Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Admon in Turkey: Part 2

The next several "installments" of Admon in Turkey are vignettes which follow the last paragraph of the first "installment" and which fill in those memories on which I was meditating...

At thirty-thousand feet, perhaps somewhere suspended above the Black Sea or Turkey, I had pulled out my clean notebook to detail every event and experience I expected to encounter. Every one.
Being misunderstood… not seeing the stars… not feeling satisfied in the work that I do… getting sick…
My future roommate and cultural guide had counseled me months prior, “My one rule: Don’t have any expectations.” She had done this five times before and spoke with a voice of both experience and authority., But she had somehow had forgotten (didn’t realize?) that humans are programmed with an imagination and some with a highly active one (I happen to be of the latter brand). To not expect would require me to cease being human, and I believed hers was an unfair expectation of me. Perhaps she meant that I should lower my expectations. Regardless, this was the bit of her advice that I had immediately decided to discard.
Not getting enough exercise… not communicating with Home enough/frequently… forgetting tampons… having difficulty learning names…
I was on my way to northern Iraq to teach high school to Kurdish students. For my sanity’s sake, I was compelled to put onto paper what my over-active imagination projected concerning the year to come. Getting dehydrated… feeling over-worked… culturally confusing honor and rightness… confinement… That way, when it did happen, when the pressures of my foreign environment built up into an excruciating furnace and I feared I’d explode on my hosts, I would look at that list, do several rounds of deep yoga breathing, and remind myself, “Abbey, you expected this would happen.” This was my emergency plan in an environment where I expected to have few coping resources.
Meeting fascinating people… picnicking… learning Kurdish dancing… discovering that I love teaching… My List included positives as well, in my effort to be comprehensive. (I had to have something to be excited about!) So I exhausted my imagination for an hour on that flight into Erbil and filled three journal pages with all of my specific expectations.

My sense of adventure had drawn me to Iraq but, consequentially, made living there essentially impossible for me. Before I was even unpacked my life was immediately cleaved into two categories: What I am Allowed and What I am Not Allowed to Do, Wear, Say, and See, an agglomeration of cultural norms sitting as Judge over each of my choices. Restrictions on wearing, saying, and seeing were easiest for me to manage; the cultural rules for me as a woman over doing, however, (or rather, not doing) became suffocating. As I expected.
            At Christmas I traveled back to America for two weeks of rest, reflection, and for a respite from the stress of daily life in Iraq. I reassessed that Expectation List and put check marks on the expectations which came true: 49 checks out of 56. My first semester lived up to my expectations- in a word, it was challenging. And true to my emergency plan, that List had been my tether to a small buoy of sanity when disappointment, exhaustion, and rage had threatened to drown me in the ocean of cross-cultural chaos.

But as thoroughly as I had considered the unknowns and as contemplatively as I had thought about the future, even my imagination has its limits and he was not on that List. He took me by utter surprise. Tall and Middle Eastern, he was fantastically dark and handsome. His face was gracefully long and important, his jaw serious and square, and he always wore a five-o’clock-shadow which made him look older, mysterious, and extremely attractive. Thick and perfect eyebrows framed his deep brown eyes which were laughing or sophisticated (at turns) but always gentle. His full, round lips could be saucy or sweet and he didn’t like his Assyrian nose. But, like the rest of him, I thought it was perfect.
            He was a surprise because he was an Iraqi national, a Christian, a man, and quickly became my best friend. In my imagination and understanding of the world, these variables never fused. As an unmarried American woman living in a predominately Muslim Middle Eastern country, missing male friendships… romantic turmoil… and loneliness… were the bullet points that made my Expectation List and I was therefore unprepared for such a friendship.  

