Day 3 – on the way to Chicago via Royal Jordanian

3 min

April 3
Up in the Air

It was an early morning when I checked out from the Ibis hotel and the taxi pulled up in front. The hotel concierge put my luggage in the trunk of the taxi, opened the passenger back door and said, “Have a nice trip sir!” Then we drove to Queen Alia International Airport. The words remained echoing in my head while looking through the window at white stone facades of building, homes, shops, reading signs and gazing at mountains, and valleys as they pass fast.

“Amman is nice!” the taxi driver said.

“Indeed”, I nodded.

With that the cabbie started a dialogue. Assessing the Arabic accent from my response, he launched into a series of questions about me.

“Here we go again”, I am thinking – repeat the same lecture.

Every time someone asked me where I am from, I feel I have to give a speech entitled: “Assyrian, Christian, Iraqi, living in America”.

As we engaged in back and forth questions and answers, he pulled up to a small coffee shop on the road and ordered us both some Arabic coffee.

Then before long, the usual happened – the dialogue switched to politics. He was a Palestinian-Jordanian (almost impossible to meet a Jordanian born taxi driver). He started by telling me a story about an Iraqi guy who rode with him one day and had blamed the Palestinians for all the suicide bombings in Iraq. The driver defended that argument and warned the Iraqi guy to never say that again in Jordanian and reminded him that he was a guest in the country. Making such accusations in front of someone else can get him in deep trouble with the security police in Jordan, he had said. I was wondering if the driver was warning me, lecturing me about politics, or correcting me in case I had the same belief.

Then to no surprise, the driver in turn blamed Israel for all the chaos in the Arab nations starting with Iraq. That is where I turned my face to him and said, “No!…Why don’t you say it is the Saudis and their Wahhabism belief?”

With assertive tone I continued, “Saudis have the greatest production line of terrorism from the Wahhabi factory not only in the Arab countries, but in the entire world!” With that, I ended the political conversation.

The Dead Sea road signs broke the silence again as it passed us. Apparently he wanted to start another lesson, by educating me on the benefits of the Dead Sea salt, and, he said, if I liked, he could stop by a shop along the road so I could buy some. It seems he had setup some kickback deal.

We pulled up to the new Queen Alia airport. It was clean and beautiful with natural looking cement color to resemble the environment around. I checked in to my flight and waited with heart filled with excitement to fly to Chicago. In 12 and half hours, I was going to meet my family and celebrate Easter for the first time after three years with them.

I had learned that Royal Jordanian introduced the new 787 Boeing Dreamliner in their fleet. I was looking forward to riding in that plane. I had paid $100 extra at the ticket counter to get an exit seat. As I was walking through the tunnel, I stopped and took a picture of the plane. With a smile and welcome-aboard-sir greeting followed by hand sign to the right then to the left by the flight attendant; I headed to G25 Exit-Aisle seat.

My three-day excitement started to wear off. The seat was tight. The two seats to my right were empty. As we were taxing to the runway, people started to eye the seats and waving their hands indicating their desire to come and sit. I ignored them.

After take off, I pulled out my iPad and started to read. As I continued reading for the next six hours of the flight, a couple of people came and tried to sit but were instructed to go back to their seats. Then the flight attendant brought one person. I complained to the flight attendant and asked to be re-funded $100. The passenger told me that she couldn’t sit there because there was a non-stop crying babe next to her seat and she would not be able to tolerate a crying babe during the entire duration of the flight.

My irritation started to increase as well. I was getting the smell of the nearby bathroom every time someone used it and people were crowding into the area waiting their turns to use the bathroom.

My frustration was amplified to complete aggravation. It was not only from the bad smell, but also by 12 and half hours or non-stop crying babies.

There were many pregnant women on the flight. It looks they were going to deliver their babies in America to grant them U.S. Citizenship, I noticed this trend 20 years ago from my first flight to America.

I spent most of the flight reading with full aggravation and frustration. My past two days of excitement and anticipation of arriving to see my family in Chicago was gone. It was one of the worst 12 and half hours – a disastrous flight.

Royal Jordanian is famous for having a non-stop-crying-babies-flights.

After landing in Chicago and meeting my family, I tweeted Royal Jordanian with: “It was one of the worst flight from Amman to Chicago. Full of 12.5 hours of crying babies. Never use again”

RJ replied back with apology and promised to look into the matter.

