Thanksgiving Baghdad 2016

I’ll be spending thanksgiving shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers, coalition forces, and diplomats at a communal dinner in Iraq, away from my family for the fourth year.

Ouch! …It hurts. Seriously.

thanksgiving

However, I’m thankful for many things. I’m especially thankful for my one year anniversary. This past 17 of November marked the birth of my Coffee Shop Politics platform. With more than 20 posts and 18,000+ words, I can’t believe myself, I have come this far. I’m thankful for all those who helped in making them better, and those who read and continue to read my posts.

When diplomats come and shake my hand, and people write me back saying things like “this article should be framed & hung on the wall!” I am honored. It encourages me to share more and be part of a collective to advance further the Assyrian narrative.

Destiny took me back to Iraq. I’ve played the hand I was dealt. For eight years, I lived a reality that was hidden away from news channels, PowerPoints slides, and statistics. My political views have emerged from the front-lines of American Foreign Policy. I’ve become a cultural hybrid – the semicolon between East and West.

And with that said, I like to share with you the first post that started it all.

Assyrians…Coffee shop politics…what is next for Iraq?

Cousin Inc.

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“You are fortunate to have a strong community. I find that immigrants to the States connect with their ‘people’ better than those of us here all along.” Mika (non-Assyrian American) wrote to me privately in response to a blog I posted on LinkedIn.

A majority of self-development books like “Never Eat Alone” and “The Last Safe Investment” emphasize the importance of developing friendships and networking. Silicon Valley’s books mention the importance of building a tribe – even Seth Godin wrote a book about it with the same title. Robin Chase wrote about multi-billion dollar businesses like Airbnb and Uber that are built on the concept of shared economy in her book “Peers Inc.”

We, Assyrians, have this relationship naturally; I call it – Cousin Inc.

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In America, Assyrians tend to gravitate toward each other and refer to each other as cousins. “Cousin” is a building block of our social life. He or she could be a real cousin, someone from our extended family, a tribal member, or any other Assyrian person.  This practice is powerful enough to cross Corporate America and even international boundaries.

Our family, tribes, and friendships are our life equity. We can easily become friends. This is something people like Mika envy us for. This is the real value in a gregarious culture. It decorated our quotidian life in palpable ways.

The “cousin” way of life has pervaded my life since I migrated to America. Thousands of Assyrians live in Chicago, Skokie, and other cities in different states. These “family ties” and friendships have helped me in many different areas – big and small. From things as simple as free parking and valet parking to something a bit more valuable, like entrance into to the better nightclubs on a Saturday night in Chicago.

Cousin Inc. even got me my first job.

It’s helped me remodel my house and find a good mechanic to work on my car. One time, thanks to my Cousin Inc. connections, I was even upgraded to a first class ticket on an airline. And as I have traveled, family members have opened their homes for me to stay during holidays in Sweden, Holland and Australia. My “cousins” pick me up from the airport too.

And just a few days ago, someone I’ve never met or spoken with on the phone, messaged me and offered to help me get a job with Microsoft. All have been Assyrian cousins. This is our tribal form of Airbnb, Uber, Angie’s List, and LinkedIn.

More importantly, it is my cousin that owns a 7-Eleven Store who allows my retired father to spend his idle time socializing with other Assyrians who hang out there. Which I am sure, has helped keep my father from slipping into depression.

I’m personally grateful and value my cousin equity more than money. We have a shared life journey. Each one of us represents a link to our past – and our future.

To give it a full social understanding, I would share the following true story.

About five years ago, I was working at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL) as Sr. Programmer with Accenture. One day my manager and I went to get a coffee at a nearby building. As we entered the Starbucks, I spotted a guy engaged in a conversation with his co-workers. I turned to my manager and said, “He is Assyrian!”

“How do you know?” he replied.

“From his facial contours, plus he looks like a guy I’ve seen at a party.”

“Sorry, are you Assyrian?” I asked after our first eye contact. As expected, he was, so we chatted for a bit. Ever since then, we have been friends. I visited him at his house in Chicago on my last vacation. He always expands my knowledge about investments.

The “cousin” has become a wonderful phenomenon between Assyrians in America.  Maybe it should be written in capital letters “COUSIN” or established as a standalone institution. It’s the “cousin” equity asset in the Assyrian ecosystem.

These intangibles are paving over the bumps on the road of life. This is how relationships are impacting the strength of our Assyrian community and creating a collaborative economy. This is the essence of a gregarious culture.

