The Rockower Post; National Jewographic;
Reports from the Daily Paulmanac; Foreign Paulicy Review; Tales of a Hunger-Blatherer; The Gastrodiplomacy Chef; Chairman of Paulestinian Authority; the last King of Nepaul
I feel like the creative cap is on snug. The prospect of potential of my stay in the heights that bear such names has me giddy.
I need a good answer to why I am living here. Here goes: to find myself as a hip hop artists. No joke. Who knew me in my teen years would recognize such proclamations. And I have already been invited to a cipher. My first New York cipher courtesy of the hip hop ambassador Toni Blackman.
I need to start toning my free style skills. Since I am in training, I will start this homework exercise with some Crooklyn love.
We be doing it up Crooklyn style
What does it take to get you wild
My mentality is getting iller, killer
Instinct that's trying to infiltrate, but wait
I know you wanna enter
But I can't let you in
My mind state's the maddest
I'm gone with the wind
Because it is survival of the fittest
When the shit hits the fan
I got my shank in my hand
Black man with the permanent tan
I come from the 'ville
And never ran, damn.
Ok, enough Crooklyn love for the moment.
I am about to have a massive idea dump. Utterly massive. It is time to start getting it all out. Time to start finishing what I have started.
New York is a land of opportunity. In New York, anything is possible. And I plan to troll through the very bowels of this fair city.
In search of Kerouac's ghosts.
And Ginsberg's haunts.
Off on the Beatnik trail.
For now, just prospects and potential. And pondering New York's pd crown.
I arose early to catch a morning tripper bus to New York. I waited and chatted with an elderly Palestinian fellow from Jordan named Shawki. We had a good rapport and sat together on the sparsely populated bus. He was a water engineer with the World Bank. We chatted about life, religion and politics in the Middle East, and our respective disfavor with the bearded ones. He had live a long life of travel in Jordan, Syria, India and the Gulf, doing water projects at each stop.
Shawki told me about early days in the Hashemite Kingdom, and what life was like when the West Bank was intact with the East Bank. He spoke of where he was when the diminutive King Abdullah was gunned down at Al-Aksa, and how the Jordanian army ransacked the Palestinian shops in the old city in the wake of the assassination.
He also spoke of his friends in America, and how they were mostly Jews and Israelis. And how he and the Israelis seemed to understand each other better in America than the Americans did.
And we despaired for a Middle East that presently left us both devoid of hope.
After a fine ride to the Big Apple, I bade farewell to my new friend. I grabbed two slices of New York's finest at Famous Amadeus Pizza. As always, New York never fails to disappoint in its pies. Thin crisp crust with just enough tomato sauce and a bright glistening grease gravy savoring in the folded triangle slices.
I hopped the subway to Brooklyn. At the Penn Station subway, a shirtless grey dread beat out a calypso version of Frankie's "My Way" and I knew I had found the right locale.
And I rode the subway until I found my humble abode. A nice size one bedroom that I am subletting for the month from Sarah. I was introduced to Sarah by my friend Daron, who was my co-counselor at Seeds of Peace. He and Sarah had worked together in Cape Verde in the Peace Corps.
Sarah and I had immediately hit it off, and felt like old friends when we first chatted. Her grandfather started the Jerusalem Post, which once played home to my writings.
Sarah was off to Uganda for a month, and as there is no such thing as coincidence in this world, she happens to be in the field of water engineering.
"Irony is God's sense of humor"
-the poor Rabbi Rockower
Having risen with the Levant, and joyfully spent his summer in Sumer, Don Pablo Quijote returns to a whole new abode, one that is far more perilous than anything Mesopotamia had to offer: New York City. Yes, the rotten apple has a new resident.
New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of There's nothin' you can't do
Having passed through a bevy of American cities, this could be my last, best attempt at finding an American city that I can call home. My problem when residing in America is that I often feel disconnected with the rest of the world, even in cities with diversity and international panache. I find that it is only when I am traveling can I reconnect with both the world, and my memories passing through it. Perhaps New York can keep me stimulated enough that I can tap into that wellspring. I have a feeling it can.
Now you're in New York These streets will make you feel brand new
Washington had its place and served a purpose. And it could not have happened any other way. But I cannot stay. It was too familiar, too claustrophobic, and bore too much weight than I was willing to shoulder. As Benjamin Button said: “It’s a funny thing coming home. Looks the same. Sounds the same. Even smells the same. You realize the only thing that’s changed…is you."
I know myself well enough at this point to know when it is time for a change. New York offers the promise of new adventures, and the blessed anonymity that I like.
Big lights will inspire you
Gotham's grit and glitz may be just the ticket to keep me entertained, and I plan to take advantage of my virtual office. Maybe I will occupy the Empire State Building for my new office.
Let's hear it for New York, New York, New York
The Count of Monte Cristo taught me that the two most powerful words: wait and hope. I have high hopes for Gotham, and think it just might be the ticket.
"For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you're proud of. If you find that you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again."
-The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
So I wore my spiffy new shoes from K-stan today. F'ing torture! They were rubbing my poor feetsies raw, so I doffed my slippers and proceeded to walk barefoot from essentially the State Dept. to 16th street. I figured either I would destroy my feet in the shoes or on the pavement, but at least I had a fighting chance barefoot. My previous yatras left me in good standing, and I did just fine walking across the city sans shoes.
Meanwhile, I stopped in the grocery store later. Nothing gives me greater culture shock than American supermarkets. Aisles and aisles of crap. I sometimes feel that America in a nutshell is a thousand choices of mediocrity.
I went to see the latest Batman last night at Tysons Corner mall. Truth be told, the mall scares me far more than Iraq. But I am working on learning on how to stop worrying and love the mall, if only because it is one of the places in America where American diversity is on full display.
Anywho, I saw the flick with my friend Matt Wallin. He is a pd colleague from USC who is laying the foundations for solid public diplomacy work at the American Security Project. It was nice to catch up on the pd work he has been doing over the summer, and how he is learning the DC ropes.
As for the caped crusader, I enjoyed it. The movie was entertaining, although there were some parts that droned a bit. I liked the notion that you can't change who you are, nor can you hide from it, be it Batman, Bruce Wayne or Cat Woman.
Speaking of Cat Woman, Anne Hathway was fantastic. She might have been the first female character in the Christian Bale-riff of Batman to have any gravitas. Hathway was hottt as Cat Woman, and she played Selina Kyle was some real bravado.
I liked the Bane character, but he grew old. There was not enough depth behind the wannabe-Darth Vader without a helmet. He was tough and creepy, but the creepiness wore off a bit with the unintelligible, high-pitched voice he had. As opposed to the affective Joker, Bane was a little one-dimensional. But still a decent bad guy.
And I loved the public diplomacy side of Batman. The constant reoccurring theme of symbols, and how to communicate ideas to the people, and give them something to believe in, be it hope or fear. The underlying pd narrative of Batman relates to the communication of emotions, and which visceral emotions will rule Gotham. I also liked the interplay on building heroes upon the backs of lies. If the foundations are shaky, can the edifice really stand?
On the whole, I would give the movie a a solid A-. It was solid, enjoyable and entertaining with some real fun characters to watch. It did enough to keep me entertained for nearly 3 hours, but not enough for perfect marks. As I mentioned, parts droned a bit. I won't spoil any of it, but it did have a lil too much kitsch. That's okay, it was still time well spent.
This gastrodiplomat has been invited to lecture at the Foreign Service Institute to some 20 FSOs who are taking public diplomacy postings! The Foreign Service Institute serves as training grounds for America's diplomats. I am going to discuss gastrodiplomacy, and American Voices guerrilla cultural diplomacy work.
H/T to BD for the headline. Coming straight from the TMI file...but the thing I miss most from Iraq is sh-tting in a hole in the ground and washing my butt with a garden hose. Meanwhile, although I had no problems in Iraq, my poor stomach is being thrown in knots by American food and water.
The title for this blog seemed apt given how I spent my last hours in Iraq, my return and my next locale: New York. The movie is a classic, a Spike Lee Joint about friends, family and his own how a man spends his last hours before heading off to prison. Edward Norton is brilliant in it, dealing with putting his affairs in order among family, friends and in his own head. The story doesn't quite take place on the margins of time, but still somewhere close.
After my morning in the market mazes, I met my friend Omar. I had previously blogged about meeting Omar, an Iraqi Christian doctor from Mosul now living in Kurdistan. Omar and I were introduced by Dr. Bradley, who wrote well about the things that have befallen Omar and his family. Omar and I had randomly bumped into each other the day before (although there is no such thing as random occurrences) at the market, but we had both been planning on contacting the other.
Since it was Ramadan, we drove our way through a tremendous grey sandstorm over to Christian area of Ein Kawa to have a drink. We stopped at the Sun Palace, where after three days I had become a local. I was greeted royally by the proprietor Ahmed. We spent the afternoon sipping cold beer and eating salty pistachios, almonds, macadamias and pumpkin seeds. Omar told me about his family's ties with the Jews of Mosul, and how his grandfather kept a chair given to him by the Rabbi of Mosul for decades. He also told me about how his family was Chaldean Christian, but since he attended a Catholic school, he had grown up Catholic.
Since I needed to stay awake for my late night flight, Omar and I drove to a little coffee shop outside the fortress U.S. Consulate called Black Beans Cafe. The place was a little portable trailer that had previously been a coffee trailer in the Green Zone in Baghdad, and was called "Green Beans Cafe." We sipped coffee as we chatted with the folks running the place (An Indian from Goa, a Nepali and a Baghdadi girl) about the difficulty of providing good coffee to American consular folks sequestered far away behind security walls.
I had plans to meet a USC MPD friend doing intel in K-stan, but the bombings the previous day had him quite busy so I continued with Omar and we went back to his house for dinner. His lovely aunt prepared us a feast of rice covered in toasted almonds, onions and raisins, and a delicious macaroni and lamb dish. We watched the title of this blog, and also bits of the semi-inane "America's Got Talent." We spoke of the rise and fall of his family, through the various convulsions of Iraq. His family lost its savings as Saddam revalued the currency and put his own visage on the bills in 1991. His family lost its land and holdings as it was taken in various confiscations. They rebuilt and started a factory, only to lose it in the tumult of times.
After dinner, Omar and I returned to the hookah cafe next to my hotel. The place was packed with old men playing dominoes. There was nary a hookah to be found, so I pulled my wasta card and got a kid named Faiz who I had become friendly with at the shop to get us a hookah. As we waited, we sat and watched Kurdish bingo inside. Surreal. Every few numbers called out in Kurdish, I would exclaim "bingo!"
Finally, my wasta played out and Faiz got us a tall bubbler with lemon-mint molasses tobacco. We sat pulling the perfumed smoke and sipping sweet black tea spilled into the cup.
Omar and I discussed Ramadan, and how he as a Christian fasts on one day every Ramadan. He does so, because when he had to move to from Mosul, he was helped by friends who were in the midst of fasting for Ramadan. He fasted with them, and does so on the same day every year. He asked me to let him know when Yom Kippur falls, so he can fast that day as well.
We talked about where we fit in the world, and of our cosmopolitan class that connects us. And we talked about Omar's future in Iraq. Omar is part of the club "We, the eternally damned," those of us who fall between worlds. As a Christian, he will never truly be accepted in Muslim Iraq; as an Arab, he will never truly be accepted in Kurdistan. Sadly, he doesn't see a future for himself and his family in Iraq. He will leave because he has no place here, it is only a matter of time. A new Iraq needs those like Omar, but his otherness will ultimately drive him onto to new shores.
PICO IYER Living in the Transit Lounge
By the time I was nine, I was already used to going to school by trans-Atlantic plane, to sleeping in airports, to shuttling back and forth, three times a year, between my parents’ (Indian) home in California and my boarding-school in England. Throughout the time I was growing up, I was never within 6,000 miles of the nearest relative—and came, therefore, to learn how to define relations in non-familial ways. From the time I was a teenager, I took it for granted that I could take my budget vacations (as I did) in Bolivia and Tibet, China and Morocco. It never seemed strange to me that a girlfriend might be half a world (or ten hours flying-time) away, that my closest friends might be on the other side of a continent or sea.
It was only recently that I realised that all these habits of mind and life would scarcely have been imaginable in my parents' youth; that the very facts and facilities that shape my world are all distinctly new developments, and mark me as a modern type.
It was only recently, in fact, that I realised that I am an example, perhaps, of an entirely new breed of people, a trans-continental tribe of wanderers that is multiplying as fast as international phone lines and Frequent Flyer programmes. We are the Transit Loungers, forever heading to the Departure Gate, forever orbiting the world. We buy our interests duty-free, we eat our food on plastic plates, we watch the world through borrowed headphones. We pass through countries as through revolving doors, resident aliens of the world, impermanent residents of nowhere. Nothing is strange to us, and nowhere is foreign. We are visitors even in our own homes.
This is not, I think, a function of affluence so much as of simple circumstance. I am not, that is, a jet-setter pursuing vacations from Marbella to Phuket; I am simply a fairly typical produce of a movable sensibility, living and working in a world that is itself increasingly small and increasingly mongrel. I am a multinational soul on a multicultural globe where more and more countries are as polyglot and restless as airports. Taking planes seems as natural to me as picking up the phone, or going to school; I fold up my self and carry it round with me as if were an overnight case.
The modern world seems increasingly made for people like me. I can plop myself down anywhere and find myself in the same relation of familiarity strangeness: Lusaka, after all, is scarcely more strange to me than the foreigners' England in which I was born, the America where I am registered as an ‘alien’, and the almost unvisited India that people tell me is my home. I can fly from London to San Francisco to Osaka and feel myself no more a foreigner in one place than another; all of them are just locations—pavilions in some intercontintental Expo—and I can work or live or love in any one of them. All have Holiday Inns, direct-dial phones, CNN and DHL. All have sushi and Thai restaurants, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Coke. My office is as close as the nearest FAX machine or modem. Roppongi is West Hollywood is Leblon.
This kind of life offers an unprecedented sense of freedom and mobility: tied down to nowhere, we can pick and choose among locations. Ours is the first generation that can go off to visit Tibet for a week, or meet Tibetans down the street; ours is the first generation to be able to go to Nigeria for a holiday to find our roots—or to find they are not there. At the lowest level, this new internationalism also means that I can get on a plane in Los Angeles, get off a few hours later in Jakarta, and check into a Hilton, and order a cheeseburger in English, and pay for it all with an American Express card. At the next level, it means that I can meet, in the Hilton coffee-shop an Indonesian businessman who is as conversant as I am with Michael Kinsley and Magic Johnson and Madonna. At a deeper level, it means that I need never feel estranged. If all the world is alien to us, all the world is home.
I have learned, in fact, to love foreignness. In any place I visit, I have the privileges of an outsider: I am an object of interest, and even fascination; I am a person set apart, able to enjoy the benefits of the place without paying the taxes. And the places themselves seem glamorous to me—romantic—as seen through foreign eyes: distance on both sides lends enchantment. Policemen let me off speeding tickets, girls want to hear the stories of my life, pedestrians will gladly point me to the nearest Golden Arches. Perpetual foreigners in the transit lounge, we enjoy a kind of diplomatic immunity; and, living off room service in our hotel rooms, we are never obliged to grow up, or even, really, to be ourselves.
Thus many of us learn to exult in the blessings of belonging to what feels like a whole new race. It is a race, as Salman Rushdie says, of ‘people who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves—because they are so defined by others—by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves.’ And when people argue that our very notion of wonder is eroded, that alienness itself is as seriously endangered as the wilderness, that more and more of the world is turning into a single synthetic monoculture, I am not worried: a Japanese version of a French fashion is something new, I say, not quite Japanese and not truly French. Comme des Garçons hybrids are the art-form of the time.
And yet, sometimes, I stop myself and think. What kind of heart is being produced by these new changes? And must I always be a None of the Above? When the stewardess comes down the aisle with disembarkation forms, what do I fill in? My passport says one thing, may face another; my accent contradicts my eyes. Place of Residence, Final Destination, even Marital Status are not much easier to fill in; usually I just tick ‘Other’.
And beneath all the boxes, where do we place ourselves? How does one fix a moving object on a map? I am not an exile, really, not an immigrant; not deracinated, I think, any more than I am rooted. I have not fled the oppression of war, nor found ostracism in the places where I do alight; I scarcely feel severed from a home I have scarcely known. Yet is ‘citizen of the world’ enough to comfort me? And does taking my home as every place make it easier to sleep at night?
Alienation, we are taught from kindergarten, is the condition of the time. This is the century of exiles and refugees, of boat people and statelessness; the time when traditions have been abolished, and men become closer to machines. This is the century of estrangement: more than a third of all Afghans live outside Afghanistan; the second city of the Khmers is a refugee camp; the second tongue of Beverly Hills is Farsi. The very notion of nation-states is outdated; many of us are as cross-hatched within as Beirut.
To understand the modern state; we are often told, we must read V.S. Naipaul, and see how people estranged from their cultures mimic people estranged from their roots. Naipaul is the definitive modern traveler in part because he is the definitive symbol of modern rootlessness; his singular qualification for his wanderings is not his stamina, nor his bravado, nor his love of exploration—it is, quite simply, his congenital displacement. Here is a man who was a foreigner at birth, a citizen of an exiled community set down on a colonised island. Here is a man for whom every arrival is enigmatic, a man without a home—except for an India to which he stubbornly returns, only to be reminded of his distance from it. The strength of Naipaul is the poignancy of Naipaul: the poignancy of a wanderer who tries to go home, but is not taken in, and is accepted by another home only so long as he admits that he's a lodger there.
There is, however, another way of apprehending foreignness, and that is the way of Nabokov. In him we see an avid cultivation of the novel: he collects foreign worlds with a connoisseur's delight, he sees foreign words as toys to play with, and exile as the state of kings. This touring aristocrat can even relish the pleasures of Lo culture precisely because they are the things that his own high culture lacks: the motel and the summer camp, the roadside attraction and the hot fudge sundae. I recognise in Nabokov a European's love for America rooted in America's very youthfulness and heedlessness; I recognise in him the sense that the newcomer's viewpoint may be the one most conducive to bright ardour. Unfamiliarity, in any form, breeds content.
Nabokov shows us that if nowhere is home, everywhere is. That instead of taking alienation as our natural state, we can feel partially adjusted everywhere. That the outsider at the feast does not have to sit in the corner alone, taking notes; he can plunge into the pleasures of his new home with abandon.
We airport-hoppers can, in fact, go through the world as through a house of wonders, picking up something at every stop, and taking the whole globe as our playpen, or our supermarket (and even if we don't go to the world, the world will increasingly come to us: just down the street, almost wherever we are, are nori and salsa, tiramisu and naan). We don't have a home, we have a hundred homes. And we can mix and match as the situation demands. ‘Nobody's history is my history,’ Kazuo Ishiguro, a great spokesman for the privileged homeless, once said to me, and then went on, ‘Whenever it was convenient for me to become very Japanese, I could become very Japanese, and then, when I wanted to drop it, I would just become this ordinary Englishman.’ Instantly, I felt a shock of recognition: I have a wardrobe of selves from which to choose. And I savour the luxury of being able to be an Indian in Cuba (where people are starving for yoga and Tagore), or an American in Thailand; to be an Englishman in New York.
And so we go on circling the world, six miles above the ground, displaced from Time, above the clouds, with all our needs attended to. We listen to announcements given in three languages. We confirm our reservations at every stop. We disembark at airports that are self-sufficient communities, with hotels, gymnasia and places of worship. At customs we have nothing to declare but ourselves.
But what is the price we pay for all of this? I sometimes think that this mobile way of life is as novel high-rises, or the video monitors that are re-wiring our consciousness. And even as we fret about the changes our progress wreaks in the air and on the airwaves, in forests and on streets, we hardly worry about the changes it is working in ourselves, the new kind of soul that is being born out of a new kind of life. Yet this could be the most dangerous development of all, and not only because it is the least examined.
For us in the Transit Lounge, disorientation is as alien as affiliation. We become professional observers, able to see the merits and deficiencies of anywhere, to balance our parents' viewpoints with their enemies' position. Yes, we say, of course it's terrible, but look at the situation from Saddam's point of view. I understand how you feel, but the Chinese had their own cultural reasons for Tiananmen Square. Fervour comes to seem to us the most foreign place of all.
Seasoned experts at dispassion, we are less good at involvement, or suspensions of disbelief; at, in fact, the abolition of distance. We are masters of the aerial perspective, but touching down becomes more difficult. Unable to get stirred by the raising of a flag, we are sometimes unable to see how anyone could be stirred. I sometimes think that this is how Rushdie, the great analyst of this condition, somehow became its victim. He had juggled homes for so long, so adroitly, that he forgot how the world looks to someone who is rooted—in country or belief. He had chosen to live so far from affiliation that he could no longer see why people choose affiliation in the first place. Besides, being part of no society means one is accountable to no one, and need respect no laws outside one's own. If single-nation people can be fanatical as terrorists, we can end up ineffectual as peace-keepers.
We become, in fact, strangers to belief itself, unable to comprehend many of the rages and dogmas that animate (and unite) people. Conflict itself seems inexplicable to us sometimes, simply because partisanship is; we have the agnostic's inability to retrace the steps of faith. I could not begin to fathom why some Moslems would think of murder after hearing about The Satanic Verses: yet sometimes I force myself to recall that it is we, in our floating skepticism, who are the exceptions, that in China or Iran, in Korea or Peru, it is not so strange to give up one's life for a cause.
We end up, then, a little like non-aligned nations, confirming our reservations at every step. We tell ourselves, self-servingly, that nationalism breeds monsters and choose to ignore the fact that internationalism breeds them too. Ours is the culpability not of the assassin, but of the bystander who takes a snapshot of the murder. Or, when the revolution catches fire, hops on the next plane out.
In any case, the issues, in the Transit Lounge, are passing; a few hours from now, they'll be a thousand miles away. Besides, this is a foreign country, we have no interests here. The only thing we have to fear are hijackers—passionate people with beliefs.
Sometimes, though, just sometimes, I am brought up short by symptoms of my condition. They are not major things, but they are peculiar ones and ones that would not have been common fifty year ago. I have never bought a house of any kind, any my ideal domestic environment, I sometimes tell my friends, is a hotel room. I have never voted, or ever wanted to vote, and I eat I restaurants three times a day. I have never supported a nation (in the Olympic Games, say), or represented ‘my country’ in anything. Even my name is weirdly international, because my ‘real name’ is one that makes sense only in the home where I have never lived.
I choose to live in America in part, I think, because it feels more alien the longer I stay there. I love being in Japan because it reminds me, at every turn, of my foreignness. When I want to see if any place is home, I must subject the candidates to a battery of tests. Home is the place of which one has memories but no expectations.
If I have any deeper home, it is, I suppose, in English. My language is the house I carry around with me as a snail his shell; and in my lesser moments I try to forget that mine is not the language spoken in America, or even, really, by any member of my family.
Yet even here, I find, I cannot place my accent, or reproduce it as I can the tones of others. And I am so used to modifying my English inflections according to whom I am talking to—an American, an Englishman, a villager in Nepal, a receptionist in Paris—that I scarcely know what kind of voice I have.
I wonder, sometimes, if this new kind of non-affiliation may not be alien to something fundamental in the human state. The refugee at least harbours passionate feelings about the world he has left—and generally seeks to return there; the exile at least is propelled by some kind of strong emotion away from the old country and towards the new—indifference is not an exile emotion. But what does the Transit Lounger feel? What are the issues that we would die for? What are the passions that we would live for?
Airports are among the only sites in public life where emotions are hugely sanctioned, in block capitals. We see people weep, shout, kiss in airports; we see them at the furthest edges of excitement and exhaustion. Airports are privileged spaces where we can see the primal states writ large—fear, recognition, hope. But there are some of us, perhaps, sitting at the Departure Gate, boarding-passes in hand, watching the destinations ticking over, who feel neither the pain of separation nor the exultation of wonder; who alight with the same emotions with which we embarked; who go down to the baggage carousel and watch our lives circling, circling, circling, waiting to be claimed.
