Maia Asshaq (Shikwana) – May 25-31, 2023


We get up early, around 6, breakfast is no later than 8. last night we slept after midnight, after tea at one cousin’s house then coffee and another tea at her sister’s house, then salad and fava beans underneath the grapevines in my aunt’s courtyard.

I thought for a long time my sense of humor came from friends or from past sadness and trauma, but actually it comes from here. I thought for a long time my deep love for my friends, and for people in general, was a reaction to something else, but actually it comes from here. I thought my taste, the way i like to feel in a home came from a specific house in my childhood, but actually it comes from here. There’s plaster, there’s metal, there’s courtyards, there’s gardens. Today the rose smell triggered an old memory, but I can’t quite make it out.

In terms of time, i’m here in the month my aunt’s street is being repaved. We use a ladder to get from the courtyard gate to the street. This large gap makes it nearly impossible for my aunt to leave her house. They tamped the dirt down and put something like gravel on top to raise the street level back up. I threw in a peach pit and a few loose strands that came out when i ran my hand through my hair. My stuff will be sealed with cement. i’ll be part of the street til it gets repaved again.

In today’s coffee, there were no roads. My mom thinks it looked like a bra and skirt. Unusual. I realized this week that i look a lot like my mom, because i see now how much i look like my aunt and how much she looks like my mom. 

My uncle, a poet and songwriter, was on a local show talking about his writing. In it he talked about how his love songs are never about a person, but always about this place. He says after living in the US for over 40 years, he still doesn’t think of the dirt under his home as his. 

We walked up a hill at sunset and my cousin picked some rosemary and sage growing between the rocks, she tells me to smell it. It smells great. The other night near that same hill my dad picks some lemon verbena growing near the water tower and tells me to smell it. It also smells great. Every few moments i put it back up to my nose and when i look over at my dad he’s doing the same.

Tomorrow I turn 36. I was born around 7:30 in the morning in Baghdad, which is 9:30 PM on May 31st in LA time. It’s the first time in a long time i get to celebrate a birthday in this time zone. My friend in Beirut is playing a set that evening, it’ll be the first time I get to listen at its intended air time. 

I think of going on morning runs in Berlin and coordinating w/ L while she was in Amsterdam. I think of the difference in seeing people in person or calling them on the phone when they’re close by vs. when they’re experiencing a different part of the day. Is this relating? Everyone here says hello, invites you in for coffee or tea. This is the happiest I’ve ever been.

photos by Maia Asshaq (Shikwana)


Today my feeling is that me and my parents and two uncles would be great roommates.

In the past when people have asked if i remember much from here, i always say that i have a handful of memories of a few spaces, mainly houses from my childhood. In being here now, i realize just how little memory i have. I remember my mother’s childhood home, but not my father’s, i remember the road near the old church, but not the cemetery, i remember the color of the rocks, but not the varieties of trees. 

I’ve always known my mother’s siblings to be very loving toward one another, but seeing it up close at this stage of my life somehow blows me away. They joke, the laugh, they only address each other with terms of endearment, “khay” which is like “my life.” 

The bulk of this trip for my parents has been dealing with the logistics of reestablishing their citizenship which has required the help of several cousins who know somehow who knows someone. The cars are limited, so when a cousin isn’t free to take us somewhere we hire a friend. 

My aunt comments that it’s easy to forget i’m here because i’m always so quiet. She asks if that’s because i am so used to living alone that i don’t have the impulse to speak. I say that’s probably the case. I do think it’s best to stay quiet, to listen, to try to understand everything while I can. 

My favorite story of the day is one my dad tells while we’re on a walk. The roofs are flat here so that people can sleep outdoors in the summer. When my father and uncle were young, they once eavesdropped their neighbor describing the exact location he set a dozen bird traps. I tell my dad I already know where this story is going, we both laugh. He says, once the traps were set for a while, he and my uncle sneak out and collect all of the birds. The guy goes to find everything empty and is confused about who could have taken them. Afraid they’ll get in trouble if they bring the birds home, my dad and uncle find an opening, a kind of chute that led from the roof to the family’s bread basket. One by one, they pass the birds through and go about their business. When the guy gets home and finds the birds, he’s shocked. The story travels across the town and everyone thinks it was an act of magic, specifically a genie (lol) that did this. 

photos by Maia Asshaq (Shikwana)


When the power goes out, everyone gets really quiet, only to start talking a few second later when it comes back on. 

I went to the bazaar in Mosul with my family. my aunt and i walked through the whole thing as a kind of research, we walked through again to buy things when my mom joined us. 

There were too many stories from today to recount, the story of the little cave my dad and uncle attached a door (with a window) to so they could smoke without getting in trouble. The other cave my great (x8) grandfather used to write in. He had a little rock that was used as a table top. My cousin who was imprisoned and sentenced to death by Saddam, but was released in the late 90s and now manages a grove of mostly olive trees. The time my grandfather hid all of our great (x8) grandfather’s handwritten books in the walls of his home only for them to be taken and burned anyway. 

When my dad and two uncles toured me through the older part of the village, where they grew up, my dad points out the route that leads from the church to the cemetery. This winding path, down a set of shallow steps through a stone tunnel, is how a funeral procession would travel from the funeral ceremony to the burial plot. Since the church was nestled within the town, every funeral would pass in front of several homes, the last of which belonged (and still belongs) to the Desi family. After you get to the Desi’s, you cross a road to get to the cemetery. 

