Friday, December 27, 2013

What did you say?

“Hi. How are u tomorrow I wana go to a picnic I invite u if u come”

The texter appears deficient in English syntax and this quote is only relevant because it provides clarity on how subsequent events occurred, and, maybe, it also provides a small comedic hook.

Naturally, I agreed to attend the picnic, even though I was somewhat of the skeptic because “tomorrow” happened to be December 26th and Kurdistan is not warm in the winter.  I was also hesitant because, as the text foreshadows, it seemed evident there would be moments of miscommunication.  The linguistic obstacles the traveler encounters are enjoyable, at first, but in pessimistic moods the novelty is more exhausting than entertaining.    

I met up with the picnic crew at Soran’s market.  After careful deliberation we bought the appropriate amount of meat, chicken, pita and vegetables. Then, we left the city chaos and checkpoints to make our way through the mountains of Kurdistan. We followed a road guided by a clear stream being fed by meltwater. We picked a spot to settle between mountains and, after a short climb, we made our temporary campsite. A fire was prepared along with the food, and, before long, glowing embers were making meat edible.    

I was soaking up the panorama and, giving nature a nod of approval, I told my friend, “I could write a poem about this.”

He translated the message. A serious mood settled on the picnic party and the once cheerful faces, now worried, scattered to find pen and paper.  I tried to quickly explain that my expression was figurative, and that by wishing to write a poem, I was merely suggesting that the environment was having an effect on me; obviously if my former statement lacked clarity, the later explanation appropriately increased the urgency of the search.  Everyone began flipping coats and pulling out pockets for a poem that was never intended to be written.
In an exhale of relief, a loaded quill was found and the innocent side of a receipt was provided.

There I sat with four sets of eyes waiting for me to write.  I wrote things down, but didn’t think they would ask me to read the scribbles; why would they? They didn’t understand English. Then, trying to hand the pen back, with Gabriel’s prodding, I was compelled to recite.  Well, the absurdity of the request also makes it equally absurd to refuse.  Would you deny your voice to a tone death audience? Or your paintings to owners of braille bruised fingers?  

So I read my poem; and knowing that the words mattered little, but inflection of voice and animation of hands were paramount, I recited accordingly. 

After the curtain closed on my short, bard-like drama, the four men erupted in applause.  I returned the claps with a congenial nod downward and we resumed our poetry blessed feast.

I may retire from poetry.  I reached the pinnacle.  What better stage than steep escarpments; what better ushers than shepherds, what better aisle than a babbling brook; and what better audience than my four jolly, Kurdish brethren.    

I briefly wondered what elements of this experience were fraudulent:  Was the applause earned?  What actually was applauded? 

I recalled a festival in Southern India where participants gather at a town to recite endless passages of sounds.  The tradition has long outlived the languages that created it, so it is not known what is actually being said.  Are they telling family epics? Are they speaking the language of the gods? No auditory understanding accompanies the recital, but these vacant syllables have become sacrosanct recreations of existence.     

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Stone oven.  Pictures here will do most of the communicating.

First step: dig a hole.

Second Step: fill hole with gravel

Step three: Get rocks and mortar and start building

    Some of the base stones were excess of 100 lbs.

 Step four: add layer of beer bottles
 Step five: avoid altercations

 Step six: make sure photographer doesnt make insulting comments about your work
 Step seven: add layer of perlite on top of bottles.  On top of perlite add freshly mixed mortar.  Then add your fire brick.

 Step eight: get clay samples. We found some pretty good stuff at a construction site.
 Step nine: break clay into small pieces
 Step 10: first, make a pile of sand which will later be hollowed out.  Cover that sand with wet newspaper.  The on top of the newspaper add the clay-sand mixture.  The clay should be mixed with sand.  Each clay will have an optimum ratio with the sand.  We used 4 buckets of sand for 3 buckets of clay.
 Step eleven: hollow it out...after letting it dry for 48 hrs.

 Step 12: start cooking

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


مما: of which, whereof

I've wondered how to use this word properly, and thankfully a recent BBC article used the word to offer some insight: 

تعرضت محطة لتوليد الكهرباء للهجوم مما أدى إلى انقطاع الكهرباء عن بعض مناطق العاصمة لعدة ساعات

My translation:
The electrical station was exposed to the attacks of which lead to the loss of power in some areas of the capital for several hours. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ethiopia and Kenya

After my forced exit from Yemen, I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, with high expectations for my African adventures. Expectations notwithstanding, as soon as I cleared immigration I was played for a small sting. The culprit and I had shared the flight, so I lent him my otherwise guarded trust and shared a taxi with him. When I was dropped off at my hotel, he asked for my “half” of the fare, and, unknowingly, I paid his share also. The scam was small, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth, and set a bad tone for my trip. I slept with suspicion.

