Note: This post is the second in a series about how I found myself targeted for my Jewishness by a cell of antisemites, and the collective indifference that allowed a small handful of people to cast a large shadow of danger across the entire Kurdistan Region.
I am on the train right now — in motion, on the move — at an onboard table overlooking the majestic coast of California. It is wintertime, and the sunsets are early.
Between my fingers are the buttons of a keyboard.
This is a beautiful moment. But I am not completely here. Inside of me, it feels like someone has scooped out my intestines. I feel like I am dying, yet nobody has physically hurt me. Instead, it is just the terror that is always lurking alongside me and waiting to pounce.
This time it hits me as I ride the train, but it can happen as I walk to coffee, sit with friends, or fumble with my keys. It is a feeling that clings to me closer than any friend. And sometimes it overwhelms me. It is the up and down of trauma.
I not only nearly died— it was a murder attempt involving people who I already knew were planning to kill me. But I never expected it to be enabled by those who I trusted and respected.
I am insignificant. But day by day, month by month, and year by year, from the moment I moved to Erbil, my life was on a countdown to the moment my existence would become a political question or opportunity. Sensing my existence and its implications, people made designs to hurt me, like spiders slowly encasing a moth that got trapped in a web of antisemitism.
Last year, I received a call from the FBI: it was a “duty to warn” call that there was an attempt on my life.
I had to leave immediately.
In a fortunate twist of events, I was already outside of my apartment. In fact, I was far away from the attempt as it unfolded. Due to unexpected circumstances, I was on the other side of the world, in a sunny bedroom in Eagle Rock on a weekday morning.
Initially, I received very little information. Yet I felt like every enunciation, every rhythm of cadence, every detail of word choice might convey something to help me understand more about what was happening and allow me to make the problem vanish.
I did not know it then, but it is clear to me now — in real time — as I write this. The reason I was so desperate to stay on the phone was because, since the moment this all happened, I have needed someone to talk to. And I still do. It has been over a year now, and that phone call with the FBI, and a follow-up meeting in person, remain some of the only times I was ever able to really have a two-way conversation.
Sometimes someone will care, they really will. A few people have followed through with taking this seriously so I can have a better chance of getting through the days, weeks, and months. But there is just too much for any friend or acquaintance.
There was nobody to talk to the night I broke down sobbing on my floor because I was able to see my apartment again.
There was nobody to talk to every one of the nights I tried to fall asleep despite being afraid for my life.
There was nobody to talk to every one of the mornings I woke up wondering if it would be the day I die.
There was nobody to talk to about the searing anxiety that stabs me, replaying every single one of the most upsetting moments and betrayals of this whole ordeal. And what remains is the emptied-out feeling that gripped me even here, on a sunset train ride along the Pacific Ocean.
I remember the time I sat down with a friend for dinner and told her about the situation. It was a lot to unload in response to a simple “how are you?” type of question. After all, who would ever sit down to catch up after a long time, and expects to hear about an ongoing murder plot? Of course, I am reasonable, and I do not expect even close friends to respond in perfect ways for my particular emotional needs, but do you know what happened? She did not care. She started talking about being interrogated at an airport and how scary that was for her, too. I felt alone.
There were the authorities in the relevant ministry who invited me for a meeting, then slyly mentioned people involved in the plot had come to the building. Of course, I was petrified and told them I had to postpone the meeting. They acknowledged they knew one of them had threatened others, too, and suggested I just wait a little while. What if the perpetrators knew I was coming? What if they were waiting nearby? Would I be stepping into the final coordinate they needed to triangulate their plot on me?
For what must have been at least the dozenth time, I explained that I had to take extra precautions because of the threat, and hoped to reschedule the meeting.
I had not had time to dive into suspicions and second-guessing, in order to ask myself why these authorities were coordinating between me and the people I had to fear.
Amid the warning from the FBI, complaints from others as well, and signs of increasingly sophisticated planning, the authorities in the Kurdistan Region issued a surprising, hyperbolic, and out-of-the-blue statement declaring no antisemitic violence nor even threats existed at any point in history.
I followed up, and the authorities responsible erased the entire history of events. “I invited you to discuss,” came the reply. “What’s the reason you can’t meet with us?” I kept trying to meet, with no success. These endless delays gave me time to think. Until then, I had not really had the ability to comprehend that these circumstances were possibly by design.
There were also the community leaders who had every opportunity to do the right thing — to seek out the right authorities, to put their influence in the right places, and help make a safer environment in the Kurdistan Region when it comes to antisemitism. But even these trusted leaders — and a few were even Jewish, shockingly enough, yet still chose to plant themselves at varying levels of proximity — appeared on television to promote charlatans as a new presence, as a long-lost congregation.
At one point, the charlatans made contact with a Rabbi from overseas with a questionable history. He was not Kurdish, with no connections whatsoever to the Kurdistan Region nor Iraq, but soon started circulating a document claiming he was the Chief Rabbi of Kurdistan, which supposedly had the signature of the relevant minister in the Kurdistan Region. Yet the Kurdish ministry stated this document was forged, and the Kurdish Jewish leadership in Israel totally rejected his claims of authority over their heritage. He began releasing injunctions (which thankfully went totally unheeded) over the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum, claiming the project had to be rerouted through him. Also, he was busy circulating a dizzying and bizarrely unrealistic $10,000,000 budget request. “I am keeping him for now,” replied the Rabbi, about his relationship to one of the charlatans who seemed to help him coordinate from afar.
So yes, my conversations with the FBI were some of the last ones I had where a sense of understanding, respect, and basic dignity were the starting point. I had no way of knowing it at the time. But I have had over a year to feel it beaten into my consciousness every day.
It is ironic. When I am at my fullest with distress and loneliness, and reliving the feeling of falling from a cliff that hit me after the call from the FBI, it is when I am also the most empty and numb. It stays with me. It empties me. The pain stares at me through the window of the train. It sits by my side at the dining table. It strips the flavor from the food that I eat. It makes my eyes feel tight, even though there are no tears — just fear, pain, and betrayal, all different, yet all the same. I can list them, but it feels like listing the levels of the ocean or different kinds of waves. If you drown, does it really matter what kind of current it was that pulled you underwater? Does it really matter where your body sinks? With that in mind, I can describe my feelings in one word: hurt. It tells the whole story.
It is nightfall now on the train. Another day has passed. I have a beautiful life — yes, a difficult life filled with constant movement across countries, states, and cities, where my struggles are complemented by days spent eating nothing but oatmeal because I cannot afford anything else. But it is also a beautiful life. I post, I write, I photograph, and I share — not only to document things that matter to me, but to lay the groundwork for what I hope will be a better life. I even write, like I am now. What I lack in talent, I try to compensate for with trying to improve each time. And I am now close to finishing my masters degree, after nearly ruining it all by dropping out one semester midway through my coursework because of the anxiety and depression.
Anyways, the train is nearing the end of the line. That is my stop. I see familiar landscapes of my destination.
I have to get ready. I will carry my things off the train, and continue living my life. Nobody around me will know what I have been writing. I have to keep it together. I will smile and tell funny stories when I get picked up at the station. Because, at the end of the day, that is who I am.
Note: This post is the second in a series. Images courtesy of the author.