Update 11-13-06

Living hand to mouth

Western-dressed with a suit and tie, I watched as he used his forefinger, middle finger and thumb to scoop a giant mouthful of rice from the communal platter of food. Meanwhile she explained, with a notable degree of pride, his technique had been prescribed by the Prophet Muhammad more than a thousand years ago.

Her hair was covered in a red scarf, and her head was tilted forward as she watched my face intently to see if I understood her story as it was translated. Her face, like that of many Iraqis, was aged and seemed weighted with weariness, but still hinted of a youthful beauty.

Recently, she continued, drawing my attention back to her explanation, modern science had discovered this finger technique is proven to trigger brain activity that releases enzymes that aid in digestion. The researcher responsible for this finding, she noted almost provocatively, was a Western woman.

While she described the benefits, he happily demonstrated, chewing with recognizable enjoyment even as his three fingers, moist with saliva, exited his mouth and returned to digging for – oh just the right bite in the mixed mound of rice, couscous and lamb in which I was to share.

A prominent, if not progressive Shiite-Arab, Ali is also a tribal leader native to Kirkuk and a member of the leading Kurdish political party – which for those familiar with Middle East provides the perfect paradox speaking volumes to the complex political dynamics found in Kirkuk. This experience was my acceptance to his invitation to share – in more ways than I anticipated – a traditional Arab meal. Dawina, as this meal is called, had a faint hint of cinnamon which I would soon find, was surprisingly delicious, fingers or no fingers.

He reached again with his enzyme-producing fingers and moved a chunk of steaming lamb meat closer to the side of the platter by which I sat. I pretended not to see. Seeing my hesitation, and thinking it was the food itself that caused my pause, Ali led by example and reached yet again with moist fingers to pluck off a small piece of meat, which had been cooked to the extent it fell off the bone easily under his touch, and popped it in his mouth. He motioned with his eyes for me to take a bite too. If there were music playing, surely it would have stopped here.

My mind raced…half fabricating a lame excuse to make a hasty exit. I looked at my radio hoping it would crackle with important traffic, which of course, would demand my immediate and undivided attention. The radio seemed to lick its lips and wink at me teasingly. I looked at my interpreter, desperate for help. He smiled and looked away to avoid busting out in laughter.

Seeing no alternative, I held my breath, grabbed the meat using the prescribed technique and gulped it down in a single swallow. Unfortunately, good behavior is so rare in Iraq, when it happens, it’s strongly reinforced: nodding with approval, he moved another piece of meat my way. I hoped her scientific explanation might continue by telling me that enzymes also are proven to kill germs.

But science gave way to political science. A Sunni-Kurd, Lidea was perhaps forty-years of age and a former school-teacher. She stayed for lunch only at Ali’s insistence, because culturally speaking, it is very unusual for women to join men at a meal.

While she doesn’t shake hands with men – forbidden by the Prophet – she was progressive in her own right. A member of the communist party she noted the irony of her devout religious beliefs and her political affiliation. Then she asked me for my assessment of the contradiction.

You know what they say about politics and religion – yet somehow I found myself with both of these taboo topics wrapped into what was ostensibly a diplomatic, if not educational dinner. I racked my brain for a diplomatic answer.

Oh, I got it. I am (or was) a card carrying Republican and own 2Pac’s Greatest Hits. Wait…did he convert to Islam? Maybe he’s not a good example. Besides, explaining 2Pac’s “thug-life” mantra tattooed in his music would be a complex undertaking for me to explain to my mother, let alone a devout Muslim.

Oh, yeah, Mom. Mom – and several other fine folks – recently sent my Crystal Light packets – single serve powder mix that can be poured into a bottle of water to make ice tea or lemonade. I explained to Lidea that one day I had a large jug of water that required two packets of Crystal Light in order to have the right concentration of powder-to-water. On a whim I mixed one ice tea and one lemonade packet together and discovered the combination was excellent. Sometimes, I concluded, combinations that seem at odds are mixed to find fantastic new solutions.

Lidea seemed satisfied with my answer. I felt dumb. Ali’s magical fingers passed me another piece of meat.

Amateurs talk strategy…experts talk logistics.

When my employer bid farewell and sent me off to a combat zone with a company laptop, I explained that I could not guarantee its safe return. While I wish I could say something marvelous happened – that it stopped a bullet, was run over by a tank or that in a firefight having expended all my ammunition, I threw my computer at the bad guys and tagged one. Alas, none of this would be true and my harp strings would surely snap. Unfortunately, the computer was wounded-in-action (WIA) on a combat patrol by the hapless foot of a humvee turret gunner. The screen was crushed, damaging the LCD, but sparing the processor and hard drive.

