Almost two years ago, in May 2017, I spent four weeks in northern Iraq, meeting an eclectic mix of people, from youthful backpackers to weary soldiers, from Catholic nuns to restaurant cooks. I think often of these people, and am thankful for the small glimpses they gave me into their lives, hearts, and work. To mark the two-year anniversary of the visit, here are eight snippets of conversation jotted down in my notebook:
At the entrance to a shopping mall in Erbil — I was on my way to Carrefour to buy groceries — I sat my small backpack on the table as a security guard gave me a thorough patdown. Search complete, he stepped back and smiled, and seemed to be done with me.
“Don’t you want to check my backpack?” I asked.
“No, you are my friend.”
A new friend and fellow traveler, at the end of a day in which we visited several towns together, reflected on the role of time: “Some of the people we pass by on the street might have shot us in the head, if we had met several years ago.”
Muhamed, from Anbar and who worked at a small restaurant, took my order one night for a falafel sandwich and an Iranian yogurt drink. He and his coworker didn’t let me pay for it. He also said, “I love you.”
One Thursday night, outside an open-air venue that served food and alcohol and where many journalists went to unwind at the end of a day, I met a Spanish reporter who I knew had been to the active war zone of Mosul earlier in the day. I asked her how it was.
“There was not much fighting today. We will go back tomorrow. In this part of the world, Friday is a good day to die.”
From a conversation with a Kurdish man: “If George Bush came to Kurdistan for an election today, he would win.”
During an hour-or-so-wait at a checkpoint on the road to Mosul, Iraqi soldiers shared lunch with me, and showed pictures on their phones. One soldier showed a picture of another Iraqi soldier blown to pieces. Then some photos of his wife and kid. A couple minutes later he showed me a beautiful portrait of another woman, also Iraqi.
“This is my love,” he says.
“Does your wife know?”
“No. It would make her unhappy.”
Same soldier sometime later: “You don’t have a gun?”
“Does the man who will meet you have a gun?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think so.”
“This is very dangerous. One of you should have a gun.”
From a conversation with a young female fixer, whose job it was to take journalists through checkpoints and into dangerous places during the fight against ISIS: “So far I am lucky. You don’t know about tomorrow or the next minute. You can lose your arm. Or your eyes. Or your contact. The major or captain you have worked with on the front lines for months is killed and you have to make a new relationship. You lose a friend.”
THINGS MENTIONED OR RELATED:
- You can find a picture of Muhamed, from Snippet Three, in “Encounters with Generous Hospitality in Iraq.”
- For a story about the life of one female fixer in northern Iraq, see “Inside the Dangerous Life of a Female ‘Fixer’ in Iraq” on Vice.com.
- You can find a collection of images on my portfolio website showing glimpses of Christianity in Northern Iraq.