Arriving in Iraq, Facing My Vulnerability.

Via on Mar 13, 2012

Bagdad, Iraq.

I am in Iraq. It is not a walk in the park. But I feel good right now, I feel trust and I feel strength.

I arrived last Saturday. After landing non-Iraqi passengers had to go pass immigration to buy a visa. I had already obtained a visa from the Iraqi Embassy in The Netherlands so I expected an easy passage. This was not the case. It is weird to be kept waiting outside an open door where you can see that inside nothing is happening. I could see all of them taking turns looking at my passport. Other passengers came and left and after a while I was the only one who was still waiting. During this time I am contemplating what to do. Should I be completely Zen about it and just read and go into a patience contest with them? Or should I start puffing myself up and pretend to be somebody really important? After all, I am the only white guy on the airport.

It feels slightly intimidating when the immigration officer whistles through his teeth as a sign of being impressed when you correct him; you are staying three weeks and not three days, as he understood. I felt a wave of doubt going through my system and my knees weakened for a moment.

Was this really a good idea? 

After an hour I am called inside the office. There is a problem with my visa and they keep pointing at the little numbers after “No. of trips” (which is the date of application but I only saw that now). Actually their problem is that my visa is completely legit and they can’t get make me pay for a visa that I already paid for. So now they say I can’t stay for three weeks but maximum for 10 days. First I tell them I have to work for two weeks and that ten days is not enough. They are not impressed. Then I go in fuck you mode and tell them it is fine. I come to help their country, a country that has more than enough problems, I come to train young Iraqi’s to create a better future and if they want to screw that up, fine with me. I don’t know if I impressed them or that they gave up but they stamped my passport and I could go. Now I am in the arrival hall of a completely empty airport.

The president of the NGO that I will work for was waiting for me outside. What wasn’t clear was that outside meant outside the premises of the airport which is a 20 min and $50 taxi ride. I can tell you it feels a bit scary when you enter an unsafe place where people are kidnapped and a taxi starts speeding and you don’t know where he is going.

The taxi driver tells me not to worry. I am shifting between surrender and combat mode.

Iraq is a war zone and simple things are not simple anymore. When I changed cars at the checkpoint and met the people who were picking me up I asked if I could go to the bathroom when we were at a gas station. After some discussion between the president and the driver they decided I had to wait until the hotel.

My hotel is in the Red Zone but in a relatively secure area. The Green Zone is where all the embassy’s and expats are. I am hanging with the Iraqi’s.

In my room I get a briefing. Although I am obviously a foreigner I should try to look as integrated as possible. I should not wear the torn jeans I am wearing. Also I was wearing a T-shirt with something that could be seen as a red cross. Don’t wear it. And I should shave my beard and leave a goatee. We have a little fashion parade in my room, going through the clothes that would raise minimal suspicion.

There is one street where I can walk till a certain point, and then I have to return. The good thing about this is that the chances that I get lost are not so big. I am born without a sense of direction, you see. One of the first things I see is a man being beaten up by six cops. My guide tells me not to look and keep walking.

Yesterday I went out alone, for the first time. It took courage. It was dark and I was the only pedestrian. I realized that many of the drivers are traumatized and it just would take one of them to snap and take his frustration out on an unarmed white guy who looked like the US Marine who shot his brother. I realize that really the only thing that carries me is trust. But I also feel that I really want to live and that all the heroic death fantasies I might have entertained in the plane the day before are now out of the window.

I deliberately went to the same grocery story and the same grilled chicken salesman so they would know my face. Finally, for the first time in 24 hours I meet some friendliness. Although there is a language barrier we shake hands, introduce ourselves and give low fives. The chicken salesman teaches me some Arabic words. I am sure I will eat plenty of chicken in the coming weeks.

Today I meditated in my room and worked on my laptop.

I have wi-fi in my room if I sit close to the door. I was wondering if the people of the NGO would show up because they were supposed to come on Sunday but nobody came. I would start to create a plan B if nobody would show up today. Then, when I didn’t expect it, the director rang my doorbell. He took me out for lunch. There I met my interpreter. From the moment I met that guy I felt new energy and hope entering my body. His English is not perfect but he is motivated and inspired.