I woke up and decided to give Ethiopia a second chance.

As I explored the city, I heard a familiar sound as I walked into restaurants, bookstores and music shops. I was sitting in an Italian restaurant when, realizing where I’d heard this familiar sound, I was overcome with a terrible anxiety. In a number of late 80’s and early 90’s romantic comedies, there is a song that narrates the climax of the story. The climax: A pensive lover realizes that the trifles separating him from his better pale in comparison to the monument of love. At this point, the man—sans the aid of cell phones—scurries to find his lover, and, after tearing apart the city, finds her, admits his shortcomings, professes his love and grovels … the "song" being played throughout this scene. You know the song; an electronic hum, heavy emphasis on vocals, a few timely drum runs. Anyway, I subconsciously associate this sound, leaking from every store and restaurant in the city, with climatic, life-altering moments, and I found myself scurrying urgently nowhere and ready to confess nothing.

In Addis Ababa, one's health is safe, but money will be preyed on by the opportunistic hustlers scavenging the roads. Being the only white guy in the street, I stood out, and rarely had a chance to walk in peace. The scammers were roughly my age, and would start friendly conversations before trying to take me places were people were celebrating the “holiday” and eating green cake. I don’t think there was any holiday, and I never found out what green cake is.

The incessant 80’s music and aggressive hustlers were crushing my traveling spirit, so I decided to jet. My destination: Zanzibar.

Zanzibar is an island that floats off the coast of Tanzania. I’ve dreamed about visiting Zanzibar since I was a little kid, specifically after watching the National Geographic documentary “The Leopards of Zanzibar,” which follows a soccer team, Leopards of Zanzibar, as they journey from their dirt and sand soccer fields to the big city stadium in Dar Es Salaam. Life in Zanzibar seemed simple. The documentary recorded the lives of the locals living in Abweju, a city on Zanzibar, and, to my youthful eyes, the city appeared utopian. Under an equatorial sun, the women would cultivate seaweed in the Indian shallows and gossip about their husbands who were off in deeper waters spearing octopus. In the evening, the men would gather and practice soccer on the beach while a glowing sun waned in the background.

But, Kenya stands between Ethiopia and Zanzibar, and I headed to the bus station to inquire about the next bus to Moyale, a border town between Ethiopia and Kenya. Walking into the bus station, I discovered that everything was written in Amharic. The most academic way I can describe the look of Amharic is “Hebrew on crack.” There weren’t any English signs, and none of the employees spoke a helpful amount of English. So, after buying a ticket to Moyale, I asked, “When does the bus leave?” The employee responded “Tomorrow at 12:30, but, for you, 6:30.” I thought to myself, what the hell does “for you” mean? We repeated the same script a couple times and both grew frustrated with the other’s stubbornness. I didn’t know if he was dropping a metaphysical riddle on me, or just trying to piss me off. Later, I found out that Ethiopia does things a little differently than the rest of the world. For example, Ethiopia is 6 hrs. ahead of European time, and they are in the year 2003, some facts that can easily throw off an unsuspecting traveler.

The morning of my departure, I arrived at the bus station an hour early with sleep still in my eyes, and, in keeping with the tone of my trip, the bus left an hour late. As the bus began to rattle toward Moyale, I noticed a sticker of “Jesus” looking at me. I wondered if it was the sticker manufacturer’s goal to portray Jesus as a pathetic metro-sexual returning from a salon with fresh Cherubim Blond highlights and an eyebrow waxing. I thought about it some more, and concluded that the actual Jesus looked more like the Western perception of a terrorist than the images displayed of him in American living rooms (and Ethiopian stickers). In fact, if you sat next to Jesus on an airplane, you would probably be nervous, especially if he started dropping the apocalyptic one-liners to which he was prone.

I rode the bus all day, finally stopping at a small town to catch some rest before another day of travel. At a wooden shack I bought Obama Orange flavored gum, featuring, of course, the First Family on the wrapper. After a surge of flavor, Obama Orange lost its taste rather quickly.

