Wednesday, September 24, 2008

grapes of wrath: dolma!

i ate dolma again yesterday. it's an iraqi dish consisting of rice with meat, tomato sauce and other arabic herbs and spices wrapped in acidic grape leaves.

i first had the taste of it when i went to iraq in 2001. i had just recently graduated from college and my mom said that i was going there for vacation! two months later, i was on an internship which she had arranged at the UNOHCI (at the Canal Hotel, the UN offices bombed in August 2003). i was outraged, i felt duped, i felt trapped. i wasn't ready ... i wasn't happy. i had been as sour as the leaves of the grapes ... that wrapped the dolma!

but the exquisite and different taste of rice wrapped in something sour is palatable. so, just like my stay in iraq, there was some good to it ... thus being the rice ... the meat, the good part of the dolma ... i had gained international experience on my first job. despite being the youngest staff at the UNDP, i was a consultant. it was glorious except that i ddin't feel at home. i bawled my eyes out every chance i got and at one point was almost ready to run away. (that's childish youth for you ...!) but i didn't. i spoke to my mom, after staying a year there, that i had had enough and that i would go back to study (which partly materialized a year later) but actually, i just missed all my friends and the philippines and of course my family.

being in baghdad though thought me a lot ...

1. you should always make time to do the important things in life, before it's too late. i never got to see the national museum which housed 2,000-year-old relics which my brothers did when they spent a month there. i had put it off so long that i had come home to the philippines in 2002 without seeing it and finding out that it had been bombed by the careless americans during the iraq invasion, i was crushed!

2. cherish your friendships ... wherever you are ... it was only the kilometric letters that i wrote to friends and those that my friends wrote to me that kept me sane. they encouraged me and told me what a blessing it was and how lucky i was to be working there. i had made several friends there and had gotten involved with some men. two wrote me poetry and one asked my mother for permission to date me. another one, i can't count because he was married and wouldn't give up until i had dinner with him. he gave me plastic flowers (he said so that it would never die) on our night out. i had to stop my laugh. that same night, we met up with other UN colleagues and laughed the night away. whether high or low, i always cherished the memories of my friends and look back at them when i feel down.

3. always strive to meet new people ... it was there that i learned to be confident. on my first day as an intern, my supervisor "held my hand" and ate lunch with me and showed me around. the following days of course i had to be on my own. so, i devised a way to sit in empty tables and waited for people to sit next to me. then i would strike up a conversation or they would. or ... i would sit next to people and strike up a conversation. there, everybody was equal ... it didn't matter if you were a PhD, or a Professional or a General Services, or whatever ... we were all migrants far away from our land, and it was bearable because there were people around and it was less lonely. i also joined the afternoon rush to the pingpong tables after office hours at the Canal Hotel. i had to wait some minutes before getting picked up because my brothers needed to be picked up first from school. this is where i met one of my friends who did computational linguistics. i was sad to know that he had been badly hurt in the bombing but he's okay now after years of recovery.

4. be thankful for what you have ... i was getting a salary higher than most entry level jobs. it helped when i repatriated. i was also very glad that some of my family was there, helping me get through. i got to know my little brothers more even if we ended up rolling and fighting on the floor. i got to play pingpong and billiards with them whenever we wanted. i also got to spend some time with my mom. although at that time, all i wanted to do was run away. i was happy that she didn't stay too long in baghdad after the war erupted. we couldn't sleep thinking if she was okay or not.

5. there's always something to do if you make an effort ... some people thought that because baghdad was under saddam's rule and UN sactions, it was horrible, it wasn't as such ... for us UN workers there, it was more like paradise (if you chose to look at it that way). although, it was sad to see the hardship of the people and the inflation. we carried iraqi dinars in black plastic bags in 1,000 dinar bundles of 100. 1 dollar was 2,000 dinars. there was a beautiful saturday market in al-mutanabi, where people sold their old books. we were able to get some there. there were also the weekly gallery openings. you'd think that since it was under sanctions, it should be dead. but the cultural life was still as high as it could get. we got to see the symphony at the opera house. we were able to visit ur, abraham's birth place and babylon and nineveh. the walls are still there. basrah in the south is home to the infamous lemon! there was the wood roasted fish from the mesopatamian rivers: euphrates and tigris. there were a thousand and one things to do.

6. make the most of what you have ... i once went to a dentist who had the honour of removing both my wisdom teeth (in a span of 6 months!!! uber ouch!) and he had a passion for the arts ... he combined this passion and his dentistry by using his drill to etch out figures and designs on a mirror. it was amazing to see. the dentist artist!

7. don't forget to smile ... because it's not as bad as it seems.

all in all, baghdad was a beautiful place. we could play on the piano inside the house that had two gardens - something i long to have now (i love gardens). i started taking violin lessons again (but my teacher decided it was better to talk during lessons and i had been remiss in my hand exercise that i couldn't extend my pinky ... hehe) ... he always gave me a nice glass of juice which had been fermented a year before, something they learned to do during the many wars that had passed the country.

i was amazed at the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the iraqis. you would never think there were any sanctions, the way the night life was ... wonderful restaurants, especially the Qasr Al-Abiad (White Castle) ... Woods ... and many more. The ice cream parlors open till midnight in Ar-Rassat, the "high street" of Baghdad. it was heaven. just like the dolma ... sourness that wraps something tasty forming a delicious and exquisite taste that melts in your mouth.

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