Thursday, December 16, 2010

Whipping up a Little Excitement for the Holidays

The little window flap on my advent calendar assured me, moments before I popped a plum pudding-shaped choccie into my mouth (for this is what advent is all about for heretics like me: chocolate) that we are "9 sleepies" away from Christmas. And although the very fact that I was able to buy an advent calendar in Iraq is newsworthy enough, I find myself in a somewhat contemplative mood as today is yet another a holiday. I do feel behoved to mark it in some way since my normal fashion of acknowledging holidays here (i.e., sleeping in) was wrested from my grasp this morning and replaced with the very wet nose of a very alert border collie unacquainted the niceties (i.e., sleeping in) of Islamic holy days and hellbent on a walk.

So today is Ashura: what for Shia Muslims is a Day of Mourning for the martyrdom of the Prophet's (pbuh) grandson Husain ibn Ali some 1300 years ago
during the Battle of Karbala - which just happens to be in Iraq which in itself may or may not be interesting. Or to put it in a slightly less charitable light, it's National Self-Flagellation Day. Because the Reason-for-the-Season is a somewhat sombre one, and although this practice has been widely and loudly condemned by Muslim (including Shia) clerics, nutjobs Flagellation Fanatics - considered heretics by moderate Muslims - slash themselves quite enthusiastically with sharp pointy things like swords and razors, or if you are among the nutjobs Flower of Flagellation Fanatics, a zanjeer (see left).

I have no bone to pick w
ith individuals who want to shred their skin to the consistency of pulled pork, as it seems that most main-stream religions have had to contend with flagellants in some form or another (nothing will drive the bubonic plague from your dhithole of a village like a hundred lashes to the back) at one time or another, but I do take exception to seeing pictures of these individuals - and their bloodied abused children - on the internet.

You may thank me now for not including any photos of
these nutjobs Flagellation Fanatics in action. You're welcome.

Now the Muslims in our region are either Sunni or they are not Muslims at all; nonetheless, today is a national holiday. My Kurdish students were
rather keen on their holiday today - not because they have any great reverence for what happens among the sword-wielding nutjobs Flagellation Fanatics, but because they are Kurdish and any excuse is excuse enough for a holiday - or more accurately, a day off from work.

I once firmly believed that the Spanish had already nailed the much coveted Anything-for-a-Day-Off Crown. (They have even gone so far as to make Eid al-Adha [a.k.a. the Great Sheep Slaughter] a public holiday - oi vey!) But I have since been disabused of that notion. What is true, however, is that the Spanish have raised to an art form their uncanny ability to establish a puente (literally a "bridge") which links the day off in question - regardless of what weekday it falls on - to a weekend, which as we all know normally begins at noon on Fridays, thereby creating a Ridiculously Long Weekend. Surely apart from the sheer existence of Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem, this is Spain's greatest contribution to humankind.

So back to the Kurds. Quite simply, I have never encountered a people who have so many holidays - and they seem to have also figured out this puente business all on their own. And because the Kurds form a minority in this Arab country, and the Christians Kurds form an even smaller minority in this Kurdish region which forms a minority in this Arab country, holidays - both civic and religious abound. Case in point: the Kurds celebrate three New Year's - Muslim, Western and Kurdish, all replete with days off from work and puentes.

My Christian students tell me that among Iraqis they have it the best except when they get ticked off about being unduly persecuted and then go running to France seeking asylum - but that usually happens in the south. Not only do they get every Muslim holiday off, but here in Kurdistan they are also given Christian holy days - and of course Iraqi and Kurdish civic holidays. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to figure out that they work about 2 and a half days a week. Compounded with the fact that most white collars work until 2 or 4:00 in the afternoon, when quitting time comes (picture Fred Flintstone sliding down his brontosaurus' neck at the first toot of the 5:00 whistle-cum-screeching-bird), there is nary a gainfully employed employee to be found. I would add that I wouldn't be surprised if, at quitting time, there were hundreds of abandoned phones left on desks forlornly emitting sounds like 'helloooooo, are you there?", but the truth is, those on their other end of the line have long buggered off.

Needless to say, things take a very long time to get done here.

I can't help but notice that next week (December 11th in fact) is Establishment of Kurdish Women’s Union Day, but I don't think it's a holiday. I'm terribly disappointed. I have no doubt that someone will take it off.