After two full days on the bus, I arrived in Moyale, the quintessential border town, an African Tijuana. It appears that dreamers afraid of work and criminals gather in border towns; maybe they think they’ll be the first to catch a hot tip from the other side of the border, or know that, if they feel the heat, they can step into the neighboring country and dodge prison. Regardless of the population make-up, I decided the first thing I should do in Moyale was get my hair cut. After receiving an excellent chop, I mingled with the locals, chewed qat, and caught some sleep before my 07:30 to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

The hotel where I slept was questionable. The manager of the hotel was a fat Somali with midnight skin and Sammy Davis Jr. hair. His words bellowed from his gut and when he spoke his body quaked and the room echoed. His voice was disturbingly deep, and although I rarely understood his Arabic, I didn’t ask him to repeat himself.  My room couldn’t be locked from the outside, and, on the inside, a bent nail hammered into the doorframe could be swiveled over the door to offer an illusion of safety (in case a toddler was trying to break in). I paid 5 dollars for the room, and was probably ripped off.

Although the official languages of Ethiopia and Kenya are Amharic and Swahili, respectively, Arabic is used by many, and, in Moyale, many of the people are Muslim, so finding someone to converse with in Arabic isn’t difficult.

The drive from Moyale to Nairobi takes 22 hours. For the first ten hours of the trip we traveled on what could barely qualify as a road; the bus shook so violently that a window fell from its frame and landed on a passenger. Sleeping was impossible as the driver raged through the Kenyan countryside.

Once in Nairobi, I wasted no time finding a way to the next border city, Namanga. Approaching Namanga, I saw Mt. Kilimanjaro. The lonely mountain engulfs the horizon and towers above clouds meagerly adorning its face, demanding all eyes give notice.

Namanga is on the border of Kenya and Tanzania and I’ve been here for the last 4 days. The precedent for my African travels set in Ethiopia, which turned me irritable, suspicious, and explosive, was erased in Kenya.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

John Cena

For me, one of the joys of traveling has been listening to locals guess my nationality.  Whether I was jumping into a taxi, or just walking down the street, these are some comments I received:

"Ahh, a German.  Welcome."
"Are you from Canada?"  "No, dude, he's Amish."
"Syrian? You look Syrian.  Some Syrians have very light skin."
"François! Parlez vous François?" 
"You from the Netherlands?"

The list could go on, but, today, a kid topped all the said guesses.  In fact, he didn't need to guess my country of origin, because he knew exactly who I was.
While making routine purchases at a local snack shop, I noticed the eyeballs of a scraggily delinquent staring me down (he couldn't have been more than five or six years old).  I faced him and asked: "How are you?".  He was frozen with shock; his eyes and mouth gaped awestruck.  Again, I asked: "How are you?" .  His eyes became even wider, highlighting the contrast between the mud caked on his face and his white eyes.   With hardly a whisper, he squeaked: "John Cena?".  With more confidence he vanquished doubt and declared, "You ARE John Cena." 
Although parallels exist between John Cena and me, like a steroid jaw and an unhealthy muscle mass, I am not John Cena.  But, damnit, I looked that kid straight in the eye, assumed the POA (position of attention), gave him a military salute, said: "I AM John Cena", and briskly walked away.  
That kid is going to bed tonight knowing that Yemen is in the best of hands, John Cena's.


I had some visa issues, so I'm leaving Yemen, and in a couple of hours I'll be in Ethiopia.  Hopefully I'll be able to return to Yemen quickly with a new working visa.  
The revolution in Yemen still persists, and although many are fatigued, momentum continues to grow for the anti-Saleh demonstrators.  And, although I've learned that Middle Eastern predictions rarely materialize, many of my Yemeni friends tell me Saleh's exit is soon, and I agree. 

John Cena

Friday, February 11, 2011


Bite-sized adventures, like my stint as a faux reporter, have kept me sane through the monotony of study. Regardless, this past week of Arabic was particularly strenuous and Sana’a rendered no remedy for the stress; the tedium of academia awakened my travel vices and forced me out of Sana’a.

My friend had read of a town called Gahana, 20 km outside of Sana’a, which had a market full of assorted fruits, vegetables and light weaponry. Aching to flee the city and curious as hell, we decided to investigate this “weapons” market.

We signaled a cab, and with a mixture of broken Arabic and misguided sign language (miming the firing of weapons) we relayed our destination to the driver and were quickly en route.

Leaving the confusion of Sana’a ushered in a calm as we made our way toward Gahana. Clustered buildings transformed into small countryside homes separated by great distances and ancient land rights.

