Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Tale of Two Taxis (Taksis)

Mr. This Cat's (Not Abroad) and I have been in Kurdistan for 5 weeks now - and finally have our own home - so it was only a matter of time before offers to ferry us about town would begin to dwindle, if not dry up altogether. Now in Erbil, there are 4 ways to get from Point A to Point B:

1) walk
2) drive (note that foreigners are prohibited from owning vehicles nor does insurance exist for those stupid brave enough to lease)

3) take a mini bus

4) take a taxi

5) kidnap the veggie man's donkey

... and on Friday, we found ourselves in that unenviable position of having to get across town without a ready invitation of a lift. Since driving was out of the question, and none of our support staff could figure out the bus routes for themselves let alone for us, and walking only takes you so far (and that wasn't far enough) - that left the donkey and the taxi. Let me add that taxis are independently operated here and scoot about town bereft of seatbelts and meters. Vis-à-vis the first point, it is what it is; vis-à-vis the second point, passengers must either negotiate a fare before heading off or pay after-the-fact, and hope that you don't offend your driver with what you offer, making him your enemy for life. Donkeys, on the other hand, are quite happy with a carrot.

Personally, I would've preferred the little burro (she's very very pretty), but taxi it was. In fact, in the span of 10 hours we would take 4 taxis (so it's fair to say that we're taxi experts now) of which I will relate two for your reading pleasure.

Ride the First

Ride the First was actually our first ride in Erbil. We flagged a little beige taxi (or taksi since the x doesn't quite exist in the Kurdish alphabet) near our home and, because I know a sum total of one Kurdish word (and yes, it's a polite word), I equipped myself with a business card bearing the address of our destination. We slid into the backseat of the taxi
(taksi), and handed the driver the card, congratulating ourselves all the while with our preparedness, and fully confident (this was a Very Busy Thoroughfare we were going to) that he'd have no problems finding it.

Surprisingly, notwithstanding
the Very Busy Thoroughfare we were going to, our driver had no clue where the Lebanese Beauty Centre is located, but enterprising fellow that he was - and clearly understanding that we'd be of no help to him linguistically and/or directionally - he cheerfully called the salon and asked for directions. This bode well. So off we headed up and down a series of streets - none of which could actually be called streets completed as Erbil is one huge construction site - dodging potholes, avoiding traffic cones (chunks of bumper-friendly cement) and jostling with other cars for one of the seven lanes of traffic on these marked 1- and 2-lane roads.

Apart from the standard French Connection moments which are de rigueur when driving here, what we didn't expect was to be air-borne during our trip and landing on a different road. What actually happened we will never know because both Mr. This Cat and I were busy trying to determine if the home appliances stores were open as this was a Friday (they were not), rather than keeping our eyes on the road (which technically,
as passengers, is not our responsibility).

As best as we can piece things together, our driver - naturally exceeding the speed limit - came up fast behind the car directly in front of us which seems to have made a rather unfortunate decision to stop in the middle of
the Very Busy Thoroughfare. Our driver hit the brakes and swerved the taxi (taksi) to the right to avoid killing us all hitting the other car, at which point we soared into the air and landed on a yet-to-be paved (= dirt) curb about half a metre below and parallel to the Very Busy Thoroughfare. We weaved back and forth like a fish on crack and our driver succeeded in decelerating and correcting the car. Finally we stopped.

We all exhaled as one.

Sorry, he said.

At least I think that's what he said but, to be honest, the pounding of my heart thwumping in my chest had pretty much blocked out all sound for a three-kilometre radius.

To be fair, he did look rather sorry. And somehow I didn't even have the heart to be angry with him for what happened - nor was I particularly freaked out by it. Perhaps we were all just relieved not to be hanging upside down from an ass-over-tea kettle taxi (taksi) - which was probably an impossibility any way as none of us were wearing seatbelts. No matter. Relieved, we just decided - an unspoken but mutual decision this - to blame the other car wholly.

Moments later, he pulled over to the Lebanese Beauty Centre, apologized again and had the good grace to not even look at the bills we handed him. In return, we had the good grace to pay him a decent fare.

