Tuesday, March 8, 2011

More M&Ms - Mutterings and Musings – August / September 2010

Recollections of months past, especially my first and most recent two week R&R in Brisbane, are ‘filed’ away as a series of still and moving images cherished yet burned into brain and being. I still marvel at my unusual life, its good fortune and the many wonderful people, along the way, that have colored and transformed it. Writing about it enables me to refresh, reflect upon and relive countless experiences and interactions.  It also serves to confirm its authenticity, vibrancy and that its not merely something conjured up in some strange recess or dark place.  
The man, my first ever Arabic and true Iraqi friend, was frog-marched unceremoniously out of the office. I stood up and met him mid-stride where we hugged each other clumsily and uncomfortably, something between a bear-hug and a fudged Arabian greeting. His meager personal possessions, hastily packed into a box, were dwarfed in his huge hands and served as his sole lifeline in a sea of pain and humiliation. Brow furrowed and beaded with perspiration, he managed a grimace that was intended to be a smile of reassurance and feigned confidence. His eyes betrayed the truth, the inner torment and turmoil, fleetingly and then he was gone.
This man, who made an indelible mark on my life in a brotherhood that had lasted over two of the most intense months, was prematurely set adrift in a moment of madness.  His booming voice, charming personality, incisive mind and larger the life presence has left a void that many will have to come to terms with. We had shared so much – many a meal particularly traditional fare, swopped war stories, forged a bond based on a common hope and passion for life, people, family, country and all things developmental.
It is only weeks later that the numbness, futility and blinding agony of his untimely departure has begun to dissipate - moderated by the exchange of odd phone calls and messages. I still cling to the hope and belief that we will meet again, soon, where we can meet each other’s gaze unwaveringly and I will be reacquainted with the man and brother I once knew almost a life time ago – whole, proud, strong and confident. 
Images rerun, reflecting pleasure and pain, uncannily nourish and sustain the spirit, soul and physical body.  Deprivations in recent months, whether real or perceived, have only served to heighten emotions, experiences, interactions and relationships. I have absolutely no right to even mention yet alone dwell on the topic of deprivation since a stone’s throw from where I sit is another world which we pretend to know, but in fact don’t and have little hope of ever knowing. Some have no interest in knowing of the endless struggle – for hope and survival. Decades of trauma have ‘conditioned’ the Iraq people into believing that this was, is and will forever be their life … and in this strange stupor-state, hope and motivation appear to be fading rapidly. This is a country in crisis and anarchy, one that bleeds and burns daily. A nation and people that have long repaid their debt over and over yet they still face the prospect of untold suffering – will this ever end?
With my new eyes, acutely attuned ears, my sensory overhaul, I feel the way that a condemned man might feel on receiving a last minute stay of execution.  It’s no wonder that I’ve experienced some intensely emotional moments recently, on my leave particularly in relation to my own immediate family and friends. I’ve witnessed Frances blossom into a versatile, more confident and very capable adolescent reveling in sociable, team-based activities. Giving her all, whether as part of her school flute ensemble or club netball team. Stunned at how with nonchalant ease, steely composure and pin point shooting accuracy she could singularly, almost, dismantle her opposition in their Grand Netball final after the scores were deadlocked with precious minutes remaining. With no experience to draw on … where did this ability come from?? Perhaps the exuberance of youth, African resilience (vasbyt) or Aussie bravado / fighting spirit or perhaps it has a closer genetic home? I seem to be a stranger to this person, mind and personality that has been developing at the centre of our family life. 
Liam, at thirteen, teetering on the brink of  ……..  the very same place I was at so many years ago déjà vu, hardly …. as I too grappled, once, with the troubling transition from boy to adolescent. It was one of the loneliest times of my life – siblingless and parents who were just as troubled with and ill-equipped to manage the transition after having already lost 2 children to premature adulthood. Then there’s the guilt and regret….. locked in his own world, if I were only there and accessible when he emerges from it, that would be what is expected as a father - a victory in itself. Who is he going to turn to when in his moment of need?   
Rediscovering and reviving old Saasveld Forestry College friendships that have transcended decades and the rigors of life. Fleeting moments to celebrate memorable milestones along the way. Subconsciously committing ourselves to putting the time and effort into the sustaining the friendship in the years to come.  Wistfully acknowledging the passing of our youth yet taking collective comfort in the years that lie ahead centered on families – others or our own and networks of friends.   
The mere task of procuring a bottle of ‘ye old faithful’, hot Mrs Ball chutney for an American colleague, from a Brisbane-based distributor of South African products, put me on a collision course with all things past but ever present. Brands sorely missed and yet true, trusted friends.  The power of association, comfort commodities  and South African consumer brands proved quite overwhelming when, on collecting a few of the tried and tested brands from the distributor’s home, we were confronted with a mountain of South Africa’s iconic household brands. All manner of chocolates whether Cadbury or Nestle including my all time favorite TEMPOS, Chocolate Logs, Astros. Rusks …. Ouma, Bokomo that are so typically South African and have the ability to turn a cup of Rooibos tea into more than just a cuppa.
Yesteryear, another world and life time away yet etched so vividly in one’s makeup. Quintessential brands linked to iconic personalities …. Pierrie Spies supping on his Ricoffey coffee with pure plesier…. Helen’s Cremora coffee creamer ad with the impatient husband requesting where’s the milk?  Followed by Helen’s classic, terse retort its not inside its…. David Kramer and his Volksie bus.
Marveling at the dietary preferences and peculiarities of my very own, brand loyal, American colleagues. Lashings of Old Cabin Corn Syrup on pancakes & French toast, liberal shakes of Tabasco Pepper Sauce and Red Rooster Louisiana Hot Sauce. Bottles of Heinz Tomato Ketchup standing, as sentinels, on the tables competing for attention amongst all the other iconic brands. Amidst this competition, you can imagine my sheer eating pleasure when the kitchen staff began trotting out odd tins of Lyle’s ‘from sweetness comes forth strength’ Golden Syrup. Before long, due to my recommendation, my colleagues had switched their allegiance towards the far superior / refined Lyle’s, quaffing it down with so much gusto that I regretted sharing a secret that should have been more jealously guarded.
To plunge one into further confusion, we have our local Muslim colleagues strictly adhering to Ramadan – parched throats, thickened lips, furry tongued, rank mouthed, with faces blanched, minds numbed and fatigued bodies teetering to get through endless days of stifling heat… patiently waiting for sunset and the blessed relief that the Iftar (breaking of the fast) meal brings.

