A Travel Principle I will only violate for Brazil

* 1 min reading.

I will not visit any country as a tourist that requires a visa for an American passport holder except for Brazil. I will visit countries that grant visas upon arrival at the airport.

Let me start with last part first. Why is Brazil an exception? Well, it has been my dream to visit the statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro.

As for the first part, “requires a visa”, I refuse to accept the process of obtaining a visa by downloading an application, filling it out, getting a money order, and then mail all the required documents to an embassy in Washington D.C. in order to obtain a visa on my American passport. My rejection to the process is a symbolic one.

Passports

 

Why do I refuse to do that?

The process of applying online reminds me of my old days. I consider it to be a modern extension of a degrading and humiliating process.

The principle is not based on one bad experience, or against a specific country’s visa policy. It is my decision to deny those countries the pleasure of participating in their tourist economy – a pay back time from my old days. They didn’t respect me when I was holding an Iraqi Passport. Now, they respect me because I am holding an American passport, and want my money.

This is from a dark part of my life. It is bitterness expressed by an anger of 5 years of humiliation and disrespect by the majority of countries around the world to Iraqi passport holders. Because Saddam was in power, Iraqis had to travel to Jordan in order to apply for a visa to any country – Baghdad had no foreign embassies after the 1991 war.

As part of the sanctions against Iraq, almost all countries refused to issue tourist visas for Iraqi citizens; a few countries issued visas under extreme and harsh restrictions. Malta and Cyprus were a few exceptions where Iraqis could obtain a visa very easily.

A period between 1992-1995, I used to stand on the streets by the embassies in order to request an appointment. I needed a visa to leave Iraq during Saddam’s regime. Almost all of Iraqis were given a blanket denial. This was very degrading and humiliating.

Just because a person is born in a specific country, she is cursed or privileged by a passport?

I couldn’t understand their extreme treatment against the Iraqi people. I used to complain and think of it as “double curse”. In Iraq, I had the curse of Saddam. Outside Iraq, I had the curse of being Iraqi.

But, I am the same person. I guess because I am holding a certain country’s passport, it means I deserve more respect, or less? If countries had a specific policy against the Iraqi regime, then the Iraqi people shouldn’t have been subjected to it.

As a first hand witness to 10 years of sanctions, I can state emphatically that they don’t work. Sanctions don’t punish government; it is a blanket punishment against the people. It has a negative counter reaction against those countries that impose them. I am one of those who still carry that past.

Back then, when I had no choice, countries wouldn’t welcome me in. Now I experienced the ease of entry by holding an American Passport, going through the application process reminds me of the old denial. And I just don’t want to re-live it. America might be a place to bury memories, but history isn’t easy to forget.

It is my choice.

 

* Please share your thoughts!

 

Maktoob

This was the last picture I took with my uncle Matthew. It was the last time seeing him like this smiling.

I heard from my family that he got sick. I called Chicago to ask about his health after he was diagnosed with rare ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). It was Wednesday night on Nov 12, 2014 around 9:40PM Baghdad local time, 12:40PM Chicago time. My uncle George told me that the disease is in its final stage, and he is still alive but on a respirator until his last breath.

George finished our conversation with a final word: “Maktoob.”

matthew

He said it in Aramaic “Iktoo-ta-la”. I remembered the Arabic translation of it, “Maktoob.”

Maktoob is Arabic word for: “It is written.” It is the “unknown” certainty.

A well-known proverb in Iraq is:

“What is written on your forehead, your eyes will see!”

It means that people are prisoners of their fate. What has been written for Matthew’s final episode from his life script – his death sequence event, will be unfolding in the upcoming days.

Maktoob reminded me about my own script. I always wonder about my life when I see people died in a sinkhole or a bridge collapse. Yet, I survived three deadly wars. I’ve seen the Angel of Death and felt his presence so close in Iraq. One time I was 50 feet away from a mortar attack, a concrete wall in the shape of an upside down letter T saved me. Or another time, someone ambushed us with a few rounds of bullets. Could these be a few climaxes that were “written” to bring some excitement in the movie of my life?

In the early part of my life, I used to attend a Presbyterian church. I heard many Church sermons about God’s omniscience about human life. Many pastors talked about God’s personalized plan for each individual. They said difficulties, sickness, and death are events written for each person in the “Heavenly Book”.

