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!