Day 99 on the Maersk Arkansas
When I first found out that we would begin calling the port of Umm Qasr, Iraq to say I was apprehensive about it would be an understatement. The only images I had of Iraq came from the media and none of them were good. In my head I could only see, violence, bombs and a population of people who hate Americans and would do anything at a chance to harm to anything representing America. On our first night up the river towards Umm Qasr everyone was on edge and the half sunken ships lining our path up the river was a stark reminder of our history with Iraq.
When we first pulled alongside and the gangway hit the dock I didn’t know what to expect as the Iraqi longshoremen made their way onto the ship. I tried to think positive but in the back of my mind negative thoughts kept creeping in. I wondered if any of these men had lost a loved one to an American bomb or bullet? Would anyone be looking for revenge and where is the damn bomb sniffing dog? Each visit I became more at ease and moved past my initial fears.
After calls to Umm Qasr I soon realized that the longshoremen in Iraqi were the friendliest of any port I had visited. I quickly learned that they loved to joke around and learn what they can about us and America. Some worked hard all day, some doing the minimum. Some spend all day yelling, some spend most the day laughing but just like in America these guys just wanted to have a job that pays so they can support their family and hold their head up with pride.
I knew that when calling Umm Qasr we would not be able to leave the port and figured that I would have no way to try Iraqi food, I could not have been more wrong. In fact out of all the ports I have been in the Middle East, Iraq has been the place where I have tasted the most local fare and actually had a chance to see them cooking. The truck drivers at the port work around the clock and their trucks act as a workplace, bed and kitchen. During breaks in the action, a driver will hop out of his truck and open a compartment under the flatbed that unfolds to a table. Inside there is a gas burner that is used to cook food, heat stew in a pot, fry eggs in a pan or heat water for tea.
At some point in the day you can find the drivers socializing around a sizzling pan or sitting on a carpet drinking tea together. In today’s world everyone is so trapped in their own cocoon that no one has time to stop and interact with one another. The Captain and I were discussing the same and he talked about how once upon a time there was no such thing as a cup holder in cars. Cup holders were not needed because if you wanted coffee in the morning you made time to sit down with family and drink it before you left. Today carmakers use the number of cup holders a car has as a major selling point. If the Iraqi drivers have cup holders in their trucks they don’t get much use because when its meal or break time they get out their carpets and interact.
One day a couple drivers noticed me taking pictures of them from the ship and motioned for me to come down. After posing for a few shots on their carpet, they asked me to sit. I had second thoughts about taking a dockside tea break since I was on watch but not wanting to be rude I took my boots off and had a seat on the red carpet with a design of a tea being poured from a pot. The men spoke fairly good english and they asked me questions about America and I attempted to dispel the rumor that everyone in America is rich and white. I asked them about Iraq and changes since Saddam.
One man said he had come from the city of Mosul for work in the port and they were happy that commercial cargo was moving through the port again. They were older men and had seen Iraq go through a lot of ups and downs but were positive about its future. When I was done I stood and graciously shook their hands and thanked them for their hospitality to which they said “Habibi” which means translates to “my love” or “my dear” in Arabic but is used as a term of endearment and is used a lot in greeting and parting of good friends.
My eyes are opened a bit more of the idea of making time to slow things down sometimes and enjoy others company. I am not saying we should all rip the cup holders from our cars but sometimes its ok to stop and ask yourself where it is that you are rushing to that you don’t have 5 minutes to sip your tea or coffee with you friends or family.
“Most people think great god will come from the sky
Take away everything and make everybody feel high
If you know what life is worth, you would look for yours on earth”
– Bob Marley