Sunday, 29 December 2013

Slum Tourism & Snow

I fear how long it's been since I've last typed or stepped outside my self-sustained bubble of life. Why does every post inevitably start this way? I have to learn to accept that I'm lazy at writing down my rushing thoughts.

Anyway, every year brings a shock at the reunion, the faces get more weathered, the city gets more colourful. This year being no exception. On the plane I am miraculously spared my usual insensitive side-kicks, and instead end up next to a wrinkled lady. I feel more than a little pity for her, as I spy her nervously curling and unfurling her golden cross around her neck. She's come to finalise matters, sell up loose ends and settle down. In a country more quiet and suited to her ailing health, she tells me sadly.

'Can you tell I'm only half Iraqi?'. She asks me so earnestly that I'm about to reply before she interrupts,her father is Palestinian. She laments the destruction of Bethlehem and of Baghdad, then proceeds to proudly tell me of her grandchildren. Come visit she nods, giving me an address and phone number in London.

I wonder how her life is like briefly, and then concentrate on the constant turning round of the passenger in front.
On landing, the officers greet me like an old friend. A few changed faces, a few the same, staring as if they remember me from before, but unsure.
The oldest amongst them, incidentally also the chattiest, signals to me. I walk over smiling.

'You never listen.'

'Does any woman?' I reply jokingly, the echoing laughter ringing in my ears.

Day after arrival I am already itching to breathe in the dusty air. I choose to go to the not so nice quarters, and my grandma purses her lips, small signs of disapproval not voiced out. I grin.
Walking around I notice my grandmother's eyes glare at the sights all around. She clutches at my hands and whispers, her eyes still darting around,
 'What is this place? Why did you bring us here? let's us go Touta'.

I can't help but explain. Whenever I tell them storms pass, they all lament, their voices always drowning my calm.  Unable to see past petty problems. Unable to realise there is so much much worse.

She smiles so sadly, its heart-breaking. She recites 'Thank God' over and over as her eyes scan the depressing scenery in front of us.  I know my practical lesson will only last a day or two, but I'm ever the optimist that perhaps it stretches out to a week.

Just like the click of a button, the snap of switch, the situation turns into a comedy.
A battered car bumbles past, coming to a shaky stop ahead of us.

'Grandma!' yells the tired looking driver 'Grandma please!'

My grandmother turns around smiling, only to start shaking in shock as the driver continues his whispered shouts
' How much grandma, please' he pleads.
It takes longer than it should for the man's words to register in my grandmother's mind. I had already started laughing by the time she reacts.
She uses my full name, scolding me for laughing and starts tugging on my sleeve. We're leaving she decides, shaking her head with fear.

The driver persists, tailing our speedy walking speed with his bruised car. He can't seem to understand my calm reasoning of ' Stop embarrassing yourself, no', and my grandmother's angry 'how dare you, we are respectable people!'.

I don't mind the comic misunderstanding, but I feel a pang of guilt at my grandmother's eyes on the verge of tears (I am sure this is the first time something of this sort has happened to her), I whirl around to confront the trailing car.

'I've tried telling you I'm not for sale, but you don't seem to understand. I'll put it to you in a way you can understand. You don't have enough for what I would charge'.

'I do!!' he replies outraged

'You don't' I say shaking my head.

He insists he does, reaching for his glove compartment (My steady heart rate suddenly shoots up).
Thankfully his hand only retrieves an envelope bursting with green bills.

I smile. I don't charge cheap paper, I tell him sweetly. I only charge gold, I say circling my ring finger.

He looks at me, the epitome of confused, and slowly drives away, looking back occasionally.

I'm scared to turn around in case I'm the cause of my grandmother having a heart attack.
Thankfully, she is still standing, her mouth gaping, and her eyes trying to process what just happened.

I continue laughing all the way to the car.

The fun doesn't end there however. On arriving to the mall, and sitting in one of those pretentious café slash restaurant places, whispers from the table next to ours makes my head turn.

'Its her!' comes various hisses from two ladies, directed at her husband who keeps trying to see my face. I smile politely at the young couple, the mother cradling a new-born and not looking very happy with me.

'Its you, isn't it?' she questions.
I apologise for not understanding her question, and continue staring, hoping for an explanation.
Will this day not end, I muse, as the young lady snorts at me. A minute later she repeats the question.

I continue staring confused. The other young lady begins to explain.

