28 November 2008

Starbuck's Coffee

One of my favorite books is From Russia, With Love by Ian Fleming. In that particular adventure of ultra-suave British secret agent James Bond, we find 007 traveling to Istanbul to steal a Russian decoding machine. He teams up with a Turkish agent in the employ of the British named Darko Kerim Bey. In his first meeting with Darko Kerim, Ian Fleming painstakingly describes the cup of Turkish coffee that Kerim Bey and 007 and Bond share. Being a coffee lover, I’d always kind of wondered if Turkish coffee was as rich, sweet and strong as Fleming described.

Ten years after reading From Russia, With Love, I wasn’t disappointed.

One of my many additional duties, in addition to flying and blogging, is to initiate various construction projects throughout our area. Lately, the United States has been depending on local Iraqi contractors and businesses, in an effort to attract Iraqi expatriates to settle back in Iraq and resume their businesses. The influx of businesses should revitalize the dilapidated economic infrastructure of the country, and improve at least the economic security situation of the country. Insurgencies prey on those with no other economic options, especially the ones in Iraq, which are fond of offering $20 USD, a considerable sum for Iraqis, to plant roadside bombs. Those with prospective economic security, however, suddenly have something to lose if they join the insurgencies. In a very real sense, the prospect of a real job attracted people towards legitimate business and away from the business of planting bombs.

With that said, we’re currently in the market to build a Crossfit Gym, and I figured that consulting a local Iraqi construction firm located on the base might be a good first step. I had previously made contact with and received a business card from this particular company's team chif.  I noted that his name wasn’t Arabic, but rather, Turkish. I remembered to study up on Turkish greetings before I went into the yard, lest I commit a social faux pas by greeting him in the Arab way. Walking in to the building, I noted that a number of icons were actually dedicated to Paul of Tarsus, the original apostle who hailed from a region in Turkey, and that the local newspapers were printed with Latin characters instead of Arabic, further confirming my belief that the men were, in fact, Turks.

I entered the team chief’s office and greeted him with the Turkish title "effendi", roughly meaning "sir", and we sat down for business. After exchanging pleasantries, I explained to him my situation and gave him specifications for the gym we wanted to build. Roughly eighty feet wide by fifty feet high. Of course, we would want power and air conditioning to compete with the 130F Iraqi summers. We had initially wanted a fifteen foot rope inside the building for climbing, but as the chief and I discussed this, we dismissed the idea, based on the viability of the support structures of the building, and rather settled for a rope hung from a beam outside.

With the crux of the matter done, he explained that it would take a day to do some calculations and then come up with an estimate. At that point, we were joined by two of his collegues, who asked if I would like to join them for Turkish coffee. Remembering the description of the Turkish coffee in Ian Fleming’s masterful novel, and being the coffee glutton I am, I eagerly agreed, noting that I had heard about the merits of Turkish coffee in From Russia With Love, explaining that it took place in Istanbul.

“Have you been to Istanbul?”, asked one of the men, a burly fellow with blue-grey eyes who did not look in the least bit Arabic, but rather Kurdish perhaps?

“No, but I have seen pictures…the Saint Sophia Mosque is very beautiful, one of the wonders of the world”, I replied.

“A very beautiful city” said the man, “In some places Istanbul has remained the same for six hundred years.”

“Well, except for the name, my friend” I quipped, eliciting some laughter from the men. 

I asked for the man's name and explained that his name was Sulemein, a common name in the Middle East.

“As in 'Sulemein the Magnificent'”, I asked, referring to the great Ottoman Emperor.

“You know your history well”, he replied. He explained that he was from Irbil in Iraq, which is part of Kurdistan. Another gentleman, an Iraqi expatriate to Sweden, was originally from Suleimaniya, also in Kurdistan, near the Iranian border.

While the men might have lived in Turkey, it was now apparent they were Iraqi and Turkish Kurds—the third man was born in Turkey and later moved to Irbil in Kurdistan.

