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Chapter 7: A Little Bit of Home

Khanaqin, Iraq. April 9

After a day of working by screens and notebooks - this story doesn't write itself after all - I accepted Manar's invitation to the family house in Khanaqin. The clouds had gathered around us and as we hit the roads there was thunder in all directions. We drove fast as we were running late this night that concluded Ramadan and begun the Eid holiday, but for me I could have stayed perfectly still, watching the skies. I cannot tell you why it is so, but it is clear that thunderstorms in the Middle East are something entirely different from Sweden. It was the most impressive display of lightning I have ever seen.

Arriving at the family house, Manar explained to me some traditional customs about hosting and receiving guests. It is common to have at least one room dedicated for receiving guests. It is nothing like a "guest room" as I've known them where the most important furniture is a bed for overnight stays. Instead, it is purely for the reception of guests, similar to a waiting hall in a medical establishment with couches and cushions surrounding the room to allow for big gatherings. Unlike the minimal and clinical decoration found at the dentist, these rooms can be lavishly decorated and are optimised for maximum comfort. This room is always located near the house entry so the guests never have to see the rest of the house, and traditionally they often don't. It is a very different approach from the mandatory round of house-showing that initiates any host-guest relationship in my own country.

I got to meet the male family members of Manar - son, brother and father - all lovely in their own ways. The boy made a particular impression with his pitch perfect pronunciation of english, with a touch of a classy British accent. Manar's eyes were bigger than mine as he scratched his head. "He has never spoken english before." There were also multiple women in the household, wifes and sisters, but they had their separate wing of the house and were never introduced to me. The contrasts of cultures in the consideration of gender is no new topic and I will not discuss it further here. The point is that it was another of many cues telling me the same thing:

"You are in a faraway land"

As other seasoned travelers perhaps will recognise, this is a message that act as an amplifier for my current traveling mood. If I am feeling well - which I mostly am or I would not be traveling much - I get even more excited. If I am not, I feel all the more alienated and lonely. Thus far in my journey, the Iraqis have constantly done a tremendous caretaking job to keep me in good spirits at all times. They even have many idioms for their immense hospitality, some being "The host is the slave, the guest is the master" and "for every round the tire spins, you are welcome". And so, as we hurriedly jumped out of the car in the complete waterfall that was rain, it was with a smile on my face that I took a mental screenshot thinking "Somewhere in Iraq...", proud of me feeling joy in a place that make most people think of anything but.

We entered a café dominated by shisha and dominoes. There was a football game projected on the wall, UEFA Champions' League quarter final between Real Madrid and Manchester City. The game in itself was insignificant to me as I have not followed professional football for years. Yet, a deeper feeling crept up, stunning me in the middle of the hall. During all my youth, me and my father always watched the Champions' League games together, often to the crackling noise and warming flames from the fireplace. The tuesdays and wednesdays of the long, dark winter became mini holidays with our ritual, and a highlight of the otherwise gloom season. But more than nostalgia, what startled me was the possibility that my father might watch the same game, at that very moment, just like we used to. Somehow, it felt like that made him sit right beside me.

The night went on with the aforementioned shisha and dominoes, my first experience with the game that would not be my last. The football match finished but the feeling remained, a lingering reassurance that even in this strange place, my family walks with me. I think of how Samwise Gamgee had brought the best salt in all the Shire for their journey to Mordor, in case they would come upon a roast chicken. Frodo looks at him, his face turning from amusement to bittersweet remembrance of the light they have left behind.

It is special... It's a little bit of home.


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