My dad says, a few years ago an Assyrian woman in her early sixties goes to her Assyrian doctor in Canada. She asks about her health and the doctor replies, “for someone so young I’m surprised you’re so close to Desi’s door!”

photos by Maia Asshaq (Shikwana)


This morning i learned that u can propagate roses. I hope to take some stems from my aunt’s front garden. Her garden also has several trees, citrus, pomegranate, olive, three different kinds of grapes… the almond trees died.

My uncle saw an old friend who recounted a story about their youth when my uncle would pass by their house and flick his cigarette in the same spot each day, they would rush to grab it so they could smoke the last few dregs. “When we’d see you coming, we’d call out, he’s coming he’s coming!”

Most of my day here takes place while everyone i know is asleep. Somehow this gives me more space to think about what i love and who i love. Unfortunately, it also gives me time to think about things i’ve lost. 

A term used a few times today to describe a couple that’s split up, “msebeh” which literally translates to “they let each other go.” But like, in a physical way, like they were holding onto one another and then stopped and let go. 

We went to the mountains, parked on top, and looked out over the city below. 

photos by Maia Asshaq (Shikwana)


I learned that Marguerite Yourcenar was a gemini and think, of course! I’m reading about the Mediterranean(s), which seems appropriate even though i’m in Northern Iraq. 

The difference between the sea and the mountains is that the sea reveals itself. Tides pull the water back and you can see what there is to see. Water levels rise and fall. Diving and swimming are elegant acts of exploration. For a mountain to show you anything, it requires years of erosion or violent acts of extraction. Climbing one leaves you short of breath. 

This morning i’m up by 5, now it’s 6:30 and thinking about translation. How certain words i’m hearing more now, that i’ve used a million times before, are sounding different and clearer. Like the context is all finally here. Like i get to make more sense out of something that made sense already. Maybe that’s not translation, but it feels like a transformation of some kind. 

My mom had someone read her coffee grounds and he predicted i’d get married soon. She also had a coffee psychic in Florida say this last year. 

My dad makes a joke about coffee readers commonly using the line “i see two roads.”  I also see two roads, mostly dirt while they repave the streets near my aunt’s house. Her drapes, the front door, the drawer pulls in the kitchen, all things i would have also picked and might try to replicate in my apartment. Something (a painting, a religious image, a clock, a metal sculpture) is placed above each doorway. 

My mom was right, the mosquitos are a problem. My aunt is sad that she can no longer walk to greet me when I walk through the door. 

It’s now 7 PM and I’ll have had at least five cups of coffee and three cups of black tea before the end of the day. 

photos by Maia Asshaq (Shikwana)


I slept a few hours, the men on either side of me leaned on me for most of the fifteen hour flight. It was fine. 

The doha airport has a lush? Interior garden with waterfalls and trees and trellises. It reminds me of the star trek next gen episode i talk about at least once a month, where captain jean luc picard is transported to another world that’s dying and everyone donates a small portion of their water ration to maintain the life of a single tree. The tree is obviously a symbol of hope among an otherwise desolate landscape. Here there are birds chirping, in the episode it’s jean luc playing a flute. Unclear if there are really birds (i see none) or if there’s just bird sounds playing through speakers (this seems more likely). Unclear if patrick stewart played the flute himself (this seems unlikely).

The sun is a big yellow circle atop a hazy sky. It gets half obscured by a cloud and sets quickly. 

The passport security guy at the airport says this land was mine before anyone else was here. He welcomes me home. I cry. 

I’m greeted at the arrivals area by my mom, aunt, and two cousins. We all cry.

We go to my other aunt’s house. Again, we cry. Everyone looks the same, everyone looks like me. We talk about what memories i have, one of this aunt’s old house with the tree in the courtyard. She hasn’t lived there for thirty years. So far three people have recalled my baptism where i walked in chewing a big wad of gum and singing an Arabic song. 

They postponed my baptism several times because my dad would be away for long stretches while in the army. My aunt says i used to recite a long poem by memory and asks if i know what it is. I don’t and she doesn’t either. 

Tomorrow i’ll see everything in the light. I’ll walk to my other aunt’s house up a hill. I’ll see the broken spout that everyone keeps talking about. I’ll see the fruit trees. 

photos by Maia Asshaq (Shikwana)


I’m in an uber with a Sri Lankan driver named Ifthikar that says he was in the marines, i had already clocked the “semper fi” bumper sticker on the back of his car. He tells me he spent a lot of time in Baghdad doing “logistics procurement,” which he said is basically interrogation. I ask what it was he was procuring, people or information? He laughs. He left his job because of his impulse to lie on everyone’s behalf to protect them. Should I start crying? 

My mom says she misses me on the phone and tells me to bring as much cash as i’d like and plenty of bug spray. (I bought 4 bottles)

It’s raining, should I start crying? 

“Marriage is difficult in Los Angeles,” says Ifthikar. I tell him I haven’t tried, but will take his word for it. 

“When you get there, take off your shoes and walk on the grass to connect to the earth and the place, this is what I do when I go to Sri Lanka, this is what my mom tells me.” I don’t know if there will be grass, but ground seems fine. 

When people are this nice, I wonder how.

He asks me about Saddam and my feelings about him, but I have no feelings about him. Every question reminds me of how little I know and, to a certain extent, how little I care to know. 

I try to remember what semper fi means, i try to remember what Ifthikar means; faithful or loyal, honor or glory. 

I think about how quickly I will move through space and still how long it takes and still how quickly time moves in general. I anticipate the end and not taking advantage of my time somehow and now I am actually crying.

Maia means water, my brother spells it Maya, which makes sense for reasons i can’t get into.