Taxi the Second

Same day, different taxi
(taksi). Mr. This Cat and I are coming home from a wildly exciting expedition to Erbil's new home decor department store (think TJ Maxx or Winners Light), which we know is close-ish to our home but not exactly too certain how long the walk would be. As it's getting dark and neither of us wants to see me whining because the walk is too long, we decide to flag a taxi. Because we don't actually have a street address - because our street doesn't actually have a street name - we have been instructed to advise taxi (taksi) drivers in Erbil to simply take us to Ainkawa (our neighbourhood), and since there are only two ways in, we can point them the rest of the way to our door. Lucky for us, our home is close to Ainkawa's newest landmark (which Erbil's drivers seem to know): the New Italiano Restaurant, which is anything but Italian and which offers vegetarian pizzas liberally garnished with chicken. To be fair, it is at least new.

Anyhoo, as we approached the main thoroughfare a taxi
(taksi) slowed down (taxis [taksis] automatically slow down when they spot Western pedestrians assuming that we really don't want to walk), and we hopped in. It turns out that the front passenger seat was occupied by a young boy of around eight. In his arms - which suggests that there was some form of completely ineffectual safety restraint at least - was a one-month old infant. Mr. This Cat and I did what we assumed was expected and fussed over the baby rather than admonishing its father (we presumed) to put the infant in a car seat and strap both it and the eight-year old into the back seat where they belonged.

Ooooooo, aren't you pretty? I cooed. A bit of an exaggeration but I never know what to say in these situations.

And because I was the only passenger in possession of a uterus (I'm not sure about the baby), the beaming father (
we presumed) barked something to his son (we presumed) and the boy leaned back and thrust the baby into my arms. I gave Mr. This Cat a what-the-fuck look and sat back trying to support the baby's head, shield it with my body as we came to brake-screechingly abrupt stops which should have, by all rights, sent us flying through the windshield, and cushion it as we veered and leap-frogged through traffic. All the while chucking it under the chin and babbling insensibly at it.

I am not a baby person.

As we made our way through Ainkawa, I prayed that I would not be an instrument of this child's death (although technically I think that would've been its father [we presumed] rather than me). I also prayed that its bursting-with-pride father (we presumed) would stop beaming at me via the rear-view mirror and keep his eyes on the road.

Within ten minutes the taxi (
taksi) had pulled up to the New Italiano Restaurant where I was divested of my charge. I pretended that I wanted to keep the baby because I never know what to say in these situations, and we all laughed. So ... two taxis (taxis) - two very different taxis (taksis) - in one day. As exhilarating as it was to cheat death that morning, and as cute as the baby was (a bit of an exaggeration but I never know what to say in these situations), I can't help but think that we should have just nicked our veggie man's donkey.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Under a Kurdish Sky

Apart from the sudden and rapid reports of random rifles, the late afternoon was eerily quiet. From our rooftop vantage point, we looked down upon the city - a veritable ghost town - and watched the inky black smoke of dozens of fires stain the blue of a promising spring sky into something loathsome and ominous. Our throats gagged in response to the stench of burning oil.

Vodka & tonic or beer? our host asked.

Beer please - and can I have a lemon wedge in mine? Then I pointed southwest, There’s another fire. This is the oddest New Year’s Eve I’ve celebrated yet.

Indeed. This Saturday past marked New Year’s Eve with – wait for it – Sunday being Nowruz, or New Year’s Day according to the calendars of the Persians, the Kurds, and those sun-loving Zoroastrians. And according to nature’s calendar, it was the spring equinox. Celebrated throughout the Middle East (including Turkey where Kurds are admonished not to have any fun at all), this year even the UN got on the bandwagon and officially recognized Nowruz, this 3,000-year old Spring Festival, as an International Day. There is, of course, a Kurdish spin on it which includes elements cobbled together from a medieval historical text, a thousand-year old poem, and a 16th century folktale worthy of a Tim Burton film.

So, in a nutshell (and yes it’s important): an evil king who just happens to have a pair of snakes growing out of his shoulders - which would make buying off the rack an impossibility for him - has conquered Iran. Because these snakes are giving him the mother-of-all backaches and he has no access to Absorbine Junior, he insists on having 2 youths sacrificed to him every day so that their brains may be fed to the snakes. For reasons unknown to me, this daily snack works wonders on the snakes and hence his back. But because he is evil and because no one likes a sore back, he also stops spring from coming. A millennium into his rule (apparently his subjects are long-suffering or just hate their children), the individual assigned to rustling up the snakes’ lunch decides to dupe the serpents by killing an adult and mixing his brains with those of a sheep.

Time passes.

