Run Away from Baghdad – On Travel

*1 min

Summer came fast skipping spring this year in Baghdad. It’s breaking a record and becoming the hottest city in World with temperatures at 120 degrees. Crickets are appearing everywhere at night running away from the heat also. It makes the combination of ubiquitous dust, heat, and crickets feels disgusting.  You just want to run away from Baghdad.

santorini

I experience the same feeling every time before I leave Baghdad on holiday. The anticipation of travel is amplified by my current quality of life. I live a restricted lifestyle in the middle of Baghdad surrounded by T-walls. The 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 Santorini. 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.

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.

 

 

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Love Secrets

Ponder on this:

“No relationship could start without a commitment to wholehearted intimacy. But in order for love to keep going, it also seems impossible to imagine partners not learning to keep a great many of their thoughts to themselves.

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We are so impressed by honesty that we forget the virtues of politeness; a desire not always to confront people we are about with the full, hurtful aspects of our nature.

Repression, a degree of restraint, and a little dedication to self-editing belong to love just as surely as a capacity for explicit confession. The person who can’t tolerate secrets, who in the name of “being honest” shares information so wounding to the other that it can never be forgotten – this person is no friend of love.”

Read the rest of the story!

 

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The Significance of Assyrian-American Convention

On the evening of September 3, 2015, I walked under the marquee and through the revolving door of the Hilton Hotel with a sense of pride. I was part of a legacy – an old…old legacy.  As Europe was going through World War One, Assyrians in America formed a federation named the Assyrian American National Federation (AANF). Along with it, the Annual Assyrian Convention tradition was born…to tell our story.

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The 82nd Annual Assyrian Convention was held in downtown Chicago. As I stood in line to register, I felt double lucky. It was also my birthday.

Once a year around Labor Day weekend, for five days, AANF holds the Assyrian Annual Convention.  It is held in various American cities, which have a concentration of Assyrian population, such as Chicago, Las Vegas, San Diego, Detroit, New York, and Phoenix.

Many Assyrians from America and other parts of the world with some politicians and activists attend the convention. It includes a lecture series, state soccer tournaments, bazaars, nightly parties with many Assyrian singers perform, and on the last day, a picnic. AANF is a perfect place to promote Assyrian startups and organizations such as Gishru, a non-profit that promotes a life changing journey to our ancestral homeland – Iraq, and Nineveh Plain Defense Fund (NPDF) – a historical landmark achievement by Assyrian activists approved by Washington to support Nineveh Plain Protection Units legally and transparently.

We Assyrians struggled for centuries; and continue to struggle, for our existence. That struggle helped protect a few bits of identity, security, and dignity.

Along with the Armenians in WWI, we were systematically massacred, demographically removed, and our lands were purloined by Turkey. My grandfathers immigrated out of Van in Turkey to Iraq.

And throughout the years, our existence has been under assault in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. We went as far as to disown family members who married Muslims. It was a threat to our survival as a culture, and we considered it the greatest insult to our honor and dignity.

That struggle served to build a stronger family and tribe connection between Assyrian people in villages and cities. It helped protect our identity while surrounded by both physical and cultural influences of the Islamic society in which we lived. Our Assyrian identity was evidenced by all we did each day.

But struggle never separated Assyrians. Instead, we faced a new type of struggle together, mainly in English-speaking countries, but mostly in the grinding of American assimilation.

Today, many Assyrian families accept marriage to non-Assyrians with alacrity. That Assyrian identity that our grandfathers died for in our homelands is melting in America. Undoubtedly.

That homeland is being reshaped. The 100-year Sykes–Picot Agreement that drew the borders of current Middle Eastern countries has ended. Technically, the borders between Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are nullified. That degree of unity no longer exists.

The combination of VP Joe Biden’s 2007 resolution to divide Iraq, (which was submitted to the U.S. Senate and passed 75-23), American’s broadly disinterest in the Middle East, Iraq’s lack of political stability, and last Friday’s portentous event of Britain leaving the European Union represents to me the crescendo that WILL produce a major domino effect. The Kurdish push for independence will have stronger momentum. The discussion to divide Iraq keeps appearing in the news more often now. The option remains on the table. The question of Assyrian self-determination will become unavoidable.

I remain sanguine. Assyrians have a great historical chance to obtain autonomy.

We Assyrians, need to think of Assyrian unification according to different metrics. Thus…The Assyrian Annual Convention and Social Networking could be a great fulcrum to promote friendship, connectedness, solicitude, identity, and predominantly, add new impetus to Assyrian patriotic verve for social involvement in Assyrian affairs. This is the significance in the Assyrian Convention. It’s effulgent 10000 times strong.

