I was ten when my father’s country invaded my mother’s. It was 1991, and the United States had taken upon itself to do something about Iraq’s aggression in Kuwait. My parents and I were, by nature of where we lived and their unique global worldview, far removed from the events that were occurring thousands of miles away. We didn’t have a television set at the time, and so we watched the events unfurl from our neighbors’ house. We huddled around their television, and in the background I overheard the grownups talk about oil and America’s supremacy. I didn’t quite understand what was going on, but the images of American tanks and fighter jets told me just how Ramboesque America was. It was a grand show of muscle, and the whole thing was over as soon as it began.
My mother never talked about Iraq, or what it was like growing up in Baghdad. She left home after finishing college, and went to live with relatives in Iran. Beyond that, Iraq is a blank sheet of paper in the story of my life. I imagine I have family there, some who have probably perished in the war that has come to characterize day-to-day life for many Iraqi citizens. I imagine too that I have had distant relatives serving on the American side, who have also died. I don’t know who any of them are, but I imagine they too loved their families, and wanted what was best for them.
Like America and many Americans, I am a product of cultural mélange. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants, and to be American is to have a multiplicity of origins. Despite this similarity, there is one thing that sets me apart: I am as incapable of subscribing solely to one national narrative, as I am of speaking only in one language.
What I’m talking about is a profound inability to love one country or people over another. Maybe it is an outgrowth of my parent’s marriage, my childhood, and my religious and spiritual convictions, but I have found it relatively easy to let go of certain social constructs. Belonging can very much be a choice one makes, and what we choose to belong to, is a reflection of who we are and what we aspire to reach.
Part of my heritage on my mother’s side is Iranian. She also happens to be a member of the Baha’i Faith, a community that has historically been shunned and persecuted in Iran. There is currently a group of seven Baha’is serving a 20-year sentence in Iran, simply because they happen to identify themselves with that Faith. I recently came across a letter one of them wrote to his first grandchild who was born in April of this year. In it, he tells her, “My dearest granddaughter…I want you to know that I am proud to be imprisoned. Divine tests are a sign of God’s mercy. I don’t want you to ever bear any ill will toward your countrymen.”
We don’t know enough about those we call our enemies, and they probably know even less about us. It is much easier to hate what one is ignorant of, and so we rely on objectification to remove any sense of humanity we might have had for them. We do this at many levels. I sometimes wonder how much suffering would be alleviated if we came to see everyone, even those who claim to be our enemies, as noble beings, as family members we lost touch with a long time ago.