Saturday, July 14
I had never seen anything like it. The plane was descending into a sandy fogbank. The clouds were comprised of dirt. We had just flown over the Euphrates River, which with the birdâ€™s eye is a gorge of fertility lacing through endless brown nothingness. We were now over â€œMesopotamia,â€ which translates as the land between the rivers.
At the airport in one city of Kurdish Iraq, we were greeted by the elder brother of Hezhan, who has received two heart surgeries in Israel. Our arrival was a big affair: the extended family coming in and out, a large dinner, which we ate on the floor, and four courses of dessert washed down by bottomless refills of tea.
Hezhanâ€™s uncle is a Kurdish expatriate living in Switzerland. He is also a seeker after God. We spoke much of the evening in German; I mostly listened; the Swiss dialect has strange words, plus the little German I know is buried under mounds of Hebrew. But we got along alright, and it was a good connection. God is at work in this family.
I decided at this point that my intention for the week would be to take a cue from Solomon, and practice a â€œlistening heart.â€ When Solomon, as a young man poised to inherit the kingdom, asked one thing of God, this is what he asks for. I was taught as a child that Solomon asks for wisdom, but there is a perfectly good word in Hebrew for wisdom, and it is not this word that appears in the text. Solomon asks for a listening heart.
Sunday, July 15
Woke with the sunlight on floor mats. Hezhan was sleeping in a hairy ball on one side of me, and Jonathan was sitting quietly on the other side, reading scripture. Knowing the house would soon stir and the obligations of hospitality would be in force, I had a quiet reading myself on the mat.
A large breakfast on the floor, with Iraqi bread, cheeses, eggs, and the ubiquitous tea, a solid inch of sugar resting at the bottom of the cup. Hezhan sits there and smiles affectionately at everyone. Two heart surgeries have given him a different sort of tender heart.
Leaving the house then and entering the nearby city, my first impression of Iraq in the daylight was simply: what beautiful people!
The town is spread out between mountains, with sectors of education, transportation, commerce, government, etc., bustling and in full swing. It is anything but a sleepy hamlet.
We drove through traffic and detoured through a cluttered neighborhood, arriving to the offices of a local NGO that helps Shevet Achim with heart surgeries. The program director was waiting for us, and Jonathan spoke with him, myself listening, for an hour. He was not a tall man, but of the stoutness that makes a person legendary; massive forearms thicker than my thighs sheathed in black hair; a jowl extended beyond the chin that seemed animated only by compassion and intensity. One trusts him instinctively.
He took us to a place with a good view of the surroundings: the dense clusterings of domiciles, the outskirt areas under construction, and beyond it all, in every direction, the mountains which are the ancient friend of the Kurd.
After a meal with the staff of the NGO, we drove to the home of our long-time friend and Kurdish coworker and his young family. The day was growing short already, and I went for a walk in the evening heaviness, the sun a tremendous orange sphere wavering in its own heat, retiring beyond dusky ridges on the other end of the valley. Day 2.
Monday, July 16
Iraq does not have daylight savings time. It is on the same clock with Israel, even though it is hundreds of miles east â€“ towards the sunrise. One wakes early.
The strong hours of the day were spent visiting two families in a remote village: the family of Rawa, a nine-year old boy with dwarfism and six-fingers on each hand and six-toes on each foot; and the family of Kosar, a healthy-looking five-year old with glossy olive skin.
The village is a cluster of cement houses in a rugged valley: roughly 75 families, roughly 400 souls. The men are shepherds, vinedressers, construction workers, and security guards. The women are teachers and housemothers.
When we arrived, people poured from the house. We kissed cheeks with the men, and put our hands over our hearts in respect to the women.
The homes are small, with cement floors, loose rugs, and cushions. At the home of Rawa, a massive meal was brought out, the main attraction of which was meat. I knew this was coming, and had pre-calculated my principle of vegetarianism against the principle of hospitality. It would be untrue to say that I was not happy to pile flesh on my plate.
