The Orange Trees of Baghdad In Search of My Lost Family

Sky Watch by Wasfi Akab

In 2003, Iraq was invaded. I was ten years old and the images of Baghdad being bombed and Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled were the first I had seen of Iraq. Since then, Iraq seems hardly to have been out of the British news. Stories of bombings and shootings and of fallen soldiers returning to Royal Wootton Bassett became an all-too-familiar headline on the evening news. Iraq, for me, became synonymous with conflict and a tragic descent into anarchy.

The Orange Trees of Baghdad transforms Iraq from a conflict zone into a place full of mystical wonder: fragranced foods, music and belly-dancing and elegant gold jewellery. It is a stark contrast. Just as Leilah Nadir’s Iraqi relatives used to bring Iraq into the familiarity of her English home, so too does her story bring “the exotic right into the familiar”, shifting common conceptions of Iraq and giving it a more human representation. In view of the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war, experiencing the sounds and smells of Iraq as it was is a much-needed depiction of what lies at the heart of the invasion: people.

Nadir’s memoir captures the story of her family, both in Iraq and across the world. She was born to an Iraqi father and an English mother. It is this very heritage, however, that is in conflict with her life in Canada during the Iraq war. She writes that she feels as if “one part of me is invading the other. I feel like this war is between two cultures whose blood flows in me, and it makes the experience entirely different. To look at me is to look at both the aggressor and the victim. I am both the enemy and the ally.” Her book explores this internal conflict. Raised in both England and Canada, she has never been to Iraq; yet, her lifelong fascination with her Iraqi heritage is plainly evident in The Orange Tress of Baghdad through her deep-seated desire to learn about Iraq; even in the face of a seeming reluctance, by her father in particular, to talk of it.

To look at me is to look at both the aggressor and the victim. I am both the enemy and the ally.

The book is, then, a discovery. As Nadir discovers Iraq, her readers are invited to share in this unearthing of the Iraqi part of her heritage. Orange Trees traverses the history of Iraq: appreciating its evolution from an ancient civilisation to its formal creation as a State following British occupation after the end of the First World War and covering life under Saddam, the Iraq-Iran War 1980-1988, the Kuwait Invasion by Iraq in 1990 and, finally, the Iraq War of 2003. With her family’s being Iraqi Christians, another insight is provided in this novel of a history of Christianity in Iraq, and how this group fitted in the social balance of Iraq. More personally, we experience the Iraq of her grandparent’s generation, learning about traditional Iraqi family life: building a family home with orange trees in the garden that would last for generations and playing host to the numerous aunties, uncles and wider family members who bustle in and out of the house across the generations.

Nadir presents this from her personal perspective, conveying her discoveries through family stories and her own conversations with Iraqi relatives, both those in Iraq and those who have emigrated across the globe. The reader is also transported to Syria along with Nadir as she describes her visit there in 2005, presenting an exceptionally sensory portrayal of her visit. Ultimately, hers is a tale of family life that has been ravaged by tyranny and warfare: a tale of love and sadness, happiness and tragedy, memories and loss. It is a human eye into the West’s enemy, very different from the clinical descriptions of Iraq commonly told in the West.

Each time we are treated to a flash of memory or a historical discovery, it is exciting to learn something new of the real Iraq. The majority of Orange Trees, however, focuses on the Iraq War. It is an inexorable depiction of the invasion by American and British forces; the confusion, the struggles of daily life and the dangers faced by civilians that the invasion achieved instead of the promised freedom. She writes scathingly about Bush and of the destruction of Baghdad, passionately sharing her involvement in protests against the invasion. Orange Trees leaves the reader in no doubt that little has been achieved. Sharing a relative’s experience, she writes, “nothing has changed for the better. It is the same as living under Saddam. Then, every day we had a problem, and it is the same now. We have no water, no electricity… no fans or air conditioners. We have to sleep on the roof as we always have, even with all the war raging around us. Today we found a bullet in our bed on the roof.”

Orange Trees of Baghdad cover

Orange Trees of Baghdad

Whilst Nadir succeeds in reminding us of the people at the heart of the invasion, the power of her presentation is somewhat marred by her manifest anger. The anger of Orange Trees is a more personal one, reflective of Nadir’s inner conflict caused by the War. It is an anger at being deprived of a chance to visit Iraq and learn for herself about her Iraqi heritage. Every memory and recollection shared by relatives is imbued with a degree of resentment that Nadir cannot ever have those experiences. The sad consequences of the invasion for her family still in Iraq are conveyed with an intense anger at what Nadir loses personally, thus overshadowing the actuality of events in Iraq that this narrative could otherwise present.

More than this, the internal conflict that Nadir feels permeates the very structure and emotional development of her narrative. It feels like she is groping towards an elusive idea of Iraq and of the consequences of the War, perhaps to resolve the sense of enemy and ally within herself. As such, her memoir initially confuses chronology and introduces people and experiences somewhat haphazardly: seemingly reflecting her own attempts to sort such things out for herself. Lamentably, whilst the emotional connection of Nadir with her family and with Iraq is evident, as a reader it is difficult to form a level of emotional engagement with characters and places. We understand they have suffered much and are able to empathise with such loss; yet, the hardships feel remote, making it difficult to mourn the losses with her. This sense of dislocation is, perhaps, reflective of Nadir’s own disconnect from Iraq. Unfortunately, the persuasiveness of her condemnation of events is diminished by such an emotional separation, though her writing undoubtedly tells us that learning the truth about Iraq is difficult: her father rarely talks of his recollections of Iraq as a young boy and relatives have retained the fear of openly expressing opinions ingrained under Saddam’s regime. Perhaps, then, Nadir cannot provide a greater insight than she does given the information that is available.

Despite these reservations, ultimately, Nadir’s memoir has corrected my image of Iraq from the preconceptions formed when I was a ten-year-old child. I have a better understanding of the sense of community that pervades Iraqi culture and, therefore, of the communal shock at the Iraq War suffered by Iraqi’s across the globe. Orange Trees depicts the story with which the British people are unfamiliar and, indeed, may feel uncomfortable hearing: it is right that we should understand the other side of what happened in 2003.

Photo by Wasfi Akab