I lifted my head from the dark asphalt and pushed myself onto my elbow. The right side of my body throbbed; the skin on my back screamed with fire; blood was streaming from the right side of my head and along my right elbow. Looking down, I saw my own naked breasts. What had happened to my dress? Shame pushed out panic as I registered an older couple coming towards me from across the Neapolitan street. Must cover my breasts. I looked for the straps which had tied my halter dress around my neck. They were hanging near my stomach. Tilting my head so the blood would run into my hair and not in my eyes, I pulled them up, but one strap was too short while the other had a large knot and was too long.
            I needed a moment.
            Images recollected and arranged. A man passing on a motorcycle had snatched my handbag, but he hadn’t bargained for it being secured around my wrist. To be fair, I hadn’t registered that I was being robbed. At first, I thought my bag had snagged his handlebar and I was about to shout my apology when he took off, taking me down to the ground. The left side of my body got slammed with the initial impact, but as the mugger sped down the moderately-trafficked street, I was banged onto my back. Being dragged along the pavement lacerated my back and shoulders and shore through the straps of my dress. As I was being dragged and skinned, I saw the handle which held the handbag to my right wrist tear a little. The keys to my Airbnb, my phone, and my only credit card were in it. I turned, so my left hand could gain purchase on the body of the bag, and my right hand, strangled in the strap, clawed upward. Now, the right side of my body was suffering the friction of being pulled, but I had a firm grip on my bag. The purse-snatcher must have realized I wasn’t letting go, so he did and gunned it. That’s when my head smacked the pavement.
            I held the halter’s triangles of cloth to my breasts as the older couple reached me. I loved this orange, hot pink, and violet psychedelic-patterned piece of ‘70s era nostalgia. I had bought it at a vintage shop to celebrate getting my first job in Kurdistan, Iraq almost ten years earlier. This dress had gone wine tasing in West Jerusalem, to rock concerts in New York City, to art shows in Leipzig, to art residencies outside Barcelona and Cadiz, and to artistic heaven at Versailles. It had climbed ruins in Lebanon, learned Spanish in Seville, danced imitation flamenco at la feria in el Puerto de Santa María, toured coffee plantations in Boquete, Panama, researched the Srebrenica Genocide in Sarajevo, released fire lanterns on New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai, drunk cheap bubbly while waiting for the Eiffel Tower to light up, done a book reading in Chicago, and nudged me to break up with a jealous, controlling boyfriend who thought the dress was too sexy for Cartagena. This dress was more than a dress, it was a Wonder Twins cape of super powers ready to activate confidence with a single wear. In my fledgling Italian and tears, I begged the woman to tie it back around my neck while her partner called an ambulance.
            I had gone to Italy to take refuge after my friend Luke had died. He had snorted some possibly skunked cocaine made in a homemade lab in the house of a Pakistani couple in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and later, he fell off the balcony of his apartment. Because I had been with Luke in a cafe when he had met the female member of the Pakistani couple, Kurdistan’s special police called me in, without my prior knowledge or consent, for a show-up, an identification process where the person of interest and the witness see each other face to face. There were few foreigners in the Kurdish city where I live, and the university where I teach had just used my image in a promotional video splashed across Facebook and Instagram. I didn’t know if I had a target on my back. Hijacked by grief, fear, and fatigued, I flew to Italy to get a grip after my summer teaching term had ended. I wanted to visit Naples and Sicily, home to my mother’s side of the family, to see if either were places I, too, could call home.
            After Luke died, the university’s head of security showed me the café’s security camera footage of Luke and a woman sitting at the bar to see if I could identify her. The footage was an over-the-shoulder shot from behind the woman, who was dressed in a vintage turquoise Mexican wedding dress, hanging insouciantly off one shoulder. I told the head of security I couldn’t identify the woman as I silently judged her for showing that much skin. Then, I realized she was me. Visiting the United States after living in conflict and post-conflict zones feels a bit like that. I am on the outside looking in, judging, not always recognizing what I see.
