A Chance to Discover My Kurdish Heritage
My grandfather’s name is Jamal Fuad, but had he never left the Kurdish Babani Tribes of Northern Iraq, he would be known as Jamal Abdul Karim Mohammed Qadir Gafur, in the traditional way Kurdish men string together the names of their fathers and their father’s fathers and so on. But my grandfather was drawn by the lure of the West, and after completing his education in Kurdistan, he applied to graduate schools in the United States. On his applications, he wrote his name as Jamal Fuad, choosing a “good last name” that means heart in Arabic to better his chances at acceptance.
The name stuck. My grandfather completed his Ph.D. and married my grandmother, a blue-eyed, blond-haired Minnesotan. Despite her parent’s disapproval, the couple moved back to Iraq shortly after the birth of my father in 1960. Moving between Baghdad and Sulaimaniya in Iraq and living briefly in Libya, my father was fluent in Arabic, English, and Kurdish by the time his family moved back to Minnesota. He was thirteen.
I have never really gotten to know my grandfather. When I was young, he lived in Washington D.C., and when I was older, he moved back to Iraq. I remember the thick cologne that lingered for a day or two after my grandfather visited, and I remember driving with him to Toys R Us to pick out presents. I remember learning how to cut onions without crying while he cooked traditional Kurdish kifta kabob, a mouth-watering dish my younger brothers insisted on making over and over after he left. It was never quite as good as his. What I do not remember is ever asking him what it was like to come to the United States young and alone after growing up in a Kurdish tribe. This I regret.
This summer, my family is traveling to Iraq to visit my grandfather, who is no longer the seemingly-ageless figure he once was. For my father, it will be the first time returning to the country of his childhood since he left thirty-five years ago. For me, it will be a chance to see my grandfather in his true home, without the glare of American life obscuring his own vibrant history. It will be a chance to ask the questions I never took the time to ask, and hear the stories I might never otherwise hear.