Londa hails from a place called Colorado in a little out-of-the-way country called America not far from Comoros, Sao Tome and Djibouti. She’s been living in Iraq now for more than six months and seems to quite like the place. I guess it makes a change from fast food, big fat fatty fat fats and weird ball games that nobody else in the world plays. She’s working in the school here in German Village, as (seemingly) are most of the people who live in these apartments.
Funnily enough, I’m not Londa’s only CouchSurfer; she’s also hosting a lovely girl from Amsterdam named Felia, who is interviewing ethnic Kurds for a ‘Uni’ project. Today, I went out for a walk around the town, got my beard trimmed and stuffed my face with kebab (the only food seemingly available round these parts).
If I can just make one teeny-tiny complaint about Iraq? Kebabs need SAUCE! Oi! Egypt – pay attention!! A few lukewarm shreds of lamb in a bit of pitta does not a kebab make! Mayo! Chilli Sauce! Yoghurt! Ketchup! Something! Anything! Come on, you’re killing me over here. Suleymania is a neat little city, very orderly, surrounded by hills peppered with snow. It was tremendously cold, but that wasn’t going to stop me.
I promised I wouldn’t go on about how friendly everybody is any more than I have to, but er, well… you know when you go into a nightclub that you don’t feel comfortable in? One in which the glamour girls pout and the Brylcreem crowd discuss rpms and bpms and you don’t feel you belong? You know when you feel about as welcome as a sausage in a synagogue? Well, Kurdistan is the opposite of that. These guys, shut off from the rest of the world for so long, go out of their way to make you feel appreciated, wanted… and safe.
The snarling what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here? of other countries that it would be remiss of me to mention, was swept away, and here I was in a land in which the poor man, who has slogged his guts out over land and sea just to visit, to see you, to hear what you have to say, is welcomed with open arms as opposed to cool indifference or outright hostility. Thank you, Kurdistan, thank you Iraq… you have made me want to continue this quest to its bitter end. You’ve reminded me of the common humanity we all share, the journey we took to be where we are today and the future so delicate in our hands…
When I was in Cape Verde I got messages off people who seemed to think that I deserved to spend six days sharing a tiny, unlit jail cell with ten other people because “I turned up uninvited” (a fax from the UK representative of Cape Verde was apparently not enough notice). This upset me at the time, but now it just infuriates me – what is going through these moron’s heads? Do they not see that we’re all in this together and that the hapless wayfarer they invite in might one day turn out to be themselves? Or is that not the way it works anymore?
I may as well put my cards on the table right now – I don’t believe in many things, and I certainly don’t believe in karma (sorry, Earl) – too many villains have died a peaceful death in their beds (Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Stalin…) for me to buy it. But there is a balance sheet in life (the only people who raise statues to despots are despots themselves) and that balance sheet should be in the black – the positive things you’ve done in your life, the times you’ve been there for your friends and family, the times you’ve welcomed a stranger, the times you’ve spread happiness instead of spitting in the face of another… it should be in the black. That’s all I’m saying, and if the good folks of northern Iraq have the right attitude, then so should you.
Anyways, later Londa returned to the flat and we headed out to the market together with Felia. Downtown Suleymania! We popped into a tea shop… man, these guys take their tea SERIOUSLY! It was more like a fast food joint; over a hundred happy tea-drinking customers – the teamaker-in-chief filling the little hourglass glasses like a man possessed. We were invited to take a seat. Londa tried to get me to drink my tea out of a saucer, but as I explained to her, I’m an Englishman, not a cat.
After drinkies, we rose to leave and attempted to pay our hosts… did they overcharge? Did they hell. They didn’t even want paying. Thank you for coming, the tea is on the house.
My word, this is what makes it all worthwhile. You might scoff at this and wonder what they hell I’m on about, it’s only a cup of tea – but it’s more than that, it’s what that cup of tea represents. In my country (I love it, but it does spin me out on occasion), they think it’s acceptable for you to pay £60 for a two-and-a-half hour trip on the train to London. That’s a little under two days wages if you’re on minimum wage. Upon this train, not only are they happy to charge you £5 an hour to use their Wi-Fi (in Turkey, it’s free), they will also blithely charge you £2.10 for a cup of tea.
This situation disgusts me, not just in terms of morality, but also in terms of business – what possible good can come of pricing 95% of the population out of using your product? Unless you happen to be Rolls Royce, of course.
Where’s the service? Where’s the brand loyalty? Where’s the love? Do you think if Virgin Trains went bankrupt tomorrow anyone would be crying in the streets? Not a chance. They might even do a little dance. Such is the ‘public’ transport in the UK, to paraphrase Jim Bob; the public get the transport that no public would deserve… but how much would we love those trains, how quintessentially English would they be if they gave out free cups of tea. I can see it in the Lonely Planet now… “the trains in England are a bit of a rip, but the free cups of tea make up for it”.
Am I the only one thinking this? Am I the only one left who can give you twelve reasons why the customer matters?
Well, given the current state of British Cinema and the cattle-herding culture of our supermarkets, magazines, television and nightclubs, I think I’m alone on this one. What a difference a cup of tea could make. It could change the world.
After tea, I got chatting with a Kurdish guy who had been living in London for the past few years, but had now returned to his homeland (as we all will do one day). Had things got better since the invasion? His, and many other Kurds, answer was an unequivocal YES, something that should give Tony Blair a bit of an umph when he comes to give testimony to the Iraq Inquiry on Friday.
At the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I debated the issue with my mate Glenn – he was, like all right-thinking individuals, against it. So was I – up to a point. What was the point? Well, simply this: I don’t think that any criminal in the world should be allowed to get away with it. There is a strange but quintessentially British concept that people should be given a sporting chance to not have to account for their crimes, but that doesn’t hold much water with me, I’m sorry.
Of course, invading a country to take down one mad dictator is akin to cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer, and that’s where mine and Tony Blair’s views differ – I would have been much more sneaky, but the result would have been the same – the downfall of a tyrant. If you want to destroy my sweater, pull this thread while I walk away…
Although with my plan there would have been no Guantanemo, no Abu Grabe, no ‘crusade’, no open invitation to every coked-up and horny teenager in the region to blow themselves up in a vain effort to get laid.
But there is no place for my James Bond Supervillain scheming in this adventure, I’ve just got to get on with the job in hand. But if you want the opinion of the guys up here in Kurdistan, it’s thanks Tony and the British Army, you did the right thing.
After our mooch, we were invited around to Londa’s neighbour’s flat for a bit of a shindig. Sam and Jenny, my word, what a pair of superstars. Sam is half Spanish, half Lebanese (with a handle-bar moustache that almost puts Stan’s to shame) and Jenny is from the Philippines. Actually, looking around the room, it was like the UN had dropped by for some booze and delicious food… although as I looked around the room I found it beginning to spin…
I had already drank a bottle of whisky when Sam suggested we pop out and get some more… something you should know about Iraq: the booze is remarkably cheap. By 11pm, I was sitting in Sam’s flat wearing a crash helmet and sporting a (real) AK-47 explaining why England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty.
To cut a long story short, I got gloriously (and dementedly) wasted and did a few things that I would totally regret could I remember doing them. Luckily for me, Sam and Londa were on hand to look after me, so I didn’t end up face down in the snow believing I was in a wonderful world made of icing sugar.
One thing I do remember though: me and Sam arm-in-arm doing our best Satchmo impressions on a kick-ass rendition of Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong. Unfortunately, I’ve already used that for a tune of the day.