250 dinar (20cents): cup of sweet black tea; bottle of water; public bus in Suli
500 dinar (40cents): bottle of carrot-orange juice; piece of baklava
750 dinar (60cents): falafel in Erbil
1,000 dinar (80cents): shwarma in a triangle pita; kebab on the street; 500ml can of Tuborg beer
1,500 dinar ($1.20): street kebab in Erbil
2,000 dinar ($1.60): large fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juice; 15 minute cab ride in Duhok
3,000 dinar ($2.40): 15 minute taxi in Erbil; 330ml bottle of arak; 250ml bottle of Johnny Walker Bl Label
5,000 dinar ($4): 500 ml beer at Sun Palace restaurant; headphones
6,000 dinar ($5.20): stupidity tax for round trip taxi from Univ of Duhok to hotel for a forgotten office key
6,750 dinar ($5.40): two-piece chicken dinner at Texas Chicken
8,000 dinar ($6.40): veggie pizza at King Foods; shave and a haircut
9,000 dinar: ($7.20): Turkish veggie pide in Ein Kawa
12,500 dinar ($10): laundry at the Hallal Hotel
15,000 dinar ($12): stupidity tax for taxi delivery of my Kurdistan ID card from Suli to Erbil
20,000 dinar ($16): 1 kilo of baklava for the pesh mergas guarding our convoy to Kirkuk
22,000 dinar ($17.60): a kilo of fish, charcoal broiled at "The Fish Restaurant"
40,000 dinar ($32): nice shoes in the bazaar
55,000 dinar ($44): dinner for 4 at the Sultan Restaurant in Erbil
64,000 dinar ($51.20): 1 night stay at Mondeal Hotel in Erbil w/ breakfast included
75,000 dinar: ($60) 1 night stay at Alborz Hotel in Suli w/ breakfast included
87,500 dinar ($70) 1 night stay at Hakar Hotel w/ breakfast included
159,900 dinar ($130): 1 night suite at Amenuel Hotel as per my commitment to media and public diplomacy
28,000,000 dinar ($22,400): bag money from the ministry
Bullshitted my way into the first class lounge at the Istanbul Airport. I've got game like I read the directions. Now I am having a breakfast of champions consisting of chivas cappuccinos, red lentil soup and Turkish scrambled eggs and tomatoes as I kill time till the flight home. I might have a shower in their deluxe facilities. Always bullshit your way to the top.
I returned last year to America brimming with optimism and momentum, only to watch it crash onto the shoals of a depressed bout of American anxiety. I found myself suddenly worrying about things that never troubled me before- things deemed important in America, but were never things I had cared about before. Amid the unsaid peer pressure of friends starting families, buying houses and the like, I felt like somehow I had chosen the wrong path. As if it had all been a Quixotic flight of fancy as I had been busy chasing down windmills.
For some reason, nothing suits me so well in America as leaving it, and when I departed I was able to shake off all the woes that weighed on my weary shoulders. Funny that I can find more peace in a country that is thrown around as writ shorthand as a war-torn conflict zone than I ever did in the year-and-a-half I was back in America. You can't change who you are, and I was not meant to stay put.
As always, I leave Iraq with more questions than answers.
I think the singular moment from my trip that best symbolizes the very essence of life was my desert ride from Kirkuk to Erbil in the back of the truck. Life is like that very ride, with the sun beating down on you and the winds whipping so fast that you can't see what lies on the road in front of you; only looking peripherally into the distance and backwards down the road you came can you gain some respite from tempest and appreciate the beauty that surrounds you, and that has passed you by.
To all my new friends in Iraq, may God bless you with safety, and, inshallah, peace. God-willing, I will return soon.
I had tweeted that there was no fast food joints in Iraq. Apparently I was wrong. In Erbil there is a Fatburger. Mahshallah. You can get Fatburger in Kurdistan but not on the East Coast! I had a similar experience when I found Hardees in Nuevo Laredo, but couldn't find the same thing in Texas.
I spent the last of my days lounging around Erbil. There is not much to do during Ramadan in 118 degree heat, so I took it slow. Yesterday, I wandered through the nearly empty markets. Nothing more depressing than sullen shopkeepers and empty rows.
I stopped for some lunch contraband in a kebab shop shielded by a blue curtain. I sat next to a civil engineer from Baghdad who was now working in Erbil. He had worked with the Americans in the Green Zone, which meant his chances for work in Baghdad were now slim. It seems no one know what to make of me here. I look like a Kurd or a Turk, with Moroccan and Fusha Arabic pouring out of my mouth. An American? No, you can't be American. Where are you really from? A Jew? Mashallah! We chatted over kebabs, and he was kind enough to buy my lunch as a welcome to Iraq gesture.
I spent the evening over in Ein Kawa at my favorite Turkish restobar. The proprietor Ahmed gave me a warm welcome, and I sat drinking Tuborg and reading Robinson Crusoe. I was flooded with memories when I read that Robinson had been imprisoned in Sallee, the twin city of Rabat where I once lived. I know Sallee and its market mazes well. I used to sit on pillows in a kasbah fort, sipping sweet moroccan spearmint tea and eating sugar cookies as I stared across the Bourgreg River at Sallee.
I hopped a cab to the Sami Abdulrahman Park, named for the Prime Minister of Kurdistan who was killed in a suicide bombing. The park was cool and pleasant, and families with their kids were running about. I saw something that left me a bit hopeful for Kurdistan: young trees. I have seen lots of trees being planted here, and I consider that a good sign. A place with hope for the future plants trees, and I have seen many young orchards in Kurdistan.
With little else to do today, I returned to the market to buy some shoes and other stuff. Kurdistan gets shoes made in Turkey, and they are sold here quite cheap. I got a nice new pair of dress shoes for a modest price after some modest bargaining.
I then headed to Shariah al-Sar, the street of the barbers, for a shave and a haircut. As I like to do at the end of a journey, I had my head shaved. I also got an immaculate shave for my bearded stubble. The fellow did an excellent job as he deftly wielded the blade across my cheeks. He pinched my jowls as he whisked away my whiskers. Just a reminder that I need to get working on The Barberess of Antigua. He finished shaving me, and then did something I have never experienced in all the shaves I have had around the globe. The barber took a piece of string in his teeth, and looped in his finger and somehow whisked away whatever peach fuzz was left on my face. Threading? I don't know. But it left for one of the better shaves I have ever had.
I then finished my wanderings through the market maze, which was more alive this morning. I passed by women in sparkling sequined abayas and shops selling the latest abaya fashions from the Emirates. I was reminded of Emriti soft power when it comes fashion in the Middle East- fashion trends that start in Dubai filter their way across the Middle East. And I passed through the Street of Gold, where elegantly-scarved women held their habibis just a little tighter as they window shopped through the refulgent alley.
A lil reminder that I am still in Iraq. A car bomb went off in Kirkuk, not far from where our program was last week. Thankfully no one we were working with was hurt and only some windows were destroyed in the building where we were holding the program. An extra special thanks to the pesh mergas who were guarding us, and a bit more appreciation for all the times they told me to go back inside the building and not to linger outside.
Ari and I were supposed to head back to Erbil the previous night but the fasting left him exhausted and we thought it wiser to spend the night in Suli and depart in the morning back to the Kurdish capital. We woke up early and departed on our way back to Erbil. We drove back up the mountain pass, and stopped to take in the stunning vista. A lake shimmered below in the morning sun, and its mountainous backdrop made for quite a sight. The undulating Kurdish music matched the undulating hills.
We arrived back to the chaos of Erbil. The city is torn up with construction, and is a maze of deadends. We finally arrived to the Ministry and Spent the morning counting and accounting. Accounting so rigorous you would have thought we were in Switzerland not K-stan. Ari and I pulled out all the pd charm. I wowed some veiled ladies with my Arabic, and they were shocked that an American could speak arabia. We piled on so much pd charm, that the accountants even stayed some 45 minutes after the office was officially closed- a rare feat in K-stan. They didn't want to give us all the money, but something close to half. I showed the accountant a letter authorizing me to handle the business, and told him I was authorized to fix whatever matters but not authorized to leave without the full sum.
