It’s strange, I don’t usually get reception in the lift. In fact, the wireless sometimes fails and the electricity is patchy at best. So bad that one day I am sure the lift will stop midway between floors and I’ll be forced to either smoke my remaining cigarettes (flagrantly disregarding the only unignored sign in the country) or recreate the ‘push the hatch on the ceiling’ scene so beloved of Hollywood.
But I’m getting reception. I know this because my Podcast has cut out, and on further inspection Ako is calling me. Again. With a sigh,
“Hi Ako, how are you?”
“Why you not call me?”
“I’ve been working.”
“I just see you.”
“Yes,” annoyed I’d been nicked, “I had to get some things, but I have a class now.”
Ako’s tone reads, and sounds, fucked off. Slighted, a cheated best mate I’d just ducked behind a bus stop to avoid. But it’s not. It’s direct (he works in a restaurant, where there is no time for small talk) and broken. English is somewhere near his fourth language, after fluent Sorani (the local Kurdish dialect), a bit of Arabic and a bit of some other dialect. I’m not used to the names, and I’m not used to the attention. There’s a lot of it.
I’d been here a week or so, and I’m slowly getting my bearings. I live on the main street in Sulaymaniyah, Salim Street. It’s a 6 or 4 lane highway depending on how busy it is. Getting across is something of a challenge, although there are speed bumps (preceded by 10 metres by cats’ eyes) where hazard lights are blinked on and brake pedals firmly depressed. The best bet is to stand down traffic from a local and follow their lead. There’s a central reservation where one can catch one’s heart beat and swallow it from throat to chest if necessary. There’s all manner of eats and drinks on that side of the road. Past the expensive (but booze serving) Il Castillo, on to the late afternoon wagons of kebabs, salads, roasted seeds and tea, and then the first real tea-house. A man’s place if ever there was one. Outside is a man with palsy (and quite possibly Tourette’s) hawking cheap kids’ toys and shoe shine men/boys, pitch sheltered by sun-brella’s. My M&S brogues, less than a year old, were displaying the neglect I’d laboured on them in the icy streets of Samara and the unseasonal mud of Arbil. I opted to just stand whilst the good chap shaving brushed polish into every crack and over every flat surface, cursory shine, then used his fingers, wrapped in clean rag, to work more polish in. He then focused and buffed and buffed. Wonderful. All this time, a man hovered nearby. I was used to being something of an oddity. There are backpackers, certainly, but full suit and decent shoes? Not many Westerners like that around these parts. He spoke to my shoeshine, and in amongst the “kh”s and “zh”s I heard a question approximating “American?” and I shot back like any true Brit, “No, I’m English.”
“I live London.” Pleased to meet him, I took his offered hand and learnt his name, Ako. He insisted on paying for my shine, and then offered tea – I could hardly, and didn’t want to, refuse. We went inside to the tea-shop – welded benches with thin cushions, served by thinner, wobblier individual tables. A few words fired from the back of Ako’s throat and we had water (“I love it too much” he says about everything he likes more than just a little) and tea. Tea is served is small bell-shaped glasses, dark from the brim all the way to a half-inch from the bottom where the crystals of undissolved sugar brighten the magnification. I’ve taken to the sweetness, having been down to under a tea spoon in a mug before I left England. Milk is not an option. Ako and I smoked, and he told me of how he splits his time between Sulaymaniyah and London, where he works in an Oxford Street restaurant where they offer nargila or hookah pipes, or “hubbly bubbly” as he Anglicises it for me. He is intense, telling me of the availability of women and drink in England, his 50 year old eyes bright apart from a blood spot to the right side of his left eye, dull and brown from it’s age. It’s as if he thinks I’ve never been there, yet it’s the thread that led us to drinking tea. Still, it’s nice to be in this place, facing the TV news, more pixellated camera-phone footage of Yemen and Syria and Libya catching the corner of my eye. Ako took my number, and I thought “Why not?”. Loose arrangements were made to meet at this place soon.
I took off, and emboldened with an encounter with someone I didn’t know, so made plans to go to Lalezar Hotel that night, where I would meet some expats, apparently. I jumped in a cab to the Sarchenar part of town, and offered up 5,000 Dinar (about £3) for the 3,000 dinar charge. The driver had no change, so I looked in my wallet, where I saw just 2,000 in small notes. The driver was looking too – boundaries are non-existent here, on account of complete honesty – and whilst I tried to give him 5,000 he insisted (that word again) on just 2,000. So, past the AK-47 wearing armed guard (just normal) and into the hotel. The bar is very nice, although populated with dining tables and drinking tables. It’s 5* and therefore all tables are served, there is no coming to the bar at which I perched myself. Not great for meeting people. I had a couple of beers, chatted to the barman, Tony. A Christian from Baghdad (Antonio), he spoke English, Arabic, Sorani and Russian to a higher standard than me. Ok, I just about outdid him on the English. Before I left he made me a B52, on the house. He gave me my check with a wink, and I paid for one beer only. He accepted my tip of the price of the beer I’d not paid for, and I weaved down to get a taxi that dropped me off at the off-licence at the bottom of my building.
Obviously I’ve been there before. Ali gave me the “Salam Mr” and I took two cans of Heineken from the fridge. Getting my wallet open, he put his right hand over it, and then over his heart whilst closing his eyes saying, “No, no.” Not sure, I got some money out anyway, but he insisted. “Welcome!” he cheered, along with his traditional parting shot of “Hello!”
Two weeks on and I’ve got 30 phone numbers I never expect to use. Everyone is friendly, relentlessly so. I’ve met some Westerners, through CouchSurfing.org – like-minded people prepared to put up travellers on their sofa in this town. Teachers, PhD students, journalists and charity workers. The kind to mix with locals and interesting to boot. I’m settling in. Bars more like the Crown & Sceptre than a Hilton cocktail place. I steer clear of nargilas even though I’m smoking – those fucking things will do you more damage I’m sure.
So, Ako. I saw him three days ago in the tea-shop whilst showing Pierre around. Pierre is a 21 year old French lad studying in Moscow, here on a cheap bit of travel. He found me on CouchSurfing.org, and I agreed he could stay awhile. Ako arrived in the tea-shop and we greeted each other warmly. We agreed to have coffee somewhere the next day. I arrived there at the agreed time, and there he was, fresh shirt, new haircut, smelling of something woody. All a bit like a date, really. I told him that Pierre (soon to join us) and I would like to have coffee with him in the Sulaymaniyah Palace Hotel, as we wanted to try and track down some postcards. No problem, but we had to have tea first. And stories of pretty grim sexual exploits in London. It went on and on. I must come to his wedding next week to a 25 year old girl from Baghdad. Along with the tea and kebabs, I was beginning to smell well-stewed bullshit. People were asking Ako questions (I could hear something resembling “American” in the questions, but I let Ako correct them), and he was clearly talking of me as some sort of trophy friend. I should point out that this is a generally very safe place, where the Coalition Forces of ’91 are greatly respected for liberating the Kurds and enforcing a no-fly zone. But I wasn’t comfortable.
Pierre turned up, we had more tea and set off in Ako’s truck for SPH. On the way, Ako pointed out a Chinese massage place, explaining prices. I just laughed and said “happy finish”, based on the knowledge he’d given me previously. “No, no, not London!” he grinned, slightly sinisterly. Ako wouldn’t come in. So Pierre and I had a couple of beers, served by out-of-place, but most welcome Ethiopian barmaids. We got back to the flat at about 9, and then a call. Ako. “Why you not call me?”. Not the last time I’d hear that.