Back to Iraq, Seattle man's laden with gifts

By Florangela Davila
Seattle Times staff reporter

Sabah Al-Dhaher is taking two pieces of luggage to his Iraqi homeland, one devoted entirely to gifts. It will be the first visit to Iraq in 12 years for the Seattle artist, now a teacher at Pratt Fine Arts Center. To his right is his marble sculpture titled “Eve.”
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It wasn't until this month that Sabah Al-Dhaher fully experienced the pressure of holiday shopping.

He had certainly shopped before. A father, husband and uncle, Al-Dhaher, 36, is no stranger to the teeming American retail store.

But returning to Iraq after 12 years carries with it its own unique burden: What to bring home?

What to buy for grown brothers you remember only as youngsters? What to get in-laws, nieces and nephews whose faces you've never known?

Al-Dhaher stood inside Bartell Drugs in Greenwood, its aisles brimming with routine household goods, and contemplated his impending, extraordinary trip. A sculptor and art teacher, Al-Dhaher looked at the spatulas.

I don't remember seeing those in Iraq, he thought.

Al-Dhaher and his wife, Cynthia, had gotten a baby-sitter for 9-year-old son, Noor, and were out on a date. On the way to Starbucks, they had stopped at the drugstore so Cynthia could pick up a few things.

Al-Dhaher spotted plastic pouches full of lipsticks, eye shadows, blush. My sisters, he thought. "I thought if I was a girl, I'd like this."

He picked out five makeup kits.

The quick trip would turn into a $150, hourlong shopping affair.

Home on Christmas Day

For weeks now, the Iraqi immigrant, now a U.S. citizen, had been planning the logistics of his monthlong trip. He heads back to his home village of Nasiriyah on Christmas Day.

When he was last in Iraq, he was a young art student enamored with Michelangelo. He had just graduated from art school in Basra when the Persian Gulf War began in 1991.

Al-Dhaher joined the uprising against Saddam Hussein, was captured by the Republican Guard and said he endured 11 days of torture before being released.

He returned briefly to Nasiriyah to say goodbye to his family. He then donned an Iraqi military jacket and surrendered to American troops.

He spent two years in a detention camp in Saudi Arabia before arriving as a refugee in Seattle in 1993.

Within weeks, he met his future wife. Within months, he got a job cleaning fish, then baking bread. Within a few years, the couple moved into an Eastlake duplex and had Noor.

When the war began in March, Al-Dhaher, now a teacher at Pratt Fine Arts Center, sculpted "like crazy" in his Interbay studio, agonizing about his mother and siblings. His father died five years ago.

When Saddam's regime finally fell, he warily contemplated a visit home.

"I kept waiting to see when there was a good moment to go," he says. "But then it got worse. Two, three months ago I decided I'm going to shoot for Christmas and see."

He already had his airplane ticket when the phone rang. They got Saddam!

"I'm still processing it. I still wake up and I say, 'Oh, my God.' It's like it's too good to be true."

Stress of returning home

Such relief was unexpected. But the stress remained, as any U.S. immigrant returning to his homeland can attest.

Going back home from this land of plenty, you do all you can to bring some of here to there.

"My mom lives in a house with my two sisters, three brothers, an older brother and his wife and their four kids," Al-Dhaher says. "Within walking distance of the house, there are four sisters, married, and they all have children."

The Bartell makeup kits, Al-Dhaher figured, would suit his four married sisters and his sister-in-law. Unmarried women typically don't wear makeup. At least they didn't when he lived in Iraq.

"Then I thought about their husbands," he says. "They might be wondering, 'Her brother. He comes from America, and he's not bringing us anything?' "

"I thought, OK. Scarves. I like to wear them. They might like to wear stuff like that, too."

He selected several.

He saw tiny FM radios, the size of a pager, and considered giving them to his brothers until he realized the items were more suitable for children.

His brothers, he suddenly remembered, were no longer young.

The radios made better gifts for the nieces and nephews, Al-Dhaher determined.

Socks: Good for men, he thought. Toothbrushes: Kids.

His wife roamed the aisles, selecting ponytail holders and lavender-scented soaps for the women.

"Now I understand why people feel so much pressure to do their shopping," he says. "I didn't want to forget anyone."

Hospitality is a huge part of Iraqi culture, and guests are always celebrated, whether family or not. When he was a boy, Al-Dhaher remembered how visitors would arrive in town and hand out gifts.

In his living room, on his knees, Al-Dhaher unzips the larger of his two pieces of luggage, devoted entirely to gifts.

Black socks. Navy socks. Blue toothbrushes. Four-inch dolls.

Thin-tipped markers. Jumbo crayons.

"I'm hoping some of them will like art."

"Before the war started," he said, "me and two of my friends, we used to fantasize about what it would be like going home. Our dads had all died. Our moms are alive.

"I never really felt like I got enough time with my mom," he explains, since he moved away from home when he was 15.

He'll try to keep it low-key

Al-Dhaher does not expect his arrival in Nasiriyah to go unnoticed in the neighborhood, though he says he'll do what he can to keep it low-key.

"I always said I wanted to go there and not announce it, to friends, to anybody, so I can get enough time to be with my family," he says.

"I thought, I'm going to try and sneak in there. I'll see my mom, and I'll just put my head in her lap, and she'll scratch my head. Like this. That's all I want."

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or