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

Happiness from Lalastan

* 4 mins reading

Happiness Inc. has become one of the latest franchises in America. A lot of books are written and sold about the subject. I am not sure what is happening to the Privileged Rich West. It seems certain these books are written for a class of people who are abstracted from life’s reality and live in a bubble of their imagination. Take this quote for example: “A study suggested that getting one extra hour of sleep each night would do more for a person’s daily happiness than getting a $60,000 raise.

Or the following statement from a book I recently read: “Studies show that each common interest between people boosts the chances of a lasting relationship and also brings about a 2 percent increase in life satisfaction.”

Happiness Inc.

When I share these statements and similar paragraphs from “Happiness” books with my friends,
they laugh…I laugh.

It’s cheap to buy books to research and write about the subject. I could read about 100 of them, not even, 50 will be plenty. In fact, I read about five books and they all started to sound the same. All I need is six months to a year off, no worries about the family, and to be good in writing, then I can write a book about how to be Happy by obtaining daily pleasure using repetitive habits.

Habits are the essential part of the enterprise. Most books written on the subject talk about habits – a routine that is done on a regular basis.

To write a book about “Happiness”, I need to come up with a list of nice-named habits, write about how to form new habits or break old ones. Include the word happiness or its derivatives in the title and try to get published. If I can’t find a publisher who’s interested, then I could self-publish it on Amazon. It no longer matters if a professional publisher doesn’t think enough of the work to risk the sizable expense of an e-book.

Oh I forgot to mention, there is a list of apps that will help achieve and measure happiness

Ba-da-bing – Happiness delivered!

I know about “Happiness” first hand. I read a lot of American books about happiness while I was in Baghdad in the middle of a warzone.

All of these books suggest forming a habit to accomplish certain goals in life, and the achievement of personal goals should make a person happy or happier.

Following their recommendations, I formed a reading habit. On a daily basis, I was reading about two hours. By the end of 2014, I finished 104 books.

Was I happier? Did I feel a sense of fulfillment? Do I wake up every morning with the distinct impression that my life satisfaction has increased by approximately 5%?

Any goal I accomplished such as reading 104 books, I felt the same. When I finished my master…When I visited 22 countries…When I lost 4 inches off my waist…When I bought my first Lexus GS300…All felt the same after a few days or weeks. All these goals have ephemeral pleasure.

I am neither a doctor nor do I have degrees in psychology. But I want to share this little piece of wisdom from my own experience. By the power vested in me from my life experience, I declare their version of “Happiness” is a marketing scam perpetrated on us by privileged idealists.

I have seen some authors on YouTube go further in their ridiculousness by making statements like: “do this…you will be god” or write steps to follow in their books to pray to the “Power of Intention”.

I get completely turned off. My thoughts are to burn the book – not even worth recycling it.

Most of these authors wait for their muses to take them to Lalastan during their daily writing habit. I read about some authors who have weird daily habits when waiting for their muses. They come back with inspirational wisdom from their utopian visit. They write for people who mostly have been kidnapped by the same muses.

I couldn’t find an English word to describe that kind of person who makes such absurd statements I have quoted here – and many others I have not. I know a word in an Iraqi colloquial language that portrays such people perfectly: Batraneen.

I truly believe these authors have not faced major adversity. They have not tasted the meaning of crises such as serious illness, wars, lack of money, being a refugee, nor have they felt ethnic persecutions in their personal life. But, some might have experienced minor levels of difficulties such as losing a job, not able to finish their school, not being able to buy a luxury car, or some other insignificant obstacles.

I was told to tone down my criticism, and there is a better way of saying what I think. In fact, I wanted to go further and list their names, but I didn’t want to market their books. The truth is, this is how I feel about authors who give people lists of “how to” be god (at least they write god lowercase “g”).

Most of us don’t want to slap a naïve, idealistic teenager just for being naïve – but how long will it take “the marketplace” to see this for what it is?

People like me who came from the Iraqistans of the world have a different perspective on happiness. As a person who witnessed and experienced four wars and years of sanctions in Iraq, I can tell everyone that unexpected problems will come to our life. Bad and worse things will happen to you and me.

A major source of happiness for me is preparing for the adversity and taking actions to minimize their impacts. For example, I noticed that every time I resisted a marketing temptation to buy expensive unnecessary items and saved money for the unexpected, I am happy.

The biggest piece of wisdom I can give anyone is to seek a “Better Life”. Read books by the non-charlatans to learn how to grow spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically in life. Life is a workout. Obstacles are training sessions preparing us in life against the terror of the unknown.

For people who are depressed or facing some adversity, I recommend this story – an extraordinary triumph over life – “The Glass Castle: A Memoir” by Jeannette Walls.

 

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Twitter Romance

Twitter Romance

I was brainwashed too

* 5 min + thinking

Dedicated to Charlie Hebdo: In honor of those who died for the principle of free speech. I couldn’t declare my admiration to the Jewish people publicly when I lived under Saddam Hussein in Iraq. I couldn’t write this before. I am writing it now. I was a victim and fully understand the psychological pressure – and the fear – of speaking our beliefs and thoughts.

Je-suis-Charlie

I remember some moments from my past vividly. Especially those that have served as turning points – where the past and the future intersect. Where the way I was gives way – to the way I will be from that instant forward.

And this will strike many people as odd, even hard to believe, but for me one of those moments was the first time I ever saw a Jewish person, face to face.

Someone who was raised, for instance – near Chicago, would wonder how that could possibly have been significant. But for someone like me, who grew up in the Middle East, and was subjected to years and years of Arab-Israeli propaganda – from before I can remember, until I left at the age of seventeen – it has all the significance in the world.

And it’ not just me. One day, not too long ago, my friend Mohammed came to my cubical at work for a quick chat. “Hey” I said “I’ve got a question for you. Do you remember the first time you met a Jew?

Of course!…. Why?” he asked. (of course?)

I went on “I’ve been thinking about writing a piece describing the first time I did. And I was just wondering… I’m not sure about it. Anyway, tell me about your story and I tell you mine”, I said.

Mohammed’s description went like this:

When he first arrived in America he was working at a gas station. Right next to it, there was a banquet hall and the daughter of the owner used to stop in the gas station to buy the usual things. After seeing her a few times, they started to make some small talk, and shortly after that they were flirting with each other. Then she happened to mention she was a Jewish.

He was shocked.

He said to me “It was my first time talking to a real Jewish person, you know instead of seeing them on TV, and I started to remember the soap opera Rafaat al-Hagan.”

“Yea…Yea…” I answered “I remember that, and every time Rafaat opened the door…There was that dramatic music like something very important was about to happen… tarara-rarara… rana-tarara” (I was recalling the theme music). We both laughed.

Egyptian movies and soap operas are famous in the Arab world. Rafaat al-Hagan was a very well-known TV show – played by an Egyptian actor: Mahmoud Abdel Aziz.

I didn’t see it this way at the time, but it was definitely part of the propaganda in Iraq – still, it was a good show. It’s based on a true story about a spy whose name is Ali Suleiman al-Gammal, better known as Rafaat al-Hagan in Egypt – and as Jack Beton in Israel. He spent 17 years working clandestine operations in Israel. Egyptians idolize him.

Mohammed continued, “Talking with this Jewish girl brought those movies and TV shows back into my head. I started to feel bizarre. I got scared. I was imagining all kinds of conspiracies. I started suspecting she would somehow exploit me and I would end up an unwilling Israeli agent. After a while I started turned cold toward her.”

“Man…It was so stupid… to think and to feel like that, all because of our ridiculous media and educational system that taught us to hate the Jews. Now I think – what if I had married her? I might have been rich and not worried about a job for the rest of my life.”

Mohammed paused for a few seconds reminiscing about childish thoughts. Then shook his head, smiled and asked “What’s your story?

It was in Amsterdam when I saw them,” I told him.

“I was 17 years old. We had just left Jordan on the way to America. We had a stop for about six hours at Schiphol Airport. We were sitting in the transit area waiting for our plane. I spotted three Jewish people praying. I literally froze in place for a few minutes looking at them. I was mesmerized.

It hit me. It really hit me. It was a moment when I realized how brainwashed I was.

I felt all the hatred put in our brain through the media…day after day…for all those years…since childhood.

I turned to my family, I said ‘Look…look… right there!….Jews’. We all looked at them for a few minutes – in their black clothes and praying. When you’re seeing something for the first time, all your senses are wide open – it seems like you don’t even blink.”

My conversation with Mohammed ended with the two of us looking at each other and wondering why, but then just walking away – without any answers.

“I’ll talk to you later.”       “Yeah.”

As it happens, I had done my time working at a gas station too. I worked at a Marathon in Chicago. There, I met a Jewish man who was born in Iraq. I couldn’t wait to ask him about his past. I’ll never forget his face and the way he talked about his childhood. His eyes started to tear up remembering his family house in Baghdad. That conversation too, was followed by the same shaking of the head, with no way to really explain it or understand it. Just trailing off in sadness and sorrow.

Iraq has a rich history of Jewish presence. Their positive influence remains alive in the memory of many in the older generations. For example, a Jewish man named Sassoon Eskell played a major role in the creation of Iraq and was the first finance minister who forced the British Petroleum company to pay for Iraqi oil in Gold Pounds.

Think about the influence of the Jewish people and their contributions to humanity. John Von Neumann was Jewish, and considered the father of programming. Andrew Grove developed Intel that gave birth to home computers – another Jewish guy. It was two Jews who gave us the revered Google that we can no longer live without. Facebook too, was created by a Jew. My favorite psychologist Daniel Kahneman is Jewish. James Altucher, my favorite entrepreneur and bestselling author – also Jewish. And of course Jerry Seinfeld, my favorite comedian, who has made millions laugh – and continues to. Did I mention Albert Einstein?

It would seem that Jewish intellectuals and scientists have contributed to humanity’s collective progress, at a disproportionality high rate, in comparison other groups. (Recent estimates place the total Jewish population at less than 20 million worldwide – well under half of one percent.)

A great book about human suffering called “Man’s Search for Meaning”, was written by a Jewish man named Viktor E. Frankl who survived the Nazi Death camps. I wish it was translated into Arabic, and distributed to those Iraqis who have recently been displaced by ISIS and are now suffering.

During Saddam’s time, unfortunately, books that sympathized in any way with a Jewish perspective were forbidden, by law, from being translated. That’s right – books were banned. Books!! Take a look back at history on policies like that – it’s never a good sign.

In that time, the Iraqi educational system marginalized the history of the Jewish people in Iraq by completely removing the Jewish history from the school books. The Jewish influence and their contribution to Iraq was not only ignored, it was covered up.

As time passes, I believe the loss of the Jews from Iraq will prove a significant burden on that country. And with the region drifting towards an apparent Christian exodus, it seems to me that Iraq will have a second blight over the land. Or maybe it’s more correct to call it a third, because the brain drain that Iraq has had to endure, due to intellectuals and artists being unwilling to continue living under those conditions, has drastically altered its path.

Twenty years after seeing that Jewish family praying in the airport, it still baffles me when I compare the past and present. When things like brainwashing and prejudice are suddenly held up to the light of day, and revealed for what they are – there is no going back.

I wonder if Iraq had not displaced the Jewish community, how could that have changed the course of Iraq’s history?

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