Early Impressions of my return to Iraq
During my time in Iraq, I have decided to depart at times from my standard blogging respecting Islamic Law issues to report more directly on what I happen to be seeing and doing. In style and form, these sorts of entries will resemble more closely my book (which you can buy on the left sidebar if you like this sort of material) than my previous entries. More showing, in other words, and a little less telling. I will revert to the old style at times, particularly when I get around to doing work, and I will certainly go back to it full time when back in the US in August, but for now, I think this is better. Feel free to comment if you disagree, just note because of time differences and slow internet connections, comments and responses will take longer to appear. Happy reading.
This, and a few other things about life in at least northern
Other than waiting around, there was little to do in
The etiquette of the wise men of the
After all of this, the tour of Suleymania was harder to
focus on before some rest, though the changes in the country did retain my
interest for some time. That, in
addition to the fact that I’ve never seen anyone so eager to see me and my wife
in my life as her parents and brothers, led us not to complain. It was understandable inasmuch as my wife
Sara was concerned—they lived half a world away from my wife, and had neither
the means to get to the
Other than Adidas, we saw, either completed or in
construction, a go kart track, a bowling alley, a water park, shopping malls,
five star hotels, a National Theater, and as many luxury apartment buildings in
construction as I recall seeing in Miami at the height of the boom. None of it looked remotely affordable for any
Iraqi I knew, save the bowling, which apparently has become the weekend place
to be, much as it is in
But there was hardly time to absorb it all, and we arrived
home. A modest house in a central
location in Suleymania. A small garden,
room enough for five, a neat kitchen, a tastefully decorated family room with
two couches, an Ottoman and an older television. Tile floors, because really it was too much
to keep carpet cool in the summer, whitewashed walls, the smell of pickles,
because no self respecting Iraqi buys his pickles, and that brutal, dry and
dusty Iraqi heat, which, just after 9 am, had begun to assert itself. I had been in houses like this in
Yet it was clearly not the preferred style in this neighborhood anymore. To the left and the right, up the street and down it, these homes were coming down, and new ones being built, much bigger than these with hot tubs, and plasma televisions, and huge generator power to keep rooms with wall to wall carpeting cool. No pretty gardens though, not enough room. I looked downwards and saw my Reeboks. I took them off and went inside. I turned on the television. The Dukes of Hazzard was on. They were painting the General Lee green. I don’t know why. It looked ugly and was such a nice car before they did that, but it’s hard to judge. I wasn’t in the predicament of the Duke boys after all. I didn’t even know what that predicament was. I had just turned it on. I left it on though, even if muted, mainly because I was sure the General Lee would go back to its original colors before the episode was over. It didn’t, the electricity cut off before that happened. I was faintly depressed by all of that, silly as it sounds.
I only saw one friend that first day, my friend Zuhair from
my memoir (name continues to be changed for his own safety). He ate lunch with us. A wonderful family home cooked meal, warm and
friendly conversation, memories of old times, and just behind Zuhair’s head
from my vantage point, the family’s grape vine, holding fruit from which we would be
eating later on. The thought of eating fruit that I am actually seeing alive on a plant made me quite happy, almost happy enough to forget about that Dukes of Hazzard nonsense.
I went up for a nap to my brother in law Lajan’s room. He is only 18, it was a fairly typical room for an 18 year old Iraqi Muslim. There were pictures of female pop stars, Western and Arab (Britney, Madonna, Haifa Wahbi and by far most of all pop Arab’s It Girl—Nancy Ajram) dressed in tank tops and miniskirts (or something equivalent), some with midriffs showing to my mother in law’s distress. Also soccer stars Beckham and Michael Billack I think his name is, from Bayern Munich. People are surprised by this and I don’t know why. What about the Muslim influence, they say? No bikinis here, doesn’t that count, I ask. There's a prayer rug in the corner, what about that? No, they say, Muslim influence is recitations of Qur’anic verse on the walls of the room and no women. That’s like Bible recitations on the room of an American adolescent, I retort, some kids might do that, but how many? But that never works. When we’re in burkas and long beards carrying sticks to beat people who break rules, most Western people are comfortable in their analyses. It’s only when we do things they might actually relate to that they are troubled and confused and don't know what to think anymore.
That night, my brother in law Alan and I went out for male bonding. Iraqi style, no golf courses or strippers, just a walk to get our hair cut, to buy me temporary clothes until our bags arrived, in theory in a couple of days, and of course a shawarma on the main street, though that part we keep from our wives who are worried about our weight. The prices of all of these had risen. A hair cut was now $3.00. My slacks and golf shirt cost me $35. The shawarma with cokes and tea and the mezza appetizer added up to about $6 for two. Not a problem for me, or Alan the electrical engineer, but many government folks were still making do on $250 a month. I asked Alan about this over our shawarma.
“It’s not easy for most, but they handle it. It’s driven many people to the private sector, like me. Our work is more interesting and better paid, so many people would rather do what we do,” he said.
“I don’t remember ministries having much by way of useful employees,” I said.
“Nah, but that was the only work for a while. Not anymore though. Now there’s company work, and everyone wants to make money. They laugh at me when I say that I want to go back and get a master’s degree. ‘What for,’ they say? ‘You can’t afford the $10 salads at the Palace Hotel as a student.’”
“That is true, I guess. Do you like those salads?”
“They are okay, I like having them in
“In English we call them ‘investment bankers’,” I added helpfully. “And having $10 salads doesn’t make you important.”
“Name one country,” he said, “that is important and doesn’t
sell salads at fancy places for $10. We
are Kurds, and if the Arabs can do it in
I looked around. It was now twilight. We had left around sunset. The Muslim call to prayer could be heard from the mosque in the distance. A hot breeze blew. We were in a garden just off the main street. I could see a pistachio seller, I could smell the Iraqi diesel, I could hear the horns of the cars speeding past. I knew just around the corner was a guy selling tea for $0.12 a cup that would be better than any I had drunk in more than a year. We’d stop by a guy cooking fava beans tonight to pick them up for a delicious breakfast the next day. And I was eating a $2 shawarma that was better than any useless $10 salad I had ever had in my entire life. But I couldn’t argue. Nor did I want to anyway. This was not the time. I was in the old country again.HAH