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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"


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