By the way, I asked all of my students yesterday
what they would be doing to mark Ashura. They looked at me as if I were feeble-minded. Sleep in, they said. And watch those nutjobs slicing themselves up on TV.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Oktober in November

It would seem that once again I have been remiss keeping this blog up-to-date, so I have set aside some quality time because I'm bored and have nothing to do to do just that. After several fleeting moments of rummaging through my brain for some Entertaining Tidbit of Life in Kurdistan, I offer you, dear reader, this:

Oktober in November

Ooooh, did you notice the k in October (or rather Oktober)? That was intentional. But why you ask? - because I am very clever and because the Entertaining Tidbit of Life in Kurdistan I wish to offer you is no less than this year's Oktoberfest. Or what might be more accurately called, Oktoberfest à la Kurd.

Oktoberfest à la Kurd. Seriously? Indeed. Not only is Oktoberfest celebrated in Kurdistan but it is celebrated at our very own German biergarten (Yeah! - we have a beer garden! Booo! - it serves the most expensive beer on the planet!), the Deutscher Hof. In our neighbourhood of Ainkawa, the Deutscher Hof is a bit of an institution because of its convivial outdoor venue (safely hidden behind high concrete walls) and the draught always on tap - thanks to Austrian Airways, which regularly flies in kegs and kegs of beer at presumably extortionate rates, if the biergarten's equally extortionate prices are any indication (and is wont to hang its paraphernalia up everywhere in an effort to help us forget what an expensive airline it is).

But I digress.

Yes, for one extended weekend this October, stein after stein after stein of arguably the most expensive beer on the planet (15,000 dinar - or $13 per litre. To put it in perspective, I can buy a litre of Crown Royal rye whiskey for $15 here) was served to a raucous crowd hellbent on getting drunk (this is, after all, Erbil and there's little else to do here)
. So really, it was no different than any other night in town. Apart from the fact that it was more surreal than usual.

Surreal you ask? - I mean, apart from the fact that we were celebrating Oktoberfest in Iraq?
When the temperature was still in the mid-40's Celsius? You'd think that would've been enough.

Indeed not.

Did I not mention the Ethiopian waitresses decked out in dirndls? No? It would seem that these waif-like creatures were expected to navigate their way
through the garden's raucous crowd (hellbent on getting drunk) bearing massive trays of equally massive litre-size glass steins. Needless to say, they didn't - or rather, they couldn't. Beer was trotted out one, or if you were lucky, two at a time. Did I not mention that these dirndl-clad Ethiopians were not only expected to make change (silly that), but also to change beer kegs (even sillier still)? Did I not mention that Mr. This Cat's (Not Abroad) was pressed into switching kegs when it became apparent that he wasn't going to get a beer until someone - namely His Royal Nibs - did?

No? What about the
Oom-pa-pa band? Did I not mention the Oom-pa-pa band comprised of locals - all wearing lederhosen of course - led by a gentleman named Ramadan? Did I not mention that said Oom-pa-pa band only knew two songs which, over the course of our very very expensive the evening got old very very fast? That The Too Fat Polka (..."I Don't Want Her, You Can Have Her, She's Too Fat For Me - Oi!!!!") was tragically missing from their repertoire? That of the two songs in their "repertoire" (really, I had to put that into quotation marks), the only words the band actually knew were Ein, Zwei, Drei, Suffa!!

Where o where was Walter Ostanek? How can one even entertain the idea of having an Oktoberfest without the Grammy-award winning accordionist with the jack-o-lantern smile? And must the local staff wear dirndls and lederhosen? Weren't they embarrassed enough having to wear German national football team jerseys and Dr. Seuss-like hats during this summer's World Cup when they were all clearly cheering for Spain and Argentina? And whose bright idea was it to serve waterpipes through the Bavarian Blowout? In between rounds of "Ein prosit, ein prosit, gemütlichkeit ..." (sung by the Germans in the garden) you could hear the blub-blub-blub of waterpipes being drawn upon. For the love of God: the smoke wafting through the night sky was licorice-scented! That just isn't done during Oktoberfest.

And there were no goddamned pretzels! It's not that I didn't want to pay $50 for their German buffet (I didn't actually) - I just wanted a lousy pretzel.

Let me be clear. It's not that I was unappreciative of our host Guenther's efforts to bring a little gemütlichkeit to Iraq, because I was. I really did have a barrel of fun. The dirndls and lederhosen made me chortle not a little bit - so a big danke for that - and the massive litre-size glass steins of the most expensive beer on the planet did somehow lend a hand in dredging up lyrics to what I thought were long-forgotten Oktoberfest songs, which I sang for the enjoyment of all at the top of my lungs. In fact, I may have just out-Germaned the Germans. Did I mention that I can't sing? Well neither could they.