After 3 hours, they finally agreed to release our cash. The man walked back into the office with bricks of dinar, and I just started laughing. 28 million dinar, tied together in bundles, fastened by plastic ribbon. Not quite the full amount, but damn close.While my bag man signed for it, I started making dinar houses. No suitcase, just a giant plastic bag to carry bundles.
They claimed we emptied the cash they had on hand for the account, and would have to return to get more from the bank after the committee had reviewed the receipts. Another 5 million dinar remained outstanding, but all things considered we did well on our debt collection task, and gained enough that we could pay our outstanding bills at present.
I am not used to carrying bundles of cash in a plastic bag. We were naturally very careful. I waited behind the ministry's fortified gates for Ari to pull up and then I jumped in his car like something out of a heist movie. With cash in hand, I called my boss in Lebanon: "Remember that vacation I was promised? Well, Ari and I are going to pull a Thelma-and-Louise, Kurdistan-style."
But rather than make off with the cash, we simply went back to my hotel and dumped the sack on the bed. It was a surreal to be playing with so much cash. We divvied up the money for expenses outstanding. It took some 2 hours to get everything accounted for. Ari then piled the cash in his backpack and headed back to Duhok to pay out the debts.
And finally I was free for my vacation- what was left of it. Ramadan had left the city far more quiet than usual. I wandered around a bit in the sweltering evening. It was probably about 115 degrees or so, and felt like walking in an oven. The heat was electric and seemed to radiate all over my body. It felt like my skin was being scorched off. At least in Suli, I could escape the heat by being in the shade; Erbil the heat just enveloped me.
Ramadan broke with the muezzin's call to prayer. I took a little walk in the still-sweltering evening. I passed groups of Indians who were out for a stroll; they applauded my Indian cricket jersey. People were beginning to break their fast. Two old men sitting down to eat gave me a slice of of juicy melon; a group of shabab gave me a fritter oozing with sticky honey.
And suddenly, the city was empty. Like a Middle Eastern Vanilla Sky. There was nary a car on the street, everyone was home feasting after the fast. I have never seen a city so empty in the evening, it was remarkable and a little eerie.
A Yazidi (worshipers of the Fallen Angel) working at the hotel gave me a scoop on where I could find some hooch: Ein Kawa. My friend Marc always marvels that in America it is the devout Christians who shun alcohol; in the Middle East, it is the Christian neighborhoods where you go for booze. I was told not to pay more than 3k dinar for a taxi, but the look of a gringo meant no one would take me for less than 4k. Finally I found one who agreed to 3,500. We sped through the empty streets and over to Ein Kawa, where life was bustling a bit. We passed old stone churches, and I knew I was in a different part of town.
Unfortunately, out of respect for Ramadan, all the liquor stores were closed. I was about to write my trip off as a fool's errand when I spied a green beacon of light in the night: Heineken! The sign belonged to a restaurant run by a Turkish fellow serving the nectar of the gods. He spoke Turkish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Russian and Kurdish but no English or Arabic. It didn't matter, we communicated quite fine.
I sat in the restaurant, drinking cold Efes beer and munching on salted almonds, pistachios, macadamia and pumpkin seeds while I read Robinson Crusoe. The story had my mind wandering to my adventures in the Philippines, and the book reminded me a bit about Frankenstein and life's vanity. I was contently reading, when a young Persian fellow invited me over. He saw me alone and invited me to join him and his friend. Never one to pass up an invitation, I joined them.
The Persian fellow had snuck his way out of Iran, rolled up in a carpet in the trunk of a car. He was waiting to try to get a visa to go to America, where he wanted to do mechanical engineering. He had been in K-stan for a year, and was stuck in limbo. He wanted to go to New York to start a new life. His heavy-set friend was boozing quite heavily. A Kurd from Baghdad, who was downing bottles of JW Black Label mixed with beer. He didn't speak any English but we managed in a mix of Arabic and Kurdish. I bade my friends goodbye, and wished my Persian friend luck in his quest to come to America. It is times like this when I wish our visa system still had the compassion that had made America what it was.
The city had come to life, and I wandered on the road to get some street kebabs. Skewers of lamb, chicken, liver and ground beef that I picked out from an open glass case. Seasoned with salt and msg, and charred over the coal flame. I sat in a plastic chair with a plastic stool as a table, and filled my triangle pita pocket with the barbecued morsels and fresh cut tomatoes, onions and parsley. I sipped spilled black tea from a saucer as the group around me marveled that an American could drink tea like a Kurd.
Finally I get my Kurdistan vacation. What was supposed to be two weeks has become 36 hours in Erbil during Ramadan. How did I spend my first morning of vacation? Catching up on old work and old emails. Socialization is a bitch. In my own defense, there is not much else to be done when it is 118 degrees out, and it is in the middle of Ramadan.
My favorite pinko nemesis Jocelyn Berger is in Uganda on some summer work related to her studies at Tufts on transnational justice and human security. She has reactivated her blog (Sub)Alternate Reality (http://jocemberg.blogspot.com/), it is worth a read.
-I know the Kurds are not Arabs because they have the absolute worst falafel in the entire Middle East. Their version of falafel are these small yellow-green fritters that are pinched in the center. It tastes more like corn bread fritter than smash chickpea fry. The only redeeming factor is the amba that is served with it: a tangy sour mango sauce with pickled veggies floating inside. I might as well just dip the triangle pita into the bowl of amba, it would just about suffice. Also, the hummus in K-stan is atrocious, although they make up for it with other various Kurdish takes on Middle Eastern salads (See under: Russian Salad)
-For some odd reason, Kurds eat soup with practically every meal. Definitely for breakfast, some version of lentil soup is offered. Because exactly what I need before braving 120 degree heat is a warm bowl of lentil chowder. Koreans also like soup in the summer, they think the sweat cools you down. And Japanese love miso for breakfast, something I came to love when I was a pd samurai there. I have yet to get a good answer for why Kurdish Campbell's is the thing here.
Iraqis have a Chrysler 300 driven rental car that they call the an "Obama." The first time I someone asked if I wanted to rent an Obama for a trip, I just looked befuddled.
Ramadan Kippur and the tantalizing smell of baking bread on the wind it too much. I figured that when in Rome, keep Ramadan. At least one day.
Actually, I am a bad Muslim because I drank water. It was 115 degrees, I figured Allah would forgive this infidel. My morning walk in the sweltering sun to take pictures of Kurdish history meant there was no I could go without a little agua. Besides, I drink water on Yom Kippur so why should this be any different.
My friend Bashdar said that he liked Ramadan because it gave him perspective. The banal things like a glass of water or a piece of bread that have little meaning on a daily basis suddenly take on a whole new weight. We spend our days eating and drinking and thinking little of it, and for him Ramadan is a time to reflect on all things big and small.
Interestingly, in Suli there are still some kebab shops open. They put up white cloth sheets to shield the contraband and the Ramadan offenders from the evil eye.
It was actually easier to fast and go about my daily business, albeit far slower, than when I am fasting for Yom K and praying in synagogue. Something about the idleness while hungry makes it harder.
We divvied up money for the shabab who still needed reimbursement from YES Academy then I took a Raskolnikovian nap. I woke up with an hour and some change left, and my Kurdish-brother-from-another-Jewish-mother Ari and I walked around to kill time.
The minute we heard the muezzin call, we were at the first kebab shop on the street. After a day of fasting, that first bite is incredible. I had a lamb kebab in soft french bread, and we split a plate of salads. Shredded red cabbage, hummus (the Kurds make the worst in the Middle East), mayo potatoes, grilled eggplants and my favorite Russian salad. I stuffed the salads in the sandwich role, and dined on the divine.
