Finally I have settled “legally” in this country after four years of exhausting struggle with the immigration department, and their decision opened new hopes for a better and hopefully stable life for me and my wife. In fact it is a new start and a new challenge. At the same day of hearing these good news I have received my first present from a close relative. As a joke, she gave me the British flag and immediately I realised that from now on a new identity is going to be added to my more or less lost identities that I used to live with as Iraqi for thirty six years now. With the ongoing chaos and anarchy in Iraq at the present, I do not see the Iraqi flag represent our confused, blurred and contradicting identities. Carrying an Iraqi flag now will not give a clue if you are Arab or Kurd, Sunni or Shi’a’ or if you are from other minority groups. These ethnic, religious and sectarian identities have been revived and prevailed and left no space for a common Iraqi identity shared by Iraqis and represented by one flag.
Whenever the issue of the Iraqi flag come out, it reminds me of football and death. When I was a child in the seventies, I still remember the huge crowds carrying Iraqi flags waving in “AlSha’ab” stadium in support of our national football team. Our team by that time was in its heydays and we were all united behind him. The same scenes were repeated in the eighties but with big differences. The same crowds carrying the same flag but with Saddam’s and Uday’s posters. The message was clear. Our Iraqi identity is not only represented by our flag but also by our president and his dynasty. And if there is one thing defining the eighties’ Iraq, it would be its war with Iran. This devastatingly gruesome war that lasted for eight bloody years with its heavy death tolls on both sides of the conflict. I was nine year old when the war started and I still remember the raising-of-the-flag ceremony carried out every Thursday morning in all schools all over Iraq and I can not forget a man called Tareef, who lives in our street and used to be known by all the neighbours for being an agent working for the brutal general security apparatus in Iraq. This man was chosen by the local Ba’ath Party Organization to attend these sermons and fire bullets in the sky from his Kalashinkoff as we all witness in silence and fear our flag been raised and stood high in the sky in the middle of our small school’s courtyard and then we all start chanting our national anthem. From that time I began to realise that there is a close relationship between our flag and death and year after year this link became more obvious when I discovered that the Iraqi tanks that smashed the uprising in the South and North of Iraq after our defeat in the 1991 war and the airplanes that gassed the Kurrds in the North in 1989 were all labelled with the Iraqi flag.
And if it was for me only a symbol of death and football, the American “Stars & Stripes” came out with many tempting thoughts in my teenage years. Of course it was a sign of pride and patriotism for many Americans, and that was immediately evident in the aftermath of September the 11th. But for me what does it mean? It was on one of my T-shirts that I bought in 1984 from Bab Al-Sharji with a Rugby ball painted on its front and just below it written “U.S.A” in bold letters. It was the Bikinis of group of hot chicks appeared with James Brown in “Rocky IV” series singing proudly “living in America” and also resembled the bravery of “Rambo” and “Arnold” as they triumph over an enemy of hundreds and sometimes thousands without being hurt in a mythical journey not very much different from a legendary lifetime adventure of a hero in a Bollywood movie produced in the 60s and 70s. “Stars & Stripes” at that time represented Nike, McDonalds, Michael Jackson and all the dreams that we were longing to fulfil one day in the future and it was embedded in our deepest minds and touched the sensitive nerves of our teenage years with its hormonal swings.
And now twenty years later what has changed? In the case of the Iraqi flag, nothing I am afraid. It still, for me bears the same symbolism: our unity only when it comes to our national football team and the escalating death tolls in the most dangerous country in the world. But what about the “Star & Stripes”? Well, my mother used the T-Shirt to clean the kitchen table, nothing to do with anti-American feeling. It was only because it got smaller on my growing body size. The heroism of “Rambo” and “Arnold” was in fact disastrous wars in Vietnam and later in Iraq. “Nike” and “McDonald” symbolised the ghoulish nightmare of consumerist society, child and slave labour and destruction of our planet. It was only later to discover that we, Arabs, are not the only ones who burned the American Flag. In late 60s thousands of people marched the streets of Europe and America protesting against the Vietnam War. Keith Emerson ( of the “Nice” and later “Emerson, Lake and Palmer) set ablaze the American flag on stage in the Royal Albert Hall in 1969 the reason that lead to the banning of “The Nice” from performing in The Royal Albert Hall.
After all these distorted, confusing and contradicting images inscribed in our minds about the flag, can we still say that it is a symbol of patriotism? With my new “British” flag present I asked myself: what does it mean for me? It is very difficult to come up with an answer in the near time future.