Long talks in Kurdish. Our coworker translates. Jonathan talks of messiah. Children watch WWF wrestling and Shrek. Women are in and out with trays. Outside, the valley is slowly petrifying in the Middle East summer, and quietness is regnant beyond the raw drumming of cooling units. The roads in the village, connecting cement house to cement house, wind thickly and unevenly between up-twisting rock formations. The mountains defining the valley are nearly vertical beyond the foothills, and puncture the sky in stabbing motions.
One thing I remember most: In one of the conversations, the patriarch was saying that his family has lived in this village as far back into history as he is aware, and when he was a child, there was a plague in which thirty or forty children had suddenly died.
Tuesday, July 17
The first stop of the day was in a posh coffee shop, the kind where the designers have found a way to articulate an atmosphere that parallels all the chic impulses of the streamlined modern soul. Here we had coffee and talk with folks from another NGO, who were instrumental in helping us get a footing when the work in Kurdistan began years ago.
Back to the NGO then, to collect a contribution towards the surgery of Ahmed, who was having heart surgery in Tel Aviv that very day. While Jonathan signed papers with the administrators, a doctor on staff, a rotund and jovial pediatrician, was relating to me how in Iraq, parents deceive their children by telling them that they are being taken to the supermarket for a new toy, when they are really going to the hospital for surgery. Nothing is explained to the child, and when they see the masked medical workers and the spotlights of the operation room, all they can relate it to is aliens!
On to another coffee shop across town, this one more august in dÃ©cor than the first. There Jonathan, our coworker, and I interviewed with a young Kurdish woman who is interested in joining our work in Jerusalem, and studying in Israel. Towards the end of the conversation, Jonathan said, seemingly on a whim: â€œWell, if you want to come to Israel, Iâ€™m going to need to meet your family too.â€ This little comment will figure in laterâ€¦
After dinner at our coworker's apartment â€“ his wife is terrific with a spatula! â€“ we returned for several hours to Hezhan, who is interested in the scriptures and has questions.
Wednesday, July 18
The morning hours of this day were so special to me, that I dedicated an entire blog post to them. In short, I was reunited with a little girl, Parwa, who as a heart patient in Israel two and a half years ago helped me find myself again when I was in a hard way. You are invited to share in what was for me a mile-marking encounter.
In the afternoon, we split up: Jonathan met with a young doctor who may come to train in Israel, and I went with Hezhan and his uncle. We visited one of the notorious prisons of the Saddam Hussein regime where thousands of Kurds were interrogated, tortured brutally, and murdered.
The Kurds overran it in â€™91, killing all the regime personnel they found there. The outside of the building as it stands today is gouged with mortar wounds and flecked with small-arms fire.
An ice cream cone, talking in German with Hezhanâ€™s uncle, and a few small words with Hezhan in Kurdish. Returning to Jonathan, he, the doctor, and I beat a path on foot through the heart of the city for over an hour, getting in our daily exercise anyways and a better feel for the city. I liked the park with busts along the pathways of poets and generals.
Last thought: I saw Parwa today!
Thursday, July 19
It was a sixteen hour day of sitting, leaving the apartment at 7am, returning at 11pm.
We drove through Kirkuk. I sipped coffee from a travel mug, looking out the window of the back seat at the dry mountains. After a while, I unsheathed the New Testament.
Kirkuk is a pivotal city: floating on a sea of oil, it is the closest thing to hell on earth I have ever seen. Brown air hovers thick over the flat urban sprawl; garbage clings to every barb of every wire, to every rock breaking the smooth desert surface, gathers in every pocket out of the wind. Oil flames belch the interior of the earth, as if the planet itself had indigestion, as if there were a direct line between Kirkuk and the molten center of our gravity.
Legs folded in the air conditioned car, I looked through the windows mesmerized, taking heed to this motivation for sanctification.
We reached a distributor of the scriptures in Kurdish, gathering materials for our friends. The director greeted us in his office, a sagacious man with a monkâ€™s hemisphere of hair. The conversation was good; the prayer was good; the tea was predictable, and also good. I am becoming Middle Eastern, as hot drinks now sound appealing even on the hottest day of the summer.
In the car again, we picked up a new soccer ball at a corner shop as a gift for the next stop, the home of Yaqoob in an isolated village.
