Extracted from A Country Of Refuge: An Anthology of Writing on Asylum Seekers.
I’ll get to my refugee story in a minute but first let’s jump to the happy ending. Well, a sort of happy ending.
The setting is my parents’ house in New Malden, Surrey. I was 13 and incredibly happy to be living in a house with a big garden after many years of country hopping and cramped accommodation. What’s more, I was super-excited about the prospect of getting a dog. My younger sister, who was just as excited, was a junior member of the RSPCA and she had suggested we get a dog through them. All we had to do was pass a routine check. When the day of the inspection arrived, I was the only one at home to meet the lady from the RSPCA.
The lady was slim and had shoulder-length black hair. She may have worn glasses or I might have put them on her face in later years as I recalled this episode. What I am sure about is that she carried a clipboard. I don’t remember her name but let’s call her Ann. She looked like an Ann, prim and serious (apologies to all the Anns reading this for the crude generalisation).
I showed her around the house as she checked the various rooms and ticked little boxes on her form. As Ann explained about the various dogs they had and which breeds she would recommend, I nodded and smiled and answered her questions politely. Everything was going swimmingly. I believe she had ticked all the boxes on her form by the time we had walked across the patio and reached the annex that led to the back of our garage, a room disconnected from the rest of the house containing the boiler. I should have kept my mouth shut as the tour came to an end and I escorted Ann to the front door to bid her goodbye. But instead I asked whether we could keep the dog in the boiler room.
To my mind this was a perfectly reasonable proposition. My knowledge about keeping dogs came primarily from Disney cartoons that I had watched in Baghdad, Cairo and Algiers. Didn’t Americans, who are sort of cousins of the English, keep dogs in smallish, brown, hut-like kennels in their gardens? Didn’t Mickey Mouse keep Pluto in such a place? To my 13-year-old mind, the boiler room, being spacious and very warm, seemed so much better than a kennel in the garden. But the horrified look on Ann’s face told me that I had put my foot in it.
“A dog needs love, a dog must be treated like a member of the family, he has to live with you. How could you think that keeping it locked up in the boiler room is any way to treat a dog?”
“Well, we don’t have to lock the room, we could leave the door open.”
Once again this seemed like sound reasoning, judging by cartoon kennels whose doors were non-existent, but it only made Ann more furious. I tried to back-pedal, saying, “Look, it will be fine for the dog to live inside the house with us,” and here I really should have deployed a full stop and ended the sentence. “But the thing is, my mum is worried about it leaving hair all over the new furniture.”
That was it for Ann. She scribbled furiously in her sheet, so furiously I thought the pen was going to pierce the plastic clipboard like a knife.
“I’m recommending that you be denied the right to have a dog. Furthermore, I will make sure that your house remains on our blacklist for as long as possible.” My memory from that point on is hazy so it might be an exaggeration to say she stormed out, but then again, it might not. I realised that day that it was going to be a long, hard struggle to learn all the rules of my new homeland.
My dream of owning a dog started back in Baghdad in the late 1970s. My parents and I lived in my grandfather’s house. Three storeys high with a garden, it was the perfect playground for a young child. The sky was almost always blue and the roses fragrant like no other roses that I have encountered since. My father had grown up with a smart dog that he loved called Cyro. Alas, Cyro was poisoned, but stories of his escapades made me want to own a dog and Dad was contemplating buying one for me.
In the Iraq of the late 1970s, life was extremely good for middle-class families like mine. Dad worked as a sociologist in a research centre and Mum as a paediatrician. The oil boom meant that salaries were high and my parents used any excuse to throw lavish parties. The adults would celebrate my birthday by getting gloriously drunk and dancing till the small hours to the latest Boney M records. In the summertime we would sleep on the flat rooftop under a canopy of dazzlingly bright stars and I would pester Dad to name the various constellations.
A change took place that didn’t seem so significant at first. The old president stepped down and a man I had never heard of called Saddam Hussein took his place. At school they made us sing songs dedicated to him. At home, my parents were cautious about speaking of him, though at the time I was not aware of it. Later I learned that people were arrested and disappeared because children had let slip their parents’ low opinion of the new president at school. Soon after he assumed power, Saddam began to crack down on members of the Iraqi Communist party (ICP) who were the main opposition to his Ba’ath party. I didn’t know this at the time, but my family were associated with the ICP. Family members who were active in the party began to flee. When I would ask why this uncle was heading to Moscow or that auntie was heading to Prague, I would only get vague answers. Then one day, men with serious moustaches came knocking on our door. Would my father care to join them for a little chat? Mum’s face grew ashen as the hours passed slowly and Dad hadn’t returned. I knew something was wrong, but no one, not my mother, nor my grandmother, would tell me why Dad was suddenly taken away.
When he returned, Dad wouldn’t tell me who those men were or what they wanted and life seemed to go back to normal. As summer approached we went to the open-air cinema where I saw Lady and the Tramp and became lost in dreams of owning a spaghetti-eating dog. When I broached the subject with Dad, he seemed less enthusiastic about it than before
First grade was over and I was looking forward to what I thought would be another lazy, hot Baghdad summer where I would run around the house in my underwear, wielding the wooden sword that our local carpenter had made for me and scratch the inside of our horizontal freezer to scoop handfuls of ice with which to cool myself. And who knew, maybe this would be the year when we would finally get a dog.
Then out of the blue my parents announced we were going abroad. Wait a minute, I wondered, why is Dad selling his beloved red Mercedes? Does it cost that much to go on holiday? We took a cab to the airport and all the adults, Mum, Dad and Grandma, were visibly tense. I thought going on holiday was supposed to be fun. Their tension increased with every step: as we entered the airport; as we had our passports checked; as we got on the airplane. Finally when we took off, I heard them breathe a collective sigh of relief. My father kept pestering the stewardess for more and more whisky.
