Iraqi novelist Mortada Gzar grew up in Basra knowing he was gay in a culture that punished LGBTQ+ people as though they were criminals. (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.) A brief chance encounter with a Seattle man opened up the possibility of a better life. Years later, Gzar impulsively traveled to Seattle to seek that man out. “I wanted to surprise him, because I love surprises,” Gzar says over the phone in a recent interview.
He arrived in Seattle on Election Day, 2016.
“It wasn’t good timing,” Gzar admits. President-elect Donald Trump had run on a platform explicitly calling for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, and Gzar’s Iraqi American friends were planning to leave the country just as he was arriving. “We want to immigrate again, to Canada or to Europe,” they told Gzar, and they suggested that he do the same.
“I never imagined myself moving to the U.S.,” Gzar says, but he surprised himself by committing to Seattle, and to America. “I found a community in Seattle waiting for me. I like the people here. They’re very friendly and collaborative and supportive.”
After writing four novels and many short stories, Gzar is now publishing his first memoir about his experiences in Iraq and his move to Seattle. He says he wrote “I’m in Seattle, Where Are You?” because “I felt I needed something to introduce myself” to his new home. “Writing books was always my language, from when I was a teenager. So I’m still using those same tools to communicate.”
Though he’s always found connection through literature, “I’m in Seattle” represents a huge departure for Gzar. “Writing a memoir is not very common” in Iraq, he explains. “Only people who have a huge impact on history, like military leaders or presidents, write their memoirs. Writers don’t think people are going to have interest in their personal life.”
“When I came here, I found writing memoirs is common. You don’t need to have a high profile to do it,” Gzar says. “You need just to have a story.”
While many high-profile immigration memoirs of the past few decades — Frank McCourt’s bestselling “Angela’s Ashes,” for example — end with the author arriving in America, presenting the U.S. as both the climax of the narrative and the solution to the narrator’s problems, “I’m in Seattle” begins with Gzar arriving at Seatle-Tacoma International Airport. The narrative continues forward, with him finding his way in Seattle, and his youth in Iraq is relayed in flashbacks as Gzar navigates his new city.
“When entering into a new country, old memories are attacking you all the time,” Gzar says. He structured the book to honor that way the old informs the new: “I see something in Seattle that connects my memory to something back home which is similar, but with different contexts and different reactions.”
Sometimes the connections are bracing. One very funny Seattle scene, in which Gzar is bitten in the crotch by a dog, is interlaced with an account of religious persecution and imprisonment in Basra. A young Seattle man’s exuberant coming-out party is compared to the brutality that similarly promising young Iraqi men experienced. (And hatred doesn’t only exist in one part of the world; in the book, a security guard at Seattle Art Museum makes a cruel racist joke about Gzar having a bomb in his bag, ruining a lighthearted afternoon on the town.)
A recurring theme in “I’m in Seattle” is the way that the same words can mean completely different things when said by different people. A woman asks people to read the words tattooed on her belly — “uhibbuki,” which means “I love you” — because she recalls the specific way one particular man said the words, and “I just feel people aren’t saying it the way the one who wrote it on my belly did.”
Some of Gzar’s fiction has been translated into English, but he admits that it felt different having his true story — one which is deeply interested in the different meanings words carry depending on who says them — translated from the Arabic by William Hutchins. “I think he was attentive to this specific point — he’s not translating literally, he’s delivering my meaning,” Gzar says. The author is pleased with Hutchins’ translation. “I enjoy reading it in English. It’s interesting to see and feel your world, but in another language.”
As a five-year Capitol Hill resident, Gzar writes beautifully about Seattle at a pre-pandemic moment in which it was growing at a quicker rate than almost any other American city. “Seattle runs faster than a river and inevitably changes,” he writes, adding, “there are millions of Seattles that take turns here. I feel this while I walk the amazing streets in the heart of the city or its outskirts. I sense its skin corroding and another skin growing, only to be shed and replaced again.”
While “I’m in Seattle, Where Are You?” might be his first book about the city, Gzar is certain it won’t be his last. “I fell in love with the city. I cannot leave this city, even in my writing and imagination.”
That process of writing and understanding has helped him find a home. “I became someone who people ask about Seattle. A lot of my friends came here after me, and I’ve became their source of information. They tell me I’m a Seattle guy, somehow,” he says with a laugh.