I am planning to upgrade to an Exit seat again on the way back and film some of the moments. I am sure; I will relive the same bad experience. But this time I am thinking maybe I share the video.

 

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Day 2 – On the way to Amman

* 5 min read

April 2, 2015
Amman

Next day as I was boarding the flight to Amman, around sunrise, I was excited to be leaving Iraq, especially because I would be meeting my cousin and my aunt’s family for the first time in over 20 years. That filled my heart with joy all through the next two hours of the trip.

After landing in Queen Alia International Airport and clearing customs, I walked through the airport with great anticipation. When I finally got outside I found my cousin Laban waiting for me. We gave each other a good strong hug – it had been so long.

He and his family are from a village of Tesqopa, near Mosul, and along with many other Assyrian Christians, were forced to leave recently because of ISIS. He is my second family member leaving Iraq this year, as part of the Christian Exodus. Barely anything of our extended family is still left here. We are approaching extinction in the region.

Laban and I drove to his two-room place in Alhashmi al-Shamali. It is one of the poor areas in Amman. It’s difficult to use the word home for this place. His rent is about $150 dollars a month. The condition of the house and the quality of his life as a refugee is difficult to witness. And seeing his three kids and wife living like that is heart breaking. Even more so because I know they’ll need to continue this way for the next year or longer, while they are waiting to process through to Australia to join his brother. I know about how this all works, because 20 years ago I was a refugee in Amman too.

I wanted to show him the places and things I had discovered while I was there. We took a taxi to visit the Roman amphi-theater in the downtown area. After recognizing our accents the taxi driver started up a dialogue. He was telling us about the Syrian refugees. He said they’re being labeled as “the Jews of the Arabs” – a term that made me laughs so hard. He was explaining that they had a reputation for being very frugal, and that most of the Jordanians are not renting their homes to Syrians, preferring instead to rent to Iraqi Christians. Syrians keep the houses dirty he told us, even destroy them sometimes, and almost never pay their rent. He claimed many had been taken to prison for it.  

After we had toured the Roman Theater and ate Habiba Knafeh we walked together, and I pointed out some of the restaurants and other places where I had been. Then we took the Serveece, a shared Taxi, to the 2nd Circle, to visit the building where my family had rented an apartment.

Then we continued on to al-Etihad church where I had spent much of my time. Being there, as part of the Christian community, was a great relief against the anxiety of being a refugee. Tuesday nights were always allocated for the Iraqi service. Most of the Assyrians who were there at the time had gathered as part of the post 1991 war Exodus. And now, 20 years later, another wave of Assyrian Christians were fleeing Iraq – ignited by the ISIS crisis. And the church has opened its doors again. 

Laban had invited me to stay with him, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I needed to get a hotel. I had told him there wasn’t enough space for all of us there, but that wasn’t the real reason I declined. So after the church, we took a taxi back to my hotel. We had decided that was the best place for all of us to meet and spend the evening together.

This time my aunt and her family would be joining us too, including her daughter, another refugee at 18 years of age, who has succeeded in leaving Iraq, but has yet to claim any place home. Around 7pm, I came down to the lobby and was waiting anxiously. A few minutes passed and I was shaking my leg nervously – playing with my iPhone like someone smoking cigarettes – trying to push the time to go faster.

At about quarter after they arrived and our hugs had the intensity that can only come after long separations. Laban, his wife and children, joined us a few minutes later.

So there we all were, talking and telling each other stories. Sitting there in the lobby and looking at their eyes, I was heart broken for their situation.

I am going to America, and they are staying behind.

I wasn’t sure if I should call this a re-union or another goodbye. I know I will not see them again for a long time – that is, if we see each other again.

It was a short meeting after a long time, too short for another long time before we meet again.

 

 

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Day 1- On the way to Chicago through Amman via RJ

2 min

April 1, 2015
Baghdad

It is the last day in my windowless and bathroom-less room – thank God. It has been about six months since the last time I set foot on American soil and saw my family. Those statements were on my mind when I opened my eyes in the morning. I woke up from the bed, got ready and went to work. I was physically present, but mentally in many places. Mostly, my mind was occupied with the journey. I planned to leave work early.

I went around, shook hands and said “goodbye pending” to my friends and co-workers. This might be the last time I see them or see the place. Recently, many people have gone on holiday and never returned. A few were laid off while enjoying holidays with their loved ones.