It was only when we arrived in Cairo and settled in my uncle’s flat that I began to understand what had happened. The men with the serious moustaches who came to our house were Ba’ath party members. They wanted my dad to join their party or else. Dad knew that those who did not comply with their demands could end up at the dreaded Palace of the End where they would be summarily executed.
This was the fate of many communists and, though Dad was not a member of the ICP, our family’s affiliation with the party was enough to arouse suspicions. Dad had read enough about the rise of the Nazis to realise that a similar thing was happening in Iraq under Saddam. If he had capitulated and joined the Ba’athists, he would soon have to write reports on his friends and colleagues. The tension at the airport was due to my family not being sure whether we would be on a list of those barred from leaving.
At first, I wasn’t aware that we had become refugees. Our stay with my uncle felt like an extended holiday but Dad could not be a burden on his brother for long and there were no jobs to be had in Egypt. He was offered a university teaching position in Algeria and so, once again, we packed our bags and moved countries. I remember the gloom that engulfed my family on our first night in Algiers. None of us could sleep properly, each lost in thoughts of what we had left behind: the house, the car, the family outings, the parties, the garden, the fragrant roses, the canopy of stars. Maybe Saddam would die of a heart attack, I thought, and we could go back. How wrong I was.
The Algerian kids in the neighbourhood were alien to me as they spoke a mixture of French, Berber and twisted Arabic. I communicated with them in classical Arabic, which is the language taught at school that no one actually speaks. The scene was absurd, like coming across a group of children in Britain who can only play with each other by conversing in Shakespearean English. Later we moved to our own flat in a building that possessed all the charm of a Soviet block. The roads outside were never finished because every time the council tried to lay down gravel for tarring the road, the kids would steal the stones for fun. So wading in mud on the way to school became the norm. Worst of all, there was a scarcity of books in the country. In Baghdad, I had grown up with an abundance: illustrated western classics, colourful comics and the works of Naguib Mahfouz. At night, I would dream of going back to our house in Baghdad and raiding the bookshelves for things to read, only to wake up realising that I was still in Algiers.
It was my Cairo uncle who finally decided that for the sake of my education and that of my sister, it would be best if we moved to Britain where he had studied in the 1950s.
He bought the house in New Malden and I was filled with joy to have a garden again. True, I did not speak English, but I quickly noticed that the bookshops in Britain were filled to the brim and, if only I could crack the language, all that knowledge would be mine. My diary entries slowly began to change from Arabic to English. As I adjusted to my new life, I realised that my idyllic Baghdad existence was never coming back. We had fallen out of Eden and it would be best to get used to life on earth.
In 2013, a lifetime later, I returned to Iraq, but this time to Erbil, one of the safe cities in the north, rather than to Baghdad, which was still dangerous and chaotic a decade after the US-led invasion. As I had never been to Erbil before, the trip did not feel like a homecoming.
I was interested, as a playwright, in finding out more about the Kurdish Syrian refugees who had fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the civil war that had broken out in their country. The first refugee camp I visited was Domiz, which is three hours’ drive from Erbil. Here, the scale of the Syrian disaster became apparent to me: the camp was the size of a town, with tents stretching into the distance. These people had fled horrors that I could only imagine. The first wave of refugees had escaped the shelling of their homes by Bashar al‑Assad’s government forces. The more recent arrivals had survived the onslaught of Islamists who were murdering the Kurds because they were not Muslim enough in their eyes.
Another camp I visited a day later, called Kawergosk, was newly established and hence much less organised than Domiz. Many of the families there were sleeping out in the open under the 40C sun, desert dust swirling all around them. Some mistook me for a journalist and pleaded with me to tell the world about the long journey on foot that they had undertaken to get to the camp, the people they saw collapsing along the way, their sick children, their desperation for a tent to shield them from the sun. I felt powerless. Everything that my family and I went through paled into insignificance. We were sheltered by money, my parents’ education and our connections abroad. It struck me that had any of these factors not been in place, had we stayed in Iraq till the first Gulf war, had we experienced the western-imposed sanctions on the country and the catastrophic collapse in the value of the dinar, we too could have ended up in refugee camps as so many Iraqi families did.
Having visited Syria before the war, I knew what the refugees I met were missing, particularly those who had lived in the capital Damascus with its ancient alleyways, picturesque cafés, impressive mosques and exquisite old houses, adorned with water fountains and hidden gardens. They too had fallen out of Eden. They too were having to live on earth. However, their earth was a much more inhospitable place than anything I had experienced.
Back in Britain, I felt a renewed sense of gratitude but also a greater anger towards politicians and some strands of the media who play the fear card and press the buttons that make people suspicious of all the refugees arriving on Europe’s shores. The neighbouring countries to Syria that have taken in the refugees are under tremendous strain. Their economies and infrastructure are nowhere near as developed as ours. We cannot walk away from this catastrophe.
Our house in Baghdad is no longer there. It has been demolished and the garden dug up. In my first play, Baghdad Wedding, I recreated the house with words, complete with rooftop access to the stars. If I ever get the chance to return to Baghdad, it will be to a city that I won’t recognise. The Baghdad that my family and I knew lives now only in dreams, stories and the memories we share. The same will be true for many of those who have fled Syria.
Whenever I visit my parents’ house in New Malden, I feel grateful for the safety, opportunity and welcome that Britain offered us. The only thing still missing from the house is a dog. Perhaps the RSPCA ban has been lifted. Or maybe I have grown used to the dog-shaped hole in the garden.