But if I could make one wee suggestion regarding next year's festivities - I mean, apart from securing the services of Mr. Ostanek and his accordion and getting in some pretzels (and Mr. This Cat would like to request that Austrian Airlines fly in a real Oktoberfest beer next time) and lowering the price of pretty much everything ... perhaps Guenther might be prevailed upon to offer weight training classes for his Ethiopian beer wenches with an eye on upper arm exercises. Maybe a flat weight-training bench could be installed on top of the roof where all the empty beer kegs are stored. Not only will it whip their biceps and triceps into shape for hauling those massive litre-size glass steins next Oktoberfest (a great skill to have when they return to Addis Ababa), but it'll also give them something to do when they're not learning how to change a beer keg.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Asinine Thoughts

Enough for shedding blood ~ let us all live like donkeys.

In spite of the fact that my moniker is that of a cat, I have a rather soft spot for donkeys. I have no doubt that the root of this affection is my none-worse-for-the-wear hand-knitted Phentex donkey Donna (a.k.a Donna the Donkey - left) whom I received on my 4th birthday (or possibly 5th - my mother will undoubtedly
correct me on this). She has been with me ever since, and has uncomplainingly travelled with me everywhere - from Canada to Morocco to Spain to Slovakia to Italy to Turkey to Iraq. Among donkeys, she is a queen and is deserving of all praise and honour.

Needless to say, Donna has had a pretty good life - apart from losing her powder blue sun hat and saddle many many years ago (which wasn't my fault. At all.). This pretty good
life of hers also sets her apart from other donkeys. For whatever reason(s) you care to suggest, donkeys - and I suspect that this has been the case since Christ wore knee-pants (or even before) - are generally and woefully mistreated in all four corners of the world. Our (and everyone else's) idioms bear this out rather colourfully, if not sadly.

Consequently, when we were living in the south of Spain, we became involved with the Nerja Donkey Sanctuary, a small but hardworking rescue centre whose mission was to offer refuge and medical treatment for abandoned, mistreated, or unwanted donkeys. For many donkeys, this sanctuary will prove to be their last earthly abode and as such, it's probably the closest they'll ever be to heaven before they enter that Celestial Stable in the Sky. It's no coincidence that my friends and family generally find themselves having adopted a Spanish burro as their Christmas present. (You're welcome.)

So imagine my surprise when Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad advised me yesterday that there is - in Kurdistan - a Kurdistan Donkeys Association. In a country which seems to offer animals little respect or decency (correction: songbirds are well treated notwithstanding their teeny-weeny cages), one man, Omer Klol, has made it his life's work ensuring that donkeys receive the respect they oh-so deserve.

"People don't understand because they have learned wrong about donkeys ... Because a donkey is unfortunate and obedient, people have no respect for it. But I say the donkey is clever and better than a human being."

Rock on Mr. Klol, who is, by the way, leader of the Donkey Party (I am having flashbacks to Canada's Rhinoceros Party one of whose lofty objectives was to count the Thousand Islands to ensure that the U.S. hadn't stolen any). The Donkey Party chose their namesake for good reason: donkeys don't kill one each other for power, money or politics, and they don't lie. Donna has never lied. At least that I know of.

Mr. Klol has been trying to whip up interest in his project for the past 5 years, but for the past
20 years, he has worked tirelessly to teach Iraqis that donkeys deserve our respect. His still non-existent sanctuary, (which he refers to as a "Donkey Utopia") will go a long way to offer a heartfelt bray of thanks to those donkeys leading an undoubtedly shitty life in Iraq (apart from our veggie man's donkey - below, right - which looks very well cared for), and their numbers are decreasing.

"They [donkeys] were all killed in car accidents or by children offensively. And a large number of them have been taken away to southern cities."

Southern cities? That sounds ominous. I wonder if it's like that mythical farm that most of our childhood pets emigrated to while we were all tucked into our beds or still at school.

But a utopia it is. Mr. Klol feels that the best way to tip your hat to a donkey's long years of service is to allow it access to green fields with flowers, food, water, and plenty of room to have sex. The latter is no joking matter. Not only is unbridled donkey love important for the donkey but for the country's seniors as well. The sanctuary-cum-donkey brothel will also be an

".. entertaining place for people, especially for the elderly people who have turned powerless to practice sex ... Instead of watching pornography, they can come to see the big brothers and big sisters while doing sex and enjoy it. It is not
haram for them."

Iraqi seniors watching porn? Seriously - they do that here? W
hy do I find that more disturbing than them watching two donkeys getting it on? How will I ever look at the half-dozen octogenarians who live in my neighbourhood again? Oh the shame of it all!

In any case, the sod hasn't been turned yet on Mr. Klol's donkey brothel. Although approved by the Kurdistan Regional Government, the cheques (or rather trunkfuls of cash) have not been forthcoming. Until then, he has sent a letter to US President Barak Obama asking for his support. Why?

