My Alternative, by Mariam Aldhahi
I’ve had a recurring dream since I was twelve years old: I wake up in my mother’s childhood home in central Baghdad. Each room of the home is occupied by family members going about their business—my cousins are watching TV, my uncle is reading the paper, my grandmother is washing the dishes. It’s the same sequence of events every time. In the dream, I am in my early twenties. As I roam through this landscape, I come across a scrappy note on the coffee table reminding us that we cannot leave the house. The note has no name, no signature, but I take it as law. Unease grows into a nagging feeling that turns my dream into the beginning phases of a nightmare. This note haunts me: There are people I want to see, people I must see. I have a life and I cannot possibly be trapped inside this house. There’s nothing I can do to alter my circumstance.
Most aspects of this dream required little investigation: my mother’s home is where I stayed on my only visit to Baghdad when I was a child, the only place I can recall in detail. The family members are people I never had the chance of knowing in real life—my cousins were relocated all over the world to escape the wars, my uncle was killed in crossfire and my grandfather died of a stress-induced heart attack just before my tenth birthday. There wasn’t much to analyze. The more complex aspects of the dream—the hastily written note, being torn between family and opportunity, the dream’s recurring nature—took years to grasp. As my life changed, the dream never did. The events that took place during my days never altered how the dream presented itself or how I interpreted it. Waking up with a heavy heart became an uncomfortably comfortable feeling.
I was born in Baghdad the same month my father was drafted to the Iraqi Army. My mother still tells stories of what it was like while he was gone. To distract me from explosions and bombs dropping in the distance, we would lay with an oversized stuffed bear where my father should have been. She would play music to drown out the noise until I fell asleep. She was twenty-five.
I am the age my mother was when she stayed up all night wondering if her husband would return. My father was given less than forty-eight hours to pack his bags and leave, fighting for a cause he didn’t believe in. My parents are victims of circumstance. I am a first-generation American who was raised on Saturday morning cartoons and stories of relatives I’ll never meet. The dream that follows me in my slumber isn’t just a dream—it’s my alternative.
My alternative is one that gains shock value as time passes. My parents were shaken after the war that made them global orphans. I was shaken after a second war that taught me about death and the inconsistencies of life. Now, as a third war looms, I am raw. I know what to expect, and I know it won’t end well. Really, I know it won’t end at all.
This realization is both heartbreaking and liberating. Writing connects me to a time and place I feel unfairly sheltered from. Design presents alternatives to the heartbreak. For me, being a writer isn’t good enough anymore. My writing must change circumstance. It must make things better. My recurring dream still presents itself, but it does so as motivation—a reminder to push forward and build new opportunities through design. To begin a discourse that doesn’t end in devastation. What began as my distraction became my greatest passion.
My alternative is one that follows me as I go about my days. News outlets tally Iraqi civilian deaths like a game of Scrabble. These daily casualty counts remind me that I could have been just a number. I am one of the lucky ones, and because of this, I have no choice but to succeed. It would be selfish not to.
Application essay written for the 2015 Maria Popova Scholarship for Homecoming to Purpose.