Dirty Underwear, Stinging Whores, Would-be Suicide Bombers, and Eddie Munster – Iraqi Kurdistan

Dirty Underwear, Stinging Whores, Would-be Suicide Bombers, and Eddie Munster
Iraqi Kurdistan

Last Tuesday, I believe, I went to Dohuk. Dohuk is in the north of the quasi-independent Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, and lays claim to some of the most beautiful mountains, hills, and lake that I have seen in my life. Oddly enough, some of the Iraqis with whom I traveled refused to acknowledge the beauty of the place, based on, in their summation, “I have seen more beautiful.”

The convoy drove at breakneck speed to get to Dohuk, mostly because we were passing through the outskirts of Mosul, a city of infamous reputation and one that has been in the news much as of late. The road was bumpy and curvy and by the time we arrived, I felt that I would vomit my organs onto the front of my body armor. Those of you who know me well know that motion sickness is my kryptonite.

So, after three hours of being tossed around and looking at the back of Dave’s neck (which had just been cleanly shaven, like a freshly sliced lemon) we had arrived. I asked to stop at a mall because I wanted to compose myself before starting the meeting. A cup of tea and a bite of bread, I thought, would do wonders for my state.

With the flick of a steering wheel we had entered the parking area. Security as per usual, I went into the café. First they told us there was tea, then there wasn’t, then there was, but we would have to wait about fifteen minutes. We decided to wait by looking around the shopping area, a grocery store, next door.

I do not wish to belabor this point in every entry, but it really is spectacular how much attention is given to my movement by the security team. They have no problem for me to stop and have tea. But they will stop traffic when I get in and out of a building, they walk around me when I walk to the bathroom, clear it out, and no one gets in while I am there. When we entered the only supermarket in northern Iraq, it was cleared out except for staff, and I walked around and shopped. I bought some Pringles. But it was weird. Imagine going to Stop and Shop or Wal Mart, your guards blocking the parking lot, clearing out the building, watching all exits, and walking around you as you bought potato chips. That, my dear reader, is my life now. I am sure I will miss it, but I am not getting many candid photos with the entourage.

Refreshed in all manners, we drove the remaining distance to the bee farm. In getting there we drove over what was formerly known as Saddam’s Dam. Now I believe it is called Dohuk Dam. It is a massive dam that is adorned with the Kurdish flag in painted stone, and is home to one of the most gorgeous vistas one could hope for. It reigns in a massive blue water lake that slinks between impressive hills and mountains. It is a sight to behold.

A group of about twenty beekeepers awaited our arrival, sitting patiently beneath a canopy of natural materials, sipping tea on tiny saucers in tiny glasses loaded with sugar. When I arrived I was taken by the hand (though I hardly knew him!) by the head honcho beekeeper. He led me to the others, and I shook hands with every one of them, some clasping my hand between their two hands, and then touching their hearts. Many also made attempts to introduce themselves in English, which I found touching and worthy of respect. I tried my extremely limited Kurdish during my greetings, and from their reaction one would have thought that I had just discovered sliced bread (though that may be a poor analogy, seeing as bread here in Kurdistan is never sliced).

Allow me to let you, gentle reader, in on a little secret: I do not think I am all that much of a beekeeper. I mean, I have the spirit, the passion, the basic technical know-how, but the man who taught me whatever little I know about bees, my father, knows so much more than I do that I feel somewhat a phony when I purport to know anything. He holds more information about bees in one hair of his moustache than I will ever know. So, bearing that in mind, imagine how humble and futile I sometimes feel when I have a group of beekeepers, hard working poor beekeepers, sitting in front of me, hoping that I hold the magic key to their varroa problem, their wax moth enigma, or their difficulty in raising a decent honey harvest. (Especially varroa! Those little buggers killed about half the colonies in North America last year, and if I knew the secret to destroying them, you could be sure I would share it!)

