musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

From the Eyes of a Child

I never understood why there were such big walls at the end of the street. Baba tells me they're for my safety but I don't see why anyone would want to hurt me. Oh well, maybe Mustafa will want to ride bikes up and down the street. I wish Baba would let me ride beyond the wall; I just turned 7 and feel as if I'm more than prepared to take the plunge. 'Bad traffic' he says dismissively. Obviously he doesn't know that no more than 10 cars drive by every day; plus, he obviously hasn't seen me ride.

Here comes that tall guy again. I haven't decided whether I like him or not. True, he gave me a chocolate the other day and makes a feeble attempt at conversing with me every time he sees me. I don't think he remembers my name though.

I wish Zeyneb wasn't so bossy all the time. She thinks she runs the neighborhood and certainly me since I'm her younger brother. I hate how she treats me like I'm 6 still. One day I'll be taller than her and then she'll have to listen to me... or at least be nice to me. I tried talking to Baba about it once and he told me to go watch cartoons on the tv. My best friend Samir at school told me that he can only watch tv from 7 to 9 at night and that even if he wanted to after that he couldn't because the tv, nor the lights for that matter, won't come on no matter how hard you try. I told him his tv is probably broken and that he should get the type my family has - it works all the time.

I wonder why that tall guy smiles at all of us when he sees us. Little Yousif keeps giving him flowers every time he sees him - more often than not he can't find a flower so he gives him a dusty blade of grass. Yousif's 4; one day he'll be as old and wise as me and see that what these guys really want is to see you do cool tricks on your bicycle.

Every time the tall guy stops to talk to us a couple other guys that look kinda like my cousin but are not from around here come out from behind this gate across the street to watch. I wonder what's behind that gate. Mustafa told me there's a big dog back there that barked so much that its throat fell out, so now he's just mad all the time and bites anyone who is not allowed in but can't bark. He said his dad told him that so it must be true. I don't believe him, though; if there was a dog back there I would know about it.

All these people sure do seem nice. Unfortunately they don't speak how we speak. Even if they're late bloomers, I wonder why they didn't learn Arabic in Grade 1. One of them taught me how to say "my nahm es Muhammad" and do some awkward hand touching in the air thing. I'm assuming it's just a customary greeting in their language. Why I have to say my name every time... beats me.

Here he comes again, but this time he has a camera! I really like cameras. Maybe he'll let me touch it, then Zeyneb would be nice to me. I want to be a photographer one day, like Mustafa's uncle who traveled all the way across the world to take pictures of some pyramids in the desert. We don't have pyramids here. I want to travel there one day though to take pictures, if only Baba would let me ride my bike outside the walls...

Wait, I want to be in the picture too, wait for me!

Saturday, June 13, 2009


More often than not, it's the people you meet, not the place you are, that make life interesting. Here I am, sitting in the heart of a place in Western Iraq that was the site of daily headline-grabbing violence in 2006-2007... and all I want to write about is Dirk.

As I sit here, listening to Ari Hest, wondering why I don't have prolific singer-songwriter skills, Dirk reminds me that we all have different abilities, passions, and stories. His just happen to be a little more "different" than the average bear. A native South African, he made his way to Iraq mostly because the money is good [insert shocked face here], but found that the trainings he is coordinating are fascinating. He is on the cutting edge of training a bureaucracy in terrible need of fundamental governing skills. But that's not what makes him... well... Dirk.

"I am an avid bird watcher," he says to me over dry mashed potatoes, unseasoned chicken and chickpeas. "In fact, I've just written a book on bird watching."

Wait, you wrote a book on birds or on bird watching?

"Bird watching in fact, with a little bit Iraq thrown in with my personal history of a water quality analyst in South Africa."


"Really it was a natural progression, I was out in the bush and had to measure the amount of birds that showed up at each site. Of the 961 species in South Africa, I know 606 (he told me later that Iraq had some 390 species, only 41 of which he had seen). Some blokes know over 700, those are the real watchers in the Club. But on Big Bird Day, I always kick their..."

Ok, now I'm intrigued. I never thought I would be interested in birds. I'm still not actually; just intrigued by this tall, lanky 60-year-old former biology professor with the side of his head trimmed shorter than the top, a nose that rivals any German, and an accent that leads me to believe that English is mostly likely not his first language.

"The book got published, I'm just waiting for the publisher to finish whatever it is they're doing before it goes to press. My first book was actually the first scuba diving manual written in Afrikaans."

So wait, did you translate another one from English?

"Negative. I wrote a completely separate book, published by the University of Pretoria. Do you want to see pictures from the month-long trip I just finished through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Namibia?"


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Es Selamu Aleykum

Today I met the Sheikh. I toured his mosque and drank his tea. I heard his lectures and shook his hand. I met the Sheikh today.

But let me back up.

For those of you who don't know, I now live in a city in Southern Iraq called Al Hillah... Hillah for short. Other than the fact that I work for a humanitarian NGO doing community development and municipal strengthening, I won't tell you what I do. It's an Iraq thing - apparently you're more important here if people don't know who you work for... or something.

