GeminiMAGAZINE
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“Everywhere I went I saw new restaurants
opening,” recalled my mother's friend about her
recent visit to Baghdad. “Even in the poorest slums,
diners are on every corner.” Since I left Iraq six
years ago I've had a disturbing urge to collect
testimonies of friends who’ve just come back from
there. It's pathetic. I wish I could stop but I just
can't. “No electricity, garbage piling up on the
streets and people hardly go to work anymore. All
they do is
eat!” This may sound odd to an outsider,
but I knew exactly what she was talking about.

The clacking of plates and cutlery, pop songs from
the eighties and nineties and the usual murmur of
patrons were the sounds heard inside the
restaurant where I was having dinner with some
friends in Amman. It all changed the moment two
couples walked in. They talked so loud that
everyone in the room started looking at them. I
immediately recognized their accent. Drenched in
gold jewelry, the women had dyed their hair
turmeric blonde in stark contrast with their dark
skin—a commonality among post-war nouveau
riche Iraqi wives. I watched them follow their large-
bellied husbands to the table. And then came the
food.

The waiters kept bringing different plates until
there was no place for more. They ate quite a lot;
still, several dishes went back to the kitchen
untouched. Having sated their greed and paid a
good fat bill, the couples left the restaurant exactly
as they had arrived: talking and laughing loudly.
They were obviously wealthy, but it's not about the
money really. In Jordan, as well as other Arab
countries hosting them, Iraqi immigrants had
earned an unshakable reputation of allowing their
carnal desires priority over everything else.
Whether rich or poor, young or old, they spent
most of their income on food and sex.

I remember reading somewhere online about an
Iraqi wedding party in Australia that ended in
drama. After dinner, the guests danced
enthusiastically to songs from home. The wooden
floor started shaking under their feet and the police
had to evacuate the whole building. A family of
Iraqi exiles in Scandinavia was reported to the
police by a vegan neighbor because the wife
cooked meat every single day with plenty of spices
and the tantalizing fragrance permeated the poor
man’s apartment, turning his life into hell.
How
typically Iraqi and how typically Scandinavian!
I
thought to myself after reading about the incident
in the newspaper.

Stories like these don’t surprise me because it’s
only natural for a nation that has spent the last
three decades fighting one war after another to be
extreme. And that’s not all. Mesopotamia had been
a battleground for many of the world’s civilizations
since the dawn of time, causing extremism to be
distilled into our psyche. We Iraqis don’t trust the
future and don’t care to invest in it. Why should we
when death is lurking behind our doors? We only
have this moment so we squeeze every last drop of
life out of it. The way Shias wail and beat their
chests every year on Ashoura, a day of mourning,
is but a collective manifestation of the great zeal
with which we pursue everything in life, including
the practice of religion.

When I first arrived in New Zealand four years ago
the beauty of nature wasn’t the only thing that
struck me about the country. I went for a walk on
the beach and saw Kiwis walking their dogs or
jogging with broad smiles on their faces. I found
that fascinating and strange. Why strange? Because
their broad smiles seemed to be hanging on their
lips rather than coming from the inside. Where I
came from, people didn’t smile like that. If they
didn’t frown—and they so often did—they either
laughed or cried their heads off!

I’d be sitting at home in Auckland, enjoying a
comedy on television with a bowl of kettle chips on
my lap, but by the time the first commercial break
ended, I would lose appetite for the comedy and
the chips altogether. Unlike the commercials I
watched on Arabic satellite channels—mainly
mobile phone plans, shampoos, soft drinks, junk
food, perfumes—New Zealand television advertised
the National Depression Initiative; mental illness
awareness; funeral planning; life, house and car
insurance; prescription and non-prescription drugs;
cervical screening programs and anti-drunk driving
programs—in addition to mobile phones. Now don’t
get me wrong—all the aforementioned commercials
provide valuable and much needed information, but
having to watch them time and again during the
day was quite a culture shock.

Only a few people I knew were on antidepressants
when I left Baghdad, and even fewer cared to
consult a psychologist. Tranquilizers, on the other
hand, were a must have in almost every home. Not
only were they sold in many pharmacies without
prescription, they could also be purchased from
mini-markets and on the street. Traumatized men
and women—and sometimes children—used them
to shut down or at least distract their brains from
emotional pain and frustration. Valium, for
instance, was and still is a classic there. Many
Iraqis drink obsessively too.

Totally lost and clueless about my future, I was
prescribed Prozac while staying in Jordan after
leaving Iraq. I don’t remember the exact dose now
but I don’t think I will ever be able to forget the
impact it made on me. Only a couple of days after I
started taking it, I felt like I was sinking into a
bottomless pit of fear. The tablets introduced me to
the obnoxious world of panic attacks. I called the
doctor but she said Prozac may take weeks before
the benefit is felt. I looked at myself in the mirror
one morning and couldn’t recognize who I was. My
eyes seemed disconnected from my soul. There
was no trace of life in them. I didn’t need to consult
the doctor to realize that Prozac was not for
everyone, and definitely not for me. I quit
immediately and didn’t attempt to take any type of
antidepressants again.

I must admit that my case is not a typical one,
though. As a single, middle-aged man who’s
dedicated to writing in New Zealand—a quiet,
resort-like country considerably isolated from the
hecticness of the modern world—I can afford a walk
in nature or a meditation when I’m burdened or
lacking motivation. So far, I have been able to
combat my depression on my own. Many people
aren’t. Antidepressants along with psychology
sessions have undoubtedly helped millions of men
and women beat their vicious demons. They’ve
stopped desperate mothers from killing themselves
and orphaning their children, and fathers from
breaking down, allowing them to continue to work
and provide for their families.
So who am I to trash
the benefits of antidepressants?
I sometimes ask
myself.
And what’s wrong with a lifeless smile if it’s
the price to be paid for rescuing lives?

Come to think of it, what if by some miracle we
Iraqis decided to convert to antidepressants and
psychotherapy? Just imagine what it would be like
to have our politicians appear on television and
crack silly jokes instead of lying to us and attacking
one another all the time. Or imagine our stern
sheikhs giving their fiery Friday sermons with a
Mona Lisa smile! Mind you, those would be
remarkable achievements. Maybe all that’s needed
are a few tablets of Prozac.


Architect and artist Ali Shakir left Iraq in 2006 and now lives in New Zealand.
His book, A Muslim on the Bridge: On Being an Iraqi-Arab Muslim in the
Twenty-first Century World, is scheduled for release later this year by Signal 8
Press. After graduating from Baghdad University in 1992, Shakir practiced
architecture and then launched L'Atelier Art Gallery, where he exhibited his
own work along with the work of other young Iraqi artists. Since leaving Iraq
he has published articles and essays—in Arabic and English—in several
newspapers and literary journals in the Arab world, England, the United
States and New Zealand.
No ‘Prozac Faces’
in Baghdad
by Ali Shakir
We only have
this moment so
we squeeze
every last drop
of life out of it.