But what puzzled me back then, and still does, is: if everything is written, then what is the point of a prayer that asks to change the course of events? And, could this future be modified? Is everything written for the good of me?

I guess there is an invisible hand in heaven that wrote my fate. It wrote my life script and destiny. Wrote my future. Wrote my ending. And the Angel of Death is waiting for the execution order from God.

I understand many people, including myself, have a hard time accepting “Maktoob”. It is easier to believe that fate is a result of the Universal Randomness.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl writes there is meaning in suffering. I am not sure if there is a meaning in slow death by disease – is it God’s version of the Chinese water torture?

Filling our lungs with air naturally without the aid of a respirator is a blessing many of us take for granted.

One day the Angel, or Randomness, will visit me and take my life, the biggest fear is not knowing how. Can I put in a request for a sudden death?

I want to die quickly.

 

I hacked my university…Twice!

* reading time is 2 +  a laugh.

* disclaimer: Please Do NOT…Do NOT… tell your kid to try this, nor should you try it even if happens to align with your circumstances. I disclaim any responsibility for any adverse effects. And don’t use me as an example.

I hacked my university twice. I finished my undergraduate and graduate from DePaul University without having a High School degree or even a GED.

How many people can make the above claim in America?

images

Hacking might have a negative connotation to many people, but it is a positive thing in Silicon Valley. It is more or less taking advantage of a system. I know a few companies, it’s mainly startups (with weird names) that ask “Tell us about something you hacked before.” as an interview question.

It always reminds me about the story that Ben Mezrich told in this book about Mark Zuckerberg. It’s called “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” Mark had hacked a few departments in Harvard and obtained tens of thousands of student profiles, then migrated them to Facebook. Remember, Facebook was empty at day one. He needed real profiles to fill Facebook with real people.

Knowing I come from a Middle Eastern background and it is a post-911 era, how would the American Public view me? I am sure many will go as far as labeling me… (Well, you know what I going with this.)

I hadn’t finished high school when I left Iraq in early 1994. I didn’t want to stay in Iraq to finish High School, because it would’ve obligated me to stay another full year. I would’ve only been able to leave after finishing my first semester at a university. Very simply, I wanted to leave at all costs and come to America.

After a year and half waiting in Jordan, I had arrived to Chicago. My uncle took me to Niles North High School, they told me: “You are too old for high school. You should go try to get a GED.

Humm. I tried to study for GED, but didn’t like it. It felt like a waste of time.

Then I did something different. I went Oakton Community College and tried to enroll in some English and Math classes.

It worked.

After two years of Math and English, I started to take classes that would transfer to a university. So far so good, they never asked me for my High School degree. As long as I was paying for my classes, they had no complaints.

The problem came, when I wanted to transfer to DePaul University. They asked me for my High School degree or GED. I didn’t have it. I was worried. I had to sell my story and so attempted my hack.

Well, I know from a long time ago that to sell a lie, you must package it with 90% truth.

I told DePaul that I had my degree (a lie). But I cannot get it from Iraq. I talked about the Iraq war and the destruction of all the government buildings of Iraq, which the American army bombed. I talked about the effect of war and consequences of being a refugee in Jordan. (90% truth)

With a Sad look mixed with Sorry and some Sugar on top…It worked!!!

All I did is I packaged 10% lie with 90% truth and sold it. I hyped the problem injected with a lie and packaged it with a truth.

I sold my package.

This to me is the art of diplomacy.

The problem surfaced again when I tried to enroll in a graduate program. But this time, I was staying at DePaul so it was much easier to convince the administration office. I had already earned my undergrad degree from them.

I find the question of hacking to be dangerously relevant. The next time I am being interviewed for a job and they ask me to talk about a system I tried to hack, I’ll tell them this story and ask them to imagine the following:

You are from the Middle Eastern background and you are at the ticket counter at the airport. They ask whether or not you packed your own bag…

And your answer to them is….What???

You used Ali’s Packing Services!

What do you think man?

Do you really expect an honest answer about my extensive hacking background?

 

* Any comments? write below. I love to read them.