Private Iftar with friends and work colleagues, Karada Compound (Baghdad)

Frenzied yet dignified feasting – drinking wood smoked watered-down yoghurt, home-brewed pomegranate, grape and apricot juices, copious amounts of water followed by delicious but hideously sweet dates – some in their natural form others processed into date balls rolled in sesame seeds. Physiologically, the combination of fluid and concentrated sugar intake ‘mega-shocks’ the system and slakes, temporarily, primary cravings. This is followed up with a more sedate soup, thickened with a strange combination of lentils and pasta.
The main course consists of exquisitely tender, grilled Iraqi lamb reputed to be most flavorsome and succulent in the Middle East. It has the habit of disappearing in a blink of an eye and is laid out on huge round platters on a bed of 3 rice types differentiated according grain length, shape and size. Spiced, coloured and accompanied with peas, nuts, raisins et al, the rice and lamb provide a fantastic fusion of textures, aromas and flavours. Other platters offer up de-skewered kebabs of piquant lamb and chicken. Butter-flied and grilled Tigris River fish complete the mains with numerous side dishes including a local-styled moussaka, hommus, mixed salads, and large discs of wood-fired pita bread used with great dexterity to mop and gather up tasty morsels as edible eating utensils. The pièce de résistance are a variety of dainty crushed nut (pecan, walnut, almond, pistachio), syrup-ghee drizzled, baklava in many minute configurations including finger, square, half-moon, layered.
A mysterious life force moving into previously dulled eyes, lifting bowed heads, squaring sagging shoulders and colouring cheeks once more, albeit temporarily, until the cycle repeats itself again and again.  As a strange, solitary observer I ravenously devour all that is on offer – emotions, aromas, sights and sounds, perceptions and the tiniest details consigning them to my special memory store.  All, except the feast at hand as I’m somewhat embarrassed to partake because I’m just as much a stranger to hunger and thirst and therefore not deserving of this hugely significant event. My discomfort ebbs away, replaced by the warm glow of companionship, goodwill and immense grace.

Sated and smiling after a scrumptious Iftar meal

Baghdad – Key Facts
·         Home to nearly 25% of Iraq’s citizens;
·         Baghdad province is Iraq’s largest of 18 provinces and includes the capital city;
·         It is also Iraq’s most metropolitan and demographically diverse province, combining modern and ancient, secular and sectarian, and liberal and conservative in one dynamic and occasionally volatile whole;
·         Having a population estimated between 7 and 7.5 million, it is the second largest city in the Arab World (after Cairo, Egypt);
·         Located on the River Tigris, the city dates back to the 8th century. Baghdad has a past as a center of the Arab and Muslim World especially during the Abbasid Caliphate.

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