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

Thursday, September 24, 2009

We're Everywhere

I was walking to dinner last night with Ahmed, talking about something generally inconsequential, when I bumped into one of our security guards wearing a Texas Longhorns t-shirt. Yes, I still live in Iraq and no, I couldn't communicate with him well enough to know where in God's name he got the t-shirt - I guess that part will always be a mystery.

To all you non-Longhorns out there: we're everywhere.
To all you Longhorns out there: Hook'em!

Friday, September 11, 2009


I'm not sure why 9/11 was more significant for me this year. Perhaps it's because this afternoon I re-watched the entire NBC coverage from that fateful day; or perhaps it's because I find myself in a place haunted by the violence that was, at least indirectly, a result of those plane crashes.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of not only the victims of 9/11, but to all folks negatively affected by, as the History Channel calls it, the 10 minutes that changed the world.

Below is a short piece I wrote after being a part of what happened at the University of Texas on the evening of September 11, 2001.


Never before have I seen so much love, so much hurt. Never before have I seen a group of strangers come so close. Each holding a candle, each lost in his/her own thoughts, each student feeling the weight of the red, white and blue ribbon they wore. In such a huge school with such a wide variety of students, everyone became American, at least for that one hour on the South Mall this evening. The speakers spoke of unity, of sorrow, and of tragedy; they spoke of a small group of criminals responsible for the massacre, not of a whole race or religion bound to destroy the United States. They spoke of rebuilding the country and of carrying on as a nation. They needn't have spoken, for the unspoken feelings lay in the hearts of every person there; in the gestures, the hugs given to strangers, the tears shed for people far away. 'Amazing grace, how sweet the sound' of a crowd so far away united in song; united in more than a song, united in purpose; united in more than purpose, united through compassion. The ceremony done, no one moves, no one speaks. Far off to the side of the crowd, a small female voice sings the only thing on her heart, singing also straight to the heart of everyone there resulting in the chorus of people joined in our nation's anthem which softly echoed throughout campus. 'And the home of the brave…' Not a sound was made, not a pin was dropped, we weren't ready to leave yet. A glow began to rise from the steps in front of the great Tower, normally the symbol of its students, tonight a symbol of the nation. A glow began from the steps, a glow from the candles placed on these steps. Each candle left behind was a piece of the heart of he/she who laid it there. Those who prayed took a knee, those who said they were sorry placed their candle down in a moment of silence. Each one, flickering in the wind on this faultlessly clear night, signifies the people of this nation amidst its tragedy, for as the wax burned low and the wicks fused together, a unit of fire was created, a unit commemorating those who died this day. Slowly the crowd dispersed in silent contemplation, leaving the stairs to burn still, to send a silent message, to hold onto the hope that seems so distant.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ol' Blue Eyes and Gettin' Hitched Pakistani Style

Every day I'm in Iraq I try to see my life through a novelist's lens, narrating my own story as if someone somewhere would someday be interested. I do this even though I know full well that the only person who would be interested in the mundane details of life in Hilla's fanciest prison would be, God bless her, my mother.

Today was no exception. Well, that is until I downloaded the latest This American Life podcast and lost myself on the elliptical. 55 minutes and 5 miles later, I was so proud of myself that I went back to my room, threw on some Frank Sinatra (check out the Aug 28 edition of TAL to understand why), and contemplated blogging about my new found secret to conquering the most boring exercise machine ever invented. Alas, I decided that such a story would only interest a slightly larger audience than my mother... so I told Lauren and decided not to blog.

Then dinner happen. As I've mentioned before, dinner is usually nothing special unless Mohammed the cook decides to make banana bread. During Ramadan I make a point to eat when Ahmed, my Pakistani colleague, is able to break his fast each evening - usually around 6:30pm.

The conversation started as it usually does, griping about this or that, complaining about or praising the food, and listening to our security folks tell Chuck Norris jokes (favorites of the day include: when your shadow falls Chuck Norris picks it up for you, and Chuck Norris is so fast he can run around the world and punch himself in the back of the head). Ahmed seemed quiet and a bit down, so I brought up the one subject I knew would cheer him up: his family.

So, Ahmed, did you and your wife have a choice of whether or not to marry one another? (Before you judge me for any perceived insensitivity, know that I already knew his married had been arranged.)

"Actually... sort of."

Sort of? What do you mean?

"Well, as you know it was my sister who arranged the whole thing with the girl's aunt. She (the girl) was 17 at the time, about to be 18. I had nothing to do with it at first."