Not that I do not feel that I have something to offer them – I do. I can help them increase their yield of sweet liquid gold, I can help them stave off the more devastating effects of varroa; but there is no magic or simple solution. And one must possess and open mind and be willing to accept that, perhaps, father was mistaken about a thing or two.

One of the difficulties I run across is folkloric ideas to which the rural beekeeper simply will not let go. An amusing example: I have heard, second hand from these beekeepers atop the hill, that there is a general feeling amongst villagers that the bees can recognize the scent of their keeper. This concept is not new. There are many beekeepers who feel that their bees “know” them, from their smell, their touch, their manner. Much in the way a dog will recognize its owner, some beekeepers think that the bees know them.

Andrew with a frame of bees
Andrew with a frame of bees
Where it gets a little dodgy is when, for the purpose of assuring that one’s bees indeed are familiar with the scent of the beekeeper, s/he places a pair of used undergarments into the hive. Yes indeed, I have heard tell of rural Kurdish beekeepers that will place their soiled undies within the hive, so as to make the bees more amenable to the owner. I have not witnessed it first hand, and I will be sure to report it if I do. Besides the obvious I have a couple of problems with this practice: one, I imagine it is a daunting task to fill hundreds of hives with underwear, if one should have so many (hives and underwear that is). Two, I cannot imagine that the underclothes exerts any sort of positive influence over the honey. On the contrary, I think the noisome unwelcome addition to the hive would distract the girls from their tasks. What decent woman likes to work with a pair of men’s dirty drawers in her face?

Onward: it is a fact that the queen bee mates once in her life, on what is called a mating flight, and on that flight she mates in the neighborhood of 15- 20 times. That is, she copulates with that many drones, whose barbed penises are torn from their bodies, ripping out their entrails, and once they have consummated the act, they fall to the ground dying. After this busy (and surely satisfying) afternoon, the queen stores the sperm of her suitors for three to five years, and most queens can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day when necessary for two years, and dropping off somewhat thereafter.

Another interesting ditty I have heard since arriving: I have been told that I am wrong about the queen’s mating flight. The very idea that the queen, perfect as she is, would have relations with so many males was unbelievable to some. “Is she a whore?!!” one particularly impassioned man demanded of me. I suppose his notion of the queen is too closely tied with that of his mother, and he enthusiastically refused to believe she would keep company with so many men. So there is that element as well to contend with.

So we talked more bees. Someone brought me the corpse of the dreaded bee eater bird. Even in its poor condition, it was easy to see that it had once been a handsome bird. We discussed Check Mite, which some company has distributed liberally here, but which has been banned in most U.S. states. They asked me why, if it was banned, were they given it. I answered as best I could, that the reality was, someone had manufactured it and wanted to profit from it, and had probably sought out another market for it, one where there were fewer regulations and safeguards. Iraq is not in a position at the moment to dedicate their resources to checking the safety of every medicine, and so, these medicines get dumped here. The company gets paid, and after that, they do not care. I urged them not to use the Check Mite, though I know it will be hard for them to resist using it, since they need to battle the varroa problem somehow. The long term effects of the medicine, however, are dodgy at best. In short, they will poison their bees and strengthen the varroa, in time, by using and misusing it.

One man suggested that burning lavender inside the hive would kill adult varroa, and that using that method every few days, one would kill all varroa as they come out of the cells. I have also heard, in Japan last March from a beekeeper, that a lavender patty of some sort was being devised. It was interesting that two similar folk remedies have evolved. I hope one of them proves effective.

During a break in the meeting the head beekeeper, Mr. Khorsheed Ahmed, led me, again by the hand, around his apiary. One thing I noticed straight off: the poor yield of the hives must have a lot to do with the fact that they put far too many colonies in an area that cannot support so many bees foraging. There are simply too many in one place, the nectar source will run out, and the bees will have weak hives and poor crops. Also, there is an inadequate water supply. The former problem could be solved; the latter I am sure they are aware of, but it is expensive and difficult to bring water to the hives, especially in dry rural areas.