Is it a Nationality or Hyphenated Personality?

* reading time is 2 +  a laugh.

I used to work at 7-11 in Chicago, a customer walked in and said: “Do you speak English?” My reply was: “No sir, English doesn’t speak me!” Another time when I worked for Accenture, I arrived at a new project to discover consultants had been wagering on my background. One of the guys had a bet on me being a mix of Greek and Japanese.

In Iraq, people think I am Lebanese. During the nightclub life in Chicago, I passed my self as an Italian-Sicilian with a nickname “Nino”. I blend very easy in Italy, Spain, and Greece. I tell people, my look comes with geographical advantage. What can I say…I am genetically gifted.

Interestingly, I saw this query when I decided to write this blog, WordPress informed that one of the search terms about me in Google is: “What nationality is Youkhana?”

Thinking deep about the question and its implication by the Googler, I am not sure what people are looking for … Thoughts come to my head: Is it a simple question that I should take at face value? What are they looking for? Are they trying to find out my nationality then attach a ready-made default stereotype like an Arab-American? Or maybe not, maybe I am just reading too much into it.

Here let me help with the basic:

I am an Assryain-American-Christian-Iraqi (AACI)

ninosyoukhana

For my first name Ninos check my previous blog (Origin of the name Ninos)

My last name, Youkhana, is John in Aramaic. (Similar the Hebrew language)

But…Where do I go from here? It just gets more and more complicated.

No matter how much they are explained, there are things in life that fall short of our understanding. For example, I could never understand the standup comedian’s feeling at the stage. And I could never understand the feeling of being African American.

So, if a person has not lived as an Assyrian Christian under Saddam’s regime in Iraq, it would be very difficult to understand. Let me assure the reader or the googler that I don’t fit in any stereotypes. And I hope to shed a bit of light with the following.

I mentioned a few statements about me in a previous blog. I said my immigrant personality has been injected with so many hyphenated complex parts like Assyrian-American-Christian-Iraq (AACI) complicated further by wars, religious beliefs, and a Christian minority culture living in polar opposite to an Islamic society of Iraq.

Each part of this hyphenated complexity needs its own blog (or books), But I will try to explain it in simple words.

When I am talking about my personality, I don’t mean it in terms of the Freudian ego, the Eckhart Tolle super-ego, or Sam Harris’ non-existing-illusion of self. Nor, am I talking about a type A or type B from a personality test. I mean it in more or less a woven mix of hyphenated combinations. (Understand now?)

In short:

I am Assyrian in heart. I was born Assyrian – a remnant member of one of the earliest civilizations known to mankind. My people have survived 3,000 years of the rising and falling of kingdoms and empires. Regional wars not only caught Assyrian Christians in middle but also purposely aimed to annihilate them.

As if my hyphenated personality needs more complexity, I am a citizen (yet to be official) of a non-existent nation of Assyria. It is a Nation without borders. They are a minority that spread across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. Assyrian immigrants have flooded the four corners of the world.

I am an American citizen. To identify myself as being a citizen extends much further than the Naturalization Certificate. My love, loyalty, and allegiance to the United State of America goes beyond any level of security clearance I hold. I will be indebted for the rest of my life for what America gave me. There is no other nation ON this planet offers its immigrant citizens what America offers theirs. Not even a Muslim Arab who emigrates to another Muslim Arab Nation, like an Iraqi to Saudi Arabia, or an Egyptian to Kuwait is treated like America treats its immigrants from any nation. (Period) 

I am Christian in beliefs and values. I was raised in an Evangelical church.

I am Iraqi by place of birth. I was born in Iraq – an Islamic society that has completely different religion, values, and culture than Assyrians. Christians were/are being triangulated between Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish Muslims. I was raised in an Islamic society that forced upon us its Islamic practices – Christians must adhere to Islamic fasting practices during the month of Ramadan, such as prohibition of drinking water in public.

To put the above elements in what I could call a calculus of personality equation:

Take the above statements and multiply by: Christian minority living in an Islamic society.

Divide the total by: a nation without borders (Assyria).

Multiply by cultural differences.

