Originally published April 28, 2004
Every soldier should have this problem. Spc. Joshua Nalbandian of Scarborough has his truck running and ready to depart the thriving marketplace in the middle of this small northern Iraq city – but it’s still too dangerous to move.
The kids won’t get off the tailgate.
“Get back! C’mon guys, get back!” Nalbandian and his fellow soldiers shout, as a wave of Iraqi boys, all between 10 and 15, spill off the sidewalk and onto the first of three Humvees parked by the curb.
Finally, Sgt. Eric Currier of Bristol, N.H., gets out of the second truck and blows hard on a high-pitch whistle. “Get down!” Currier roars.
The boys get the message. One by one – still smiling and begging for a bottle of water, an MRE (meal ready to eat), a dollar – they climb down and tumble back onto the sidewalk.
“Go ahead. Start rolling!” yells Spc. Peter Morrison of Scarborough, standing on the passenger-side running board as Nalbandian inches the lead Humvee away from the curb.
The day-long party – guaranteed whenever the men and women in the camouflage fatigues come to town – is almost over. Once every week or so, a convoy of lucky soldiers from the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion leaves the perils of Mosul and drives 50 miles north to the pleasures of Dohuk.
Located in the heart of Iraq’s relatively tranquil Kurdish region, it’s a place where Americans can walk the streets without helmets rather than crouch inside an armored vehicle with weapons at the ready, where the local citizens not only smile, but begin every conversation with “My friend,” where U.S. soldiers are greeted with a small cup of hot tea, not incoming mortar shells.
Dohuk lies inside Iraq’s boundaries, but the people who live in the region call it “Kurdistan.” Unlike the Shiite and Sunni Muslims who do battle with U.S. forces far to the south, the people here smile broadly as they say, “Baghdad, no good. Fallujah, no good. Mosul, no good. Dohuk, very good. Dohuk very, very good.”
“You’re not going to believe it,” says Sgt. Dee Robinson of Sidney as Sunday’s 11-vehicle convoy heads north toward the mountains that separate Iraq from Turkey. “But I’m telling you, the kids will break your heart.”
For Robinson and other members of the 133rd’s Headquarters Support Company, the journey to Dohuk is first and foremost a shopping trip. As “field ordering officer” for the battalion, she comes armed with a long list of items – on this day mostly computer supplies – urgently needed back at Camp Marez.
But for 47 other soldiers, Dohuk offers a day of MWR (morale welfare and recreation). Translation: A place where you don’t have to spend all your time wondering if the next path you cross might be that of a terrorist.
The convoy, which left Camp Marez just before 8 a.m., arrives 90 minutes later at the Mazi Mart – a modern, air-conditioned mall on the outskirts of Dohuk. Most of the soldiers dismount their trucks there, leaving them with a small security detail while they hail taxis for the five-minute ride into town.
The three-vehicle purchasing convoy, however, stops only long enough to hire a translator and guide for the day – a 17-year-old boy named Sahla who lived in Liverpool with his father for five years and speaks fairly good English.
So can many members of Dohuk’s next generation. Before the day is out, Sahla will have plenty of competition.
Mistah! Shoe shine? Shoe Shine? Mistah! Mistah!”
Like metal filings to a magnet, they surround the Humvees in the parking lot next to the computer store – an ever-expanding pack of street-smart young boys who have learned in the past year that as the American soldiers go, so goes a gold mine of U.S. currency.
Their wooden shoeshine kits slung by leather straps over their shoulders, they pester and cajole and at times plead for the visitors to stick out a foot – oblivious to the fact that the brushed-leather boots worn in Iraq by U.S. soldiers are not designed to take a shine.
The solution? Pay them a dollar to not shine your shoes.
Karwan is 13. Uneh is 12. They both look much younger – and much smaller – than their stated age.
“People here shorter,” Sahla explains as he tries, without much success, to keep them from poaching on his good fortune.
Inside the store, the shopping has begun. “Last time I came here I had about $20,000 in my pocket,” said Lt. Michael Flynn of Bangor, who at 6-foot-7 towers over the Iraqis. “This time I’ve got about $6,000. My theory is that (the Army) always picks the biggest guy to carry the money.”
