Thursday, December 1, 2011

Winter Comes to Kurdistan

Jim and my parents in Paris (Notre Dame Cathedral in the background)
You never know what you'll see in Suly!  Walking to work this morning I encountered two sheep grazing by the side of a very busy road -- a sight I'd not seen in the city (though many times in the countryside).  However, they looked warm in their fluffy coats, which is more than I can say for us.  The reason I haven't posted  a new story for so long is because Jim and I spent a few weeks in Paris for time with family and R&R (though I had lots of work to do while I was there, which has been typical throughout my career) and I had lots of things to catch up on when I came home to Kurdistan.  When we returned, we soon discovered that it was cold!  I mean, in the 30's at night, 40's during the day and it's supposed to get colder still in the coming months.  Who knew when I was moaning about the heat this summer that I would long for it come November?  

But Iraq as ever is a country of contrasts -- snow on the mountains and leafless trees on the one hand, orange trees outside my office on the other.
I'm from Chicago so I'm used to the cold (I must confess, however, I probably didn't bring enough cold weather gear with me when I moved here but that can be rectified when I go back to the US for Christmas).  But I'm not used to it being so cold inside.  Just as the electricity went on and off during the summer, the situation is even worse in the winter with all the heaters on throughout the city.  In fact, there are scheduled outages.  On top of that, our friend Ahmed told us that our house has only enough electrical amps to support one heater at a time, so we've been bundled up inside and spending most of our time in the living room where we have the heater on -- eating, sleeping, working and relaxing there.  To keep warm (and because he is hair-challenged, i.e., bald), Jim has been wearing his black hoodie, even while sleeping.  For me, it's been a bit like lying next to the grim reaper.  But as with so many things, this is just part of the experience of living here -- something I wouldn't give up for all the ampage in the world.
Jim bundled up.
We will soon be moving to a different house that hopefully will have better utilities, but it has a much smaller yard.  So a big question is what to do with our five chickens?  I hate to say it but they are like house pets, particularly one -- named Justin -- who was raised from a baby chick; and frankly, that's about all they are good for because as far as we can tell, they haven't laid a single egg. 
Justin outside the kitchen window.
When we wake up in the morning, Justin is standing on the window sill outside the kitchen looking for activity in the house which means breakfast.  The other chickens are gathered on the step squawking until they are fed.  There is divided opinion among the housemates about whether they move with us.  Some believe that they should be given away as pets or a future dinner (horrors!); others want to take them along to the new digs.  None of us are quite sure what they do in the winter to keep warm (and we are not providing them little heaters!).
Is breakfast ready yet?
As I mentioned, I've seen sheep in the Kurdish countryside many times.  Most recently, driving to and from Erbil earlier this week, I noticed that there has been much development in that city even in the relatively short time I've been here (a little more than six months).  However, again reflecting that this is a region that is in the midst of transformation, I saw a shepherd with his flock of sheep on a hillside just below a new development of luxury modern homes.

The reason I was in Erbil was to participate in a two-day UNDP workshop in Erbil reviewing draft chapters written for the Civil Law and Criminal Law Manuals that are part of the Access to Justice Project.  The workshop was attended by representatives of UNDP, the European Union, UNHCR, WEO, other NGOs, legal academicians, the Kurdistan Lawyers Syndicate and other members of the legal profession.  The manuals are intended to be a resource for Iraqi lawyers wishing to do the very important work of representing those who cannot afford counsel.  Long after international NGOs, such as Heartland Alliance, as well as the UN and others are gone, it is critical that the access to justice legal aid work being done be sustained, and in order to do that it is necessary to build capacity among local lawyers, organizations and other nationals. 

