Zeinab’s map oscillates between refuge and trauma as her life was constantly threatened by violence due to her father’s activism and refusal to join the Ba’ath Party while being a well-known radiologist in one of Baghdad’s main hospitals, Yarmouk, and being an active member of the Communist Party. They moved across Iraq from south to north with her father’s medical service. Over the years she confronted violence inflicted by different groups with different allegiances while taking refuge in writing and her father’s library and books. Before having to flee the country at the height of sectarian violence, she faced what looked like, as she describes it, an Afghan militant running in their street in Baghdad holding a machine gun, who saw her peeking through the gate. Knowing that the Amiriyah district is a Shia neighbourhood he (a Sunni militant) nevertheless chose to spare her the bullet.
Dr Zeinab Shuker, an Assistant Professor of Sociology of political economy and climate change of Iraq and the MENA region at Sam Houston State University, Texas, USA with expertise in the impact of climate crises on the MENA region, originally from Baghdad, reminisces at her sense of refuge and homing after she returned to Baghdad fifteen years later after that encounter with the militant in the street:
Pre-2003 era, social connections kept people alive or handed them over to authorities, so it was a matter of pure luck that you happen to be surrounded by people who saw value in you, who respected your work and supported you. I see the 2003 war, which I feel very conflicted about, as the moment we felt freed from this constant unsettling feeling of lack of refuge. I had no sense of home. I felt that I was betrayed by my home. It was not until recently through my scholarship, that I felt a sense of connection with home. I was terrified to come back because I was afraid that I was building that feeling over unrealistic nostalgia, I was petrified of what I would see to be the truth. You try to hold on to a sense of home or a sense of belonging or refuge, or identity, but it never existed here. This is a place that never accepted me, or accepted us as a family for who we are. I feel it is a laborious process to try to build a refuge now after all those years, and to sort of reconnect with a place that I never belonged to in the first place.
I resented the entire Arab World, not just Baghdad, for 15 years. Years during which I hated speaking Arabic, saying my name, and explaining where I am from. I just hated the constant strangeness of me in a place where you are constantly reminded that you are not member of that community or that locality. And I blamed Baghdad and Iraq, I blamed the Middle East for it. I felt angry that I was let down, I felt that my country should have been better instead of letting me down. It should have been better so that I can return when I want to. But it is not better. Yet the chaos of the city and the stray cats and dogs and garbage everywhere did not feel strange. Iraq’s political economic disaster still felt familiar.
Yet I now feel angry for Baghdad for the hurt and abuse she has endured, instead of angry with her or because of her. Now through my research, I am reconnecting back to the city knowing that professionally it is difficult to change its structural issues yet I cannot help myself having this sense of hope that I can help her (Baghdad) overcome this disaster that is unfolding. After years of anger and rage, I am back to talk to her again, I am no longer mad at her anymore, I can now separate her from the Saddam regime, from the horrors of checkpoints, from the car bombs.