The 4:10 flight from Istanbul came in a little early. Even though many of us had been up all night traveling, the ICHF team was excited to get to work. Nabwa Qaragholi, the determined Executive Director of Living Light International, met the team at the Basra Airport. With a lethal combination of kindness and pushiness, Ms. Qaragholi handles the backstage logistics in Iraq to make sure the extended program launching this week will run smoothly.
After loading our kit for the drive, we met our army escorts and rolled out into the desert. There is a certain stark beauty to Iraq that grabs romantic figures like T.E. Lawrence and Captain Sir Richard Burton. The sand has a barely pinkish hue and is very fine, so when it kicks up it stays there. The affect is that, without any real point of reference, you can’t tell where the land and sky meet at the horizon. It blurs like a finger dragged across a line of chalk.
In the light traffic the drive through the desert is featureless but quick. As we approached Nasiriyah, the landscape got greener, sort of. In these brutal summer months the only thing growing is sparse scrub. The dry brush gives way to the tall, thick reeds of the marshes fed by the ancient Euphrates River, and when you cross it you are in the Fertile Crescent where civilization started. In fact, we are only about an hour away from Ur, the biblical city considered the oldest settlement in the world.
Nasiriyah is hard to conceive. There is still rubble that hasn’t been cleaned up from the war, but there is new construction going forward as well. Large walled homes abound, painted gloriously in a riot of color. Older buildings are the color of the khakis my wife won’t let me wear out of the house.
At the Ministry of Health guesthouse, Dr. Novick and the ICHF team are greeted warmly as old friends embrace and have a laugh. This is the first trip of an extended yearlong program, but friendships have been cemented over several shorter ICHF Mission trips over the last two years. The famed Arab hospitality is lavish and an Iraqi friend is a friend for life. It is one of those scenes that makes the troubles of the last decade seem far off – where they should stay.
We were fed an enormous traditional meal of chicken and rice with peppers. Set out on platters around the tables was a blackened fish called silva, a creature about 14 inches long. Eat it with our fingers, and once you learn the trick of taking some without a getting a mouthful of bones, it is excellent. Being Ramadan, our hosts were fasting and didn’t join us.
And while this was a happy occasion, both the ICHF team and our hosts know that it is time to get to work: the year ahead will be trying but triumphant as well, for the volunteers, Iraq and mostly its children.