How old were you?


Wait, so you're telling me that the girl i.e. your future wife and you never met before the wedding?

"Not exactly. You see, mine was a special case; I was actually able to see her a couple of times before our wedding day, but we were not allowed to communicate. Her family is pretty conservative but mine is generally not to strict on these things."

(At this point I'm not pursuing this line of questioning because I'm trying to make him feel better; I'm truly intrigued.) Ok, so what were the mechanics of this? Your sister and her aunt met and decided for you if it was going to be a good fit? I thought you said you hadn't communicated with...?

"Let me explain this to you Erol. Arranged marriages in Pakistan typically do not allow for the bride and groom to even see each other before after the marriage is signed, sealed and delivered. I was lucky. When the possibility was first brought up her aunt came over to the house and, together with my sister, they told me about this 17 year old girl in the aunt's family that would work perfectly. You see, we had gone through this process several times already. The aunt was actually the sister of one of my colleagues at USAID and had been asked to help find a wife for me. When the previous few tries didn't go so well, she finally thought about her niece - a little young but still a wonderful girl. 'Ok,' I said, 'I'll think about it but I want to see her picture.' After seeing her picture I still wasn't convinced. 'I want to see her in person.'

"So it was arranged. She came over with her aunt and sat in the drawing room of my house and I was able to see her for the first time."

Wait, so she came over, sat on your couch, drank your tea, and you didn't even exchange pleasantries?

"That's right. We were introduced as I came into the room to get my shoes but we did not speak to each other."

You just looked at one another for a few seconds?

"Yeah, it was about 10 seconds or so. She looked me up and down and I did her the same. After they left I told my sister that I was ok with it and that we should move forward."

"So were you nervous?" piped Dirk, silent until now but unable to contain his excitement in the story. "Your hands weren't sweating or anything?"

"No, I wasn't nervous. I was fine with it. She seemed like a nice girl from a good family. (**complete silence from the peanut gallery**) After that my sister secured the approval of the other family and I agreed to buy her dresses. You see, in Pakistan the man buys the woman several dresses, saris and other outfits for the ceremony and ensuing parties. That was actually the second time I saw my wife."

Wait, when?

"When we went shopping for the dress. Actually, we just went shopping for the material and then she was sized, after which the outfits were made at my house."

So you went shopping with your bride-to-be, her aunt and your sister but you didn't speak to her at all? Also, why your house? (I wondered if he was getting tired of my questions.)

"That's right, we went shopping together to have her pick out the material because I wasn't interested in doing it. I didn't really care. The material was brought to my house naturally because I bought it. After the clothes were made they were taken to her house. Actually, I was able to see her a total of three times before the wedding day. We even had a short engagement period where I was able to give her a ring - not a ring like you know it with diamonds and such, but a beautiful band with several embedded stones. This is actually unheard of in my country, but her family agreed and I was able put the ring on her finger myself. No, Erol, we still did not talk when I did this but it was nice to have a short engagement.

"Actually, we did speak once by accident. I called her house once and she picked up. We talked about the engagement and how she was wanting the wedding to just be over so that we could get out of there and on with our lives. I told her not to worry, that I would bring a safety pin to move her along and prick anyone else who got in our way.

"Then came the wedding at the Islamabad Club. It was actually outside in a tent that was partitioned. The left side was for the women and the right side for the men. So I entered the right side and sat down amongst male members of my family and hers and some friends. I was in a formal dress myself with a small turban on. Remind me and I'll bring some pictures from Pakistan next time I go."

That would be great!

"When everyone was seated, the Mullah arrived and came only to the men's side. In fact, he would never even go to the women's side. After the greeting, the papers were brought to me and I signed in front of several witnesses. They were then taken by her representative, I think it was her uncle, and two witnesses to the women's side of the tent. This was the first time anyone of the opposite gender had come to the other side. In front of the two male witnesses she signed the papers and it was time for the ceremony to begin. After a few prayers and more than a couple verses of the Quran, it was official. I was married and I had never even spoken in person to my wife.

"After a short while the non-family guests started to leave and it was finally time for me to see my bride. Escorted by members of her family, I was taken to the women's side and placed on a couch, right next to my wife. Traditionally the newlyweds are then given a mirror to hold together and that is the first time they see one another, but again I was lucky and was able to look directly at her."

What was the first thing you said to her?

"I told her not to worry, I had a couple of safety pins in my pocket and we would be getting out of there very soon."