As the people become disgruntled with the Evil King’s rule (apparently his subjects are long-suffering or just hate their children), a blacksmith named Kava (himself the father of 6 of the snakes’ snacks) trains those children saved by the One Adult/One Sheep Brain Subterfuge to bear arms, and leads a revolt against the Evil King, ultimately killing him with a hammer. There is much rejoicing. The Brave Blacksmith sets fires on the hillsides to let everyone know that the king is dead and the reign of terror over. Presumably mothers throughout the region sigh a huge sigh of relief and spring returns – but I’m just reading between the lines on that last point.

Kava the Blacksmith set fires, ergo everyone in Kurdistan - who in fact believe that they are his very descendants - sets bonfires alight on Nowruz Eve - bonfires to celebrate and/or symbolize the triumph of spring over winter, of light over darkness, of Good over Evil. And why was the smoke of these fires inky-black and toxic? Because Kurds were busy burning tires not fragrant logs. And why were they burning tires – which I’m pretty certain is against the law here? Because Kurdistan is desperately trying to re-green its countryside which is not very green but rather beige. It would seem that for many many years a certain individual – referred to by Kurds as The Leader of the Previous Regime – (hint: he was hanged on December 30th, 2006 just northeast of Baghdad) pretty much razed Kurdistan (for which he bore no love but lots of cannisters of chemical gas) of its trees.

I don’t know to what extent the Kurds think of The Leader of the Previous Regime when they light their bonfires or the Evil King (or perhaps they have become one and the same), but Nowruz has definitely become a political expression of Kurdish identity and independence. In any case, Kurds appear to be terribly respectful of their saplings dotting the city and countryside. Hence the burning tires.

So to sum up: Nowruz is a really really big deal and can last several days onwards up to a week. Unless you're an English teacher and then you find yourself writing this from work because you are bored as there are no freaking students in town.

Atop our roof, as we raised our glasses to the year 2710, we watched the guards at the end of the street toss aside their AK-47's and heave another tire onto the fire. Peeee-yoooo, they (the tires, not the guards. Well maybe the guards) reeked something fierce. But the city itself - apart from the odd bonfire here and there - was (as I said) weirdly silent: it would seem that during Nowruz, every Kurd with access to something with wheels (and possibly hooves) hits the mountains to go picnicking. And to say that picnicking is anything less than a national obsession would be committing an act of blasphemy. We toasted the guards who had to work.

Oh! - and the rifles? The "sudden reports of random rifles", I mentioned earlier. Well, this is, after all, Iraq.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Waxing Poetically ...

Since we’ve been in Kurdistan, I confess that I’ve felt my Canadian-ism rather keenly – a sentiment which is, under normal conditions, almost completely lacking from my genetic makeup – and it’s all because of Erbil’s grocery stores. It began with the discovery of a couple of choice Canadian products - products I wouldn’t normally expect to see outside of Canada, let alone in Iraq. There was that first sighting of (albeit dusty) tins of Brunswick sardines which made me quite misty, followed closely by frosty packages of McCain’s Deep'n Delicious chocolate cake which just left me feeling puzzled. And more recently it was the jaunty display case of Nitro Canada Hair Wax. Nitro Canada Hair Wax? you ask.


It would seem that pretty much every neighbourhood market has a fairly extensive selection of Nitro Canada Hair Wax. With grammatically challenged easy to follow directions, the Nitro Canada purports to “enhance lustrous chine (sic) and ideal for sleekly (sic) look and goood (sic) scent easy to apply and wash off.” I'm going to have to start paying closer attention to the Kurds' hair - is it the chine truly lustrous? The scent especially goood?

On top of its sleekly-ness, Nitro Canada Wax comes in fragrances that every fashionista wants - nay craves - to have wafting up from his or her head under a blistering Iraqi sun. Many of these are fruity - and dare I say mundane? - fragrances, but Nitro Canada Hair Wax's ability in identifying the needs of the wax-wearing public clearly came to a head with the development of their snake oil- and (my personal favourite) garlic-scented hair wax. Pure genius, that. Hats off to you.

Of course,
a closer examination of the Canuck wax only served to dry up that trickle of patriotism dribbling through my veins: I am relieved sad to say that Nitro Canada Hair Wax is not Canadian. It’s manufactured in the People’s Republic of China – specifically (should you care about these things) in Guangdong. Given the PRC’s proven track record of providing quality consumer products, it’s probably a very good thing that doting Chinese mothers don’t (to the best of my knowledge) slick down their toddler’s hair with hair wax. Or was the problem only with chemical-laced toothpaste, tainted pet food, dried apples preserved with cancer-causing chemicals, frozen catfish laden with banned antibiotics, scallops and sardines coated with putrefying bacteria, mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides? Oh - and the milk.

