Friday, October 24, 2008

Scenario #14: Average guy or scum of the earth?

His car smelled like women. I thought the smell was the intended outcome of the strawberry air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror, next to a little black pillow with "Allah" embroidered in gold. She thought the smell was the smell of women, probably many women, in his car.

He had a very deep voice. I thought he probably had troubled vocal chords and had smoked too many cigarettes. She thought it was the voice of a scoundrel.

He wore sunglasses that had obviously been very carefully selected for fashion. I thought they looked good. She thought... well, I don't know what she thought, but they gave her a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.

His wife told us that sometimes he gets cranky but she knows how to deal with him so that it's never too much of a problem. I believed the wife. She suggested that he probably beats his wife.

He acted like he'd known us for years. I assumed that was the familiarity that came with the fact that we were working closely with his wife. She presumed that he was a little too familiar with young women in general.

He asked in a dozen different ways if the taxi service he provided was to our satisfaction. I didn't answer but could think of no complaints. My friend took his phone number with a look on her face that told me she hoped she'd never have to use his service again.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Portrait #56: Someone who struck me as completely non-interesting

...who by her very mundaneness caught my attention and became interesting. But first, some background.

Today I had an extremely disconcertingly frustrating experience. It wasn't that big a deal, but the way it all panned out left me an emotional wreck. In summary: I am hoping to do Lasik eye surgery this week (I appreciate any prayers since I am quite nervous). I had my initial appointment on Tuesday and was supposed to go in today for further tests. But they never told me what time the appointment was, just 'sometime in the afternoon.' So this morning I called to ask and was told to come in at 11 a.m.! This didn't give me much time, so I rushed and rearranged my morning so I could make it in for 11:15. Then I was promptly left sitting in the waiting room for an hour and 15 minutes. I was getting very frustrated. I'd already missed an appointment and was beginning to suspect that something was wrong, considering that everyone else in the waiting room had already rotated out twice.

Finally they called my first name, but when I stood up they glanced at me and confirmed my last name. Nope, different person. So I sat down again, but a moment later went to the front desk to figure out what was going on. It took the next half an hour for them to sort out that they'd given me the wrong appointment because my name is not a common name in Arabic but on this particular day they had two 'Kathreens' scheduled. My appointment was in fact in the evening, though they still couldn't tell me exactly what time. By this point I'd been at the centre for nearly two hours and had yet to do anything except be told I might have to come back in the evening. Not that big a deal, in the grand scale of global unrest and the AIDS epidemic, but the things that sting the worst are often the minor m mishaps that so easily could have been avoided but weren't.

So, once they realised something was wrong, they took me into a private room to wait for them to sort it out. I guess they didn't want me to blow up in rage in front of the other customers. They left me sitting in a dark examination room for 10-15 minutes while I heard them whispering amongst themselves in the corridor.

But I wasn't alone in this room. I had the company of a young dark woman with long black hair and a big white labcoat and huge hoop earrings. She sat there quietly while I sniffled away and blew my nose repeatedly.

Finally, when I was feeling composed enough to put together a sentence, I decided conversing with someone about something completely unrelated might distract me from my current conundrum. So I asked her what she does at the clinic.

She told me that she is an optometrist and that today is her very first day working at this centre.

So I asked her what she thought of it so far. She said it's very nice.

I told her that my first impression had been very good, too, but today's experience had dealt a blow to my enthusiasm. Thinking about my dilemma made me weepy again, and she nodded sympathetically. What could she say? She works there, but she's brand new and doesn't have ownership of the place. She said, apologetically, that it sounded like the receptionists were a bit disorganised today. I nodded.

We were silent for another few moments, then I decided to try again. I got out of her that she is from the city, that she's been an optometrist for two years, that her mom encouraged her to pursue this career because 'it's a respectable career for a woman', and that she kind of likes it.

That was all I could get her to share. She seemed a bit lost herself - how miserable it must be to spend one's first day at a new job sitting alone in a darkened examination room! But she didn't really want to talk about it. She just sat there and kept me company.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Chapter 7c: Love (cont)

But now, Hanan is no longer a breath of fresh air in my life. She is the source of my greatest worries. I'd grown so accustomed to having her around, to seeing her beautiful face, to listening to her wise advice. I'd dared to hope that we would always be together, someday even starting a family of our own.

So the announcement hit me almost as hard as had my own father's death, except that this time I was used to bad news.

Oh, but, this is not bad news!

