Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Chapter 37: Conversing with a Driver

Mr Swain (name changed to protect identity) became my driver for the entire duration of my time in Northern Iraq.

At a similar age to myself at the time, Mr Swain, or Kak Swain as the Kurdish people prefer to say, was small in stature but large in presence. He was a popular and respected figure amongst all the UN drivers. He approached his job with pride and with a methodical and meticulous precision.

Upon my arrival to Northern Iraq I was to learn that Mr Swain was the driver assigned to the Mini Hydro project and I quickly discovered that his cautious driving skills were a scarcity in the region so I quickly adopted him as my own.

Northern Iraq has not produced many world driver champions, and for very good reason. The wreckage along the roadside is testament to this sporting aberration so although Mr Swain was not a technically exacting driver he was my best chance of leaving the perilous roads of Northern Iraq alive. He also quickly became a very good friend and trusted colleague.

Over the course of two years we developed a very close relationship and our conversations within the privacy of the cabin of the car became a pleasantly anticipated time of knowledge and entertainment. I gained an unprecedented and privileged insight into the Kurdish and Iraqi cultures as a result of his unrestrained confessions. And his quietly droll sense of humour grew on me like a wonderfully comfortable pair of slippers.

Towards the end of my stay in the North as the American and Allied military build-up took place around us and uncertainty, disinformation and nervousness prevailed Mr Swain was to fulfil an unexpected role. Each morning he would provide valuable translations of the Iraqi nightly newsreels from the previous evening which enabled me to gain an insight into the Iraqi President’s thoughts and motivations as the political and military noose tightened on the country. Mr Swain also kept our vehicle continually topped up with fuel and kept a careful vidual on the daily chatter on the radio listening for any sudden deterioration in the political situation. With my passport continually on my person a quick dash to the Turkish border to escape was always an option.

Although extremely patriotic, from his somewhat privileged position as a UN driver he viewed his compatriots with an air of objectivity as though he was not one of them. This sense of detachment was of course heightened from our position of air conditioned comfort in a late model Nissan Patrol looking out at the Kurdish people sweating or freezing, depending on the season, in their batted Toyota pickups. His humour regularly was at their expense.

On one occasion when a car struggled past I was shocked to see a sheep sitting in the front seat and the man’s wife relegated to the back. Mr Swain simply turned to me to acknowledge my disbelief with a grin saying, “the sheep is more valuable.” Whether this snippet of information was accurate or not still remains a mystery as my senses were too overwhelmed to enter into a debate.

Another moment of detached observation came when we took a rest stop in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on a return journey from Dohuk. We sat eating greasy portions of chicken and chips in a restaurant with a view out onto the street. At a moment of emotional vulnerability and the continual sight of dust, decay and deterioration was causing me irritation I asked what would happen if the whole city was replaced with new buildings, paved roads, footpaths, manicured lawns and gardens together with a functioning system of curb and channelling. He carefully wiped his moustache with his napkin, leaned towards me before stating with his trademark preamble, “I say to you Mr Peter…after a week it will be like this again.”

I never had cause to question Mr Swain’s Muslim faith. As with every aspect of his life he approached his belief with a quiet devoted commitment. Regularly our conversations would turn to religion and an informed, inspiring discussion would follow. However, a passing mosque in a rural and isolated setting almost gave me cause to wonder. Mr Swain waved a hand at the little mosque and said with conviction, “a mosque without a mullah…” He paused and I waited with apprehension. Was his objective humour to also encompass his unwavering Islamic faith? It was unthinkable and I waited with a certain amount of disappointment for the “is like a…” to conclude the popular comical statement. But my brief moment of concern was unfounded as he ended his observation with simply, “is useless.”

Fluent in several languages including Arabic, Kurdish and English Mr Swain always retained the communication upper hand. One of the radio channels used by the UN was reserved for conversations in languages other than English and the drivers adopted this channel as their gossip line. The drivers would unashamedly use this facility to discuss international staff without any remorse or discretion. I was also constantly suspicious at the translated information that I was receiving. I suspected it was geared towards the convenience of the drivers whenever the need arose. The information regarding the time of checkpoint closures was a continuing subject of contention. A fictitious early checkpoint closure, particularly in the winter months, meant a convenient return from Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah to the benefit of the drivers. This digression from the truth was confirmed when I discussed the exact closure times with a Jordanian colleague well out of earshot of Mr Swain over lunch in Dohuk. The Jordanian happened to accompany us on our return journey to Erbil and as we approached the checkpoint I suspected the conversation, conducted in Arabic, between my driver and the Jordanian had turned to this subject. I seized the moment and turned to my driver and said with tongue in cheek, “you lying bastard.” Mr Swain, of course, was so startled we almost left the road, not at my expletive but at how I understood the content of their conversation. From that moment forth Mr Swain remained continually suspicious at the depth of my knowledge of the languages being spoken around me and I managed, psychologically at least, to claw back some of the communication upper hand.     

Mr Swain would come to my aid on many occasions sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Stopping for a drink in a town high in the mountains behind Erbil a beggar approached me on the sidewalk. Instinctively I put my hand in my pocket to pull out some loose change. Mr Swain placed his hand on my arm to stop my action. “No Mr Peter. Don’t give money.” Seeing the confusion on my face he continued to explain. “The man has more money than you.” And then he proceeded to explain that the beggars, having nothing else to do, beg for recreation. It’s what they do. I then learnt from Mr Swain that one had died recently and when they searched his house they found astonishing amounts of the local currency. This extraordinary confession simply added to the complex and bewildering tapestry of that part of the world.

The irony of Australia’s commitment the Alliance was not lost on Mr Swain either. Arriving at work one morning with a broad grin on his face he exclaimed, “Your stupid “President” is sending two thousand troops to Iraq.” He burst into a mocking laughter before continuing. “What difference is that going to make?” With America’s military build up in the region reaching suffocating proportions I had to agree.

Mr Swain also possessed a sense of theatre. Passing a group of people huddled together on the outskirts of Kirkuk I queried their purpose. Mr Swain turned and leaned towards me as if conveying a well-guarded secret. In a quiet carefully contrived voice, which sent shivers down my spine, he divulged, “it is for the death.”

Local politics didn’t escape Mr Swain’s wit either. Elite members of the governing party mostly lived in a town just to the north of Erbil high in the hills to enjoy breathtaking views and cooling breezes in the hot summer months. To enable the daily commute into parliament to be more comfortable they decided, at considerable expense, to upgrade the road linking the two centres. This meant new bridges, considerable earthworks to straighten the road, extra lanes and, bizarrely, a flyover within Erbil to negotiate a particularly busy, and disruptive - as seen through the eyes of the ruling elite, intersection. The flyover, which was the first of its kind in the North, provided Mr Swain with a constant source of mirth. He considered the term flyover to be particularly apt as this is what he felt the Kurdish drivers, inexperienced with such an engineering structure, would be doing upon completion; flying off the flyover.  

On the day of my evacuation I specifically requested Mr Swain to drive me down to Baghdad. Not only did I want a safe and uncomplicated final drive to the country’s capital but I wanted to spend a few more hours in the company of this extraordinary individual. As the GMC taxi pulled out of the garage compound for the long haul run through to Amman I looked back to give Mr Swain a final wave but he was already consumed by the company of his fellow Kurdish drivers. I was left wondering if I had already been relegated to the ranks of just another international he had driven through his country.

No comments: