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Thursday, October 4, 2012

One Syrian, Two Iraqis

One cool thing about traveling alone is that I talk to people I might not talk to if I had a traveling companion.  I'm not great at striking up conversations, but the big ol' boot on my foot is an instant conversation starter, so I haven't had to try much.

A few days ago, I was strolling through Istanbul. A young man stopped me and asked about my foot. In big tourist areas, I'm usually cautious about who I allow to engage me in conversation, because conversations often lead to sales pitches that don't interest me. For whatever reason, however,  I stopped to talk to this young man. "Rest your foot here," he offered. He had been standing, talking to a seated guy, but shooed the guy away so that I could sit on a newly vacated stool.

Early in the conversation, the young man offered me tea, making sure I knew it was out of Syrian, not Turkish, hospitality.  I, probably in bad form, declined.

I learned his name was Molham, 25 years old. He asked my age, but before I could answer, said it didn't matter.  He came back to the question later.  When I told him I'm 39, he told me I look young and again said that age doesn't matter.

Molham is a Syrian from Aleppo. He left 8 months ago. His family is still in Aleppo.  His mother said she'd rather stay there and die at home than leave and die in the street.

Molham sells scarves outside a silver shop.  In Aleppo he had two stores and the bazaar is much better than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.  Incidentally, according to Molham, everything in Aleppo is better than everything in Istanbul. When telling me about his work, he referred to himself, and all other venders, as aggressive "bullshit spitters."  He made no effort to sell anything to me. When he saw people looking at his scarves, he asked if I minded if he went to talk to them, asking, "If I go talk to them, you won't escape?" I assured him I wouldn't.

I asked him if he is married. Indignantly, he replied, "I'm educated!" I suggested that he could be both educated and married, but he was having none of my reasoning.  He had a lot more to say than that.  His monologue included a little of his own story, criticism of the US and democracy, the aforementioned criticism of Istanbul, and hypotheses about why Arabs are viewed so poorly. "It's our own fault," he said, giving the example of one bad habit of Arabs: when one agrees to meet someone in the evening and doesn't show up until morning.

Once he'd released some of what was within him, he apologized and said, "I am like a balloon and now that I have someone to talk to, I just explode."

When I decided to go on my way (after declining another tea offer), Molham invited me to come back, so we could discuss America and Syria. I passed by the next day, but he was not there. I saw him today and he offered me a stool to sit on again.  I had just set out a few minutes before, so I declined the offer.  He told me, "It is my job to treat woman as a queen. If you want, I will carry you."  I told him I'd let him know if I needed carrying. I probably won't, but it's nice to know I have options for getting around.


Yesterday I had another unexpected encounter.  I was on the island of Buyukada, one of the Prince Islands. When I arrived on the island, I thought, "This would be so much better if I had someone to wander with."

Since riding a bike wasn't an option, I decided to take a carriage ride to see some of the island. None of the posted information about the ride was in English. Forlorn, I tried to talk to the man who seemed to be in charge, with little success. As I was thinking about my options, a couple passed me and asked the man a question in English. On a whim, I asked if they'd like to share a carriage. They agreed.

Once we got settled, I asked where they were from: Baghdad, Iraq. "What fortune," I thought. I didn't tell them I'd be going to their country soon, but started asking them questions. He was a mathematics lecturer at a university. She had just gotten her degree in computer engineering. He did most of the talking.

I asked them how things are in Baghdad now. "Better..." he said, "after the war, you know." Yes, I know the war. We all laughed to ease the tension of that topic.

"Is there tourism in Iraq?" He said people go to the north, to Kurdistan, where I'll be going soon.

"What do regular Iraqis like you think of the US government?" He laughed, "Don't make me answer that question!" I didn't. He went on to say that Iraqis like him distinguish between Americans and the American government. I thanked him for making the distinction.

We took our carriage ride around the island and parted ways at the end. I had planned to pay half, since I'd crashed their carriage ride, but they insisted I pay only a third, since we were three people.

Later that day we ended up at the same restaurant and they invited me to sit with them. We talked about food (Iraqi food is better than Turkish food, they told me), Iraqis in the US, getting student visas for the US, and anti-Muslim sentiments in the US.

I told them that some people I know might not approve of me talking to them.  "Why not?"  "Because you are Iraqis and that makes you scary." They thought the idea was ridiculous.  I said that many Americans don't make the distinction between Iraq and Iraqis, like they had between the US government and Americans, a fact that saddens me.  We agreed that, at the heart of it all, we're just people, plain and simple, with a lot more in common than not.

Their names, I found out at the end of our meal, were Masen and Aya. We took a picture together. I'm happy I met them. I had some company on the island after all.

Tomorrow I will meet the rest of the Christian Peacemaker Team delegates with whom I'll be traveling to Iraq.  I look forward to learning a little more about the world from them, just as I did from Molham, Masen, and Aya.

Peace to you all.


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