Heather Raffo: remembering my Iraqi American father

I miss my dad. He was my root system, my connection to Iraq, and my connection to the questions that drive me. He was the person I wanted most to understand. Yet Dad was never one for conversation. Is it any wonder my writing sought to be in conversation with him? 

In this last year of our collective loss, the year I spent mourning Dad, the beloved Arab American theatre historian Michael Malek Najjar offered me a life raft. He invited me to create with him an anthology, to gather together decades of my work, made a kind of sense in the midst of 2020 and losing Dad—it was a looking back to look forward, a remembering in order to reckon. Still, in my grief, it took a full year for me to realize that March 19, the day Dad passed, was also the anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. Sometimes you have to remember before you can reckon. 

I’ve been saying for years that Iraq is a bellwether for America. I’ve been saying it louder and more often lately. Sectarianism is not inevitable; more often it is instigated. Iraq was knit together over thousands of years, not just 244. Iraq is one of the oldest melting pots, with more centuries spent in a borderless, communal state than in a state of war. 

After the U.S. invasion in 2003, it took three years for the “civil war” to foment. That’s three years of hope and restraint in the face of electricity shortages, a lack of jobs and a lack of law. Can you imagine the same restraint if the electricity had stayed off in the Texas snowstorm for even three weeks? In such an ancient society, sectarianism was not a given; it was a grab for political power, and from it came a heightening divide across the Middle East, and the biggest refugee exodus ever. 

In response to the global refugee crisis, the U.S. has tried nationalism, populism, and a fight for the soul of America. Refugees are now seen as either victims or enemies. Defense contracts fuel a multi-billion-dollar industry redirecting the tools of war to our border economy. Elections for the foreseeable future turn on identity politics, rooted in response to race and immigration. And more veterans are lost to suicide than to the wars itself. It’s the same war; we just brought it home. Just as we tested our weapons in Iraq, we tested our ideas. We discovered that borders only work long term if they’re inside a nation, not around it. 

When Dad went into hospital on March 15, 2020, we rented a van and drove from Brooklyn to my birthplace in Michigan. I was careful to rent a car without New York license plates, such was my faith in (fear of?) American sectarianism. I knew I wouldn’t be allowed inside the hospital to see him, as we were coming from the epicenter; neighbors we had hugged days before now had COVID. 

What I didn’t know is that I would stay indefinitely in Michigan to look after my mom; that I would turn 50 in Michigan, a five-minute walk from the duplex where I was conceived; that my kids would go to school from my mother’s basement; that my husband’s job at the UN would now be located at my mother’s dining room table. The same table where my dad’s urn sat among us all. For almost eight months, I didn’t get to close a door of my own (forget a room of one’s own). Like many mothers, my ego dissolved in the face of greater needs: I was the caregiver, the root system, I was food itself. 

As time went on, I called it my swing state summer. I grew up in this swing state, but like the Iraq of my father’s childhood, where you never knew if your neighbor was Sunni or Shia (it was impolite to ask), the Michigan of my childhood was equally a forgotten past. Armed militia now paraded in the Lansing State Capitol where I once performed Christmas carols. 

Protests in Lansing, the most mixed-race city in the state, were more often against the closure of the economy than against the police brutality that murdered George Floyd. And then came breaking news of a plot to kidnap the governor, the absurdity of which so startled me, I literally had to stop the car in a corn field to explain to my shaken 10-year-old that yes, after everything, it could, in fact, get worse. 

The warning signs are simple, really: for Iraq, for America, for anywhere. Economic devastation to the working and middle class. The gutting of state institutions for a sectarian based political system. Violence. Segregating neighborhoods. An economy further built on that violence. Is it any wonder that the weapons designed for our nation’s longest wars are now being used in our capitols, our Walmarts, and in our public schools? Have we come full circle? In 2006, at the height of sectarian violence in Iraq, it was Joe Biden who suggested dividing Iraq along sectarian lines. Does fighting for the soul of a nation only matter if it’s your own? 

Which brings me back to Dad. At the same time his Alzheimer’s began to take root, ISIS took over his birthplace of Mosul, and nearly all of my Iraqi family would find themselves scattered across the globe. What started as nearly 100 family members living in Iraq in 2003 was now just two cousins. Our ancestors had lived in Iraq for thousands of years, and yet they were suddenly scattered in just 10. My family carries part of the soul of that nation, and it’s never going back. 

Yet Dad was a man of few words. It would frustrate me that he would watch the news, but not say anything. I wanted him to take to the streets, I wanted him to take me to Iraq. I wanted him to take the time to remember. He didn’t. He held it inside him—and it literally ate him alive. He let himself cry for only one thing: his family. For him, loss was everywhere, and love the only real measure of his root system. He was as rooted to Michigan as he was to Mosul. As rooted to me as to his mother. He designed bridges, both literally and figuratively. He was himself a country in between. 

March 19 is the 18th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. But when Dad passed last year on this day, it was also the equinox. A day of perfect balance. I remember vividly standing outside my dad’s hospital window beneath the balance of sky, witnessing his last breath. I saw his body fight for life while his spirit generously tried to let go. He knew this place well; as an immigrant he knew how to let go and hold on at the same time. 

Like many across the world, we have not yet been able to gather and bury him. His urn still sits on the dining room table, surrounded by cards, crosses, and the occasional cup of tea. When I send a copy of the new anthology home to mom, it will undoubtably sit there too. I am both bereft and fortunate: grateful that in the year he passed I was given by Michael Malek Najjar, and by Methuen, the opportunity to dedicate to Dad a collection of plays about loving in the face of unspeakable loss. 

Only in his passing did I come to realize that through decades of writing, what I thought was an attempt to reckon with his birthplace was really an attempt to reckon with my own. 

Heather Raffo is an Iraqi American playwright and actress living in New York. Her anthology, Heather Raffo’s Iraq Plays: The Things That Can’t Be Said, has just been published by Methuen/Bloomsbury.

Post a Comment