POET INTERVIEW – MEENA ROSE, BEYOND BAGHDAD
I’m finding it difficult to properly introduce a woman I believe to be one of the strongest I’ve ever had the pleasure to call friend. Meena’s sense of humble authenticity would probably not allow her to agree fully with that statement, yet I am confident her life story will cement her courage and resilience in your mind and heart, that you will not forget her, and that you will want to learn more about this amazing woman in our midst. I’ve encouraged Meena to write her autobiography. I cannot adequately express what an honor it is to be the one to give you a glimpse of this remarkable woman. Perhaps after reading this interview, you might feel compelled to join me in encouraging her to write her memoir.
Though Meena and I have never met in person, we came to know each other through the Institute of Children’s Literature Writer’s Retreat – an online community of writers and would-be writers of children’s literature. The beauty of this Iraqi-born woman’s spirit and the wisdom she imparts drew me to her immediately. More than a year ago, I asked her for an interview. She wanted to say yes, but needed time to take in my questions and “go there” to comfortably respond. In a few moments, you will understand why.
MARIE ELENA: Meena, I’ve told you this before, but I consider you one of the wisest of my friends. You and Claudette, actually, which makes it interesting to me that the two of you wound up collaborating on a blog: Two Voices, One Song. How did that come about?
MEENA ROSE: Claudsy and I wound up spending so much time on each other’s separate blogs on top of “hours” on Facebook chat … I think once we got so carried away, I was up ‘til 1:00 a.m. PST, with work the next day. We talked about everything under the sun: the writing craft, life, philosophy, sociology and general commentary.
One day I put the proposal out there: why don’t we pool our resources and post jointly on a blog where the two of us can show the world the sort of things we talk about? Gosh, did I have butterflies in my stomach. But she said “Yes.” In August of 2012, we decided to shut down our former blogs and funnel everyone to Two Voices, One Song.
I will have to say that the content has morphed over time to suit and match our interests better. We have leveraged Editorial Calendars to drive content. Unfortunately, I do not always hold up my end of the bargain – at times my professional work and family demand more time than I originally planned for.
I am grateful that Claudsy, a full time writer, has been so patient with me.
MARIE ELENA: Yes, work and family absolutely need to take precedence. Tell me about your family, Meena. You’ve indicated in some of your writings that you are a very close-knit group.
MEENA ROSE: Gosh, where do I start? My immediate family is a small one. I have one sister who is about six years younger than me. My dad is a mathematician-turned-computer-scientist, while my mom is a physicist-turned-computer-scientist. If there was a shrine where people could worship science, then it would have been our house. Reading, philosophy, debate, word games, deciphering patterns were all the norm.
On my mom’s side of the family, she has two sisters and two brothers. This amounts to eight cousins. I do not recall my grandfather whatsoever. Though there is a black and white photo of him carrying me as an infant. He looked to be a big man with kind eyes and a gentle smile. He passed away while we were in the UK. I remember that being particularly hard on my mom to have not been there.
My grandmother, my beebee as we would call her, I had many memories of. By all standards of the era, she was quite accomplished. As we moved to Canada, she remained my umbilical cord to my heritage. She corresponded with my mom frequently. One of my favorite dinner time rituals soon became the reading of Beebee’s letters from Iraq. In fact, my mom would quickly scan the letter and give it to me to read as we gathered around the dinner table. My grandmother passed away in 2008. She suffered a lot during her last couple of years under the chokehold of the American embargo against Iraq. In the later years, one of my mother’s quests was always to work hard and try to secure the needed medication for my grandmother and ensure it was safely transferred to Baghdad. Beebee’s passing away affected me greatly and in so many ways. She symbolically represented so much. At one point she was offered the chance to stay in Canada with us and she turned it down, opting to go back to Iraq during Desert Storm so she could be there to support the family she left behind. Someday I hope to scan in and translate my mother’s correspondence with her and share her story with my children.
On my dad’s side of the family, he had two sisters and three brothers. This side is teeming with cousins; thirty, to be precise. Think big family gatherings; loud, lots of laughter, singing and storytelling. I never knew my grandfather. He had passed away when my dad was not even ten years old. He died of tuberculosis, leaving behind a young wife to tend all those kids. My grandmother’s family took her in. Oh, I forgot to say that they were carpenters. My dad would eventually work for them in their carpentry shop.
MARIE ELENA: They sound wonderful, close, and fun. I smiled at the image of this huge extended family, singing, laughing, and storytelling. I wish I knew in my heart that is all there was to your family experiences, Meena. But in fact, you lost loved ones as a direct result of war and hatred. Would it be accurate to describe yours as a war-ravaged childhood? And please – I know some must be horrifically difficult memories – is it too much for me to ask you to share your story?
