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

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Just Another (Exciting) Day in Paradise

Normally if I told you I had an exciting day, you should immediately worry. Excitement is not something that is valued heavily in Iraq. Nonetheless, I am surprised to say that I had an exciting (and dare I say fun) day.

After sludging through a two-day soaking rain that left behind mountains of mud on our street, this morning began with a flawlessly clear sky and a brisk breeze that reminded me that summer, thankfully, has not arrived yet. I promptly turned around and retrieved my jacket.

Upon arriving in the office, I was happy to see my full staff waiting for me after we had been a skeleton crew all last week. In case you didn't know (which, to be fair, why would you?), Friday marked the end of an annual 40-day festival/pilgrimage whereby the entire Shia population of Iraq and its neighbors think that it is a good idea to march, on foot, from wherever they are to the holy city of Kerbala. Friday was also a big day for the rest of us because it marked the end of the nightly 3 hour sermons blaring from the mosque next door through speakers provided by the CPA (thanks Bremer - much appreciated).

As you can imagine, hundreds of thousands of people walking down highways, over bridges, and through towns like Hillah can cause quite a logistical nightmare for those of us heathens who don't observe the tradition and still try to work *gasp* during this time. It also seemed to be an opportune time for one group of Muslims to plant bombs in large crowds of other Muslims, killing innocent women and children. Needless to say, many of our staff - including the entire Kerbala office - were unable to go to work last week.

My database specialist just happens to live in between Hillah and Kerbala, so before piling on the mountains of work I have for him, I asked about his week 'working' from home.

"No sir, I was working."

Ok, right, sure you were working...

"No really, I was working. I was caring for the pilgrims!"

Well, at least he's honest. Turns out that this middle-aged pious man, his wife and their three children, played host to wave after wave of strangers arriving from all over to commemorate Ashura, the day of the death of Imam Hussein at the Battle of Kerbala. Hussein is the most revered (at least to the Shia) of the Prophet Mohammad's fabled 12 imams and, not-so-coincidentally, his grandson. Opening his home and feeding up to 25 people a night, my database manager had indeed shown his Muslim brethren incredibly gracious hospitality, even giving up his own bed one night to a weary family of travelers.

I have a newfound respect for this man who sometimes annoys me with his seemingly selfish behavior at work (he is constantly asking for a promotion, a raise, etc.). His relentless ambition (or pestering, I haven't decided which) aside, he and his family represent all that is good in Islam; an innate kindness to others so natural to them, so pure.

After lunch, I set out on my next adventure: trying to renew my US Government badge. This is not an easy task for those of us that don't live on a military base with regular access to the badging office, so I hopped on an existing 'mission' (that's what our heavily armed taxi cab rides are called) to the nearest base. Unfortunately for me, I forgot that today is Sunday and, despite the fact that I work on the Iraqi schedule, those living in the American bubbl... I mean base, don't work on Sundays. It's apparently the day of rest. Or something.

No worries, I brought a good book to read and if that doesn't work I have become very adept at counting clouds.

"Yo! Can you get the ball for us?"

Hmmm, do I help out the soldiers and touch their nasty, mud-caked volleyball in my nice Nautica cable crew sweater protecting my nicer J. Crew button down?

Sure, I heard myself say, but only if you let me play!

Thus commenced the worst game of beach volleyball I've ever been a part of. Forget bump, set, spike, we were still working on the whole hand eye coordination thing. And, to make it even more interesting, I was on the team with the foul mouthed Latino G.I. Joe and his buddy the five foot tall triangle with a flat top. We didn't stand a chance.

Funnily enough though, after rolling up my sleeves and simplifying my vernacular (I know, I'm a condescending, pompous jerk... sue me), I started to really have fun. These Joes were just kids having a good time - the only thing missing was some beer in a nearby cooler, any form of female and... well, I guess a lot of things were missing. But for a moment there I got lost in this place, carefree and just one of the boys. They asked what I was doing here and, after a bit of explanation, one of the Joes said that he had almost gone to the Peace Corps but the Army paid better, so he understood what I did kinda.

Yeah... Peace Corps... yeah something like that. Kinda.

I've been known to be hard on the US and its foreign policies in Iraq, not to mention critical of the not so uncommon teenage American soldier in an airport wearing a "Iraq, F&$* Yeah!" t-shirt, but these guys were, consistent profanity aside, pleasant and undeniably friendly. Don't tell them I said that though, they might lose some 'man points' if their commanding officer finds out...

For the second time today, I regained a bit of faith in something I had begun to doubt.

Arriving back at the compound I noticed a game of ping pong happening between some of our Iraqi staff and, naturally, I couldn't walk by without partaking. I don't know what was so funny about the entire group of halfway decent English speaking Iraqis and one horrible Arabic speaking whitey playing ping pong in the twilight, but we didn't stop laughing the entire way to 21.

Speaking of twilight, do not see that horrible movie "Twilight: New Moon." Trust me, I barely missed the TV screen when the remote just shot out of my hand towards it during yet another painfully painful, heart-wrenchingly heart-wrenching, utterly stupid scene of a girl who wants to be a vampire - or was it a werewolf? Who cares. Don't watch it.

Now if only I have the will power (read: stupidity) to wake up in the middle of the night to watch two American football teams square off over some crystal bowl.

Doubtful. I'm not sure how much excitement I can take in one day...