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(Very) Far-Flung Fripperies

August 29th, 2008 by dk

Published Friday, August 29, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

(SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ) My word is my bond. I may be very far away, but I haven’t forgotten that I’ve promised readers of The Register-Guard something different every time we bump up against a fifth Friday. I needed a place to put the cornucopia of raw (or half-baked) ideas and observations that won’t fill the dish, but are tasty nonetheless. Any good cook who doesn’t have a favorite stew is surely wasting flavors, so here is a collection of Iraq-only leftovers.

Fifth Friday Footnotes, Follow-ups and (Very) Far-Flung Fripperies:

• Dress codes are different in the Middle East. No burkas here, but women are expected to stay covered to the elbows and nobody’s shins ever show. I caught some music videos. What would you guess was the opening shot of a sexy video? You guessed it: neck to shoulder to elbow, slow and sultry.

• Whatever women in the Middle East save on suntan oil, they must spend that much and more on eye makeup.

• I saw what looked like the Middle Eastern version of CNN. But here’s what I don’t understand: why did the news crawl with Persian lettering on the bottom still go from left to right?

• When my initial flight to Frankfurt, Germany was canceled, I took solace in the fact that the sign giving us the bad news had not spelled “canceled” with two Ls. It’s amazing where English majors can find comfort when they need to.

• People asked me if I tried to learn any Kurdish before arriving. I told them I’m just starting to get the hang of English and I’m 50. I hope that answered their question.

• Being a word guy isn’t always an advantage. I had to ask somebody to stop using the phrase “in the heat of the moment,” lest I be reminded that it was usually about 120 degrees outside. I noticed that English-speakers use “warm” here for anything under 105.

• Parachute pants were the best wardrobe choice. Sock liners, not so much. Bug protection was the worst advice. It’s too hot for bugs. (What do they know that we don’t? Oh, that’s right. Their flights never get canceled.)

• Walking through downtown Amman, things look thoroughly modern, until you see people gawking over spirograph designs that propelled me back to the 1960s.

• • Ditto pull tabs on soda cans. Not pop-tops; pull-tabs. Remember them?

• A common saying here for drunkenness and disorientation is “can’t find your pockets.” I couldn’t help contrasting that with how most of us lost something because we couldn’t remember which pocket or pouch we put it in. Are we drunk from too many choices?

• So far I’ve seen exactly one obese man in the Middle East, and I’ve been looking. But I did see an obese mannequin (blonde and Caucasian)!

• • Obesity may yet be coming to the region. Junk food is for sale everywhere, and seems to be quite popular with children especially.

• I met this man (photos below) who straightens re-bar for a living. I wonder if there are offices staffed with staple-straighteners?

• In the north, the most common English acknowledgement is “No problem,” (as if we know anything about problems.) Farther south, they seem to prefer the more genteel “As you wish.”

• If somebody wants to become an Iraqi millionaire, they need only design an attractive cover for the conventional 36-inch florescent bulb. Everybody has bare florescent bulbs — even government offices. (Unfortunately, a million Iraqi dinar is worth only about $800.)

• Bottled water is everywhere, but I can’t help but wonder who was the marketing genius who convinced bottlers they could make money selling the same item in Europe and America, but for entirely different reasons.

• All clocks here are battery operated. Electricity is so unreliable, a plug-in clock would be as useful as solar-powered windshield wipers.

• We drove through several small villages and they looked all the world like unromanticized copies of a town in the wild west. Hand-drawn signs and hollering to lure passersby; crowds of people milling about; no neat boundary between social and commercial life.

• Curved glass ain’t cheap, and there’s plenty of curved glass being installed in both Amman and Suleimaniya.

• Watching some of the Olympics from countries where English isn’t spoken showed me that sport really is a universal language. And that the endless prattling by sportscasters definitely diminishes the experience, unless you can’t understand them.

• You can walk through a commercial district and believe it was all planned perfectly, unless you look up. Then you’ll see cobbled together pipes and conduit and wires. But then again, the same is true for the best parts of the 5th Street Public Market.