It was around 6:00pm when an armored black BMW 700 with a diplomatic license plate pulled by the housing building. I placed my luggage in the car and N who is a friend of mine drove. We pulled up to the White gate to scan our badges.

“I am going to miss this place”, I said to N.

We scanned, then drove to the helicopter pad, passing the U.A.E, Egyptian, and the Italian Embassies.

As we drove, I was looking around and absorbing the place. Reminiscing over my life, this job was not part of the plan. I never would have believed that one day there would be a U.S. Diplomatic car giving me a ride to an airport. It is a dream, albeit in mundane form.

After checking-in at the helicopter counter, I went to the waiting area. A few U.S. Army soldiers were sitting watching TV. CNN was reporting on the Iran nuclear deal and Netanyahu’s power to affect U.S. foreign policy in the region. And I found myself wondering, who was the President – Obama or Netanyahu? It is the best nuclear deal in history. As a person who lived in this region, I see it as having great benefits. Many of the problems in the Middle East will be settled, in my opinion, if we make this deal with Iran. I would label it a Nixonian approach to Iran.

I put on a body armor went outside waiting for the helicopters. I was looking to the horizon, and the sun setting over Baghdad, maybe for the last time. The sky was colored with dark orange faded to a light blue followed by a dark sky, stars starting to appear. And the two floating dots in the sky were two helicopters, approaching from the west.

A few minutes later, they landed in front of us and we boarded, heading to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). I sat sideways behind one of the pilots looking over his shoulders at the green dashboard. Riding in a helicopter is one of our perks I really enjoy. It is about seven minutes of a retreat to the sky, over the ancient city of Baghdad, the capital of Iraq.

The side door remained open, the adrenaline rush of the take off, the wind hitting my face, all of it made my heart beat faster. The feeling of being suspended in mid-air is surreal, and made all the more so, by watching the escort helicopter, only a few hundred yards away from mine – like an out of body experience – watching yourself from a distance.

The straight lines of white lights radiating from the houses, and orange lights from the curving highways, gave the city the look of being blanketed with mini-runways. Passing over some of Saddam’s former palaces, it was impossible to believe that car bombs could explode down in one of those streets any minute as we were was flying. I recorded the entire flight in my memory, right up until we landed.

Around 9pm, I joined four of my friends, who work at airport compound, around a small fireplace. We spent the night talking about our contracting life and enjoying smoking Hookah. We shared stories and news about who quit or moved to a different contract, as we fed the fire and discussed future possibilities.

There was one story that made us shake our heads at the irony of our jobs. Two friends of ours moved to a new contract that was responsible for escorting busses for a salary of $180k a year. I had applied for the job. I was smiling and thinking to myself, after investing $85K in education to obtain my B.S. and M.S. in computer science; I was trying to be a bus escort. “How low can I degrade myself for money?!” I said, and we all laughed.

Our friend Bashi resigned after seven years of service to the State Department, in Basra. He was on his way home on the same flight with me. The other guys had been working there for the past two years. As for me, it was my third year.

At one point, Rasool and I climbed the stairs over one of the nearby trailers to look around the airport. We were looking out at the backside of the Baghdad Airport where a few airplanes taxied on to the terminals, and I was reminded of a time 10 years ago, when I landed in the dark in Baghdad, on a C-17 with the U.S. Army.

Shortly after that, we ended the night and each of us went to his room.

 

 

 to be continued

Be there…on the Cornice, and here is why…

1 min.

Last week’s dust storm left us with a taste of the desert in our mouth. We ate and drank with a dust flavor. It was a reminder of the nature of the place, and that here near the Tigris for thousands of years, people gathered in tents. It was a transit home for the Bedouins.

And for many of us, the embassy draws that similarity of a transit place in the journey of our lives. It has a feeling of mobility that offers an imaginative power to overcome our irresistible mood of stagnation and confinement at work and room – a paradox that exists in such a liminal place.

Charles Baudelaire

But there is poetry on the Cornice – in the everyday walk. We walk on a street that is a miraculous expression were East meets West in the middle of Baghdad.

On this post, a sense of friendship maybe easier to develop than in the city where we come from, and what we have in common with each other can be larger than what separates us. It is simple. In a different way became our new home for those who left home for a noble reason and remained here for years.

