A 3-foot, two-pronged, gold sword stuck out of my green duffle bag as I passed through Baghdad International Airport’s security. I picked the sword up in a blacksmith shop tucked away in an alley on Baghdad’s oldest street, Al Rasheed.
"Ma'am is there a sword in your bag?" the transportation safety agent asked me in Arabic.
"Yes, it's Zulfiqar, Imam Ali's sword," I replied.
Onlookers couldn't help but stare as I lugged my bag around the airport. I'm barely 5 feet, 2 inches tall and I was toting a bag nearly my size. The agent nodded on as I explained the sword was a memento of my trip to Iraq.
"What are you?" he asked bluntly while escorting me to the plane.
The scarf wrapping my head couldn't hide who I am.
"I'm from America, but I was born in Iraq. I left when I was a baby," I responded.
"I can tell your blood is Iraqi, but it's clear you're not from here," he said.
The Zulfiqar made it through the airport in Baghdad, Erbil, Turkey, Amsterdam, Iceland and Detroit.
"It's not a weapon, it's decorative," I'd tell airport security while pressing the palm of my hand against the sword's dulled edge.
Muslims believe the Archangel Gabriel gifted the sword to Prophet Mohammad, who passed it down to his cousin, Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, a prominent figure in the Shi'ite sector of Islam.
I got the sword while traveling to my homeland of Iraq recently. My name is Zahra Ahmad and I'm a 24-year-old Iraqi-born journalist at The Flint Journal-MLive in America. I immigrated to the United States in 1998 with my father Mohammad Sibte, whom I call Baba, and Lamiya Mahdi, whom I call Mama.
In February, I crossed the world with friend and former Flint Journal photographer Brontë Wittpenn in search of my familial roots in Iraq. The emotional journey challenged my perspective by unveiling undiscovered feelings about myself and my culture.
I walked Iraq's streets speaking Arabic pridefully in public. Talking with Iraqis about our shared experiences and upbringings connected me to people in a new way.
Visiting Iraq reminded me of who I am and dispelled the general American perception of people in the Middle East.
Refuge From War
The lashes around my eyes froze together as Brontë and I hiked up Mount Korek with a group of international humanitarians headed to the abandoned Erbil Observatory at the mountain's peak. The mountain is in the northeast Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Iraq's constitution allows part of its land to be governed under Kurdish law.
A snowstorm was blowing across the 7,000-foot mountain as Brontë and I headed back to our cabin.
"Did you notice the land mine warnings?" I asked Brontë.
The hazard signs for the land mines are markers of war.
Kurdish President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr ordered the Erbil Observatory be built in 1973.
Hassan al-Bakr wanted three telescopes built and got more than 400 people from 10 different countries to work on the observatory by the early 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War which ended in 1988. The mountain kept the crews flying to and from the observatory safe during the war.
Little features like warning signs of land mines were reminders of Iraqis' resilience.
My parents experienced three wars within 50 years. They were barely teens when the Iran-Iraq War began. They grew up about a quarter mile from one another, in Mandali, Iraq, a city 15 miles from the Iranian border.
Baba remembers watching Iraqi soldiers pass through Mandali. It became too dangerous to live in the city and Baba's family of 10 left their home in 1984.
Soon Iranian rockets blew through the observatory in Kurdistan, forcing the scientists to leave, too.
Despite the ominous atmosphere, the mountain was still peaceful. Later in the night, with belly-aching laughs, Brontë and I joined our new friends sledding down Mount Korek on oven pans. The mountain's location and history didn't detract from its eminence.
Mountains comfort me. There is a unique sense of peace found in a mountain's isolation. After all, it was the isolation of Iraq's mountains that hid my family during our escape from war.
Baba got in trouble for seeking democracy while studying economics at the University of Baghdad. Baba joined the Iraqi National Congress, a political party aided under the direction of the U.S. in the 1990s. Opposing Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, the revolutionaries overturned cities in southeast Iraq. President George H.W. Bush's support never came, however, and Baba became a target.
Baba had two choices: run and hide or stay and be killed.
Baba crossed east into Kurdistan where borders were protected by the United Nations. There in Sulaymaniyah, Baba met Mama and they were married in 1994. A year later, I was born in summer 1995. Mama was pregnant with my younger sister Hawra when rising Kurdish political tensions forced us out of our home in 1996. Saddam's soldiers entered Kurdistan, forcing us to flee.
Our growing family left Sulaymaniyah, traveling south into the Sartaki Bamo Mountains surrounding Darbandikhan Lake. During our hiatus, Mama's water broke, forcing her to travel into Iran to deliver Hawra.
