Previously in Refuge#26: After being warned that he was next on a hit list, Sabah and his family flee from Iraq to Jordan. There they stayed in a rat-infested flat and grew fat on deep-fried falafels, till his wife Lamia cried out, ‘Sabah, what have you done to us?’
Lamia first met Sabah in 1974. At that time, she had finished Year 11 and was working in a leather factory. Sabah was completing his final year of fine arts at the University of Baghdad. Lamia auditioned for a part in a play that Sabah had written and won the lead role although she had no prior experience in theatre.
Lamia soon realized that she had the gift of acting. When she stepped into character, she was transformed. What Sabah asked of her, what the play asked of her, came so naturally that she knew she had found her life’s work.
Sabah’s play, ‘The New House’, allegorized Iraq as a beautiful young lady wooed by four young men, the men representing world powers. Sabah was not only directing the play, he was also acting as one of the young men wooing the beautiful young lady played by Lamia.
Iraq of the early 70s was flourishing under the Ba’athist Party, led by President Bakr and his deputy, Saddam Hussein. They persuaded everyday Iraqis to put aside factional interests and unite for a common good. The ultimate aim of the secular Ba’athist Party was the unification of all Arab states, no small ambition given the constant warring between tribal factions.
The tribal underpinnings of Iraqi society can be seen in the name of every person. Sabah’s given name is followed by his father’s name, Muslim, then his grandfather’s name, Abood, and right at the end of this three generation lineage, his tribe: Al-anbari, or ‘The Anbari’, so that his full name is Sabah Muslim Abood Al-anbari.
When Sabah and Lamia realized that they lived only a few blocks from one another, they settled into a routine. Sabah would walk to Lamia’s house and together they strolled to the theatre along the streets of old Baqubah under the shade of orange trees. As the seasons passed, thousands of small white flowers fell, leaving small green nubs, the promise of fruit so exquisite that to pierce one was to fill an entire house with fragrance.
‘Their families were very happy about them but when they know that they love each other then they become crazy. Yeah, they start fighting,’ Iba interprets for Lamia. ‘They had problems because they come from different religions.’
‘When you say different religion, what was or is your religion?’ I ask.
‘He’s Muslim. My mother is Mandae,’ he says, referring to an ancient sect that follows the teachings of John the Baptist.
‘Sunni or Shi’ite?’
‘He is S’– says Iba but then all three of them start laughing.
‘Doesn’t matter?’ I try to understand their mirth.
‘I don’t care about Sunni, Shi’ite, Muslim…’ says Sabah, in English.
Lamia chimes in, also in English, ‘Don’t care for any religion.’
‘We don’t care about this stuff, unlike other people,’ says Iba.
‘The human being comes first,’ Iba interprets for Sabah. ‘So it doesn’t matter what religion…for example, you are different to our religion but I respect you as a human being.’
During our third and final interview, Lamia serves cake and pours tea before sitting down on a low stool by the coffee table. We zoom in on Google Maps and Sabah points out the theatre and the streets, east of the Diyala River, where he and Lamia fell in love. I return to the difficult circumstances surrounding their wedding because it seems so central to the life they have built together.
‘How long had you known each other before your families went crazy?’ I ask, paraphrasing Iba’s words from previous interviews.
Lamia begins turning her wedding ring round and round on her finger. Her eyes fix on some invisible point mid-air in her lounge room, as if it is a portal that transports her back to her family home, thirty-nine years ago. She becomes the actress playing three parts: herself, her mother, her brother. She speaks in rapid-fire Arabic. Iba is no longer interpreting; he is running an English commentary on Lamia’s performance. Sabah, Iba and I are riveted as Lamia relives the tale.
When their families found out that they were in love, Lamia’s mother marched over to Sabah’s house and came back seething with rage – Sabah’s mother had belittled Lamia.
‘Don’t allow her to go out,’ Lamia’s mother said to Lamia’s brother. He grabbed a chair and sat on it, barring the front door.
‘Please, please, I beg you. It is the last night of the play, let me go,’ said Lamia. Lamia’s mother grabbed her daughter’s hand and held it in a pincer grip so intense that Lamia could not wrench herself free despite her mother’s aged frailty. Lamia continued to beg and plead.
‘Hit her!’ screamed her mother.
The memory, like a knife, pierces Lamia’s soul; it punctures her. She slumps on her stool. Her thighs slacken under her long, floral skirt. She sighs and tells us that she collapsed to the floor, weeping like a child, mumbling, ‘Please, please, the last night of the play, the last night …’ Her limp form aroused pity in her mother who said, ‘OK, you can go to the play tonight, but after that you’ll never leave the house.’
Lamia ran all the way to the theatre. She found the stage ready, the actors dressed, the audience waiting. She performed her part and left. After that, the family locked her up in the house. Apart from work, she was only allowed to go to communist party meetings, but even the party disapproved of the romance – how could a marriage between people of different religions survive when it aroused such enmity between their families?
In the lull that follows Lamia’s emotional retelling, no one says anything, no one moves. It is as if we have been allowed to peer into the most private of chambers. From the corner of my eyes, I see Sabah raise a hand to his glasses. I believe he is wiping away a tear. I am horrified that my simple question has made them cry.
Eventually, with her parents’ permission, Lamia moved for work to Baghdad where she stayed with a family of fellow communist party members. They treated her kindly. Her family was relieved, thinking the whole troublesome episode over. Unknown to them, Sabah was commuting daily between his home in Baqubah and his classes in Baghdad, where the two continued to meet in secret.
Fearing that Lamia’s family would forcibly marry her off if they discovered their secret meetings, the couple registered their marriage in a civil ceremony at a government office. They did not consider themselves married but wanted a marriage certificate in case Lamia’s family tried to take her away. Then they went to Erbil in the north for a holiday. A photograph from that time captures their smiles, the two of them holding hands, dressed up in borrowed Kurdish clothes.
Sabah marshalled five prominent men, including two Mandaean doctors, an actor, and Muhyiddin Zangana – one of the biggest writers in the Arab world – to approach Lamia’s family, in accord with the Iraqi tradition whereby important people in society ask for a girl’s hand in marriage on behalf of her suitor. Lamia’s family flatly refused. Sabah tried again, this time he sent seven men on his behalf. They returned with the message: ‘No, we do not agree to the marriage, but yes, Lamia can marry Sabah if she insists. If she marries Sabah, she will have nothing to do with this family anymore.’
Lamia and Sabah were married in a small ceremony in 1977. She would not see her mother for the next twenty-five years. Facing silent disapproval from Sabah’s family, the couple broke tradition again by moving to Baghdad to set up their own home instead of moving into Sabah’s family home, as all his brothers had done and were expected to do. Their new home was in Medina Saddam – Saddam City, named after the charismatic deputy leader, Saddam Hussein.