My grandfather’s way of life in the north of Iraq has just re-emerged as a new trend in places like Silicon Valley and the Bay Area with concepts like “tribes” and “community living”. Maybe we don’t need to “Reinvent Capitalism” as Chase indicated, but simply change the American culture from rugged individualistic to gregarious interconnectedness. 

Maybe all that is required to do that, is for me to pay in to our communal account, when the opportunity presents itself, by returning the basic human brotherhood that has been given to me so many times.

At the end, I want to build enough “cousin” capital to survive the rest of my life in an uncertain world.
If you enjoyed this blog, you might enjoy my insights on the Cultural Differences between Iraq and America

 

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The Assyrian Conference of Professionals

*This is the message I sent to my Assyrian friends and connections on LinkedIn.

I am reaching out with two goals in mind:

I had a great time at the Assyrian Convention in Arizona last month. That inspired me with the question of “Why not create an Assyrian Conference of Professionals?” that could meet once a year at a certain city such as Chicago, San Jose, or even Las Vegas.

Let’s face it…many of us are not in our dream jobs, feel stasis, or not living a life full of meaning and purpose. In some area of our life, we are stuck.

Just imagine a conference room with 1000 Assyrians: authors, consultants, designers, doctors, developers, engineers, founders, lawyers, pharmacists, project managers, recruiters, and many other professionals, all gathering in one place. Picture a version of TEDtalks or South by the Southwest Conference (SXSW). It gives me an empyreal feeling – It’s inspirational!

I predict many benefits to such a conference. It would allow us to develop a supportive community and build a variegated network of resources. It may even inspire us with ideas for new companies, or the motivation needed for a career change. While, at the same time, it might put us face to face with the very people who could make that possible.

For example, living in Chicago, I never thought of government jobs, but after working four years at the U.S. Embassy, I definitely encourage our young graduate Assyrians to seek employment with the State Department. Embassy jobs are amazing. I met friends who spend two to three years in different countries at the government’s expense. One of my friends is going to France; and another to Denmark. The pieces of the puzzle that a person would need to make that happen – the details – are something I can bring to the table. So I asked myself “If there are a thousand of us, what else will be added to the mix?”

To put it succinctly, it will be a place where we share our experiences, adventures, lessons, achievements, and meet like-minded Assyrians. As I believe that any new start-up/company with two or three founders stands a better chance of success because it has multiple skill sets built into its foundation, the initial conference could be exploratory, and would offer the environment for potential founders to emerge. And it would offer us an easier reach to the pioneers of Silicon Valley and corporate America. This could be an exponential career growth to many of us.

There are many questions such as: how does this differ from LinkedIn? What does it offer that the current Convention does not? Why start another, separate organization? Why not do all this within the AANF?  (And many others).

I don’t have all the answers. But to start, I found out that many of our people do not attend the Assyrian Convention for a variety of reasons. This could run separate from the influence of any of our religious or political establishments. It could focus on professional development of the Assyrian workforce. The expanded social network and the new friendships that are bound to develop out of it, would just be an added benefit.

My second goal is to improve as many relationships as possible. I value our connection! I found the “weakest” links in my friendship network are not weak at all and have improved my life. I believe there is more mutual value than we realize in our limited, online connection. 

Here are a few extra things about me, I am 40 years old, traveled to 24 countries, write my own blog and am on a quest to read 10,000 books in my life time. It has been quite a journey thus far and most unlikely without the help or encouragement of my professional network.

I am open for discussion and building professional relationships; and even a few more close friendships.  Life and business should be experienced with those who truly value each other. I am willing to build the bridge between the real online world and real real world whenever feasible.

I might be on the fringes, but it’s a propitious time. I rhapsodize about achieving this success. Please let me know if you believe the concept of Assyrian Conference of Professionals worthy of merit and you would like to be part of such gathering.

 

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My 40th Birthday at AANF with the New Americans

When you have a story to tell, tell it till the end. Don’t worry how long it is”, D. MacMaster

As my birthday was approaching, I was in Chicago enjoying a month-long holiday with my family and friends. The 3rd of September was nearing, I was reflecting deeply on my goals, dreams, and accomplishments for the past 40 years of existence on this planet.

Although, I could invite a friend and celebrate it in one of those exotic cities or islands like Cannes, Monte Carlo, Dubai, Capri, or Santorini; I was debating the idea of spending it with my family or flying to Arizona and celebrating with my extended family – the Assyrian people.

In a way, I was thinking about trading the love of being with my mother, father, sisters and a few close relatives in Chicago, for a greater sense of belonging – with the Assyrian community.

