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Once upon a wintry Saturday you and I go to an ice-skating rink in one of the public parks.  We flash smiles at the man behind the counter and together, you, I, and he struggle through the language barrier until we’ve rented the perfect pairs of skates.  We pull off our mittens and woolen scarves and stuff our feet into the skates.  On shaking ankles we stumble across the rubber flooring and out onto the ice.  The rink is empty except for the two of us.

We begin less-than-graceful glides around the circle.  The ice isn’t smooth and I pretend I’m Hans Brinker racing down a canal.  We gain more confidence.  We slice the blades through the rough ice patches right over the – yes, nothing else is that color red – the drops of dried blood.  People have lost teeth here.

For about 40 minutes we have the place to ourselves.  It is wonderful exercise.  We giggle – we race – we lift our feet slightly off of the ice and clap for each other and pretend it’s an accomplishment on par with a triple axel.

And suddenly, in through the swinging double-doors pours a busload of young adults.  They stop.  They stare.  The men nudge each other and grin.  The women smile slightly and wave.  We shrug; we wave back.

The men rent skates and the women line up around the edge of the rink to watch.  As quickly as each man sets foot onto the ice, he falls onto his ass, and it’s clear where all the blood has come from.  The women laugh hysterically from the sidelines.  They whip out their cameras.  They take photos of the men, and they take photos of us.  They tell us to help teach the men how to skate.  They ask us, without irony, if we are professional skaters.  We laugh a bit but soon become uncomfortable and decide it’s time to leave.

As we are unlacing our skates, one of the women comes up to you and me.  Her hair is half-uncovered and her long skirt is stylish, Turkish, probably.  She introduces herself and the group.  They are University kids from a relatively dangerous city to the West, here for the weekend.  She asks us how we learned to skate.  She asks us if it’s fun.

Try it yourself! we laugh.

Ha! she says.

You and I push her.  Why not?

Because of YouTube, she says.  What if I did try to skate?  And what if someone videotaped me?  And what if someone put it on YouTube?  We couldn’t just do something like that – my god!  We have families!  Our honor is important.

These women look like us.  I mean – not quite.  They wear skirts instead of jeans.  They wear black scarves loosely draped over their thick brown hair.  Their eyelashes are longer and their eyes darker.  But basically, they look like us, because they are young and healthy.  They are friendly, quick to laugh.  They are educated, like us, so they, like we, are very lucky.

And yet.  This is one of the areas of the world where the most women are murdered week-to-week for the Honor of their Family.

The ice-skating doesn’t seem as fun when it’s such an exclusive game.  The splats of blood across the rink seem that much more violent.

You and I haven’t been back.


Written by ilchwl

13 April 2011 at 3:56 pm

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There is fighting going on in the kitchen of our ex-pat house.  We live together; we work together.  We eat together; we drink together.  We come from different cultures.  Over the course of our lives, we’ve lived in upwards of two dozen different countries combined.  We didn’t choose each other.

In the background, below the clipped tones and snapping voices, an edited-for-sensitivity version of The Simpsons Movie plays on MBC4.  I can hear Homer’s voice singing. “Spider [bleep]! Spider [bleep]! Does whatever a spider [bleep] does!”  It feels vaguely crazy that that word would be removed.  I wonder what the Arabic subtitles are saying.  I wonder where I am.

We’re not family by blood and we’re not family by choice.  When we are cruel to each other, we can be very cruel, because we know personal information that we shouldn’t know.  A bowl gets slammed down in the kitchen and there is stomping up the stairs.  But when PSDs, people from other organizations, or businessmen are mean to us, we can defend each other like siblings.

Homer continues, “Can he swing from a web? No he can’t. He’s a [bleep]!”

We’re all in this together.  When X hisses at me in a meeting to type more quietly, we are still all in this together.  When Y strands another colleague 26 km away at the mall because he couldn’t wait 10 more minutes to leave in the only group car, we are still stuck with each other.  When Z doesn’t like soccer playing in the house, and stabs the soccer ball one night; when A doesn’t approve of B’s short skirt and refuses to talk to her throughout the whole party; even when I accidently chip that mug that C brought from home, when I am using it, when I am not supposed to be – even then, we are still ultimately one organizational organism.  We have to help each other in work, in professional development, and in life.

Doors slam upstairs and the glass sliding door to the patio is banged shut.

