I Lit A Candle & Made A Wish

Over four years ago, I took a few months out – sold the house I jointly owned with a friend and used some of the profit to travel overland to Kalmykia, a Russian republic four hours south of Volgograd. I’d read about this 400 year-old Mongolian Oirat diaspora in The Guardian, reporting on the FIDE World Chess Championship that had taken place there in 2007, on account of the then President of FIDE also being President of Kalmykia. I was fascinated, I wanted to take a look.

A trip through Denmark, Germany, Poland and Ukraine before crossing into Russia is bound to throw up a few tales, but the strangest moment for this agnostic happened in Elista, Kalmykia’s steppe-bound capital. Speaking no Russian at the time (not that I speak much now), I had arranged for an interpreter, Lena, to help me with the neccessities and guide me during my week there. I was asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to see, I made clear my interest in going to the steppes, where tulips, orchids and irises naturally bloomed in late April, in the days around my late father’s birthday. Lena is a lovely person, but perhaps not the best guide, and by the last two days of my visit a trip out to the vast plains had yet to be arranged. On that penultimate day, Lena phoned and asked if I would like to visit the new Orthodox “Cathedral”, that serves the 50% of the population that is Christian Slav. The other half are the Kalmyks, who follow their own branch of Buddhism.

Whenever abroad, I try to take time to light a candle in memory of my father. A moment to think of him, and his curiously English xenophobia that saw him work abroad for a significant portion of his adult life. We took a long time to be close, but thankfully we found respect and love for one another a couple of years before he died at the age of 65. And so it was that Lena and I found ourselves knocking at the heavy wooden doors of the newly built Cathedral, about the size of an English village chapel, but wonderfully opulent, magnificently designed in the equilateral cross configuration common to Russian Orthodox places of worship.

There was no answer, but some passing babushkas invited us into the scout shed-like building next door. Some Russian was exchanged and Lena said that this was the place for me to light a candle. Expecting little, I was stunned by the golden icons and images of Mary, Jesus and the crew once inside. A nun beckoned me to remove my hat and sold me a candle for a few roubles. The kindly babushkas directed me to a sand-filled stand where people light their remembrances for the departed. I stood there, two old ladies and the considerably younger Lena at my shoulders, trying to find the silence I am usually accustomed to at these moments. I couldn’t find it, so I just thought to light the flame and be done with it – not every occasion can be how one would wish, after all. Then something strange happened. I dropped into a meditative state and felt like I was communicating with Dad, asking him to show me what I’d come here for. Brilliant, a hotline to the afterlife and I ask for a jolly trip.

I arose from the trance as quickly as I’d fallen into it. I felt weird. Lena and I left and said our thankyous, before bumping into a group of eight tourists outside, just as they were entering the Cathedral. We were invited in by the priest/monk/bishop man. We followed and Lena whispered how strange it was to have other tourists in town – I was the first in years, apparently. We stood and listened to the Russian history of the icons, and before long I felt a pressing need to leave. We turned, but were called back by the monk (that’s what he most resembled), who was keen to hear of my English faith. Once he had finished his talk, and the visitors had left, I was questioned about C of E and did my best to provide honest answers. Thinking this was purgatory, that we would never leave, the other tourists, some Russians from the Black Sea coast I was to discover later (one of whom was married to a Kalmyk, hence the trip), came back in, and through Lena I learned we had been invited to the steppe.

I can’t recall the names of the party, they are written down in notes somewhere in England, but they consisted of the Kalmyk woman and her husband, his brother and sister-in-law and several grown up children. We were taken in one of their two cars to the wild green that surrounds the small capital. We saw the flowers. The steppes were dotted with reds, yellows and purples. With horse skulls and burrows. Life and death all around. The husband, a spritely, balding gent in his early fifties, cat-wheeled and rolled around. I took out my Sunderland “We’re Back” flag, optimistically packed for the trip, hoping Roy Keane would return us to top flight football – an achievement secured that very morning. They laughed at the idiot Englishman. A farmer locked away his dog, a fearsome looking beast who eyed us calmly whilst we walked among the horses bred for meat and milk. The lead horse, Maria, had a bell around her neck. When the farmer called her, she obeyed, the herd following her tinkling command. A hoopoe flew above us, identified some weeks later by a twitcher friend in England. Do you know, it was just what I’d asked for an hour or so earlier.

Our springtime frivolity over, we headed back to town, and Lena and I were invited to lunch. Naturally we accepted, and I presumed a shashlik (Russian open grill) was on the cards. We drove to a supermarket to buy beer (I remember being impressed to find Heineken), and then on to a residential area, where concrete blocks of Soviet housing managed to remain upright against the azure sky. Unsure of where we were, I just followed. Into a block, up some stairs, into an apartment. It was the home of Kalmyk wife’s parents, Papa Boris and Mama Olga. Beautiful septuagenarians, hosts of incredible generosity. We sat, and spread before us were chicken livers flash fried in sheep’s stomach fat with spring onion, the sheep’s stomach stuffed with cuts from the animal, pelmeni, vegetables, beer and of course Ghengis Vodka, bottles and bottles of the stuff. We drank, we ate, we swapped stories through the indefatigable Lena. Boris seemed quiet, but I put that down to humilty. And then, in broken English, he declared,

“Luke! I have for you must see.” A speechless table watched as he he led me to his bookcase and pulled out a 1940s textbook, that he used to study English when exiled to Siberia with the rest of the Kamlyks, by Uncle Joe. Amazing.

And so to the toasts. Many were made, and I was presented with a small statue of the Kamlyk white man myth. I was encouraged to make a speech to accept. With Lena translating, I told my new friends of the odd experience in the ramshackle church earlier in the day. I sat down exhausted, with tears in my eyes.

Swimming In Iraqi Kurdistan – The Full Version

I’ve always been at home in the water. Diving in is my forte – backwards when depth allows, it’s a huge crowd pleaser. I’m not a strong swimmer (the triathlon became another Bucket List entry), but I’m enthusiastic and competent. At gatherings where there is a pool, I’m in like Flynn. This has happened twice in the last decade, as I live in England. Or rather, I used to live in England. I now reside somewhere altogether hotter, somewhere where a dip is required. Somewhere where the food is a little on the fatty side and I could probably do with putting some of that triathlon training into practice. I’m in Iraq.

The power of those three little words. They’re a contrivance to shock readers of my Facebook status and emails to friends unaware of my sudden and necessary decision to move here. The truth is that I’m teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan, the friendly, safe part of this beautiful country. Merely saying I am living in Iraq serves as a geographical locator and, of course, sounds like I’ve got clockweights of titanium nestling in my boxers.

I arrived at the end of spring, which at a cool 37 degrees was already close to the edge of my frame of reference. Take a look at a map of Iraq. Can you see that bit of coast? The tiny, no doubt polluted to all buggery, bit in the south. I’m a long way away from that. There is a lake where people swim, but that’s an hour or so away. In my early days here I was neither blessed with friends to take me there, nor confident enough to go alone. But I desperately wanted to jump in some water, cold showers weren’t slaking the thirst of my skin. So I asked one of the few people I knew, a student, where I could go for a dip. As luck would have it, there’s a pool in the mall just along Salim Street, and Hazhir agreed to hold my hand. Figuratively speaking of course, although with such a strict division of the sexes (even in this town, regarded as extremely liberal), it isn’t unusual to see young men walking arm in arm or holding hands. We all need human contact. This division extends to swimming pools which are strictly single-sex places.

After a lesson one day, we grabbed our kit and went to the pool. As I’m still a little stuttery at Sorani, the local Kurdish dialect, Hazhir took control of the transaction. I was amazed to see that it cost almost $10 each to use this pool, the changing facilities of which were clearly visible to anyone passing on the street by the open door. This provides one with a problem – how to get changed in such a conservative culture. So, I waddled and wibbled my lower garments down my legs, under the cover of my towel, and jumped and pumped my swimming shorts the other way., all the time praying “Don’t let my towel fall and my dick be left waving about over the band of my shorts.” I got away with it.

We paddled through one of those shallow feet wash pool entrances – and upon seeing the pool I wondered whether washing my feet had been necessary. The water was slightly milky, opaque. Not very inviting, but I took the same attitude as I do with street food. This surely is not going to kill you, so enjoy it. The pool was big, at least 30 metres in length. Understanding this area as I now do, I would bet it is an arbitrary length, something like 34.67 metres. I stepped in the shallow end and set off for the poorly lit internal horizon. I got my head down and freestyled, concentrating on getting my breathing just so. And then I was bombed. In the UK we used to have quaint posters on the walls of local baths that point out, with the help of cartoons, what is not allowed. No Smoking (not a sign one comes across in Iraq too often, it’s almost mandatory), No Heavy Petting (again not a sign likely to be seen here, but for the opposite reason) and No Bombing (the less said the better, I think). But here swimming pools are a new delight, and as we’ve established, there’s no coast to speak of. So the concept of areas of water where one can do more than wash in the cities is alien. And what’s the first thing you do when you learn to swim? You jump in, dive in, spash about and generally act the fool. And that is what was happening in the deep end of this place. Fair enough, you might say, it’s good for the kids to let off a bit of steam. But these were no children – this was a group of about ten fifty-something men, squealing and giggling like young girls. This was not a pool for exercise, despite its appearance, this was a pool for FUN. After 15 minutes, I clambered out and fretted about changing back into my clothes.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I’d made a few friends. One quiet Friday afternoon I was invited to Dukhan lake (a resevoir behind a 1930s dam). This is more like it. There were families, and yes, the western girls I was with did raise a few eyebrows as they took to the water, but it was generally friendly. If you wanted to just have fun, then you could jump in from the sides – this flood area is in mountains, so it deepens very quickly. If you want to have a serious swim, just push out a few metres for miles of uninterupted water. The surface metre or so of the water is quite warm, but if one dives down the refreshing chill of deep water envelopes you. And there hasn’t been any bombing in this area of the country for many years, long may it last.

