Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hello from Hawler

Time, brown-outs and very tetchy internet access have connived and conspired to render me uncharacteristically eerily silent these last few days, so I am going to take advantage of a few free moments, electricity, and a stolen usb-wifi stick to offer the briefest of glimpses into our first week (+2 days) in Hawler - or Erbil as the Kurds (it is their city after all) are wont to call it. So in no order or aforethought whatsoever, here are a few - and I mean a few snapshots of Life Among the Kurds.

1) Like any other (sort-of) modern city, Erbil runs on electricity - that marvellously magical (in my mind) undercurrent to civilization that keeps me warm when it's cold out, allows me to boil water for my tea, and read without straining my eyes
unnecessarily. Here, the city is officially empowered between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. The corollary of this is that if you are the sort of person who likes to stay warm when it's cold out, boil water for your tea, and read without straining your eyes unnecessarily then you are shit out of luck - unless you either own your own generator or can tap into someone else's generator. Consequently it looks like Spider-Man has spun his way across Erbil and, in his wake, left a rainforest panoply of sinewy webs strung between every house, lamp-post, high wire and generator - and of course, along the streets and sidewalks. The city is one gargantuan electrical octopus. If you are fortunate to have access to a good generator, it will automatically kick in when the city power cuts out. The transition from city to private electricity is not a smooth one and is usually accompanied by a house-shaking clunking sound, a jolt, a black-out, a house-shaking clunking sound and a jolt when power is once again resumed. In any given night, there can be half a dozen of these electrical trade-offs. I suspect that Stephen King spent time in Iraq while researching the Green Mile.

2) Cars appear to have names. Not names like "Civic" or "Corolla", but additional names - perhaps like confirmation names, except rather than choosing a saint's name, something quite nonsensical is selected. These names are painted quite boldly along the sides or backs of the lucky vehicles in question, so that there's no doubt at all that an individual isn't just driving a Hyundai Tucson, but rather sitting proudly behind the wheel of a "Prado", "Deer", "Great Wall" or (the ever popular) "Obama". What we are unable to determine is whether this act of car-christening transpires at the actual car dealership or in someone's garage. I actually suspect the former.

3) Bathrooms here have a doorbell on the wall. They are not near places where a panic-button might come in handy, such as the bathtub (should one slip) or the toilet (should one be short of something absorbent). So in plain sight, but not easily accessed (unless you're standing in the doorway), is a very loud doorbell. Needless to say, Mr. This Cat's (Not Abroad) finds great sport in ringing it for no apparent reason (for more Mr. This Cat's quirky anecdotes, read my upcoming memoir, Married to an Eight-Year Old).

4) Many ex-pats here have pets: presumably the standard fare being cats and dogs. I say presumably because I haven't actually seen any pet dogs (although I've seen dog food on selected shelves of larger grocery stores) and I have actually seen a cat (although I've seen neither cat food nor litter on any shelf of any grocery store). I asked our host - whose cat it is - what she does for kitty litter. Bulgur, she said. That would be bulgur, as in that Middle Eastern whole-grain: the cornerstone for pilaf, what make tabbouleh salads crunchy and thickens soups. Peeking into the designated kitty potty room (where the otherwise unused Turkish toilet ekes out a lonely, forgotten life), I saw a kitty litter tray piled high with bulgur wheat. And cat turds. In that instant I knew that I would never eat another bulgur-stuffed green pepper as long as I lived.

5) Firstly, let me preface this by saying that Kurds seem like incredibly nice people. Although I might change my opinion of them - or at least modify it in some way - 23 months & three weeks (less 2 days) from now, today I think they're lovely people. And coming from me, that's high praise indeed. All of the Kurds we've encountered thus far have tried to speak English with us, which is a good thing since we know zippo Kurdish and only a smattering of Arabic - Arabic being the language that Saddam Hussein forced the Kurds to learn in favour of - by which I mean by outlawing - their indigenous language. As a result, I tend to feel like a leading member of the revolutionary Ba'ath Party whenever I use Arabic, but it's either that or point and make incomprehensible grunts to store owners. (Thankfully, most restaurant menus are amazingly printed in English and Kurdish.) Now in spite of their grasp of English (however rudimentary) and keenness to use the language, Kurds haven't been able to come to terms with the word "goodbye". I don't know why this is, but whenever we take our leave of people - everyone from clerks to waiters to the AK-47-wielding guards at Our Place of Gainful Employment - we are sent on our way with a wave and a very chipper "hello."

I wonder if they are equally confused when we respond with goodbye? Perhaps in their minds, they're singing thinking I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello ... hello, hello ...


Snowflake said...

Artichoke Heart wants to know if the flipside is 'You say yes, I say no'! Too funny your life in Gerbil. The electricity (or lack thereof) and the Spiderman wires sound a lot like Lagos and Eket, Nigeria. And we thought Italy was 3rd world!

B. Freret said...

I tagged you - ha!