Once my blood-sugar had leveled out and I could think straight, we popped across the street for a Ramadan sweet. It was like a blintz-meets-baklava, a match made in heaven. Soft white cheese wrapped in fried filo dough drowning in honey and covered with finely chopped nuts. Yum. We took an evening stroll because as it is said in the Middle East: after lunch, you nap; after dinner, you stroll (it rhymes in Arabic).
So I enjoyed my day of Ramadan fasting. I don't think I will continue but I paid my respect with a day of holy hunger strike. Hence Ramadan Kippur- one day of atonement.
The elevator in my hotel plays the most amazing elevator music ever. Every time you get in, it plays something that sounds like an overdramatic theme from "The Love Boat." To top it off, it has faux Tiffany-style stained glass wall paper on the window of the elevator.
I had thought I might have some alone time, but my friends in Suli wanted to meet me early and there was no way to beg off. Not a problem, I will snatch some "me time" later. I met Bashdar early in the morning and we went wandering through the market. He took me to a part of the market under a bridge where all feathers of fowl were being hawked. There were large birds of prey being sold next to pigeons and colored chicks. The scene was a bit hectic, but fun. Large men held small birds delicately as they tried to entice bird buyers over.
We wandered through the mazes, past the butchers street where hanging carcasses grazed the glass cases and blood ran through the alley. There were stands selling fresh golden honey and honey combs. We passed through various tool alleys with people working by hand on wood and iron devices. Bashdar also took me through a few shopping malls. Ironic that I love markets and hate malls. Interestingly, Suli has a large number of Chinese migrants, and I saw some at the mall, working and shopping. There are new Chinese shopping malls, with Chinese made jeans and shirts on floor after floor. Apparently, Suli also has many Chinese massage parlors, which come in two varieties.
Bashdar gave me history lessons of the area. About how Suli had been seat of one of the first Kurdish kingdoms, and we were treading in the square that had been the seat of power. We stopped for some fresh melon juice before heading over to Friday prayers at the main mosque in Sulimaniyah. Since it was the day before Ramadan, the mosque was extra packed. We did out ablutions, and made our way over the hot marble to an interior place to pray. This nice Jewish boy joined the prayer line, like I had in Lahore and a few other places. As is my custom when I find myself in such situations, I pronounced the shma and said kadesh while prostrating.
After lunch of Kurdish salads (including my favorite tangy eggplant salad called Russian Salad) and pizza covered in onions, olives and tuna, I took a brief nap and then met my shabab to divvy up travel reimbursements that we owed from YES Academy. Ari, Bashdar and I sat in the restaurant of the hotel, holding court as we waved fat stacks of dinars. I fanned myself with hundreds of thousands of dinars and offered to light the cigarettes of the kids using 5,000 dinar notes.
After a lazy afternoon, the shabab and I went on an evening stroll through Azadi Park. Originally, the park had been off-limits to the people of Suli. It had been used by Saddam as a place for the military, and for detention and torture. After the Kurds overthrew Saddam in 1991, the park was renamed "Freedom Park" and opened for the people. Suli's Central Park was lovely. Amid the foliage, it was a good ten degrees cooler than the still sweltering city. Bats fluttered and flew overhead, swooping down and around. It seemed the whole of Suli was out for an evening stroll. I missed the Middle East's love for evening constitutionals.
We did a nice loop, and head off for dinner. The place we went was amazing, sadly I don't know the name. Chickens were pressed in metal grates and cooked in a rounded clay oven tanoor. The charbroiled chicken was phenomenal. It tasted as if it had been soaked in lemon, and was blackened to a fiery crisp. In the cooling night air, we ate the succulent citrus-tinged bird with plates of tomatoes, onions and pickles and large Iraqi flat breads. Little pieces of blackened chicken were rolled up with the pickles in the fresh bread and covered with a lil salt and date sauce. It was immaculate. We sipped tea from the saucer as the deliciousness digested.
After dinner, we went to smoke shisha. The shebab and I sat out on steps of a cafe as four large hookah of double apple, lemon-mint and mixed-fruit were brought out for us to smoke. The place did something interesting with the hose that I had never seen. The hose's end was metal, and they wrapped it in tinfoil and filled the pouch with ice to keep the smoke cool. We sat out in the pleasant night, blowing smoke rings like the caterpillar and sipping more sweet black tea.
The night continued with an obligatory trip up the mountain. We snaked up the mountain pass, and the air got cool and pleasant. As we started getting closer to the top, the guys made me close my eyes. We stopped and they led me out with hands over my eyes. Then they told me to open them. It was incredible. The whole of Suli was lit up in the valley below. Lighted highways stretched through the city like emerald necklaces, and the city lights twinkled like precious stones. The winds were whipping through, offering a cool respite from the hot day. The guys cranked up the Kurdish music, and did some Kurdish line dancing. It was a joyful bit of fun. As it was getting late, we snaked back down and back to the hotel.
So begins Ramadan, and since I am in Rome, I am doing my best to keep it while I am here. Yep, Ramadan Kippur has come.
As previously noted, we were holding a mini-YES Academy in Kirkuk for half the faculty, while the other half was working in Baghdad. The mini-YES Kirkuk was being held at the Kurdistan Save the Children's Fund. We had a productive four day academy, teaching children's theater, orchestra, woodwinds, clarinets, piano and guitar.
Also, as I noted, we had a crazy commute to get there. We would switch routes, times and cars. I ended up in a jalopy with three armed pesh merga with no AC in 120 degree heat with the most bat-shit crazy driver named Sari. For me to say someone is a crazy driver really means something. Sari was probably the most dangerous threat to my safety in Kirkuk. He would try to pose for pictures while driving, or would take off his flak jacket while driving through traffic. When he wasn't requesting me to sing, or talking about railing California girls, he was cursing and yelling at the other drivers he cut off. It was an epic commute.
On the last day, to show our appreciation to the soldier guarding our well-being, we bought them a kilo of baklava. Nothing says friendship like ooey-gooey baklava. We stood out in the baking sun, eating the flaky honey and nut pastries as we waited to switch convoys. We also gave them a nice card shaped like a heart that the theater profs had designed. Something quite memorable about a grizzled soldier in camo, flak jacket and a kalashinkov holding a pink heart-shaped thank you card with a beaming smile.
We held the last day of classes and ended early to have a brief concert to show off all that we had learned. I played MC and welcomed everyone, with my words translated into Sorani Kurdish. I thanked all the partners- the US Consulate in Kirkuk, the Kurdistan Save the Children's Fund, and the faculty, and promised to keep it short and sweet. Had to, given there was no AC and it was 115 or so.
The Children's theater went first and performed a Kurdish folk tale about a lil mouse. Unfortunately, the wee actor slated as the lil mouse got a case of stage fright and hugged his father tight while refusing to go out. Thank Allah for understudies.
Then the woodwinds played a brief piece that was well done. We couldn't wheel the piano out, so the piano program did not get to showcase. We ended with two pieces played by the orchestra, and they did a marvelous job.
This was the first YES Academy program in Kirkuk, and I remarked that is was inshallah the first of many. It was a great endeavor in creating real people-to-people ties. Such ties cannot be built online, but rather with boots bows on the ground. The program ended, and I thought I finally had vacation, but alas not. Read my previous post on my role as a debt collector.
- Kurdistan Slims: for some strange reason, all the men here smoke the equivalent of Virginia Slims. I have had a few Kurds ask me if people in the US smoke these cigarettes, and I simply laugh and reply "yes, the fairer sex" to their befuddlement.
-In Kurdglish, the word "so many" gets confused with "too many." The first time I encountered this was when a fellow smiled and said to me "We used to have too many Jews in Kurdistan but they all left and went to Israel." After my eyes widened, I quickly realized what he meant.
I am going a little out of order because today was just too much to wait. I will write about the end of the mini-YES Academy in Kirkuk later.
The day began in the usual fashion: I was off to fetch a suitcase of money from a shady government ministry. Ari (Roc)Kawa.- the K-stan project manager- and I were told that the money that the academy had been waiting for was finally approved, and we were assured that the government ministry would have it for us today. Be there at 8:30am.
