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Sadek Mohammed On Going Home

The "On Going Home" series offers a glimpse of what returning home means for authors who have spent three months in the U.S. as part of the International Writing Program's Fall Residency. This week's installment comes to us from Sadek Mohammed:

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It has been almost three months since my return from Iowa City. The ten-week journey to that beautiful, Midwestern American city was very much like a flying-carpet journey to a utopia for writing and writers. The Baghdadi Sinbad, if I may call myself that, saw a lot, learnt a lot, experienced a lot and wrote a lot. But that is a different story, as our story tellers might say, and I will tell it on some other occasion perhaps. And as I say in a poem I wrote during my time there, "for the grand mornings near the river Iowa/ the clouds bow for the clouds."

Before my departure, I must say, Baghdad was about to fall to ISIS (at least so said the news on CBS), my wife had given birth to my youngest son, Hassan, and a new 'dinosaur' had been appointed as my new boss at the university. "Good God! This is a triple treason", I had said to myself as I boarded the plane on my way to the US. As for ISIS, I naively assumed that poetic justice would ultimately prevail. Thank God I am not a military strategist in this great era of Obama-Biden! As for my wife, I pacified my conscience by remembering that it was actually her idea that I should leave in the first place. As for the dinosaur, well, what else is new? In the Middle East, I am certain, history is always written by the buffoons. Going home was very much like going back to a poem that has been left unfinished for a long time. How to recapture its rhythm, tone, temper and passion? This is how I felt when I started packing my bags for my journey back home. How would I re-inhabit that wild wolf that had been living in the wilderness of Baghdad after having become softer, milder and tamer in my Iowan paradise? That was my biggest fear.

Thankfully, the fifteen-hour journey back took me to Dubai first, as there were no direct flights to Baghdad. This was a necessary sobering station before heading home. "Move", said the grim security man in the airport who wanted to check my hand luggage before I went to the airport hotel. "What's in this heavy bag?” he said. "Poems", I clumsily replied. "Stand aside and open it," he said, and started to suspiciously search the bag. Did You Hear About the Fighting Cats?; Tales, Poems and Songs from the Underwater World; Remains; Archeology of Scorched Cities and The General is Up, among other anthologies and novels, were all that he could find. "Close your bag!" he said with a surprised and indeed, surprising smile. Halleluiah! I am in the God-forsaken Middle East at last, with all its tight security, spies and obscene police. All I need now are checkpoints, sirens and car bombs to recapture the spirit of my old, unfinished poem.

Sadek Mohammed and his children.
Sadek Mohammed and his children.

The family reunion was very emotional. My son, Hassan, was three months old. He was completely different from that new-born baby they had put in my hands to perform the Muslim Azan in his right ear and a prayer in his left, as my father had done to me when I was born. My four-year old daughter, Leila, had shed some of her baby fat. She had suffered a lot during my absence. Intuitively, she must have felt that the birth of her brother meant the end of her reign as the undisputed Queen of the house. Furthermore, nobody had been telling her 'interesting' bedtime stories. "Grandma's stories were not sweet," she complained to me in her childish critical manner. "Well, papa's come with 'a heap' of stories from the land of Tom and Jerry," I said. "Wow!" was her immediate, innocent answer. My nieces and nephews wanted to know if I had eaten alligator meat, because I told my wife that in New Orleans some restaurants serve that type of cuisine. My wife and sisters had apparently adopted the habit of scaring these naughty creatures, especially the nephews, by telling them that "Uncle will rip off your ears if you make too much noise." My answer was in the negative, of course, because I am a devout vegetarian now. Yet, they were all looking at me with suspicious eyes. I guess the family women had been successful in solidifying their myth of me as the 'naughty boys' terminator'.

My return also saw an air of ease and comfort marking a new, prevailing spirit in the city. Gone were the days of anxiety, which had agonized the population, and where observers had feared that the city might be overrun by ISIS. The terrorists lost momentum, and their organization is in decline there. A new government was formed after the general elections. But most important of all, in my view, was that there was a new spirit of optimism and creativity in the eyes of some of the young people. The future of the city and the country lies with them. Once the genie of their creativity comes out of the bottle, the whole country will be absolutely changed.

The news of my residency in Iowa had reached the city before my arrival, and I could see the sense of pride in the eyes of my students and perhaps, the sense of envy in the eyes of some of my colleagues. I understand. After all, this is the IWP, the most prestigious creative writing program in the whole world, one of which I am OFFICIALY an alumnus now.

The creative recharge that I received at the IWP filled my mind with many new ideas and many new projects. I wrote many poems, I started translating the magical Jesus Castillo, I wrote the screenplay for a short movie on Baghdad as a Creative City of Literature, I edited a new issue of the Iraq Literary Review and I inaugurated the Flying Carpet Project in the city. I have not yet met the 'dinosaur' though. Frankly, I intend to give him a nice piece of my mind, the Iowa way of course, or maybe not.

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