Queen of Denial, Chapter 11
posted September 6, 2012
On my last afternoon in Baghdad I took a walk down through my neighborhood ending up where the daily food market was held. As I walked down the dusty streets I handed 100 dinar notes to every child I passed, and when I ran out of children I started handing out money to the women and old men who were following me.
I considered it a kind of penance for striking back at the young man who had attacked me from his bicycle.
To this day, I believe he deserved to be scared and hurt at least a little after scaring me as he did; however, I felt like I had lost control when I jumped on his bike, and that scared me even more than the stunt he pulled. The dinars I passed out were what remained after hiding as much money as possible in my luggage. After months of brainstorming, I had finally settled on a hiding place for my tip money that I was willing to trust to get me safely through customs and out of Baghdad.
In spite of convincing myself that I had found the perfect hiding place, I knew the real test was going through airport security without first fainting, having a panic attack, or worst of all, landing in jail.
Approximately one month prior to my scheduled departure date on June 1st, 1982, I accidentally stumbled upon the idea for a place to hide my constantly growing piles of dinars. It happened that I was asked to accompany one of the Polish singers from the disco band we performed and lived with, on a shopping trip to purchase a gift to bring home to her family in Poland. It was suggested to us that one of Iraq’s biggest exports were nuts, dried fruits, and dates in particular. The fancy gift shops that specialized in this kind of gift box were still easy to find during the war. While perusing the fancy gift shops that populated the souk in Old Baghdad I began to formulate an idea for hiding my money. The gift boxes came in a variety of sizes and were elaborately wrapped in colored cellophane and tinfoil. My Polish friend decided upon a fairly large gift box for her family, and I followed her lead and bought one as well. At the time my friend assumed I was buying a souvenir to take home with me. However, when we got back home, I explained what I really wanted to do with my box of dates. My Polish co-worker had been in and out of Baghdad several times before and must have successfully found her own way of getting dinars out of the country. (Our tip money was evenly shared amongst all the entertainers; therefore, the disco band had the same monetary dilemma as we in the Middle Eastern show.)
When she understood what I intended to do, she gave me a “thumbs up” with a big smile congratulating me on my ingenuity.
The gift box I purchased held approximately 200 large dates each individually wrapped in colorful tinfoil. The large box was covered and lined with tinfoil. My idea was to very carefully undo the box so it didn’t show. I would carefully remove the inner lining of the box. My plan was to layer dinars along the sides and bottom of the box and then replace the tinfoil lining covering up the money. I would also wrap a dinar note or two around each date and carefully rewrap them. With luck, taking my time, working slowly and very carefully, I planned to reassemble the box to look exactly as it did in the store.
I was travelling with two large trunks. After measuring the width, I figured I could fit three of the largest sized gift boxes right on top of each trunk in plain view. After completing one box and successfully hiding approximately 30,000 dinars, I also realized that even filling six boxes wasn’t going to be enough space to hide all of my still accumulating tip money. I thought of several ways I could dispense with my excess cash before leaving the country. The easiest solution was giving my excess cash to the new band and singers posing as a “departing gift”. They would be ecstatic (only because they still didn’t realize what a huge problem the tip money created over time). Knowing the reality of the situation, I really didn’t want to do that to my new friends. The Iraqi borders had been closed for so long now that finding something more to buy and take with me was pretty near impossible. Having watched the neighborhood families’ children playing outside for the past three months, coupled with the guilt I felt about attacking the young man who had menaced me from his bicycle, I finally decided that my excess cash could be better spent by the Iraqi people who lived around me.
Every day I worked on my boxes in our living room where there was space to spread out everything I needed to do the job. My friends would watch, everyone giving me advice and debating about their “best” hiding place ideas. It truly became the obsession of everyone who worked and lived with me during my stay in Baghdad.
Funny as it sounds, the incredible amounts of money we were earning nightly eventually became a burden.