The equation will be:

(((Assyrian + American + Christian + Iraqi) * Christian minority living in an Islamic country)/ Assyria) * Cultural differences = Cluster Fuck

Since my awareness of America, I was in love with it. I considered myself born in the wrong place. The majority of Islamic society blames Christians for being Western sympathizers. As a Christian, I was accused of siding with the Americans during the 1991 war against Iraq, and silently, even though America was officially an enemy of Iraq, I was in fact an American supporter. However, when I left Iraq feeling like an American; I found myself entering America and being treated as an Iraqi.

Being raised in Iraq and living the other half of my life in America brought with it a new set of cultural challenges.

I am perfectly ok, but I am in a constant puzzling state of fascination. I am always going to be an Assyrian Christian with American love embedded in my heart.

P.S. If you have more time, I invite you to read: “Three Adjectives that Define Me

 

 

* Any comments? write below. I love to read them.

Dealing with Asshole from Asshole-stan…Diplomacy or military tactics?

* reading time is 2 +  a GOOD laugh

In a span of two years, I worked with four British Army generals and met the British Ambassador in Iraq. I mentioned to the generals not to the Ambassador that I learned about a saying and a story that goes with it. Though I couldn’t confirm its historical validity, I wanted their reaction. After hearing me, they gave me a sardonic smile stamped with a nodding and a cynical look.

The famous saying is about the British, known among most of the educated people in Iraq, although it was coined by Mahatma Gandhi. He once said: “if two fish are fighting in the water, then Brits must have instigated the fight.” Iraqis have a similar version: if two Iraqis are fighting in Detroit, they will blame Saddam in Baghdad (version 2.0 Saddam’s era). And, everything that happens in Iraq is the fault of Americans (version 3.0 post Saddam’s era).

As far as how the story goes, it is about a wife of a British Ambassador in one of the Arab countries (let us not name the Arab country.) A short version of the story goes something like this:

The Arab nation was hosting an official event and invited most of the foreign delegates in the country. Among the attendees were the British and French Ambassadors along with their wives. As the evening evolved to a more relaxed gathering, one of the high-ranking army generals of the host nation, while walking past the British Ambassador’s wife, without warning patted her behind. The wife got very upset; she turned to her husband and told him what had just happened.

She was shocked when he turned calmly, approached the general and congratulated him for his courage. He shook his hand and said to him: “Wow…What you did was very bold; my wife liked it.

Upon returning to his wife, she demanded an explanation. He assured her everything is fine. She couldn’t understand and remained upset. He calmed her down and asked her to enjoy her drink and observe.

It didn’t take long; the army general full with courage by then, he turned around and tried it again, but this time with the French Ambassador’s wife. Without hesitation, the French Ambassador reached into his jacket, took out a pistol and shot him on the spot.

The British Ambassador turned to his wife and said her, “Do you understand now?

I love this story. It has a Machiavellian tactic. When the generals heard, they gave me a sardonic smile stamped with a nodding and a cynical look. But, I have applied it in my life, although not to the extent of letting people shoot each other.

It is one of the ways I have dealt with the many assholes from Asshole-stan in my life.

What is an asshole?

An asshole:

In his own mind he is a Nobel Prize-caliber intellect, rightful leader of the free world. The gap between his sense of self-worth and his actual value is enormous and apparently immune to correction from external evidence. He treats people around him like Kleenex, suitable mainly for receiving his expectation before being thrown away.”From the Management Myth by Matthew Stewart (you must read this book)

Once I have determined that a person is an asshole, then I start feeding him back his own bullshit. Like if he is lying to me, I let him think that I believe him. I even encourage him to continue his behavior, making him believe his own lies.

I’ll give you one example from my life, (I have many).

I had worked with a guy, let us call him Tom. Tom was constantly complaining, gossiping, and talking behind other people’s backs, including mine. He annoyed me a lot. As a friend I advised him to stop complaining on more than one occasion, yet he continued. By that time, I wanted him to be fired.

I started to use my Machiavellian strategy. I encouraged him on his exaggerated stories; and I continued to agree with all his work issues. In fact, I passed him all my work issues to add to his list of complaints. With my extra issues, the guy just couldn’t shut his mouth.

It didn’t take long, in about a month, management decided to let him go.

I consider myself genuinely a nice guy. I was one of those kids who went to an Evangelical Sunday School. I was taught Biblical principles such as forgiveness.

