I’ve just made it to Nassiriyah; they weren’t having Rajiv and I staying in the same room, so I have what seems like, to me, a palatial room to myself: an acre wide bed with crisp white sheets. A marble floored bathroom with both a squat and a western toilet.
Welcome to Iraq.
This room was expensive compared to what I usually pay: about $45 when you do the conversion. But I shudder to think what a room like this elsewhere would run me. Even in Istanbul, which is “home-ish” these days, I feel like I’d pay at least twice as much.
This trip has been expensive in general: by the time this week is over I will have spent nearly $100 on PCR’s alone. That I even have this money to spend indicates the fact that we have, definitely, entered into a new phase of the pandemic. There’s more work, and sometimes, as Biggy might tell us, more problems.
Now, unlike the early stages in the pandemic, coming to Iraq for a week is a choice I’m making against going back to the States. I’m flushed with cash, and it looks like it will stay that way for the near future, inshallah.
Every day, I wake up and chose to be out here instead of back there, and from the repose of this crisply sheeted bed in Nassiriyah, there are not a lot of reasons I can find to go back. And, reflexively, a lot of insecurities I can stack on top of each other surrounding my return.
Have you ever seen Return to Oz? I won’t judge you if you haven’t. It performed poorly in theaters when it was released in 1985, and though it was marketed as a children’s movie, it’s pure nightmare fuel.
Like, this movie is goddamned terrifying.
But it is equally compelling, and I loved its weird ass when I was a kid.
There’s this scene toward the end, when Dorothy, played by a then-child Fairuza Fucking Balk (what a goddamned legend!!!) is tasked with rescuing her friends via an impossible riddle. She is led to the Ornament Room: a hall in an ornate palace filled with all kinds of objects. There are kick-knacks and lamps and jewels, each possibly representing one of her kidnapped friends.
Her task is simple. Among the hundreds of ornaments in the room, she must find the ones that her friends have been transmogrified into. A correct guess will grant her another turn, while an incorrect one represents a strike, of which she can only accumulate three.
After two incorrect guesses, she spins aimlessly in the middle of the room with her arms extended, and with her eyes closed, feels for the closest object near her. Her palms land on small gilded statue of some sort of bird, but as soon as she opens her eyes to investigate it, she sees a deep green jewel just next to it. Abandoning the bird, she grasps the jewel in her small hands, closes her eyes tightly, and says the word meant to undo the spell: Oz.
From this jewel, her friend, the Scarecrow, appears.
Back in Baghdad, on my first whole day in town, we were making our way to the Al Mustansiriyah, the oldest university in Iraq, dating all the way back to 1227. And winding down a series of increasingly narrow, crowded streets I saw, just to the left, a covered alleyway that looked like it was filled with stalls. “What is that?” I asked Rajiv. “Should we go down there?”
I have no idea what this market is called, nor exactly how to get back there should I ever want to return, but I could probably stumble upon it eventually with a little effort. But to me, having never been to Baghdad before, it seemed so hidden and surprising, so we wove through the motorbikes and rickshaws of the main drag and crossed beneath the archway to take a look inside.
There were hundreds of booths within, all sandwiched next to each other alongside a series of corridors that, to my eye, seemed to go on in every direction forever. And among all the stores selling textiles and car parts and various electronic ephemera was one overflowing with hundreds of objects, many of them made of brass and copper.
We stopped to take a look.
Everything inside was shiny and polished, with items stacked on top of one another in a way that that seemed haphazard, but I got the clear idea that the shopkeep kept a detailed log in his mind of exactly what lied where. And perched within this mountain of brass was one very interesting item: some sort of plaque, resembling stained glass but filled with enamel, and it was covered in dust, a huge departure from the rest of the reflective, methodically polished items inside.
Only about four or five inches wide, it depicted a mallard taking flight from the water, surrounded by clouds.
“Where is this from?” I asked, and though I meant some kind of specific provenance, the shopkeep merely said “Iraq! Everything here is from here. All of this you see,” he said, gesturing broadly, “is from right here.”
But it clearly looked like it has spent years on somebody’s wall, or possibly, as the tiny holes at its edges denote, nailed to someone’s cabinet, maybe in their kitchen or bathroom. And though I never did find out where exactly it came from, I knew instantly that this thing was me.
If I had been transformed by some great force into an object in that store, this was the thing that I would be.
Because exactly like that mallard, I am a little out of place, nearly lost to the ravages of shifting times, and waiting patiently for someone to see my value.
I’ve left pieces of myself all over the world. Every time I’ve compromised or cut my hair or survived a breakup or whatever, there’s a little piece of me that stays in that place forever. And as I’ve found out, out here in the wide world, it’s quite the quest to retrieve them.
So you see, I couldn’t just leave myself in that store to get lost again.
I overpaid for it, I know that. But I have it here with me in Nassiriyah, and soon I will take it with me back to Baghdad, and from there it will come with me to Istanbul and beyond, where, one day, I may again have my own wall or cabinet that I will nail it to myself.
I spend a lot of time carefully curating the things that I own, and I rarely purchase things that aren’t strictly useful.
And I can’t exactly explain it, but this weird thing serves a purpose to me. Owning it is like a vow to protect all of those parts of myself that I’ve left far too vulnerable, and to nurture a brand new me that serves me far better than she has in the past.
Here’s to Friday.