"His Democratic Party has a donkey as a symbol, and because Africa is where his father is from, which is the main homeland of donkeys."

Well here's hoping that he won't have to wait donkey's years for a response. In the meantime, I'm going to try very hard not to look at our rather aged veggie man (and his donkey), and wonder if he watches porn in his spare time, or will, in the future, be experiencing his love life vicariously through his faithful little humar.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Gunning for Iraq

The other night as I was walking home from my Place of Gainful Employment, I couldn't help but notice on the corner patch of grass outside a pretty pink villa, a wee little boy labouring under the weight of a massive assault rifle. Now, this being a wee little boy, I immediately dismissed the rather alarming notion that the rifle might actually be real. But then, this being Iraq, I immediately accepted the (still) rather alarming notion that the rifle might actually be real. As I drew near, several thoughts rifled through my brain:

Both the wee little boy's sheer inability to raise - let alone carry - the rifle properly (he was partly scraping and dragging it along the pavement) and my now well-practised and somewhat expert assessment of the rifle - even from afar - indicated that this was no toy.
There were no adults in sight. At all. Not that that would make much of a difference if the rifle were loaded.
3) His slightly older sister of (maybe) 8 years was doing an admirable job ignoring him from another part of the yard. Not that that would make much of a difference if the rifle were loaded.
4) The rifle was probably loaded.

Yes, it probably
was loaded because to an Iraqi, an unloaded gun is like a zebra without its stripes - something completely incomprehensible and utterly useless when it comes to shooting other people (or themselves). Even those guns fired off into the air to signal something even questionably joyous are loaded with live ammo. I have heard that in Kurdistan, more people are killed these days by earthbound bullets (who knew that bullets are wont to follow Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation?) ... which is why I stay indoors during all elections, census polls, all national and religious holidays (Muslim Syrian and Chaldean Christian), or whenever one of our pregnant neighbours approaches full-term.

But no fear: until very recently - and this is from my students - every Iraqi house had at least one firearm in it. Now that relative peace has embraced Kurdistan, homes still have guns, but in fewer numbers. Are they loaded? I ask my students. And then I go
on to explain that we can't keep a weapon loaded in our homes back in the Land of the Round Doorknobs.

They look at me like I'm feeble-minded - or at the very least, like my government's policies on gun control are. How can you defend yourself? they ask. As I begin to explain how firearm safety truly begins at home, I am quickly interrupted.

Look, Saeed says (again, in a tone which suggests that I am mentally feeble). What if I am a businessman in Canada? I have to conduct a business transaction with someone in a different town. Do you think I'm really going to drive with a million US dollars in my trunk without a gun or a rifle beside me on the front seat? (Rolls his eyes.)

Well, usually we transfer money electronically and in the past used bank draughts or cheques, I offer, knowing full well that these concepts are totally lost on what is by and large a bankless society. Everything is a cash transaction here, and I have no doubt that when Saeed needs to buy something in Kirkuk, he speeds out of town with a trunkful of cash and a clutch of guns on his lap.

I am marginally consoled by the fact that fewer people are buying fire sticks these days, but they are still everywhere. Everywhere. (Well, apart from the mall where no-guns-allowed signs [see right] greet customers from every door.) I have walked into my Place of Gainful Employment on many occasions and seen AK-47's lying on the waiting room chairs or leaning against the water cooler left, presumably, by one of our guards. The degree of indifference or insouciance they exhibit waving those things about - or, better yet, abandoning them while they tap a kidney - is a little unnerving.

I can only imagine then that the cautionary tale of our less fortunate guards (in the Cairo branch of My Place of Gainful Employment) hasn't reached the ears of their Kurdish brethren. The guards, nodding off on the job, their sleepy heads jerking, jerking, jerking finally made contact with
the muzzle-side-up (!) rifles held fast between their knees and kaboom! They - note my use of the plural pronoun, for this happened on separate occasions - blew their damn fool heads right off.

Although there is something intrinsically Darwinian in this (and yes, I admit that I laughed when I heard this. Out loud.), a loaded rifle in the hands of a child is indeed chilling. Not only could that wee little boy have blown his fool head off, but the way he was flailing about with that thing, he could've taken out any one of his neighbours. Or the rather snarky flip-flop-wearing Mister (I am greeted as Mister by the neighbourhood guards and the donkey man who sells vegetables on our street) hellbent on arriving home without assorted holes in my person.

... and did I stop like any sentient decent human being, chide him thoroughly for waving about a firearm, take the rifle away from him, ring the door of his house, and berate his mother for allowing her unattended four-year old to play with live weapons on the street? Did I do the right thing?