The road into Gahana slices the city in half, and small shops line both sides of the main street. About a stone’s throw beyond the stores, houses dot the landscape, all the way to the base of distant mountains. The grey houses are built with local earth and, being so, fade seamlessly into the mountains on the horizon.

Entering the city, our curiosity was satisfied in seconds. Shops hugging the road colorfully advertise the arsenal of weapons they carry. We hopped out of the taxi and approached the nearest storefront. Ironically, sharing a building with a weapons store was a candy shop. I imagined the conversation:

“I’ll take a Snickers.”
“Anything else?”

“Ummm … you know what? I’ll take that AK-47 too.”

We discovered that buying a weapon here was free of paper work, waiting periods, and registration. My friend asked if he could fire some rounds and, to my surprise, if he was willing to pay, they would allow him. I thought this would mean relocation to a shooting range tucked away somewhere in the city … Nope. The shopkeeper grabbed an AK-47 hanging from the wall, slammed a magazine into it, jumped the counter and handed the rifle to my friend. The man pointed up, indicating sky as the direction of fire.

As my friend lifted the rifle, pedestrians, cars and motorbikes maintained a steady flow in the street. My mind raced and I almost had a heart attack imagining any number of terrible scenarios that could be mere seconds away. Thankfully, four rounds were safely fired at a forty-five degree angle into the distance (I don’t think the bullets could have reached the mountains). My friend forked over the cash and we proceeded to another store. Craving more rounds, my friend appealed to another shopkeeper with guns on display. The man agreed, and, this time, better precautions were taken. We followed him behind the shop to a clearing that left nothing between us and a distant mountain. After my friend fired a few rounds, we walked to a candy shop, which happened to be the last of the stores lining the road.

Suddenly, a fight broke out in front of the store we first visited upon our arrival. I asked a local standing nearby if this was a problem, and he assured us: “no problem.” More men rushed to the scene, but not to settle the dispute. People in the crowd engaged in heated exchanges, and two men began to fight over a rifle. Tugging, pulling and yelling, they fought over the rifle while the others continued to trade heated words. We watched until we heard the crack of rifle fire from within the angry crowd. We dipped behind the store. “Small problem,” said the local.

Our taxi driver had been attentive to the situation, and seeing our position, quickly drove our way. We dashed across the street and jumped into the safety of his car.

Returning to Sana’a felt like coming home—a sharp reminder that things are quite different outside Sana’a.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


I’ve become friends with my neighbor, an Italian journalist. In addition to enjoying meals he’s prepared with Italian competence, I’ve been able to follow him on stories he’s investigating in Sana’a. A few weeks ago, I trailed him to the site of a collapsed building.

The first two levels of the building had been made of mud and the next three of concrete. A text message from a trapped survivor injected rescue crews and audiences with excitement and a sense of urgency. By the time we arrived at the scene, hundreds of Yemeni police hedged the site, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and keeping observers at bay. As spectators continued to amass, we strained to reach the police barrier. My Italian friend told a policeman that he was a reporter, but, under orders, the policeman stiffly refused him entry. I assumed entry simply wasn’t plausible, and began scoping out the scene immediately around me. Nearby, two kids were were trying to get a look at rubble and simultaneously inflicting light abuse on each other. One would stand on the bumper of a small semi-truck and peep around the edge of the truck over Yemeni heads. After seconds of viewing the ruined building, his friend would rip his safely planted legs from under him and send him crashing to the ground, millimeters from smashing his face on the metal bumper. They laughed it off and gaily switch roles.

Suddenly, I realized I had no idea where my friend was. Being a foot taller than everyone, I was able to quickly confirm he was nowhere near. I was retreating to a less dense area when I heard shouting past the human police fence. There was my friend, next to the crumpled building, yelling at someone, screaming that I was his assistant and demanding my entry. A ranked policeman waved me in.

Despite my burning excitement, I reigned in my smile. I furrowed my brow and assumed a professional air. I had a pen and moleskine in my back pocket and I figured pulling out these props would convince the bystanders I really was a journalist. To complete the role, I asked some important looking people a few questions, then wrote complete nonsense down in my notebook. I wrote:

“Big Crane”

“3 a.m.”

“9 people”

Meanwhile my friend snapped the pictures he actually needed. I realized that despite my efforts, I couldn’t hide my smile and was actually chuckling at the absurdity of the situation and the "journalist's assistant" guise. I wondered what an onlooker might have thought, seeing a foreigner smiling and chuckling while a citizen struggled for survival under four floors of concrete. We left a few minutes later.