Luma Puma – that’s what the American kids called me. Luma Puma Montezuma. Their ridicule made me wish I had never come to America. It made me hate my name and where I was from. It made me hate everything about myself.
I was born in Baghdad, to a Chaldean Catholic mother and a Syriac Orthodox father, but all my ancestors were born in Mosul and neighboring cities in northern Iraq. For many years, no matter where I was living, I would answer the question “Where are you from?” with “I am from Mosul.” Such is the existential reality of first-generation immigrants: the both/and tension of two civilizations within oneself, the wistful desire for one identity, one culture, one homeland, one whole and integral worldview.
My early years in Iraq are full of vivid memories: I remember dipping my khubiz (pita bread) in the chi u halib (tea and milk) my grandmother used to make for me, and my uncle taking me out for zlabya, a syrup-drenched fried dough. I remember belly-dancing to the claps and hurrahs of my grandparents. My father taught entomology, botany, and beekeeping. My mother taught at a high school.
But our life in Iraq was not idyllic. My father was played as a pawn and a scapegoat between the Shiites and Sunnis at work. My mother was forced to adopt Muslim dress in the market. I sometimes came home from school crying because my teacher hit my palms with a ruler. The Muslim teachers were always harder on the Christian students – at least that’s how it seemed to those of us in the Christian community. I’ll never forget the day my mother came home angry that I was ranked second in my class while first place was given to a Muslim girl who scored a point higher in only one subject – physical education. It wasn’t long after that episode that I started hearing my parents talk about how we had “no future in this country.” By the time I started coming home from school singing Ba’ath party propaganda songs, they had made up their minds.
My dad sold his Fiat, and we packed our suitcases and said we were going on vacation to Greece. Once we arrived in Athens, my father began the long process of seeking asylum. After applying to many countries for permanent immigration and getting turned down, we heard that an Armenian family in Los Angeles had offered to sponsor us. I didn’t want to move again; I wanted to stay in Greece or go back to Iraq. I missed my grandparents. My mom tried to cheer me up by promising to buy bananas and oranges for me when we arrived in our new home.
Our plane touched down in Los Angeles on December 13, 1978. The shock of migrating from an Eastern civilization and worldview to the West was like a collision in my very being. We settled in Fullerton, California, where there were no Iraqis or Arabs at the time, at least none we knew of. Every weekend, we would make the thirty-mile drive to Los Angeles to visit the only other Iraqis we knew, the Armenian family who had sponsored us. Between weekends, however, it was hard to communicate with my classmates, teachers, and other members of our community. I knew four English words: yes, no, please, and thank you.
The first month we were in America, we went to an evangelical church in Fullerton. My parents left me in Sunday school; that’s what was supposed to be done, they were told. When snack time came, I was given a banana and two pieces of brown bread with brown filling inside. I had never tasted peanut butter before, but I was starving. I bit into the sandwich and my mouth filled with the dry, sticky stuff. My lips felt like they’d been glued together. I wanted to cry, but I was afraid the other kids would make fun of me. Holding back tears, I walked to the front of the classroom and held out the peanut butter sandwich with one hand and the banana with the other. I was trying to ask the teacher for permission not to eat the sandwich. I motioned with both hands, trying to ask if I could have the banana without the sandwich. The teacher thought I wanted the sandwich but not the banana. So she took the banana and left me with the peanut butter sandwich. I went and sat down, tears streaming down my face.
The internal turmoil of those years has never left me. It has shaped me and informed how I view human identity and immigration.
Soon after arriving in California, my parents found jobs. With no close relatives or family friends nearby to watch us, my sister and I became latchkey kids. During the summers, the library was our nanny. In the fourth grade at Raymond Elementary School, I struggled to understand the teacher and my peers. One scene is burned into my memory – the teacher sitting in the front of the classroom on a stool and reading from a book. For a few moments, time stood still and my soul rested from its turmoil. I didn’t understand a word that was read, but I memorized the picture on the front; it was Charlotte’s Web. I devoured it as soon as I could read English for myself. Reading saved my life; it continues to do so.
My Country My Enemy?
When the Iran hostage crisis happened, my father lamented that the problems of the Middle East had followed us to America. My parents warned us not to say we were from Iraq, lest people would think we supported what was happening, which we obviously did not. “Just say you’re from Greece if anyone asks,” they told us. When the eight-year Iran-Iraq War broke out in 1980, my parents were relieved that we lived in America. My father had been spared from being drafted into the army. Another family member, however, was sent to the front lines. Phone calls for updates were brief and carefully worded – you never knew who was listening, and everyone in the country lived in fear of Saddam Hussein’s government. We heard reports of schoolchildren tricked into informing on their parents, and anyone who spoke out against Saddam could be imprisoned or killed.