We spent months hiding in Iran, Turkey and Syria before the United States granted us asylum in 1998.
My parents' testament of strength was well proven before we flew to the states. They'd rely on that strength while they raised four children in a country that would eventually villanize Iraqis.
Assimilating to Survive
The U.S. Embassy sent us to Iowa initially, but Mama wanted to reunite with her siblings and mother in Lansing, Michigan.
Working 14- to 20-hour shifts as a hotel maintenance man, Baba was able to afford an apartment in the same complex as Mama's family on Simken Drive in southwest Lansing.
My grandma – or bebe – would take my cousin, sister and I to pick ripened mulberries from trees that draped over the metal fence of a parking lot across the street.
The small pockets of our family would regularly visit one another's homes. Baba would play soccer with Mama's brothers. She'd spill the tea, or gossip, with my aunts and my siblings and I would play with our cousins.
The string that kept us together began to snap around the same time the U.S. invaded Iraq. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, two of Mama's brothers enlisted in the U.S. Army as Arabic-speaking interpreters. One uncle changed his name to Mike. The other survived a Humvee explosion.
We didn't want to lose Baba, so he didn't enlist. Instead, Baba juggled selling ice cream during the summer and driving a taxi during the winter.
With time, our extended family drifted apart. We stopped attending each other's birthday parties and planning family vacations.
I started to feel isolated at school, stores, and out in the neighborhood. People misunderstood our appearances and culture. They lashed out in anger. "Go home" was spray-painted in red on Baba's ice cream truck.
The money Mama's family earned joining the army enabled them to buy homes and start businesses. Baba said the financial stress wore on his relationship with Mama.
It all made me wonder if I could succeed in America as an Iraqi. I feared employers may turn me away because of my name. Regardless, I needed to succeed. My parents had sacrificed to come to America so their children had a shot at a better life. I needed to pay them back. I started to assimilate.
The assimilation crept in. It started with packing white bread sandwiches for school, then evolved into hesitating to speak Arabic in public. My name was mispronounced, and I didn't correct it.
While I slowly began fitting into the American mold, I still felt vulnerable. The walls of our Simken apartment felt like a haven. I was comfortably myself around my family.
With age, I found myself drifting from that feeling of security. Being in Iraq, I rediscovered that sense of security in Baba's family. It'd be the safest I'd felt since living on Simken Drive.
Camels, Dust Storms and Tanks
Most media portrays Iraq as desolate and ruined. Mama didn't want me to travel to Baghdad alone. Brontë received an automatic three-week visa to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq but wasn't allowed into the Republic of Iraq. Getting into Baghdad for a tourist's visit would've required her sponsorship or a lawyer.
Mama demanded Baba's youngest brother Am', or uncle, Rasul fly from Bagdad to Erbil to escort me on the flight back to Baghdad.
"Don't speak too much at the airport or they'll pick up on your accent," Mama warned me.
"I only have one Zuzu (my nickname)," she said over the phone.
The flight from Erbil to Baghdad was an hour. I sat buckled in the seat next to Rasul. Spotting him wasn't hard. His sister, ‘Ama, or aunt, Samira, sent me a picture of him a few hours before my flight. I was nervous about meeting him.
"Why are you so short?" Rasul asked me.
"I could ask you the same thing," I said smiling.
Rasul smiled back. He has a thick, black, close-shaved beard with matching dark hair and eyebrows. His eyes are hazel like Baba's.
We caught up about the last two decades, his life in Iraq and mine in the U.S. When he wasn't teaching me how to pronounce or read Arabic, we laughed at stories of Baba as a child.
I tried to imagine what Baghdad looked like during lulls in the conversation.
News footage of collapsed buildings, tanks, Humvees and men with AKs lining the streets filled my mind. I pictured donkeys, camels and women in abayas, or black cloaks, holding their children's hands tightly as they walked to and from shops. Mostly, I imagined a city in disarray.
For more than a decade of my life, I watched Iraq get bombed.
Each evening back in Lansing, Mama laid dinner out on a silver platter with plates of rice, bowls of soup, pickles, raw greens like mint, arugula or water cress and Iraqi naan.
My parents talked about their families, the new Iraqis in town or the war. Footage of hysterical parents pulling their children from beneath the rubble of bombed buildings played on the living room television as my siblings and I eavesdropped on our parents.
U.S. photos, movies and shows portrayed a certain picture of Iraq. Stepping off the plane and into Baghdad, I started to form my own view of Iraq.