Jamila is gone. She left for Australia a few weeks ago.
We talk online sometimes, and she graciously translated a survey for me via email. But things are irreversibly different. I will probably never see her again.
Before she left, Jamila told me, tears welling up, “When I was in school in Iraq, I would read on the bus, always. But when we crossed the Tigris, I would put my books down and say, ‘Good Morning, Tigris!’” I’ll never forget Jamila’s face, two tears running down like Iraq’s two rivers.
As a Mandeaen, and follower of John the Baptist, Jamila’s relationship with water is vital. Her baptism, marriage, and all life transitions should be blessed by immersion in river water. Jamila’s daily greetings to the Tigris are as much as part of her religion as they are part of her childlike personality, and Iraq is the final bedrock of her people. I’ve read articles titled “Will the Mandeaens survive Diaspora?” or “Mandeaens at Risk of ‘Exstinction.’” But the Grand Scheme is hardly on Jamila’s mind.
She is preoccupied with something more immediate. She whispered about the Tigris, “I never got to say goodbye.”
Remember in Beauty and the Beast when Belle gives herself to the Beast in place of her father? Belle is angry, upset, crying, not because she is doomed to be a prisoner to the Beast forever, or because she might never see her father again, but because the Beast “never let [her] say goodbye.”
As a little girl I always hated that part of the movie– I could barely relate to the idea of permanently losing my mommy and daddy, but the lack of closure for poor Belle was still agonizing.
“We left our house the way it was when we fled. The door is unlocked, the dishes are still in the sink, and our dear dog was left in the yard… we had to leave him behind without even kissing him goodbye.” said Dr. Zina, an Iraqi refugee now running an NGO here in Amman.
Watching a woman in a suit sitting behind an executive-style desk crumple into tears is disheartening. “I love that silly dog so much!”
What survives in Diaspora?
Our English class ends late every week, and tonight after class we talked with Um Ali (name changed) and she cried and cried.
Iraqis here have described many things to me:
—the doctor that was machine gunned down in his living room, blood spraying all over the ceiling and dripping down on people heads for hours afterwards–
—the daughter whose attempted kidnap left her completely regressed and distraught–
— the two sons who were killed in simultaneous car bombs and the father who found out when ones body appeared on the news (he immediately had a stroke and has never walked since)—
–the children who are beaten at school because they are either ostracized or psychologically disturbed–
But what seems to cut deepest is “Diaspora.”
And, now, weeping like a neglected little girl, here is Um Ali, pouring her loneliness into words. “All I want, in the whole world, is to be in the same place as my son and daughter. My daughter is in Germany, my son is in Baghdad, and I’m alone here. I can’t see my own children! We are spread apart. I want to see my babies…”
And then it struck me. I’ve never seen an Iraqi cry unless they were describing Diaspora. That one, cutting word, the final knife of many knives that hits a nerve.
Diaspora is not the spreading of a culture or ethnic group across the globe as articulated in its technical definition; rather it is the father who cannot see his child’s elementary school graduation because of a little paper called a visa. It is Um Ali who has never met her grandchildren. It is Jamila who cannot marry in her Tigris River.
Or it is Dr. Mehdi, who came to Jordan from the US for a conference on stem cell research, and was not allowed to return home. His wife and children were alone in the US and had to sell their belongings and join him here in Amman to be together… because of what was later deemed “a human error.”
Diaspora might have a sweeping historical significance, but here and now, its meaning lies in those moments, those days or years of anxiety within which the unknown takes place without you…
Your children become adults in your absence, or they are killed in your absence, or your parents die alone without your ability to bury them, or you are 2 days from graduating and your school is bombed and you have to start all over again earning a diploma you already earned, because your original diploma is meaningless across the border.
Stop. You can never go home again.
You will know your parents through Skype calls at 3 am.
Your children will start calling your sister “Mom.”
Your hard work and grades—erased from the record.
You are an infant today, a dead one. You lost yourself somewhere between the abandoned house and the Tigris river.
So, we move on, crying rivers, strangers to our own family.
Um Ali is closer to this American girl who can hug her as she cries when what she really wants is to hug her son, because he is still in Baghdad and God will never forgive her if he is killed, because then, like Jamila, she’ll say, “I never got to say goodbye.”
Or “hello” for that matter.