I met my surprise at school. Over time, as our friendship grew, I learned his story. He had been born the last of five children and given the proud Assyrian name “Admon.” When I feared I was misspelling it (some at school spelled it with an “E” and others even with an “I”), Ad quickly explained why they were wrong and I was right: “It’s our version of ‘Adam.’” Like his Hebrew namesake Ad’s name meant “of dust, earth; formed of clay.” In the Hebrew narrative Yahweh God formed Adam, the first man, with his hands out of the dust of the earth. True to his name, Admon was uniquely impressionable, shaped by the external events of his story. Yet as I learned more of his story I would marvel at how he- living as a minority amongst Iraq’s minorities- preserved a soft, moldable, and beautiful heart.   

            Admon and I taught together at the high school: he four sections of mathematics and I three of liberal arts. It was Admon’s third year teaching and my first. When I had time and free brain space during my breaks I watched the various Iraqi teacher-to-student and teacher- to-teacher interactions with great interest. As in all his relationships I observed Admon engage in, he was gentle with his students (even when he had to be stern) and was big-brotherly with his affection towards them. His students respected him and, true to their culture, demonstrated their affection publically. They also teased and joked with him, which were behaviors that he both provoked and reciprocated with unconcealed pleasure. Towards his coworkers Admon was the same man: warm and social yet refreshingly unpretentious in a culture wherein flaunting one’s self was the celebrated norm. As I observed other young teachers flirt and vie for attention or favor, Admon was no-nonsense. He was not only tallest in stature of all our teachers, but the height of his personal character quietly rose above us.  

When I first met him Admon, as the Iraqis say, “had 24 years” and was very much a mature man but, despite all the hardships of his young life, he maintained a boyish soul. Perhaps this is how we became fast friends, and why our friendship blossomed: Ad loved fun. He worked hard and was well respected, both in and out of school but, unlike many of his peers, he was curious, sought out new experiences, and found levity in the mundane moments of life. This part of his nature complimented mine. I had found a kindred spirit in Ad.

School was where we laid the foundation for our friendship. Admon interpreted Arabic for me and English for our Iraqi Kurdish teachers when, left to ourselves, we were unable to communicate. He played music, told jokes, and shared breakfast. Ad and I laughed and plotted together during our shared breaks. He quizzed me on American culture and voiced his anger over the dominant Iraqi cultures treatment of women and minorities. Admon was a genuinely bright soul, but deeper conversations with him revealed the complexity of the grief he carried as both a observer and a recipient of Iraq’s discrimination and persecution. Sympathetic, Admon became my professional advocate when I needed help managing my own anger over the treatment of minorities. When discouraged, we worked hard to cheer for and encourage each other, respectively, in our workplace.

Then, on a Saturday in October, I had discovered we were literally closer than I thought. On a brisk walk around my neighborhood an immaculately white Chevy Cruze pulled up and drove close beside me. The driver’s window rolled down and I heard his voice, inquisitive: “Why are you walking in my neighborhood?” Startled by the vehicle yet relieved by the voice emitting from it, I replied smartly, “And why are you driving in mine?!” We were both very happy to learn that we were neighbors! Admon quickly volunteered and became my willing driver to anywhere I normally was not allowed to go by myself; sometimes (with my roommates’ permission) we broke the cultural single-girl/ single-guy rules and traveled together unchaperoned.

Living and working in close proximity, our friendship grew daily. My coworker, my neighbor, my friend, Admon was my on-and-off again secret crush, but, more than everything, my best friend. Even our students recognized it: “Miss, you and Mr. Admon go together,” a group of ninth graders explained. My Iraqi surprise, Admon became the most important person in my Middle Eastern life, enhancing and often sustaining it...

A Middle Eastern Market

Iraqi food prepared and served "the proper way"


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Admon in Turkey: Part 1

It's been two years. It's time now for me to start writing about Iraq. To protect friends, some names and small details have been altered but the stories are true. I lived them.

This first  piece will come in "installations." 
I wrote it for Admon, my glass of cool water in the desert.