            Were the houses in the US always so big? Did supermarkets always carry seventy-two types of cereal? Did every driveway always have two or more vehicles parked in it? Car culture and hyper consumerism and neo-liberalism abound. Meanwhile, the closet in the spare bedroom where I store my belongings is bursting with my collection of specialty frocks, some of which still bear tags.
            What ties a person to a place? What un-ties them?
            In The Dispossessed, John Washington argues that the poverty and violence powerful nations inflict on the majority world cause mass migration. I am aware of my privilege to choose my next place to live because it necessitates a degree of political, personal, and economic freedom, not to mention the “right” passport. I go to Iraq to work, and I am labeled an expat. An Iraqi comes to the United States to work, and he is labeled an immigrant or a refugee or an asylum seeker or a terrorist. We both seek to better our lives, either through financial gain or experience; our differing labels illuminate a disquieting truth about the mildewed vocabulary of Anglocentrism.
            My father’s early life was unmade by violence. He was a Berliner growing up during World War II. After the war, the employer of one of my grandmother’s friends sponsored my grandmother and my father, so they could emigrate to the United States when he was sixteen. They arrived with their suitcases, some fine china to sell, and sixty US dollars bought on the black market because Germans were not allowed to hold foreign currency after the war. My father hid the bills in the film compartment of a Leica camera, which he would later sell. Despite having had most of his general education disrupted by war, he managed to learn English at night school, earn his General Education Diploma (GED), graduate from Northwestern University in Chicago, and build a comfortable middle class living for himself in sales, marketing, and training.
            Behind closed eyes, I see him sitting on the newspaper-covered foyer floor of our childhood home on Lilac Way. He is tall and I am small, but when he sits on the floor, we are almost the same height. Mom is wrangling my sisters for Sunday mass as Dad cleans and polishes his dress shoes for the work week ahead, and I stand by the front door, watching. He works fastidiously, using first a brush and then a soft cloth, which live together in a wooden box with a foot rest handle. This is his work ethic, brought from his home country to his now-home country and gifted to me to take wherever I go. Although he never quite lost his German accent nor his taste for liverwurst, German pickles, marzipan, and Dominostein, a German sweet sold primarily at Christmas time, he considered himself American, not German, and he never wanted to live anywhere but the United States.
            Hasan, a former student, was living in a university’s dormitory in 2014 when ISIS captured his home town of Heet. His father and brother had to flee Heet because Hasan’s father had worked as an Anbar province coordinator for the United Nations, and ISIS kept a very detailed data base of residents in its captured territories. If ISIS had discovered Hasan’s father’s side hustle, he would have been executed. Leaving behind the family compound, which had taken Hasan’s father thirteen years to build, Hasan’s father hid whatever money and gold jewelry he could fit into his pockets (ISIS could not suspect he was fleeing) and held his breath as he passed through checkpoints. He made it first to Baghdad and finally to Sulaimaniyah, where he rebuilt his life. Hasan’s father remarried and taught English in the Kurdish public schools until the day he received a notice from the Iraqi government saying he had to return to Heet or risk losing a government subsidy upon which he and his second wife relied. Although the family did not want to return, they did and found that ISIS had burnt the family compound to the ground.
            Merriam-Webster.com defines dispossessed as “deprived of home, possessions and security.” After his university graduation, Hasan had to leave Sulaimaniyah, a place where he had a home, possessions, and security, to return to Heet, a place where the family home had been destroyed, none of his possessions remained, and due to ongoing ISIS activity in the Anbar province, definitely lacked security. He had tears in his eyes when he told me, “I wake up and go onto the balcony [in his Sulaimaniyah apartment], and it is safe. The street is quiet. There isn’t gunfire. In the distance, I see the mountains. Why would I want to leave? There is nothing to go back for.”