They explained that they were part of a construction company hired by the Americans after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Their claim to fame was that they had developed the T-barrier, a concrete structure ubiquitous to Iraq. Baghdad and most major cities are ringed with thousands of these barriers. During General David Petraeus’ first day as the commander of American forces in Iraq, he walked the streets of Baghdad and ordered that hundreds of the T-barriers be emplaced around the buildings to provide protection for the local Iraqis. By all accounts, this, along with many other efforts at securing the population, was highly successful.

One of the workers shows me a sales brochure for various cement construction projects they have been working on. The brochure notes various projects that “are built in our country, Kurdistan”. The brochure also features such interesting language, such as “Kurdistan and Iraq”, implying that the Kurds viewed the Kurdistan as being completely seperate from Iraq. 

With Kurdistan having its own flag, governing body, and having operated autonomously for almost thirty years, it is easy to see how might actually consider themselves to be their own independent nation.

By this time, one of the workers had brought out cups of Turkish coffee for all of us. While drinking coffee is popular the world over, in the Middle East, it is almost a ritual. T.E. Lawrence, the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”, noted in his famous account of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War One, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that the local Bedouin were “gluttons for coffee”. He writes of the Bedouin tribesmen stopping during the middle of the day to drink coffee even while crossing the scorching Nefudh Desert, a desert thought to be impassible even by Bedouin standards.

Turkish coffee is served in a small cup scarsely larger than a thimble. Thick, rich and strong, you don’t even sip the coffee, so much as you touch the cup to your lips and lick a tiny drop at a time.

The chief explained to me that he moved from Turkey to Irbil to go to a university to study civil engineering, and Suleiman adds that Iraqis are among the most well-educated of the Arabs. I asked if it was true that there was now an American University in Kurdistan (Irbil), to which they all replied that yes, the American University in Kurdistan had been open for a few years now, and was quickly expanding.  

They then decided to drop the bomb on me, “Do you think American troops will really withdraw by the end of 2011”, one of them asked, referring to the recently-signed Status of Forces Agreement between the US and the Iraqi government.

To be honest, I wasn’t certain. Although the prospect of a troop withdrawal according to the timetable seems realistic, the Iraq War has been a conflict filled with unexpected twists and turns, with the dramatic improvement in security being the most recent. However, the withdrawal of forces from Iraq and the proposed “surge” in Afghanistan, which I could not see as entailing more than three or four brigades, seemed to largely fit with what I believed President-Elect Obama’s immediate military strategy seemed to be. 

We discussed the complex demographics of Afghanistan. I thought it was difficult enough as it was to learn a few Arabic words to prepare for duty among the three major ethnic groups in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, there are some 400 ethnic groups and tribes, speaking any one of almost a dozen languages, from Uzbek, Farsi, Dari and Pashtu. Add the complex demographics to the isolated, mountainous terrain and throw in a booming opium trade to finance an insurgency, and you have a far different surge than the surge in Iraq.

With the bomb dropped on me, it was time to drop the bomb on them.

“What do you think will happen to Kurdistan in the next fifty years? Do you think it will be its own independent nation?”

A chuckle that emerged from the group.  The chief paused for a second, choosing his words with care, “We know it is better to be part of Iraq than separate”.

“Besides", the Sweedish ex-patriate added, "We Kurds practically own Iraq”. 

A bold claim? Possibly, but only just so. The men noted that Iraqi president Jalal Al-Talabani is Kurdish, as well as many well-placed advisors within the Maliki government.  But only time will tell whether or not that will exist through the next round of elections.

I had reached the end of my coffee.  I looked at the bottom of the cup and noticed that there was a thick layer of sludge.   I asked if I should try to drink the sludge.

The chief stopped me. He demonstrated turning his cup upside down on the saucer, letting the sludge ooze out from underneath the cup onto the saucer. He explained that an old custom is to read one’s fortune in the sludge at the bottom of a cup of Turkish coffee. He jokeed that hopefully, the cup of coffee will tell me which way I turn to return to my portion of the FOB.  I hope it does, as the FOB is a large place and it's easy to get lost.  

I followed suit, waited a few seconds and turned my cup back over.  Showing him the remaining coffee grinds in my cup, I asked him what my future held.  

The chief looked at the cup carefully, as if studying it intently, for a few seconds. Finally, he smiled and slapped me on the back.

“My friend, this tells me that you will be here for a year”

I can only hope.

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