Hell no. I ran home as fast as my jaunty red flip-flops could carry me and didn't look back. Besides, what if the rifle hadn't been loaded? I wouldn't have wanted to jump the gun, after all.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Life in the Fast Lane

I'm going to be painfully honest here: Ramadan, which ended yesterday, wasn't so terribly awfully excruciatingly beastly this year, and consequently, I'm a bit conflicted. Maybe even disappointed. I rather enjoy hating Ramadan. It's one of the few perks of living in an Islamic country and almost makes up for my not having a pension plan: I get to grumble and kvetch for 30 days, venting my spleen ad nauseam about the hypocrisy I see in its observants and the travails of navigating the rather inconvenient waters of this holiest of months. Fiercely dedicated to my muse, and thanks to Ramadans endured in Morocco and (easily the worst thus far) Turkey - that most Islamic of secular countries - I've spent years honing my grumbling/kvetching/spleen-venting skills. So ...

... so, I was all atingle about Ramadan 2010: the Iraqi Instalment. This, I thought, should be particularly dreadful.

But it wasn't. Apart from one sole sandwich shop closing down for the month - thereby depriving me of one of the two somewhat pedestrian offerings on the menu that I can actually eat (both involving cheese and not much else), it was almost as if Ramadan never was.

Could it get much better than that?

The truth is, I'm being a tad ingenuous, undoubtedly perhaps wilfully so. Ainkawa, the Christian quarter of Erbil, is a Land that Ramadan Forgot - or, at least, is at pains to penetrate. For the past month, there have been no drummers drumming me awake at 3 a.m., no whining students (most had the common sense to just not take classes for the month), no scenes of blatant aggression between Fasters in the advanced stages of nicotine withdrawal, and no trigger-happy muezzins with their fingers on the volume control. I would add that until yesterday, temperatures were still in the 50's - no mean feat going without liquids when it's hot enough to watch water evaporate as you pour it into a glass.

Amazingly - at least to me - many Kurdish-Muslims I know didn't fast at all, and made no bones about it - to whom these past weeks, I raised many a glass in sincere salute.

I openly drank gin & tonics water during class and no one took issue with i
t in spite of the fact that our 20-something-year old teacher - thankfully a temp - told us (after being in the country for two whole weeks) with all the gravitas which a 20-something-year old can muster (which is a lot) that if anyone were seen drinking or eating outside, they'd be fined at best or imprisoned at worst. I just laughed at her. I would add that her heightened level of cultural awareness and sensitivity was especially evident when she wore shorts to work. Why do boys keep asking for my phone number? ... I don't miss her.

(As an aside, when I broached the subject of Jail for Juice with my students, they looked at me as if I were mentally feeble.)

Yup: the bars remained open. It was business as usual in our neighbourhood liquor stores. Mr. This Cat was able to buy cartons of German wheat beer during regular hours of operation and evade arrest. Taxis still roamed the streets - even at sundown - for fares. This was
a far cry from trying to find a driver in Tangier an hour before sunset to take us the 10 minutes from the port to the train station. Hum-dee-laaaah.

In fact,
Ramadan 2010: the Iraqi Instalment was so painless that it was almost painful. I suppose there were trials of a sort. The local version of Turkey's traditional Ramadan bread (ramazan pidesi - the only thing that got us through the month there) was stuffed with dates (no thanks). True, at sunset yesterday, the very faint drone of a muezzin was carried to our neighbourhood on the evening breeze, marking the beginning of Eid, the end of Ramadan. And of course, the non-fasting boys across the street from us (who belong to pretty much the only Muslim family in the neighbourhood) celebrated every post-sunset by setting off squibs in their front yard causing every dog within a 20-block radius to go ballistic. More importantly, it caused our dog to go ballistic. Celeste spent much of the month barking her fool head off, running around the yard in circles, and trying to decide whether or not she wanted to clear our 2-metre garden gate - which she could easily do - and chew them to bits. Fortunately, her good sense (or my continual shrieks of Celeste! Celeste! Come here!) prevailed as I locked her inside.

After Week Two of the firecrackers, near-deafened by her incessant crazed barking, I stopped barricading her in the house. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, hearing our dog go certifiably (and very loudly) insane would curb their incendiary tendencies. Or maybe their mother would come out of the house and thrash them soundly. Those squibs are making that dog across the street go crazy, she'd say.
Thrash-thrash. You're all going to wake the baby. Thrash-thrash. Stop it now so I can get some peace. Thrash-thrash.

Neither of which happened.

So yes, there were trials.

