Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Welcome to Iraq

From the air it looked like a world of dirt and sand, an endless, undulating, at times mountainous, land devoid of anything save this monotonous, incessant spectrum of brown. What struck me, then, on the ground, was the grass, rippling fields of sun-scorched gold stretching on both sides of the narrow runway. I noticed the trees next, scruffy, scrubby, only moderately dusty, growing here and there and clustering around water sources- of which, it being the desert, there were, understandably, few. Low villas and short buildings climbed up the slopes of the city. Someone from a seat behind me leaned forward, “That's Pak City, where we're living,” gesturing to the aberrance of a high rise block of apartment buildings that rose above the skyline, blocky behemoths thrusting up from the rocky soil, surrounded by play grounds and armed soldiers smoking cigarettes.

The airport, though international in name, was more like a small-scale model of other airports I've visited, boasting a handful of gates, a single baggage claim, a short line for passport control, and a tiny waiting area. Customs was a breeze, no visa was required, the bags arrived within minutes, and soon we stepped out of the airport into the still, sun-baked heat of Sulaimaniyah. Ever wary of being approached at the airport by sketchy, avaricious men, I hesitated when several approached my roommate, Z, and me, gesturing that the American University bus for faculty was over there, and our luggage could be put on that truck. Then I realized swindling was more impossible at an airport where, like the Cheers bar, everyone knows your name.

It took me awhile to get to this point- multiple flight delays in Minneapolis, 50 minutes to make my connection in Chicago, finding my luggage did not arrive with my in Istanbul, waiting for hours for passport control, laboriously filing a lost luggage claim with Turkish Air, concerned over the fact that my two giant bags were not registered in the system, tracking down the shuttle to finally arrive, exhausted, at my hotel in an unknown district of the city. Though the Chicago flight was full of fellow AUI-Sers, none were yet known to me and all had proceeded me out of the airport and, apparently, on a different shuttle, leaving me friendless hungry, and rather ornery. Walking around the area I was in, I found numerous little sidewalk restaurants, all brimming with laughter and crowded tables- I passed them quickly by, feeling more than a little lonely and unwilling to take a table for one.

The next morning, I felt slightly mollified. The man who was supposed to meet me at the airport, a perpetual look of resignation etched into his face from the previous day's mishaps, apologized profusely. My fellow faculty at AUI-S were, as you might expect, a diverse bunch, married and single, young and well past middle age, childless or with several in tow, though all, I thought somewhat enviously, with their luggage. Mine still floated somewhere in the netherworld of airport abandonment, as yet unfound and certainly not meeting me for my flight to Iraq at 10 am.

Pak City appeared less daunting as we passed through its gates. “It's really nice,” the chatty woman behind us enthused. “Unlike the rest of the city, we have power 24/7 and never have outages. It's a very desirable place to live, within walking distance to the bazaar, shops, restaurants, everywhere, really. AUI only has one building. The rest are locals, of course. And you can come and go as you like.” Somehow, that reassured me. Though I could not have prevented housing in a walled-off, expats-only compound, I was deeply grateful that Pak City, though upscale, was none of these things.

Z and I squealed as we walked into the apartment. I don't squeal often. It is shameful, really, how much space there is for the two of us. Two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a large kitchen, a large dining room/living room, an office, a laundry room, an ironing room, and a wide entrance hall into the place, all tastefully decorated in dark wood furniture, wooden floors, new appliances, a large flat screen TV. Toto, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore. And that's ok. This is much better than Kansas.

AUI provided us with brand-new, still-in-the-package bedding and kitchen supplies. There are walls of storage cabinets that match the same, dark wood color scheme as the rest of the house, including the door frames. My bedroom, for once, has a surfeit of closet and drawer space. When later queried as to whether the apartment was acceptable, I have to confess I laughed. “It's amazing.” Unlike Egypt, where things rarely worked and frequently fell apart, this apartment, at least, is a mockery of even the faculty apartments at AUC.

I dragged Z away from her unpacking (mine consisted of emptying my carry-on and angrily kicking it to the side; still no luggage) and we went to explore the city. Cairo was block upon block of smog-smeared brown high rises, indistinguishable from the next. Here reminds me more of Amman, or Palestine- individual villas or low rise apartments, all crafted primarily of stone and appearing more sturdy than the questionable building materials of Egypt. Cairo, too, was flat, achingly so, an endless march of humanity sprawling across a desert plain. Z and I, and we surmounted our first hill (she was in my M.A. Program at AUC), remarked that Suli is likely to whip us into shape, steep inclines leading to anywhere one wishes to go.

We didn't head for the river, though there is one here, more of a tepid trickle now at the height of the dry season, clumps of tall trees clustering thirstily on its banks. No, we wanted coffee- and not in the place we first arrived to, on recommendation, an upscale coffee shop with soothing fountains and American prices. We wanted local, probably dominated by men, filled with the heady scents of sheesha smoke and the rattle of dice against a backgammon board. After another, in my opinion arduous, trek up another hill, we found it, settled into the gilded couches inside and grinned victoriously at each other. The novelty of being here, in Iraq, in Kurdistan, was yet undimmed- in fact, it still is not quite reality, still hasn't percolated my conscience that I look out the window over the mountains of Iraq, Iran in the distance, that I'm actually here.

It doesn't help that most people accept U.S. Dollars as easily as Iraqi dinars. I was frightened as to whether I should exchange my wads of cash at the airport (there are, purportedly, no ATMs here) or at an exchange place, but a colleague counseled me, “everywhere can exchange them.” “You mean, there are exchange places everywhere?”

“No,” she explained patiently, “everywhere will accept them as payment, well, most everywhere, and give you dinars in exchange. Or, there are guys in the market that sit around with mounds of dinars and will happily exchange with you.” I find the ubiquity of dollars one of the more, strangely, unnerving relics of the U.S.'s Iraqi occupation. Though, judging by the Jaguar advertisements and shiny cars in the streets, Kurdistan has not suffered like the rest of the country.

I have much to learn, including the vexing vocalizations of the Kurdish language. I have teaching to start soon, students to instruct, meetings to attend, blood to be drawn. Until then, however, I am going to turn on the A/C, because I'm not paying for it, and turn on our fabulous tv...just because I can :)