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Every morning since the world began, this has happened: The sun like a rosebud bursts up from the horizon and blossoms – a pink bouquet – across the sky.

It happened the morning the Paleolithic (wo)man painted the first horse in Lascaux. It happened every morning before then. It happened the afternoon Gaius Julius was stabbed by his friends in the forum and his blood dribbled into puddles like little red poppies; it happened the day your great-great-grandfather was born; it will happen the day I am to die.

It happened this morning. You may not have seen it from the earth. I saw it, because I was in an airplane above the hiding bushel of clouds.

By the time we were 1000 feet above the ground and still rising steeply, the sun had burnt off the dew covering the windows. The pink light blanketed the innards of the airplane. I took a deep breath, leaned back against the seat, and enjoyed the heady feeling of thinning blood in the higher altitude air.

The seat vibrated mildly, as did the thin blue carpet beneath my stockinged feet. The fabric on the seats was also blue: deep cobalt blue with curving cerulean lines dissecting. Apexes of purple mountains pierced the pink clouds outside the window. They were mountains like clouds or clouds like mountains – for all I stared, it was not easy to tell where one ended and the other began.

Since I was a toddler, every airplane I have ever been on has been this. Me. The recycling air. The ahem-ahem of the engine.

On this airplane that I was on this morning, it is worth noting (or not) that almost all of my companions were men. There were Western men wearing khaki pants with too many pockets and NY baseball caps. There were Arab men wearing thick neckties ending in a point well above their navels. They chatted amongst each other, the hum of their voices less alive than that of the engine.

Above every seat, a stylized orange cigarette glowed with a red “x” across it – remnants of the long bygone days when air-travel was a sophisticated cocktail party. We were flying south, following the curves of the Tigris River down the country like a guide rope. Beneath us through the gaps in the clouds, pinpricks of flame dotted the landscape, and smoke spiraled up to meet us – gases being burnt off oil wells.

All of the flight attendants were women. Some had covered their hair in wraps colored the same green as the airplane’s painted wings. One – with her hair hanging loosely – wheeled a cart down the center aisle. She passed out food boxes filled with a margarine, a strawberry jelly, a rubbery bread roll, and a little plastic knife.

Rustling came from every direction as the men, as one, snapped open the loose boxes and dug in to their breakfasts.

Those men: It’s worth noting that they didn’t really exist. They sat there and took up space and air as they chewed and chattered; but they were only airplane set pieces, window dressings to my world.  I neither spoke to them today nor will I ever see them again. They do not have back-stories and families and futures.

For the time that I am up on the airplane (nearer my God to Thee), neither do I. This airplane was a Bombardier CRJ-900ER. As such, it had a longer wingspan than other airplanes of comparable sizes, and a tail with a greater Anhedral angle. But it was also exactly the same as every other airplane that has flown since the world began. Since I was three months old, I have been on airplanes.  I have been on privately-owned Cessnas in Nantucket, been on UN CRJ-100ERs that later crashed in Congo, and been strapped into the jump-seat in the cockpit of a Boeing 777-300 as it landed at the Philadelphia International Airport after a trans-Atlantic flight.

Every airplane has been, for a dot in time, for a glimmer and a wink, the same airplane. The clicks of latches of overhead compartments. The grinding of the landing gears. In the midst of the millennia of rosy-fingered dawns that ever were and that are to come, there is a pinprick that is Me in the Morning on an Airplane above the Clouds. For a snap of God’s fingers in time, I exist, and I exist on an airplane, ageless and directionless, a being, a speck.

This morning, as we began to land, sunlight streamed in through the windows, daytime yellow.  It shifted and danced in stiff shafts as the airplane banked. It reflected off the Tigris, setting it on fire – the river was so bright I couldn’t look at it directly.  We zoomed forward through the golden air, in the airplane canister like a rifle shell, us like so much shot inside. The mountains were gone and we dipped beneath the clouds. It was flat, flat, flat to the horizon as the airplane turned over the sand-covered houses of B*ghd*d.