In 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait. And then came January 16, 1991, the day my naturalized country, America, invaded the country of my birth and heritage, Iraq. It was the most dissonant moment of my life. I wept. I prayed that my beloved family members would survive. I felt my dual identity being tested. Once again, my family became fearful that others would judge us if they knew we were Iraqis. We tried to avoid saying where we were from when in mixed company. Yet, even among other people from our homeland, we weren’t free from conflict. Every time we gathered with other Iraqi friends, arguments would break out: “It’s Saddam’s fault, he deserves it!” “No, it was the Americans who made him their pawn in the region, and now they have turned on him.” On and on it went, but it was just talk – none of us could do anything about any of it.
There was a time when Iraq was an up-and-coming country. It had well-paved roads and modern buildings, plumbing, and other infrastructure and institutions. Watching Arabic movies from the 1960s, the average American would see a recognizably modern society. Family life flourished, women were educated, and the household-based culture thrived, in spite of new philosophies from the West trickling in through those who had studied abroad. The relationship between Christians and Muslims may not have been ideal, but there was no bloodshed. The country has now been set back decades, some might say centuries. The buildings are worn, peeling, and broken. There is uncertainty and doubt about the rebuilding of the old structures, whether material or social.
What makes my heart ache even more than the material damage is a particular marker of the disintegration of family life. Where once there was not one nursing home in all of Baghdad (families always took care of their elderly), currently there are at least two, in part because so many young Iraqis have fled the country. This is not merely a matter of a demographic shift; it’s a symptom of a change in mindset that now allows the younger generation to abandon their elders.
The land of my ancestors, the land where I was born and where I lived for the first seven years of my life, has been utterly destroyed by wave after wave of violence. Iraq’s people are fatigued, demoralized, and in cultural and economic distress. Even if we are able to drive ISIS out of Iraq, we must encourage our government to think beyond a military outcome. And since America had a hand in bringing about this turn of events, it bears a great responsibility for the work of healing and rebuilding the country.
Belonging and Not Belonging
Abraham, my ancestor, was living in Ur, in Mesopotamia, when God called him out of the land of his fathers to be a pilgrim and a sojourner until the day when God would give him and his descendants the land of Canaan (now the land of Israel). In the New Testament the life of a Christian is described as a pilgrimage to a new country, our heavenly home. I don’t know how Abraham did it, but I’ve always felt very acutely that I didn’t belong.
Perhaps this is why, in recent years, I have not been surprised to see the rise of nationalist movements in the West. Though the details may differ, they are all variations on the same theme: a civilizational crisis rooted in an identity crisis. The West has, to a great extent, rejected its cultural and spiritual patrimony, which was rooted in biblical values. Pair this phenomenon with an influx of immigrants – especially from the Middle East – who for one reason or another are not assimilating to Western political, philosophical, and cultural thought. We don’t need to be political philosophers to understand what we are seeing as we watch one civilization struggling against another. We feel it existentially.
We must stop trying to style peoples and countries in our image. We are not their Creator.
Many of us have begun asking: “Who am I, and who are we as a nation?” These questions of identity lead to questions of nationality. And no one feels this dissonance more deeply than immigrants. An immigrant, particularly one who has crossed a civilizational boundary in addition to a national border, will almost invariably undergo an identity crisis. This is why understanding the mindset of immigrants is crucial to understanding the crisis many in the world are undergoing.
The most salient fact for Americans and the American government to grasp about Iraq (or any non-Western country) is that there is a non-Western paradigm and worldview, and it is valid. There is another way of living, building an economy, and governing than what we know in the West. Certainly I am not equating paved roads and plumbing with cultural imperialism; I am referring to relationships, political negotiations, and how people value their own sense of well-being. You can debate Iraq’s merits all you want, but respect the people, their land, their culture, and their way of life. Iraq will never become America, and we must stop trying to style peoples and countries in our image. We are not their Creator. If we are to play a role in rebuilding the nation, we must do so in their interest, not ours. Bringing freedom to a people starts with respecting them as a people in their own right. This may seem a small matter, but it is imperative to understand. Out of this mentality will flow a different rebuilding and healing strategy.
Where East and West Meet
These days, when people find out I am an Iraqi Christian, they ask how I feel or what I think about what’s happening in the Middle East. My emotions and thoughts are complex. In the case of ISIS in Iraq, the culture being destroyed is my heritage, the people being killed are my kin. I am told to love my enemy, but what does loving your enemy mean when he’s holding a gun to your head or a sword to your neck? The immigrant mind is complex, and in this age of a major refugee crisis and vast movements of people, working toward a shared understanding is vital.
My mom used to say: “If you deny your origin, you deny yourself.” I have lived long enough to know this to be true. No matter where I am in the world, however, I take comfort in knowing I am always part of the kingdom of God. In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, the prophet writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; takes wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:4–7)
As internally disordered as I’ve felt at different times in my life, with the American me in conflict with the Iraqi me, my Christian faith has always brought sense to my life as an immigrant – and solace, to some degree. Through the prophet Isaiah, God says this:
Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (Isa. 43:5–7)
I am a daughter whom he brought from the East. It was in the West that he recreated me into who he wanted me to become – a synthesis of East and West – and gathered me into his kingdom, where all his people become one.