Category Archives: Miscellaneous

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.

At the close…..

I admitted to being a bit shit in the first game, so it comes as no surprise that I was dropped for our second encounter against the The Black Horse. After some time with a few under 5s, pints of Red Stripe with friends and witnessing the Butterfly of Love painted on the faces of young, youngish and old I took to the stunning domicile of my other brother’s 4-manner, replete with thick foam mattress, double duvet and north Indian throw. Thicker twill from the north, what with the mountains and stuff. For the record, the Stray Hounds look good, as do The Black Horse and The King’s Head. Our test side look awesome, taking 14 for just 115, a score just short of the record at our tournament, where each innings is just 7 overs. Quote of the day was delivered after a superb catch from an unexpected source, clutching his heart “I wish I’d not had that line.” I’ll be back tomorrow.

The Cricker’s Arms

The Stray Hound just put paid to the initial ambitions of the late entries of Paddy’s VIII. Intermittent sunshine is being peppered with theological witterings of the stoned (apparently the god of cricket would be Thor, hammering runs with his Mjolnir) and the arrival of my godson Charlie. He has just demolished masses of strawberries and is not too upset by a breadstick replacement. Lllllanlllllogen bay, Wales’ everpresent representatives are up against the scarlet and yellow pyjamas of The Crown from Frampton Mansell, don’t know how they’re doing as I’m getting a load of shit for being on a computer. To The Cricketer’s Arms……

Sticky Wicket

Well, The Crown & Sceptre got something of a lesson from The King’s Head who posted 82 from their 7 overs. Despite carving 22 from the first two overs in reply, we just couldn’t find a rhythm on the sticky wicket, the ball hanging after it pitched deceiving us into early shots and the occasional leg bye, or some fine line & length at the end – I faced the bowling at the death, eeking out a mishit single to avoid my duck. The Ram are currently bowling at The Black Horse, considered joint favourites, along with our conquerors The King’s Head. We’re all in the same group and there’s isn’t much banter to be had with the big boys; however, The Ram is managed by my brother and the chat can be barbed and as witty as 10 vaguely drunk blokes scampering hopelessly after the cherry and their youth can be. The media centre here at Miserden is ticking over lovely old job, just waiting for an old dear to arrive with a TMS cake. Marvellous. I was going to post a picture, but the connection is a little ragged – suffice to say, whilst it doesn’t quite rival the Rogers (or that other English bloke) centre at Lords.

Miserden Super 8s Cricket; the beginning.

It’s a beautiful day here, up in the heavens of the Cotswolds at the Miserden ground. The sun is burning the overnight dew from the outfield, the track is being rolled by a Bomag more accustomed to flattening tarmac and the anticipation of the 9 o’clock start is palpable. Most are agreed that the August Bank Holiday is blocked off every year for the annual Cricket Super 8s tournament, blessed with bright sunshine for its sixth year. To begin proceeding, The Crown & Sceptre of Stroud are taking on France Lynch’s King’s Head. Match reports will follow, and if you happen to be in the area, pop up for a pint in The Cricket Arms, enjoy a bacon sarnie and a romp on the bouncy castle. Kudos to Trott and Broad yesterday, and to young Amir; cricket looks set to be the winner this weekend.

Crown Caught Cricket

On the hottest day of the year so far, two Crowns came together at the Miserden ground. The Crown & Sceptre of Stroud took on The Crown from Frampton Mansell in one of the regular friendlies the two pubs arrange for the two Sundays every season. The rules are much the same as those for the informal Stroud pub league, the exceptions being a prolonged 30 over format, and batsmen to retire at 35. As it happened on the day, neither of these new regulations was tested.

Sceptre skipper Ersh won the toss and elected to bat in the scorching heat of the early afternoon. A steady opening partnership put 35 on the board, Henry guiding. Luke top scored with 26, whilst newcomer Tom swiped 20 without having to run in the sun, an admirable policy. Both Jacksie and Moon worked their wood well. Pick of the visitor’s bowlers was Ken who returned tight statistics of 3 for 12 from his 3 overs. The Sceptre team were all back in the pavilion for a mere 121, after 26 overs. All enjoyed the fine spread, highlight of which was Katie’s stunning lemon drizzle cake. There may have been beers taken, purely as an antidote to the blistering conditions, naturally.

Ersh set a tight field in an attempt to throttle the Frampton Mansell men, with difficult half-chances in the opening overs for ‘keeper Murray (the only smudge in an otherwise faultless display) provided by the swinging medium pace of Paddy and Henry. The wickets soon started to fall, as the close fielding paid dividends; mostly, it must be said, the four catches snaffled by the skipper at silly mid on. Batsman Ed offered determined, obdurate opposition but never looked comfortable against the varying leg spin of Mike, who eventually had him caught out. Pick of the bowlers was Stevie with a miserly and destructive 3 for 8 from his 3 overs, and Luke chipped in with 3 for 12, including the golden duck of Mark, man of the match Ersh taking a low exocet to his left. The resulting hat trick ball would have been worth a shout, had LBW been being played. The Crown from Frampton Mansell were sent to the barbeque having reached just 75. Had the victory not been so resounding, it would be tempting to claim cricket as the only winner, but the Hat & Stick enjoyed their moment in the sun.

Serebistya (The Kitten) Has Had A Stroke Of Misfortune

My sweet Serek (the contraction of her name, almost all Russians do this), has not acclimatised to Copenhagen well. For one reason. In Kiev, she was in a sealed flat, an indoor cat. In Copenhagen, she lives on the second floor of an apartment with open windows. I am assured by the just as lovely Sub that she is nursing only wounded pride and a broken leg, which is healing in a splinter. On top of that, I’m raising money for playgrounds in deepest Russia, gissa a quid