The Race

I’ve recently reconnected with an acquaintance – a friend to many of my friends, but someone I’ve met only on one messy weekend. It was a festival last year, and whilst bonding occurs, depth is rarely found – especially when, on the first night, you steal that person’s bed. She’s called Emma.

I’ve also recently started running. This was at the behest of a Swiss friend, Lucie, who like so many in this city, works for an NGO. It was a habit she wished to regain, but the mountains can be home to feral dogs or lonely farmers and shepherds, and a chaperone is required. An unlikely role for a 20-a-day idiot like myself, especially when it means a 6.20am start, but ever the hero, I stepped up. We’ve found a route along the side of one of the mountains that suits us fine, which drops on the way to the end of the track, but seems to rise mercilessly on the return. It takes 20 minutes, determination and all my breath. Today, I walked for only 5 yards before breaking back into my PB-setting pace.

And so to the final part of my triptych. Tom is an ex-con building an adventure playground in Halabja, a city 60 kilometres east of Suli, the setting for the chemical gas attack launched by Saddam in 1988. Tom’s reasons for being there are many and varied, and the project is of too great a scope to squash into here. I mention that Tom has done time for a reason. After spending the afternoon with him and the kids on the site that is slowly being transformed into the kind of playground we’d all love to have had access to as a child, we retired to his quarters and sat chatting on thin mattresses on the floor. Tom stretched and lit incense but this was just part of a routine for him, not a showy flirtation with Buddhism and yoga. He’s very open about his past, and after talking for a few hours, I feel I could have written his memoir for him. As one of a very small community of expats in Halabja, I got the sense that Tom doesn’t get the chance to unload his thoughts often. He has a keen mind, speaks enough Kurdish to get by, and seems to know almost everyone in the city. But that mind, last Friday evening at least, needed to express itself, so I learnt of his family, his motivations, and of course his time in prison. It was how he dealt with his time that left an impression on me.

I often have the feeling of “what next?” When will I finish this course with the students? When am I next returning to England? What am I doing after lessons today? I can’t wait to go to Burning Man next year. There is a concrete part of my psyche that is always thinking ahead, like the lure of an angler fish, or the carrot dangling just in front of the donkey – I’m driven to think forward and that of course leads to the end of the road.

A lot of prisoners, as Tom pointed out to me, live in the past. Inside it must be easy to reflect on past glories, past lovers. Equally it is tempting, even at the start of a long stretch, to dream of that first night in the pub, the first shag, a decent meal. Talking about all this, I mentioned that I try to live in the present. Probably, I was trying to emulate my new friend who had learnt to do this through necessity, but wasn’t trying to guide me (at least not with the directness of those who enjoy starting sentences, “As a Buddhist….”).

Emma got in touch with me after reading my scribbles about “Sarah” a couple of weeks ago. She, like a lot of people, appreciated my openness. We’ve thrown some emails back and forth, and we came to the subject of her art. I took to her life model watercolours and confessed a desire to be a model at some stage – it appeals to the vain naturist in me. Her next email was subject-headed “Do you think you have what it takes….?” and described it as “a pursuit for people happy to be with their thoughts”. Of course, was my reaction, of course I am. I could sit or stand there for an hour or two, not moving, just being. That was at 6.00am this morning, as I prepared to go for a run. I wrote some bleary-eyed nonsense, but promised to think on during the jog and to return with an answer of sorts. This is that answer.

Lucie and I were joined by our friend Kamaran today, and as we parked up at our usual spot, I looked out to the end of the track. It snakes around the ripples in the mountain, so you never truly know how much further there is to run, but you can see the end, which marks the half way point. We stretched and set off and I tried to force my internal dialogue to get onto the subject of life modelling. Much like trying to recapture a dream after waking up, I couldn’t focus on it. I just kept thinking about getting this 20 minutes of torture out of the way – “around four more turns, I’ll be halfway without having stopped, then I can turn and start getting back to the car.” I settled into my run, got my breath going how I like it and thought about how I managed to keep going on the return leg last time. I’d read an article about the siege of Leningrad, and how those poor bastards hadn’t given up. For some reason that managed to get me through the slight incline back to the car. Maybe I’d use the same tactic. And then it just occurred to me. Feel my breath, feel my lungs, feel my heart, feel my legs. Recognise these feelings separately and together and just those feelings. Just that instant. And for the most part, I lived in the moment for twenty minutes and felt better than ever before when I finished.

If I ever life model, or go to prison, that presence will be grand.