A mosque in the Kurdish Region of Iraq

Antalya, Turkey: Camp Cherry Grove, June, 2015
It had been a big step for him. He got on a bus that took him into a country he'd never visited and out of the one from which he'd never parted in all his 25 years. Next, he got on an airplane (again, for the first time) to fly the 1,000 miles into Istanbul. Multi-lingual though he was, he didn’t speak Turkish. I had wanted to be with him, but he did it alone.
The day before Admon left was my second to last full day in Iraq. The Tailors, a family from the UK whom I had adopted as my Western family, hosted a goodbye party for me: a merry melee of Iraqis, Brits, an Aussie, and a handful of us Yanks. Ad came and brought his oldest sister- sweet, quiet Nadia.
At evening's end, the party filed out of the Tailor's front door, one by one, giving me their goodbyes. I would only cry for Nadia. And that would happen the next evening, when I truly told her my Goodbye and when Admon was gone.
Admon, the most important person in my life in Iraq, I did not hug. Admon I did not give my Goodbye. Somehow, in the surge of bodies that crowded me at the front door, he had slipped out silent and unseen. Later, Nadia would tell me that Goodbyes are distasteful to Ad. He can't handle them. Besides, Ad texted me late that night and before his departure the next day for Turkey would sever our texting communication, I'll see you in Turkey.
I had legitimate reasons then to doubt the fulfillment of Ad’s seemingly casual assertion. Sharing a few days in Antalya, Turkey was part of our original plan to travel there together by bus from our city in northern Iraq. He would then go on to Istanbul to spend the month with his friend and I would start work at camp. But Admon had gotten the dates wrong and accidentally booked the trip by himself all the way to Istanbul, 450 miles northwest of where I would be in Antalya. After his mistake and before he left Iraq I had told him, When you visit me in Turkey it must happen during my time in the city before I go into the countryside for camp. I’ll be working 24/7 once I get to camp and I won’t have time for you. Meeting up in Antalya proper during my first five days in Turkey seemed like the best and possibly the only time for us to connect. I knew that communication between us in Turkey would be very difficult because neither of us would have Turkish-compatible phones. Nevertheless, prior to his departure Admon never revealed to me his actual plans to visit. He probably also didn’t –couldn’t- understand how absolutely essential Goodbyes are to me. And he was gone -without one. Would I see him in Turkey?
Weeks later I would see the images on Facebook of Admon’s parents parting from him at the bus station that next morning. They looked sad and possibly even afraid (it would be a somewhat dangerous trip for him as an Assyrian Christian traveling through northern Iraq and into Turkey along a route where minorities weren’t welcomed) but in the pictures Admon himself maintained his classically cool demeanor, sporting shades and wearing his sexy, serious face.
When I left Iraq the following day Facebook became Admon and I’s only medium for communication. We used it on my first day in Antalya to message each other briefly. Turkey was a whole new world of adventure and exploration for Admon and he was enjoying it immensely. A day, and two, and then three passed as I waited for him to announce his plans to meet me in Antalya. And… nothing. My stint in the city sped quickly by. On the fifth day, before I departed for camp, I left him this message: Ad, I’m sorry our communication failed. I want to see you! I think our best option is to plan on meeting 3 July. Maybe you can fly to Antalya on 2 July and stay the night somewhere in the city close to the airport. Then I will arrange to meet you in the morning before my flight takes me back to America at 5 pm. I cringed at that small window of time to share with him and considering all the variables (neither of us would have phones; neither spoke Turkish; neither knew the city nor anyone therein) made me sweat. But this Plan C was the only other option I could think of.
Penthouse living in Antalya proper (the City)
A rooftop view of an open air market in Antalya

The Mediterranean

The Old City
At the end of those first five days as I drove into the countryside Admon’s silence felt heavier than the Tailor's SUV when the trunk (or “boot,” as these Brits so delightfully called it) was filled with 5-gallon Culligan jugs. Culligans, I remembered, the water that sustained our lives in the desert, like Admon's friendship has sustained me over the past year. That weight pressed in upon me even as the excitement of camp activities commenced.
Camp life in the Antalya countryside