And that is why I can't sleep at night these days. I feel guilty for being so devastated by such wonderful news. But I am devastated and scared. Happy, too, knowing that Hanan's dreams are coming true. She wants to study and be an English literature teacher and now she will be able to do that. Like all of us, she wants stability and a future, and now she will have that. I am happy for her, I am!

I could never, ever ask her to stay, but deep down I am tempted to ask her to marry me tomorrow so that she will have to stay.

But in two months time, she and her two brothers and her mother and her father will be moving to Australia. They will be given English lessons paid for by the government - not that Hanan needs them, she is already brilliant. They will be given a home to live in. And in five years - five long years in which I won't be allowed to leave Syria and she won't be allowed to leave Australia - they will become Australian citizens. It is the dream that we all have, and her family has waited a very long time for it to come true. They deserve it.

Why does it have to hurt so much?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Chapter 7b: Love (cont)

It turns out that she's from the same village as my grandmother, and is actually related to my grandmother's cousin. She has been in Syria for a lot longer than most of us, for more than four years. Her family left at the beginning of the war because her dad had worked with Saddam's security police and he had a hunch that things were going to get worse before they got better. So as soon as the border with Syria opened, he packed up his wife and three kids and brought them across to a place where they would be safe, a place that would never be home. Hanan is 18 years old now, and so her teenage years were mostly spent in Syria. She doesn't remember Iraq very well. When she said this, I thought of Nour and Rashad, both young children when we came. Will they feel the same way?

She and I chatted for at least half an hour. Once we'd shared our stories of how we came to Syria, and discovered all of our common friends and distant relatives, we talked a bit about other things. It was so easy to talk to her. She asked me questions and seemed interested in me. Not just because we're both Maslawi - I suspect that many Maslawis come to the Sisters to ask for help - but she actually seemed interested in me.

I think I was waiting to meet with one of the sisters, but I eventually started to feel guilty for spending so much time chatting with this stranger of a girl. So I got up to leave.

"You never told me why you're here," she said, still sitting at her desk. She didn't seem surprised or to feel guilty at all. She just pointed out that I was leaving without doing what I'd come to do.

I was already smitten, but her matter-of-fact way of doing her job won me over for good. The way she said it meant I didn't get nervous or self-conscious like I usually do around girls I like. This time, I had plenty of time to feel my heart beating later, but at that moment I sat down again and started telling her about our current crisis.

She listened, taking notes and nodding. I still didn't know what her job was at the Catholic Sisters' Office. Actually, I wasn't even entirely sure I was in the right place. Maybe she was a dentist's receptionist secretly laughing at me, a silly refugee boy asking for help to pay the rent when all she did was schedule appointments for teeth cleanings and fillings.

But she led the conversation. After I finished my story, she asked me a series of questions, some of them quite personal and embarrassing. Then she asked me for my phone number. I gave it to her.

And just like that, she was standing up. She walked to the door and stood there expectantly. So I stood up, too. She offered me her hand and shook my hand firmly. She said they would be calling and that it was a pleasure to meet me.

That night, for the first time since I arrived, it wasn't worrying about the family that kept me awake til sometime in the early hours of the morning. It was her smile, her direct communication, her kindness. Her eyes and her teeth haunted my grogginess. I relived every word of our conversation two or three times, getting irritated with myself for all the silly things I'd said, then feeling embarrassed that after I'd told her of our plight she knew so many personal details about me. It was a very pleasant way to spend my insomnia.

I started looking for excuses to visit the Sisters' centre and when I found out that she participated in the Chaldean Church youth activities, I decided to join that group. She didn't seem surprised by my obvious interest, but she did seem flattered. Eventually she invited me to meet her family and I brought her to meet my family. Every moment I spent with her I enjoyed her company even more, and was always amazed at how relaxed I felt when she was nearby.

We started talking about marriage. We're both so very young and everything was so uncertain for our families, but we started to brainstorm whether it might work. I began to hope that I might be able to share my burden with someone. With Hanan around, I felt completely confident that things would work out. She had a way of putting everything into order. But it wasn't just that. I really liked seeing her face, hearing her voice. I didn't want to have to contemplate not having her around all the time.

At nights I would lay awake thinking of her, and imagining what it would be like if she, not Rashad, lay on the mattress beside me. This would keep my mind occupied for hours, and it was a beautiful way to spend my hours of sleeplessness.

