Kids are innocent, and seldom fully grasp the concept of religion or political climate they grow up in. Poppies of Iraq, Brigitte Findalky’s wonderful memoir of growing up amidst one of her native country’s most turbulent eras (illustrated by her husband Lewis Trondheim) may be difficult for some readers, but it’s a powerful reminder how easily children will accept anything that enters their childhood bubble. In their small world, they rarely question the circumstances they were born into and only come to fully understand them after they’re well into adulthood.
Brigitte’s story is one that needs to be savored slowly, like consuming fine cuisine one bite at a time. Her parents are the sweetest people I’ve ever read about. They come from different religious backgrounds, her father Orthodox Christian and her mother Catholic. Owing to their easy and wholesome deposition towards others, she was baptized in both faiths as a baby. This easy acceptance sets a bittersweet precedent for the rest of a story that shared the life of incredibly kind people mixed with the harsh backdrop of living and growing up in Iraq.
Her narrative often switches from childhood to current day and even to before she was born. When she begins to talk about moving to France and adjusting to life in Europe, there are times I had to laugh. I loved seeing how Brigitte discovered herself as a person and speaks her mind. The impression is she may not have always fully understood what was she was doing, as when marching in a feminist protest and reveling in the fact she was committing an act of “political rebellion.” The important thing was that she was growing up, and finding her own voice. After returning to Iraq to visit her family, she begins to see the irregularities of the world she grew up in and has a hard time coping with them.
One incident that was a real eye opener for me was when Brigitte relates having to be outside on the playground while her classmates stayed inside to read the Quran. As a Christian, this both confused and upset her, since she wasn’t able to join her fellow classmates. So she went to her parents about the situation. Her parents spoke to the teacher and she was allowed to sit in class to read the Quran, too. She just wanted to be a part of what they were doing even if she didn’t fully comprehend the situation and her parents supported her choice. It’s nice what might have been a controversial matter handled with such honesty and straightforwardness, as neither parent questioned their daughter’s desire to join the rest of the class.
Not everything in Brigitte’s world is filled with sweetness as her story often dips into disturbing moments that were difficult read about. During one memory, she explains how her brother and his classmates were taken on a class trip to see the bodies of men that had been hanged. In another, Brigitte describes how her mom would help out the poor by giving them food if they came knocking at her door. Brigitte and her brother would come with her, but during one visit a Palestinian woman wearing an abaya opened up her robe to show her naked body. This was her way of showing she had absolutely nothing, and we soon learn this woman was well-known for doing this. After that incident, Brigitte’s mom didn’t take her children to answer the door anymore.
Incidents like this are commonplace throughout and it’s unnerving to realize children grew up in this kind of environment. Parents have to constantly watch what they say around their children and politics are all but forbidden to be discussed. Anything said against the ruling body at the time could be considered treason and possibly result in imprisonment or death. Living in that kind of world for any extended period of time, let alone growing up in it, will be hard for some readers to come to terms with. Even now it’s hard for me to imagine the censorship and stress Brigitte and her family had to put up with every day of their lives until they finally moved away from Iraq.
Poppies of Iraq is one of the hardest books I’ve ever had to review. The only way I can describe is it’s honest, pure and simple. It’s a look into someone else’s life and the upbringing they had in another country and a story of self-discovery on top of that. It made me realize how horrendous things in the light of adulthood can be ignored in the darkness of childhood, and just how narrow my life experiences are compared to others. Brigitte Findalky shares a part of herself and tells her own story, one of the most difficult ones I’ve ever read. I have a lot of respect for her doing this, and I’d love to share with other people and discuss the heartfelt honesty in its pages.