I was falling into reveries: imagining a hotel full of Assyrians, people gathering in the lobby, relatives meeting after many years, friends seeing each other again after a long disconnect, activists and political lectures, a swimming pool full of my people, nightly parties, and… all the infidelities. I was feeling the gaiety of the atmosphere. It was poetic.

The Assyrian American National Federation (AANF) stakes a claim to our existence, a plinth to stand on – we, Assyrian immigrants, are the new Americans. I wanted to be part of that. On this note, I share my story.

The 83rd year of the five-day AANF convention was hosted in Scottsdale, Arizona at DoubleTree Resort. That hotel was fully booked, so I made my reservation at Embassy Suites, just next door. And I got lucky, it was a better deal, plus I had a suite.

It was mid afternoon on Thursday, September 1 when I arrived in Phoenix. Nick, who I had met in Iraq, but now lives in the host city of Phoenix, was waiting in his shining white Escalade at the arrivals area of Sky Harbor airport. I surprised him by coming from the back. We hugged and exchanged greetings. The Iraq experiences we had shared created a bond between friends that’s even stronger than family. We spent the 30-minute ride sharing our latest stories. That’s when Nick explained that he would be returning to Iraq. He’d found a new job helping the American Army, and he had to take it. He and his family of five live in America now, so he’s raising kids all the way through college, has a 30-year mortgage, medical bills, car payments, a stay-at-home wife, and of course the occasional emergency, To maintain an average life is extremely expensive in America. The job pays well. He can’t turn it down. So, he’s going back after one year of living stateside.

After I checked-in, and dropped the luggage in my room, we spent the rest of the day at the convention. Many Assyrians have moved in the last few years from places like Illinois, Michigan, and California – to Arizona, making it one of the largest Assyrian communities in America.

Every night, there was a party – the first night was slow. People were still arriving from all over America and Canada, as well as some from overseas, including Germany, Sweden, and Holland. Assyrian immigrants scattered around the globe, separated from their families for various reasons – but mostly, war and bloodshed, were now meeting up in America.

Take my family for an example: I have relatives on both sides of my immediate family in Canada, Sweden, the UK, Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, and Australia. And each one of us has an immigrant story to tell.

On Friday September 2, after our first late night of drinking and socializing, Nick drove 40 minutes from his house and picked me up around 10 am. We wanted to get the day started. As we walked through the lobby, the registration line was getting long, the poolside was filling up, the whole event was starting to pick up steam. We sat at the bar to have lunch, and as we finished, I spotted my friend Z. He is Syrian-born – a U.S. Marines Major, retired infantry – who has done seven combat tours including Iraq and Afghanistan. We were together in Iraq at the same location during the war on ISIS, but lost contact after his retirement.

“Z…Z”, I shouted.  He looked at me with pleasant surprise and joined us at the bar.

We hugged, both of us knowing that we were not just friends; we’re war-bonded brothers. He had flown from California and, like me, was traveling solo. Naturally, I mentioned to him that it was my birthday eve and he shared my excitement. We decided to meet later on.

Nick was flying back to Iraq the following day, so he had to leave us early. He dropped me back to my hotel and we said our goodbyes.

I had a couple of drinks in my room, as I was getting ready. I know most men dress in suits at the convention, but lately I’ve been a polo shirt and fashion jeans guy. Over my past holidays to Europe, I’ve picked up nice limited edition Paul & Shark, La Martina, and Diesel. So I decided to let them reflect my age. Hey… I’m only 39 right?

Around 8 pm, Z and I met at the convention lobby and walked to the bar to start the night with some shots. As more people were coming and joining the party, we were outside with our drinks in hand, mingling in and out of groups of friends, some of the old stories made the rounds again, and new ones were shared.

Noticing our drinks were empty, Z and I headed back to the bar for a second, then a third… then a fourth.

As the night went on, there I was. No cake. No 40 burning candles. No singing happy birthday. No sisters or parents. No gifts. Just a few good friends in the midst of over 3000 Assyrians. Close to midnight, with several friends gathered around one of the bars inside, we were toasting with shots. People were dancing the Assyrian traditional dance while Ramsen Sheeno sang. It was as lively as I had imagined. I was turning 40 – single – and there was no place else I would rather be!

There was some disappointment when the party ended early, at 1:30 am, due to Arizona law. But I’d met a woman and I invited her to my hotel for some late night food and maybe some vodka out by the pool.

She agreed, we picked up our few provisions, and the next thing I knew, there we were at poolside talking, our voices quiet in the early morning hours. That in turn, led to some moments of silence, each of us wondering what might happen next. So, there at the poolside is where I had my first birthday kiss, and what a kiss it was! I’ll say only this: it gave me shivers.