Well, getting a new screen should be an easy fix, right? Simply call the manufacturer and have them ship a new screen. Ever been on Dell’s toll-free help line? Dell, I know from prior experience when state-side, has one of the most frustrating customer call centers to say the least. Ever tried dialing Dell from a DSN phone in Iraq?

Dell it seems, has a policy that it won’t ship or receive anything from Iraq unless of course, you have a federal GSA number from a federal procurement office. After three tries – and twice being transferred to a call center in India, and once to what seemed to be a tape of a 1-900 number – I threw in the towel to outsourcing and gave up trying to explain the why shipping to an APO address is no different than shipping to the states.

I’m not sure what the 1-900 number was all about…after explaining my situation to a guy in a federal sales office, he seemed eager to help and I was hopeful. He asked if I could remain on hold for a little while so that he could research the matter. After several minutes of elevator music, there was a clicking sound and this sultry female voice started saying things I dare not repeat here. I couldn’t believe my ears; people are going to think I’m crazy. Maybe I should see a doctor, perhaps I’ve suffered a concussion. Not sure if the guy was playing a joke or if there was a real glitch in the line, but I certainly didn’t want to be caught on a DoD line listening to a 1-900 number.

Anyways, despite my Dell woes, I still love capitalism and proved it by buying a refurbished model on the cheap via eBay, and then swapping out the hard drive, RAM and wireless card. Of course, the eBay seller wouldn’t ship to Iraq either, but a friend graciously agreed to have it shipped to his place, and he rerouted it to Iraq. As they say, amateurs talk strategy…experts talk logistics.

Water, water everywhere

Several weeks ago, I flew a Sherpa to Baghdad, which speeds nap-of-the-earth – the plane is literally chased by its shadow – providing an unbelievable tour of more than 100 miles of Iraq. The landscape seemed to extend for miles in all directions prompting a coworker to lean over, shouting over the roar of the engines, “Look at all this land…what are they fighting for?”

In geographic terms, Iraq is a strategic country for reasons other than oil. Iraq has something other desert countries in the Middle East do not: water. The Tigris and Euphrates are biblical landmarks many are familiar with – the fertile land between these two rivers is widely considered to be the birthplace of civilization – but even a cursory glance a map will show a plethora of tributaries, run offs and lakes provide this life essential element to a wider region.

From the air I could see that water had winded its way carving deep into the sand so that some areas looked like a miniature Grand Canyon, but somehow seemed more ancient. Mud huts usually came in clusters, looking primitive in design and services. Despite the distance from any metropolitan areas, many mud huts had satellite dishes which were oddly out of place.

The Palace

Between the end of the first Gulf War and the invasion of 2003, Saddam constructed some 70 palaces around the country. I visited two – the first was a tribute to his “victory” over Iran and lies near BIAP – Baghdad International Airport and the second one inside the Green Zone houses the US Embassy.

The former is an exotic peace of land that is astonishing – like the directors of the Truman Show made a theme park. Every stone in this place was conceptualized, planned and placed by man’s hand. Giant basins – perhaps the same width as the Potomac from as seen from Tony & Joe’s in Georgetown – surrounded the palace on three all sides. Each of these basins are filled with Carp some nearly as big as my leg from heel to hip.

What looks like a Middle East version of Ivy League frat houses lines the other side of the basin. Each building would dwarf a conventional mansion in it own right and served as guest houses for the former dictator’s friends. Word is in the good old days, the place was filled with exotic animals where parties could get a little hunting done.

Inside the building are some of the largest chandeliers I’ve every seen. But the place loses much of its awe under closer examination. The craftsmanship shows evidence of shoddy work. Rough edges, stones that don’t quite line up and other defects only underscore how frivolously the man squandered his country’s money on useless projects of self-adulation.

The Embassy-Palace shows similar evidence. In a celebration hall, which now houses a Green Beans Café, the walls are tiled in patterns of four. Every other square contains his initials inscribed in Arabic. Oddly, I had a feeling of contempt that came over me as I scanned the walls and observed places where squares had fallen out.

Club Med

The Green Zone is a different place and certainly a world away from Kirkuk. It feels like a resort, absent any reflection of reality in the middle of a city where the news commonly reports as many as 100 people die a day outside the fortifications.

Saddam’s pool was open for business and provided an excellent venue for evening parties. It’s been more than 180 days since I’ve relaxed with a drink, which is forbidden in theatre for military personnel, yet it seemed every night I was there, someone was having a party. The scene left me with mixed feelings – on the one hand, it reminded me of civilization, home and nights on the town, but on the other it was out of place, perhaps even out of touch, under the circumstances.

Thankfully, at night I rested my head in a tent erected on the grounds outside the palace for transients like myself. That and the constant drone of helicopter traffic from the helipad nearby provided a dose of reality and purpose of my visit.

