Istanbul R&R

“Two days ago I was dodging bullets and mortars. Now look at me, lunching in an air-conditioned Istanbul mall with you,” my friend GiGi murmured, trying to make sense of her world. She had volunteered for the 6-month State Department assignment at the US Embassy in Baghdad in the fall of 2006, feeling that since her son was grown with a family of his own, it was better for her to be sent over rather than someone with a family waiting for them back home. Shortly after her arrival she was told her tour of duty had been extended to 21 months.

She arrived to visit me for 10 days. I had enjoyed a stream of visitors since moving to the Turkish metropolis 15 years ago. Of all these guests, geographically GiGi traveled the shortest distance. However, it took her almost 48 hours to get from Baghdad to my quiet, tree-lined street in Istanbul. “It takes 2 days to get out of there,” she said, describing the rigors of breaking out of a war zone. “First I donned 30 pounds of gear, including helmet and vest, and went to the station to wait for my ride to the airport in the armored Rhino. Then I waited 10 hours until the C-130 was ready for us to load for the trip to Amman. I got in late at night and had a 4:30 am flight here, so I didn’t sleep.”

We had not seen each other in almost a year, but were in contact weekly by emails and instant messages. Many of our conversations took place while she was in her trailer, under fire from incoming mortars. Previous postings in Israel, Zambia and India did not prepare her for having to take a shower while crouching down to avoid indirect fire. Life in the International (or Green) Zone, the heavily fortified, yet vulnerable, section of Baghdad, was surreal, at best. Stress levels are high as everyone is constantly on alert for incoming mortars. “Just walking to work is an exercise in awareness; I’ve got to be near bunkers in case of attack. State Department employees are not armed, so we can only hope for the best,” Gigi said, biting into a tuna sandwich. A bird trapped in the mall flew overhead. “The songs of the few birds still there are drowned out by the thumps of low-flying Blackhawks and Chinooks.”

We had met in the early 1990s at a bookstore in Washington DC. Discovering we worked across the street from each other, and lived just 3 blocks apart, we became fast friends, trading stories about her life in California and mine in rural Texas. As we both entered our 40’s we felt that it was time for major changes in our lives. She joined State Department at the same time I moved to Turkey to pursue a writing career. Although separated, we remained close friends, in constant contact and visits when possible.

Wanting to give her a chance to experience things she missed about life back home, I planned out shopping trips and restaurant forays as well as plenty of down time for her visit. I expected her to be shell-shocked. I was not prepared for her reactions to the simpler parts of my life. Rushing to catch a minibus one day, she froze on the sidewalk and stared across the street at a neighborhood park. “Do we have time to look at the flowers?” she asked tentatively, “We don’t have flowers. Everything is varying shades of brown. Even the palm trees are covered with dirt.” Stooping down, she took photos of the gaudy colored tulips to take back to her office.

Later, sitting together at my son’s school program alongside other parents, she became misty-eyed. Leaning over she whispered, “This is such a treat. I rarely see children in the International Zone, especially ones having fun. The few that we do see are working, and have empty eyes. I haven’t heard a child laugh since I’ve been there.” Reaching for her hand, we watched my son and his classmates as they sang Turkish folk songs.

That evening we planned to attend the opening party of an international conference held at an Ottoman palace. However, as we dressed for the fancy affair she grew hesitant. “I’m worried that if I become too used to what I once considered normal life, I might have trouble readjusting to Baghdad,” she apologized. Skipping the party we sat up late that night, talking about her life filled with sniper fire, suicide bombers and dust storms blackening the sky.

In the days that followed, GiGi marveled at what Istanbul stirred up in her heart and mind. “The cacophonic traffic and bustling crowds reminds me DC rush hour,” she said as we sat at a sidewalk cafe. “A place with rush hour. A place with office workers and a stable government.” A long-standing NATO member, Turkey has more in common with the US than its neighbor and fellow Muslim nation Iraq. A Turkish friend walked by, stopped to chat, kissing us on both cheeks before leaving. GiGi’s green eyes saddened. “My only Iraqi friends are those who work with us. If they stop coming to work we can’t go look for them because it would be dangerous for them and their families. It’s happened several times.”

All too quickly it was time for GiGi to journey back to war-scarred, cratered, dusty Baghdad. “After leaving Amman we have to spiral into the Baghdad airport steep and fast to avoid artillery fire and surface-to-air missiles. You try to get everybody around you to take Dramamine so they don’t throw up on you.” Gigi explained. “I’ll get there, take a shower and go to work. End of leave. Back to hell. I’ll find out when I arrive if anyone I know has been killed while I was away.”

GiGi returned to Baghdad while I remained safe in Istanbul. Much more than just 48 hours separated us.