Other nights, my worries would once again take over, and while Hanan would occasionally float through my thoughts like a breath of fresh air, it was the poverty and uncertainty that kept sleep at bay.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chapter 7a: Love

We hardly ever eat meat, the staircase in our building is filthy, my sisters are wearing last year's fashions and my brother wears an old uniform with a few rips in the hem when he goes to school. There is a perpetual scent of sewage oozing out of our bathroom and the corners of the kitchen floor won't come clean no matter how hard my mum scrubs it. My grandmother sometimes takes her meds and sometimes doesn't, depending on when we have enough money to fill her prescription. I often walk halfway to work to avoid paying the extra ten cents for a connecting service minibus.

I don't have my own room like I did in Mosul. Every night, my mum lays out two thin mattresses on the living room floor for my brother and me. She wishes us sweet dreams and heads into the bedroom that she shares with my sisters and grandmother. Little Rashad is still an angel and before Mama has left the room he is usually asleep. Then my long night begins, every night.

Before, it was worries about my family, about how we would pay the rent and about how to ensure a future for my sisters, that kept me up at night. Now it's Hanan.

Hanan whose flashing white teeth smile at me every time I see her. Hanan whose skin is fair and whose hair is never quite perfect but always eye-catching. Hanan whose eyes are soft and pure. They speak of kindness but also give a sense of mystery. She isn't the type who says everything she's thinking, and her eyes don't reveal a whole lot either.

I met her when I first went to the Catholic Sisters to ask if they could help us. We'd been in Damascus for a few months. From the day we arrived I kept hearing about an order of Catholic Nuns who would always help us if they had the resources. And they were always kind and thoughtful even if they couldn't give us the aid we needed. They were described as if they were a group of personal envoys from heaven sent to help us Iraqis in Syria. Too perfect to be true, I was sure. I didn't really believe what I'd heard about them, and I figured that even if it were true, the Sisters were already too busy helping everyone else to have time for our newly arrived family.

But things kept getting worse and worse for us, it seemed. Never any better. And after a few months I really didn't think we were going to survive. So I decided to go to the Sisters and present my plea.

Hanan's was the first face I saw when I walked in to the little top floor office. She didn't look like a nun, I thought. But she did look like an envoy from heaven. She smiled at me and invited me to take a seat. I obeyed her, feeling a bit overwhelmed and perhaps a bit shy.

"You're Maslawi?" Her voice hit me like a bolt of lightning. I looked up from the spot on the floor I'd been staring at and peered at her. I took in the teeth gleaming at me and the soft light-brown eyes. I had the sense that my eyes were stuck, that there was no way I would be able to ever look away again.

Then, after a second or after an hour, I couldn't tell you which, she furrowed her eyebrows and tilted her head, and looked even cuter. But that little motion jolted my mind back into action. She'd asked me a question.

"Uh? Oh, yes, I am."

"That's nice," she said. And she got back to work doing something with the papers on her desk. My eyes were still locked on her, but with her no longer paying attention, I managed to eventually pull my gaze away. I looked back at the little dark brown pebble in the mosaic floor at which I'd been staring.

I wondered how she knew I was Maslawi, so I quickly glanced up and back down again, then worked up the courage to ask her.

"And you? Where are you from?"

She looked up at me and smiled again. "I'm from Mosul, too. But not from the city, from a village about 20 minutes away."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Portrait #55: "I used my mind..."!

Her father used to give her a hard time about how she dressed when she went out, and about the type of transportation she took to school. He never let her have a minute's peace about anything. Nor did he really see the point in a girl studying, so whenever she left in the morning he'd hassle her about wasting her time trekking to school every day, meanwhile risking her own innocence by leaving the house. Why didn't she just stay home?

By the time she got to 9th grade, his harassment had worn down on her. So when the first thing went wrong at school, she went ahead and quit. It wasn't as if a girl like her was every going to use her education anyway.

Sure enough, within months, an eligible young bachelor noticed her at a party and got her phone number. The next day he was at her family's house asking for her hand in marriage. It was a dream come true for the impressionable 15-year old and both she and her parents agreed. It was a short engagement, and she soon moved to a nearby town to live with her new in-laws.

The fairy tale ended abruptly when her mother-in-law started shouting at her and demanding things of her, and giving her a hard time about pretty much everything. About how she kept the house, about her lack of children. Her handsome groom was also merciless, always, without fail siding with his parents over her. He beat her violently and regularly, often even in public as they walked down the street. He told her that the Holy Qur'an said he was supposed to beat his wife, and the poor teenage girl had quit school, meaning that now she didn't know how to argue with him or explain to him what the Qur'an really says.

