The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was, ostensibly, a mission of liberation. For the Iraqi people, however, the end result was years of displacement, painful separation, and a sudden dissolving of the structure and stability they once knew. Many came to Canada, enduring the difficult process of immigration in order to start their lives over again.
In her new book, Waiting for the Rain: An Iraqi Memoir (Mawenzi House), Iraqi-Canadian author Lamees Al Ethari documents her years growing up in pre-occupation Iraq, the trauma she experienced during America's invasion and subsequent occupation, and her family's journey to Canada. Comprised of diary entries, poems, visual art, and vivid scenes from memory, Al Ethari unearths years of history, weaving together a resilient and inspiring portrait of an Iraqi family in the face of years-long conflict.
We're thrilled to have Lamees at Open Book today to discuss the difficult process of writing her book, why getting it published made her slightly anxious, and how some excellent fatherly advice gave a new sense of balance to her manuscript.
How did your memoir project first start? Why was this the right time to tell your story?
Lamees Al Ethari:
My memoir began as a few pages of reflections on my experience of the American invasion of Iraq. They were short sections of specific events that stayed with me after I left Baghdad and, at times, haunted me. Over the years I added to these memories my experiences of migration and ghurba.
I have been telling these stories, oral and written, to those around me ever since I left home. I felt it was time to collect the pieces and document them.
Did your memoir change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
Yes, it changed significantly. The first sections only dealt with the 2003 American invasion of Iraq but after sharing some of the work with my father, he kept insisting that I write about the “good” memories. My good memories were connected to my extended family, my grandfather’s village and growing up in Baghdad. I expanded on those moments that shaped my understanding of home and belonging.
As I drew on my own memories, I found that I was surprised by how much I had forgotten over the years. I contacted family members to help me remember specific details and discuss events and conversations. Additionally, I learned so much about events and conditions in Iraq through documents and newspaper articles, especially conditions that I was too young to recall clearly. At times, it felt like those memories were hidden just beneath the surface waiting for me to uncover them. As I put together those memories, I relived the distress of those moments once again. I was also surprised by how much I am still traumatized by experiences that I had left behind so long ago.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I step away from the work. I take a shower, reply to emails or just have a cup of Turkish coffee. Most of the memories I dealt with were painful and I felt like I was being pulled into those moments once again. The only way I could cope was to bring myself back to the present by doing regular, daily activities.
Did you use any materials, documents, interviews, or other research that became part of the writing process?
Yes, a friend and mentor gave me documents that were very important in supporting my descriptions of the sanctions on Iraq. I also did research on the history of some of the areas I discuss in the work. Mostly, I depended on stories that my family passed down to me; I did short interviews with my parents about their experience of the Iran-Iraq War, their journey to North America and their return to Baghdad in 1988. In addition, they sent me photographs of the land around my grandfather’s home and an excerpt from my father’s diary.
Did you experience any anxiety about making a part of yourself public in this way? If so, how did you or do you cope with the vulnerability of publishing a memoir?
Yes, so much anxiety. I come from a conservative family and I always felt like I was crossing some line when I discussed my family back home. I was raised not to share information that made people uncomfortable, so I questioned almost everything I included about them.
Then, there is the fear of being judged or challenged regarding experiences that are viewed from different perspectives. I am still trying to adjust myself to the idea that my stories are out there for anyone to read.
What are you working on now?
I have a couple of things that I am trying to work through and finalize. The first is my monograph on Iraqi women’s life narratives in the diaspora and the second is a work of historical fiction that is based on my great grandfather’s life and his role in the Great Revolution against the British in 1920.
Lamees Al Ethari immigrated to Canada with her husband and two boys in 2008. She holds a PhD in English Language and Literature from the University of Waterloo, where she has been teaching creative and academic writing since 2015. Her writing and research focus on Iraqi North American women’s life narratives of trauma and migration. She is also a Consulting Editor with The New Quarterly and co-coordinator of The X Page: A Storytelling Workshop for Immigrant Women in Kitchener-Waterloo. She is the author of a poetry collection titled From the Wounded Banks of the Tigris (Baseline Press, 2018) and her poems have appeared in About Place Journal, The New Quarterly, The Malpais Review, and the anthology Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario.