Friday, June 22, 2012

A Storm of Swords, A Storm of Sand

I left Turkey in a quiet and semi-orderly fashion. I hopped the tram which would take me to the metro to the airport. I was going during rush hour so I made a point of getting on at an earlier stop so I could stow my bags underneath the seat. My plan worked fine, and I rolled along.

I was zoning off, listening to my head phones when I heard an announcement on the tram at Yusufpas(h)a that this station was the transfer to the airport. It caught me by surprise, and I quickly grabbed my stuff and waddled out of the packed train amid “pardons.” Only once I got off did I realize I was far too early. Yes, I could transfer to the airport, but it was not the stop I really wanted. Now, I would have to climb on to the packed car and wade my way in with my luggage. I was fine on time, but it made an easy trip that much harder. I got on the next sardine train and managed to awkwardly carve out enough room for both me and my stuff.

But it ended up okay, because I made friends with a fellow commuter, a Turkish language teacher  named Leo who had lived in New York and Japan.  We chatted about linguistics and Istanbul's crushing commute.  I arrived to the airport just on time, got myself through ticketing and security and talked my way into the priority lounge to meet my boss John who was there waiting.  The flight to Iraq was fine, but unfortunately I had a Game of Thrones publishing fail.  I was pouring through A Storm of Swords (the third book), about 750 pages in and things had just got crazy. Then I turned the page and found myself back at page 350. Publishing fail! It continued on for 60 pages then went back to page 817. Guessing I am not going to find a book store carrying such titles in Iraq. Aargh.

Anywho, we touched down around 1am, and no sooner did we land that half the plane was up in the rows, ala India and Taiwan.  We made our way through customs, and I got a big smile and welcome to Kurdistan from the passport guard.  The Erbil Airport is brand new, and it shows.  The place is big and open, and relatively nice.  But they have a real problem getting passengers from the airport to the parking lot.  The airport is a ways away from the parking area, and passengers need to take buses.  Fine, and work in most places but not here.  There are really only two buses ferrying passengers back and forth.  As you can imagine, a rugby scrum ensued of passengers piling their way on and off, and moving massive luggage.  A flight of umrah pilgrams coming back from Mecca had passenger lugging giant jerrycans of zam-zam water.  I just smiled and laughed at the chaos and got myself on the bus with my stuff.  The bus drove to the parking lot, but was mobbed by family members before it could turn around.  Finally, it was able to do its required 3-point turn, and passengers were allowed off.  The currents passed children and luggage to families, and we met some YES Academy students who were taking us from the airport to the hotel.  I finally got to bed around 3pm, and had to get up just three short hours later to take a taxi to Duhok.

I watched the taxi speed off past sandy hills and some interspersed greenness.  I slept most of the way, and awoke to find a very different mountainous landscape.  The saying goes, the Kurds have no friends but the mountains, and with such majesty I can see why.  John and I dropped our stuff at the hotel, grabbed some breakfast of cheeses, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and hardboiled eggs, then we were met by Ari- a project manager for YES Academy Iraq and the director of the University of Duhok's music school.  He took us over to the university, and the art complex which was pretty nice.  The art complex had sculptures and murals done by students, and seemed like a nice environ.

We spent the morning listening to auditions for strings, piano, rock, jazz and broadway classes.  There was a talented breakdance crew from Duhok that could really move well.  I think the highlight for the morning for me was a fellow who auditioned for the Broadway program by delivering a monologue from Hamlet in Kurdish.  There were some talented kids, and some who will benefit from the lessons they will get from the YES Academy.  This is grass-roots cultural diplomacy at its finest.

Speaking of Kurdish, there are actually a few different Kurdish dialects.  In Duhok, the main dialect is Badini Kurdish, while in other parts like Suleimaniya it is Sorani.  In Turkey, it is mostly another dialect called Kurmanji.  As it figures, those who speak opposing dialects have a hard time communicating because the dialects are so vastly different.

After a morning of auditions, we regrouped for lunch and were joined by Aram, an American Voices scholarship student who just finished his studies in St. Louis and just returned this week.  We had lunch at a famous local restaurant called Safeen, and I got my first real taste of Kurdish cuisine.  It was amazing.  Under the watchful eye of Mustafa Barzani on the wall, the waiters filled the tables with a variety of dishes, and soon you couldn't see the table.

Bowls of cucumber, tomato and red cabbage salad with half lemons squeezed on top; plates of jajik- dill potatoes; a dish called Russian Salad that was a slightly curried eggplant, tomato and onion dish; thick tehina sesame paste; pickled cucumber that had a curry tang; plates of hot, round fluffy bread.  I had koosey,  a giant roasted lamb shank over fluffy rice. The lamb was accompanied with bania- an okra, tomato stew and fasooli- a bean stew, both of which got dumped on the heaping rice.  I picked at the succulent lamb and salads with pieces of the bread, and ate until in a meat coma,  When the dust had settled and the plates had cleared, all I could do was sip tea and long for a nap.  So begins my Kurdish gastrodiplomacy quest.

A nice nap ensued, and then i was back to work on being a public diplomacy travel agent for an upcoming American Music Abroad tour. As the afternoon wore on, a dust storm turned the sky a phosphorescent greyish white, and now the air burns the eyes and throat and tastes like chalk.  Welcome to Iraq, quite a good first day.

No comments: