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
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
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
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
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 here. To read all his "Finding Refuge" entries, click here.