But she wasn't stupid. Quite to the contrary, she speaks elegantly and has a real knack for decision-making. She didn't learn her values at school, or from her family, or from her husband's family. She told us that she used her mind and figured it out for herself.

First, when she didn't immediately become pregnant, she went to an uncle and asked for help training as a hairdresser. After completing a 6-month training course, she went to work at a beauty salon. For six years she did something unheard of in her community: she commuted the hour between her in-laws' house and her city of birth to work and contribute to her family's income.

When she got home each night, she was met by verbal abuse at the hands of her mother-in-law and physical abuse at the hands of her husband. She grew in confidence at her job, though, and for a short period of time one of the women at the salon took her under her wing and mentored her. She started to learn a little bit more about her religion and about moral living. So when she would come home and her husband would beat her, she started arguing back, using logical arguments to explain why he should stop.

Finally, she got pregnant with her first child and quit her job. Life was still hard at home, but she was excited to begin her family. She swore to herself that her daughters would grow up with a good moral education and good values, that they would not suffer the emotional and intellectual vacuum in which she herself had lived. Things were still bad with her husband, and at one point she was so beaten up that she went a full year without leaving the house.

Her son was born a few years later, and she continued to try to instill good values in her children. When they reached school age, she prepared their clothes and school supplies, and gave them pep talks. And she continued to try to convince her husband to treat her well, explaining that their children deserve the best. She also told him that she wanted to stay with him and build a family with him, but she would have to leave if he kept treating her this way. In fact, she had already approached her parents about moving back into the family home, but they said that while she was welcome back any time, her children were their father's responsibility and so not their problem.

So she stuck it out. Slowly, her husband began to come around. He responded to her arguments, and the blows subsided. He started to set up a little house of his own, a place where his wife and children could live free from the watchful eyes of his mother and his father. As his daughter matured, she too started pressuring her father to treat her better. When he'd shout at her or beat her, she would look up as only a daughter can look at her father and ask, "But Baba, why do you do this?"

Then her husband lost his job. His wife, now a mother of three, swung into action. She asked a few people for help, but didn't get far. No one gave her a penny. But a neighbour hired her to do some cooking, then a local organisation hired her for bigger cooking projects. During the two years her husband was unemployed, she supported the family by making party snacks and helping to cater meals. She could do this at home, still looking out for her own children as she worked.

Now she has four children and isn't working. But when her youngest is in school, she plans on going back to work. Her husband isn't yet the man she dreamed of, but she believes that he has improved from Zero to Fifty Percent good. She is proud of her children who are doing well in school. Though her house is barely two rooms with no more furniture than two tattered sofas, it is hers, it is the domain in which she has begun building a family the way she thinks it should be, something different from anything she has ever seen, and something different from what they saw in her husband's home.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Portrait #54: Water (part 2)

recap on what water taught me about Jordan:
1. Understatement is to be expected.
2. Safety is of secondary concern.
3. Environmental preservation can only happen to the extent that everyone is still fat, dumb and happy.
4. I still have a phobia of drowning.

(details of 2-4...)
Had we been in a country where the authorities are terrified of being sued, and people live by the motto that safety is more important than fun or comfort, this trek probably couldn't have happened. Or there would have been warnings posted all around: "Slippery Rock"; "Detour"; "Do not step here!" Then there would have been stretches where bridges or at least rope would have been set up to avoid the bigger risks.

Yesterday, when we got to the waterfall, our guide had us all peek down at the cliff we would be rapelling. He fake-pushed me as I was peering down and cracked a series of jokes. Apparently, the Wadi Mujib folks used to be even less concerned, and allowed hikers to do this without guides or anyone nearby who was trained in using rapelling equipment. Haha. I guess people just jumped down holding the rope and hoped they survived! With the proper equipment, this was very low risk, but it was still approached impressively nonchalantly! And just for kicks, as we all rapelled down the waterfall, there was a fieldtrip of 100 schoolgirls jumping around in the pool of water below!

Then there were the stretches where we had to slide down rocks because there was no other way of getting down, or cross a current of water so strong that it knocked the us slighter women down. It was like whitewater rafting except in shallower water and on foot instead of in a boat. Oh, i just realised that in the U.S. there is NO WAY we could have done this without lifejackets. I'm so glad I'm in Jordan, I figure that if you're going to go on an adventure like this, there's no point being all that concerned about safety.

