On July 4, I proudly became an American citizen. It’s the first time in quite a few years that I feel I belong somewhere in this world. The journey has not been easy.
I was 23 years old when I left the country of my birth, Iraq. A blacked-out sedan had followed me from my place of work in Baghdad to my home. Armed men bolted out and pointed AK-47s at me as I ran toward the house. “Come here, traitor! Come here! We know you. We know what you do.” It was no longer safe to remain in Iraq.
What did I do? I was a young interpreter for TIME magazine’s bureau, motivated to become a journalist. I’d just graduated from college, willing to do whatever it took to get ahead. I went to dangerous places, I visited locations contaminated with nuclear waste, I even pretended that I was an arms smuggler just to get a story. However, amid the year of violence that ravaged Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003, working for a foreign company — let alone American media — was considered by certain Iraqis to be a sin redeemable only by capital punishment. Those Iraqis who did — there were hundreds of us — were considered by extremists to be CIA or Israeli Mossad agents conspiring against our own.
On April 4, 2004, with the help of my colleagues at TIME, I left Iraq for Jordan then Egypt. After several interrogations by Jordanian and Egyptian intelligence, I was finally allowed to fly to the U.S., a country I had only seen in Rambo and Terminator movies, a nation of bloodthirsty creatures who ran cities, where getting drunk and having sex with random people was the norm.
Just kidding. I knew how to differentiate the propaganda fed to us by Saddam Hussein and reality — for the most part. But there were still a lot of things that were new and strange and a little scary to me. For example, I’d never met a Jewish person in my life. My entire life had been designed to worship a god named Saddam Hussein who famously hated Israel. Nor had I ever spoken to a gay person. What do I do if I were introduced to such people? Should I shake hands? But with help from friends and mentors who didn’t mind my naive and primitive questions, the process of my evolution started.
In fact, many people who offered me support and guidance at the beginning of this amazing experience were Jewish. At first, I didn’t know whether to trust them. I thought: “What do these people want from me? Why are they helping me? Do they want me to turn against my own kind? What should I do?”
As the days and weeks went by, however, I started to understand what makes this country a great one. Its people look at you as a fellow human being, regardless of skin color, beliefs, religion and sexual orientation. It is as if there was a filter that kept out anything that would prejudice their judgment of you. Of course, there were instances when I felt I was judged because I wasn’t white. But they were rare, and I knew that it was the American way to stand up for myself.
Before I arrived in the U.S., an American colleague advised me to stay away from the Midwest and the Bible Belt because he said the people there didn’t quite understand foreign cultures. But what do you know? I fell in love with a Southern girl from said Belt and got married in the nation’s capital in early 2007. Erica’s family was extremely accepting, hospitable and generous, even though they were never before exposed to my culture. I lived in a small town in North Carolina for a year and a half, and I learned to deep-fry chicken while working as a cook at the local Chick-fil-A. Erica and I now live in Woodbridge, outside Washington, D.C., and I work for the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
You could say that I’m fortunate to have found a woman who loves me, and an American family who never makes me feel like an outsider. My wife’s grandmother did try to convert me to Christianity once or twice. Make that two dozen times for good measure. But I’m still Muslim. I’ve kept the Southern influence limited to NASCAR and country music, y’all.
Like President Obama, I have also evolved on the issue of gay rights. A gay friend of mine helped me understand it. He allowed me to ask serious and personal questions in order to come up with a startling but simple conclusion: gays and lesbians are people just like me. They eat burgers and wings, and ride Harley Davidson bikes. In many cases, they are soldiers stopping bullets coming our way.
Oh, yes. I do like burgers and wings.
But I do miss Iraq’s heart-attack inducing food — and smoking indoors. I seriously miss my family — my parents and two brothers (the younger one is now so exposed to American culture that Xzibit is his favorite rapper). They are thousands of miles away, but they are proud of what I have accomplished.
I lost a lot but gained a lot too. America, you have changed me forever. I was a kid growing up in a conservative Muslim society and now I’m practically a hippie who calls for gay rights and a woman’s right to choose.
Say what you want. We don’t have to agree, but I will listen. After all I’m an American and proud to be.