Much of the world has forgotten us. Attending at the Assyrian Convention is a statement to our presence in American cities. 

Our numbers speak volumes. Those numbers send a message to the American Senate. We could invite our American Senators to the convention. We can leverage our American vote.

I’m dumbfounded to find Assyrians never heard about the Convention when I ask them. With that said, it is imperative for the AANF to achieve excellent status, strive to promote its value, and make the Assyrian Convention a stupendous and a momentous experience.

My 40th birthday is approaching and the 83rd year of the Assyrian Convention is in Arizona. The war on ISIS continues to liberate our Capital city, Nineveh, and I cannot stop thinking about my 57th birthday when the Centennial Anniversary of the Assyrian American National Federation will be held. Would it reach 10,000 attendees? What will be the state of Assyrians by then?

 

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Power Food for my Brain

Few of us are granted the grace to know ourselves, and until we do, maybe the best we can do is be consistent“. Open by Agassi

I mentioned in my blog entitled “Life Goal of Reading 10,000 Books” that it’s difficult to hear my dad repeating the same questions every time I call home. He is losing his short-term memory. It’s even more difficult to see him losing his cognitive ability at the age of 76. This has made me obsessed about improving my brain specifically and self-development in general.

I’m placing my faith in a concept called the “Compound Formula”, which professes that small improvements on a daily basis will result in enormous benefits after 5,10, or 30 years. It’s the same concept used in mortgage lending, that makes us pay three to four times the purchase price of the house over the life of a 30 year mortgage.

I owe it to myself, it’s a decision I made the first day I arrived in America. So, I strive every single day to practice a few simple habits for my betterment. Improving the health of my brain is one of the areas I focus on.

coconuts and walnuts

I don’t want to feel myself already losing cognitive power in my 70’s. Besides reading and working out, I continue to refine my eating habits. I made coconut and walnuts a major part of my daily diet. They are powerful foods for the brain, which help in boosting mood, stimulating neuron repair and much more. I consume about 5-10 walnuts and three spoons of coconut flakes every single day. These items have become part of my daily ritual of brain health.

Reading, physical fitness, and eating healthy food, every single day, should result in improving and prolonging our cognitive ability.

I’d like to enjoy my future kids, and remember the names of my grandchildren well into my 80’s, or beyond as I cross the Rubicon of my cognitive limits.

 

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Part 4- My Small Window into Dubai

6 min

My friends say: “It’s fake.”…“It has no culture.”…”It has no history.”… And I reply: “You’re right! Even my Dad, at age 76, is older than Dubai.”

Joseph Campbell said, “If you want to understand what’s most important to a society, don’t examine its art or literature, simply look at its biggest buildings.”

History did repeat itself, but it took 2,500 years and jumped 2000 km south. From Hanging Gardens of Babylon to skyscraper of U.A.E., Dubai is touching the sky. High-Fiving with God.

It’s a Muslim nation and relatively a new country. It is in the middle of a desert with ubiquitous sand. During my father’s time, people were Bedouins. Yet the government built tallest vertical city in the world and developing even taller tower, beating the Burj Khalifa leaving the rest of the world light years behind. That is the new history of Dubai.

A traveler/blogger sees the world and provides a window in her writing to that world. This is my small window into Dubai.

My style in writing a travel blog is to write about certain moments in chronological sequence about my visits. This blog is different from my others. It’s my collective personal perspective of all my visits.

I recently visited Dubai for the fifth or sixth time, and that makes me a lucky one. I cut my vacation short in Bangkok and flew to Dubai.

Every time I fly there, I say to myself: why didn’t God make me an Emirati? It’s like I’ve committed a crime to be born in Iraq.

I am not a vagabond traveler. And for a couple to really enjoy Dubai’s amenities, a daily estimate of $600-$800 would be needed.

I believe staying in a nice hotel is part of the enjoyment. I usually say in a nice hotel such as Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa. I enjoy a good lunch in a nice place such as Loca, dinner in one of the nicest places such as Buddha Bar or Sho-cho, and end a night in one of the best places such as Cavalli Club,or having a shisha in places such as Burj Al Arab, Grand Café, or at the Palace Downtown Dubai.

Dubai is, after all, a paradox. Dubai Mall, one of the largest malls in the world, has signs posted on the doors prohibit holding hands between men and women. Yet, it’s ok for men to hold hands. A few new beautiful hotels don’t have bars. And some hotels are prostitute magnets from different nationalities, yet people cannot buy liquor from outside stores, only at the Airport (that I know). An Emeriti would have a servant carrying his luggage, but would pay money to lift weights at the gym. It is the only country in the world where a gold color Bentley is ignored in public parking collecting dust safely. There are big mosques, yet churches with only eye-level crosses that cannot be placed on top of the church.

car

A prostitute leaves Moscow Hotel at three o’clock in the morning and gets a taxi. The driver would be, most likely, a Muslim Pakistani wearing gray salwar kameez with a turban and long beard, who might be a fundamentalist that would chop off her head in Pakistan, and she would feel safe with him taking her home.

And here is what you would see in Dubai. An Italian would check you into your hotel. An Indian services your room. A Filipino would do your manicure. A Lebanese/Syrian would cut your hair. A Ukrainian would serve your food. An Egyptian would serve your Hookah. A Greek would manage the restaurant. An Englishman would administer the bar. A Jewish person would work with an Iranian in the same company without a problem. And almost every flight attendant from around the world would wish to work for Emirates airlines. More than 100 nationalities live in Dubai from different religious background ranging from those that worship cows to an atheist, all operating without a problem – just like a watch.

And why was the taxi driver obligated to return to the hotel to bring my IPhone? Because he has his skin in the game; a few complaints from customers about him would cause him to lose his job and get deported from Dubai. They deport every foreign citizen that makes problems. The person would be deported faster than falling asleep.

In the language of business startups, if America is a large old corporation, Dubai is a new startup. It was able to disrupt the concept of a nation and rethink the role of government and how it operates.

The government provides its citizens world-class services. Clean and perfect streets, new buses and trains, air-conditioned bus stops, new airport and airplanes, best medical service, citizens don’t have to worry about health insurance, best e-government service, with amenities that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.

With more than 10,000,000 visitors a year projected to increase to 20,000,000 by 2020, Dubai offers free parking lots in downtown with free immaculately clean public bathrooms. Public bathrooms are the best indicator for a clean nation. I suggest going on a promenade in new City Walk.

bathroom

And most importantly, Dubai’s government didn’t leave one poor Emirati. Almost every Emirati has servants at home. People cannot open a business in Dubai if they don’t have an Emirati partner, making their citizens rich by default.

Here is a YouTube video of the former president of UAE Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan being caught by surprise by one of his sheikhs informing him about some Emiratis renting homes.

In the video showing him saying with emphasis:

I swear to God, I didn’t know that we have Emirati people renting home…How could Dubai people and other Emiratis live in rented homes? How could a ruler let his citizens live in a rented house?

He ordered that an Emirati should never live in a rented home.

Ask yourself, does an average American live like that? Not even our American veterans get that much attention and care.

And yes, Dubai has a dark side. It is a class country. The white American and British are the second class. They run the country as servants to the Emiratis. Then followed by rest of Arabs as third class. I am an Iraqi-American; I would be still considered an Iraqi in their eyes, and that would be the same for all third world countries no matter what citizenship they hold.

Then the forth class is the Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Filipinos and alike. Dubai is built on the shoulders of those poor people.

Every Iraqi like myself believes Saddam could’ve made Iraq like Dubai. So why do I wish to born as an Emirati?

It’s because a government that makes its citizens live in spectacular opulence is a country I wish I were born in. Who wouldn’t? Iraq didn’t offer to let me live like that. And in America, I am still chained at the second floor of Maslow’s pyramid by the shackles of a 30-year mortgage and an employment – a few paychecks away from a financial disaster.   

Did I mention that regardless if you are born there, if you are not of Emirati descent, you would never get citizenship? Yet I wonder about how many Emiratis hold American citizenship.

Oh yeah, and poor those primitive Babylonians. If one of them traveled in time to our modern world, what would he tells God?

Have the last word in the comment below:

 

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Part 3- Bangkok between Anticipation and Reality

*5 min read

The anticipation of an unseen country has a special allure for me. I had left Iraq with an intense desire to see a new country.  I set 40X40 as my goal, which is to visit 40 countries by age 40.

I have heard only good things about Thailand. “It’s beautiful!”… “It’s amazing!”, or “Good to visit any time of the year.” So after six months of anticipation, Thailand became the next country on my list.

It was my first visit to an Asian country. Bangkok was my third stop after Chicago and Istanbul.

L, my travel partner, and I flew on a red-eye flight from Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. It was hard to say how I felt on the flight to Bangkok, until reality established itself upon landing. I was walking through the Suvarnabhumi Airport terminals following the signs to passport control.

I looked at the Thai writing of the words “Passport Control”.  A strange feeling started to emerge inside me. The letters looked like symbols in one of those ancient caves. I couldn’t distinguish the Thai alphabets from any other Asian alphabets. In such circumstances, I should’ve felt happy traveling to a new place, but the sign made me feel uncomfortable.

After passing through passport control, I exchanged a few hundred dollars. I received thousands of Thai Baht. Suddenly, Thai currency started to confuse me with too many zeros.

We took a taxi to Kempinski hotel in downtown Bangkok.  The hotel is connected to Siam Paragon Shopping Mall via a tunnel. Our room was spacious, beautifully designed, balcony overlooking the pool, and glass-wall bathroom. The rate was discounted from about $1700 to about $300 per night. It was a five-star hotel by all means. It revived my positive feeling about Bangkok.


hotelhotelKem

After refreshing and settling into our routine, I went down to the concierge desk. I was welcomed with a fresh disappointment – No City Sight Seeing tour available in Bangkok. And that meant nothing to see in this city.

So, we decided to venture around the area in search of a nice place to have dinner. I found myself confused and not comfortable to eat at local restaurants. Hard Rock Café was around the corner. We walked into it. I decided to eat a Mexican chicken fajita. Any happiness I might have felt or any thought that fun was attainable in this city seemed to decline slowly.

On the second day, we decided to go and check Siam Paragon Mall and maybe have lunch. I wasn’t in the mood for shopping. Prices were high. Plus, having visited Dubai Mall, no mall in the world would excite me anymore. As for lunch, I felt uncomfortable with Thai food. We decided to eat at an Italian restaurant.

We walked the neighborhood during daylight again.  We visited a nearby Buddhist temple, and then we checked the Wat Mahatat temple. At night, we took a taxi to see one of the night markets. Noticeably dirty signs of 7-11 food stores were on almost every street.

711

By the third day, I couldn’t understand what was “awesome” or “beautiful” in Bangkok.  I was bored. At every turn, I was overwhelmed with a desire to leave this place. I was supposed to fly to Phuket, but instead I decided to leave the country altogether. 

Armed with an American passport and endless options, suddenly the world became small in my mind. I had no desire to see any neighboring countries.

We were in the taxi driving back to the hotel; I turned to L and told her: “We are flying to Dubai…I cannot stay here anymore.” I didn’t need to see anything else to change my impression of Bangkok. I bought new tickets to Dubai. It wasn’t part of my plan.

Difficulties with the Thai food, boredom, sadness of having chosen the wrong country, anxiety about the cost of the trip, and the ugliness of the place caused me to have an anticipation accident with reality of travel. I was losing time from my limited holiday. And nothing excited my brain, nothing made me feel good.

My mind was primed by the adjectives described by my friends. I had built a positive impression in my brain about Bangkok. The problem was not that my friend lied to me, it just that my friends haven’t seen as many countries as I.

Bangkok did offer me a few lessons: I can live and learn from mistakes, but I will always regret inaction. And between anticipation and reality, small things matter.

What is the meaning of life if we don’t have options? A few hours later, I was sitting cross-legged having a cup of coffee enjoying free wireless-internet on an Emirates airplane. I had left paid nights at the hotel unused in a country where I didn’t even have a desire to take one picture of myself in it.

We flew to Dubai.

Although there is much more to my story than these 800+ words, my travel story to Thailand could be summarized into: I became a traveler who flew from Istanbul to Bangkok and checked into his hotel, then left to Dubai.

 

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Part 2- A Flâneur in Istanbul

*6 mins reading

I checked-in with Turkish Airways and boarded the plane. I located my seat, placed my hand luggage, and sat down.

I snap my last selfie in the U.S. And I was thinking to myself, when feeling bored and confined, a plane to somewhere…anywhere…could be all we needed, a lesson I came to learn very well when I was working in Iraq and would daydream of getting away by using Google image search. I think almost all of us there would trade anything for a change of scenery.

last selfie

After a few minutes, I was flying over America, crossing the Atlantic Ocean and on to Europe, and to Turkey. I would spend a day and a half there before going even further east to Thailand.

As I landed in Istanbul and my feet were getting adjusted to solid ground, I was debating with myself whether to use Uber or take a taxi. I didn’t feel safe using Uber. The driver could be a radical…who knows, so I taxied to the Marriott Hotel.

Istanbul was busy – the unending flow of traffic seems to create a certain symmetry. Two hours later, I am on the18th floor of my hotel, a corner room with floor-to-celling windows providing a view to the city. Looking to my left I spotted a big glass tower with the name Trump, over looking new Constantinople. I smiled and thought “this feels good”. I took a shower and slept.

I opened my eyes and saw a travel guide magazine next to my bed. I hate those things, they insult my travel emotions. It’s either suggesting places I cannot afford; or I cannot relate to their authoritative reviews. They want me to feel excited and speechless, but most of the time, I feel bored and just want to leave the place, which makes me feel something is wrong with me. “Forget it…why bother,” I said to myself.

Because I have been in the city a few times before, I decided to pick up my kindle and venture over to the Sisli neighborhood before walking Halaskargazi street to Taksim Square. The Random and the arbitrary irresponsible littering decorated streets and alleys. The area had lots of ethnic food restaurants, local stores, and cafes.

I arrived at Hafiz Mustafa 1864 restaurant at the square. I ordered my favored Turkish delight and an espresso. The waiter served me had a big heavy mustache. It always strikes me as odd to be served by a man like that.

I started to read and watch people feeling like a flâneur. It didn’t take long to realize that Taksim is currently full of Syrian refugees – the beggars that kept passing asking for money. It reminded me of when I was in Jordan in 1990s. Back then, Iraqi refugees filled downtown Amman.

As I kept reading, and enjoying the taste of my Turkish delight, a couple of ladies sat down close to my table. Having the ears and the eyes of the culture, as I expected, their accent gave them away- Syrian prostitutes.

During a war and in places like this, women whose lives were transformed by a few decision from leaders.

I started to think about the patterns of prostitution that took place in the Arab countries through recent history. During the ‘50s, the Egyptian prostitutes populated other Arab countries, and then came the Lebanese prostitutes during the civil wars, followed by Iraqis in the ‘90s.

Prostitution is a curse that follows a war. And it could be a declaration of war between Arab countries, such as when one country insults the women of another country. This is what happened between Iraq and Kuwait.

Before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, a high-ranking Kuwaiti government official threatened the former Vice President of Iraq by making an Iraqi woman a prostitute worth 10 Dinars (less than $1) during an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia.

Below is a YouTube video showing Saddam expressing reasons why he invaded Kuwait during one of his trials.

Here is the translation of Saddam Hussein speaking: “then because the Kuwaiti said: ‘we will make the Iraqi woman go down to the street for 10 dinars, Iraqi army defended Iraq honor and revived historical rights toward those dogs’…

And now, it is Syria’s turn. Syria has become caustic and their women, as prostitutes, fill the streets of Turkey and neighboring Arab countries.. Thanks to the Saudis and Qataris.

Maybe ten years from now, Saudi and Qatari prostitutes will fill Baghdad.

The coffee’s effect started to wear off and the night came fast. I decided to walk back to the hotel. A few minutes into my walk, I saw a coterie of friends gathering and about to start playing music. I stopped to listen to them sing.

They were Syrian refugees singing patriotic songs. And the first song was an Iraqi nationalistic song written during Saddam’s regime. I grew up singing the song. Part of it goes like this,

“Heaven, heaven, heaven…I swear to Allah heaven my country…Even hell is heaven in my country” meaning even if our country is going through hell, it’s still heaven.

I shook my head in disbelief over their hypocrisy.

“Then go back to Syria if it is heaven… Bashar al-Assad or ISIS?” I wanted to say testily.

To hear them singing about their love of the country gave me a bad taste. A Patriotic song sounded hypocritical to me at a time when the world is watching them fleeing Syria.

I walked away discontented and there below street trees, I saw two children- this broke my heart. The first thought that came to my mind was to pull $100 out of my pocket and give it to them. But I kept walking.

I walked away because I became angry at the rich Arab leaders of the Gulf countries and Saudi.  This is their own making, all because these Arab leaders don’t want to see a Shia leader Bashar al-Assad rule an Arab country. That is it people. (period)

I turn and snap a picture of the two girls.

two syrian kids

I put on my headset and continued walking on Halaskargazi street to the Marriott. I kept thinking about those two girls and about the hope raised by Arab activists like Iyad el-Baghdadi. He should be promoting Arab philanthropy from rich Arab countries, rather than worrying about U.S. presidential elections and the American support to Israel.

As I got close to the hotel, I could see Trump’s name lighting the dark sky of Istanbul.

I smiled and thought about my next visit the next day – Thailand.

 

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