I was sure that my plan was not a viable one and I began to mourn my opportunity to see Admon a final time. Then a few days into my work a friend gave me another idea: have Admon come to camp! I was busy working from sunrise to sunset, but I did have four hours of “free” time most afternoons. He couldn’t hang out at the campsite, but I could go to him if he stayed in a nearby pansiyon (hotel) and we could hike, swim, and hang out together. Timidly, I asked my boss for permission and it was hesitantly granted. On my second Tuesday of camp, I frantically messaged this plan to Ad. I waited.
Days were busy for me, but not too busy to forget Admon. On nights when I had access to the Internet, I checked for his response. A week passed in this silence. I began to make up all kinds of explanations for his non-communicativeness. Perhaps the nature of his exciting new experiences in Istanbul married with the laissez-faire influence of his home culture prevented him from viewing the situation with the same sense of urgency with which I viewed it. Or perhaps our friendship wasn’t as close as I’d thought and his parting words “I’ll see you in Turkey” were a ruse. Or worse, what if he had forgotten me? What was going on with him? I waited, impatient, until my impatience bled out and gave life to hopelessness.
Now, two weeks have passed since my arrival in Turkey. Our first full week of camp completed, it is Friday evening. The camp is asleep and I should be too. But Admon keeps me awake. I am wondering about him, wondering why his silence remains his only response to my inquiries. Camp has been full of activity, new people, outdoor adventures, and refreshing, renewed freedom unlike I ever enjoyed in Iraq. (The sun is allowed to see my skin! And I go running alone in the mornings! And I’m allowed to be publically friendly with men! These and other forgotten pleasures multiply infinitely!!) I could give in to the pure exhaustion of the day and sleep, but as I lay on my bunk a single, nagging desire stimulates my eyes wide open. Sleepless, I’m staring into the darkness.
I am desperate to see Admon. Here in Turkey, I am both literally and metaphysically in-between worlds: Turkey, the geographical and historical meeting point of East with West, is a bridge between the Home I had long labored for- yet could never lay hold of- in Iraq and the fearful uncertainty of what a new life back in America will look like for me. Admon represents tangibly what was for me the best of my old life- my Iraq life- and scared about my future, I’ve not yet fully surrendered these feelings. In this transitional place, I feel frantic to be with him, to put my arms around him -as I was never allowed to do in Iraq- and part from him with his knowing how important he is and how deep the grief of separation will lodge in me.
In my desperation, I cry out to God. Please! I want to see and say goodbye to my friend. I want to see him, really see him, apart from the rules and restrictions and regulations of our lives in the Middle East… Although three other sleeping girls share the cabin with me, the emotion is so strong that these words escape audibly, forcefully, from my lips. They drift into a silence that hangs inconsolably above my white sheets. My bunk is a loft and a high ceiling catches parts of my prayer. Wooden walls absorb the rest. Does God hear?
Prayer brings me no relief. As I lie sleepless in the darkness of my bunk, I sense a heaviness in my body not from fatigue. I trace it. The heaviness tells me that I don't expect a favorable reply; I believe my petition is empty. I actually have no hope of seeing Admon. Ever again. In seven days, I will leave this city, this country, this continent, possibly forever. I’m kicking in my dark loneliness against all the odds that separate us: the miles, communication barriers, the cultural expectations, and restrictions. My grief multiplies as I consider how, when I return to America at the month’s end, each one of these variables will themselves increase: 500 miles will become 9,000, social media will be our only communication forum, and I will perhaps never get to experience a slice of life with my friend free of the suffocating restrictions. Mine is a despair driving me mad. Why am I convinced God's answer will be “No”? Why do I believe I’ll never again see my friend?
Too upset to entertain answers to my questions, my thinking dissolves into memories of Iraq, turning away from my problems and fears onto Admon himself. I begin to remind myself of the man he is and why we are such good friends as my hands fumble to deconstruct, stone by stone, this tower of despair in which my grief holds me hostage.