            I have taught many dispossessed students. In a cohort of adult learners at a professional development institute in northern Iraq, a female painter named Narin, married but childless and in her early forties, recalled fleeing Mosul as ISIS took over her city. Narin and a nephew escaped on foot to the autonomous region of Kurdistan where she “collapsed on the ground in front of the first house [she] saw.” Narin told me strangers took them in, housing and feeding her and her nephew until they were restored enough to continue to Sulaimaniyah, where Narin’s sister lived. Later, Narin would confide that her husband had been disappeared as ISIS sieged Mosul, that she had paid thousands of dollars to fixers who said they knew where he was and could find him, and because they hadn’t, she wanted to return and look for him herself no matter the personal risk. The last time I saw her was in the hair dye aisle of a local supermarket. She would soon be leaving for Mosul to look for her husband or at least for some answers because “as you know Alex, my husband was one of Saddam’s cousins.” Mosul had not yet been liberated from ISIS. I never saw her again.
            Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority living in the disputed territories of northern Iraq, gained international attention when ISIS attacked them at Sinjar Mountain in 2014. ISIS committed mass murder of Yazidi men, forced religious conversions on those who were not slaughtered, and abducted and enslaved thousands of Yazidi women and girls. Yazidi women were repeatedly raped, bought and sold at human sex slave markets, and forced to marry ISIS fighters. The Yazidi religion prohibits marrying outside of the Yazidi community or one faces exile. As a result, the Yazidi women who were enslaved by ISIS and escaped have been welcomed back into the Yazidi community, but their children born of rape have not. One rationale given by Yazidi leaders is that these children are Muslim by Iraqi law and not Yazidi. (The principles of the Yazidi religion define a Yazidi as a person born of two Yazidi parents.)
            Disputed territories in Iraq refer to regions that both the central Iraqi government in Baghdad and the central government of the autonomous Kurdish region in Erbil want to control. When Saddam was overthrown in 2003, the two rival political parties in the Kurdish region, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by the Barzani tribe, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by the Talabani tribe, sent Pesh Merga forces to the disputed territories to establish defacto control. Pesh Merga are the military forces of the Kurdish region charged with maintaining the security of Kurdistan, but they are allied by political party affiliation rather than being under one central control. As a result, Sinjar was protected by the KDP’s Pesh Merga forces who withdrew from Sinjar without resistance when ISIS attacked, leaving the Yazidis vulnerable.
            The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a US, UK and Turkey designated terrorist organization, established a defense line around Mount Sinjar and opened a safe corridor for Yazidis fleeing ISIS. Thousands were displaced across Iraq and abroad. The university for which I teach, founded by a former member of the PUK, sponsors scholarships for several Yazidis students who live in the dorms while their family members lived in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps on the opposite side of the Kurdish region near Sinjar. The distinction between an IDP and a refugee has monetary implications because IDP camps have less access to international funding. It is argued that IDPs will be taken care of by their home country. It seems illogical to think that a country which has been attacked and partially conquered by a beheading, raping, and tortuous caliphate has extra resources to help its dispossessed citizens.
            My Yazidi students didn’t talk much about their experiences. In a moment of tone deafness, I gave the students articles about the US’s use of drone strikes to fight terrorism to teach argumentation based on evidence. Mazen was the first student to speak up, telling me the subject matter made him uncomfortable as his eyes reddened. Although his close friend Bassim supportively told him, “We need to talk about it [terrorist attacks],” I apologized and swapped out the articles for those on the benefits of feminism.
            Despite the atrocities my Yazidi students had experienced, they didn’t harden. Later in the term, the electricity on our campus mysteriously went out every day from about 4 pm to 11 pm while the public university across the street remained fully lit up. It was winter; the students in the dorms were cold, and they couldn’t cook food or do homework until the power went back on. The founder of our university had recently been elected the president of Iraq, partly on the strength of his anti-corruption reputation. Some speculated our campus’s power failure was payback for the president not granting political favors based on cronyism or wasta.