Sometime during my last month and while I was working on the boxes, it was suggested that in addition to putting my boxes in plain view, I should also wear something slightly sexy to distract the male customs agents that would be searching my two trunks. Sexy in Baghdad was pretty low key especially compared to “sexy” in the USA. My friend was suggesting I wear something sleeveless with a modestly low neckline, like a tank top. It would be foolish to wear something so low as to be seriously offensive to the predominantly Muslim agents. The last thing I wanted was to be overtly out of place and more likely to attract too much attention to myself. Dressed in a tank top and knee length skirt I would just look like a tourist. The idea was to distract the customs agent long enough to keep his eyes off the first thing he would see when he opened my trunks (my gift boxes for family and friends).
My house mates and I had all become fast friends over the three months we lived and worked together. We would talk to each other in our different languages along with lots of sign language (Lebanese Arabic, Polish, English and French). It still makes me laugh remembering the depth of our conversations and how in complicated the shared information and stories could be, often times lasting for hours (especially after a bit of Polish vodka).
My departure date finally arrived, and my flight out of Iraq was due to leave that evening. This lucrative nightmare, blessed with incredible friendships were on my mind as I walked the now familiar path down to the outdoor market and river. I said my farewells to the vendors I frequented almost daily, and wished them peace in the near future.
I had an appointment at the Bank of Baghdad to collect my three months’salary in American travelers checks that afternoon. Afterwards I would be taken directly to the airport. Evidently, once I had my pay in hand, my Iraqi visa expired and I became a transient traveler and not allowed to be on Iraqi soil.
That afternoon while waiting in line at the bank, I remember seeing a very old man waiting in the line parallel to mine. He was dressed in dark dusty Bedouin style robes. He had a tanned, craggy face, with a capped head. He moved slowly forward hunched over a tall walking stick with a bundle of goatskins tied to it. He looked like he had literally walked to the bank from the desert and right off a Biblical movie set. I thought to myself, wow, they must allow Bedouins to trade their goatskins for cash. Ludicrous as that sounds, it really was the first thing that crossed my mind as I tried to envision what this regal looking old gentleman of the desert would do with his goat skins when he reached the bank teller. What happened next was fantastic, a wonderful example of the old ways mingling with the new Middle East. The elderly goat herder, for that is what he appeared to be, approached the service counter and presented his bundle of goatskins to the young, western suited teller.
After pushing back his long sleeves to expose his aged and sun darkened hands, he very carefully unfolded the goat skins to expose piles of money. I guess he didn’t have to trade goat skins after all! I watched, lost in thoughts of Baghdad, then Syria and Lebanon as this movie perfect scene unfolded before my eyes. I think now it was a perfect reminder of all that I truly loved about the Middle Eastern countries I had visited and lived in for the past two years. It was the perfect way to say good-bye to Baghdad.
The airport was just outside the city and looked more like a military base. There were soldiers posted everywhere, tanks parked on the runways and around the terminal buildings. Military issue rifles and machine guns were in the hands of almost every man I encountered. It was an airport under siege. I had become so accustomed to the huge military presence that I barely noticed it anymore and especially not today. I had one thought burning a hole in my brain and that was getting through security and on the plane and finally out of Baghdad. I remember how hot it was that day, but, I shivered with nervous tension.
Although I was covered in sweat like everyone else, my sweat was cold and greasy with fear. So, I did what I do best: before going on stage, I concentrated so hard on my final destination and “getting through” security that I managed to put my fear in check and deal with the task at hand. (I convinced myself of success and complete and total denial of the danger I was in.)
I entered the airport and immediately joined the crowd moving towards the first security check point. Before I could take a step on my own, I was swallowed up by the mass of humanity, veiled women, children, and soldiers, lots of soldiers’ heads, faces, and sweat stained uniforms. I was moved forward by this amoeba-like mass that swept me almost off my feet towards the customs agents. As I got close enough to actually see the faces of the soldiers searching through everyone’s luggage, I remember feeling a little relieved. They were young, my own age at the most, and obviously proud of the power given them by their jobs. To my mind this made them fairly easy to seduce with my eyes and smile just like I did nightly on stage. As I watched them I saw that the agents were talking and even smiling as they tore into each and every traveler’s personal property. It was an extremely lengthy process as you can imagine. By the time I reached the head of the line I was so mentally and physically exhausted from the effort of keeping my fear at bay that I felt like I was in a dream and watching myself approach the soldiers from above. Then I was in front of my soldier and I forced myself to believe that I would pull this off. The man in front of me was young, good looking in his uniform and stood tall as he proudly beckoning me to come forward for inspection. I put on my best stage smile and walked forward slowly so he would notice my exposed arms and bare calves. His reaction was exactly what I was hoping for and I said a grateful prayer to anyone listening. He returned my smile and when he looked me in the face I took the opportunity to grip him with my eyes. It worked and he kept smiling and looking at me as he glanced at my US passport he even started to try out his little English while he opened my first trunk. He never even looked down while he removed the three boxes of dates on top of my clothing and costumes. To this day I can still physically feel the weight that seemed to float up from my body and give me peace as I continued to play my role as the most beautiful woman in the world.
