An Iraqi journalist in America: California pilgrimage

I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t want to blink and waste a single moment of looking at the beach and the Pacific. I had never seen an ocean. If I could set up a tent on the sand, I thought, I could stay there forever. I have loved the seas, rivers, and oceans since I studied them when I was a child. Now here I was standing on the beach at Santa Monica, watching the waves of the biggest ocean shattering on the California coast.    

Mudhafar al-Husseini
Mudhafar al-Husseini

Two months ago, I was on my way from Baghdad heading south to visit the holy city of Karbala; two weeks ago, I was on my way from Arizona heading west to California. No comparison at all.

During the first trip, I was trying to say farewell to every dear place and city in Iraq. Karbala is one of the most important places to me because it has the shrines of Imam Hussein and his brother Abbas, the grandsons of our Prophet Mohammed and two of 12 Imams followed by Shiite Muslims. I’m also a descendant of Imam Hussein, which makes the whole thing very special for me. For a Shiite, visiting those shrines has no equivalent in America.

Driving from Tucson to San Diego is something I never imagined I would do, not even in my dreams. I had always watched American movies with yearning and wide-eyed wonder. Flashbacks from those movies come every now and then to my mind, especially when I contemplate things around me here.

I had great company on the trip with Lew Serviss, who drove us all the way back and forth to California. He’s like my guide here in Tucson; I call him “my American father” as a way of respect to others, as I learned in Iraq, but he’s really more like a friend. As we set out, several Iraqis gathered near my apartment to say goodbye. They pleaded with me not to stay long in California because they depend on me for many things like translation and interpreting.

The view along the highway between Tucson and San Diego was much the same stark desert landscape of cactus, brush, and mesquite. Interstate 8 rolls out of Arizona straight toward San Diego, which was my destination to see cousins I had never met. We made just one stop, in a tiny town along the highway to have burritos for lunch. It was the first time–one of many “firsts” on this journey–that I had Mexican food. It was similar to Iraqi food–uncomfortably heavy.

The mountains just east of San Diego were funny. They seemed to be composed of clusters of big rocks that looked like they were glued one to another. The music we had in the car was even funnier: Tom Waits with his hoarse voice talking about Jesus–“The Lord is a very, very busy man.” There’s no way we can mention our God in such a comical manner in our music–you dare not even think about it! Still, driving through this prehistoric-looking area listening to this crazy voice singing an outlandish song made me double over with laughter.

I took several naps on the way to San Diego. I’m still yawning my head off; I think my body is thirsty for sleep because I really had few hours of sleeping in Baghdad for the last five years. Even when I did sleep, it was a restless sleep.

San Diego was very beautiful; it made me think of Baghdad. It’s almost impossible for me to see new things here in America and not compare it with home. Though California was amazing in many ways–a pretty state with clean streets and really fresh air (the breeze was just awesome)–nothing could replace the streets and friendly people of Baghdad. They say that people are friendly here in Tucson, and they are, but in Baghdad people are kind to such an extent that you could knock on any door and be given food and refuge for the asking. You would walk in the street and dozens of strangers would greet you.

We stopped in front of my cousin’s home. She came out to greet me. It was the first time I’d seen her since she left Iraq when I was five years old in 1991 with her family on an American chopper after the Gulf War. When she hugged me, a special Iraqi warmth overwhelmed me. It was as though Iraq with its old civilization and two rivers had hugged me.

Lew and I were exhausted. We chatted with the family. In the Iraqi manner we were served Iraqi sweets and strong tea. My cousin wasn’t satisfied merely offering sweets; she decided to serve “a simple banquet,” as she described it, of okra broth with lamb and tomato paste, rice, and chicken. Fortunately, Lew was satisfied with it.

I think a lot in my daily life about almost everything that happens to me or to others. A couple hours after the heavy Iraqi meal, Lew had to drive on to Los Angeles to see his son; I would join them the next day. I sat after he left thinking for a while: Why can’t people get along and live in peace? Why can’t my country have a normal existence? Why is it so hard to get things right if we want to do them right? Why couldn’t the Americans have done more of the right things in Iraq?

I spent more than 24 hours in San Diego with my relatives. I got to see the city. It has a big Iraqi Chaldean society–bigger and better than even the original Catholic society in Iraq. It’s the American influence, which seems to be a good influence and a bad influence at the same time. I heard that Iraqis deal with drugs there and some are involved in gangs, while other Iraqis care only about their daily life like most Americans. San Diego was a beautiful city but I think Tucson is better.

I took a train to Los Angeles, seeing some beautiful Southern California scenery along the way. The train was comfortable, and this, too, reminded me of Iraq. We had one of the first train stations in the Middle East. We had the Baghdad-Berlin railroad, but I think it’s one of the worst now because of the wars.

I stepped out of the train and I wanted to yell to let my Iraqi friends back home know that I was in Los Angeles. Lew was there to meet me with his son, Ben, whom I called my brother since I have made them my American family. We walked around Little Tokyo and I was thinking it would be funny to have a Little Baghdad, too–but a brand new Baghdad, not the current one.

We drove to Hollywood. Lew’s nephew B.J. had invited us to see “Star Trek” in the theater where he works. Watching a movie in a theater was the best part of the whole trip–it was yet another first, my first time in a real movie theater as an adult. “Star Trek” was awesome. And in the middle of the movie, I experienced my first California earthquake. We thought at first that the rumbling, rolling floor was some amazing special effect. I left that cinema very happy; I was in Hollywood, man!

We ended the trip in a weird restaurant where you can eat and play silly video games at the same time right at your table. Our waitress was amusing because she had a special way of saying “All rii-iiight” that was like a melody.

I got back to Tucson and I was so eager to see it again as if I had been abroad and Tucson was my real home.

Mudhafar al-Husseini worked at The New York Times in Baghdad for two years, reporting news stories and writing blog entries as well as acting as a fixer and translator for other reporters. Before that, from 2004 to 2006, he was a translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq. He graduated from Baghdad University in 2007 with a degree in English literature. Now living in the United States, he is updating us on this new chapter in his life.  

Read al-Husseini’s previous entry hereTo read all his “Finding Refuge” entries, click here.

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