This was definitely the most telling lesson of the day. I haven't yet pinned down exactly what the source of all this water is, since on three sides the gorge is surrounded by desert, and the fourth side is the Dead Sea which, as we all know, is NOT a source of fresh water. In fact, Wadi Mujib naturally flows into the Dead Sea and is a primary source of the Dead Sea. I guess the salt stays in the sea but the water evaporates, so it depends on this constant source of replacement water.

But, you see, Jordan has a water shortage. A very serious water shortage. Wadi Mujib is one of only a few (3, I think) major water sources in a country with a population of several million. So engineers have dammed the bottom of the river flowing through the gorge and rerouted it. Now, ALL of the water in Wadi Mujib is routed to Amman, Jordan's capital, instead of being left to flow into the Dead Sea. This means, no pun intended, that the Dead Sea is slowly dying. It's evaporating and not being replenished. Meanwhile, people in Amman are happily drinking and showering in the amazingly clean fresh water of Wadi Mujib, not thinking of the fact that the water they are enjoying is not just rerouted from a natural water flow, but that the natural water flow has been completely blocked off. I don't know a lot about these things, but I can't imagine that there's any way this can be a permanently sustainable arrangement.

What really bites about it all, though, is the following: Wadi Mujib is a Nature Reserve. Can someone tell me how it qualifies as an environmentalist sanctuary, a government-sanctioned nature reserve, when the entirety of its water is feeding potential environmental disaster?

I once had a near-drowning experience. No, actually, I didn't, but I still remember clearly a day when I was playing in the sea and the waves came crashing down on me and I panicked. I thought I was going to drown and needed help to get out of the water. I was quite shaken up by this experience. That was the day I realised I have some kind of phobia of drowning. I love water and I love swimming - after all, I grew up in a beach paradise! But when the water starts to threaten me, I panic. It's been a long time since I've felt that way, though, so I guess I'd forgotten about that. Until it was my turn to rapel. I started out great, lowering myself down the rock as if I were some kind of pro. But as soon as the water from the waterfall hit my face, I panicked. I stopped breathing and could only think clearly enough to remember that if I completely let go, the guide would lower me the rest of the way himself. I guess that phobia's still there. Next time I rapel down a waterfall I'll wear a ski mask or something.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Portrait #54: Water (part 1)

I seem to be on a new trend of portraiting inanimate objects instead of people! I've really been noticing lately how material things reflect the humanity that surrounds them. (Also, for legal-confidentiality issues, it would be inappropriate to portrait many of the most interesting people I've been meeting lately.)

Yesterday, I got my first taste of Jordanian ecotourism. I had heard that the Jordanian government had set up some nature reserves and then set up eco-friendly facilities on those reserves in order to attract campers and hikers and the like to visit. This way, they could make some bucks, look good in the international community, and actually hopefully do something good for the environment. So, one of my goals for my time in Jordan was to check out some of these much-heralded nature reserves.

When my friends told me of a gorge hike being planned for this weekend in Wadi Mujib, I was all aboard. It was a fascinating experience, literally wading through a river for several hours in breathtaking scenery, and at one point even rapelling down a waterfall and trekking through some rapids. And I learned some things about Jordan in the process:

1. Understatement is to be expected.
2. Safety is of secondary concern.
3. Environmental preservation can only happen to the extent that everyone is still fat, dumb and happy.
4. I still have a phobia of drowning.

Now, in a bit more detail:

When I asked my friends what to bring, they said to bring clothes and shoes that "I didn't mind getting a bit wet." Then, when we showed up at the nature centre to head out on our trek, our guide reiterated that we should be aware that our bags would probably get somewhat wet and that our clothes and shoes would get wet. Well, I had my waterproof shoes on, and shared a backpack with some friends in which we put nothing but food and a waterproof bag containing some valuables including a camera. This seemed like more than enough precaution based on the warnings we had received.

The shoes I brought were not made for hiking, so today I have the biggest blisters on my feet that I think I've ever had. And in fact, my shoes almost fell off several times during the trek. Nonetheless, I am SO glad I brought my waterproof shoes as opposed to trainers/sneakers, which is what most people in our group wore. It would have ruined my running shoes! Because within five minutes, our feet were completely soaking wet. Walking on dry land was the exception, not the rule on this trip. The first few hours were half land half river. The rest of the day was all river, ranging from ankle deep to waist deep. There was a section where we actually had to swim.

