Ari and Jabbar, field assistants and friends. Kurdistan
At its core, ‘aid’ is about people helping people. It is about one person doing something that either directly or indirectly contributes to the improvement of another person’s situation. Be they a missionary, a misfit or a mercenary an aid worker won’t survive long unless they value human relationships.
This is nowhere more real than when you find yourself thrust into a remote location with strangers in tight, primitive living quarters without access to mass communication (TV, VCRs, internet, apps, Facebook). After three weeks of setting up IDP camps, warehouses and health programs in the heat and grit, after eating each monotonous meal with the same small group of people who speak English with strange accents, after sharing tents with people you’ve known for 10 minutes and, after listening to varieties of pop music you think are pure shit over and over and over because the sum total of all tapes and CDs in the group totals just 8, the misanthropes stand out like a zit on the Prom Queen’s cheek.
The system deals with these sorts of anti-social people very efficiently. They don’t get their contracts renewed. Or they get promoted to headquarters where they often end up in HR.
Among the few things that I will never diss about my aid years are the friendships I’ve made. They are friendships that blossomed quickly like potted plants smothered with super fertilizer. They were forged with interpreters, drivers, village elders, national counterparts and colleagues during interminable road trips, coordination meetings, refugee interviews and household surveys. What always made me smile was the discovery that almost all these people had ‘previous’ or ‘parallel’ lives which inevitably determined whether we became and remained friends. Our official jobs or roles or titles served merely as a device to connect us, not the substance of our connection.
I’ve mentioned a few such friends already and there is not enough space to recall them all. But a few do come to mind and I’d like to give them a tip of the hat.
- Peter, an office security officer in Islamabad who introduced to me so much great Pakistani music and over the years has turned out to be as close as brother. We have shared the rise and falls of life, romance and employment and heartbreak. I was asked to name his second son. He took a great leap of faith several years ago to create a new life in Australia, which hasn’t turned out the way he hoped.
- Ari, a thoughtful philosophical University student in Suleymaniah, who came to the UN as an interpreter and field assistant to my team. His knowledge of Kurdish politics and culture helped us truly interpret the strange situation we found ourselves in. His humour and love of poetry made our long roadtrips pass quicker. He left us after a few months to seek asylum in Sweden where he has prospered with a family and a Mercedes.
- Massoud, an Iranian nuclear physicist, educated in the States but returned to Iran after the revolution to support the leftist cause. He came to Islamabad as a refugee with his family and served us impeccably for several months before being resettled in Sweden. His sons are now adults and pursuing advanced studies. Massoud’s intimate knowledge of Iranian revolutionary politics gave me an informal second MA.
- Mazin, a Palestinian medical student in Karachi, who came to help me on an emergency basis as an Arabic interpreter. Our love of Amitabh Bachchan, drinking coffee and his endless stream of jokes bonded us like siblings. I helped him get a volunteer position in Libya twenty five years ago and he is now a senior manager in UNHCR.
- Stanley, the Hindi-speaking Keralite, labor activist, racounteur, development/micro-finance guru whom I met in post war Bosnia with whom I share a great love of Hindi, north Indian culture, a off-beat take on life and our families. Stan marches to his own drum and is now settled in Kolkata and writes obscure group emails. I got a lot of courage to not take the aid industry so seriously from Stan.
- Jamal, my assistant in Penjwin, a theatre loving Feli Kurd who loved 10CC’s music and married an Aussie doctor. They now live with their boys in Catherine, NT in Australia
Others I’ve lost touch with but think about often. Mahir the poetry reciting, chain smoking giant Kurd now in Norway; Qayum my assistant in Islamabad who was the most laid back human I’ve ever met; Said, the quiet driver in Dushanbe; Joao, the portly Portuguese office manager in Angola who exuded humility and compassion; Uddav from Kathmandu who was constantly coming up with dogdy herbal cures for cancer but ran the tightest medical warehouse in South Asia. I will always feel privileged for having them as colleagues and friends and for the opportunity to share drinks, jokes, stories, pictures of loved ones and dreams.
These relationships thrived even though our day-to-day contact was short lived; we met, spent a few intense months together and then moved on or away. Saying goodbye was difficult; sometimes reunions were held but without the soil of the original context I found most friendships, especially those with expatriate colleagues, didn’t stand the passage of time. Maybe because as expats it was the experience of being where we were, doing what we were doing, that was the most important element of our connection. Our conversations tended to be about next jobs, what organizations were good to work for, who knew who–basic career networking. Or we oohed and aahed about our discoveries of the particular exotic country we were in.
With national staff the basis of friendship was not the job, or the locality. We may have met in a unique place but it was something else that bonded us. Things and interests that did not require the temporary, field-work bubble to survive.
The general rule I’ve just stated applies equally to romantic relationships. Many a horny and lonely aid worker hook-up in the field finding inchoate reassurance by sharing the same sleeping bag. When the mountains of Kurdistan give way to the malls of America however, and you trade the UN 4X4 in for a second hand Hyundai romance tends to fade pretty quick. Among all man-made disasters, the field romance stands out from the pack for its tremendously consistent record of churning out disappointment and bitterness.
Be assured I am not about to detail my own experience in this space! But I would be remiss if I did not introduce here Yvonne whom I met in Penjwin and to whom I’ve been married for two decades. Without a doubt life after Iraq was never the same again. Decisions about work and career suddenly became so much more complicated. Fine lines had to be negotiated and thin ice traversed at every turn. Two careers needed to be planned and accommodated, an achievement far more challenging than the simple math suggests.
There is a statistic that the number one cause of death of aid workers is road accidents. I would hazard a guess that the number one cause of death of aid workers’ careers is field romance. This is one of those hidden hazards of the sector. Something no one tells you about when you sign up. But it is true: maintaining a healthy happy relationship with a significant other during an aid career is nigh unto impossible. Thirty years on, the balancing act was still a tough one and eventually it was one of the reasons I called it a day.
So let this be a clarion call to all you young aspiring humanitarians. Are you ready to walk the plank and leave behind or be left behind by the love of your life if need be? Because that fateful crossroads, the one where Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan and Billy Graham and Paul of Tarsus and Steve Jobs all had to make a a devilish deal, will soon come your way.