'We were driving, when a young lady, who looks very like you -if not you- decides she would race my husband for a good hour or more on the roads. She nearly drove us off the roads, and we have a baby in the car!' She points outraged at the yawning baby.

My grandmother shakes her head and interrupts. How she's so sure of my innocence is a little humbling. Its not my grand daughter, she says confidently.
   I'm not so sure of myself, whenever there's no male in the car with me, I have to deal with quite a few hormonal escapades of being cornered and bullied on the road. Its a little difficult to explain to my father where all the scratches on the back of the car come from, but even the truth doesn't convince him its not me badly parking.
My innocence is proven when they ask for the colour of the car. On asserting the car is nowhere near the colour white (there is no chance it could be mistaken for white either), the company on the other table apologise to my grandmother for mistaking my identity.
The young man is glowing red, and I feel a little sorry for them all.

I maintain that I am undoubtedly blameless in all of this. Perhaps I just shouldn't step outside for a few days, my grandmother muses. I laugh as she warns me not to breathe a word of what happened to anyone.

Wishing everyone a happy Christmas and a better new year.


 

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Air Conditioning

They had installed air conditioning for us, even though the bisateen (orchards, farms) have always been cooler than the pollution filled city.

However, in a village where finishing teaching college was currently the biggest educational achievement, it was hard to find an experienced electrician or whoever is responsible for wiring and plumbing the endless components of the clunky cooling machines. In hindsight, I should have used the internet for more insight or a manual to supplement the head scratching of the poor man .

'I know how to wire televisions, satellites and lights, but this...let's place it on Allah, how hard can it be'. The following cackle should have been a warning of the impending doom.

All criticisms aside, he did manage to hang it up on the wall and wire it. Kind of. It is constantly on the coldest setting, flicking out specks of icy water at all who dare look at it directly.

It's too cold. Each night I shiver and shudder, unable to feel my toes beneath the two furry blankets piled upon me. However I noticed the children sleeping in my room, unsatisfied with their whirring fans, circulating the hot dry air, at their abode.

Before I knew it, I had mumbled an invitation to all, and my room became crowded with the bodies of just about every woman and child in the village.
I didn't mind much, their snoring and sleep talking amusing me until the early hours of the morning, where sleep would slowly pull my eyelids shut. There must have been around 11 people in my room, as I counted the dark twisted shapes on the floor, each contorted uniquely for their own comfort.

Despite the room filled with sleeping bodies, it was still far too cold. I'd wake up, and have to stumble outside into the dark heat of the night, just to warm my skin. Let the intense hit of hot air lull me back into sleepiness. Not before I'd enjoy the yellow eyes and sounds of buzzing of the night though.

On one such night, I heard a tiptoe behind me. A small boy hiding behind the door frame. He'd followed me out, and stood there staring at me for quite some time, as is common.
 The ability of the village population to stare cannot be surpassed or perhaps I'm now used to the dodging eyes of busy cities, avoiding time wasting in letting even their gaze linger for more than is necessary.

It took him half an hour to eventually sit on the dusty floor beside me. I couldn't help myself grinning at him, as he shuffled shyly next to me. 

'Why are you awake?'

I simply missed the night, I poetically answered. He giggled, and answered
'It missed you too'.  An inner romantic I mused, but aren't all children?

After a very short period of silence, the shuffling resumed. His happy chatter soon filling the dark skies.

It started off with questions. So many questions, all of which I was obliged to answer, hoping it would give him a small insight into the rest of the world. Into what lay beyond the farms and the mud, beyond the family and the tribe. 

'You're not going to marry the high school teacher are you? My sister caught him looking at you- but she says because you weren't covering your hair and wearing bright colours, and no one here is used to that, but he wont marry her anyway, she is too young, grandma says your family will ruin you, sending you to Baghdad, and Ali pointed at you, they're trying to work out what that means, its a sign, and the bees never ever sting you! Are you angry? If you have bitter blood, or is it if you have sweet blood, the bees will never bite you. Why are you always alone? You don't talk much, they said you used to talk and laugh and make fun of everything, I don't remember anyway, what's important is now you're back you always smile at me....'

In one breath his entire existence and mine collided endlessly, his energy bullying my ability to answer his three or four questions, scattered into the silence. 

He kept talking, I kept laughing and choking back giggles.

The most poignant aspect being, that child had been the only intelligent conversation I have had throughout the entire summer.

His drive betrayed him and he fell asleep amidst little snores, I carried him into the men's quarters, making sure to place him close to a cool spot.

As I went back into the freezing cold of my room, I started to wonder if this was all an elaborate dream. Perhaps I'd wake to find myself on the patio at dawn, as had been the case before.

The only shred of evidence to that seemingly surreal conversation, was the little boy started to sleep outside my room, grinning at me each morning as I brushed my teeth on my corner of the patio.


Thursday, 22 August 2013

Pink Elephants

What is happening? I don't really care, leaving the house was always an overrated privilege anyway. But on this rare occasion, that I managed to escape the compound, the car ride was uncomfortable.

I couldn't remember seeing so much dirt, filth and poverty everywhere. What happened to the billowing sands that hid everything from view?

My father started to speak, and my attention cruised around the quite barren landscape.

'I've never even heard of them! No one has! Now they're ruling this governate!! You heard her speak, didn't you?
I ask you, did that story even make the slightest sense? hmppph No!! It was engineered to make it believable.
All lies.'

So his mini rant ended. In lieu of current politics, you may perhaps guess who he is referring to, or you probably might not.

I doubt it ever matters. Corruption is rife and Politics is repeating itself in an endless cycle, and I am left pondering yet again, of the prospect of my homeland.

The rest of the ride was in silence. I snarled at the pink elephant, its eyes bulging, begging me to say something.

I'd already exhausted my 'why can't i come back here immediately though?'.
The answers were always so much more stronger than any of my rebuttals, but we'll see.

I always was (and am) a 'stubborn' ( I prefer independent) child. :)



Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Bombs in the Background

It's been so long, I feel my brows furrowing at the last date I've written. Things have changed and things have stayed the same.
The seeking of 'knowledge' has consumed my waking and (little) sleeping hours.

Rings of grey circle my eyes more and more. At night, I enjoy the laughter of the city. The cold (or cool as they say) air filling my lungs.
Somehow, as I enjoy the glittering lights all around me, everyone notices my faltering smile.

I miss the darkness of my home. I miss the atmosphere of black that shrouds the living and the dead. Though as the days of the imminent return creep closer, a small sense of dread fills me.

The heat, the suffocating smells, the anger. When will this cycle end, I sigh down the phone.

'When you start really living life, then the cycle will be a background to trying to not drown' , a friend laughs morbidly.

Life in Iraq hasn't become worse. It just hasn't got better.

(and as adulthood slowly dawns on everyone, I think we've realized no-one is really looking forward to life there)

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Fairness & Flash Floods

'Coming generations will learn equality from poverty, and love from woes'.

We visit bearing gifts, our christian acquaintances, glowing more and more glum each year it seems. I don't blame them; I can't blame anyone, especially when Christmas 2012 was spent with floods in Baghdad.

(Merry Christmas).

Getting more used to the heavy showers, I laughed (almost spitefully) at the few dirty drops of rain. Little did I realize I would wake to find half the city swimming in sewage the next day.

We all made such a fuss over the pools of water that had developed, the entire neighbourhood pitifully complaining, and people standing atop roofs and filming the wet scenery. I can't forget that elderly couple sitting in deck chairs on one of the houses in front of ours. They looked so bemused with it all.

Hours later, heavy machinery tumbled down the poorly paved roads, sucking up the water with grey tubes, and redistributing it elsewhere. Complaints still rang out, mostly of the anti government, anti corruption type. For it was lack of love, and great greed, that had robbed Iraq of basic services.

That night, we had friends over (like most other nights). Complaints, and angry comments over the flooding situation. Blame was passed from Saddam, to the people of Iraq, to the new Saddam (Maliki). Huffs and puffs later, all was forgotten, as the topic turned to cars or something along those lines, with the women making a hasty exit to the dining room to gossip.

I sat and in boredom flicked the remote. Hours earlier I had been splashing bravely in the dirty water, courtesy of my London-brought wellington boots. On the tv, images more suited to the monsoon flooding appeared on one of the iraqi satellite channels.

A man, wrapped in colours of mud complained over the lack of care delivered to one of the worst flooded areas in Baghdad.
"They deliver the removal of water to the places that have money. That can pay! Mansour, The Road of Palestine, Zayouna...not to us. They tell us they have no petrol or no cars!"

