Monday, July 23, 2012

Bricks; Vanilla Ramadan Sky

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. 

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