The Return

Searching for the old house after 38 years
I was in something like a dream,
Walking behind my father,
A child once again.
We made a turning
And suddenly were on our road, Abuqllam
A word I never forgot.
I knew the house was gone
Replaced by a four storey building
But I was on the hunt for ghosts
I was on the hunt for ghosts.

The Baghdad I knew is gone.
The me that was then is gone.
The air has changed,
Turned beige with desert particles.
This city might soon become uninhabitable.
The stuff of Hollywood nightmares.

I had a speech prepared
Standing in front of the four-storey building
Dad filming me on my phone.
I said: “I’ve seen so many documentaries about The Return.
Iraqi artists knocking on the doors of their old houses,
Greeted by their elderly relatives,
Tears, hugs, emotions big as palm trees.
Yet here I am.
The old house no longer there.
And there is no one left to/

At this point a man my age ran into the street from next door,
Shabbily dressed, teeth missing, looking half demented.
“Hassan is that you?” he cried.
I smiled, half anxious.
“You were so fat, I remember you.” he said
Before leading us into the front garden of his house.
He showed us his crippled mother
Like a strange trophy he dragged through the wars.
He asked how we were, a thousand times
And when we answered
He asked again.
I half resented him for ruining my return
Which I wanted to be more tragic than everyone else’s.
Here he was blasting a hole into the past
Showing me that the people I left behind had lived,
Lost teeth, went mad yet were still there.
And they had thought of me, occasionally
As I had of them.
If I’m honest I barely remembered him.
Though I recalled having a crush on his sister.

In the summertime everyone slept on the rooftops
And in the dark I would talk to her
Rooftop to rooftop.
I could not see her face
And now it is probably gone forever.
I did not ask after her
I wasn’t sure it was appropriate.

The memory came to me like an offering,
Like a flood filling up the void.

Dad and I left our tooth-bereft neighbour
And walked on,
Father and son who had been robbed of a country.
Some of the thieves were hanged,
Others sign their books at literary festivals.
Two men walking down the road,
Trying to recover bits of what was stolen.

My old school was right at the end of Abuqllam.
Guarded by armed police
Who were suspicious of me and my camera.
How do you condense 38 years
Into a few sentences?
How do you say "I’m alright, I come in peace."
And convince them you’re not a foreigner
That you intend no harm.
And was that not a lie?
Did I not do harm by staying away all this time?
Did my absence not contribute to the great ruining?
The guards did not let me into the school.
Instead they pointed to a hole in the fence.
And invited me to take a peek.
I brought my face closer to the void.
My eye plugging it.
I was looking down the barrel of the years
Pointed at me now like a gun.
The ghosts were loose and on the hunt.  

Hassan Abdulrazzak

If you have any thoughts on this poem,  Hassan Abdulrazzak would be pleased to hear them.