MEENA ROSE: Marie, it took me over half a year to come to grips with this question. My childhood spent about two and a half years in war setting. I am not sure how you define war-ravaged childhood, because in my mind’s eye that is something you see on the History Channel. It is not a notion that I associate with directly.
There are certain moments that rise above the din of the ensuing chaos. Little vignettes, if you will, that have become integrated into the story of me, and yet they do not define me.Vignette #1: Leaving the house was a treacherous proposition for you could never tell where you were going to be as the air raids started. One time, Dad caved in and took me to the farmer’s market. We had been cooped up for weeks, but there were three days with no air raids, and I suppose my Dad had deemed it safe enough to venture outside. It seemed like the farmer’s market was teeming with people, as they too had the same notion. We went about our business. The day was beautiful. We wrapped up and started to head back towards the car when air raid sirens flared. Within seconds, five fighter jets were visible in the sky. Making the best of a bad situation, my Dad dropped a bag of produce so he could scoop me and up and run. We were in the open, there was no nearby shelter. We made it to the first car parked by the side of the road and my dad deposited me in the slot beside the car and the sidewalk and covered me with his body. Then the ground began to shake as the first of the explosives made impact. It would be another twenty minutes before we were able to drive home.
Vignette #2:A School field trip. The destination – a public execution of a “political” traitor. It was death by firing squad. It was first grade and we had to “draw a picture” along with write a few sentences about what we had just seen. I drew Heaven with the man looking down at his daughter who was made to watch the whole thing. The whole time I watched her and never understood how anyone so loved could be killed just like that.
Vignette #3:You might say that this was my defining moment. This is where war became really personal. Kindergarten 1980, Baghdad Iraq October 1980 to be precise, a mere couple of months after the start of the Iran/Iraq war. It was common practice at the time to station 23 fully armed soldiers at the schools. In my case, it was a K6 school. These positions were considered to be elite because you were not actually on the battlefield. Instead, you spewed Saddam’s dogma, brainwashed kids and instilled the fear of Saddam in anyone. The recess practice was to assemble by grade level around the flag and sing the national anthem. Soon, they would add the task of kissing Saddam’s picture in a frame that was passed from kid to kid, teachers included. That fine day, I had a really bad sore throat and I could barely speak (laryngitis ? who knows?). So at assembly, when it was time to sing the national anthem (or screech it out as it were the case), I made the executive decision that I would move my lips but produce no sound. That day, there were three soldiers on site, moving between the ranks of students and, as always, they made note of who sang or not. Sure enough, I was discovered. A soldier gruffly grabbed my arm and yanked me all the way to the center of the courtyard where all could see. Immediately, I sensed something was amiss, as one of the teachers had covered her mouth to stifle a cry. The soldier had decided to make an example of me. He launched into a monologue: “You the children, know that you must love Iraq. If you don’t, then you are Iranian and must die like the filthy dogs they are. With Saddam’s strength, we will rightfully kill them – even their kids, because they are damaged in the head. This one here was not singing. In fact, she was mocking her country with the fake movement of her lips and her insincerity. What does that make her?” In unison, the kids say, “Filthy Iranian dog.” To be honest, I was too caught up in the pageantry and the display to even realize what was really going on. “She has one way to save herself. Kiss Uncle Saddam and apologize to him.” As the other two soldiers were bringing up the photo, I was shaking my head ever so slightly at first and then into full swing. It was then that a sob escaped my teacher’s throat. The Principal was pleading with me, “Please Meena do what they ask.”
Now, I was really beginning to feel scared and concerned. Every single one of the teachers looked like they were preparing themselves to witness some pure evil. They brought the picture before me and said “Kiss Uncle Saddam.”I said no. They asked me to sing the national anthem. Again I said no. At this point one of the soldiers left to go somewhere, and another moved to restrain the Principal who was weaving her way to get to me. The soldier beside me, clearly enraged, screamed at me to sing the anthem. Again, I said “No,” in a steady voice that was not too loud. I did not really have voice to spare. He grabbed his machine gun and put two rounds into the sky. He promptly lowered the machine gun and leveled it right at my face. A long blank and impersonal tube was already beginning to leave its mark on my head. He poked me with it.