Written by ilchwl

3 April 2012 at 4:35 pm

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Book Shelf

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There are lots of other books on the bookshelf.  Many are in Arabic.  Here are some other books on the book shelf in English:

  • Mental Hygiene
  • Sexual Hygiene and Pathology: A Manual for the Physician
  • Patterns of Sexual Behaviour
  • Zorba the Greek
  • A Farewell to Arms
  • A stamp collection book full of stamps
  • Diseases of the Nervous System
  • Fundamentals of Internal Combustion engines
  • Pocomoto-Pony Express Rider
  • Europa Travels
  • The Psychoanalysis Theory of Neurosis
  • The Complete Hip and Thigh Diet
  • Beyond Cinderella: How to find the man you  want and build a lasting relationship
  • Freud and the Post-Freudians
  • Purnell’s Encyclopedia of Invention
  • Histoloji Atlasi
  • L’Art de L’Orthographe
  • Langue et Civilization Francais II
  • La France de Toujours
  • Psychology – The Fundamentals of Human Adjustment
  • Battle for the Mind
  • Journey through Adolescence
  • The Tempest
  • Alive!
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • You’re On Your Own, Snoopy
  • Introduction to Jung’s Psychology
  • The Secret Life of Plants
  • An Illustrated Iliad and Odyssey
  • Tom Savage
  • Creative Visualization
  • Thermodynamics Applied to Heat Engines
  • A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream
  • Depressive Illness
  • Masked Depression
  • Pollyanna
  • The Anatomy of the Nervous System
  • The Warner Medical Dictionary – 1969

The books are all well worn.  Who were they, these people whose home we live in?

Written by ilchwl

15 October 2011 at 1:42 pm

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1970s Beach House

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We got a new house and it looks like the Brady Bunch house.  Or like a grandmother’s beach house, been in your family for a generation or two, all filled with nicknacks (funny chandeliers, stained glass, crumbling books, board games).  There’s a nice breeze from the fans and the guards are chatting happily outside and I’m here with nice colleagues, so actually it kind of does feel like a vacation.  I feel like any moment we’re going to grab our towels and swimsuits and run down a sandy hill to the ocean!  And while we’re NOT going to do that, because we aren’t allowed even passed the gates, I feel like WE ARE, and the (albeit delusional) anticipation of spending the afternoon sunbathing and swimming in the ocean is still rather nice.

The books in the bookshelf that came with this house include two yellowing  pop-psychology paperbacks: “Why Men are the Way They Are” and “How to Become an Assertive Women”.  We’ve been opening them up to random pages and laughing (over the stories of June trying to “assert” herself with the dry cleaners because her lace tablecloth that is still stained; over the Clark Kent metaphors…) until we consider that these books belonged to a family in Capital City in the 1970s or so, and that family kept them for several decades.  And read them.  They are dog-eared.  I can see ghosts of the family laughing around the dining room table — tripping up the stairs — with workmen in the house, pointing up to the spot that they want the white ceramic chandelier hung — the kids chasing each other through rooms — hugging close friends at the threshold and welcoming them inside — and I wish I knew who they were and where they are now.

I guess they fled the war.  And then I feel bad, like it should still be their home and we are here without an invitation.

Written by ilchwl

14 October 2011 at 10:07 am

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Capital City Security (CCS)

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Last month I was in Capital City.  Part of my time in Capital City was spent in a Super Secure Compound.  The Super Secure Compound is very large and diverse.  It has neighborhoods.  The United Nations (UN) gives it its own Danger Rating.  It is Moderately Insecure, which is a whole two levels down from the rest of Capital City (Highly Insecure).  The UN must have its reasons for this.  But the Super Secure Compound (SSC), being super guarded, is super-duper high profile.  Quite often, some people drive trucks up near the SSC and fire mortars into the SSC.  And, listen – I just have to mention – mortars have never been fired at me when I HAVEN’T been in the SSC, and that may be a point about its general (in)security.

