I was born in Baghdad, but all my ancestors before me, including my parents, where born in Mosul and neighboring cities in Northern Iraq. Even now when I speak Arabic it is still with a Moslouy dialect. For many years, no matter where I was living or what I was doing, the answer to “Where are you from?” was one of identity: “Ana Maslouy.” I am a Mosulian. And I am, all the way down, in spite of my thoroughly Americanized personality—such is the deep and dual identity of immigrants.
Born to a Chaldean Catholic mother and a Syriac Orthodox father, I was baptized at St. Peter and Paul Syrian Orthodox church in Baghdad. But soon my parents, who were both teachers, were assigned their first teaching post in a little village an hour away. And so my maternal grandfather lived with us for part of the week to care for me while my mother worked half day as a math and physics teacher. Eventually we ended back in Baghdad, moving around and living with my maternal grandparents for a while. I remember the “chi u halib” (tea-and-milk) my paternal grandmother used to make for me; I would dip my khubiz (pita bread) in it until it was soggy and starting to fall into the tea cup. I remember my paternal uncle taking me out to the street vendors for sweet “zlabya” (syrup-drenched fried dough). I also remember belly-dancing to the claps and “hurrah’s” of my grandparents.
My mother taught at the high school right across the street from my elementary school, and so when my classes let out, I would cross the street and go into the teacher’s lounge. Instead of waiting for her like a good little girl, I would take money out of her purse, buy ice cream from the street vendor, then hide behind the church next door to secretly eat the cool yumminess. Other times she would parade me before her class and ask me trigonometry questions and then shame her students by telling them that if a 6-7 year old can know the answer, they certainly could learn it.
But life wasn’t always so simple. Many were the days when I cried and threw a tantrum screaming about how I hated my teacher because she hit my palms with a ruler—the Muslim teachers were always harder on the Christian students, at least that’s how it seemed to me, I lived in fear of her singling me out. I’ll never forget the day my mother came home angry that I was ranked second in class while first place was given to a Muslim girl who “scored” a few points higher in only one subject—physical education. It wasn’t long after that episode when I started hearing my parents talk about “no future in this country.” I’ve always wondered if me coming home singing propaganda songs for the Ba’ath party we were taught at school, finally pushed them over the edge to leave the country.
We didn’t own much. My dad sold his Fiat; we packed innocent-looking suitcases with nothing too valuable or out-of-place looking in them, and we said we were going on vacation to Greece.
After landing, my father immediately went to seek asylum, a long process with no determinate ending. I loved Greece, I loved the language and the people. I loved school! It took only a few months to learn the language, but it wasn’t long before I had a crush on a boy and I was screaming “I love Niko” in Greek. In Greece too we travelled around, we lived in Athens, Thessaloniki, and Leptokaria. We lived the longest in Thessaloniki where we rented a tiny first story apartment across from the school and I made friends. Those were the most beautiful days of my life. The great 1978 earthquake in Thessaloniki was a bit scary, but it was fun living in tents in an open field waiting for our apartment building to be livable again.
After applying to many countries for permanent immigration and getting turned down, a friend-of-a-friend of my mom sponsored us and we received the “okay” to come to America. America, the land of golden roads, they used to say back in Iraq. But I didn’t want to come, I wanted to stay in Greece or go back to Iraq. I missed my grandparents. My mom tried to cheer me up by promising to buy bananas and oranges for me when we arrived in America. Fruit was always in season in American stores she enthused. I complied, but I’m not sure all of me arrived on that plane which landed in LAX on a cold December night.
That was a long time ago, before the average American knew where Iraq was on the world map, before American suburban children toted hummus in their lunch-boxes, and before all the wars. Now when people find out I am an Iraqi Christian they ask how I feel or what I think about what goes on in the Middle East. My answer usually includes some kind of discussion of how my Christian identity comes first, before the Iraqi one, and so my “feelings” or my “thoughts” about the situation are governed by my identity as a believer in Jesus Christ—as a Christian woman. The emotions and thoughts are complex. After all, what does loving your enemy mean, when he’s holding a gun to your head?
And Now, ISIS
A key question I ask myself when considering how to relate to the current war ISIS is waging, causing so much suffering in the Middle East, is this: Is ISIS attacking me or someone else? The answer to that question from the Christian Catholic ethic drives my response. It has to, otherwise I give in to my fleshly desire to rage against what they have done and are continuing to do.
If I am personally attacked I have two options: Defend myself against the aggressor as nonviolently as possible under the given circumstance, or forfeit my life. If, on the other hand, someone else is being unjustly attacked, I am always called to defend them to the best of my abilities. As a Christian, as a human person, I have a responsibility to love and alleviate the pain and suffering of others, no matter who they are. I have a duty to protect the defenseless, the oppressed, and the persecuted. These ideas are foreign in our individualistic comfort driven culture.
In the case of ISIS in Iraq, I have cultural participation as well because the culture being destroyed is that of my heritage, the people being abused and killed, although not close relatives, would still fall under the broader category of “kin.” I am united to them by our mutual ethnicity, but of deeper significance is the union through our mutual humanity. In this sense, I often do feel as if it is me who is being attacked.
This cultural participation tugging at me, coupled with my Catholic Christian faith, produces complex internal struggles: Righteous anger against the abominations of ISIS with conviction to pray for their darkened souls. Pity for the dying and suffering mingled with pity for the twisted men carrying out these wicked deeds. What kind of terror lies in the soul of one perpetrating such atrocities?
We know that in ISIS we have an aggressor whose acts are grave, certain, and have a lasting effect on the entire community of Middle Eastern nations. They are beheading, crucifying, raping, imprisoning, and abusing people, with particular emphasis on Christians. They have destroyed historical and cultural artifacts that are the patrimony of all humanity because they communicate human history, art, religion, and other anthropologically significant relics—obliterating the cradle of civilization.
There seems to be no nonviolent way of stopping ISIS. Due to their grave and unrelenting aggression, any violent and military attempts must be swift, effective, and targeted at ISIS only. Because it is on the other side of the world, and because we are lulled to complacency by our comfortable first-world perch, we forget how much suffering the people of Iraq have undergone: Iran-Iraq war for 8 years, Kuwait war, the First Gulf War, the Iraq war, with many insurgencies in between—and now ISIS roaming free across the country devouring and culturally cleansing Mosul. Iraq has been a war-zone since September 22, 1980. I can’t even write about this without fighting back tears.
It is imperative that violent force against ISIS be executed with the utmost care to avoid the taking of innocent life. In this case, because the threat is to all humanity on the soil of all countries, we all have the responsibility to act on behalf of the common good. With the obligation of military force comes a necessary responsibility, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2312-2313) says:
The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between warring parties.”
Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.
The land of my ancestors, the land where I was born and lived for the first 6-7 years of my life has been utterly destroyed through wave after wave of acts of violence, war, crime, and failed foreign policy maneuvers. The population is fatigued, demoralized, and in cultural and economic distress. I would like to encourage our government to think beyond a military outcome. There is a people and a nation on the brink of annihilation that must be rebuilt. And since we had a hand in bringing about this turn of events, we bear a great responsibility for healing and rebuilding.