It was all going better than I could have planned until my soldier was just about finished emptying my second trunk. As we continued our very limited English/Arabic conversation, he touched something in the bottom of my trunk and immediately looked down.
When he raised his head and faced me, his eyes were wide open and a frown replaced his smile. I knew it wasn’t the gift boxes as they lay untouched and un-noticed amongst my piles of belongings. My heart started racing as I tried to imagine what he might have found at the bottom of my trunk to make him react in such a way. It seemed an eternity until he finally showed me the objectionable item. The culprit was a cassette tape, and the bottom of my trunk was full of them. I had no idea it was forbidden to take tapes out of the country and unfortunately I learned the hard way. Gratefully, there was no fine or jail time for this offense. The soldier reprimanded me with a raised voice and a shaking finger in my face, and then he proceeded to seize all my beloved music tapes. This may not seem that severe in light of the fact the real illegal booty in my trunks was sitting in boxes right in front of this man. However, losing all my music tapes was devastating to me. I had collected tapes since I started traveling overseas and had taped a lot of music with my little portable cassette player as well (which somehow managed to go undetected). My cassette player and tapes provided me with an important tie to my home and friends as well as being the only entertainment I had for much of the time I travelled. I kept telling myself that it was the price I had to pay for getting my boxes through customs without incident. My crushed spirits obviously touched my soldier as well. After emptying my trunk of at least a hundred cassette tapes, he said I could pick one to take with me (out of the kindness of his heart of course). He would only allow me to pick one from the professionally labeled tapes. I couldn’t pick one of the cassettes I had recorded and labeled myself (because they might contain state secrets of a Belly Dancer, oh no!). I picked my favorite Stevie Wonder tape and then tried to get him to let me take another Michael Jackson tape I loved. No was the answer, and so I moved past the security check point and headed towards my plane out of Baghdad with my one and only cassette tape, my tip money and my dates.
Photos of Baghdad, "Memories" Chapter 11:
I feel like I’m saying good-bye to Baghdad all over again. I haven’t thought about my time there in many years and writing about the
people and places I knew has brought them back into my daily consciousness … So, I guess I am saying good bye again with
Chapter 11; or at least good bye for now.
I will always remember my first band (as I had two during my three month stay). They were my family and my friends.
My BFFs for sure, they made a very scary place home for me and I will never forget kindness, protectiveness and most of all their ability to make me laugh in the face of war.
My Polish friends resting between shows. I will always remember drinking Polish vodka and food delicacies from a much anticipated care package from home. They were great entertainers, fun loving and very kind housemates.
Again my temporary "brother, father and friend", oh yeah and he was as fantastic percussionist as well.
Two Lebanese waiters who were almost daily visitors to our "villa".
The view from my rooftop bedroom in about 120 degree weather and no air conditioning, a very fond memory I must say!
As well as the dusty or muddy streets we strolled daily from our Baghdad home.
I do miss visiting the old towns of every place I’ve travelled during my lifetime.
Here a photo where old meets new and all was stopped due to the war.
During the years since I was in Iraq, I’ve often thought about those innocent children in that war tom country.
Most of them born into war and have lived it for the majority of their lives. It makes me very sad to realize that their country’s situation only grew worse with time.
In spite of all the fear, soldiers, tanks and weapons that were a daily part of living in Baghdad once in a while a I found a photo that in its simplicity spoke to me of the "people" of Iraq and not the war machine
Ready for more?
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