Then again, they do claim - and I quote - that "'customer first' has always been our pursuit of the best product and we are ready to return customer.” Return customer? Where to? To the atmosphere? Is the nitro component some sort of oily, colourless explosive suitable for all hair styles? Is this why it's popular in Iraq? And where do they get off suggesting that their product is Canadian? This just isn't good form - I mean, everyone knows that products made in Canada are of the highest calibre only.

Well, at least McCain’s Deep' n Delicious chocolate cakes – whose wholesome ingredients include hydrogenated palm kernel oil, glucose solids, glycol mono fatty acid esters, mono- and digylcerides, artificial flavour, beef gelatin (every vegetarian's dream), polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate, xanthan gum, silicon dioxide, sodium aluminum phosphate and shellac - is purely and proudly Canadian. I feel better already.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The "Creative Writer" Blogger Award

I'm pretty certain that the last time I won anything of any lasting value was the Spelling Bee award which I nailed in grade 6 but - lo & behold! - it seems that I have been tagged with a (and I quote) "chain blog post award-doohickey-thingy". Naturally, acceptance of this very ponderously momentous honour is attended by a well-defined codex of Rigorous Rules, by which I must abide lest I be demoted to Miss Congeniality Chain Blog Post Award-Doohickey-Thingy.

The Codex

1. Thank the person who gave this to you. (grazie mille Boudreau Freret – I'm reluctant to delve too deeply into the reasons you tagged me, but I suspect that this was a pity-tag. Not that that makes me any less grateful.

2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog. Check. I don't really like the logo. Surely we could have done better, no?

3. Link to the person who nominated you. Didn't I just do that? Isn't that what Point #1 was all about? In my mind, this seems like a rather ham-fisted excuse to shamelessly promote draw attention to my nominator yet again. *Sigh* Here he is (again). I'd be really peeved by this if it weren't for the fact that I effusively encourage all three of my regular readers to visit Monsieur Freret's fabulously eloquent blog.

4. Tell up to six outrageous lies about yourself, and at least one outrageous truth - or - switch it around and tell six outrageous truths and one outrageous lie. I never lie. (Ooops! - was that number 1 already?)

5. Nominate seven "Creative Writers" who might have fun coming up with outrageous lies, or who have outrageous truths to share. Check.

6. Post links to the seven blogs you nominate. Duhhhh ...

7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know you nominated them. Natch.

Now for the challenge - let's see if you can separate the sheep from the goats:

1. I can’t brush my teeth in the bathroom; instead, I wander nomadically throughout my home as I brush brush brush. (I have no problems being stationary while I floss.) Now that we're in Iraq, I see this irritating quirky little trait as a boon since most bathrooms here are not equipped with sinks. Sinks tend to be out in the hallway. It's like I've been in training for this moment all my life.

2. When I was growing up, Eugene Levy was our family babysitter. Oddly - and to this day - my brother is often mistaken for Gene. Must be the unibrow.

3. My mouth (in which butter seldom melts) still calls itself home to a now rather misshapen baby - or milk if you prefer - tooth. I know - as sure as God made little green apples - that this is my personal Heaven-appointed Fountain of Youth (oh, where art thou Ponce de León?) - my own The Picture of Dorian Gray. Once it is gone - alas! there is no adult tooth below the gum line, patiently waiting (like Prince Charles) for its moment in the sun - it is gone, and I will age into a toothless (or one tooth less) crone overnight.

4. I have a not well-kept secret passion for any book - fiction or non-fiction - about the Knights Templar, and by extension, the Crusades. Christ! - dress an orangutan in a flowing white mantle with a pretty red cross on it and Dan Brown I'd be all over it. What's there not to love about a great ape delivering the Holy Places of Christianity from Mohammedan tyranny?

5. I love the film Ishtar. I not very briefly considered making I Look to Mecca the first song at my wedding.

6. I am incredibly shy.

7. I can write (indeed I am remarkably dexterous) with both of my feet but amazingly, no one has offered to make a film about me. Admittedly my "penmanship" was much much better before my foot surgery of several years back but perhaps this particular footnote makes my toehold on writing all the more film-worthy.

And in random order, I give you the names (and links) of those poor sods lucky lucky chosen to whom I proudly pass the baton:

1. Mr. Words Worth
2. Dainty Ballerina
3. Amazing Susan @ Amazing Women Rock
4. Flawnt
5. Miss Footloose
6. Zehra Mustafa
7. Joanna @ popculturedivas and missculture

The game is afoot!