This was an invitation I sent for people to come again to the Cornice and experience that dichotomy. And add a night of music to the One Thousand and One Nights of our life.

 

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How is your day?…On Travel

* 1 min 

It has been about six months since the last time I set foot on American soil. Summer came fast skipping spring, and winter was gone without feeling it this year in Baghdad. Easter is a few weeks away; it will be my first one with the family in 3 years.

Italy - mood not included

The anticipation of travel is amplified by my current quality of life, at a secure compound, a rectangle of about 100 acres. I live a restricted lifestyle in the middle of Baghdad surrounded by those four walls. The four points of my routine work-workout-eat-sleep reflect the same pattern. My answer to the “How is your day?” question has been reduced to it’s simplest form – a copy and paste of yesterday.

That makes me fall prey to beautiful Google images of Italy and nice hotels. Their power seduces me, removing any sense of rational intelligence. I am left with no choice. Suddenly, I am planning a ruinously expensive trip.

Finally, I took a step toward my sense of freedom by buying an airline ticket – an act that will set in motion the long journey home. The ticket is a key to unlock the chains of routine hanging around my neck for the past six months.

The anticipation of travel makes me happy. I like the period between buying a ticket and flying. Something good is out there, and I have a sense of moving toward that horizon rather than departing from it.

For me, it is the arrival to the beginning of the holiday that signals the countdown back to the default of life.

In travel, I feel the sense of existence.

Iraq’s Amazon.com could leapfrog to Bitcoin

* 2 min read

Mredy.com is the famous and largest e-commerce website in Iraq. I am not sure about the launch date for the site, but possibly around 2011.

Even though it is considered the Amazon.com of Iraq, as an e-commerce site it remains at an early period of technology. The site is not equipped to handle online transactions such as credit cards, PayPal or similar services. It is not because Iraq lacks the technical expertise of implementing such technologies, but it’s due to the primitive banking system of the country.

mredy

Mredy.com is currently providing the largest online display of products and services in Iraq, ranging from cars, properties, local shops and other services. The home page has a simple clickable Iraq map divided by provinces for a quick search. Ad placement is believed to be the main income generator for the site. The public is able to place ads to advertise their businesses countrywide.

I browsed the site for a quick look, and I was surprised to find a Chinese company listed a range of services for Massage and Fitness in Baghdad. Knowing the culture, I wasn’t surprised to find out it had one of the highest counts at 16,121+ views. The company offers:

“ايدي خبيرات صينيات متخصصات” which translate to “with Chinese expert lady’s hands”.

Apparently, the Chinese have defied the unemployment challenges to come to Iraq and provide comfort for people in a city that remains torn by sectarian and civil unrest.

http://www.mredy.com/?mod=show&lo=kom_68&l=ar&i=1045661&%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%83%D9%87%20%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%86%D9%8A%D9%87%20%D9%84%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B3%D8%A7%D8%AC%20%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%82%D9%87

For others who are interested in procuring any tangible products through the site, arrangements are made to rendezvous. Considering the current state of Iraq, a car bomb could explode anytime and anywhere, which could affect the prices drastically. Many neighborhoods are not safe to go to and others are controlled by different armed militias. The buyer and seller try to meet in one of the known places in Baghdad (outside their neighborhoods) preferably near a police or army checkpoint.

The name of the site drew its popularity from a legendary local market called “Souk Mredy” in Sadr city. According to Wikipedia (Arabic) it was established circa 1972. It is THE place for forging government IDs, producing fake documents, and degrees ranging from high school diplomas to PHDs. It is a widely held belief and a common joke that many Iraqi politicians and parliament members are holding degrees from the Mredy market.

The website and the local market have an Amazon like slogan, “You can find everything in souk Mredy”. During U.S. occupation in Iraq and still continuing today, different weapons and drugs were and are being sold. Sadr city was one of the major battle grounds for the U.S. Army

“People could even find stolen helicopters for sale and dealers for human body parts.” I was told by a friend of mine who uses the website.

In an oil rich country such as Iraq with a primitive usage of banking systems, I wonder about the promise of cryptocurrency – the utopian world of decentralizing banks and removing the third party. Could the country leapfrog PayPal or credit cards to a Bitcoin economy?

 

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2014 memoir in sketchnotes

2014 Memoir sketchnotes

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