Amanda and I felt settled enough to go on our first real date in Erbil. Much of the settling process had to do with accepting and adjusting to how much work the SABIS system realistically placed upon us.
We took my roommate Sammy’s advice and checked out an Indian restaurant in the heart of Ankawa called Mumtaz Mahal. Indian food sounded good for a change of pace, and I think half of the appeal was in the prospect of not having to cook dinner for ourselves for the first time in a few weeks.
Mumtaz Mahal, in the center of Ankawa, was a short cab ride from our enclave of Marina, in the northern end of the Erbil’s christian neighborhood. The food was delicious but the atmosphere of the restaurant left us wanting, as we were two of the three patrons for the night in a brightly lit and seemingly barely alive restaurant. However it did not take away from our joy of being out of the apartment, and finally in Ankawa, the most vibrant part of Erbil aside from the city center immediatey surrounding the ancient citadel.
After dinner we strolled down one of the main thoroughfares of Ankawa, in no rush at all and enjoying every sensation of the relaxing evening. We stopped only to entertain the idea of buying small things from street side vendors and take in as much as we could on our first proper night out in Ankawa. I pointed out a beautiful Assyrian church, identified by its Babylonian ziggurat and bright lighting. In front of the church a pickup truck stocked with clothing and amenities was being picked through and parceled out to a crowd of waiting people.
“Do you think those are refugees?”
I’m not sure that I responded to her question, rather staring at the small scene, and we both stood and watched them a short while. There wasn’t much order to the pattern that things were handed out to children or adults, and with the urgency and excitement the crowd possessed the answer to our question became apparent. I turned around to look at the abandoned building behind us, where laundry dangled from exposed rebar and children ran around in the dark. A couple of kids ran past me and into the building, playing tag I assumed. I walked up to the steps leading to the interior and peeked inside. An elderly woman walked up to me with a great deal of caution. Her body language let me know she was clearly measuring my credentials, and I know that’s what her questions was even if I didn’t understand a word she said.
“Hal Tatakallam Inglizi?”- do you speak English- I responded, one of the few Arabic phrases I knew. She looked at me with no less a quizzical look thank before, and I’m sure my accent didn’t make my question any more understandable. I repeated myself again and this time she responded with an “Ah!” as she understood. She didn’t speak English, but yelled behind her for someone who apparently did. Moments later I was greeted by a young man who looked no older than me. At this point I had attracted a crowd of kids and adults alike, wondering who I was and what I was doing. Amanda was now standing right beside me.
He introduced himself as Marln, and after exchanging some brief pleasantries, he welcomed us both inside. I didn’t hesitate to accept his invitation, and walked in as kids jumped around excited at the randomness of an unexpected guest. Amanda and I walked into the vacuous building, surrounded by Marln’s family. He told us that 94 families now lived in the building, an abandoned mall. They had all fled from Ninava province in Northern Iraq, most of them from the city of Mosul and its immediate surroundings. We walked through the dark building searching for things to say, and I was trying to find things to make conversation. I looked up into the black caverns of the mall, no further along in their construction than the skeletal gray exterior. Light barely passed through the building, and what light flickered through was provided by candles, Christmas lights, and small lamps that different families were using. We walked past several white shipping crates, and as I had a chance to look inside one, realized each one was the makeshift housing for all of the 94 families. There were dozens in the corridor we walked down, and probably many more throughout the large building. Marln led us to his family’s humble crate, and we were ushered in and offered a seat. I tried to take off my shoes to show respect and my host insisted it was no problem at all. Amanda and I sat down on a cushion, and were offered a cigarette and then some tea. We accepted both so as to look as gracious a guest as we could. The tea was delicious and the cigarette was an easy relaxer for the long day. We sat and joked, talking over what few topics we could connect with, trading opinions on Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona football players. We asked questions of their background, and they asked of ours, wondering what two Americans were doing in such a place. As we sat, talked, and laughed, more and more of Marln’s family came in to introduce themselves, and at one point both Amanda and I had babies sitting on our laps. At one break in the conversation after a moments silence, Roni, sitting to the right of Marln, spoke up.
“When you sit and have tea with us, you are family.” I looked at everyone else in the room, who without saying a word seemed to share the sentiment, a gentle look of content and genuine compassion on their faces.
Marln added. “Do know that you should be careful here. Not everyone is like us. Not everyone is welcoming and will take you in and share. But do know that you are very safe in this building.” I simply nodded and we thanked him for the advice.
Curiosity had compelled me to walk up to the building and say hi to anyone willing to engage me, and my desire to figure out if their was anything at all that Amanda and I could do for them led me into the with Marln and his family. I had wanted to find a discreet way, if even it was only as I was leaving and saying goodbye to Marln, to ask if there was something we could do. But after sitting with his family, after enjoying their company, companionship and hospitality, it was clearly evident that whatever we could have provided them in materials was pittance to us simply taking the time to sit and enjoy their stories and lives. They appreciated us taking the time to make a human connection more than any humanitarian motive we could have acted under. They were happy to know that friends were ready to be made regardless of their situation.
After maybe an hour, Amanda and I both thanked our hosts and let them know that we had to leave; we still had an early school morning in front of us. Marln and his family thanked us all for coming and we scheduled a Friday lunch to meet with our new friends.
Amanda and I walked out and into the night, continuing our stroll through the main parts of Ankawa we had not yet discovered or visited.
The very next day a car bomb was detonated in downtown Erbil, targeting a government establishment. I took a cab home with a couple of friends, so as to bypass the traffic our company bus would certainly have to pass through as part of the fallout and crackdown that I’ve learned from my peers often happens as a result of these events. We drove through the heart of Ankawa, and right by the abandoned mall and restaurant that Amanda and I had eaten at the night before. Instead of civilians walking the normally lively Ankawa streets, Peshmerga soldiers were stationed every fifty to one hundred yards, scanning and surveying everything in an uneasy peace. The abandoned mall seemed to have a far more desperate and despairing look than the day before.