I’ve been to Iraq twice. Both times I paid attention to the Iraqi culture and wore a head scarf and covered up pretty well.
The first time I went, I felt pretty much at home. I had no idea why, but it felt like I belonged. It was a war zone and was only three months after the United States entered the country. It wasn’t that I thought I had a past life in Iraq (which I do not really believe in), it was just that I felt at home. I had no idea why it felt so comfortable, only that I felt like I fit in.
The second time I was in Iraq, the experience was more profound. It felt like I related and belonged to the people. Just like the first time, people came up to me and spoke to me in Arabic. I was with the military, so I was not on the streets as I had been on my first trip. But when I went to a local council meeting, people started speaking to me in Arabic. I could not really understand why.
A few months after I got home, I sent our family DNA tests to Family Tree DNA, which also works hand in hand with the National Geographic Human Genome Project. The project traces the exit from Africa and the routes that many of our ancestors took when they left the continent thousands of years ago. Although not all of my eight grandparents had the same genetic letter, there were many that showed an origin around the northern part of the Fertile Crescent, much of which is in what we now call Iraq. I began to understand my feelings of belonging.
Shortly after my second Iraq experience, I met with several female journalists from Iraq. I left our meeting for a few minutes to go to the ladies’ room. When I came back, the women had asked the translator if I was from Iraq. They said it was not just the way I looked but my hand motions. I was astounded. Somewhere, a couple of thousand years ago, my genetics had imprinted not just the way I looked but how I acted in the world.
My family and I have had great interest in our origins, and my brother has been working with a genealogist. He found a possible cousin that we did not know existed on my mother’s side of the family. He contacted him and sent a family tree DNA kit to him. It came back an exact match. So, we arranged a meeting.
The meeting took place eight days ago and ranks as one of the top experiences in my life. Cousin Danny showed up with his wife and one of his daughters. We shared the family stories, and my mother’s brothers and sisters did better than his father’s family in terms of sheer survival. Our parents would have been first cousins. His father was one of 10, and five of the 10 died in the Holocaust. My mother was one of 12, but they had already immigrated to the United States when the Holocaust occurred.
The stories he told of his father’s siblings have been in my mind the last eight days. One managed to escape from the train carrying him to Auschwitz but was shot and left for dead. Nuns found him, cared for him and hid him during the war. One sister froze to death on the way to Auschwitz. The Nazis took his grandfather away, and the police, who were acting on orders, cried as he was so respected in the town. No one in the family saw him again.
In addition to learning about Danny’s family, we all had a sense of completion. I told a friend it was like finding a piece of yourself you did not know was missing. The sadness of the Holocaust stories keep haunting me, but finding that missing piece has contributed to a new sense of wholeness.
What does it all mean? It means there is strength in our genes. It means that the speculation that some scientists have that we are hard wired to connect to our families is probably not some wild scientific theory but is the way we develop and grow as individuals and with our families as a community. It means we can take people who we think are divergent but have a connection after all.
We know that in some conflict areas such as in the Middle East, some people who are “different” have many of the same genetic diseases. Imagine if those people of conflict find out that they are connected after all.
It might not change overnight, but they would find out there is more connecting them then pulling them apart. That would be revolutionary and a new way of engaging enemies in a peace process.