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 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.