Legal services for all is central to the rule of law, which is itself critical to the democratic and economic development of any country.  The new Iraqi constitution provides that "Every individual has the right to enjoy life, security and liberty.  Deprivation or restriction of  these rights is prohibited ...."  However, without lawyers and organizations willing to provide legal aid services, particularly to the most vulnerable, these constitutional protections will remain hollow guarantees.  The purpose of the manuals developed as part of the Access to Justice Project---and in fact all capacity-building activities being undertaken -- is to provide guidance to those wishing to engage in legal aid activities in order to help meet this essential need.  Fortunately, there are many here who want to do just that.
My son, Christian, and his wife, Daisy, under the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Autumn in Kurdistan

Barista Coffee shop
I was sitting in a coffee shop in Erbil called “Barista” earlier this week.  Erbil is the capital of Kurdistan and so it is the home to many expats who work in consulates, the UN, various NGOs and other places.  As a result, there are many establishments catering to Western sensibilities – no Starbucks yet but Barista is a Starbucks wanna-be.  In addition to espresso drinks, it sells doughnuts, bagel sandwiches and other goodies that look remarkably similar to those in my neighborhood Starbucks back in the US.  The only difference is that many people sitting in the coffee shop spoke Kurdish – though I also heard English and American accents as well – and almost everyone smoked.  That morning, one of my colleagues was attending meetings with UNICEF and a local NGO, another was catching up on her sleep (most people when they travel sleep less well; she sleeps better because when she’s home her two daughters get into bed with her and disrupt her sleep) and I was catching up on emails because Barista has wireless.
Enjoying a latte
I had spent the prior two days in Duhok and Erbil.  In Erbil, my program coordinator and I met with the Dean of the College of Law and Politics of Salahaddin University.  As a general rule, there is no tradition of legal aid services in Iraq even though there is a great need (as there is in almost every country, including the United States).  That is one of the reasons why Heartland Alliance's work is so important.  However, it is critical that capacity be built among Iraqi lawyers and organizations to do this work in order to build and sustain it, and I’ve become convinced that to inculcate lawyers with what is a Western notion, namely that the profession has an ethical responsibility to provide pro bono services, it must start early, i.e., in law school.   Salahaddin College of Law has a new Human Rights Center and recently, a legal clinic, and it was interesting exchanging ideas on the state of human rights in Kurdistan and other issues.  As the dean said, though not at the level of European countries, given the turmoil over the last decades,  particularly under Saddam Hussein, it's  much better than it has been. 
Lake outside of Duhok
In Duhok, the A2J team had its first meeting with our Legal Advisory Committee, which is made up of three judges, four professors and the president of the Duhok Bar Association.  Although most of the members saw the need for legal aid work (in fact, the  President of the Appeals Court urged us to have written materials so others can learn how to do the work, which in fact is part of the Access to Justice Project -- development of a Criminal Law Manual, a Civil Law Manual and a Manual of Procedures), unfortunately some members of the bar do not think pro bono work by lawyers is necessary.  This is discouraging because although our Project has reached over 1200 people in less than five months, there are hundreds more who have little knowledge about their legal rights or ability to access the justice system.  But just when I'm feeling discouraged, I meet someone as I did this week who works in the office next to ours in Duhok.  He told me that the work being done is so important, that free legal services are needed because lawyers charge so much and people can't afford to pay the fees (a problem encountered in many places, including the United States).
On a juicier note (ok, bad pun), it's pomegranate season here and they are wonderful!  We have several pomegranate trees in our yard but so far they have not yet ripened.  Luckily there are LOTS for sale in the bazaar, at roadside stands and in grocery stores.  And it's autumn here as well.  We're having beautiful cool days and cooler evenings (low to mid 70's at the peak of the day, 50's at night) -- actually sweater weather --and I'm told it will get really cold soon......
............ok, maybe not this cold but who knows?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Reaching Out