I felt my head hang in shame. I felt overridden with guilt. It was all so true. I needed to see if the images portrayed were real.
It couldn't have been, I reasoned, though we all knew it was. The room had fallen silent momentarily at the emotional speech of the man. A more callous man spoke up 'Did they do anything, speak up? Let them suffer in silence if they want, they should demand it!'.

A few guests agreed, though as usual, I couldn't keep quiet.

They had protested, they had been jailed, they had demanded, all to no avail! It will never be of use, since the current government won't listen.

The next day, I told my family I was going to the high street of the area. Or the mall I mused out loud.

'Bring some salt!'.

From my eyes, I replied, and set out into the evening sun.

Less than half an hour later, I had arrived at the more 'downtown' area. The area where clothes were brighter,and voices were louder. And everything was much, much cheaper.

There was nowhere to walk-  pungent water covering every surface. It looked like a scene out of a charity campaign, and it smelt even worse. I fought the urge to cover my mouth. Though I couldn't help scrunching up my face in despair as I watched pieces of rubbish floating by.

In the middle of this scene of defined unfairness and poverty, was a wet middle aged man. He was standing over what seemed to be a gutter hole, handing various instruments to someone submerged, who occasionally came for air.

When he seemed to be less busy, I apologetically asked him, what way was best to cross the heavily flooded road. I didn't feel like swimming in sewage.

 He pulled his son out of the gutter, pointed at me and told his son to help me cross. I smiled at the young teenager covered in dirt, who was quickly washing his face and hands from the remnants of his hard work. He led me across, an ingenious technique using a long stick and stacks of bricks, helped prevent getting soaked in the flood water. I thanked him sincerely, and watched him safely make his way back.

I wandered around the area, occasionally being asked if I needed any help, or if I was stranded. I smiled my thanks, and continued my winding way. Avoiding as much as possible, and not being able to meet the eyes of anyone passing by.

It's hard to witness the extent of how different the circumstances are in one small city.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Taxi 1.5

It's actually killing me.

I should really learn not to get into taxis with a driver over the age of 40.

They're taking advantage of me travelling alone, I realize angrily. As well as their angry stares and mumbling get on my nerves. I put up with too much, out of respect for the grey hairs on their head.

Walking is still not as common as I'd wish it was, especially walking between districts in Baghdad. Yesterday , after what seemed like 100 beeps and horns, I screamed into empty air.
'I'm walking on the pavement!'.
Well, technically, it can't exactly be referred to as a pavement, but it's not the road. The 20cm wide concrete block on one side of the road ,is difficult for even cats to balance on.

I dodge three more murky pools of water, that smell sweetly of sewage. (And they said there's a water shortage! )

No wonder this was voted worst city in the world.

Beautiful Baghdad, I've missed you.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The paper from Najaf - 2

I'm instantly taken to the women's quarters, as soon as I've finished talking with my father. He seems more preoccupied than usual.

I fear the phone call  from my mother. I know it will be filled with angry rhetoric, though I don't understand her unwillingness to accept that I do not want the life she imagines for me.
I tell her it is insipid and tedious. She tells me every girl would kill for a comfortable life in a safe place.
Why don't I see sense, she laments.

I smile and nod at a passing toothless grin. There's been several attempts to eavesdrop on my phone conversation, resulting in me lowering the phone volume. Merely breathing can become a topic of gossip, so I'm taking extra precautions to save myself.

We go to the city market mid evening. I'm choked by its emptiness. In the back of my mind, I know it will get busier as soon as Eid festival approaches. But its deathly silence and hardened stares of shopkeepers, tell me exactly what I don't want to hear.

I try to buy colourful chinese junk from every other stall keeper, under the disapproving glares of my father.
It's not for me, I mumble, well aware of my reputation. My bedroom is known as the storage facility for the sheer amount of clutter I manage to collect. Annually, someone tries to 'tidy' the bomb site up, as I beg to keep yet another 'sentimental' scrap. 

There's been a clear handover. Once run by men older than my father, the shops have been passed over to a considerably angrier younger generation. They wear bright colours, and their ages don't match their weathered skin, and tired eyes.
Everything smells of stale smoke, from the tracksuits to the teddy bears.

The shopkeepers loiter over to each other, and whisper. I'm a curious being, and I strain to hear words floating aimlessly. It's torture, made only more difficult by my father's resolution to seemingly have an half hour conversation with every man around.
You're not going to get a discount, I muse, as I try to hide my grin.