It wasn't just the shoes. Everything in our bags was soaking wet quite early on, and neither our bags nor our clothes even approached dryness for the rest of the day. Good thing the temperature was pleasant! Had I been formulating the instructions, however, instead of saying "Wear and bring things you don't mind getting wet", I probably would have said, "Do not bring or wear anything at all that you mind being soaking wet for several hours on end!" Good thing the waterproof bags worked and the camera survived!

I will post the rest tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Scenario #13: Roofs

Roofs in the Middle East are, almost as a rule, solid flat concrete. Most buildings are built so that the roof can one day become the floor of an additional level by simply adding walls and a new solid concrete roof. In this way, buildings are rarely certainly complete. Even if a new level will never be built, the strong flat roof is useful as storage for water tanks and sewage pipes, open areas to hang laundry, and bases for satellite dishes. Many people in villages may actually tote beds and mattresses up to their roofs during the hot dry months of summer and sleep up there, enjoying the cool breeze that wafts along the top of their houses for nights on end.

One of my favourite things about the Middle East has always been the roofs. There's something magical about being up top looking down, a bit closer to the stars, with nothing coming between me and the universe.

My novel begins and ends on the roof. The roof is an important theme in the story, as something that symbolises freedom within cultural boundaries of acceptability. A young woman on the roof can breath fresh air, look up at the sky or around at the city and feel an aloof connection with the world around her - but still be within the respectable confines of her home, avoiding unnecessary contact with strangers.

So what about a girl who is not even allowed out to the roof? Yesterday I met some sisters who live in an extremely oppressive home environment. They are deprived in almost every way: they aren't given any opportunities to make friends but they are expected to obey their sisters-in-law's wishes, they aren't given clothes but are expected to keep the house clean. They don't read. They don't shop.

They listed the things they are not allowed to do: talk to people from the window, leave the house, work, talk on the telephone, look out the window, study, go up to the roof.

The roof of their house belongs to their family. These girls wouldn't break any of the other rules if they went up to the roof. What they would get is the occasional whiff of fresh air. Nonetheless, their brothers fear that someone might see them from the street, or perhaps from another roof, and so the sisters are deprived of the roof.

This wasn't the first time I heard of such isolation, but it was the first time I sat down and talked with someone who is kept so isolated that her own roof is a forbidden fruit.

After this conversation, though, I got to wondering: If a girl has never been up to a roof, has never felt the fresh breeze of the evening air on her face or looked down on her street from above... If she has never been able to look up at the stars and feel surrounded by them... Is it anything but pure cruelty to take her up there for a taste? Most likely, she'll never be allowed back up top, so might she not be haunted by the memory of her roof?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Portrait #53: The Kitchen Counter

Something I'm encountering a lot here, which in fact seems to be a component of almost every single centre, association or project focusing on Jordanian women, is kitchens. They're called matbakh intaji, which would directly translate as a 'productive kitchen'. A matbakh intaji is essentially a small business venture that serves multiple purposes: on-the-job training, education in a household skill, business experience, and a safe place for women to work without coming into contact with men. That last element is especially precious. A guaranteed women-only environment means that many women who would otherwise be unable to work can now join productive society.

I spent two afternoons last week in one such kitchen. Unfortunately, this was during the last week of Ramadan, so tasting the produce of the productive kitchen was out of the question. But it looked and smelled gorgeous.

This kitchen had a staff of about ten. Six girls or so were the core employees, present the entire time, while others came and went as their duties required. They all wore a uniform of headscarves, jeans and ratty t-shirts.

This particular productive kitchen has a regular order from a hotel for a given number of pastries: kibbes (meat balls pastries), sbanekh (spinach pastries), and I'm not sure what else. So during much of the day, women sit or stand around a huge marble counter in the middle of the room, rolling out dough, stuffing pastry pockets, and shaping bite-sized this or that. It's rather repetitive work.

But consider the following: we all know the best conversation happens in the kitchen + women love to talk + half a dozen women are working together for hours each day on somewhat brain-numbing work = lots and lots of good conversation happening around that kitchen counter...

We got to hear the life story of several employees of the kitchen. The one thing they all had in common is the reasons they work in this specific kitchen: (a) it is close to their house and (b) it is a women's only environment. They loved receiving us as guests, and were happy to tell us their stories. Once we got past the basic facts of life - age, studies, siblings, etc. - we started talking philosophy. They gave us a thorough summary of the problems facing women in Jordan, and plenty examples of each problem. They told us of their life dreams, and two girls even admitted to being secret writers. But they refused to show me their journals.