But sometimes, when you meet people from Asshole-stan, you need to make them taste their own asshole-ness.

 

* Any comments? write below. I love to read them.

From club hopping to embassy hopping…partying next to ISIS…my crazy future

* reading time is 1 +  a GOOD laugh

The future is crazy. No plan or strategy could lead to a predictable future. The future makes unexpected wrong or right turns.

Thinking about the future is stressful. The uncertainty becomes a sleep killer. It is like a ghost haunting me at night. My brain possesses me. It torments me. I try to drink wine, take Melatonin pills, and put Lavender oil on my pillow to relax and fall asleep. I end up turning and tossing until it is 4:00am. It gets me even more frustrated when I have only three hours left before I need to wake up.

Looking back at my life, I see I am living a crazy future. I invested time and money (planned) to be a computer programmer, but ended up working as a linguist. I spent seven years to obtain B.S. (Bullshit) and M.S. (More Bullshit) in Computer Science, learning many things at a cost of $85k, but ended up using an inherited language – my second language – Arabic. It earned me more money than my investment in education.

With this crazy future, anything is possible. Silicon Valley could make Steve Jobs a Saint. Turkey, a secular nation will turn to be an Islamic nation. Iran, an Islamic nation, could turn to a secular nation. The U.S. dollar could collapse and Americans would migrate to Latin countries.

the inn coming

Here is a funny episode with my own crazy future:

During my twenties, I used to go clubbing with my friends in downtown Chicago. We were ‘regulars’ at Excalibur, Club 720, Deja Vu, and Pasha to name a few.

A little did I know, my thirties brought with them different type of ‘clubbing’. During Saddam’s time, I wasn’t even allowed to walk near the American Embassy wall. Less then twenty years later, I ended up working inside it.

I never planned or imagined that in my thirties I would be working within the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Located near the Dutch, Italian, and British Embassies, my friends and I started to attend their nightly entertainment events ‘clubbing’. Life was good. But crazy future came to us with another crazy turn.

ISIS launched an attack on the western side of Baghdad. They came within a few miles of Baghdad International Airport. I never imagined ISIS to be our neighbors.

They spoiled our nightly events with their Donkey theme parties. Our blessed American drones captured an ISIS member having sex with a donkey. There goes the neighborhood!!!

(I am not making this up – watch the video)

 

It is difficult to deal with uncertainty – I get it. But, I believe we need to  embrace it and not be afraid. Though not necessarily the kind of embrace that includes fucking a donkey.

Crazy things will happen to us, but good crazy things could happen too!

 

* Any comments? write below. I love to read them.

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I have LTS disorder from my Linguist’s life in Iraq…Are you infected?

* 5 mins reading

Before you read about my LTSD disorder, allow me a few minutes for a little background about the linguist in Iraq.

I have been working as a linguist for almost seven years. I worked four years with the U.S. Army and three years so far with U.S. Embassy. I think every book about the US involvement in Iraq should have a chapter about linguists. This blog could be a page in a book.

I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly side of the linguist’s life during those years. I met a lot of people who became linguists. I can easily guess there were maybe 8,000+ American linguists supporting the U.S. Mission.  During 2004-10, many people  quit their jobs in the U.S. and come to Iraq and worked as a linguist. I was one of them.

Money was the main reason for all of us (a few people claim other reasons). We were getting around $$$K a year. In addition to the salary, we had free housing, free food, and $80+K of free tax.

(click on below picture for more photos)

Gen. George Casey

 

Linguist came from a variety of Arab-American (Iraqis, Algerians, Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians…). They came from different professional backgrounds. Some people were unemployed in America. Some had jobs like taxi drivers, factory workers, grocery store owners, cashiers, teachers, singers, truck drivers, doctors, lawyers, realtors, Dollar storeowners, and like myself, a computer consultant. I use to be a programmer chef for five years. I was cooking JavaBeans code from recipes given by the business analysts at Accenture. And now, I have become a mouth for many to use.

People came in all categories from a dropdown list of sexual preferences: male, female, gay, and including those who selected “I rather not say.”