I should mention that I do not normally walk hand in hand with Kurdish beekeepers, but it seems to be a cultural thing that men walk holding hands. I did not want to be rude, but I thought if he tried to go any further, I would have to put a stop to it. At least, on this, the first day we had met.

Later I found out that Khorsheed is married and has ten children. Our hand holding days are over.

The entire entourage drove en masse to a nice restaurant nearby, where my organization bought lunch for everyone (about forty people). There we ate traditional Kurdish food (indeed, there is no tourist industry thereabouts so there was little choice) and continued chatting about bees. My translator, whose name escapes me, was pretty good, and seemed to be attentive to the kind of detail that I require. The only problem is that he has a tendency to speak very softly, despite my asking him repeatedly to raise his voice. Couple my poor hearing with his lilting voice and the din of forty Kurds eating lunch; I don’t think I caught everything. He was less of a conduit of information and more like a clogged filter.

I noticed a young beekeeper there (a rarity, for this old man’s hobby), and it turns out that he was there with his father, who has been teaching him about bees since he was a young boy. This reminds me that when we were all still gathered on the hill at our initial meeting, I discovered that many, indeed most of the beekeepers had learned their craft from their own fathers. Of course this put me in mind of my own father and his tutelage which has brought me to wherever I have gotten in the bee world (and elsewhere), and I tried to explain that to my new friends, but I had to abruptly stop my talk about it, for despite myself I realized that I was welling up. I was very surprised at myself and shook it off, but let me leave it at this: I am very grateful to my father for teaching me about bees, and for being a great father, and somehow that sentiment and bond was clearly understood and shared by all present.

Let me switch gears quickly by mentioning some very funny misspelled items on the English section of the restaurant’s menu: Cheek Pee, Broiled Lamp, and Vegetable Soap, to name but three.

Later in the day we packed up and shipped off for the hotel. This was a fine hotel located amongst the hills, with superb views of both the city and the hills themselves. We took eight or nine rooms, and made our way to them. I cannot remember much else about that afternoon other than I was happy to have good e-mail access from the hotel and that I had a couple of hours to relax before a small group of the beekeepers would come to the hotel for another round of talks.

Eventually they did come, we all spoke and sampled different honeys, and they were on their way. I had an appointment scheduled with the Minister of Agriculture the next morning and I wanted to be ready for that. Not that I had any clue what we would be meeting about. So, Dave and I decided, since the hotel was heavily guarded, that we would send my personal guards out to enjoy their evening, and he and I would stay in the hotel and have dinner. With $20 from me, which was more than enough for several beers apiece for the guards, they wandered off, and Dave and I sat in the outdoor restaurant, watching a huge moon rise, sipping beers, and tossing scraps of our food to the scrawny meowing cats that meandered around the tables. (Despite how that sounds, Dave and I are both raging heterosexuals. Don’t let the hand holding with the old Kurd and the moonlight dinner with Dave convince you otherwise.)

Just as we were eating a fellow named Marwan came by. Marwan works for my organization, and he needed to let me know that they had no luck in finding an interpreter for the meeting the next day. Really, without one, there was very little I could do. So I had the bright idea to hire one of the receptionists at the hotel. I found one woman who had worked as an interpreter for some news organizations in the past, and though her English was not stellar, it far overreached my Kurdish (my Kurdish consists of about ten words, half of them curses). So, with the promise of a paycheck, we were agreed. I went to my room, and watched BBC to learn more about what was happening in Iraq.

I do not know much about Marwan, and I have no wish to discredit him, but from what I am told, he is from a Yazidi village in this part of Iraq where people worship the devil. I cannot provide much detail about it now, but I will try to dig some up. People are afraid to stop there as the place has something of a reputation for, well, evil. Yet Marwan is a small, unassuming, nice guy. Then again, evil takes many forms.

Later I found out that the Yazidi do not in fact worship the devil, but they respect him, as a former angel of God. But I have no time to delve into a theological explanation of the Yazidi right now.

