Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Figuring it out

So, hello again from Iraq. I am sitting on my balcony, looking out over the fountain in the courtyard of our complex, the buildings of Suli shining brazenly in the night and the darker shadow of a mountain rising against a deep cobalt sky.

Today, for the second time this week, I trekked to the bazaar, nestled at the heart of the city, a somewhat pleasant hour's walk from my apartment. It's strange, you know. Suli is both like and unlike any other city in the developing world- holes in the sidewalk yawn intermittently, hoping to ensnare the unwary walker; neon signs in English and the local tongue advertising brands no one can afford; sputtering buses spewing exhaust as the careen alarmingly close to the sidewalks; young men ogling (though not harassing) the foreign women dressed in jeans and tee-shirts. But Suli has its distinctions, too. Murals of Kurdish independence lining the sidewalk, stern-faced soldiers standing idly on the sidewalk, supposedly serving some purpose, scrawling Kurdish script across the storefronts, tantalizing close to Arabic, yet distinctive enough only reveal half of their meaning; many women tottering around in high heels and tight clothes...without veils. I find the elements of familiarity oddly comforting but the strangeness oddly enticing, opening up yet another world to explore.

Little things about this place get me. The fact that cars pull over for ambulances, for instance. That some drivers use turn signals. That my commute to work is only 15 minutes, with traffic. That the “international” airport is also 15 minutes. That the road to Kirkuk lies on my doorstep. That I have more closet space than I do clothes. That the soldier in front of our apartment, one sunny morning, sat in the kids' playground, machine gun in hand, to escape the heat.

The bazaar is typically Arab- chaotic, twisting, striped awnings stretching over narrow alleyways, side streets offering rhinestone-infused sheets and curtains, slabs of beef hanging in windows, poultry squwaking in cages, shiny cell phones beckoning from shop front windows, baked sweets heaped on carts, succulent produce overflowing from stands...you get the idea. My friends, who walked with me, and I stopped for a short rest in a cafe entitled Pasha, a

shadowy recess filled with sheesha smoke, men's chatter, lingering stares, Bedouin rugs, and an incongruous copy of the Mona Lisa. After some time, a table was produced and we behind it. Gradually, the darting black eyes turned away from us and back to the football match on television. The man sitting next to us, hearing us jabbering away in English, introduced himself, a Kurdish born fellow who had fled the region during the height of the fighting between rebel groups and Saddam's tyranny to Britain and was back for a holiday. His story, I've found, is not entirely unique. Many of the Kurds I've met who speak a modicum of English have spent time abroad, many as refugees fleeing a warn-torn Iraq.

I visited an almond orchard last weekend. At least, I think that is the proper term for it. Perhaps almond grove? I, in my ignorance, was unaware of the fact that almonds actually come from trees- I suppose I thought the almond fairy just delivered them to the nut dealers in the bazaar, magically depositing burlap bags heaping with almonds every night underneath a cloak of darkness. I can now report that almond harvesting is a laborious process (I only lasted a few hours)- the only fairies involved are sunburned farmers tirelessly moving from tree to tree, shaking the trunk and branches as a cascade of nuts patters on the ground, collected by hand and individually shelled, dried, and shelled again. Then they are finally ready for consumption.

The area we visited, about half an hour from Suli, required the traversal of a mountain range (expedited by the recent construction

of a tunnel through the heart of it). As we emerged, eventually, into the afternoon sunlight on the other side, a beautiful valley, crisscrossed by farms, orchards, and dusty., serpentine roads, unfolded before me. It was breathtakingly beautiful, hillsides covered with forests, fields of golden grass rippling in a slight breeze, brightly painted villas crowding the view. The trees, in particular, many of them looked young...so I asked why. The entire region was deforested, partly out of spite, partly because it eliminated cover for rebel groups fighting. Now, the government is planting hundreds of thousands of trees a year, attempting to reinvigorate a region scarred by decades of war. I even heard tales that wild boars roam the region (and make tasty barbecues, though I was not, perhaps fortuitously, privy to meeting one).

After spending several hours bending and scrabbling on the ground for almonds, our group took a short hike up a nearby hill to catch the lay of the land and stretch our legs. An arduous trek later, we crested the final rise and gazed out over a sight I never expected to find in Iraq- mountains and valleys gilded with the soft glow of the setting sun, children running barefoot behind a stubborn flock of sheep, rumbling pick-ups crawling up hillsides. In short, it was not the Iraq I have seen and heard about on the news for years. Surely, that Iraq exists, south of the border. But it was startling, almost, to see life languorously lived.