I'll take this opportunity to end this little non-diatribe of the Ramadan That Never Was with a repeat performance from an earlier blog posting - from the end of Ramadan 2006: the Moroccan Madness.

… and of course, it’s a great time to be a cow or a goat because the clock has started ticking for this country’s sheep. Seventy days until the mass slaughter at Eid el Kebir – last year, over 6 million ovine throats were sliced with knives of varying sharpness and cleanliness, by hands of varying degrees of skill. Tick, tick, tick ... too bad I won't be here to enjoy it. Too bad I’ll be anywhere else in the world this time around.

Of course, in this part of the world, unlike Morocco, they do slaughter cows during The Great Sheep Sacrifice. And for that matter, I probably won't be able to get out of Dodge and avoid all the Primal Animal Panic & Blood & Death associated with pleasing a God who is generally pleased by
Primal Animal Panic & Blood & Death. I can only hope that, like Ramadan, The Great Sheep (cum Cow) Sacrifice will be kept to a minimum here in Ainkawa. In fact, I'm sure it will be. Unless it's those squib-wielding boys from across the street. I bet they're pretty handy with a knife. Won't our border collie love hearing a sheep or two bleating from across the way? That'll be the day that, with a hearty allahu Akbar, she'll decide to clear the garden gate.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Death Takes a Holiday

I suppose that death is seldom amusing unless you find yourself in the unlikely situation of spending the weekend with a cadaver named Bernie. Having said that (and rest assured that there are no stiffs named Bernie in what I am about to relate) death popped by our neighbourhood recently and took on - how shall I put this? - an almost carnival-like atmosphere.

It all started with the ambulance. Truth be told, I didn't even know that there were
ambulances in Erbil; in fact, my students continually remind me that I must call a taxi should I ever required medical attention to which I respond, should I require medical attention, I'll call my travel agent. Nonetheless, one Tuesday morning (yes, the day is important), an ambulance sans flashing lights and blaring siren pulled up to the house kitty-corner to ours. (Our house sits on a corner lot at the intersection of two alleys.)

I think someone died, I told Mr. This Cat's Not Abroad. Do you suppose it's the old coot in the silk pyjamas?

An aside: the house in question is inhabited by an old coot who potters about his front yard in silk pyjamas, regardless of the season or time of day. The upper floor of the villa is rented by the Iranian family who I'm pretty sure masterminded our break-in from last May.
Ask any Kurd and they will tell you that all Iranians are thieves, as they've told us repeatedly.

In any case, someone was carted off in the ambulance to the charnel house hospital and for the time being that was that. The time being until the next day.

Very very early the next day (Wednesday), Mr. This Cat and I were woken by the keening ululations that only a Middle Eastern woman can produce. I'm pretty sure it's genetic.

I knew it: Mr. Silk Pyjamas is dead, I mumbled, still half asleep. This'll be interesting.

ululations continued for most of the morning, but around 8:00 a new sound joined the fray: the sound of a Big Top tent being erected in the street outside of our house. By on the street, I mean in the middle of the road completely blocking traffic. And by outside of our house, I mean in front of the gate which leads to our driveway.

Good thing we don't own a car, I noted.

We peeked out the window and watched as car after car approached (from a different street of course, as the main street was now cut off), disgorging scores of condolence-bringing friends, family, and colleagues to the house. A mini van arrived and packages of prepared food - enough to feed Saddam's Republican Guard - were carried into the house.

It's catered! I cried. Shouldn't neighbours be showing up with meatloaf and lemon bars? Where's the tuna casserole?

Capitalizing on this break in the action, Mr. This Cat slipped out and went to work. Bastard.

Hammer hammer hammer. Scrape scrape scrape. Ooolllooooooolllooooo! ooolllooooooolllooooo! ooolllooooooolllooooo! Hammer hammer hammer. Scrape scrape scrape. Ooolllooooooolllooooo! ooolllooooooolllooooo! ooolllooooooolllooooo!

For the love of God. Hoping to drown out all of the assorted ambient sounds of mourning, I went outside and put on the sprinkler. Sprinklers are often maligned as noise-blocking instruments - and for good reason. From the far recesses of the house,
the Hammer hammer hammer. Scrape scrape scrape. Ooolllooooooolllooooo! ooolllooooooolllooooo! ooolllooooooolllooooo! Hammer hammer hammer. Scrape scrape scrape. Ooolllooooooolllooooo! ooolllooooooolllooooo! ooolllooooooolllooooo! sought me out and found me. Celeste, in the throes of her midmorning nap, slept the sleep of angels. Were angels border collies.