“Sing the national anthem.”“No.” It was then that I saw the man turn into a creature of sorts. His face red with rage, a deepening scowl. In his endless grimace, I could see that his eyes radiated heat. I could see the muscle of his arms twitch. His eyebrows were tightly knotted. He started dripping sweat. The machine gun was shaking ever so slightly against my head. That really was the moment of Oh Crap. For the first time, I really wondered whether saying “No” was the right choice, and at the same time I was convinced that my reason for not complying with their requests was a legitimate one. Sore throats really do hurt. One lone tear rolled down my right cheek. I was determined not to shed anymore – to not give them any satisfaction over the event. The soldier wipes his brow and says, “You are not worth saving, you filthy Persian dog.” He re-centers the machinegun against my head. Now, I am certain, I will die. I hear a faint click. I swallow, taking one step to the left. Bullet lodges itself in playground concrete. He is immediately tackled by the other two soldiers, and hauled away. To this day, I can’t tell you why I was so emphatic about saying no – why it had escalated to that level. I can only surmise that the inspiration to move and the fact that he missed was all about divine intervention. I saw Hate twist a man. Mutate him. Take over his being. Saw the ugliness spread. Saw reason leave his eyes. Since then I have seen that many times – Hate’s mutations of man. Perhaps that attributes to my sympathy towards all mankind. As the saying goes: Every saint has a past, and every sinner a future.
Vignette #4 (written in 5th grade)I sat down on my bed with a heavy sigh. I pulled my knees up and rested my head on them. Soon tears were rolling down my cheeks and my body began to shake. The tears were flowing steadily down my cheeks, leaving a wet trail as they continued down the hollow of my neck. Eventually I stood up and looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot and puffy from all that crying. My nose was running as well. My blouse was absolutely ruined with tear stains and snot stains. I took my blouse off and hurled it across the room. That felt good. I stood there in the middle of my room breathing hard, trying to remember why I came up here to begin with. Then Mom’s words played back in my mind in slow motion. Mom said I could only take clothes for a four day trip even though we were never coming back. That meant no dresses. Just shorts and pants and socks and underwear. I would have to leave all the rest behind and I needed to done before dinner. I got up to get another shirt from my dresser. Grandpa made it for me before I was born. Grandpa died before I got a chance to meet him. A picture of him hugging Mom while she was pregnant with me sits on top of the white dresser. And it was my dresser, Grandpa had carved a little note that said “The best day of my life was finding out you were coming. Love, Grandpa.” Grandma told me that he even planned on carving my name there once he found out what it was. Why does Mom think I could just leave it behind? I turned away from my dresser and found myself looking at my bed with its pink pillow case and light pink comforter with a ruffled lace border. Grandma had hand embroidered the pillowcase and comforter with red roses and their long green stems. I would trade packing clothes for packing the bed sheets and comforter. I have had them my entire life. I turned my attention to my closet, and looked at the five dresses I had. I had only two favorites. I had a pink dress which I did not like to wear until Grandma knit a matching pink jacket and purse to go with it. It suddenly became one of my favorites. I also had a bright blue dress. This was the dress I wore the most. It was made with special cloth, velvet. When you brushed it with your hand one way, it felt soft, smooth and ticklish. When you brushed it the other way, it felt poky. I looked at my other toys at the bottom of the closet and I noticed my jigsaw puzzles and my erector set. I could not help the tears that started to roll down my cheeks again. No toys. No books. Just clothes for a four day trip. We were leaving tomorrow and we were never coming back. I was supposed to say goodbye to my room and my things and get packed, but all I could do was cry.
MARIE ELENA: My dear, sweet friend, I could hardly make it through. My throat closed, my heart pounded, tears flowed, sobs escaped, and my breath seemed to leave me. These snapshots of your childhood are hard for someone like me (with precious little exposure to hate and true violence) to wrap my head and heart around. I’m so sorry I caused you to relive such agonizing pain.
MEENA ROSE: Marie… things happen in their good time for their own reasons. I have long since surrendered the practice of rationalizing what comes my way.
That you asked the question was reason enough for me to answer. That I was indeed to remember was obviously the case, or you would not have asked to begin with. That it took me this long – I am grateful that I could answer.
Just think that “chaos/violence/hate” was all but 2.5 years of my life, and I just turned 38. There was a never a question in my mind about “rising.” I had to – otherwise “they” would have claimed more than their fair share.