So I got spiffied up, and we were there on the dot. We were practically the only ones there. We waited and waited in the lobby. We waited an hour and a half before we got the Minister's assistant on the phone. Come back at noon, and your money will be there. Sure...and can I purchase a bridge in K-stan too?
But come back, we did. And wait we did. And as you can imagine, the money was not there. But we spoke with the bursar, who explained the reasons why the money was not ready. He had a check for us, but it needed signatures of the Minister and Director-General, and they were both in meetings. And the banks close at one pm, so there was no way we were getting the money today. And since it was thursday, so come back after the Fri/Sat weekend, and the money would surely be ready then. We begged, pleaded and cajoled but getting the money was not in the cards today. So we did the next best thing, we got so obsequious that we convinced the bursar to wait for the minister and DG to come back from the meeting so that he could get their signatures now, and could have the check cashed early sunday morning. Sure enough, we got him to make the rounds, and we followed in tow, and the check got signed. So Sunday may indeed be payday.
The trick I have always found to work best in the Middle East is a dose of soft power. Being direct never works here. You have to be oblique. You have show deference and obsequiousness. The only way to get someone to help is to play to their honor. I know you have worked hard shepherding this check through the ministry, but you are the only one who can help us. Our future is in your hands. Please just a little more help. Soft power is using your influence to get people to accede to your will, and it is the only power that really works here. There is no power but soft power, and Paul Rockower is its prophet.
And then we were off. With no money, and no reason to stay in Erbil until Sunday, Ari and I headed off on a roadtrip to Sulimaniyah. It was so nice to get out of the sweltering Erbil (yesterday it was literally 120 degrees, I kid you not). The road out of town led past pickups selling giant watermelons and cucumbers. The city disappeared, and the sun cast shadows on the beautiful mountains spotted with shrubs. The desiccated hills drove down into wide valleys below. The landscape reminded me a bit of Israel's terrain.
We stopped to get a drink but our roadtrip ran aground: the car wouldn't start again. We pushed it to the closest mechanic. He was working on another car at the time, and we had to wait. By the way, the "car carriage" so he could get under the car was a ramp of two rocks. We sat around for about an hour. The area we were in was real country. I thought I was stuck in Kurdish dueling banjo country (dueling ouds?).
Once the doctor was able to look at the patient, it took the mechanic all of ten minutes to diagnose and fixt it. The pump connecting the gas to the engine was weak. He managed to fix it (mashallah!), but with one caveat: no air conditioning. No biggie, it was only 111 degrees. The mechanic wanted only 10,000 dinar ($8) for his work. Ari gave it to him, and I doubled it for a tip. We wished the mechanic a ramadan kareem and we were on the road again.
We were back rolling through dusty terrain. It was hot. The air rushing in was dry and scorched. We stopped to get bottles of water, and every so often would douse ourselves to cool down. And we drove. Past old stone and mud brick houses that looked to be from another epoch. Past fields of burnt yellow sun grass. We took the winding road up the mountain pass as the sun began to drop below. We got a big scare as the car started to fail close to the top, but we made it through the pass and the road opened up to most stunning vista of a lake below with mountain ringing it. We drove down through small river towns, and the air grew cooler outside (relative term: 99 degrees felt amazing).
And then we broke down again some 40k from Suli. A reminder why every trip is "inshallah." Since there is no AAA (AlifAlifAlif), we called our friend Bashdar Major to save us. We sat on the side of the road as daylight faded and the stars came out. I had Hotel Californiain my head.
On a dark desert highway// Cool wind in my hair// Warm smell of colitas// Rising up through the air// Up ahead in the distance// I saw a shimmer light// My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim// I had to stop for the night.//
After about an hour, Bashdar Major and his cousin arrived to save us. We waited an hour for him. His cousin took one min and one turn of the key to somehow fix it. We drove slowly into Suli. The city's night lights proved a welcome sight. A trip that normally takes 2.5 hours took 6 hours.
We arrived into Suli, and drove through the city. We passed murals to great Kurdish leaders and poets. Suli is the cosmo capital of Kurdistan, and I fell in love instantly. We snaked through the city, and ended up in a back alley. In the alley, there was two large white plastic tables with scores of men sitting and eating. We had arrived to the famous back alley joint called Osman's for some rooster soup.
It was epic. In big pots, there were chicken and roosters boiling, as well as separate pots for the soup. I had a bowl of rooster soup, and it was possibly the best chicken/rooster soup I have ever had. It was soup that would have made a Jewish grandmother envious. It had a salty/savory taste that was incredibly flavorful but not overpowering. The meat in the soup was fall-off-the-bone tender. The soup came with a bowl of rice and a bowl of fusilya- beans in a creamy tomato sauce, and a huge round Iraqi pita. Out of ladles, we sippedayran (salty yogurt-milk) over ice out of big silver bowls. It was all perfect. The hustle and bustle outside combined with the warm soup was the perfect end to a long day.
After the soup, we sipped sweet hibiscus tea out of small curved glasses. The Kurds have an interesting way of drinking their tea that I have since picked up. They spill it out into the saucer to cool it and sip from the saucer. It works works quite well. I was reminded of how the Moroccans pour hot liquids between two glasses to release the heat.
So begins the first weekend I have had in a month. Doesn't look like I will ever get the full vacation I was promised, but a weekend is a good start.
I'm not really sure why, but the Lebanese singer Fairouz is played every morning on television. I found Fairouz both in Duhok and here in Erbil on a daily breakfast basis. The gem of Lebanon serenades me as I sip my coffee, it is a good way to start the day.
And there I was, in the back of a Ford F150 pickup with three pesh merga soldiers sporting Kalashnikovs. We were rolling down the desert highway at 95mph. The midday sun was beating down, and was burning at 120 degrees. The hot, dry winds were whipping my face and hair, and I felt like I was trapped in a hurricane hairdryer. The view across the desert expanse was immaculate. Having an unfettered view of the terrain brightened the desert brown hills and parched yellow fields. The soldiers started to sing a Kurdish folk song, and when they finished I followed with "Eili, Eili." Oh Lord, my God, I pray that these days never end.
Heavily armed caravans of pesh merga soldiers; switching cars and routes daily to make sure there is no tail. Riding through the back alleys of a sweltering city convulsing with violence. I was made for this. No f'ing way I am going back to a desk job.
Since Kurdistan has become more affluent in recent years with its booming economy, that in turn brings guest workers to do the jobs that Kurds no longer want to do. As such, there are three groups of immigrants that are becoming commonplace in K-stan. Here you find many Georgians working as janitors, and Filipinos and Bangladeshis working in the lower end service jobs that the Kurds don't want to do (ie, the night shift at hotels, etc). It is interesting that Kurdistan would turn to foreign workers to do menial tasks given that the rest of the country is not doing as well.
I am reminded of the Israeli use of Thai and Filipino labor to replace Palestinian labor when the security situation got bad. In short, while their is a big labor pool in Iraq, the Kurds don't really trust other Iraqis and would prefer the safety of foreign guest workers. Perhaps there are other benefit and wage issues as well.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I am now in Erbil and we
are running a mini YES Academy in Kirkuk.
Once Kirkuk had a Kurdish majority, but after the 1991 Kurdish uprising,
Saddam depopulated large portions of Kurds from the city and moved Arabs
in. These days, the city is divided
between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. The
Turkmen are remnants of the Turkish population when this area was once under
Ottoman rule. Kirkuk is blessed and
cursed with an abundance of oil, which all sides are fighting to control.
The road to Kirkuk was dry and dusty, and looked like Texas
oil country. As we drive in, there is a roaring oil fire shooting flames up into the sky. And it is significantly hotter
here. It feels like living in a
hairdryer. It is easily 115
degrees. I can only imagine how
uncomfortable it is for the soldiers in the truck beds in full fatigues and 50
pounds of body armor.
We are doing a program at the building of the Kurdistan Save
the Children’s Fund. We are doing a
children’s theater program that seems to have trouble with tribbles. Each day, the number of kids in the program
multiplies. The kiddies are making
rooster masks, and learning folk tales.
Also, they are singing. I have
an adorable video of the Iraqi kids doing a campy version of “Singing in the
Rain.” And of course, the hokey pokey.