I called Mr. This Cat. What's the Big Top for? You don't think they're going to lay Mr. Silk Pyjamas out, do you? A wake maybe? - it's a Christian neighbourhood, perhaps there'll be whiskey. And some heart-rendering versions of Danny Boy.

It's 52º today, he pointed out.

True. Mr. Silk Pyjamas wouldn't last an hour.

After an hour or so of the hammering, scraping, and ooolllooooooollloooooing, I padded into the kitchen for a bloody Mary drink and saw a man in our yard.

There really shouldn't be a man in our yard, I thought to myself. And then I saw the second one.

There really shouldn't be two men in our yard, I thought to myself. And then I saw that the first one was disconnecting the garden hose from the sprinkler, and the second one was adjusting the outside tap to increase the water pressure. Now a wise woman once taught me that a tongue lashing in any language is a tongue lashing so ...

HEY! Excuse me! What are you doing? And yes, I knew that they probably had no clue what I was saying. HELLO? (that word they know because to a Kurd, hello means goodbye). HELLO?!!

While I stood on my hitherto secure lawn, I watched (rather incredulously, truth be told) as Man #1 carried our garden hose out into the street and Man #2 look at me blankly, turn away from me, and walk away.

No fucking way, I thought. That's a direct quote I would add. Because I was watering the lawn from city water (opposed to water from our roof-top tank), I walked over to the motor which runs the pump which pumps the water from the ground, and flipped it off.

Not surprisingly, a few moments later Man #3 - without bothering to knock or ring the bell - entered our yard. I confess that I felt a bit sorry for Man #3 because he was clearly shanghaied into speaking with me as he was the only one among the construction crew who could speak even a smidgen of English. Smidgen being a gross exaggeration. No worries, for his lack of English didn't impede my ability to tear a strip off of him because a tongue lashing in any language ...

He skulked away after my tirade, clearly not understanding any of it but probably getting the gist of it.

Not surprisingly, a half hour later, Man #4 - who had the foresight to ring the bell - entered our yard. He actually could speak English and I suspect he was hauled off the street to be the Big Top Tent's spokesperson.

There is an emergency, he said. He pointed to the House in Mourning.

Yes, I know. I replied. But what gives those men (I pointed to the Big Top)
the right to come into my home without knocking, take my garden hose, and increase the water without asking me? They did not ask, and they did not apologize to me. This is very very disrespectful (this was my trump card). I am a woman alone in my house. Would they do this to a Kurdish woman?

He had the good grace to hang his head. Yes I know. I am sorry, but they didn't know you were here. They thought the house was empty.

My front door was open!
I screamed, for I leave the front door open to catch a cross breeze (which it doesn't).

Any and all activity on the street came to a halt and everyone turned to watch. Once again, I was the in-flight entertainment. Perhaps sensing my frustration or just wanting to see a good floor show, Celeste roused herself from her midmorning nap and joined the fracas, padding over to Man #4. She sat herself
at his feet as close as caninely-possible, and looked at him very intently. She blinked at him and lolled her tongue and wouldn't break eye contact with him. She was far from threatening-looking but she didn't need to be. Kurds don't like dogs. He stepped back.

My front door was open!
I reiterated (and yes, screamed). The water was on! The sprinkler was on! The motor was on! They had to disengage the sprinkler!
They could have rung the bell. They could have asked me. I would have said yes (a blatant lie). I am a woman alone in my house. Would they do this to a Kurdish woman? No they wouldn't and they didn't! They came here and walked in. I will call my husband. He will be very very angry. This is very very disrespectful.

Never underestimate the fearful force of the disrespect-card. It is a formidable thing.

He apologized again and then nodded to the motor. I growled and stormed over to the motor, flipping the switch and watching as water coursed through our garden house, powered by our electricity. In a country where electricity is more dear (by which I mean expensive) than almost life itself, I was peeved.

I did call Mr. This Cat, and our Place of Gainful Employment - appalled by this breach in courtesy - offered to send over two guards bearing AK-47s to speak with the Men from the Big Top. As fetching as this thought was (and it was), I was mindful of the fact that funerary operations were about to come to full swing, and Kalashnikovs - well, any assault rifle for that matter - might be a little trop. I did appreciate the offer and I won't lie and say that I wasn't tempted. Truth be told, since our break-in, I've been a little skittish about strangers walking into our yard unannounced and taking things. I can be so unreasonable.

A few hours later, the hose was returned, by which I mean, left in a serpentine coil outside the front gate. When Mr. This Cat came home that night, he took it and stashed it away in the garden shed at the side of our house which oddly houses one lone spade (the other seized by The Not Very Secret Police as evidence of our break-in) and a fully operational toilet. This country never ceases to amaze me.