So, after sorting out the interpreter dilemma, Dave radioed me to tell me where he was – around the corner sitting with a group of three tourists. Yes, three members of a little society that promote and enjoy traveling to war zones and other dangerous places. It all started with a book (that I happen to have read) called The World’s Most Dangerous Places. It has evolved into a cult of people who like to travel to dangerous areas, and write about that experience. But as far as visiting Iraq is concerned, visiting Dohuk and then leaving is perhaps the equivalent of going into a house of ill repute to use the bathroom, and then quickly departing without partaking in any of the other delights. You don’t really see any action in either case. Still, these three, two Brits and an American, were very chummy and they shared their beers with us. We chatted for a good hour or two.

“I work for the government,” confided Charlotte, a middle aged woman who could have been seen earlier in Dohuk, being led by her big red suitcase on wheels. Later it turned out that she works for a county clerk’s office somewhere in Ohio. She was very pleasant and excited to be in Iraq for the day. The two fellows whose names I cannot recall, have spent a lot of time in Turkey, I gathered, but other than one of them working with computers I did not catch much of their line. We had a nice chat and laughed a lot. They did not believe that I am here in Iraq teaching beekeeping skills. “That is the worst cover story I have ever heard!” insisted one of them. It is so bad, I argue, that it must be true. They were not convinced. “So why all the firepower with you?” one pressed. “In case a bee tries to sting me” I responded. It was best to just let it go. We focused instead on our beers.

Kurdish villagers, grandmother on left (note her tattoos on face), mother, and child
Kurdish villagers, grandmother on left (note her tattoos on face), mother, and child
Soon thereafter I went to bed, I woke up, showered, dressed, and went to the banquet room for my breakfast. I met the interpreter, Berivan, and we all drove off in the convoy. We sped about five minutes away to the Ministry. (On the way I learned that in Kurdish, Berivan means ‘girl who takes milk from cows or sheep’.) We entered the main office to find lo and behold, transplanted to Kurdistan and now in a position of some important was Eddie Munster, all grown up. The resemblance to Eddie was uncanny. He had the same eyes, the same walk, the same deep low widow’s peak that it the Eddie Munster trademark. I have no doubt that he was the real deal. Unfortunately he has forgotten most of this English, and has none of Eddie’s good manners. We sat there in his room, two air conditioners blasting nothing but hot air, a family of birds clearly roosting in one of them, while he talked on the telephone. I asked my interpreter if he was on an important call. She listened, and then reported that he was talking about shoes. I noticed him looking at his shoes more than one normally would. Then, after a full twenty-five minutes of me listening to a man talk about footwear in a language that I could not understand, Mr. Mohammed Sherif, AKA Eddie Munster, gave us his attention and an introduction.

That lasted about one minute until his phone rang, this time his mobile. He picked it up and started talking, obviously delighted by something or someone. This time he was only on for about five minutes, and then he immediately launched into a passionate speech about how Kurdish honey is world famous, and that it is the purest and best in the world, and that the Koran tells us that honey is a medicinal food, that there are two kinds of honey, natural and chemical, blah blah blah… I tell you, I was bored out of my mind. Between my interpreters sudden and extreme drop in voice (I could hear her fine up until it was important that I hear her, and then suddenly she decided to be coy and whisper – is this part of their training??). My eyes were glazed over and I wondered what I was doing there when he barked in English “QUALITY OF HONEY!” It might have made more of an impression I had know what preceded that statement.

Around this point the phone rang again and he slumped into his chair to take it, this time a seemingly grave matter. My interpreter told me that it sounded as if he was doing some home remodeling and something was going wrong.

Then we were about to be adjourned into the main purpose of being in this building, a meeting with the bee inspectors for the region. But just as we were saying good-bye, my interpreter’s phone rang; she answered it, and then quickly scribbled this (as she wrote it) on my notepad:

“Sorry, phone come to me argent I most be I go, I am apologize If you don’t mind.”