One of the directors of the kitchen is fluent in English, and she has promised to start giving them English lessons after Ramadan. So they will produce with their hands and absorb with their heads. And they begged us to come visit again after Ramadan so that they can feed us.

Then one of the girls, a young energetic lady who jokes about everything and is a natural leader, started telling us her tragic love story. She told of a man who had fallen in love with her years ago when he saw her walking to school. For four years he tried to approach her, and for four years she stayed away like a good girl should. Eventually, though, he won her over and finally he went to her family to ask for her hand in marriage, when--

An older woman dressed in black, with the air of someone who is used to being obeyed and respected, walked into the kitchen. The best conversation happens around the kitchen counter, but not anyone can sit around the kitchen counter. By entering the room, this woman, who is a teacher and a neighbour, squashed in a second the stories and the jokes.

Oh, the kitchen, where the girls, the uneducated, the poor are the elites. While the educated, older women, and the men, become little more than a nuisance.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Chapter 6c: The day my father died (cont)

As soon as the TV went black, I knew. But I just kept sitting there, listening to my sisters screaming. I sat there and saw Mama running down the stairs. Then down came Rashad. A moment later, when Teta came out of the kitchen and headed for the door, my sisters got up and joined her. And I stayed facing the blank TV screen.

I knew. I think that's why I stayed sitting there. I knew it was too late. I knew that I hadn't said goodbye to Baba and now I wouldn't. I knew that our lives were going to change and that the next few days would be busy. I knew that I would have to take responsibility.

So I sat there and thought about all the details that would need to be taken care of: Would the police come and investigate? Could we get the windows fixed? What other damage was there? How could we keep the house warm in the meantime? What about the electricity? What about a burial? Would the extremists let us have a service and a burial at the church cemetery? Was there any point making up a death announcement?

When I started thinking about the funeral arrangements, I began to feel irritated. If only Baba hadn't been so stubborn, maybe he would have considered leaving. He hadn't ever even let us think about leaving Mosul, but I had suspected for a while that he knew full well that his days were numbered. Did he not care that he was abandoning us by making himself a target? Oh, no, should I have tried harder? Instead of feeling guilty for talking about the threats, should I have forced Baba to do something?

Then I stood up and went out to join the family. There wasn't much to see. The front garden and gate were gone, replaced by a pile of rubble. Right outside the gate there was the frame of a blue car, what had once been our car, surrounded by a cloud of smoke and with a few little fires still burning in and around it. Someone must have rigged the car to blow up. There was no sign of Baba, but we all knew he was in there somewhere.

Mama was rooted where the gate had stood ten minutes earlier and stared at the car with her hands on her mouth. Little Rashad next to her reached up to hold on to her elbow. Marwa and Nour stood side by side behind Mama and Rashad, embracing each other, and Teta stood next to Nour holding her hand.

I took a deep breath and coughed up some dust. Then I straightened my back and marched out past my family. I walked around the remains of the car and peered into the window. Standing on the other side there was no doubt left: Baba had been in the car when it exploded. I felt tears coming to my eyes and told myself they were from the dirt. So I quickly rubbed my eyes and blinked hard a few times. Then I walked back to Mama and hugged her.

After a moment's embrace, I pulled away. I took her hand in my left hand and took Rashad's in my right and led them into the house. "We have to talk, and we have to start putting things in order," I said, trying to sound sympathetic but confident.

Mama nodded and the girls and Teta followed us back into the house.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Chapter 6b: The day my father died (cont)

On that Sunday morning, I got up out of bed and glanced over at my little brother who was still fast asleep and, as a matter of fact, seemed to be laughing in his sleep. He must have been dreaming happy dreams. Usually Rashad was awake hours before me.

I went downstairs to the kitchen. Mama and Teta were already sitting at the kitchen table enjoying a cup of coffee. They looked peaceful and not at all upset about the phone call or my outburst the night before. They glanced up at me and Mama commented on how early it was for me to be awake. Then she got up and grabbed another tiny mug off the cupboard shelf and poured me a cup of coffee. The three of us sat at the table for hours, or at least so it seemed, without saying a word. Maybe Mama and Teta weren't so calm after all.

After a while, we each went to our own tasks. Before the war, on a Sunday morning, we would have been scurrying around getting ready for church. We had never missed church. Now the church bells didn't even ring in our neighbourhood anymore. It was a dreadfully quiet Sunday morning.

