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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Admon in Turkey: Part 4

Admon’s iPhone was “too much” (as they say in Iraq) an extension of himself that I often found it difficult to separate man from machine. I teasingly rebuked him but secretly found it extremely annoying how dependent upon it he was. In the break room at school even while joyfully surrounded by teachers at the breakfast table, there it sat before him; he was texting someone. When he drove it was in his hand; he was navigating through songs. When we were out, it was out; he was snapping selfies. I wasn’t his girlfriend and I should not have cared, but feeling like that that phone was Admon’s mistress evoked a hot jealousy from my heart.
At school...

around town...
and even hiking Admon was constantly snapping selfies!

One afternoon at school not unlike most, I laid my books down on the table beside Admon between classes. The phone was in his hands and, distracted, he instinctively moved over for me to sit. He didn’t look up. I was tired and irritated. Shifting uneasily in my chair to get comfortable without showing any part of my legs from under my long skirt, I wanted the company of his conversation. “Admon, what are you thankful for about grade 9? They’re driving me crazy! My humanities class has 52 students. It feels too large for me alone and they are using it to their own advantage!"

“What? OK, sure,” -Ad’s classic response when he was trying to be agreeable. He lifted his brown eyes to me for the first time.

“Admon, who are you texting?” my voice rose, rebuking him. Why wouldn’t he pay attention to me? the human sitting right next to him! My irritation was turning to anger.

“It’s Mr. Sufian,” Ad’s voice was gentle and rhythmic. He hadn’t heard the emotion in my words, so he did not reply in kind. He placed the phone on the table, looked at me fully, and signed. I read the sadness in his sigh and because of his answer my anger melted into shame. Sufian had been Admon’s best friend the year before. They worked together and, both Iraqi Christians, shared much in common. Sufian had taught Admon how to use the gym, a newer and growing hobby for men in Iraqi Kurdistan. The two of them had coordinated many social events with other coworkers, and their families were close. They had been neighbors until, two months prior, Sufian and his young wife had obtained the coveted green cards to emigrate from Iraq. Knowing these details I meekly listened to Admon’s report.

“They are getting settled in Indonesia. Sufian hopes that it won’t be a long stay until the UN gives them clearance to move to America. His daughter gets sick from the wet climate.” And I listened on until finally I saw it: Admon at his core is relational; the phone was simply a tool that connected him to the people he loved. These people were becoming geographically more distanced from him as Iraq’s Christian population quickly disappeared from a country in which they no longer felt welcome. I sighed to myself and made a resolution to be less judgmental of my friend over his technological tether.  

Not long after I became a beneficiary to Admon’s iPhone addiction. In Iraq it seemed like bills became due on the collector’s whim; there was no pay schedule that I could discern. This meant that random Middle Eastern men appeared at my gate at indiscriminate times, demanding dinar (Iraqi currency) for utilities I often hadn’t previously knew even existed. Few spoke English, and I understood even less Arabic. On a rainy weeknight the electricity bill collector rang at the gate and summoned me onto my patio. “Englizi dasani?” I inquired in Kurdish, gathering the grey sweater I had hastily slipped on to cover my arms under my rib cage with fists of agitation. The happy-faced middle-aged man assured me, that no, “Kurdi noz-sanum, Englizi noz-sanum,” but, “Arabi dasani!” He knew only enough Kurdish to tell me that he spoke neither. 

We motioned back and forth with no success for several minutes, the man waving a translucent paper with unintelligible squiggles and dots that was my bill. His presence had interrupted my dinner and I felt increasingly irritated by the communication gap until my roommate shouted to me that I should, “Call Admon!” Suddenly hopeful for a resolution to this man’s demands, a rescue from the rain, and a return to my dinner, I whipped out my cheap pay-as-you-go cellphone and had Admon immediately on the other end.
Korek was the service provider for my cheap phone. To pay for "minutes" I bought scratch-off cards at the local grocery store.

“Let me talk with him,” said my savior with a cheerful cadence to his words. I offered my phone to the man and Admon efficiently navigated the conversation in Arabic. After some time the service man, smiling, handed the phone back to me for Admon’s explanation in English. “Let me stay with you until you are done,” offered Admon, “if you have more questions.”

