16 November 2015

Kurdish taxi ride

Flagging a taxi home from a partner's office at 5 pm, the sky was vivid with sunset.  “Hello, sir. Five thousand to go across town?” I asked the driver in Kurdish; “no, seven and a half," he replied.  I stood there, not yielding and not offering alternatives.  “...Six,” he said after a pause, and I got in.  When he turned clockwise instead of counter-clockwise on 100 meter street I asked him about the route, and he assured me that this way was better.  He said he didn’t speak Arabic, but when my Kurdish failed and I used Arabic he understood and responded in kind. 

He thought I understood more Kurdish than I did, and talked for a while about his family.  I thought at first that he had five children who had all gone to Finland, but understood later—when he said he was 26, the same as me—that he was one of five children, and that all had left Kurdistan and Iraq behind except for him. All of the men like me are leaving, he added with regret.  We turned toward the citadel, zigzagging through the southwest quarter of the city and past the old minaret.  As we turned left onto a main road the sky, fading into pastels, opened up.  “The weather is beautiful,” I ventured in Kurdish, and he responded emphatically, “by God, it's beautiful here. it's beautiful here."  

In a few places I pointed to landmarks as questions to make conversation; in Arabic, I asked if he knew about the marathon that happened the week before.  Yes, they do it every year, he said, “it's a beautiful thing.”  Mostly we were quiet; his phone sounded the call to prayer, and instead of silencing it he played it all the way to the end.  “How’s your work?” I asked lamely in Arabic as we waited at a light.  "Not good, it all depends on the government. Like this woman,” he said, pointing to the woman walking along the row of idling cars asking for money.  She’s Iraqi? I asked, surprised.  “No, Syrian.”  “It's so difficult,” I said quietly in Kurdish, which he repeated.  He said something I didn’t understand, and asked him to repeat in Arabic.  “When you spoke at the beginning I thought you were Syrian, but your face did not seem so.” 

As we approached home I pulled bills out of my wallet, counting out seven and a half thousand in exact change for the thirty-minute ride.  I thought he might give some back or make a show of thanks for my generosity beyond the agreed price when I handed it to him, but he just accepted it as if it were the true cost—which of course it was.  He did a three-point turn to drive away as I reached our gate and realized that I didn’t have my keys.  Embarrassed but also a little pleased, I put my bag aside and took the two footholds to swing myself up and over. I caught a glimpse of him driving away and gaping at me, arms braced on the top of the gate, before I let myself drop behind and out of sight.

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