Baba had been an English teacher before the war, so after the war started he'd had no trouble finding a job. The institute where he had taught closed down, so he became a translator. Every month there a new multinational corporation visiting Mosul. They sent consultants and surveyors and managers to start projects: Satellite TV, mobile phones, cars... all kinds of things that hadn't been marketed openly before the war. These businesses came in with all the excitement of having just discovered a new market, thousands of people hungry to buy their products.

My father worked as a translator for almost two years. Then, when the war didn't end, the flow of businesses did. Some of them had actually started selling satellite dishes and setting up cell towers. Others had left, promising to come back when the war ended. But until the war ended, it appeared there wasn't going to be a need for translators. So he went back to teaching, but he only found part-time work.

Then in February of 2006, the war took a turn for the worse. And then it got worse, then worse. In Mosul we had always had Christians and Muslims and Kurds all living together. Sure we had our problems, but at the end of the day we got along. But when the war got worse, threats started coming. Once there was a letter delivered to our door and a couple of times there were phone calls. Baba never told us this, but I think he was stopped on the street several times by fanatics. I know it happened at least once because I was there. We were walking home from the store and a black Mercedes pulled up next to us. There were five men all dressed in black with bushy beards seated in the car, and they all held guns, pointed at us. They didn't get out, but the guy in the front passenger seat said, "Your time is coming" and pretended to pull the trigger. Then they drove away. Baba wouldn't talk about it, but I was sure from the look on his face that he had seen those men before.

The war got so bad that Baba had to leave his job. I had been working, too, doing a bit of this and a bit of that, but Baba decided it was too dangerous for me to work, too. So we never left the house unless Teta needed a doctor's visit or we were needing food.

We talked sometimes about leaving. Whenever another neighbour or relative would move away, we'd chat about it as a family. Then Mama, or me, or one of my sisters would ask if we were going to leave, too. But Baba always said we should stay. Things had to get better eventually, and we had to be ready to help rebuild our country. Plus, he said, we couldn't afford to leave, everything we have is in Iraq.

On Sunday the 25th of February, we needed food. There was no meat, no rice and no bread in the house, and we needed vegetables, too. I heard Mama tell Baba this, then they talked for a while in their bedroom... about something.

Most of that morning, I sat with my sisters watching some stupid TV show. Baba came down the stairs, put on his jacket and hat, walked out the door, and we kept watching TV. I don't know what we were watching, but I'm sure it was meaningless.

Not two minutes later, the front windows broke and the electricity went out. And there was a deafeningly loud noise.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Chapter 6a: The day my father died

25 February 2007. I will never forget it.

That date is forever etched in my mind. That and 17 March 2007. This is the day we left our home in Iraq.

25 February 2007, though, was the day my first life ended and my second life began. It was the day I stopped being a normal Iraqi lad and became a refugee man.

It had snowed recently, and there were still patches of white in our garden and the mountaintops that we could see from our upstairs windows were still frosted in white.

I woke up with a bad feeling in my stomach. I distinctly remember waking up and sitting upright, as if I was just waking up from a nightmare or had just been awakened by a loud noise. But it wasn't either of those. I remember sitting there, looking around for what had crashed to the floor, shivering in the cold room. Then I remembered. The night before, as we'd been eating dinner we'd received a call on my dad's mobile. He'd looked at the number and walked into the other room before answering. We had heard him answer, "Aloh?" Then whisper something. And then after a few seconds of silence Baba had uttered a loud, painful, miserable groan. Then he'd walked back into the sitting room and rejoined us for dinner, acting as if nothing had happened.

Mama had looked at him suspiciously, and we all stopped eating. Baba had started eating voraciously as we all watched him. Then silly me, I had felt the need to break the silence. "It was them again, wasn't it?"

Baba had glanced up from his food, gazed at me for a moment, said "Huh??", then returned to his food.

I'd wanted more. We all wanted to know what was going on, but Baba knew better. Baba had always known better. In this case, he knew that talking about it wouldn't change what would happen, and he wanted to enjoy every minute we had as a family.

But I was an 18 year old boy, wanting to be a man. Wanting to share the responsibility. So I think I ruined that last night that we had together as a family. I kept asking Baba to admit to receiving the threats when I should have just let us eat and chat together in peace.

So on the 25th of February, a Sunday, guilt and anger and dread converged to pull me out of my sleep just a few moments after the sun had risen.