I turned to our collector with large hand motions and awkward facial expressions asking him to “please wait, I’ll be right back,” and disappeared to retrieve the dinar from my bureau’s top drawer. I was able to pay our bill and quickly sent the man on his way. The transaction complete, I told Ad, “Shukran, Mr. A.,” before hanging up. Laughing at my Arabic, Admon responded, “You’re welcome, Miss A. I’m happy to help.” Genuinely, I knew he was.
I needed Admon for practical things like paying bills, getting places, and understanding the culture. I also needed our interpersonal relationship but couldn’t believe that Admon needed me like I needed him. It was through Ad’s use of his iPhone that I began to believe that our friendship was truly interdependent. He used it to tell me things that at first he wouldn’t tell me in person.

An illness kept me from school for several days. On the second day I lay on my sickbed contemplating my helplessness and aloneness in that foreign land but Admon’s texts surprised me with a different reality: “Abbey! I miss you! You need to feel better soon. I’m going crazy alone at school.” He was the only coworker and friend to reach out to me in my illness. Admon's simple words made me consider that my absence exposed a definite void in his life. In the beginning Ad needed his iPhone to tell me so.

And, again, when I left for America during Christmas break he used his phone to communicate his need for what my friendship offered him. “Miss A.,” the texts received by my cheap phone read in fragments as a taxi sped me along narrow, potholed roads to the airport, “I hope your holiday is the best with your family but I’ll be so bored without you. Come back to us soon.” My face flushed with pleasure. Later during my time away he messaged me through Facebook: “Hey friend, I miss you. I hope you are fine. I just wanna ask you, when are you coming back?” Social media became our cross-continent form of regular communication until I returned to Iraq at the end of our break two weeks later. After that Admon felt somehow emboldened to express his feelings for me in person.

During the second semester Admon’s availability through his phone became a professional lifesaver. Third quarter grades were due in the morning and I struggled alone at my computer with stacks of yet-to-be-graded papers framing my tiny kitchen desk, mocking me. I would need to convert each student's grade from so many points into 100. On Facebook I messaged Admon my SOS with two words: “Math question!” It was past 1 a.m. on a Thursday night but Ad’s response popped up within a minute: “Okay, go ahead” with emojis showing me his eagerness to help. I presented my problem. Admon explained the conversion steps I needed to take and included a photo of the necessary equations. Effusive in my thanks for his help, his response was simple: “No need. I’m always here for you. Good night.” He was. And because of his iPhone, I knew that he always could be…

Monday, January 9, 2017

Admon in Turkey: Part 3

View from my rooftop...
Dohuk is a city of 350,000, nestled in northern Iraq in a quiet valley encircled by mountains that spring up from the Tigris River. I lived there for ten months and all the while those ancient mountains stared placidly down upon me. Wide-eyed, I looked longingly back at them (“Are they indifferent? or sympathetic?” I often mused, unable to decide if those mountains were my quiet solace or a terrible tease). In this culture and because of our proximity to ISIS (I lived one hour away by car from Mosel, their then-newest hub) I was not allowed to go out by myself to discover the answer.  My nature-worshipping soul shriveled daily without a cohort to escort me on outdoor exploration. This confinement was bitterness added to my already dessert-parched mouth. From my living room and rooftop, respectively, I poured out my complaint to these silent, steady onlookers.
and from my living room
A view from the Mall: the mountains surrounded Dohuk on all sides
A team of us teachers enjoy the Mountain backdrop

            I overheard expatriates and nationals, including my students, speak about hiking these mountains, but their stories existed in a place inaccessible to my mind because of all the “rules” that applied to me, an unmarried woman living close to ISIS-controlled territory in the Middle East. The stories inhabited the same space as those of women running freely (and alone) in the public park, of Arabs showing respect to minorities, and of Christians and Muslims cohabiting peacefully as neighbors and friends. In my mind, I placed all these stories in the same category as I did folktales, legends, and myths: beautifully desirable, yet totally unreal.

            In February, my life changed when two Americans were added to my teaching team. Most significantly, these two were a married couple. Culturally, I was allowed to tag along with them outside of the house and my world broadened. I determined immediately to include outdoor explorations into my wider scope of experience and I said so to Admon at school. Like a boy, Ad seized my idea with brio and we began excitedly plotting our first real adventure together.

            On a Friday afternoon, “we were six” (as they say in Iraq): the married couple (Tim and Esther), two responsible boy students (Pel and Avraz), Ad, and myself. We met at Gali Circle in the old part of the city, which at that time of day on a Friday, the Muslim-majority day of worship and rest, was deserted. Gali was a small commercial area of restaurants, tea-houses, and a sweets shop built up around the base of the Dohuk dam. We had met here to climb “Flag Mountain,” so named because of the huge and highly visible Kurdish flag painted on its side. From a distance (the only view I’d had of the precipice until this moment), the mountain had appeared docile and even inviting.
Can you spot Flag Mountain's Kurdish flag behind me? Look closely; it appears "small"!

At the base of Flag Mountain

Our two students, Pel and Avraz, arrived cool and confident. Perhaps they’d turned up only to witness the spectacle of Westerners summiting their mountain. Perhaps they were bored on a Friday and our hike was a nice distraction. Whatever attracted them to our group, I was grateful for their presence. We needed their help navigating the path to the top.

Like the boys, Tim and Esther were also quietly composed, but they turned outward to our group in warm conversation as we began to climb. Their focus was on the relationships represented there and less on the event itself. But Ad and I were both wildly distracted by our own excitement: he, to be sharing a new experience; and me, to be outdoors roaming beneath the day’s perfectly azure sky, discovering the beauty of Kurdistan with my own eyes for the first time.

We were a small group and for the first two tiers of the mountain remained as a pack. Before the first tier we stepped through short, timid clods of grass which would become a thick carpet of green after February. A humble community of young trees greeted us at the first leveling out of the mountain and from there the route became rock. The boys raced ahead and our group disbanded, save for the married couple, who together brought up the rear. Each of us enjoyed the climb in our own way. I watched Avraz and Pel challenge each other to reach the next point first and heard their Kurdish exclamations then still unknown to me. Admon, slightly ahead of me, stopped at intervals to praise the beauty of a flower, take a selfie, or examine the remains of a previous hiker’s fire. The cool afternoon air kissed my face and I drunk the warm, white, pre-spring sunlight with silent gratitude.
Tree tier: "Miss, how did you...?"

Still smiling at Tier 2

Avraz and Pel led the way

View from Tier 2

The Kurds make this look easy!

Upon the boulders of the third level, our group reconvened for a photo. Tim and Esther stopped climbing there, but, again, Pel and Avraz sprinted ahead. We were two-thirds of the way to the top and together Admon and I gaged our goal. To reach the summit we had to pass by the painted Kurdish flag and climb along a nearly 70° incline. As Admon stepped he pleasantly talked about school, but my own steps increased my anxiety: I suddenly remembered that I’m afraid of heights!
An upward view from Tier 2. There's the flag!

At the next level the Kurdish flag- proudly painted bright red, white, and green, with a yellow starburst in the center- greeted us. At this proximity, I estimated it as quite larger than I imagined from the mountain’s base- perhaps 60 feet squared. Admon, though impatient to get to the top, couldn’t suppress his desire for another selfie and, smiling, I indulged him. We both climbed past the flag, but Ad slightly outpaced me. The climb now required me to use my hands and I fingered for pieces of grass and rock to hold onto.
A partial view of the flag on "Flag Mountain"

These angles righty depiect the feeling of hanging on for dear life!

Alone, I looked down at the terrain we had covered and was overwhelmed by the smallness of things below me. I looked up at the distance yet to be climbed and estimated it to be about an eighth of a mile. I froze. My body dropped against the rock. Waves of panic began to wash over me. All I could do in that moment was remember to breathe.  
As I clung onto the side of that mountain in northern Iraq I remembered when a twelve-year-old me had gotten stuck in a Virginia pine tree. I had forged my way to the top of that tree without an exit plan and became stuck tight. An hour later, after much noise-making, the neighbors found me and proffered their ladder to get me down. From 9,000 miles away and 7 hours behind me, my dad now inserted himself into this thought-string, his pragmatism rebuking me: Who will be there to bring the ladder for you this time, Ab? Always have an exit plan. This is not about you proving yourself to anybody!

He’s right, I meditated through deep, controlled breaths to prevent myself from hyperventilating, Who will rescue me from the top? What if I get up there, but can’t come down? I imagined an Iraqi helicopter hovering above me and a rescue team suited up in matching Jason Bourne black outfits descending from a ladder to hoist me up and off and down from this mountain. This would never happen. Helo rescue teams don’t exist in Iraq to save dumb Americans from summiting heights too great for them (do they exist at all?). It was impossible and I was impossibly frozen with fear.