The vodka bottle, the glasses, the food – all were left behind as we walked together to my room.

And as soon as the door closed… we started again.

Saturday September 3, I felt the hangover as soon as I opened my eyes. I left my room, and as I was walking to meet Z at the pool, I saw the Vodka bottle, half full still on the table. I was tempted to apologize to the staff who were near by – “sorry, that’s mine. I left it there last night” – but I didn’t say a word.

I settled down next to Z and we snapped the first picture of me at a new age. Years from now, as I lose the battle of aging, I will remember how I looked on that day.

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We weren’t paying much attention to the political and cultural lectures given by the Assyrian activists and politicians; instead, we spent most of the convention enjoying the music at the swimming pool – and the nightly parties.

On one occasion by the pool, Fredrick, a friend from school days and now a manager at a consulting firm, stopped by for a quick chat. As we were talking, he pointed out and said:

“Do you know Steve Nabil?”

Who’s Steve Nabil?” I said.

“This guy next to you!” He replied. Then continued, “You should. He is widely known in Iraq. He was reporting on ISIS. He has a great number of followers on Facebook and Twitter”.

Can you introduce us?” I asked.

Steve had come with his family from California as well.  A few minutes into the conversation, we discovered that we’re tribally related. We hit it off like we’d known each other for years.

He shared a few of his stories from Iraq with me. One in particular, took most of our time: his recent incredible survival in Turkey. He and his wife had just returned from their honeymoon in Santorini, and were transiting through Istanbul Airport when the attack occurred.

Check his bristling interview on CNN.

While we continued talking he even Snapchatted about our meeting. Thousands of his followers saw our Snapchat story in Iraq and around the world. (Thanks Steve!)

Then, he invited me to the presidential dinner that evening. The newly elected executive board administration for AANF was being announced. Congressman Trent Franks (AZ-8) was the featured presenter. He gave a rousing speech and unremitting support to the Assyrian right to the Nineveh plains – a degree of autonomy for the Assyrian people in Iraq.

After the congressman’s speech ended, we left the dinner early and met Z at the party. We all had a few drinks and joined the Assyrian traditional dance line till the end of the night on song after song with a few intermediate breaks for more drinks. This time, the party lasted until 3am.

Steve’s poor wife, who is studying to be a pharmacist, ended up falling asleep at the table.

Someone once said, “Friends are the family you choose”. I had some of my close relatives, who I barely crossed paths with throughout my stay at the convention. But friends like Nick, Z, and Steve are my new family. Their entourage was my gift.

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Indeed it was the right decision to attend the convention – a place where my heart and mind wanted to be. In Psychology parlance, it is called reaching the state of Flow – I was in that State.

“What is it that makes people happy?” the Greek philosopher Epicurus asked this question back in 341 BC. He discovered that human nature needs friends.

No possessiveness, no drama – just a relaxed acceptance – that is a true friendship. 

I am happy to belong to an Assyrian community that provides real friendships like that. It enriches my life. I can move from Chicago to Phoenix, Vegas, or San Jose; Sydney, Marseille, or Frankfort, and I can easily build new bonds.

I can message a few, of the thousands, of Assyrians connected by the Assyrian Network of Professionals group (on LinkedIn) and go out for a coffee. It’s the beauty of a greater sense of belonging.

MacMaster said, “tell your story to the end”.  Well, there is more to my story, but as the 83rd convention came to an end, a new chapter started in my life journey. 

For various reasons, I couldn’t accomplish a few of my goals before the age of 40, (like visiting 40 countries before my 40th birthday).

So, I made some new ones: By the age of 50 – visit 50 (26 countries left), build more real friendships, see my abs, continue reading  – and mainly… continue writing my life story.

 

 

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Always a Drama Always a Victim

Always a drama…always a victim!” – this is a label I recently started giving to a few acquaintances who are constantly entangled in some type drama. And when they blurt out their explanation, they are always describing themselves as a victim. Misfortune is their constant companion.

Here are two quick stories to illustrate what I mean. One of them is a contractor who worked in Iraq with the U.S. Army. I will refer to her with a sobriquet – Drama Queen One. And the second one is someone I met in Chicago, and I will refer to her with Drama Queen Two sobriquet.

Every time I met with Drama Queen One during lunch or dinner time, she poured out her work drama. When she shared with me her issues, I noticed, she was always the victim. Because she didn’t have a good relationship with her co-worker, she would get fired up at a small incident that could be unintentional. In one incident she explained she had just walked away from her desk, and her co-worker sprayed air freshener in the office. She took that as a personal insult. The drama continued for a few months until she was released from her army unit and assigned to a new one.

