Erbil

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On the other side of the world, there is a desert full of flowers and orange blossoms unfolding across northern Iraq.  I watch it from my rooftop, on a concrete compound ringed with armed soldiers, and it’s oddly less isolating to know that because of COVID my life is not the only one that’s been locked down.  The streets are silent with curfews but the sun still rises in an early blue sky, and church bells mingle with the call to prayer in this tolerant region of Kurdistan.

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The warm walls and faded bricks of my Iraqi neighborhood surround a Mediterranean garden I didn’t expect, where rose-tiled sidewalks are littered with olives and shaded by fruit trees.  Rosebushes are everywhere, the huge, fluffy kind with flowers so big they droop at the neck, and I walk around making sure to see how beautiful they are.  Red, pink, yellow, deeply vibrant, and all the colors in between.  It is clear that somebody loved this place once.  Figs and orange trees and rooftop patios reveal a different version of life beneath decades of war.

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We are not all warriors and we are not all gardeners, but we’re lucky if we are valuable in the place where we’re born.

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Daily life is quiet.  This morning I’m on the roof watering a pot of withering flowers rescued from an empty house, and the birds sing like crazy while I sit here with my coffee and a piece of baklava.

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The past nine months have been a painful downshift into restricted possibilities, but I like the baklava part.  I also like my tiny fridge and electric kettle, and figured out that rice can be made in the microwave.  In the absence of kids I take care of sourdough starter, and thank heaven (and Allah) for a strangely steady supply of salted, Lurpak butter.

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The smells of spiced meat and cucumbers lift through the air on the fumes of chopped onions from across the street, where our Iraqi neighbors sit next to their grills, tending kebabs.  Every morning I water a little bucket of mint, and hope it will grow and take over my balcony in a waving ocean of green.

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There are many ways to fear loss.  Do we fear losing the future, or the past?  When I came here, I thought the tragedy was losing what I knew, only to find what I really feared was losing the future.  Not fear of my babies growing up, but fear of them growing up and away from me.

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The hard part about moving on isn’t about letting go of the past, but about letting go of a future you thought you knew.  It is accepting a blank slate and allowing your story to be re-written.

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And eventually finding yourself again, with your loves and friendships still there to greet you on the unchosen path.  Maybe with Iraqi cookies filled with dates and sumac instead of chocolate easter bunnies.  Or a Mother’s Day spent reminding other people’s boys to call their Moms.

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If you’re lucky, there will be a few new friends that add dimension to your life.

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Who gets to choose, anyway?  Nobody gets to do that.  We cannot control the future any more than we can control a summer storm, rolling over a concrete rooftop in Kurdistan.  At least there are cookies and thunderstorms.  The world may disagree on the topic of God, but everyone loves those.

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