An Iraqi in America: ‘Time is like a sword’ here

It has been almost nine months since I arrived in the United States. I can’t believe how fast life is moving and how different my family’s days are now are from the old days—that was a beautiful time. Everything is changing now. There’s no simplicity for us anymore.

Mudhafar al-Husseini
Mudhafar al-Husseini

New Year’s Day 2010 was also my birthday, my first in America. I turned 24. Living in the States is at times funny, at times weird, and at times sad. I have to admit that I rarely feel like a stranger here. I seldom feel that I’m not at home because everybody is friendly and nice, and if not, it’s because they have their own business; they never interfere in your personal life, which is sometimes good and sometimes not because you need people in your life to fill up the space.

I have not felt the cultural shock that many people had warned me about. There aren’t any major differences because, after all, we are all humans and we share a lot in common. Still, when it comes to the details of life here compared with life in Iraq, it’s very different.

My parents and my younger brother are the ones who are witnessing dramatic changes in their lives. They are experiencing things they never did before—like speaking English, taking a walk in the park every morning, and going to a school where you study with girls. In Iraq, only colleges are mixed.

The first thing I noticed in America—and the first thing my mom asked me about after she arrived here four months ago—is that so many people here are overweight. The main reason, it seemed to me, is that Americans have no time to cook like Iraqis do everyday. There’s not enough time for thinking about a healthy diet, no time for daily cooking, which is the number one priority for Iraqi women.

Time is very precious here, and one proverb seems ever-present in America: “Time is like a sword: If you don’t cut it, it will end up cutting you.” Everyone here is in a rush—no time to eat, no time to talk, and, most important for me, no time for family and friends. Everything here is about an e-mail, a text message and a lot of papers—bills, letters, advertisements. I’ve never seen such a thing in my home country.

One of the things that I’ll have to get used to is not having big groups in my life anymore. The word “loneliness” doesn’t exist in Iraqi society. Social relationships are very tight and close. I used to have big groups of relatives, neighbors and friends. Adults still live in one house with their parents, as I do now in Tucson. You see the entire family living together: the grandsons, the sons and daughters, and the grandparents. You don’t get to have those people twice—it’s just one time and one life.

In my nine months in America, I’ve made only a few friends, and they are not even my age. I don’t know if it’s me who is not adjusting well to society here or if it’s because of the way the Americans are. I know I can’t be an American in nine months, but I’m doing my best!

Maybe it’s much easier for me because I already know a lot about the American way of life since I worked very closely with Americans in Iraq. “If life was as beautiful as you think in America, then I wouldn’t be here in the middle of a war,” I was told by an American soldier who was a close friend of mine.

It’s much harder for my parents, especially my mother. The other day she went to a hair salon that served men and women, a drastic change from Iraq. A proper Muslim woman, she was shocked when she saw men and women sitting in the same salon. She ended up having her hair cut in a separate room with no men around. She was upset about this, but my dad was laughing and telling mom that this is just the way it is and we have to get accustomed to it and change our traditions. Dealing with men in daily life is never a problem for my mother, but taking off her head scarf in front of those men is not acceptable for many Muslim women. Despite the cultural bumps, she praises the kindness of Americans every time she goes out or the great respect they pay us when someone visits my home.

All in all, life here is normal, and I feel more secure and safe in America now than at any other time in my life. My life in Baghdad was haunted with fears: I feared Saddam and his aides before 2003 and then the terrorists and militants and many other things after that.

Now, I wake up every morning and there’s nobody at home. My brother is in school and my parents are at the park, but I still find a big mug of fresh mixed fruit in the refrigerator waiting for me in addition to my breakfast. (My mom still prepares breakfast for me every day before going out.) I often drive by the park where my parents are walking and, each time, I see that they are freer than ever before. My dad usually catches me with a wide smile and a wave. I keep going on my way to work as my car’s CD player blares something not American.

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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