Translation: Andrew, you are about to go into a big meeting, and you have no interpreter. Good luck! You’re screwed!

So Bervian the interpreter was off. She lingered just long enough to give me the impression that she hoped to get some payment for the thirty minutes that she did work, but I was not in a mood to compensate her for leaving me on the spot. I said goodbye and walked, flanked by my men, into the meeting.

I wish I had left the building with Bervain. These men were not there to have an amicable gathering. They had planned a frontal assault. I first knew something was wrong when they did not give me the best chair in the room. Everywhere I have been here, I am treated very well and with respect, as one does a guest. Especially a guest who holds the key to a lockbox of cash. But this group of men was obstreperous. I sat down in a rickety plastic chair next to the cushy chair where I had placed by bag. Someone had moved it onto the floor. No one offered me a drink. I have never been to a meeting here where something is not offered. Instead, through my impromptu interpreter I started to hear the first of eleven demands from this surly group of government workers.

Their hands were out, they were unreasonable, and they were just plain insolent, feeling they deserved something for nothing. I do not mind hearing suggestions or pleas for assistance, since that is part of what I am here for. However, some of the things this group of petty government officials were demanding included: a factory to sew overalls for beekeepers, a factory to refine wax, a factory to make hives and hive tools, a university and a laboratory to test pureness and quality of honey; quarantine stations at every border in the country to prevent pests from coming into the country on the backs of bees; a fleet of ships and planes to transport and export their honey (no worries to them that the area is landlocked, I am sure they meant to ask for a canal to be dug!) In short, it was ridiculous. I grew weary of it and their attitude early on – one man seemed to have been elected spokesperson, and he was shouting these demands for all the world to hear, while my new and woefully inadequate interpreter could hardly make out how to tell me anything. At one point I asked them if they would like a ladder built to the moon. This was interpreted, they seemed to discuss it, and responded that at the time there was no need for it. I told then that they had about as much luck in getting that ladder as they did these outrageous demands. I asked them who they thought I was, and what they had done to better the plight of the beekeepers? Precious little, I answered for them. We give grants to those who demonstrate initiative, and who make reasonable proposals. They were talking about millions of dollars. One man shouted, “What do I do when I have five tons of honey?! How will you help me export it?” I responded, “When you have even half a ton of honey to worry about, we will talk about it.”

I excused myself in the middle of the melee and decided to leave. There was no point, as I saw it, to this meeting. These men were not beekeepers; they were petty bureaucrats, looking for something for nothing for themselves. As I started to leave, one man was apparently not finished shouting (for the sake of his friends, no doubt, since no one was interpreting any longer). He moved just a little too quickly towards me and he immediately became better acquainted with one of my armed guards. I smiled and walked out, wishing I always had them with me. Think of the convenience!

We left, and went to the hotel again to eat lunch and check out. Dave and I had a nice lunch and broke bread, everyone piled into the vehicles to drive up to the dam once again. We drove a few minutes to a picturesque spot near the perfect and clear blue waters. We all got out of the vehicles, walked a few hundred yards down past the “Danger! No Swimming!” signs in Kurdish, and disrobed and jumped in. (Since we could not technically read the signs ourselves, Dave and I reasoned, we were in no danger.) The weather was hot, well over 115°F, and the water was cool and perfect. It was a nice diversion, and all of the guys seemed to have a good time. In thirty minutes we were back on the road and looking to get gas and to drive back to Erbil. Dave said, “This has been my best day in Iraq so far.”

I probably need not tell you that things started to go wrong after such a remark. We went to the gas station where the line was several hours long (typical here) and moved right to the front. I don’t know exactly what happened, but the owner did not want to sell us gas. I am not sure what was happening. It was not because we had jumped the line (all military and para-military vehicles would do that), but it was something else. The owner had something against Americans and did not want to sell to us, and he said so. Dave was very angry. We needed gas, and we needed to get on the road to get past Mosul and get home before dark. Dave threatened to shut the gas station down, to set up his vehicles at either entrance and make sure the owner got no business whatsoever. The clock was ticking and the owner adamant. Tempers flared and the driver of my vehicle got out and started shouting at someone. It was becoming very tense, but we were eventually served, we paid, and left. Tensions were running high, however, and Dave reminded them to go easy on the drive home. “Don’t crash,” I added.