I remember standing at Yaqoobâ€™s ICU bedside in Sheba Hospital, his chest incision still exposed for immediate access to the cardiac organ, and speaking with the doctor who confirmed to me privately that the boy had perhaps a 40% chance of surviving. For weeks, his life was on the border of some new sort of existence.
Then he came back to us, and seeing him now in his home, with his father, whom he takes after like a clone, and the rest of the family, in a village smaller than my high schoolâ€¦Kingdom of God. Yaqoobâ€™s grandfather suffers from near blindness and headaches, and with permission Jonathan prayed for him with anointing oil.
We drove next about half an hour to another village, to the family of Ronyal. When she was with us in Jerusalem she was extremely ill, but managed to pull through heart surgery. Afterwards, word came that she died at home in Kurdistan. Ten days before her death, a portrait of her was taken, and only two hours before, Jonathan called randomly from Jerusalem to check on her. She was eating a meal with her family, and suddenly began bleeding from her mouth. Her chest was making a strange noise. She died before reaching the hospital. Her bed is covered with pictures and candles, and all of her teenage posters still cover the wall. Her brother, a young man with a thin line of beard down his jaw and around his chin, has the word RONYAL tattooed to his right bicep.
The family is of the Yazidi religion, which venerates the peacock as a symbol and has some sort of belief in angels. Their village made world-wide headline news as the honor killing of a young girl was caught on cell phone cameras. She is dragged in the video by a mob and cast on the dirt. A cinderblock crushes her face and skull. She is kicked and spat on. Ronyal knew this girl, who had earned her fate by being seen with a Muslim man. After the killing, there was a retaliation attack by the Muslim community, and now this little village is guarded by an armed checkpoint.
Speaking of checkpoints, we passed another one nearby that was heavily fortified with layered encasements of stacked cement blocks, a response to the multiple car bombings that have occurred there. At this check point some time ago four foreign Christians were pulled from their car and shot.
Soon we were close to the ruins of ancient Nineveh. Having learned about this city since my boyhood, the pull of an enthusiastic curiosity was strong. But safety and time did not permit its satisfaction. I gathered the idea of the area, though: flat, hot, and violent; Ninevah needs a new Jonah to come preach to it, and a certain little village needs to hear John 8.
Friday, July 20
In the morning we attended a house-church service, with perhaps twenty-five Kurds in attendance in an upstairs room. Afterwards I had a conversation with a Peshmerga soldier â€“ a Kurdish freedom fighter â€“ who is a member of the church.
Remember what I said about the young galâ€™s family who may come to work and study? Her name is Didan, and after the church meeting, a brand-new white Toyota SUV deluxe edition arrived, Didan in the passenger seat, her brother at the wheel. The family property is in the mountains, an hour away, and we began the drive.
Didanâ€™s brother is twenty-three by birth, and twenty-five by identification, making him both older and younger than me. At sixteen he wanted to join the army, and rounded up on his application by a couple years. A young man of great class and great mass, he was a delight to be with, and has tribal leader written all over him.
The high peaks along the Iraq-Iran border came into view. Even through the haze of heat, their enormity asserted itself. My thought was that Zoroaster himself must have been drawn into those heights.
Soon the SUV turned towards them. A dance music mix was thumping, I was sipping coffee and bottled water; air conditioning removed me from the furnace on the other side of the glass, and the valley began to grow small below us. Jonathan and our local coworker followed our progress on their iPhones, and were fast approaching the Iranian border.
Soon we were on a narrow road originally made for tanks, running near the top of the peaks and immediately adjacent to the Iranian border. According to Google, we were in Iran. On the right side of the vehicle, the road dropped at my estimation 1,500 feet at a sixty degree angle. On the left side, coiled barbed wire lying on the ground was the international border. I could have hawked-a-lugie into Iran.
Israelâ€™s thriving existence is an existential challenge to Iran. The small country of Jews rebukes the supersessionist theology on which the legitimacy of the Islamist regime rests. Iran is willing to risk for their annihilation program economic, political, and even physical suicide, because the only unthinkable act to their thinking is the spiritual suicide which Israelâ€™s existence represents.
