born, but for all subsequent visits, she chose two pungent days on Amtrak instead of two white-knuckled hours in the air. What’s more, I could not imagine spending almost three weeks with her. Just the two of us. In a hot Islamic country, post 9/11, post-American invasion of Iraq.

But I was researching a book about the founders of Egyptology, and I’d already squandered most of my budget on travel and translators. My Iraqi-born mother could speak and read Arabic fluently and would presumably work gratis. True, she didn’t know her way around Cairo, but Middle Eastern cities have a certain chaotic similarity. Bonus good-daughter points: Mom had always wanted to see Egypt.

Go to That Blessed Country

An Assyrian Christian born in northern Iraq, my mother, Berta, emigrated alone to the United States in 1957. The act was so out of character for the timorous, often depressed woman who raised me that it took me years to acknowledge just how brave she must have been. She landed on the shores of Norfolk, Virginia, where she stayed with Presbyterian missionaries. Her first impressions were not good. Upon seeing the black-haired, olive-skinned woman walking in the road, a neighbor helpfully warned her that somebody might burn a cross on her host’s lawn. My mother was already in her late 20s, with a college degree in English, and had left behind her family and a good job as a translator with a British-owned oil company in Kirkuk. She was dispatched to the U.S. to keep a big-sister eye on her brother, who’d been sent to study at a small college and was believed to be goofing off. And she was sent away because of political leanings — Anglophilic and leftist — that were becoming dangerous in a country roiled by nationalist ideology. She was also fulfilling a broader family mission. My grandmother was a tough woman who had survived the Ottoman ethnic cleansing of Assyrian villages in Iraq during the 1920s. American missionaries had helped her escape, and she never forgot them, often telling my mother, "Go to that blessed country."

My mother married a blond, basketball-playing poet, became a citizen and raised three American kids. She never taught us Assyrian or anything about her culture, although she did take us to Iraq for several months to visit relatives the year after the Summer of Love. Dad stayed behind in San Francisco, where we lived, and sent her a hot-pink, paisley mini-dress, an outrageous gift to receive in Baghdad even then and one I later recognized as the beginning of the failure of their marriage. My mother returned to Iraq only once more, just before the first Persian Gulf War.

During that conflict, I thought I understood her grief. I will never forget walking with her along the shore of Lake Michigan in February 1991. She looked old, beaten, and unspeakably sad. The blessed country was bombing the country of her youth, and all she could do was watch it unfold on television. She had no affection for Saddam Hussein — after her last trip in the late 1980s, she talked for months about the cruelty of his totalitarian system, how friends and family felt required to hang pictures of the despot in their living rooms — but now that he was under attack, she proclaimed that the Americans were really after the oil fields. When President George W. Bush launched the second war, my mother was no longer passive and depressed but livid and radicalized. Although she’s a technophobe, she had a satellite dish installed so she could watch Al Jazeera day and night. Needless to say, she suspects 9/11 was a U.S. government conspiracy.

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