• A friend met a man who works a blue-collar job from 7 AM until 7 PM with no days off. His brother is college-educated and works 7-2 five days a week. Both work for the government, the former watering trees in the parks, the latter in the Department of Missing Persons. (Yep, they have their own department.) But you know what? They probably earn about the same amount each week.

• Pepsi and Coke used to be equally popular in Suleimaniya. But two years ago, Coke built a new bottling plant and “started giving gifts” to merchants (viz. merchandising). Now Coke signs are everywhere. Pepsi’s on the run. But Fanta Orange is still the No. 1 choice wherever I’ve gone.

• Traffic circles, multi-way boulevards, portable speed humps, and almost no traffic lights. The only traffic innovation we want that they don’t already have is lanes painted on the pavement.

• Restaurants set mostly for groups of six or larger. Four-tops are unusual and a deuce is almost never seen. The basic unit of human interaction is much larger than two here.

• Downtown Amman is being remade more aggressively than any central urban area I’ve ever seen. It must be 20 square blocks in the middle of the city. I counted 14 construction cranes. I’m told it’s been going on for three years, with lots more to do.

• Amman lacks water, has no oil. The weather’s lousy. So how is it attracting such growth? Banking. Where did the locals keep their money before Amman became their darling? Baghdad.

• Zoning officials and building inspectors may well be the life form most likely to survive as people move from the embryonic safety of totalitarianism to the fresh air of democracy. People still want order, and that want that order assigned to everyone else.

• Suleimaniya feels like an occupied country, except they have occupied themselves. Armed guards are everywhere, but they stay put. Dislike guns or people with guns? Walk around another way. I haven’t seen any police patrolling an area.

• Water may soon become a liquid holding more power than oil. When that happens, all the rules will change, and quickly.

• What Iraqi Kurdistan offers in safety it takes away in sadness. What passes for normal confuses me, but I have to force myself to stay confused, telling myself it’s confusing and I shouldn’t settle in to a fixed perspective.

• Touring a prison where torture was practiced, the most harrowing sight was not the bathrooms, but the locks on the bathroom doors — they’re on the outside.

• Cell phones are everywhere. Everybody has one. Important people have two, sometimes three. The ring tones are almost all familiar. And the Windows computer start-up chord is the most non-negotiable universality there is.

• When water and power can be procured as individually as people exchange information, I wonder whether nation-states will survive the shift.

• Spelling is as haphazard in the Middle East as it was in the west until Webster had his way. I’ve seen Suleimaniya spelled five different ways and pronounced three different ways by residents.

• In a week, I’ve seen not one pet. Nothing leased, caged, or fenced. There’s a rooster in the neighborhood, but that’s it. I wonder if Westerners over-invest in critter-care, leaving them less-than-adequate reserves to care for one another.

• Tea is at least as popular here as coffee. For a tea-drinker, it feels like a liberation. A libation liberation.

• For some reason, the most common e-mail address is yahoo. Everybody seems to have a yahoo account.

• Mosques have loudspeakers, so the weekly sermon and five-times-a-day prayers can be heard throughout the neighborhood. Every neighborhood has one. They must site their mosques like Starbucks.

• I wonder about litter in a civil society. And speed humps. And unified spelling. Must the steps we’ve taken be repeated in the same order?

• Freedom is a transitive value. Freedom isn’t an end in itself. Even freedom of expression is informed by what people want to express and how they want to express it. I think this messes us up terribly, because we want to “bring freedom” to other people, who may want to use it differently than we would.

• How many taxis does it take to make a town a city?


Don Kahle ( writes a column every Friday for The Register-Guard. Additionally, he is sending “Postcards from Kurdistan” this week and next. You can read all his entries at

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  • 1 Andrew Seltzer Sep 1, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Thank you for writing that. Your observations were interesting and entertaining to read. My favorite one was the drunk phrase “can’t find your pockets” hahah.

    Also, thanks for coming to Mrs. Proctors’ class the other day it was very insightful and interesting to hear your perspective.