In case you're wiki-inept, Hillah is the capital of the ancient region of Babylon. Yes, the same Babylon (Babil) that housed a tower in Biblical times and boasts one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, Nebuchadnezzar's Hanging Gardens of - you guessed it - Babylon. Unfortunately these fascinating places are off limits to those of us who, despite our best attempts at a shabby beard, remain hopelessly gringo - and therefore a target. Instead of the famous Tower or Gardens, I am privaledged to reside within the walls of the not-so-famous Compound with Guards.

All joking aside, life in Hillah is, on average, a 6.68 on a scale of 1 (Oklahoma) to 10 (the summer house in Turkey). Food is provided, I have my own room/bathroom, and Thursday's high was only 117 degrees. The best part of the whole setup is the fact that our Iraqi staff come to work every day just down the street (in the same compound) from my 'villa.' The daily interaction with some of the finest people in the country never fails to make the experience more enjoyable. The routine is generally pretty structured - wake up, shower, eat breakfast, go to work, etc... except for today.

Today I met the Sheikh.

The invitation came at 9:30am and was relayed to my colleague and me by the tall, Italian-educated Iraqi security guy - "We must go at 10." Naturally, the Sheikh's people called at 10:30 - apparently the Sheikh had been taking a shower and was now ready for us.

The mosque is right next door to the compound. (Feel free to call me during any one of the 5 daily calls to prayer for a sample concert.) With our Iraqi security guy leading the way, we walked across the street and were greated at the gate by 3 men and 1 little boy, the last of which was the only one without his finger on the trigger of a debatably functional, yet still intimidatingly large, gun. Apparently this mosque is not quite 'open to the general public.'

After the customary statements that Allah has blessed us while holding our right hands over our chests, we were led past the mosque to a series of buildings that serve as a secondary school for underpriveledged Iraqi youth. Inside, we were shuffled by a growing number of well-dressed men into one side of a large square room with low leather couches all around the walls. Then he entered; the Sheikh himself.

We were told earlier that the Sheikh is a rather influential man, someone not yet tainted by the lures of government corruption and/or the temptations of Islamic fundamentalism. By all accounts, he is a moderate religious leader with the improvement of Iraq his highest priority. As he entered the room, graced in a long flowing grey robe, black turban (signifying that he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad - peace be upon him), and what appeared to be shower sandals.

"Es Selamu Aleykum."

May the peace of God be upon you to my brother.

"I want to give you some history. I want to tell you about the Iraqi person," said the translator (i.e. the security guy) after what had to have been at least 12 sentences of Arabic by the Sheikh. As the highest ranking person from our delegation (a joke in and of itself), I agreed that this would be very useful and to please enlighten us aplenty....

Yes sir. I understand sir, but... I'm sorry, please continue. Thank you sir. Yes sir.

An hour and 15 minutes later, we had learned all about how corrupt the government is, how he is desparate to get used American school books to use in his school (one of the best ideas I heard all day), why NGOs don't understand Iraqis and therefore can never truly make a difference, how all Iraq really needs is an infusion of capital (don't ask me how to say that in Arabic), how his radio station (the only one in Hillah) holds local government officials semi-hostage in the recording studio until whatever issue is troubling the community is resolved, how he had been invited by 'W' to the White House and commended for something, etc. etc. etc. etc.

I told him a thing or two about our program and thanked him for the invitation to his beautiful mosque.

After the aforementioned lecture and accompanying choice of water, Coke, and tea every 15 minutes, we finally took the obligatory soccer team style photo, passed out CHF pins, thanked the Sheikh again for his hospitality, and started our tour. Despite my non-existent Arabic and his even smaller command of English, I learned that our tour guide was a relative of the Sheikh and one of the managers of the whole operation. I managed to say that I am Turkish.

We entered the mosque via an elaborately decorated door that placed us at the beginning of a long hallway at the end of which was a library. All along the walls of the hallway were photographs, some quite graphic and most of them gruesome, of the "cruelties that the Iraqi people have suffered," mostly at the hands of Saddam. Right before the library, a door opened into the main room of the mosque, an impressively massive room with towering cielings and pillars rivaling any classical building I've ever seen. "The pillars are exactly 28 meters high," the guide said through translation, "because Saddam's birthday is the 28th of April." It was then I learned that the mosque was built in the late 1990s, while our old pal was still in power and enjoyed making even religious monuments to himself.

The most interesting room, however, was the shrine of sorts placed halfway down the hallway - the pride and joy of the modernist Sheikh. Two rooms really, the first room was adorned floor to ceiling in colorful murals of biblical and koranic figures, most of which are the same. Baby Jesus lay in Mary's arms, Moses spoke from on top of a mountain, and a terrified Ishmael prepared to be sacrificed by his devout father. The next room consisted of more murals that continued in the same historical path, showing the great events of history (Noah on his Ark, the arrival of the Prophet, the discovery of the New World, the invasion of Iraq, etc.) leading up to a large man sitting on a throne of marble, overlooking the room. This, I was informed, was 'The Savior.' To his left was the past, marred by war and periodically blessed by fortune; to his right tall skyscrapers and flying cars i.e. the future. To complete the room was one last mural signifying peace and harmony: children holding hands, three dimensional smiling squirrels glued to the wall, men and women of all colors bouncing gleefully through a green forest in the shadow of a Midieval building that looked oddly like the Disney castle...

I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.