Homer Simpson tries to get in the last word, as he is wont to do.  “Look out!”  Bart’s laughter rings through the living room.  “Here comes the Spider [bleep]!”

But I’m not sure I believe all that junk that I wrote above.  There are still sometimes when it gets too personal, when it is too horrifyingly selfish and thoughtless, when behaviors in or out of the office are too unacceptable to be overlooked (bleep!) for the sake of… what?

Written by ilchwl

11 April 2011 at 12:41 pm

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Sweet Suburbia

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Ah, this war-torn country.  We live on a little curving street in a housing development.  Children play soccer on the green.  A Rotana hotel towers over us, its shadow reminding us of the buffet on the sixth floor that serves six types of cheese.

Ah, this war-torn country.  On Thursday nights we all go out dancing till 4 AM at the wonderfully dirty, dirtily wonderful ex-pat dive bar behind blast walls, a metal detector, an unused x-ray machine, and Men with Big Guns.  It may be ugly but it’s ours.  At about 2 AM or 2:30, Journey’s DON’T STOP BELIEVING comes on and we all grasp hold of it, singing along.

Ah, this war-torn country.  We lie in bed, dressed just in a towel, after a hot evening shower, in the winter, when it is cold and dark and frosty, when suddenly our phone beeps a text message.  “XXX warns of increased risk for kidnapping of Americans.”  We toss the phone aside with a shrug and then, just then, just as it lands on the pile of our dirty laundry, CLAP the electricity blows, plunging us into total blackness total aloneness, and then – and then BANG BANG BANG goes the outside – and heart pounding we jerk up and around and pull on our dirty jeans because we shouldn’t be naked when the kidnappers find us, Al Qaeda wouldn’t like that, and staying away from the windows we stumble in the dark into our bathroom to hide, crouching down on the floor, trying to push shut the water-warped faux-luxurious ticky-tacky plywood door, and all the while the BANG BANG BANGs continue, continue, continue, and we slowly wonder if they aren’t just fireworks.

Don’t – Stop – Believing.  (They are just fireworks.)  Hold On To This – or maybe some guns being shot into the air – Feeeeeling.

Written by ilchwl

7 April 2011 at 1:53 pm

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After Vacationing in Europe

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I nudged open the door with my shoulder, lugging my heavy duffel bag behind me.  It was before 5 pm and so our cleaning woman colleague was still in our house.  She ran up to me, her eyes bright beneath thick blue eye shadow, her hijab sparkling with pink rhinestones.  She grabbed me and pulled me in, kissed my cheek, smothering me with her perfume.  When she let me go I could see that she was wearing my clothes.  Huh.  Clothes that she would have had to dig to the bottom of my closet to find.

She grabbed my heavy heavy bag and with her short short legs she lugged it up the stairs, pausing, turning red, breathing heavily, moving, moving, as if, if she moved fast enough, I wouldn’t notice my bird-embroidered shirt and black velveteen jacket on her body.

She doesn’t speak any English at all but she is a communicator – she is loud and emotive and exaggerates her facial expressions.  She set my bag down on the cold linoleum floor of my company house and, still moving spastically, spun to face me.  She quickly told me through made-up signs – it was so clear it may as well have been in English – that her own shirt had gotten dirty and she had just borrowed mine, she would clean it, she would bring it back tomorrow.  She then – Christ, this was the worst part – she knelt in front of me, grabbed my hand, and kissed it, moving closer, saying how kind I am, asking me not to tell, inching forward on her knees until she was nearly hugging me again.  In desperation.  Kneeling in front of me and kissing my hand.

I mean, shit.  I think of her in this concrete company house, all alone, all day long, five days a week.  Moving in and out of the drafty rooms.  Through the hallways, her own padding footsteps echoing behind her like ghosts.  (When you’re all alone all day, how do you know that you yourself aren’t just a ghost?)  Another pot to wash and then nothing to do.  Trying to spread out the laundry so at least there’s something to do.  Trying on a long-sleeved shirt and looking in their mirror.  Maybe a western-style short skirt.  Spinning around in it, together with her own reflection.  Using my housemate’s Estée Lauder lotion on her own hands, chapped from the dirty dishwater from our dishes.  This woman who is so gregarious.  It does nearly break your heart to picture her.