The plan is to train two groups of young Iraqi’s. There will be 20 participants per group. We will train each group for five days.

The challenge is so big that it overwhelms me. I have no clue how to work with people who are separated from me by language, tradition and religion. I have no clue how to bring them together, how to be able to hear them and how to give them the feeling they are heard. But I will try and they will notice that I am trying and every centimeter of terrain that we cover is gain.

For a moment I felt completely vulnerable and surrendered to destiny. I messaged a friend and I broke down. I didn’t feel received so I fell deeper. And then I worked myself through it. I should not seek for comfort, support or approval outside myself. I am alone but I am not.

Photo contributions: Atalwin Pilon


Editor: Tanya L. Markul

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About Atalwin Pilon

Atalwin Pilon (40) is man on a mission. In January 2012, he left his home and his country to travel the world. He is on a spiritual quest, searching for what he calls the 21st century warrior: courageous men and women who are driven by compassion and integrity instead of greed and fear. He wants to know if one man can make a difference and if he can make a difference himself by offering his skills and heart to the world. He will write a book about his findings: "The Quest for the 21st Century Warrior". Feel free to contribute to his journey if his cause speaks to you. He needs your suggestions, hospitality, introductions and/ or your generosity to be be successful. You can make difference too. If you want Atalwin as your life coach you can book a Skype session now. You can follow his adventures on his website (he writes often). And you can find him on Twitter and Facebook too.


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9 Responses to “Arriving in Iraq, Facing My Vulnerability.”

  1. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    What a wonderful adventure. I am sure you will teach the Iraqi kids a lot, and they will teach you a lot, and you will have many more great stories to tell.
    Keep up all the great work brother!

    Love, Ben

  2. Suri says:

    Hi Atalwin
    Wow this is heavy , i can not imagine what you are going through …being away from home and in one of the most dangerous places for westerners must be really scary and overwhelming … I hope you can accomplish your mission in good spirits and i wish you a safe return back home == 8D == *hugs* *from stranger to stranger*

  3. Nadine McNeil Nadine says:

    Hmmmm, Atalwin, I acknowledge you for your bravery in revealing your vulnerability. Your story resonates for me at many levels, especially too the fact that during the nineties after the first Gulf War I spent several years living in the Middle East, including Iraq. I will bite my tongue and not offer any advice but instead send you protective blue light. When one is placed in an environment that is diametrically opposed to your own at virtually every level, one thing is for sure, you certainly have an opportunity to get to know yourself very well. You may even notice that you begin to practice a level of hyper vigilance which is crucial for your survival. The ‘average Iraqi’ whatever that’s supposed to mean, will be one of the most kind hearted people you’ll ever meet. But alas, due to political tactics and mind-games, they’ve had every fiber of their being ripped from them. Imagine yourself in their position, how would you [re]act? Most importantly, remain detached yet compassionate and don’t worry about impacting on 40 participants. If you make an impression on one (excluding yourself), your work is done. The life of the aid worker is confrontational, conflicting and downright confusing. Oftentimes we leave the safe confines of our homes with the intention to ‘help’ and we cause more harm than good. You have the ‘Zen tools’ to check in with yourself as and when required. Consider this journey as part of your cycle of initiation. Perhaps I’m writing this more for myself than I am for you. Blessed Love, Nadine!

    • Atalwin says:

      Thank you, Nadine. You make me think. Do I see myself as an aid worker? The workshop I will give will be the same as in Beirut, Athens, Amsterdam or New York. When is it a workshop and when is it humanitarian aid?

      I like that you see you are also writing to yourself. That's how I started writing: when I found it was healing for myself. And publishing is part of 'letting go', that was the next level. :)

  4. Eric says:

    Blessings, Atalwin–put on your Bodhisattva armor, may you be protected and yet vulnerable.
    You have great courage…

  5. Atalwin says:

    Thank you for the blessings my friend. I wrote about the receiving of blessings when I was in Israel:…. I am grateful.

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