Art in Sulaimaniya
I think I've mentioned before that one aspect of Heartland Alliance's Access to Justice Project is outreach.  There are a number of outreach projects:  Know Your Rights brochures and pamphlets for distribution, radio and TV public service announcements and newspaper coverage.  However, the most important outreach activity are the Mobile Legal Clinic outreach sessions which allow us to reach dozens of people at a time. The Mobile Legal Clinics -- one each in the Governorates of Duhok and Sulaimaniya -- visit organizations, schools, jails, women's shelters, reformatories and other places where there are persons who may be in vulnerable situations.  During these outreach sessions, our lawyers and social workers may make a presentation on a topic of interest, answer questions about legal and other rights, and/or have one-on-one consultations.  In addition to visits in the cities of Sulaimaniya and Duhok, the Mobile Legal Clinics also go into rural and other areas in the governorates where arguably the need is the greatest, because it is in these areas where tribal law or other informal means of "justice" may often operate in ways which deprive vulnerable Iraqis, particularly women, of access to true justice.
In the women's workshop at the Kurdistan Disabled Persons Union
With my gift from the women 
Recently I was able to attend one of the Mobile Legal Clinic outreach visits at the Kurdistan Disabled Persons Union in Sulaimaniya, where I was the recipient of such gracious hospitality.  After spending time with Kak Omer, the Union's president, who is wonderful -- informative and welcoming (which has been my near universal experience with the Kurdish people), I toured the shop where women members are making handicrafts to sell (and I was able to pick up a holiday gift or two).  Kak Omer had asked the lawyers to give a simple-to understand summary of legislation which protects the rights of the disabled.  After their presentation and questions, one-on-one consultations were available.
Outreach at the Kurdistan Disabled Persons Union
Although many members of the Union have congenital disabilities, I was told that the majority of members are physically disabled as a result of mines and bombs.  After I asked what conflict the mines and bombs were from, I realized that the Kurdish people have lived with violence in their lives for decades.  In the 70's it was the Kurdish revolution for independence; in the 80's it was the war with Iran and the Anfal; in the 90's it was the first Gulf War and the Kurdish civil war; and in the 00's it was the US invasion against Saddam Hussein.  One of my Heartland colleagues recently said "we are the generation of war."   In a future blog post I'm going to explore what that means but the impact of decades of violence has had significant effects, both physical and emotional.

With Kak Omer, President of the Kurdistan Disabled Persons Union
On a less somber note, one of the things I've notice about living here is that there are more birds and butterflies than in previous cities I have lived.   Because of pollution, loss of habitat and other modern incursions, I found that butterflies and birds (other than pigeons and crows) are often rare in the US and the UK, even in parks and gardens.  It's lovely waking up to a songbird's trill and catching a glimpse of a brightly colored butterfly in a land that has experienced such tragedy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Weekends in Kurdistan

With Muhamad and Omer
One of the things that people in Northern Iraq love to do on weekends is to have picnics.  It's a time to be together with family and friends, to enjoy food, dancing, music and the cooler climate outside of the city.  Jim and I were treated to this experience on Friday, and what a lovely and remarkable day it was.  Jim has made friends with two men, Muhamad and Omer, helping them perfect their English skills.  During Ramadan they took their “coach” and me to a lovely “iftar” dinner (the meal that breaks the fast) and this weekend they took us into the Kurdish countryside for a typical weekend picnic. 
Muhamad, Jim and Omer unpacking the picnic
We were picked up in the afternoon and drove about a half hour or so into the mountains outside of Sulaimaniyah to a park where there were hundreds of Kurds, as well as Arabs who drove up from the south to enjoy the cool weather.  Like them, Omer and Muhamad had brought a picnic that was absolutely delicious – chicken, dolma (grape leaves, eggplant, tomatoes, onions and peppers stuffed with a marvelous rice mixture), bread, greens and a plate with cucumbers, diced apple, carrots, etc.  We stopped on the way for fruit and I brought a thermos of iced tea (although Kurds LOVE their hot chai – very sweet – this cold tea was something new to them).  Omer’s mother and sister had put the feast together and it was enough for about 12 people (Jim and I were the grateful recipients of the leftovers which will serve as several great lunches and dinners).  
Enjoying chai
After eating our picnic, we walked around the park gazing at the scenery that was very reminiscent of the American Southwest (spectacular mountains, cliffs, trees and a waterfall), watching people dance in the typical Kurdish style, listened to the accompanying music and enjoying observing families take donkey and horse rides and just relaxing together.   We then left the park, drove a short distance, parked the car near a river and started climbing to the caves which dotted the mountainside.