On our return, gender separation ensues, as my father nods me off.
 Tomorrow is important, he stresses. I have no idea why.  On the breaking of dawn, all is revealed, as shiny car after shiny car lines the dirty village streets. There's going to be one of those meetings. The ones I always used to make fun of. I peer curiously from the rooftop, where the girls are rushing around, trying to collect the trays of dried tomatoes, and halfheartedly drag bags of rice and flour down the steep stone steps. I offer help, though they refuse, telling me I'm their guest. Deja Vu.

I hate always being the guest, though I doubt I'd ever be much of a good host.
I sit in the -now empty- ladies living room, as I hear the not so faint greetings from the men's room. I wish I knew what this one was about, though I'm sure it will become obvious. These things never start or end quietly.


Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Geography

Erbil is the new Baghdad.
Baghdad is the new Najaf.
Najaf is the new Qom.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Paper from Najaf - 1

There's no such thing as 'middle' in Iraq any more. It's either dirt poor or stinking rich. I constantly feel guilty and unable to put up with the antics of the so called (boring) bourgeois.

The endless dinner parties, the stretched smiles, the endless questioning , and the hapless endeavours to show off to one another.
Unwilling to participate in such a monkey's tea party, I ended up constantly being criticized, so I did what I normally do. I ran away! Not literally, but figuratively speaking.

My normal refuge (my grandparent's house a few blocks down the road), was empty save for the guard outside. And he wasn't great conversation. They needed cooler climate, so I sorely missed them for a few weeks. I would sneak in, to the detriment of the guard, who constantly worried 'something would happen'. He refused to understand why I preferred to spend my hours wallowing around an empty old house instead of my parent's excessive furnishings.

I don't want a headache, I would reply laughing. Yet he would still usher me out, his hands flapping like chicken wings, as his eyes quickly darting from left to right. 

Anyway, back to the main event!  So as soon as a trip to Diyala was discussed, I grabbed the opportunity over enthusiastically, despite knowing I would inevitably suffer under their archaic rules for a while.

My father was already there, and the rest of the family had to stay in Baghdad. I decided I would make the trip alone. After all, they did all trust the driver. I could also use the situation to my advantage, to convince them to actually let me drive around.

The drive was quite short, as far as any road trip around Iraq goes. I sat at the back, where the air conditioning wasn't as effective. Halfway through, at a village stop, I switched to sitting at the front, grinning at the cooler blast of air.
Although young, the driver doesn't speak much, and instead grunted a minimalist conversation. He does however, give a lot of commands. After a while, my polite acceptance wears off.
'I wouldn't have sat at the front, if I knew you'd make me your right arm'
His laugh echoes in the empty car for a while, but thankfully he starts to pay more attention to driving.

As we draw ever closer to the village's winding dirt roads, he tells me politely if I want to wear my hijab now. I tell him I don't wear one in the village, and he asks if there's been any backlash against my father because of it. I shrug. How would I know.

He reminds me of the lies that I'm supposed to remember. I wasn't studying abroad, but in Baghdad, and I haven't visited, because education takes up all of my time. 'Take it seriously', he tells me earnestly, as he catches a glimpse of me smiling.

I stand sheepishly at the door, with no luggage. Nothing I could pack would be useful anyway. After listening to the shouting caused by my not so timid knocks, the worn gate is opened.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Colonization

So much to write, so much learned!

The driver and I have got into yet another verbal scrabble. Travel weary, and slowly sinking due to the heat, I continue my conversation with the driver. He asks, and I answer, though my throat is bone dry.
   A knock on the window interrupts the hacked sentences exchanged between us. A boy, or was it a young man? I cease to be able to tell their ages anymore. The driver buys the customary chewing gum and the glass starts to scale slowly upwards.

'I say, please give him this'.
'Give it to him yourself'. He replies, looking up at the rear view mirror.
      I angrily open the door, to look for the man-boy. He is long gone, my regret and anger meaning I spend the rest of a day in a sombre mood. I never realised how far the gap between social classes is becoming. The crack is becoming filled with mere children.

The driver tells my mother I need to learn how to control my 'natra', or temper. 'No man can put up with that'. Somehow I end up giggling at that, and try to hide it amongst ill-placed coughs.
 I try to seek solace in speaking with my Grandfather. He asks me what I've learnt. I excitedly tell him all I've seen, and the use it can present.
Smiling, he asks me if I've found my expiration date stamped somewhere. 'There's no need to rush life'.