            I reasoned that some of my scholarship students might not have extra money to go out to eat while the power was off, so I wrote them letters sharing some of my father’s Berlin stories. The American employer of one of my grandmother’s friends had sent care packages to my grandmother and father in Berlin throughout World War II although he did not know them personally. My father credited those packages for his and his mother’s survival. I wrapped the letters around some cash. The next day, assuring my students that they were not in trouble, I asked them to meet me after class and gave them the letters with strict orders not to open them until they returned to their dorm rooms. The following day, Mazen, their unofficial spokesperson, asked to “see me after class” with the promise “that I was not in trouble.” Once we were gathered, they thanked me for the letters, which, according to Bassim, “was the real gift” and tried to return the money. We argued back and forth about taking help when it is offered, about kindness versus charity, and about creating the kind world in which we wanted to live. My students finally agreed to take the money but assured me they would only use it if they really needed it or if they saw someone in the dorms who needed it. They wished to send the rest to their families who were living in the camps or trying to rebuild their lives in the wreckage of Sinjar. After everything they had lost, their instinct was to share what little they had with others.
            Palestinian life under occupation is a dispossessed existence too. Palestinian homes can be demolished as a result of collective punishment, meaning individuals related to those accused of carrying out acts of violence are punished by having their homes bulldozed even though they have not committed any crime. Other times, Palestinian homes are given to settlers after a forced eviction. Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim lands owned by Jews before the 1948 War, but does not afford Palestinians the same rights. The Israeli government does not abide by the United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution 194, which guarantees Palestinian refugees and IDPs the right to return to their homes after having been expelled during the 1948 Palestinian War and the 1967 Six-Day War. Israeli law sets boundaries for where Palestinians can live and does not allow them to build beyond those boundaries. Palestinians live under a constant threat of violence from the Israeli military at checkpoints, where Palestinians are often shot for allegedly attempting to carry out car-ramming attacks. They risk their lives to peacefully protest, such as the Great March of Return demonstrations at the Gaza/Israeli border, where Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) used deadly force on peaceful protestors, including students, journalists, and doctors, who were easily identifiable as press or medics.
            During a summer break between terms in Iraq, I lived in Ras Al-Amud, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. I rented a room in an apartment owned by the imam of a local mosque, who lived next door. The area was overcrowded, without much grass or flowers along the broken sidewalks whereas neighborhoods in West Jerusalem sported green lawns and smoothly paved roads. When it was time for me to return to Iraq, I could not hire a taxi from West Jerusalem to pick me up at my rented home to take me to the airport in Tel Aviv because Jewish taxi drivers were reluctant to enter this Palestinian neighborhood. Because Israeli law limits on which roads Palestinians can travel, I could not hire a Palestinian taxi to take me to the Tel Aviv airport. In the end, the Palestinian cousin of a shopkeeper from across the street brought me to the Mount of Olives, where I met a hired taxi in the parking lot of a hotel.
            In East Jerusalem, I taught Palestinian scholarship students, some of whom travelled from refugee camps in the West Bank through a series of humiliating checkpoints, to attend an English language training program in East Jerusalem. The scholarship program, sponsored by the United States Department of State (DOS), is a soft diplomacy initiative predicated on the belief that if young people are taught English in a curriculum steeped in American culture and American exceptionalism by affable, pleasant American instructors, said young people will be less tempted to join terrorist groups in their home countries. The program where I worked in East Jerusalem also prepares its students to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to complement another of its initiatives which helps high-achieving Palestinian students compete for scholarships to US institutions. (Getting a student visa is another matter as the US immigration and visa processes have become more restrictive in the name of national security.) Trying to balm the systematic degradation and violence Palestinians suffer daily as they are denied control over basic aspects of daily life such as their ability to move freely within their own country, to exit and return, to develop their territory, and to build on their own land by offering an English language training program is like trying to put out a forest fire with your spit. I once received a student essay about wanting to become a suicide bomber in order to stop the Israeli occupation.