The battalion receives about $25,000 each month for private-sector supply runs. On this day, while Robinson checks items off her full-page list – ink cartridges, mouse pads, external CD drives, USB hubs, even a new Dell laptop – Flynn hands over $2,064 in cash to the grateful store owner.
“That’s more than some of these guys see in a whole year,” Flynn says later. “When we come into town, it’s huge.”
Before the Americans leave, a tray appears out of nowhere filled with small glasses of very hot, very sweet tea. Flynn and the other soldiers graciously accept and gingerly sip the scalding concoction.
“Mmmm,” Flynn says, nodding appreciatively. “Very good.”
The store owner beams. Back outside, the soldiers climb into the Humvees for the brief ride to the downtown marketplace.
The boys, their shoeshine boxes banging against their sides, sprint down the sidewalk, determined to keep up.
The boys get there first.
“Hey Mistah! Money! Hey Mistah! Money!” they chant over and over, pulling on shirtsleeves, patting on shoulders, anything to get attention.
A pen drops on the sidewalk. A boy dives for it, picks it up, wipes it clean with his shirt and hands it back to its owner. “Money, mistah!” he says. “Please, Mistah, money!”
Not all of them, however, succumb to begging. As the soldiers fan out to do their personal shopping, a new boy appears, slightly out of breath from running. He is not like the rest. He’s confident, relaxed, friendly and speaks much better English than his peers. He already knows the soldiers by name – or at least by rank – and greets each with a firm handshake and an entrepreneurial twinkle in his eye.
Poor Sahla is out of a job.
Hakem has arrived.
“I call him the mayor,” says Flynn. “That’s what he’s going to be around here someday.” Hakem (pronounced “Ha-KEEM”) Omar, 13, is well-known around Camp Marez.
He frequently makes the trip by bus to sell the soldiers jackknives, imitation Rolex watches, gold jewelry and whatever else he can lug from unit to unit. (Having seen the huge wads of cash he carries in his shoe, soldiers estimate Hakem’s monthly income at somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000.)
But having the soldiers on his home turf – well, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Sgt. 1st Class John Keene reminds Hakem that he wants to buy a new television. Hakem nods and leads the way into the labyrinth of shops that choke the alleys off the main street.
Through the mercantile jungle they go. Fine silk scarves hang in one shop; in the next, sparks fly as a man takes his screaming grinder to a strip of wrought iron.
It is capitalism caught in a spin cycle: Electric water heater elements hang above plastic coolers, brass doorknobs peek out from behind an array of fan belts, pruning shears compete for space with gold necklaces and cigarette lighters.
Above it all, electrical wires of every size and color crisscross from one rickety building to another – each going . . . somewhere.
Sgt. Tom Pushard of Pittston looks up at a dangling piece of frayed extension cord, its exposed metal only a few inches above his army cap.
“Boy,” Pushard says, shaking his head. “I’d sure hate to be walking through here in a rainstorm.” Hakem finally stops at an appliance store. He huddles with the proprietor over a 21-inch Hitachi television, shakes his head no, and walks out.
“Too much,” he says. “Come on.”
Into another store he goes. Same conversation, same result.
Finally, Hakem finds a third TV salesman. This time, after they barter for a few moments, Hakem brightens and beckons for Keene to come in. The deal is sealed.
The first merchant wanted $190. And the last one? “One hundred eighty seven,” Hakem says as two other boys wrestle the huge carton out the door and toward the Humvees.
Throughout the sprawling marketplace, other soldiers search for other deals.
Pfc. Josh Elder of Auburn huddles over the counter of a shop brimming with gold chains and jewelry, one of a dozen or so gold shops in one dazzling alley.
Elder has 108 American dollars in one stack, $92 worth of Iraqi dinars in another and, sitting atop the mixed currencies, a small 14-carat gold bracelet he bought for $135 back in Maine. The shop owner holds up a shiny, 16-inch, 21-carat-gold, chain necklace.
Elder, 26, is having an anxiety attack.
“Is that good? Is that a good deal?” he asks anyone in a uniform who happens by. Keene comes along, pulls out his calculator, punches in the variables, and tells him it’s up to him.
“Look at it this way,” Keene says. “If you like it, it’s a good deal.”
“Yes!” chimes in the shopkeeper. “Very, very good deal!”
Elder gulps and gathers his dollars, dinars and bracelet. He’s going for it.