Hiking in the mountains
As we were making our way up the mountain toward the caves, we met three men who also had been climbing, one of whom was a former Peshmerga.  During the time of the Anfal he had lived in similar caves in Qaradakh, another mountainous region outside of Suly.  Peshmerga means “those who face death” in Kurdish and they are the fierce Kurdish guerrilla fighters who, among other things, helped defeat Saddam Hussein’s army in 2003.  Prior to that, they also fought with US and NATO troops during the first Gulf War in 1991. 
Peshmerga in the mountains during the Anfal
The Anfal, which occurred in 1988-89, refers to the period when Hussein launched a mass genocide against Iraqi Kurds.  They were forced to flee their villages, some of which —the most famous being Halabja -- were the targets of chemical warfare; in all, about 4500 villages were destroyed and 182,000 Kurdish killed.  The Peshmerga took to the mountains, living in caves, in an attempt to defend their villages to the extent they could. 
Our Peshmerga guide
Our Peshmerga guide, who had two Peshmerga brothers killed during the Anfal by Hussein’s army, took us inside the caves, the largest of which was occupied by Jallal Talibani (the current Iraqi president, head of the PUK party and Kurdish hero) and his men.  He showed us where weapons were hid, food cooked, etc.  It was a remarkable experience seeing this dark chapter in Iraqi history through his eyes. 

Wedding dance
As it turns out, one of our guides was a relative of Muhamad and after our tour of the caves, we accompanied them to a wedding celebration that was taking place in the valley.  Hundreds of traditionally dressed men in sharwal and women in diaphanous brightly colored gowns covered in sequins and gold were in attendance.  Many were dancing in the typical Kurdish style -- a type of line dance similar to the hora -- and they pulled me into the circle of dancers and welcomed me as if I were a relative or neighbour.  After several pictures, smiles and hugs, we said good bye and went to our final stop – a 6000 year old cave carved by an ancient people into the mountain in the style of Petra.   It was a remarkable place to watch the sun set and the almost full moon rise over the mountains.  
Qezqapan (or Qizkapan) Cave
One of the things I will always remember about my experience here in Iraq is the friendliness, warmth and generosity of the people. Notwithstanding the suffering and hardship they have endured during the Anfal, their own civil war, two gulf wars and the current post-war conflict, they remain resilient as well as resigned to both their tumultuous past and to an uncertain future which may bring positive changes but which may also destroy some of their traditional ways of life.
New friends
On a sadder note, today is the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  There are certain days one never forgets -- the day Kennedy was shot (I know I'm dating myself), the day the spaceship Challenger blew up and more recently, 9/11.  My thoughts are with friends and family in America and my hope is that some day there will be peace around the world so that events like the Anfal, 9/11, the holocaust and all acts of violence which cause people to live in fear and destroy innocent lives cease forever.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Moonrise over Suly
It's been almost three months since I arrived in Sulaymaniyah and started working with Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights.  Our Legal Help Desks in Suly and in Duhok have seen almost 700 people, conducted more than 200 legal consultations and have served, or are serving, as counsel in more than 50 cases.  It's been fascinating -- and often frustrating -- for me as an American lawyer to see what the laws and legal obstacles are in Iraq as well as what similarities are shared by both countries. 

First, the definition of what constitutes a successful outcome may be different.  I asked our lawyers to tell me about some of their successful cases.  When I read these "success stories,"  a number of them involved divorce cases in which they were able to reunite a wife and husband, even though the marriage may have involved abuse.   I found this definition of success contradictory to what might be thought of as success in a similar situation in the US where the challenge is so often taking a woman out of an abusive situation, giving her a safe place to stay and helping her establish a life that does not include returning to what would almost surely be continued abuse.  When I asked why reunification in such a situation was a good outcome, I was told that even though a marriage might involve abuse, a woman most often was better off remaining married rather than being divorced.  This is because a divorced woman so often does not have the right to keep her children and even though she may not be able to get a job, she is not entitled to sufficient support from her ex-husband.  Under these circumstances, a woman has no choice but to return to her family, which may also be an abusive environment, and her family may simply try very quickly to marry her off again.

Many organizations have pointed out that the laws in Iraq institutionalize violence against women.  This arguably includes essentially forcing a woman to remain in an abusive marriage for fear of losing her children, being unable to support herself, returning to an unsympathetic family and/or being forced into a marriage which may be worse.  It is just one area where reform is needed.  And in too many cases involving adultery and similar issues, "virginity tests" -- which are much less reliable than polygraphs -- are found to be persuasive evidence.  However, the US and Iraq do share some things in common: as in so many countries, spousal abuse is far too common and elder abuse is on the rise (one of our clients is an 81-year old man whose son and wife beat him).

Second, there are laws which are foreign to an American practitioner.  One of our cases involves a law that criminalizes behavior that is difficult, if not impossible, to prove.  Of course, this gives the trial judge an inordinate amount of "flexibility" in deciding guilt or innocence.  As an example, we are representing a woman who has been charged with what is essentially encouraging the suicide of another.  She had a minor argument over housework with a sister-in-law who later burned herself to death.   Although Dr. Kevorkian and others have generated a lot of controversy over the issue of "assisted suicide," I don't think it was ever intended to cover this type of situation.

Unfortunately, as I pointed out above with spousal and elder abuse, there are also many similarities with legal situations in the United States.  One of our clients has been charged with stealing from his employer -- an employer who owes him salary.  Arguably, the employer believes that if he accuses the man of theft, he will drop his claim for salary owed to him and in any event, because our client is an illiterate Arab living and working in a Kurdish region, his employer may believe that he is without legal redress -- access to the justice system.  Luckily, one of our A2J lawyers will help change that outcome. 

As in America, in order to try and successfully enforce your rights, you need -- or at least are far better off if you have -- a lawyer.  One example is a situation where a simple phone call from a Heartland Alliance lawyer produced significant results for a young woman from the Philippines who was brought to Sulaymaniyah with the promise of a job.  She had a three-year contract to work for a family who, as often is the case, took her passport.  She ran away from the family after she suffered sexual harassment and other forms of mistreatment.  She came to visit Heartland's Legal Help Desk and after contacting her former employer, we were able to retrieve her passport. She is now happily working for a hotel.

Young neighbors
One of the things I love most about Kurdistan is the children I meet.  By and large, as in every country in which I've traveled, the children are the friendliest of all the people I encounter.  They are almost always ready with a smile, a "hello," a wave and are delighted to have their picture taken.  I should qualify this by the fact that most of the children I run into are boys.  As with women, girls are seen less often than boys, whether it is playing on the street or attending mosque.  (In fact, I'm told women generally attend only on Fridays and then only if the mosque is large enough to have a separate section for women.)
A make-shift game of football down the street from our house
By and large, the activities and interests of children are universal -- hanging out, playing or watching football, or going to the market (mall?) -- whether in America or Iraq which, according to the UN, is transitioning from a conflict to a post-conflict country which still experiences violence too often. 

As I think I've mentioned previously, the Kurdish people are the largest ethnic group without a country of their own and, therefore, have invariably suffered at the hands of the governments of the countries in which they live: Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.  Although Iraqi Kurds are now one of the most well off groups in Iraq since the war, they suffered horribly under Saddam Hussein, including being the victims of genocide. 
Memorial outside of Erbil to victims of Saddam Hussein
Their Turkish and Iranian counterparts are not so lucky right now.  This last week has been filled with news stories about Turkey and Iran crossing their borders into Iraq to kill Turkish Kurds and Iranian Kurds, respectively, who live in the mountainous border regions.  There is a saying that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.  These mountain dwellers have been labeled as terrorist groups by many; however, for some, they are seen to be fighting for the freedom of their Kurdish countrymen who have been deprived of basic human rights, tortured and killed in their homelands -- Turkey and Iran -- where they have lived for thousands of years.  And is so often the case, innocent people have been killed in the conflict, including a farmer, his wife, his mother and children -- seven in all -- who were on the way to Erbil in their pick-up truck, having decided that their farm was too close to the area of conflict.  They were targeted and killed by a missile from a Turkish fighter helicopter.  In addition to losing their lives and being injured, these innocent victims are losing their property and their homes.   So even though Kurdistan largely avoided the series of coordinated suicide bombings by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia from the prior week, the Kurds in Iraq are still the victims of violence as they have been for centuries. 
Hills between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Contemplative Month of Ramadan

Meeting on the street
We have been back in the KRG, Iraq, going on two weeks now and are almost midway through Ramadan, which I understand ends at sunset on August 29. On August 30 Eid Al-Fitr begins -- a holiday to celebrate the end of Ramadan.  The entire community comes together for special prayers, visiting friends and family, and generally enjoying time together as they wish each other "Eid Mubarak" (Happy Eid).  You will not be surprised to learn that much of the celebration includes lots of eating and drinking.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Since arriving back on August 3 I've successfully fasted from food; I confess that I am drinking water to avoid dehydration during these August days when the temperature reaches 115-120 degrees  (and ok, I have a cup of coffee in the morning).  Like my neighbors, I await sunset when the fast ends and I enjoy the meal of the day.
Nearing sunset
Because days are spent without food or drink, as you can imagine, there is a much slower pace of life during this month.  Our office closes at 2:00 during Ramadan and the Access to Justice Project team has suspended our Mobile Legal Clinic outreach visits for the month.  Stores, markets and the like generally open mid to late afternoon; there are generally fewer cars and fewer pedestrians on the streets; and the chant of prayer is heard more frequently from the loudspeakers of the mosques.
The normally bustling neighborhood bakery in the morning
The same bakery late afternoon
I've noticed that women tend to dress more conservatively during Ramadan.  Many who do not normally wear headscarves during the rest of the year cover their heads and even wear more somber clothing -- but nothing compared to women in other parts of the Middle East.  I'm currently reading a book that was published in 2003 titled Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, a previous bestseller.  One website summarizes the book as follows:

Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azar Nafisi, a bold and inspired teacher, secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; some had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they removed their veils and began to speak more freely — their stories intertwining with the novels they were reading by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, as fundamentalists seized hold of the universities and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the women in Nafisi’s living room spoke not only of the books they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments.

Ms.Nafisi describes how the colors of the women's clothes under their black coverings -- vivid yellows, oranges, reds -- reflect the women's personalities.  Happily, Kurdistan is not Iran; there is a history of colorful dress here and, as I've mentioned before, blue jeans are de rigueur for young women in Suly.
Fabric and clothing store down the street from our house
Which is not to say that traditional values are not honored.  Each morning this week, breaking the otherwise quiet atmosphere, there have been traffic jams outside Heartland's office and I hear whoops and cries through my office window from the dozens of people, mostly men, gathered across the street.  When I asked some of our staff members what was going on, I was told that they were there to pick up the government entitlement for marriage -- the equivalent of about $5000 available to encourage marriage (and perhaps as well as a way to distribute government funds). 
Gathering outside government office building for "marriage funds"

When I was in the United States last month, I spent a long weekend at the house of my lovely friend, Deirdre Martini, who each year gathers women in the restructuring industry to come and share fun, food and fellowship (even though I am no longer in that world, Deirdre has graciously continued to include me).  So many of my friends were there, old and new, and we ate, drank, laughed, talked, sunbathed, swam -- such a contrast to the way our sisters in some of the world are forced to exist. Again I'm reminded not to take things for granted.  Naturally a number of people were curious about my time here.  One of the things I talked about was the experience of working children, the importance of the drop in centers and their need for puzzles, coloring books, etc.  In response, Leslie Berkoff provided me with a box of things that I've brought back here for the kids.  Thanks so much Leslie!

So the pace of life here, which is normally much slower than in the United States or London, is even more so now and will be until the end of the month.  As intended, this quietude of Ramadan does create a time and space for spiritual reflection, a time to cease some worldly things (though I must admit I miss passing each day on my way home from work the group of men playing dominoes) and a reminder of things taken for granted by those of us who are incredibly fortunate (to have, for example, three meals each day).
Playing dominoes

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Letting Children Be Children

Children playing the Iraqi version of chess
I know I said I probably wouldn't post another blog until I returned to Iraq from a visit to the UK and the US but I want to write about a couple of experiences I had over the last few days. I'm sitting in the house waiting for our taxi to arrive, scheduled for 1:00 am, to take us to the Suly airport for our 4:00 am flight.  For some reason, most every flight out of, and many into Sulaymaniyah, are scheduled in the wee hours of the morning.  We fly to Amman, then Jim and I separate, he going to Amsterdam then New York City, me to London and then on to the US. 
Animals in the stockyard
One of Heartland Alliance's partners runs a drop-in center in the bazaar and a mobile drop-in center for working children, both of which I had the privilege of visiting this morning.  Although Iraqi law prohibits children under 15 or 16 from working, there is an exemption for work with relatives -- an invitation to exploitation.  This morning, the mobile drop-in center (a small bus) was at the stockyard, a place where animals are sold and often slaughtered.  Children start working there early in the morning and often arrive at the drop-in center covered in blood and cuts from slaughtering animals(I was reminded of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel about the Chicago meatpacking industry which spurred government regulation). They are given juice, games to play and an opportunity to relax and just act like children for a while.  About 15 to 30 kids of various ages come each day. This morning, I met some terrific boys (they are all boys), age 12 or under, who were warm and friendly, as I have found almost every Iraqi child to be.
With my new friends
I then went to the drop-in center in the market. Because it's stationary and reaches more children, it offers more services, including a doctor who is there once a week, music, art, educational activities, as well as games.  The center greets about 80 boys a day, aged from 10 or 11 to 16.  The art I saw hanging on the walls by the kids was amazing, art that showed the places they worked (for example, garages, produce stands, selling cigarettes, etc.) as well as activities at the center.  Help us support these centers (unfortunately the drop-in centers in Baghdad and Basra were forced to close because of failure to find additional funding) by donating on-line at and designating your gift for Iraq (I know, I'm an unbroken record but the work is so important). 
Drawings by drop-in center boys  
The boys that I met today, when not in school, should be having fun -- doing things boys love to do, like playing football.  When I lived in London I became a huge Chelsea football fan and my favorite player is Frank Lampard.  Ironically, on the way home from work today, I ran into a young man decked out in the full Chelsea kit with Frank Lampard's name and number (8) on the shirt and pants.
Young Iraqi Chelsea fan
This weekend we had the opportunity to go to a Kurdish party in the hills about an hour or so outside of Sulaymaniyah.  We were invited to join new ex-pat friends from Canada, one of whom is a volunteer at Heartland with a partner who works for a Middle Eastern oil rig company doing business in Kurdistan with our host.  We experienced the famous Kurdish hospitality in all its glory -- lots of food, drink and a host whose only focus was to make sure we had enough of everything. Just as we thought we couldn't eat more and were about to leave, the "main" course was brought out! 
Kurdish hospitality
One of the nice benefits of being guests at this lovely affair was that we drove outside the city and into the hills where it was not only beautiful but about 20 or 30 degrees cooler than the plain on which Suly lies.  When we return to Iraq, it will be what is purportedly the hottest month of the year -- August -- which reaches 130 to 140 degrees!  In the meantime we'll enjoy the "cool" temperatures in the west.
The countryside outside of Suly

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Hot -- and Holy -- Month of August (2011)

Rashid Mosque
It's Friday morning in Sulaymaniyah, which is the equivalent of Sunday morning in other parts of the world  (Saturday here is like Saturday elsewhere -- perhaps the busiest day of the week when everyone does their shopping, runs errands, goes out at night, etc.).  Though it is the first day of our weekend, it is the holiest of the days of the week in Islam, the day when almost every shop is closed in the morning and many of them all day.  It is the day when in addition to the call of prayer five times a day, there is a fairly long "sermon" -- all of which, of course, is broadcast from mosques throughout Suly, indeed throughout the Muslim world.  They are not synchronized so if you are standing outside during one of the daily calls to prayer or the Friday sermon, you hear different voices ringing throughout the city.  Our house is literally three doors down from the Rashid Mosque so we have the privilege of being able to hear these rituals clearly.  For those of us who have not been exposed to this all our lives, at first it is surprising and a bit disconcerting but then it becomes soothing and comforting as I think prayer does in all religions.
Electricity lines in Suly
It is hot here -- really hot and about to get hotter (one of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog is so that I can see on my blog site the picture taken of Christian and me last winter on the slopes of the Rockies when we were skiing with my good friend, Kelly).  My friends in the US tell me that it's been 88 or 90 or even 95 degrees there -- SO hot.  My reply is "that's nothing."  We are currently at about 110 to 115 degrees on a daily basis.  In August it will be up to 130 or so.  So air conditioning and fans are particularly welcome and the almost daily or so power outages are more of a nuisance.  But at night when the sun goes down, it is really quite pleasant.  Last night we had friends over for dinner -- a new volunteer for Heartland Iraq and her partner, who works for a company that supplies oil rigs, and a former British soldier stationed in Iraq who is now head of security for one of the oil companies -- and we ate outside on our patio enjoying a relatively cool evening and great conversation. 
Jim and I are leaving Wednesday for a few weeks back in the US.  I will be going to London for meetings and to reconnect with friends and former colleagues, then to South Carolina, Chicago and the East Coast to visit family and friends, and to take care of those things you can't ignore, like the dentist, hair cutter, annual physical, etc.  Jim will be traveling to NY to see family and friends and to take care of those necessities as well.  The "cooler" weather will be welcome.  We've made lists of things to take away from Iraq (what made me think I would ever need a wool winter coat?) and things to bring back to Iraq (why didn't I know that I would not be able to find balsamic vinegar or Woolite in Iraq?).
Our yard during one of the only days of rain in June
When we return, Ramadan will have just begun (August 1 this year but its occurrence varies each year according to the Islamic calendar).  Ramadan, a month-long period during which Muslims fast for self-purification, is one of the five pillars of Islam; the other four are recognition of the Oneness of God (Allah) and Muhammad as His prophet, the aforementioned prayer five times a day, alms-giving/charity and a pilgrimage to Mecca during one's lifetime (Hajj).

During Ramadan, Muslims fast every day from dawn until sunset and special prayers are held.  Fasting means no liquids or food or other satisfaction of physical needs, but certain people are exempt, including those who would suffer severe ill health (but they must make it up by fasting later if they can or feeding at least one needy person at least one meal per day or the equivalent) . The month provides an opportunity to get closer to God.  I'm planning on participating in this important ritual when I return not only as a sign of respect to those in the country in which I'm living (and who wants to see me stuff my face when they are hungry?) but also, as the Koran says, to get closer to God.  I've always thought that it many ways Ramadan is like the Christian period of Lent, only shorter and more intense, but sharing the same purpose.  In fact, Islam, Judaism and Christianity share many things in common, including the recognition of Abraham as a prophet and Jesus as a messenger of God and a messiah who was sent to guide the children of Israel with a new Gospel.  Unfortunately, so many forget the similarities we share in our search for relationship with God and focus upon -- and shed blood over -- the differences, or in fact the distortions of the holy books.

This will probably be my last post until I return in August -- so stay tuned, and stay cool!

I snapped this picture last night on the way home from work -- I'm not sure if Halloween is celebrated in Iraq, but if it is, this child is ready!