Friends about Iraq

Pat, a prior-enlisted officer who spent his first enlistment with the 75th Ranger Regiment, was finally evacuated from country after having survived six IED attacks on his convoy. The last one left him with constant migraines. Sadly, and it disgusts me to know this, he’s back at those dilapidated, circa WWII-era barracks at Ft. Bragg. And in spite of it all, ever the fighter, Pat is recovering quickly and making a contentious bid to return and finish his tour.

Tom on the other hand, the fellow who owns an advertising company, got it much worse. He caught a round in his lower body and is now recovering at Walter Reed. I was fortunate enough to speak with him briefly by phone – he sounds upbeat, joking and points out the benefits of being paid to lie in bed all day and watch sports.

Now better than ½-way though this deployment, to my knowledge, just two of the original 50 IRR call ups that formed at Ft. Jackson, nearly a year ago, have sustained wounds in theatre. Both it seems will make a full recovery.

Dr. Sam

Having not sought Sam out for an Arabic lesson this past week, he scolded me something fierce and threatened jokingly that if I continued to miss class I’d have to “repeat the grade.” Remember now, Sam’s in his 70’s, holds a PhD in agriculture and works as an advisor for us on those issues. Sammy is also of Mandean religion, an ancient religion that pre-dates Christianity and believes this life is heaven – heaven is what you chose to do with your life.

Sam gives me homework tasking me with writing words and phrases over and over in a notebook in order to learn the letters of the Arabic alphabet. He reviews this work at the beginning of our next lesson, and corrects it with a RED pen.

“No, no, what is this?” says Sam reviewing my sloppy handwriting.

He looks at me with a suspicious glint in his eye and presses, “What do you call this?”

He claws in the air imitating the way a cat sharpens its claws.

“Cat scratch, Sam,” I reply matter-of-factly.

“Uh-oh, Uh-oh, yes, it is cat scratch…you got to write it nice and beautiful.”

He traces over my writing with his red pen. “You see?”

I nod obediently.

By the time our twice-weekly, hour-long blocks of instruction are over, it’s late and my brain is fried. While these exchanges always make me laugh, I never had good handwriting and sometimes, Sam’s red pen reminds me of my third-grade parochial nightmare. I swear he is Ms. Pellitier reincarnated; surely the pen is the same. After he’s chided me for pronunciation or writing, I’ll teasingly ask him rhetorically, “Is this heaven of my choosing?”

* * *

Mercury Falling: The temperature has dropped substantially. While only six weeks or so ago the mercury was pushing 120 degrees Fahrenheit, it now peaks in the 60s. Given our bodies are acclimated to the hotter weather, it feels like the 30s. Sam tells me we can expect to hit freezing temperatures during the night in December and January; days will warm to 40 or 50 degrees.

Pig Pen: The cooler weather has brought with it fantastic thunderstorms. Wind gusts, thunder crashing and lighting flashes make for an interesting day in a combat zone. The rain comes down briefly, but in torrential buckets, and with a non-absorbent ground, the country side is prone to flash flooding. The base turns into a mud pit.

Turn the Other Cheek: In a triple play, the cooler weather has brought chills, storms and flies. They seem to have taken over any structure with a roof. Like most things here, flies in Iraq are not like flies in America. These babies are aggressive and they will land on your cheek. When you swat them away, they fly around your head and will land on your other cheek. It’s unreal.

Tijuana: The USO sponsored a group of comedians to tour Iraq. One comedian of Hispanic decent noted that when he goes home, people always ask him what it is like. He notes, “Like Tijuana, but without the kids selling chicklets.” It’s so true.

Winds of Change: Changes in Congress and the boss’ recent resignation have prompted the question over and over…what do the troops think? And the answer is simple: We are American soldiers. Not Republican or Democrat soldiers, American soldiers. Changes of command are a way of life in the military; come what may.

Stats: 200 days since my last beer; less than 60 until I have another one, but just one because I’m lightweight; $120.00 is the most I’ve spent at one time since I’ve been here (I splurged on new boots); 10/14/06, the last time I had high speed Internet access;

Topping the iTunes Charts:

1. Chili Peppers: Tell me baby
2. Fort Minor: Where’d you go?
3. Artic Monkeys: I bet you look good on the dance floor
4. Nine Inch Nails: Every day is exactly the same
5. O.A.R.: Heard the world

Thanks: Packages, letters and mail, just keeps streaming in – and I’m incredibly grateful. Most of the stuff I share, Anne’s homemade beef jerky was a big hit especially among the local nationals working for us downtown; some things I didn’t share, like Ting’s superman cookies: couldn’t resist. I have enough kids’ candy to fill up a cargo pallet. From Halloween cards to baby wipes, it’s all good – and very, very much appreciated. It amazes me who I’ve received notes from; some lady in Tuscon I’ve never met was sending stuff. People are so very supportive of the troops.