The Dictator in My Notebook: On Censorship and the Risks of Writing
My mother used to warn me, “Never write anything down you wouldn’t want someone else to read. Not in a letter. Not in a diary. Once you write something down, you can never deny it.”
Growing up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, my mother understood the power of the written word and with it the risks of authorship. Journalists filled prisons and mass graves, and personal writing was no less dangerous. You never knew which of your acquaintances could be an informant, and anything in print carried the possibility of incrimination. And, then there was the myriad of social consequences to writing things down. My mother told me many a cautionary tale about girls who had exchanged notes with a boy, or revealed the object of her affections in a diary, and the family reputations that were subsequently ruined, the girl’s future marriage prospects jeopardized.
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As a child, I censored my journals. Even though I had been born in the United States six years after my parents’ immigration, I only allowed myself to write about my school related-stressors: homework, teachers, which of my classmates to honor with the title of best friend. I did not admit to crushes. I did not ruminate on the black spots of sexual abuse in my childhood that I desperately wanted to press into ink and make real.
However, for some reason—perhaps the sheer desperation of needing to confide in someone—this spirit of censorship did not extend to the letters I wrote to Jamila, my only Iraqi-American friend. Our fathers had gone to medical school together in Baghdad, and although our families wound up settling on opposite ends of California, our families were in contact regularly. To her, I would sometimes confess when I’d seen a boy somewhere I deemed cute. She understood the seriousness of these revelations, and this was both a comfort and a bane. I could work myself into a panic, picturing my letters in her house, my name signed to the bottom of such a naughty declaration. I imagined her mother finding my letters, her father, or her brothers. I’d picture my mother being informed of this discovery, her disappointment that I would make such shameless declarations in print.
There must have been something in the act of posting the letter that allowed me to be so bold. Before I could have a second thought, the envelope would be sealed, a precious stamp affixed to one corner, an investment that could not be wasted. My journals, however, grew so dry and brittle under my self-imposed regulations that I eventually abandoned them. I sometimes dashed off cryptic poems that I stored under my bed, but these were nothing more than bursts of teenage despair. I never once thought they could be an indication of literary interest or signs of a future calling.
People like me didn’t become writers.
This statement lived in my mind as an incontrovertible truth. It didn’t matter if I loved books, or if the written word lingered inside my head as the voice of a narrator mimicking what I read. Writers were white people with western sounding names who wrote about characters like them, with the same kinds of names, with lives like the ones I saw in television and movies—nuclear families and homes large enough for one child per bedroom; family dinners at tables set with linens and flatware, men and women who met on their own and dated before they got married.
I didn’t read a single Middle Eastern author until college. When I finally discovered Hanan al-Shaykh and Naguib Mahfouz, an entirely new context for my life emerged. Growing up in the United States, I’d believed my household and our traditions would always be mysteries to the dominant culture, so difficult to translate that it was not worth attempting. I accepted that the only time I’d know the relief of seeing the same food and hearing the same words spoken in a different home was when visiting other Iraqi families. But these books, for the first time, brought an entirely different legitimacy to my existence. Here were characters in print with names that sounded like mine and my relatives, who muttered Quranic verses under their breath for protection, who woke up to recite prayers at dawn, who lived with multiple generations under one roof. Here was proof and confirmation that it was not only possible to share these experiences through the written word, but that my classmates could enter this world of prayers and fasting and dietary restrictions through the page. Here they could empathize. Here they could understand.
At the time, I was engaged to my friend Jamila’s brother, the one I had once feared stumbling upon my letters. Although I had planned to pursue an academic career in history, we wound up moving out of the country a year after we got married. Other moves would follow, and graduate school kept getting postponed.
It was in that void of study, of pens and books, that the Twin Towers fell. I wished I had the intellectual tools to process this event that was more than an event but a shift in reality, a shroud burying the life we had known before. Time would not heal this wound. The hate toward Muslims would ripple out for generations. It would ensnare the baby boy I brought into the world exactly one year and two days later in a New York City hospital.
“I am so glad he’s fair like you,” my husband said, so soon after our son’s birth that his age could still be measured in minutes.
“Don’t say that,” I answered. “He’d be just as beautiful if he got your skin color.”
“It’s just easier this way,” he said.
Back at home with our new baby, I didn’t know how to make sense of this world—that suddenly feared brown bodies; that whispered of another war in Iraq using mind-boggling claims of its culpability in 9/11; the hate comments I was seeing for the first time on the internet, exposing a level of vitriol towards Muslims I could have never imagined possible.
I turned to books. In that space created by babies and hours planted in a chair breastfeeding, I filled my head with prose. I soon found myself narrating my life, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, changing the baby. That narrator’s voice had returned to the quiet of mind, and with it, the mundane and ordinary transformed into something visible, something meaningful.