Here are some examples of linguists’ backgrounds for high U.S. officials in Iraq: taxi driver, truck driver, and nightclub bouncer. One linguist, working for a U.S. Army four-star general, had been a taxi driver.  Another, serving a three-star, had been a truck driver.  And the guy attending all the high-level meetings with one of the U.S. Ambassadors, he was a bouncer in a nightclub!. Go figure!

Linguists came from a variety of age brackets. I have seen linguists as young as 18 years old to almost 80 years old. During those years, the contracting companies were so desperate to bring people and fulfill their contractual agreement that the only person left to be a linguist was my grandmother.

The linguist job had no requirements except English-Arabic speaking ability. Almost all these linguists had no linguistic degree, or no degree at all.  A few linguists had degrees from their country of origin. Basically, any Arabic origin person who was able to handle a five-minute dialogue punctuated with “yes” and “no” was accepted.

For almost all linguists, coming to Iraq was the first experience to be embedded inside the U.S. Army. A linguist was assigned to a military unit or civilian office under the supervision of a point-of-contact (POC). POCs used to lend us to different POCs to help out in translations.

It didn’t take long for POCs to start using the line “MY terp” (Terp is short for interpreter). POCs used to argue with each other about “My terp is better than yours”. Another personal example from the general I used to translate for:  he asked General Martin Dempsey, “You have a hot female linguist, would you like to trade?” – (he did have a hot female linguist). I looked around to at the General and said “Excuse me sir!”

POCs were always using the phrase: “MY terp!”. On another occasion, my POC called me “My terp”, I turned around and him, who was a U.S. Army Colonel – “Sir, you make it sound like I am your bitch!” He understood my point about the “MY terp”.  “My terp” became a derogatory term for linguists. This was one of the common experiences for all linguists in Iraq. It became one the main reasons for tensions in the work environment.

During my holiday visit to America, I started to compare the life quality of working abroad as a linguist contractor with my working life in America. As days passed by, I started to feel strangely happy about working as a linguist. The job was very easy. As I said to many, “I speak and make money”. It doesn’t get more simple than that.  No deadlines. No milestones. No sell numbers to hit. No 100 cc-ed emails. No clients kissing ass. No customers to please.  No take-home work. But mainly, NO BILLS to see.

However, the life quality of being a linguist contractor came at the expense of a different loss. Many linguists started to feel this loss. Humorously, I started to label this loss as Linguist Trauma Stress Disorder (LTSD). And, this order has two major symptoms: Ruined working habits and Ruined self-worth value.

 Ruined working habit:

During many years of working in Iraq, linguists formed a new working habit – a habit of speaking for a few hours while making money. They became addicted on this new habit. It ruined the normal working habit of “a” or “the” real life work routine in America – a habit of working 40+ hours a week, commute time, and adapting to bad weather. Many linguists got use to work only a few hours a day in Iraq. Going back to a normal working habit in America was extremely difficult.

Many who have already gone back to America are suffering from LTSD. Linguists remember those years where they made about $$,000-$$,000 a month, and now they are unemployed or work for much less money each month. Mentally, is very difficult to adapt back to.

I sometimes tell my linguist friends, “We have become like a prostitute.” It is very difficult for a prostitute to work in 7-11 convenience stores. She might be making $500 an hour, and now she has to work a whole week to earn that!?

Ruined self-worth value:

As I said earlier, many people had blue collar professions in America before coming to work as linguists in Iraq, such as flat-tire repair guys, factory workers, and cashiers to list a few. Many of these people worked in very important positions with the U.S. Army in Iraq. Many of them interacted with high ranking Iraqi government officials; such Iraqi officials were impossible to reach or talk to during Saddam’s regime.

I saw many of these people internalize their importance and self-worth. Many started to feel good about themselves. As one of my linguist friends told me: “Working with the U.S. Army, made me feel really human with integrity and self-worth.

I saw and heard many of my fellow linguists complaining and stressing from the thought of returning and working in their previous professions in America. They cannot see themselves as truck drivers, cashiers, or factory workers.

I feel for my linguists friends.

It became mentally damaging to our personality. This has made us mentally and physically damaged (being lazy). Some of us got jobs, or will get jobs, upon returning to the U.S., but it will never be the same.

And that is why I am still working as a linguist!

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