On Friday, Kurdistan’s migrant workers finally rest. And, apparently, get utterly wasted with mustachioed American dudes.
During the week, Sulaymaniah's migrants work in restaurants, on construction sites, as janitors and street sweepers and domestic workers. Most get every second Friday off. On these two days of the month they come to Bagh Gashti, a small park at the mouth of the central bazaar, to drink tea and smoke cigarettes in the shadow of a Saddam-era “five star” hotel. They don’t have much money, but even if they did, there’s not much else to do in this town.
For hours I watch the quiet foot traffic at the entrance to the park. The restless young men making the rounds, the older guys in conspiratorial circles, whispering of what once was and what should be. A sunburned man I recognize sits prostrate on the ground looking into the sun. During the week he sells phone cards on the street. But on Friday, when people are feeling religious and generous and happy, he puts aside his merchandise and begs for change.
Infinite cups of tea are consumed, for which everyone tries to pay. Infinite cigarettes are shared-- the cheap thin Korean kind for everyday smoking and the fat luxurious Chinese Marlboro’s, a special treat.
Thousands of young Nepalis, Bangladeshis, Indians, Ethiopians, Iranians, Pakistanis, Arabs and other human beings with unfashionable passports have descended on this corner of Iraq in the past six years. They’re drawn by promises of high wages and better living conditions. They’ll work a few years, keep their heads low, stack up some dinars, and come home and get married.
But when they show up at the sketchy “employment agencies” in Khatmandu or Dhaka or Bangalore and sign on for two year contracts in a foreign land, they have no idea where they’ll eventually end up. They have no idea they’ll have their passports confiscated. And they wonder when they’ll actually come home.
Bikash wonders. I approach him because he looks really fly with the lip ring and long hair. Like a rocker waiting for his break. He’s a young guy from Nepal, and he’s been here a couple years. He laughs easily and loudly and says he sings when I ask him if he knows any musicians. He works 7 days a week, and spends his three or four hours off on Fridays at the park before returning to his pizza restaurant. His wife and daughter are in Dubai, where she works as a household servant. “It’s much better out here than in Dubai” he says. “Even when the boss yells at you he eventually comes back to apologize.”
The Nepalis are relatively new here and don’t have much of a foothold in Sulaymaniah. But the Bengalis are near the top of the migrant worker food chain. They’re some of the first migrants to the area, showing up around six years ago when Sulaimainiyah was half the size and a fraction as rich.
They work in pharmacies and cell phone stores and as bartenders. They’ve set up a support network—a sort of Bangladeshi Mafia. There’s the guy who can help you get a job, the guy who can help you learn the language, the guy who can get you out of a bad contract, the guy who can get you out of jail.
I approach the apparent head of the crew, Suna. I ask for music and he pulls out his phone.
In minutes, a crowd of 15 or 16 dudes are singing me mournful Bangladeshi songs in the middle of the park. The harmonies are off, but the feeling and gusto is there. I think there are some tears.
The sun is setting, and Suna invites me out for drinks. “We’ll go the Palace Hotel,” he says, pointing to the generously rated five-star monstrosity across the street, “Only the best Bangladeshis can go there.”
Indeed, part of our crew is stopped by the security men at the door for wearing sandals. Our ranks depleted, we make it into the back of the hotel, a sports bar with no sports called “Sports Bar.”
Rita of Ethiopia serves us, speaking Kurdish with Suna. He orders quarter-bottles of Johnnie Walker Black. Rick Ross plays on the big screen TV. My mind melts, just a little bit. For the first time in my life I hear myself saying “I don’t think I can drink all of this.” But of course I do.
Over pomegranates and endless alcohol Suna tells me about life in Kurdistan. I was bracing myself for suffering, for the classic migrant-in-the-Middle-East misery. But life is…not so bad.
Many of the Bangladeshis are making around $1,000 a month. While some send money home, others without wives, like Suna, spend their earnings month to month.
“To you we are very poor, but I like to live like the rich man. I like to feel like the rich man,” Suna tells me with a force derived not just from the fact that he is inches from my face.
“Why would I go back to Bangladesh? There is nothing for me to do there.”
And he’s right. Here he’s free. No family, no pressure to get married, to make money, to feed children. As a well situated migrant laborer in Iraq, he can live the bachelor dream lifestyle he’s seen in American movies. And he can afford to keep feeding my thirsty ass the bar’s finest whiskey.
Suna is not an anamoly. The Kurdish Regional Government is considering a law forcing all migrants who have been here six years or longer to leave.
“But don’t worry, it wont happen,” Suna says, waving an official-looking security clearance in my direction. “Last year we got our own guys into the government.”
The music, the drinks, the sticky leather couches, it’s too much. I thank my hosts and bust out. I end up in a Chinese restaurant with Allan, my French travel companion, drinking Turkish beer with the owner Mr. William. He’s from somewhere outside Beijing and owns several joints throughout town. “I hire the Nepalese because the Chinese are too demanding,” he tells me.
I wake up at home, wondering what the hell happened. By 9 I’m out the door again, on my way to Kirkuk.