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At her new assignment, she quickly got involved with another drama. She didn’t last two months. She was released from that unit as well, and assigned to a third, by the program manager.

The reputation of Drama Queen One had preceded her arrival at this new assignment. Not even a few days into it she got involved in drama with her co-workers and she was fired. She lost a high-income tax-free job because she couldn’t stop complaining.

As for the Drama Queen two’s story. We met each other at one of the Assyrian cabarets, and made plans to go for a coffee. The day after our first coffee meeting, she called me in the morning crying. She claimed she had lost her parents monthly Social Security checks when she drove home the night before. She claimed she couldn’t pay the rent, and asked for help. So, I helped her.

A few days passed before we talked again. Not even a few minutes into our second conversation on the phone she hung-up suddenly. Then texted me back saying “my brother just got into an accident in front of our house.” I doubted it. I replied “I hope he is ok!. Send me a picture of the accident. She never did.

A few days more passed, and on the third phone call, she shared a story about her mother’s niece – that she was dying in Las Vegas and needed to take her mother to see her. She asked for help. So, I helped her.

By now it was getting predictable. As I expected, the fourth call came from Las Vegas. She asked me for help to come back to Chicago. I said testily: “You are beautiful. I am sure you can manage in Vegas and find a way to come back!

Appearances are deceiving. Our natural instinct is to trust people and help them. But then we wonder about their life.

I look at these people’s Facebook pictures, and a clamor of voices start in my head: (Why is there always a drama with this person? She is always negative. They look beautiful in those Facebook pictures, but their beauty does not reflect their characterwhy is there so often an inverse relation between beauty and craziness? Is she lying? Is she taking advantage?) I become discombobulated trying to reconcile how their Facebook persona contrasts with the reality of their life.

Friends and acquaintances, like the above people, suffer from emotional extremes. I find my relationship with them to be taxing and toxic. I’ve started to cast them off as fast as I develop them, in order to reduce stress from my life.

All of us are sometimes victims of adversity caused by life’s randomness. Everyday requires a constant balance between sharing and restraint from expressing our thoughts, complaints, and opinions. We must develop the habit of self-editing. It’s a lustering veneer to our character. 

But if you are the type of person who blurts out drama all the time, here is my advice to you – it comes from Stoicism philosophy: Never show self-pity. Never blame others. Never complain. It encourages us to live a dignified, and even elegant, life, and builds moral fortitude.

As for me, nothing remains from these friendships or acquaintances, but a memory of – always a drama, always a victim. And that seems, somehow, even less than a memory.

 

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Run Away from Baghdad – On Travel

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Summer came fast skipping spring this year in Baghdad. It’s breaking a record and becoming the hottest city in World with temperatures at 120 degrees. Crickets are appearing everywhere at night running away from the heat also. It makes the combination of ubiquitous dust, heat, and crickets feels disgusting.  You just want to run away from Baghdad.

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I experience the same feeling every time before I leave Baghdad on holiday. The anticipation of travel is amplified by my current quality of life. I live a restricted lifestyle in the middle of Baghdad surrounded by T-walls. The points of my routine work-workout-eat-sleep reflect the same pattern. My answer to the “How is your day?” question has been reduced to it’s simplest form – a copy and paste of yesterday.

That makes me fall prey to beautiful Google images of Santorini. Their power seduces me, removing any sense of rational intelligence. I am left with no choice. Suddenly, I am planning a ruinously expensive trip.

Finally, I took a step toward my sense of freedom by buying an airline ticket – an act that will set in motion the long journey home. The ticket is a key to unlock the chains of routine hanging around my neck.

The anticipation of travel makes me happy. I like the period between buying a ticket and flying. Something good is out there, and I have a sense of moving toward that horizon rather than departing from it.

For me, it is the arrival to the beginning of the holiday that signals the countdown back to the default of life.

In travel, I feel the sense of existence.

 

 

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Love Secrets

Ponder on this:

“No relationship could start without a commitment to wholehearted intimacy. But in order for love to keep going, it also seems impossible to imagine partners not learning to keep a great many of their thoughts to themselves.

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We are so impressed by honesty that we forget the virtues of politeness; a desire not always to confront people we are about with the full, hurtful aspects of our nature.

Repression, a degree of restraint, and a little dedication to self-editing belong to love just as surely as a capacity for explicit confession. The person who can’t tolerate secrets, who in the name of “being honest” shares information so wounding to the other that it can never be forgotten – this person is no friend of love.”

Read the rest of the story!

 

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