But then and yet! Here she is, a woman who leaves her house, who has a job, in a community that is not always generous to women who want to do either.  Maybe she tries on my clothes until she finds something she thinks her husband will like her in.  And then she borrows it.  Just for the day.  Once I came home and my bathroom smelled sharp and chemically.  Around the drain of the shower was a black stain.  I’m pretty sure she’d been dying her hair.

That day, after I smiled and shrugged and shook my head in response to her, after she’d left, I went into my bathroom to wash the airplane air from my face.  In the mirror I saw a lipstick mark on my cheek from her kiss and I felt tired.

Written by ilchwl

6 April 2011 at 11:09 am

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A former colleague was killed in the UN plane crash yesterday. While I never worked with him too closely, I enjoyed talking to him and was grateful for his friendliness and passion for his work. He liked jokes.  The people who worked for him talked about him with respect. It was a routine plane flight.

My thoughts are with everyone today as they struggle to say goodbye to a dear colleague. My thoughts are with his family as they let go of their brother, father, grandfather, husband.

My thoughts are with my own friends and family and especially the aid worker community that I’m proud to be a member of, because things change so suddenly and I want to be sure that I value everyone while I can.

Written by ilchwl

5 April 2011 at 8:17 pm

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PSDs with PTSD

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Many of the ex-pats here are men who work security.  And who like steroids.  (Not necessarily in that order!  Hardy-har-har.)  Some of these men are sweet.  They listen to you and smile when you speak.  Some are aggressive.  They get into fights at bars.  They pull guns on each other (they really do, like in an old wild west movie).

At their compounds they have a coffin ready and waiting in case their colleague – kidnapped in 2006 – should be found.  When they host parties, they fill the coffin with trash bags full of ice to keep the beers cold – it’s fucking handy.

You get into funny conversations with them.  They tell you about that time they were in Pakistan and the gunshot grazed their arm, see, here’s the scar, want to touch it?  That time they were in Iraq in 2006 in that explosion and now there’s a constant ringing in their left ear.  That time they were in Afghanistan driving and they saw the woman – teenager, really – get her throat slit, and it was their fault.

Wait, what?

They explain, but the details are so strange.  They were driving through really bad countryside, lookout on a tall truck so they could see over high walls into compounds, when they laid eyes on a pretty young Afghan in her backyard with her hijab off.  And they stared.  And her brother saw them.  And he saw them staring.  That destroyed her honor, that they laid eyes on her barefaced, bareheaded.  So her brother, eyes on them, eyes bugged out staring right back at them, went up behind her and swoosh slit her throat.  And the blood.  O! the blood the blood.  But it was bad countryside.  So they just kept driving.  They couldn’t stop.  They couldn’t even stop, and it was their fault for looking.

They tell you this over a beer at a loud crowded ex-pat bar when you’ve really only just met them.  How true is it?  You don’t know.  Did they really see a woman get her throat slit?  Was it really her brother who did it?  How do they know he was her brother if they didn’t stop?  The details are so strange.

And you think that maybe they did see her get killed – probably they saw the murder – but maybe the details are off.  (Who could remember things correctly in such a moment?)  The story has been twisted around to show their guilt, not her death.  To show their control over the uncontrollable situation – as though they – as though their glance – held the power over life and death.  As though they could have changed it or changed anything, really, at all.

Then again, maybe it happened just the way they said.

Or maybe they are just making it all up to get your reaction, to get in your pants later.

Written by ilchwl

17 March 2011 at 5:13 pm

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On the weekend we drive up North to the mountains.  I see the Tigris for the first time.  The Tigris looks like any other river and it doesn’t.  It is like a church, like a temple, like a mosque.  It is just a river; they are just a building.   But there is an otherworldly feel.  In the case of the Tigris, life was sustained for thousands of years on its power and according to its whims.  In the case of religion, according to the whims of faith and fickle tolerance, people have saved and people have killed.  Seeing the Tigris snake deceptively softly through the snow capped mountains is spectacular.


Outside of the refugee camp we work in there are tiny muddy mounds with rough rock headstones that seem to stick bravely up in the rain, like stalagmites.  They are so small that some of them must be child graves.


My driver says to me: “When I become president, I will make you the Minister of Beauty.”  He says it out of the blue one day.  He says it’s a game he plays with some of his friends.  When I become president I will make him ambassador to the rest of the world.

Written by ilchwl

5 March 2011 at 9:51 pm

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