Friday, March 15, 2013

Goodnight and Iraq

Today was our St. Patrick's Day party at work, and at the same time my going-away party. I'm moving. I'm leaving the city that I've lived in for seven and a half years, leaving my job and my partner and my friends, leaving this place that has knocked me down and picked me up again so many times.

I left the party with a whimsical gift in hand, a bouquet of helium balloons, plump green foil printed with shamrocks, "GOOD LUCK!" emblazoned on the sides. I left slightly tipsy and sentimental, tramping through the snow to the tram with a dreamy smile on my lips. Squeezed into a seat with the balloons bobbing around me, coyly framing my face as if I were a leopard lowering in ferns. The tram stopped at the stadium and a group of drunk football fans clambered on board, bellowing their obnoxiouly generic songs and playfully harassing me, flicking the balloons into my face with shouts of, "Hey, anybody got a pin?" and ,"Hey, sorry! Don't worry, we're not hooligans!"

I got out a stop early for two reasons: to get away from them and because I was hungry. Wanted to stop by a kebab shop on the way home. Since Obama was elected, I've become a little less apprehensive about admitting where I'm from, a little more optimistic about having a normal social life without being plunged into the constant, painful political interrogations that I experienced from 2005-2008. I was one of the first customers when this kebab shop opened last summer, the employees were overwhelmingly gracious and friendly, heaping me with offers of sweet tea and baklava, aside from their already rock-bottom prices.

Tonight there was a different man working, a handsome man in his late thirties with glossy dark curls, his rimless glasses and black polo shirt granting him an intellectual air. I smiled apologetically as I dragged my bundle of balloons into the small shop, eying the empty meat skewers. "Do you having any fallafel left?" "Yes," the man answered, peering sceptically at my balloons. "Goo...lack? What does that say?" he asked me. "Good luck--Viel Gl├╝ck," I told him. "And I'll need it!"

"Are you selling those?" he asked me.
"No, they were a present from my colleagues. I'm going away. I'm going to study again."
"Are you Turkish?" he asked me, still gazing at the balloons, now floating against the ceiling.
"Turkish?" I asked, puzzled. "Um, no, I'm not, but it's not the first time someone's asked me that. Even when I was in Turkey I was asked if I was Turkish. Why do you think people think I'm Turkish?"
"I don't know," he replied, flipping the pita break onto the grill behind the counter. "Your skin is different, you look different, you're not German. Where are you from?"
With nothing but boring ol' western European Protestant blood coursing through my veins and a near-perfect German accent, it's fairly unusual these days for me to be outed as a foreignor, especially by a fellow non-German. And with my heart full of hope and gratitude, I gave an almost-honest answer, the backpackers' standby: "I'm from Canada."

"Canada, hmph," he snorted. "Which dressing do you want? We have garlic, spicy, and herbal."
"A little bit of each, please. So, are you from Turkey?"
"Turkey! No! Thank god."
"Then where?"
"I'm from Iraq, from northern Iraq. Iraq is a wonderful country, a very rich country," he tells me with a hardened expression. "Iraq used to be the best country on earth. When I was young we had a Volkswagen, a big German car. 55 liters to fill it up. We paid $1 at the gas station. One Iraqi pound was worth 8 US dollars back then! I told a German man and he didn't believe me. But it's true. Ask any Iraqi!" I listened wordlessly, my wool cap itching against the tops of my ears.
"Then the Americans came and destroyed everything," he spat, gesticulating with the salad tongs. "Do you want olives? Peppers?"
"Yes, but no onions, please," I responded quietly.
"The Americans, Canadians, Germans, Sadam. Iraq was a wonderful country. Now it's all been destroyed."

I nodded solemnly, thinking back to the party. "I'm a teacher," I said, "I have a student from Syria." A beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated woman who was laughing with me over the picture book about outrageous Syrian lingerie that I'd brought in today to show her, photos of feather-fringed thongs and gaudy bikini tops. I thought of how we walked to the tram together yesterday with a Jewish Ukrainian friend, how they giggled as I told them about my problems in Egypt being overwhelmed with male attention, and she enthusiastically confirmed that Egyptians love full-figured women like me. Thought of how watching these two smart, stylish, warm-hearted ladies chatting happily over glasses of wine had seemed like the most natural thing, even as conflicting religious symbols dangled in glittering diamond pendants hanging from their respective necks. How these every-day, affectionate interactions had given me a glimpse of hope for humanity, fueled my gregarious mood, encouraged me to start this ill-fated conversation. "She can't go home, either. We can only hope that things will get better."

"Syria!" He shook his head regretfully. "Syria is a poor country. Palestine, Jordan, Syria are poor countries. Iraq, Iraq is a rich country. Was a rich country. And now the Americans go there and storm houses, 10 U.S. soldiers against one Iraqi woman. They rape women and then call them terrorists. An American solider shot two small Iraqi children and went to court. The punishment was ninety dollars. Ninety dollars and two small children dead! And then they say we're terrorists. If you don't believe me, look it up!"

"I'm sorry," I tell him, sceptical of his stories but wondering if the tears now rolling freely down my cheeks are enough to demonstrate my flaccid compassion. "I'm sorry. We can only hope that it will get better. I hope it gets better."

"And Americans come to Germany, too!" he continues. "What do they do here? What do they want here? Why are there Americans in this country?"

A young German woman entered the shop and ordered a fallafel, throwing puzzled glances between my wet cheeks and the bundle of balloons bobbing above me.

"I'm sorry to talk about politics, sorry to make you sad," he said, without a hint of regret, wrapping my meal in foil and tossing it into a plastic bag. "That's nine euros." Several times the actual price. "I really only have two-fifty," I told him honestly, slipping the coins into his hand. "Please remember, there are good people everywhere. Even Americans."

"Good people everywhere, but we Iraqis have to get by some how, we have to fight to survive. Enjoy your meal, and," gesturing spitefully at my balloons, "Have fun."

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