For a few reasons, there was a young teen staying with me in the SSC.  We didn’t have any languages in common.  My first night there, people outside of the SSC fired mortars into the SSC.  Warning sirens went off about 30 seconds before the first ground-shaking booms.  The sweet kid and I weren’t used to the sirens.  Our reaction time was slow.  We were too late to run outside to the bunkers (must be done immediately or not at all).  Instead, we walked over to one of the cots in our trailer and scooted underneath it.  We both then began giggling.  We huddled and giggled together while the bombs fell.  Boom, boom, boom, tee, hee, hee.  We stayed there until the All Clear sounded, my arm protectively around her shoulders and my hand on the back of her head, which we both knew would protect her about as much as the cot would have from a direct hit (read: not at all), snickering at the absurdity of it all, and for want of any other way to communicate with each other (giggling is a universal language).

It was nearly midnight when this occurred.  The All Clear sounded, and I went outside to talk to the Security Men.  The Security Men (SM) were standing in the gravel parking area, smoking.  The tips of their cigarettes burned bright red with every deep inhale that filled their lungs and smoke swirled around their heads.  They’d counted about twelve rockets, they told me.  They said that it was Business As Usual (BAU) and we could go to sleep.  The next day, when I chased them down in the Mess Hall (MH) for more information, and I caught them gathered around the Nescafé (NC) table, the SM told me that up to 30 rocket rails had been found outside of the SSC, some with 107 mm rockets still on them, pointing at us.  Along with the IDF, there had also been several IEDs, two VBIED, and a lot of SAF, but there were no cas., thank God.  They had NFI about the impact sites, and I never saw any craters.  For the rest of my week there, we weren’t attacked again.

That night, I went back to my little trailer with the Sweet Kid (SK).  The internet was working but very slowly, so I typed into Google translate “It was bombs, they are over, we are okay now,” and she read the translation.  She nodded.  I hugged her, and then we went to sleep, our bedroom doors wide open.

Written by ilchwl

3 July 2011 at 6:59 pm

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Paper Dolls

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Here I am in the shadows of skyscraper shells.  The shells have holes where windows and doors will one day be fit into place – absences portending what is to be.  The holes make the clunky structures somehow more delicate – towering concrete lacework. At midnight each night in the silver heat of starlight laborers work adding layer upon layer after layer following layer, a reverse game of Jenga.  These burgeoning buildings are almost all to become five-star hotels.  They will soon be the temporary homes of oil investors and security contractors from across the globe.  Right now they keep me in the shade away from the orange heat of day.

Here I am on the green lawn of a five-star hotel on a hill in a desert, sipping white wine beneath snipers.  I’ve counted eleven snipers so far, but I know there are so many more.  (I was never very good at finding Waldo, either.)  The late afternoon air is oppressive but the blue cheese hors d’œuvres are delicious.  My earlobes are being pulled down by huge sparkling chandelier earrings and they ache.  The heels of my shoes are sinking into the fake oasis of the freshly watered lawn.  Just a few minutes ago I shook hands with a former Prime Minister of Great Britain.  He was very friendly and I told him I liked his speech.  This event is to commemorate the 85th birthday of his queen, Her Majesty Elizabeth II.  The president of the country we are in is also here.  He walked right in front of me, but he didn’t shake my hand.  He was soft-spoken in his speech.