Prophetic. About an hour into the drive, near a checkpoint in the road, a small red car pulled between the convoy. This was very frightening because we were at a checkpoint near Mosul, and breaking up a convoy with a car is a trademark maneuver of a suicide bomber. Our guys dodged the car, but this caused them to swerve, and lose control. Our lead car stopped (I still don’t know why, this was the worst thing to do), we in the middle car rear ended them, then the back car rear ended us with great force, sending us back into the lead car. These vehicles are extremely heavy, as they are bullet proof and bomb resistant, and wearing the body armor means that when you are struck from behind, your head flies forward and nothing else, causing great neck pain. Everyone in my car was alright, but the rear car was severely damaged and could not be driven. One of their guys was injured as well, at least with a concussion. Ours had a buckled hood and a few problems, but with ten minutes of tinkering it was operable.

 Three Kurdish men, these three illiterate but astute beekeepers, learning about a different type of beehive called a Top Bar Hive
Three Kurdish men, these three illiterate but astute beekeepers, learning about a different type of beehive called a Top Bar Hive
The little red care turned out not to be a bomber, but an old man with three younger men with him. The guys in the rear car were out and had them all sitting on the side of the road at gunpoint while they checked the car. They were very angry, and I am sure scared as well. Adrenalin was running high, and the fact that one of our guys was laying semi-conscious did not help the mood of our crew much. In the end, we determined that we could not sit there any longer and would have to press on to get home before dark. The guards commandeered the little red car from the old man, and in it brought their injured man to a nearby hospital which lay back in the direction which we had come. I felt bad for the old man. He looked scared and I am sure he had not meant to do what he did. Then again, he should look where he is going.

We made it back to our compound as it was getting dark. We were muddy beneath our clothes as the lake had been surrounded by deep soft mud that squished between our toes. We were hot and tired and a little tense. One of the more irritating results of the accident was that the automatic door locks in our vehicle constantly clicked themselves locked and unlocked, hundreds of times a minute, without respite, for two hours driving.

I was hungry so and I found the cook in the kitchen cleaning up. She is a woman from Baghdad, an Arab, not a Kurd or Assyrian like most of the people in this area. I learned something that I can share with you that night, when I had a hankering for cous-cous. I had had cous-cous with every meal in Dohuk, and I had seen some here in the kitchen before. But when I asked for it, she looked taken aback. I kept repeating “cous-cous”, and saying how good it was and how much I wanted it. I may even have rubbed my stomach and made the “mmmmm, mmmmmm” noise, which is an international sound/gesture for ‘good eatin’!’

A short while later I found out that, outside of the Maghreb in north Africa and in the United States, ‘cous-cous’ in Arabic refers to the female genitalia.

No wonder I didn’t get any, asking the way I did.

Check out Andrew Cote’s website, www.wanderingbuddhist.com. Andrew is a beekeeper, currently working in Iraq, mostly in the northern Kurdish region, teaching beekeeping skills to local beekeepers.

Andrew is a former high school drop-out turned Fulbright Scholar who has traveled to over seventy countries. He has been a shepherd in Ireland, a kebab shop worker in Wales, a high school teacher (without a high school diploma) in Ecuador, a bar-back in Japan, a textile exporter in Guatemala, a taxi driver in New York, a cinema projectionist in Connecticut, and currently, from September till May, he is an assistant professor at a small college in New England (he did in fact manage to go back to school and earn his degrees). Andrew enjoys beekeeping, kayaking, Scrabble, reading, and his fabulous girlfriend Aiste.

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