            I didn’t report the student, who was thirteen but looked younger, because I did not want to derail his or his family’s lives over what was most likely an empty rant. The rationale in his essay reflected his lived experience under occupation. Despite its faults, the language program offered him a reprieve from those experiences such as a field trip to the Mount Carmel National Park near Haifa, which Palestinians would have had difficulty accessing on their own due to Israel’s laws restricting movement. The student could have been expelled from the program or perhaps singled out to Israeli authorities, who would have probably harassed him and his family. Israel practices collective punishment, including forcible transfer, home demolition, revoked healthcare, revoked social security entitlements for dependents, and possible revoked permanent residency status, all of which violate international law. According to the non-profit, Al-Shabaka, the enforcement of collective punishment measures has been intensified in East Jerusalem, where the DOS English language training program is located.
            I opted to talk to the student one-on-one, and he stayed in the program where his consciousness expanded. As our summer term ended and I prepared to return to northern Iraq, my Palestinian students, including him, who knew little about Kurds except that they harbored a vague dislike of them, were worried because they viewed Iraq as dangerous. My Kurdish students had expressed similar concerns before I left northern Iraq for East Jerusalem. Neither group of students personally knew a member of the other; their blanket dislike stemmed from each ethnic group’s historical relationship with Saddam, and to a lesser extent, Israel. Saddam had championed the Palestinians, subsidizing families of Palestinian martyrs after the Second Intifada and supporting the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) whereas Saddam had committed genocide on the Kurds during the Anfal Campaign, when Iraqi forces killed 180,000 Kurds in the final years of the Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqi government’s goal was to eliminate Kurdish rebel groups and Arabize the Kirkuk Governorate, home to one of the biggest and oldest oil fields in the Middle East. Presently, as Michael B. Bishku reports in the Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Israel benefits from independent access to Kurdish oil, some of which the Kurds seized from Iraq when the Kurdish Pesh Merga forces drove ISIS out of the disputed city of Kirkuk. Kurdistan sells the oil in return for weapons and training for its Pesh Merga forces from Israel. After I posted about my return to northern Iraq on Facebook, students from both countries started commenting, which opened a dialogue among them as they shared their feelings across my page. As they discovered what they had in common, perspectives shifted, giving way to a bit of humor and empathy.
            I'm so happy that your going to be our teacher this year welcome back!!!!!!!! I'm so delighted.”—{Kurdish student about my return.}
            “You are right but in the other hand Alex left us :((”—{Palestinian student’s response.}
            “Well that’s a bad news. For u guys but for us it’s a great news.”
            “: ((((”
            Dislike dissipated for two tiny communities tucked into their own pockets of violence.
            Despite or perhaps due to growing up within so much violence, there is a specific sweetness to the students I have encountered in the Middle East, be they Kurdish, Arabic, Palestinian, Syrian, or Yazidi. Many of my twenty-something students were tweens or younger during the 2003 US-led invasion. Hasan remembers US soldiers sometimes removing their gloves to shake hands with his father before a house-to-house search or sometimes kicking in the front door, rounding up all the men in the family, and taking them into the courtyard for a beating. Othman, another student I taught at the professional development institute, recalls a British tank rolling up his Basra street as his dad and uncle pointed shotguns out a living room window to defend themselves against a Shia militia. Othman credits that tank for saving their lives. These students, with their old eyes in young faces, saw their grammar school yards littered with hands and brains, yet as college students, they don’t know how to ask a girl out for coffee.
            On campus, they offer to help you carry your books or computer. They tell you they love you, and they don’t mean it in a sexual way, and they are not embarrassed to say it. They run up to you to hug you. They organize birthday cakes for you and gather other former students together so everyone can enter your classroom singing as they slip a paper crown on your head and light some candles. They send you jokes on WhatsApp. They Facebook message you when they hear you are ill. They Facebook message you when they decide to become teachers. They Facebook message you to send prayers when your father is ill. They message you every day as your father hangs on in an intensive care unit in a hospital in a country which broke theirs. They send prayers for your mother. They message you and message you and message you when your father dies.