The driver was going fast. Jonathan was white-knuckling the hand grips. Our coworker was saying something about wanting to see his son again. I was making the sign of the cross, and humming to myself â€œLeaning on the Everlasting Arms.â€ Occasionally we passed a border station, where Persian soldiers were milling, and the Iranian flag, which I have ever only seen on television, caught the mountaintop wind. Goran handed me his black hat and asked me to wear it. My long blond-brown hair does not look exactly native.
Even in the Rocky Mountains of Montana were I spent my boyhood I have not seen anything so precarious. But our driver grew up in these mountains, and cruised along sipping a beverage and checking his cell phone, while the three passengers in the backseat were needing a change of diapers. Finally Jonathan said with tact, â€œCan we ask him to slow down a littleâ€¦ so we can enjoy the view?â€
After several miles of this, we stopped. Alhamdulillah. And where had we arrived? The Garden of God.
The familyâ€™s ancestral lands is at the top of these peaks, on the frontier of the empires of the west and east. In a ravine falling away from the summits, in a space that flattens out in stepped terraces, we were greeted by Didanâ€™s family: father, grandfather, uncles, brothers, and all of their female counterparts. As you descend the path of stones, the first object you meet is a rectangular pool, fed by crystal clear spring water. It flows softly into the pool, which is really a temporary holding space between inlet and outlet, and the ripples fret against the edge of the path.
Further on, descending on stepping stones that protrude horizontally from the vertical landscape, passing beneath nut trees, cherry trees, and berry bushes, you arrive at the place where the picnic is spread.
First is water, tea, more water, and fruit. I was at the end of the row for the guests of honor (ourselves), and a little girl, maybe six years old with dark wavy hair and scintillating eyes, approached with a pitcher of water and a single glass. This she filled, and handed to me. I sipped. She stood there. I turned to the conversation. She remained, seeming confused. I because confused by her confusion. After three or four awkward moments, I finally extended the glass to her, with the question in my eyes. She took it with gratitude, filled it again to the brim, and handed it to the next, Jonathan.
Now the food! Shish kabobs of lamb and chicken, fresh Iraq bread, of the thin and thick varieties. Tomatoes, onion, cucumbers, and more fruit. I was inhaling mulberries.
Then the boys wanted to swim. Didan urged me to join them. â€œBut I donâ€™t have swim trunks,â€ I said, gesturing with my hands. â€œMushkalaniah!â€ (No problem!)
So I followed the troop to the pool, and soon my jeans, shirt, and glasses were in a pile, and in just my boxer briefs was romping with the boys in the cold spring water. I did a back flip to warm up, then cannonballed a wave of water onto Jonathan, who was standing poolside, camera rolling.
As the evening sun played on the trees and brown grasses of the highlands, feeling the cool water on my skin, through my hair and on my feet, it seemed like coming home. Our coworker translated for me: â€œI have read about the Garden of Eden and the Paradise of God. It was describing this place.â€ Modest orchards pushed away in four directions, and in the center of the plot a heavy-branched tree sprawled umbrage over everything.
Then the visit was over. Handshakes, promises to visit again, and a few pictures with the grandfather, a man whose appearance is an advertisement for airlines and missions organizations: the erect posture of a man of war, the creased eyes of a man of love, a turban whose folds describe a high point, and an upper lip from which a mustache crashes down like a waterfall. He is a good man.
We took another route home, thank God, winding up, down, and around the villages and the mountains, which like all obstacles, from a distance appear simple, uniform, and impossible, but in reality are complex, deep, and manageable.
On the way home we entered a nearby city and visited the family of Bilal, a teenager who received heart treatment in Israel. Images of Mecca were live-streaming on the television in the living room, as phalanxes of worshippers in white encircled the black box.
The Kingdom is an indefinable stirring, sometimes awaked to a swirling, of grace; it is a program of good news allied closely with a program of healing (Luke 9.1-6); it exists not in a projected external fantasy, but lies dormant and ready within each of us (Luke 17.21); it decisively closes the gap between rhetoric and reality, which is the graveyard of dreams; how can one embrace such a mystery, even hope to see it incarnated in aesthetic power in a region only pleading for an anesthetic for all the pain?