That night the period of mourning started with a bang - or rather a whimper. The inside perimeter of the Big Top in front of our house was lined with chairs on which sat many dour-faced men. They spoke not a word and they did not a thing but sit poker-straight in their straight back chairs. Mr. Silk Pyjamas was from a Christian house so I expected some rosary-clacking, chanting, or praying but it was silent - save for the flap flap flapping of the tea boy's flip-flops and the churning of the Swamp Thing which sat at the mouth of the Big Top, watered from our garden house.

How's it being run? I asked Mr. This Cat.

He pointed to a very long extension cord which ran under the gate of the house across the street from us. It's going into the widow's yard.

I hope they asked her first.

The next day I asked my students about funeral customs. It happened that in this particular class, all my students were Muslim but they believed that Christian funeral practices were much the same as theirs. Three days, they said. They will mourn for three days.

Well it wasn't three days. It was eight: One week plus a day. For
eight days, from sun-up to nigh on midnight, dour-faced men sat outside our home under the Big Top and did and said nothing. Their womenfolk (I can't believe I just used that word) were confined to the house where they ululated with reckless abandon. The Swamp Thing churned and churned for 18 hours a day. Mr. This Cat frightened wandering mourners and the dour-faced men out of their socks every morning when he opened the gate to take Celeste out for a walk. I spent my days picking up empty water bottles and other bits of detritus tossed over our 3-metre garden wall by the dour-faced men who seemed to be a loss at what to do with the garbage cans provided by the Big Top men. Every waking moment Celeste barked at the overflow of dour-faced men who used our front gate as a leaning post where they could sip their tea, and by Day Five, I stopped calling her back. Drivers, who normally use our street as a short-cut, sped their cars down it at break-neck speed (as is their habit) only to have to come to a screeching halt metres away from the tent. Couldn't they put up a sign at the end of the street? A barrier of some sort? I whined, as another car narrowly missed the tea boy. That aforesaid carnival-like atmosphere - worthy of a David Lynch film - lasted eight long days.

On Day Eight, the Big Top was dismantled and the men - presumably including Men #1, 2, 3, and possibly 4 - left without a word. What they did leave behind was their garbage, which remained where it was until our orange-jumpered street cleaners arrived a few days later for their weekly tour of duty.

I found out after the fact that Mr. Silk Pyjamas was not the Man of Honour at these proceedings, but rather his wife. I didn't know he had a wife.

I wonder if she wore silk pyjamas too.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Of Vikings & Argonauts

It was 1963, and Jason's argonauts were grumbling about their crap voyage aboard the Argos which included lengthy sword battles against harpies, a giant bronze - well, bronze giant, a hydra (a 7-headed water beast-thingy), and if that's not well enough, a skeleton army - or rather an army of skeletons.

Forty-seven years later, I feel for those argonauts. Not so much for Jason, because their was a kingship at the end of his quest for the Golden Fleece (poor sheep), but those poor argonauts got the short end of the stick. And why do I feel for them? Because last week, Mr. This Cat's (Not Abroad) and I got a phone call from the Mirinda-pushing wench at our
Soon-to-Be Favourite Travel Agent, advising us that there had been a change in our flight time/ Given that out flight was at 1:40 a.m. (this is, after all Iraq), this was welcome news indeed.

But no! It seems that the ability to convey the change in our flight details is more than her
smattering of English can cope with: Our flight is 5 days earlier. Or, alternatively, 5 days later. Given that friends i.e., people who actually seem to like us have made plans to join us from halfway around the world, it seems rather churlish to take the latter option and spend 28 hours with them. On the other hand, it's a bit prickly having to give our decision to the Mirinda-pushing wench within 2 hours, considering that Our Boss is in Baghdad and completely incommunicado. Decisions Decisions.

So after a threatened air traffic controllers strike (by the Greek air traffic controllers, if that even needs to be said) our Viking flight left 2 hours late (one hour of which was in the plane without benefit of air, fresh or manufactured and in the company of every teething colicky baby in Kurdistan). It was unnotable but for the fact that there were a dozen more passengers in the air than meals in the airs (if anyone would like to give their meal up for another passenger and receive a free alcoholic drink, please press the call button overh--- *PING* went I:
*PING* *PING* *PING* *PING* *PING* *PING* bring me a goddamn beer!) - we are in Athens.

It's hot and muggy but it's on average 16 º C cooler here than in Erbil, but it's possible that we're the only tourists in the city who appreciate such niceties. So while we wait for our friends i.e., people who actually seem to like us to join us in two more days, I have one thing to say, Stavros: bring me another ouzo!