We are also doing a piano program, a strings program and a
jazz/woodwinds program. Many of the
kids from Kirkuk who were involved in the YES Academy in Duhok are back doing
some continued study.
No one seems to like Kirkuk, especially not the pesh merga
guarding us. We have metal gear
soldiers posted throughout the building.
Everyday we change our transport route.
Yesterday, we came roaring up the wrong way of the street to arrive.
The program yesterday was a bit chaotic. The piano and jazz/woodwinds program share a
room, and yesterday the kids kept running in and out and slamming the
door. Our semi-sullen woodwinds teacher
Mariano blew a gasket and was ready to walk out from class. I caught him as I was about to do an
interview with Gali Kurdistan, a Kurdish tv station. I gave my interview, and returned to find him sitting in the
office in a huff. I asked him to give
me two minutes to set up some gatekeepers, and I took a soldier to the door of
his class. I brought him back, and he
laughed when he saw the sentinel in full fatigues standing outside his
door. He said if anyone else comes in,
the soldier should shoot them. The
laugh calmed him down and got him back into teaching mode.
On the road back from the program, there was a big fiery
accident. A petrol truck was ablaze on
the other side of the road. Black smoke was billowing, and we could see the flames roaring up. Worried that the thing would end up as a big petrol bomb, the
soldiers took the convoy off-roading, and we went off into the desert road
through the ditches and around the burning petrol truck.
We returned back to Erbil and napped, and I went with some
of the faculty into town and through the bazaar. We wandered through the market mazes, passing stands selling
Syrian soaps, endless shops of cheap Chinese goods and colorful spices piled
high. The best part was the people
watching. The colorful scarves adorned
the beautiful Kurds and Arabs.
Sparkling sequin abayas and florid hijabs filled the market mazes. I admired the beauty of the people. Some looked more Central Asian, other
Kurdish and others Arab. I saw a
beautiful mix of green, blue and mahogany eyes peeking out from below light
scarves or black abayas. We wandered
our way through the markets, and ended over in the main square with its
plethora of water fountains to cool the night air. The group sat next to an adorable old Arab couple from
Mosul. I chatted with the Sheikh and
his wife, who had been married for 46 years.
He was in Erbil for knee surgery because the doctors are better in Erbil
We ended the night at a lovely outdoor restaurant called
“Today,” which had pools and a sea of tables out on the cool grass. The night air was sultry, but still
pleasant. Bradley the piano professor
had a friend named Omar come join us.
Omar is from Mosul, but now works in Erbil because of the bad security
situation in Mosul. He is a doctor in pre-natal
care, and told us some interesting tidbits.
He is allowed to examine and treat pregnant patients, and perform
c-sections but in Erbil he is not allowed to be involved in the birthing
process if the baby is coming out the regular way. It is not like this in all cities, but here in Erbil that is the
situation. He can be in the room if
there is a female doctor present, but not assist in the process—even if it was
his patient he had examined throughout the whole stages of pregnancy.
Today, there was a problem with one of the trucks. It broke down on the route to pick us up, so
we had to all pile into a range rover and drive in one car for most of the
way. We picked up the convoy en route,
then we stopped again and changed our convoy from the armored trucks to cars
filled with soldiers. I chatted with
the soldier driver named Sari. He
wanted to visit California and find a California girl. He said he loved Michael Jackson, and
Jennifer Lopez. He wanted me to sing
for the cab, so I belted out some Michael Jackson for him.
Billy Jean is not my lover, she’s just a girl. She’s says I am the one, but the kid is not
As we roared through traffic, I also treated him to some
Beach Boys (“I wish they all could be California girls”), Elvis (“Since my baby
left me”) and Johnny Cash (“I hear the train a-comin’). Not sure if he still wants to protect me
after my warbling, I would probably ransom me to al Qaeda for such horrendous
singing, but the car full of soldiers sure got a kick out of it.
I walked out of the hotel to find a whole detail of pesh
merga waiting to take the American Voices staff to Kirkuk for a mini
program.Trucks with heavily armed
soldiers armed to the teeth.I tried to
talk my way into sitting in the back with the guards outside, and even climbed
up into the truck bed, but it got nixed by the commander.So now I am on my way toKirkuk in a heavily armed convoy of pesh
merga guards.It’s me and six heavily
armed Kurdish soldiers.Three in the
back with heavy ammunition pointed every direction and three in the cabin with
me in full camo, machine guns, helmets and sunglasses.To make it more surreal, when I climbed in
they were playing Michael Jackson on the radio.
We rolled out of Erbil with Kurdish music blaring. The landscape turned desolate and
desert-like. I felt like I was back in
West Texas. I chatted up the guards in
a mix of Arabic and a lil Kurdish. The
soldiers wanted to know what Kurdish I had learned. I told them the ten nice words I knew, then I told them that the shabab
had taught me a few others. They almost
drove off the road when I started dropping the curses that the kiddies taught
me. To be honest though, this display
of force makes me feel less safe than more.
Normally, I am anonymous; now I am screaming target in my red
shirt. And Michael Jackson is back on
the radio. It doesn’t get more surreal
Actually, it did when we started discussing wrestling. The fellows loved John Cena and
Undertaker. As I have always said, the
best American public diplomacy would be to send the WWE as cultural
I tried to take a picture of my pesh merga guard, but my
camera is on the fritz. The soldier
whose picture I was trying to take laughed and said “I am virus.”
With a supreme bit of frustration, I found my vacation
halved and on a bus to Erbil. I was
supposed to have a much-earned two week vacation, but fate conspired otherwise,
and I had to run a mini program in Kirkuk for half the faculty, while the other
half of the faculty went to Baghdad for a program in the Iraqi capital. A major failure of communication that won’t
In sullen silence, I sat on a shag-carpeted minibus driving
from Duhok to Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil.
Why would anyone put shag carpeting on a mini bus that has spotty
airconditioning in one of the hottest countries in the world?? I thumbed my prayer beads as I exuded
We arrived to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. Erbil, or Hawler as it is known is Kurdish
and checked into the Mondeal Hotel. I
dropped my stuff, showered and went off to wander.
I found my way into a market, and my frustrations
dissipated. I watched the people pass
as they were buying cucumbers, soft cheeses and spices. I grabbed a cool glass of some unknown,
unknowable purple fruit juice and savored its sweetness. Men in baggy green pantaloons and
circular-wrapped red kefiyas past by, thumbing long strands of prayer
beads; women in beautiful florid scarves held their children by the hand. The Kurds have a countenance that is somewhere between Turkish and Arabic. Many are fairer-skinned, and have the
prominent cleft chin. I caught brief
glances with women with honey-mahogany colored eyes.
I needed some alone time, so I passed on the group dinner
and chose instead to eat on the street.
I stumbled on a liquor store (PAYDIRT!) and grabbed a bottle of arak and
some Carlsburgs. I threw them in the
fridge in my room and I wandered back out and up the main drag. I stopped at ad-hoc kebab stands that
consisted of an open glass case with plates of skewered meats, a small table
with onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, salt and msg, and thin charcoal shelf with a
hair-dryer esque contraption to fan the red flames. I picked out a skewer of lemon-soaked chicken, and a skewer of
small beef chunks, and sat on the plastic chair on the road to wait. The fellow sprinkled my skewers with salt
and msg, and threw them on the flames.
As I sat on a plastic chair against the pock-marked wall as
traffic passed. The evening prayer
echoed out across the city. My plates
came, and I disentangled the charred meat from the silver skewers. I filled the seeded triangle-shaped bread
with the meats and vegetables, and savored the fresh sandwich.
I hit one more kebab stand for some barbecued chicken
wings, and wandered around the quiet streets.
I noticed that Erbil is far more mixed than Duhok was. Arab men in white dishdashas wandered by,
thumbing beads and smoking cigarettes.
I savored my solitude as I walked under the giant citadel high above the
city. As my friend Bradley told me,
Erbil claims to be one of, if not the oldest inhabited cities in the
world. The streets surrounding the
citadel are named for their distance from the giant ochre-colored structure (50m
from the Citadel, 150m from the citadel).