We all have it in us to “rise,” and we must. I wrote a cento a while back using three of Maya Angelou’s poems to capture that very thing (Still I Rise, Phenomenal Woman, and A Brave and Startling Truth.):
A Mayan Cento By Meena RoseYou may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, Yet it is only love which sets us free. A Brave and Startling Truth. Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? I’m a woman Phenomenally. Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, The fellows stand or Fall down on their knees. Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? But they can’t touch My inner mystery. Does my haughtiness offend you? Don’t you take it awful hard It is possible and imperative that we discover A brave and startling truth. You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, The ride of my breasts, The grace of my style. Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise The swing in my waist, And the joy in my feet. Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise I’m a woman Phenomenally. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise Phenomenal woman, That’s me. I rise I rise I rise.
MARIE ELENA: Yes. You are no less than phenomenal, my friend. Phenomenal, and deeply spiritual. Please tell me about your religious upbringing. How did it impact you as a child? As an adult?
MEENA ROSE: I was born into a, at the time, secular Muslim country. In fact, my Dad was Sunni and my Mom was a Shi’ite. Two of my uncles were married to Christian Iraqi women. My grandfather who was a tailor had set up his shop in the Jewish sector of Baghdad (before all the Jewish Iraqi people were kicked out of the country). A great many of his friends were Jews. In fact, in my mother’s early life, they had a Rabbi for a neighbor.
This personal experience through my unique family circumstances painted a view of religious tolerance. As I have traveled and lived amongst other people, I became exposed to the various faiths of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shintoism. I would also learn of the way of Native Peoples of the Americas and their beliefs. I realized that in quest to fully appreciate and interact with the person facing me, I needed to appreciate their beliefs or at least explore their existential beliefs or those of their culture to be able to better relate. Thus was the birth of my grand journey into theology and personal theosophy.
It has greatly impacted the way I interact with the outside world. It is also very humbling to able to spread out all the theological nuggets I have collected over time and illustrate the overlaps and the reinforcements of thought. Despite the different words or cultural stories, the message is remarkably the same when you can step back and observe the whole spectrum of human existentialism and codes for a rewarding life on earth.
I actually had whiteboarded this in a conference room at work at some point in my life.
MARIE ELENA: What a fascinating and impressive diversity of faith.
So, tell me what brought you to the U.S.? How old were you at the time?
MEENA ROSE: I decided to take wings and fly out of the family nest after I was finished with college. At the time, I had also started going to grad school. However, something disrupted that experience and I decided to move on and start working instead. By then, I was 23 years old. I moved to Arizona as I had family living there at the time and it was super easy for a Canadian to apply for a temporary one-year work visa back then. The economy was good, and jobs were plenty. So I picked up a position as a Mechanical Engineer at Allied Signal Aerospace (formerly Garrett Engines).
MARIE ELENA: I have to laugh at “picked up a position as a Mechanical Engineer.” It’s a rather amusing mix of the casual “picked up,” and impressive “Mechanical Engineer.” 😉
You’ve shared with me feelings of being discriminated against, simply because of your nationality. What experiences have you had, and how did you deal with them?
MEENA ROSE: Before I answer this question, I would like to highlight the fact that a good number of things have also happened because of my nationality. I will mention those as well.
During the height of Desert Shield/Desert Storm, there was a brewing anti-Arab sentiment in Montreal, Canada. I was in college at the time (think 12th grade and freshman year). This anti-Arab sentiment ripped through our campus. There were three incidents total.
On one occasion, I was pushed down a staircase, as a nasty racial slur was being said. On another, I was assaulted by the locker area and punched in the gut. The assailant had mentioned that I should be grateful that he did not bruise my face. Thankfully, that broke up real quick when a classmate of mine showed up. I am forever grateful to him. He had insisted to escort me everywhere. He would even walk me to the restroom. In turn, he was antagonized as well. This last I found tough to swallow. As a result of this “anti-Arab” sentiment, the Arab community within the college drew closer. I chose to stay by myself. I had long since learned of the dangers of groupthink and heated sentiments. Because of that, they tried to rope me in and I always refused. They even said “because we are Arabs and we need to show these pigs we are smart, let us copy your homework.” My reply was an adamant no. I said that I would tutor however many for however long but I would not do homework for people. That would be cheating. I was thus summarily excised from that community and I was “cursed” for being a traitor and heathen, and I was bound on a ticket straight to hell.
In my adult life, I am extremely leery about who I share my heritage with. You never know the reaction you will receive. At one of my workplaces, upon learning of my heritage, one of my coworkers snapped. He was personally blaming me for every military decision the US government made with respect to Iraq. Racial slurs, sexist remarks, curses, eternal damnation … the spawn of Satan … he went on nonstop screaming at me for a good five minutes. He went as far as to pick up a stapler and was about to hit me with it (I was cornered in my cube). It was then that one of his coworkers got ahold of him from the back, physically manhandled him out of my cube, and took him straight to security.