Walking down the alley with his new necklace, Elder turns to one of his companions and asks, one more time, “That was a good deal . . . right?”
Other soldiers face different dilemmas.
Wherever Spc. Melissa Zadakis, 19, of Mexico goes, a crowd of adoring males follows. By mid-afternoon, she’s beginning to look a little dazed.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “They just all stare at you and they want to touch you and everything.”
One young Kurdish woman offered 2,000 Iraqi dinars (about $1.50) just to have her picture taken with Zadakis. A young man, smitten by the blonde woman with the M-16 slung over her shoulder, proposed on the spot.
He got no further. Standing next to Zadakis every minute of the day has been stocky Sgt. Ricky Mackenzie, 36, of Newport.
“Her uncle and I were fraternity brothers together, so I have to take good care of her,” Mackenzie says.
Half a block away, Spc. Joey Wing of Auburn says there’s good reason still to be careful: He and a few other soldiers had just finished lunch when a young Arab man began hollering and advancing toward them.
Before the soldiers could react, however, a throng of Kurdish men grabbed the man by both arms and hustled him down a dark alley.
Then what happened?
“Let’s just say they showed him the error of his ways,” Wing says with a smile. “They told us just to keep going, not too worry about it.”
It is the only time all day that the visitors from Maine face anything close to trouble.
It’s getting late. The soldiers begin to gather by the Humvees, and the young boys know they’ll soon leave to rendezvous with the rest of the convoy out at Mazi Mart.
One, smaller than the rest, is named Ragan, but all day long he’s been going by the name of “Ricky.” He wears a clean white shirt, a black-and-tan vest and cuffed trousers. He carries a green book bag on his back – inside is a copy of the Iraq Ministry for Education’s fifth-grade “English Course for Iraq and Handwriting Manual.”
Ricky, 10, has been studying hard.
“My friend no speak English and my teacher angry,” he says, putting on a mock scowl and slapping his wrist. Then he smiles and claps his hands. “But I speak English and my teacher applause!”
“You go to Mosul today?” Ricky asks. Yes, we go to Mosul. “Mosul no good,” he says. “My father say America’s good, Arab no good. Dohuk good, but Mosul no good.”
What happens in Mosul that is bad?
“I don’t know,” Ricky replies.
Near the front of the lead Humvee, Spc. Morrison of Scarborough finds himself in a debate with another boy who has just playfully called Morrison “Ali Baba” – the local label attached to anyone who cannot be trusted.
“You Ali Baba!” the boy says, breaking into laughter.
“No, you Ali Baba!” Morrison says, pointing back with his index finger.
“You Ali Baba!” the boy insists, by now giggling uncontrollably.
Morrison shakes his head and holds up an empty sandwich wrapper.
“He’s the Ali Baba,” he says. “He stole my chicken!”
Stolen . . . borrowed . . . given . . . whatever. As the day draws to an end, everyone’s happy.
The Humvees, finally free of the pedestrian horde, pull away from the curb and head toward the Mazi Mart. Undaunted, most of the boys pile into a taxi and give chase.
Out at the mall, as the soldiers regroup for the long ride back to Mosul, the boys make their final pitch for one more dollar, one more bottle of water, one more anything.
Ricky needs a notebook for school. Zadakis goes in and buys him one. Someone else gives Ricky an ice cream bar – he tries to give it to Zadakis in appreciation for the notebook, but she smiles and shakes her head.
“No, Ricky,” she says, melting as fast as the ice cream. “That’s for you.”
The soldiers break from their pre-trip safety briefing and pile into the long line of Humvees, heavy trucks and troop carriers. The boys jump up and down and wave, their “bye byes” barely audible over the rumble of the diesel engines.
Precisely at 4 p.m., right on schedule, the convoy moves out.
Flynn, the man who brought all the money, puts down a bottle of Sprite and picks up his M-16.
“Time to put our game faces on,” he says, a touch of resignation in his voice. “Lock and load, fellas.”
The trucks leave the parking lot and turn south onto the bumpy road to Mosul. Everywhere – back in the parking lot, on both sides of the road – people smile and wave farewell.
Back home in Maine, the signs proclaim, “The Way Life Should Be.” Here in Dohuk, there’s a sign over the Mazi Mart – still visible through the dust of the departing convoy – that conveys a similar message. It says, “Dream City.”
Staff Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at: