I remember casually slipping into a conversation with my hairdresser one day; I told him that I was badly in need of a haircut because I would be "travelling back home soon." His reply was; “Oh. Did you not grow up here?” By “here,” he meant London.
With only a few seconds to respond to his question before the interaction became awkward, I quickly added that while I had grown up in London, my relatives were all living in Iraq, so, naturally, it felt more like home.
I quickly changed the subject, steering away from the enormity of identity politics. That was the first time I remember using the phrase “back home” when talking about Iraq but ever since, those words have resided on the tip of my tongue. Back in school, I would never dream of being so bold. I remember a girl in my English class once asked me if I was from the same country as Saddam Hussein or if I was from the “other one,” assuming she was referring to neighbouring Iran.
At the height of Saddam’s regime, I did my best to loosen my ties to my Iraqi-Kurdish identity because, as sharp as teenagers are in today’s world, they were just as clued up on Middle Eastern politics in the late nineties. Even early on in my school years, I knew it would be wise not to place emphasis on any differences between myself and the girls I was surrounded by. Saddam was a household name and not for good reasons, so, shamefully, I opted for the “other one.”
Truthfully, no home has ever felt completely and wholeheartedly mine. Instead, there have been moments of belonging that have lingered on, leaving me with an air of what it must feel like to be at home somewhere. There are fragments of nostalgia for Kurdistan, but at every corner is another reminder that I grew up far away from my parent’s homeland. There’s the barrier of language, the case of no identity paperwork, a mother tongue which is more British than Kurdish, and a reputation as the one who never quite understood the punch line of any Kurdish jokes.
Back in the UK, I am met with the “where are you from?” questions, which are seemingly innocent but loaded with enough purpose to spark that feeling of being anything other than British. I have spent my life immersed in British culture yet always feel I am simply an observer and rarely a participant. I identify as a British-Iraqi-Kurd, which is a mouthful to say, and can guarantee a look of confusion to ensue on the face of the person cross-examining me.
I find myself bombarded with inquisitive doubts over my ethnicity in the company of strangers; “really?”, “because don’t you look” and the “I would have guessed you were…”.
Then there is that look you get, the one that glazes over people’s faces when you mention the word Kurdistan, certain that you have most likely mispronounced your own country. But Kurdistan is indeed not yet a recognised state of its own. We are one of the largest groups of displaced people in the world covering regions in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. We have our own culture, language, and music yet our very existence sparks the question; “but where is Kurdistan on the map?” The colossal weight of understanding your identity becomes heavier when your borders are non-existent. But can I really chalk up my own identity to the lines drawn up on a map? So many people live under the allure of nationalism, but whether it is my British or Kurdish identity, I somehow always fall short.
For the first-generation immigrants like me, we constantly have to balance two cultures, two political systems. How we look, dress and talk are crucial in telling the world who we are. We are encouraged, and at times challenged, by our elders to not lose our culture and to hold on to age-old traditions whilst being inundated by reminders that we are far from our ancestral home.
It has always been a heavy subject to dissect; sometimes you can feel so charged up, eager to dissipate any doubts about your identity but it is a cycle that is time and again met with the same antiquated questions. It becomes exhausting to challenge stereotypes or assumptions of who you are based on where you come from.
Author Zadie Smith’s words often bring me back to myself. “Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can run on. You can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.”
The way I think about home is the way I feel a lot of us do; it is where our most loved memories and people are. Whether that is our families, or friends, it is more of a feeling than the physical borders that divide us. There are days I feel more British than Kurdish, however it is the nostalgia of being “back home”, of those all-nighters spent on the roof of my aunt’s house, watching my cousin barbeque chicken whilst simultaneously brewing tea that leave me feeling completely at home, with a sense of finally belonging in this world.
About the Writer
Khandan Rashid is an Iraqi Kurdish photographer and writer based in London, with a passion for documenting and archiving family photographs.