Right from the start, as I exit Baghdad airport in a cab, I notice there is something different. I mean yeah, I know it’s a new country – palm trees everywhere, sandy plains replace the grassy ones I was used to in the States, but still, something was nagging on my mind. “There aren’t any fire hydrants!” I exclaim.
My father, sitting in the passenger seat of the cab, chuckles. “You noticed the absence of fire hydrants?” he asks, “There are far more drastic differences than that, I assure you.”
I look out of the taxi window, slightly nauseated from motion sickness. The driver was swiveling in and out between cars like it was some kind of claustrophobic maze rather than a public highway. It not only looks foreign, it SMELLS different! A mixture of gasoline-scented gusts of wind, and dusty particles fill the air around me.
We finally arrive at our house which my father had built for us a year ago. It was huge! Three stories high, seven bedrooms, four living rooms… Wait, four living rooms?! Who has four living rooms in one house? Iraqis. Iraqis have four living rooms in one house.
One for the men (the biggest one of course) that’s built with a separate entrance door, so as not to have the men inconveniencing the woman of the house with their presence. Another for woman, the second largest living room, located close to the kitchen so they may always be a few steps from peering in to watch us cook. Oh so smoothly implying that everything we’re doing could be done better if we follow THEIR way. The third and fourth living rooms are upstairs. One for the gals, all of us gather there to run away from the prying ears and eyes of the older ladies. And one for the kids, being the offsprings of the aforementioned gals.
The second day of our arrival, my aunt asks me to join her grocery shopping. I get excited as I put on “The Black Knight Rises”, which is what my sisters and I call the long abaya that we wear in Iraq, referring to the cape Batman wore in the movie. I walk with confidence in my stride, wearing five inch heels like I always do. Thirty seconds of walking in the street I realize what a horrible idea that was. My pencil heel caught in every dip and bump that the cracked pavement had to offer. Praying, deeply praying, that I won’t trip and make a fool of myself. I’m in awe of everything I see – everything is new and foreign – and my mind strays, momentarily forgetting my surroundings.
“Wilich!” I here my aunt hiss. “Wilich (Hey), you’re an embarrassment! Pick your abaya off the floor!”
I blink and look around at my aunt quizzically, not knowing what she’s talking about. I look down at my feet and see my abaya crumbled there. I hadn’t even felt it slide off my head. I lift it up, my cheeks burning. I could hear chuckles of the people surrounding us in the crowded street, a couple teenagers jeering to my left. Trying not to appear phased, I continue my walk through the marketplace with my aunt.
I see a middle aged man standing there, wearing a clean crisp white dishdasha (thobe). When our eyes meet, I smile and say “salam alaykum”
He smiles back and says “walaykum alsalam.”
My aunt lifts her eyebrows at me. “Yeah…so that guy is your uncle’s son,” she says.
“Oh my God! Is he really? That’s so cool!” I say, not noticing that my aunt’s comment had been heavy with sarcasm.
She rolls her eyes, “He’s a complete stranger on the street, why did you say hi to him?”
“Why shouldn’t I say hi to him? Salam is sunnah, and in America it’s rude if you meet eyes with someone and not say hi.” I explain.
“This isn’t America,” she states bluntly.
It’s definitely not America, I have to remind myself often. I continue my walk down the busy street, fully aware that this trip will be full of many differences, and it’s up to me to make the best of it all. “An adventure.” I whisper to myself. “A foreign adventure.”