I was frozen there (for how long I don't know) until a voice called me back. I sensed the voice approaching me but my face remained buried in the mountain until I heard it ask distinctly, “Are you OK?” and Admon himself stood above me, his voice, curious, rising at the end. I raised my head but couldn’t look at him; I was trying to be humble. Of course I wanted to summit that mountain, but my Daddy’s specter’s argument was compelling. I was preparing to turn back, but frozen still, my mouth formed these words, “Ad, I’m afraid of heights. I can’t make it to the top.”

He began his negotiations.

“Abbey, look, the boys are at the top already. Why did you stop? I’ll help you,” he soothed.

“No, Admon. I’m more worried about getting back down than about getting up. I won’t make it down if I keep going.” Defeated, I conceded, “You have to go on without me.”

Ad’s reply was gently stubborn, “You’re making it to the top. I’m not leaving you.”

I turned my face towards him. Admon’s hand, larger and stronger, reached for mine, “And I will help you get down. Do you trust me?” This is the real question, isn’t it? I put to myself: Do I trust Admon? A quick and quiet analysis surged through my synapses. In a moment, I had my answer: “Yes! Yes I trust you!” and I surrendered to his grip. He instinctively, firmly, pulled me to my feet. I exchanged my mountain-clinging for hand-grasping.

Pel, seeing his teacher fearful, prone, and clinging and his other teacher urging her on, scrambled down to our spot and lead the procession onward. A few paces ahead, he watched our path, calling out to Ad where to lead me. I clutched onto Ad’s hand or he held mine. Or perhaps both. As we stepped, I watched Ad’s feet and listened to his voice. Adrenaline surging through my body, Admon’s words were indistinct but I heard his tone, gentle and affirming. I focused on the sound of it, remembering the sage words of Solomon:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!

I thanked God that Admon, in that moment at least, was my “plus one.” Under Pel’s care-taking with these thoughts I grasped Admon’s hand, warmer than mine, all the way to the summit of Flag Mountain.
Pel and Ad "taking rest" (as the Iraqis say)
At the top, which was flat and wide, I released Ad’s hand, knelt, stared at the ground, inhaled, and exhaled until my panic passed by. The guys were taking in the sights. I heard their exclamations and finally, timidly, rose to join them. The beauty of our vista sent me into near hysteria of a different kind. There was the city sprawling, miniature, beneath us. There were the other mountain peaks that surrounded our city and here we were peers with them. Here we touched the sky, now cloudlessly pure blue. There were the vast waters of the Dohuk dam, mirroring the sky, and I traced the shoreline. I laughed and exclaimed with the rest of our group. I was incredulous, yet grateful to be there and I considered that without Admon, I wouldn’t be.

Miss Independence had just been schooled in the necessity of friendship by my kind, unassuming coworker and our blithe, young students.

View from the summit: Dohuk Dam 

Still shaky, barely smiling
The Mountaineers celebrate our first Mountain in Kurdistan!

After a respectful amount of time enjoying the victory and snapping photos for posterity we began our descent and Admon again generously offered me his hand. I wanted to take it –I had liked the feel of his grip and desired a reason to be closer to him- but, awkward and suddenly shy because of our students watching us, I refused. Nevertheless, true to his word, Admon coached me down step-by-step from our great height. From only a few paces ahead of me, Ad’s happy chatter and pleasant laughter calmed my again rising anxiety and distracted me from my fears. When we reached the mountain tier at the base of the Kurdish flag I was able to relax completely. Admon pulled out his phone and shared his music. He took song requests and played my favorite, by Coldplay, on repeat. Satisfied, we began planning more hikes and adventures together. I now knew that I completely trusted this man and I thanked God for the surprise Ad continued to be…
Everytime thereafter I passed by Flag Mountain (far left) it was with great satisfaction ("I did it!")
and humble gratitude ("because of my friends!")
Our hiking group revisited Flag Mountain.
We challenged ourselves to climb through the flag and succeeded.

Dohuk sprawled, minature, below me.
By the second climb I was able to really smile...
and make friends at the top with some surprised locals!
I was so proud of that Kurdish woman who conquerred her mountain!

The Two A's: "Two are better than one"