            My brush with Italian violence didn’t sweeten me; it steeled me. Before the motorcyclist snatched my bag, I had been devasted by heartache. I had not only lost Luke, but I had also been left by a man I loved. Because being dumped happened at the same time Luke died, the two losses were bound together for me. I couldn’t speak to or about my ex without choking up; it seemed air around me had turned to glue. Once I realized I was about to lose my handbag and that I could try to stop another loss from happening, something internal shifted. I became more muscle than mind. Turning onto my right side so I could get a better grip on the bag as the motorcyclist dragged me down the street was my Angelina Jolie action figure moment. I felt victorious, a phoenix rising, until the purse snatcher let go and my head smacked the pavement.
            Lying eye-level with cigarette butts discarded in the gutter, blood running into my ear moist and jungly, I thought about how people always say, “At least you have your health” when life ambushes you. I idly wondered if I had a concussion but dismissed the idea because I don’t know anything about concussions. My vanity kicked in, urging me to check that all my teeth were still in my mouth (I had had braces with headgear when I was a tween). Luckily, no bones were broken; I was bruised and skinned and my back felt on fire but I was otherwise intact. When my boss Ophelia heard about the attempted bag grab, she joked that the bag snatcher “had picked the wrong woman” before adding the incident was a metaphor for how I live: “You don’t let go. You’ll fight.” Her observation is too generous, for I have always been protected by an umbrella of safety provided by the institutions for which I work. I also have the opportunity to let go, to leave conflict and post-conflict zones whereas the students whom I teach do not. Disaster tourist and thrill seeker are other labels.
            In the days following the attempted purse snatch, my ex and I exchanged messages during which my voice was even, my tone and language neutral. It was as though my mushy innards had morphed into bionic hardware beneath a skin veneer. The fear I felt after my head had smacked the pavement slow-thawed into a cool anger, which is different from the warrior anger I usually feel. My warrior anger centers in my heart; it is emotional and reactionary because what provokes it feels personal whereas my steeled anger centered in my groin; it was physical because it was the consequence of taking action. I had met aggression head on and prevented another loss. My walk morphed into a swagger.
            Then my father died.
            I want to add deprived of person to the definition of dispossessed. The loss of my father was an untethering. The night he died, I slept with the bird puppets “Santa” had given me when I was a child and wept until I aged myself. Crying into their synthetic fur, I was a tumbleweed, alone and adrift in an uncertain world. I felt small, in one respect because my father and I had argued on the way to the airport and had been reluctant to hug each other before I checked in for my flight, and in another respect because I felt lost, like a child in feet pajamas who awakens from a nightmare and doesn’t recognize anything in the darkness around her. I wanted to be his daughter for a little while longer. This feeling, nebulous but encompassing, was an unknown land through which I was unprepared to navigate. Tipping on the tightrope between his presence and his absence, I didn’t know how to take the next step. All around me, the air had turned to glue.
            A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Bust.com about single women living longer and not having enough money to retire in the US. In it, I wrote about a phone call I had had with my parents, in which they asked me if I ever wanted to live full time in the US again, and my ambivalence towards that because I hadn’t yet found myself by official standards (marriage, property, kids). The last line is this: “When these two old people {my mother and father} are gone, there’ll be one less place to call home.” In the space left by my father’s absence, the US beckons me, pulling taught, pulling tired, perhaps because he loved the US so much, and I want to hang on to him, to continue hearing his rough voice in my head telling me to slow down or arguing for American exceptionalism. This is something to go back for.
            Bryan Meeler’s excellent book, All Things Must Fight to Live, is an odyssey through the aftermath of war in the Congo, how everyday people make sense of their lives amidst the chaos and catastrophe of war. Through the luck of having been born white into a middle-class American family, I am not a person who has had to make sense of a war-interrupted life. My father did; my students do. Some leave their homeland because staying is too hard. Others dig in because leaving is defeat. I wonder if home is simply a construct of choice; either the place we hang onto at all costs or the place that catches us after we let go.

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