Here I am in my office.  I am wearing the chandelier earrings again, sparkling beneath the buzzing fluorescents.   The fluorescents are fake daylight in the same way hotels are fake homes.  The earrings are studded with fake jewels.  It is 7pm on a Sunday and here I am at the office.  I am working which means I am editing and filing, filing, and mindless, and thoughtless, crucially important organizing, and now there is one more signed document in the correct plastic sheet and that is an accomplishment.  Now there is one more edited sentence about the kidnapped father of one more family and look, now, thanks to me, the verb tense matches the subject.  And somehow that feels like a fake accomplishment.  Here I am not writing anything about my own thoughts which is how I reflect, really, actually it’s how I think.  My brain just doesn’t work when left alone in its skull vacuum.  The electronic paper I am typing onto is a white wrinkle of my brain.  The synapses that fire in my skull, the synapses that are me, must spark directly from my head to my fingertips to pens and keyboards in order to spark at all.   Stopping writing for me is like a lobotomy.  Here I am, and one day this summer I am to celebrate my thirtieth birthday, here in this country my own country invaded less than a decade ago with shock (burning people to ashes) and awe (crushing concrete buildings to dust).  Here are fathers being kidnapped and little brothers being assassinated because they want to be police officers and here, in this city, the burn wards of the local hospitals are crammed full with women and girls who have “accidentally” set themselves on fire, oh there are so many of them.

And it is here that I am learning to live the unexamined life.

Written by ilchwl

29 May 2011 at 2:54 pm

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a rose by any other name

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My next door neighbours have adorable children and I have a gigantic trampoline in my front yard.  As such, I am friends with my neighbours.  They are a lovely couple – husband and wife from different ethnic groups in far away areas of this country.  They are well off.  They are religious, I think; the wife covers her hair and they named their two little children deeply religious names.  I was walking to the coffee shop Wednesday evening in my ripped jeans and American football tee-shirt when the wife ran out of her house after me to invite me to the wedding of her brother-in-law.

It is hard enough to know what outfit to wear when I am going out to a bar with friends from my own culture.  It is impossible to chose what to wear to another culture’s wedding ceremony if you have never been before. After trying on every dress in my closet six times, I left the house in an aqua blue tee-shirt tucked into a deep blue high-waisted pencil skirt stretching just past my knees, my hair pulled back in a ponytail.  I painted on a tiny bit of black eyeliner and lip gloss.  I crossed the driveway and entered the spell of the party, the bubble of music blasting and voices chatting encircling the house next door.  The dozens of women across the driveway were covered head to toe in sequins and sparkles.  The men were in suits and ties.  Each individual woman was wearing more makeup on her face than the cumulative amount that I have worn in my whole entire life.

Nevertheless I was pulled easily into the party’s heart.  The music was loud with a wonderful beat.  Women and men gripped my hands and we danced in circles.  Step once left, twice right, repeat.  Sometimes someone would break out into the center of the circle and shake.  It reminded me of dancing in west Africa although in so many other ways it couldn’t have been more different.  The steps were different.  I think it was the joy that was the same.

The bride was covered from her toes to her fingertips in shining white satin.  Her hair was swept beneath a well-wrapped white satin scarf and on top of the scarf sat a jauntily cocked hat with white feathers.  She interlaced her gloved hands with her new husband and her friends and they stepped once left, twice right, repeated, repeated, being careful not to step on the children, high on cake and orange sodas, sprinting underfoot.

The next morning was Friday and it was the day of William and Catherine’s wedding in London.  My western friends gathered around the TV in one of our living rooms just like we’d gathered to watch the Tahrir Square protests two months before.  This time, we drank pink champagne and watched the pomp and circumstance.  We watched the BBC interviews with the crowd.  We watched video of people in the crowed dressed in hand-sewn outfits made from British flags drinking sodas and eating snacks, gripping each other’s hands, dancing together, laughing.

The clothes were different.  The joy for love, the hope for the future, was very similar.

Written by ilchwl

30 April 2011 at 5:08 pm

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It is only April.  Someone told me that yesterday it got up to 40 °C.  I’m not sure that is true, but it was close!

It is so dusty.  Every morning people spray down the fronts of their shops and establishments.  They wipe the windows of their cars.  Every evening they wash the sidewalks in front of their homes.  It reminds me of salting walkways against ice.  It works temporarily.

Rain doesn’t fall; mud falls.  The sky turns orange and the wind bends the thin trees and rosebushes that the government has just planted along all the main roads.

Written by ilchwl

20 April 2011 at 6:33 am

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