That young man returned and apologized with tear-brimmed eyes for everything that I had to put up with that guy who went nuts. He took me out for coffee so we could both diffuse. That is when I learned that he lost an older brother to the war in Iraq. It was my turn to cry. He said “It is no one’s fault that my brother died. He chose that life. I miss him. I so miss him, but then I am sure you have family that has gone missing too.”
We continued talking for quite a bit. As we headed back to work, it was then that very lesson crystallized in my mind: Never underestimate the compassion of man. It can move mountains.
MARIE ELENA: Yes. And there is that wisdom I see in you. Meena, do your children experience racism? If so, how do you help them / teach them to handle it, and to respond to it?
MEENA ROSE: My children associate themselves with America. Thankfully they have not experienced racism – just your average grade school bullying. They think of words like Arab or Iraq as that is where Mom and the grandparents are from. They speak Arabic to a certain extent, mostly to please my parents.
MARIE ELENA: I’m so thankful to hear your response. I nearly did not ask that question. Are you pleased to raise your kids here in the U.S.?
MEENA ROSE: I am definitely pleased to be raising my kids here in the U.S. When I think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I truly believe that the seeds for self-actualization lie here. I am grateful that I am professionally engaged in a capacity that helps cater to the Physiological and Safety needs. There are so many people here who are more than willing to help spur Love, Esteem and Self-Actualization needs of those around them. I do sincerely wish to salute these people who continue to prod me and my family along life’s journey.
MARIE ELENA: The wisdom I keep mentioning is quite evident in your responses to my questions. Do you think of yourself as wise? How do you impart your wisdom to these three beautiful children?
MEENA ROSE: Thank you, Marie. I have actually been called wise by a number of other people too. I suppose, I do see and recognize such an aspect in myself. In the same breath, I come with my own set of folly. I may be interpreting on your behalf and that of others when you say “wise.” I imagine that you may be referring to my view on humanity or world view. A good bit of either is seen through eyes that have seen much as they were growing up. It is not the seeing alone. It is the requisite reflection that comes with it.
I really do not proactively impart wisdom, I don’t think, to anyone much less my kids. What I do strive to impart is listening. Listening beneath the words and hearing the other’s heart speak unhindered by the limitation of vocabulary. What I also strive to impart is reflection. Reflection of one’s actions and words and seeing if they resonate with the inner core. It is also about charting a path forward should we find ourselves in a place of dissonance.
MARIE ELENA: Have you ever returned to Iraq to visit family?
MEENA ROSE: I left Iraq in 1982 along with the family and we have not been back since. For the longest time it was simply not safe. I really have no plans to go back there. As it is, my whole family on both sides has scattered to the wind – spanning New Zealand, other Arab countries, Scandinavia, Canada and the US … it is as though the ancestral roots just shriveled and dried.
MARIE ELENA: How has your amazing life story impacted your decisions, and your writing?
MEENA ROSE: The one thing I believe my life’s story imparted upon me is a true interest in our Humanness. How do we think? What makes us tick? What drives us insane? What brings bliss?
This in and off itself has always positioned me favorably in collaborative efforts. I would rather throw my fuel to an existing flame or start one so others may join.
Another lesson is hugging the walls and assessing the scene. This has led me towards big picture thinking and managing success via influence. In many ways, I am perfectly fine being the woman behind the curtain, so long as the outcome is as spectacular as I had imagined.
My writing. This in itself is an interesting topic. I would say my heritage and life’s gift which I collected early enable me to express emotion and human motivation, really. At times, my Grandmother’s storytelling skills manifest through me. Our family had quite the oral storytelling tradition. Generally, I tend to write verse over prose. I am still a novice at the craft, and I have a ton more to learn.
MARIE ELENA: And now, if there was only one thing we could know about you, what would you tell us?
MEENA ROSE: Hmmm. Just one thing: Just because I wear a warm smile and appear under control in most circumstances does not mean that my stomach does not do butterflies or that my heart does not try to beat straight out of my chest. Sometimes serenity is surface level — other times bone deep. I work hard on my serenity practice.
MARIE ELENA: Meena, I cannot thank you enough for your willingness to share yourself so freely and frankly. You and I could not have more vastly different life experiences. It overwhelms me. I’m immeasurably thankful to God that your life was spared on that appalling Kindergarten day. You were spared for a reason. I wholly believe you are living out that reason in your daily walk and interactions with family, friends … with us. Thank you. You are an inspiration.