I thought of the books I read in college. More than the historical texts, it was the narratives that had stayed with me, the stories that had allowed my classmates to relate to the unfamiliar. I wished I could write something, anything that would make 2003 and then 2004’s steadily mounting Iraqi death toll hurt the American psyche more, to render an Iraqi family more human, more than just a headline.
I bought a notebook, my first dedicated to writing, but the words spilling out of my pen looked nothing like the words I heard in my head. These were clumsy jumbles, nothing at all like the sure and certain voice I heard in my mind. Again and again, I scribbled how much I wished I could write, how I wished I believed that I could.
I didn’t realize that the physicality of an actual notebook had woken up my censor, reviving my mother’s warnings. It wasn’t the political dangers of writing holding me back as much as the personal consequences, the shame I imagined I’d bring on my family if I used my life, my stories of growing up as an Iraqi-American, as a window into our world and culture.
I first wrote in pencil, so faint and small you’d have to strain to read, but as the war raged on and the death toll rose, I switched to pen, and then to banging on my keyboard. People were dying every day in Iraq, and the risks to me, for merely writing from my suburban home, were insignificant by comparison. Surely, I could sacrifice my privacy and make my family uncomfortable, if it meant that I could make one American reader view Iraqis with more kindness and sympathy.
I had an image of inviting these readers into my family home, that by getting to know me and my parents and grandparents, they’d become our friends and allies. I was so stuck on the idea that I executed it literally. I remember writing an entire passage in the second person, taking my audience up the driveway and through the door of my childhood home, sitting them down on the sufra laid out on the floor, sharing what we had to eat. I had invited my reader over for dinner.
The writing itself was terrible, the passage soon scrapped, but that exercise did exactly what having people over for dinner does—it created a bond between me and my imaginary readers. It taught me to confide in them, to earn the right to occupy space inside their minds. Every topic that had shamed me before, I now pressed into ink. There was the uncle that molested me. The family friend who arrived a few years later and did the same. There were the first crushes on dreamy Christopher Reeve and the nameless guy from the Preferred Stock cologne ad. There was my engagement to my husband. Our first kiss. Our wedding.
On paper, these memories underwent a transformation, from the private and personal into rough material that I could control. Reveal. Delete. Conceal. Reveal in a different way. There was power in the arranging and shaping my experience into stories; in using my life as an entry point not for confession but discussion.
But I would soon realize the power to create art did not transfer into the power to own it. When the first excerpts of my memoir were accepted into anthologies, I struggled to share the news. With the exception of my husband and siblings, no one in my family knew I had been writing. I tried on pen names, various combinations of my first name with Arabic last names, but I knew a fictional name would only undermine what had driven me to memoir in the first place. I was not putting a human face on the Iraqi-American experience if I could not give it my actual face.
Time was my greatest source of strength and comfort. I offered up one anthology, skipped the next few publications, skirted around the question of whether there was a larger body of work in progress. My censor’s purpose was no longer silence but protection from the questions and criticisms that stunt a fragile project’s growth. I needed time to see the merit of a narrative that would find its voice and purpose not over days but over years. I needed time to send my work out in the world and realize that all the catastrophic consequences I had been so certain would befall me never arrived. I needed time to gauge my family’s reaction to this role I’d claimed for myself, to recognize that the more I wrote, the less they read and the more normal and ordinary this work became.
A few months ago, I signed with a literary agent to represent a memoir that now bears little resemblance to those first shadowy scribbles, the countless drafts saved on my computer. It is still too early to peer into my memoir’s publication future, but old insecurities have already rushed to my door, calling out voices I thought I’d silenced. They warn me of those same dangers of print—now the risk is not a dictatorial regime but these Islamphobic times, now it is the guilt of implicating my entire family in my storytelling, now it is the shame of showing my face at the masjid or my children’s school with so many details about my personal life swirling around in the vast, unbounded out there.
I fantasize about all the other books I could have written, books full of facts with respectable footnotes and references, books that divulge nothing about me, books that I could sign my name to with pride. Instead I chose to sit down day after day, year after year, to write about my marriage born of family friendship, my wedding, and my struggle for purpose as a twenty-year old bride. Instead I chose to spend years examining my heart, my mind, my small, female life.
And, instead, I chose to take these same voices that silence and diminish me back to the page. This is the arena where I fight, where I shake off the timeworn, patriarchal stories holding me back, where I wrestle with my public and private self, where I face tensions that have no easy fix, no promise of reconciliation, no guarantee of answers. My mother had been right to warn me of writing’s risks. This work will always have gravity; it will always have weight.