Ramsey

Every time that I go on a trip exploring this region that fascinates me so, I always hope for profound encounters with people. 

For the three years that I have been in the Middle East, I don't think that any other encounter (thus far) has affected me in the way that meeting Ramsey did. 

Returning from the city of Duhok, Iraq, a scheduled taxi change in Akara was the reason for the unexpected encounter.

As I was getting out of the taxi, he appeared with a hearty hello, perfect American accent and the biggest one toothed smile I had ever seen.

To be honest, that was what endeared me to him immediately.  I would think that most people would be really conscious of having a mouth with no teeth except one that is holding on for dear life. 

With wide open arms and a hearty hello, Ramsey appeared out of nowhere and welcomed me into his fold of taxi drivers. 

As we had some time between the exchange of taxis, he invited me to drink tea with him amongst his comrades.

The atmosphere surprised me for having lived in Turkey before, I had always been subject to stares of disgust, fear or anxiety. Instead here, in this small town in Iraq, they acknowledged my 'difference' with warm smiles and greetings.

Of course, the question of my origins was asked but not in a accusatory tone or manner. And even though Barbados was not particularly well known to them, they did know the region of the Caribbean.

Ramsey immediately identified a relationship that he had had with a woman from the Latin American region as evidence of his familiarity with my birth place.

And almost immediately too, I could tell that this middle aged man, married for as many years with grown children had had the kind of life that writers dream of personifying in their characters, if only to hold their audience captive.

And captivated I was.

As I write this, I really cannot convey in words how I felt during this short exchange. However, I do think that if I honestly tell you of the ensuing conversation that you may just understand. 

Saddam Hussein

As I told them about my birthplace, naturally Ramsey, the only English speaking person in his group of friends, shared about his life too. 

First, though he made it clear that we must return soon to Akara so that he could show us the treasures that this small town had to offer. Many abandoned and centuries old churches in the surrounding mountains laid untouched and hidden, he vouched.

"I know all of them, like the back of my hand," said Ramsey. "I lived for almost two years in the mountains on my own. In the wild."

I honestly thought that there was a mistake in translation. My quizzical look prompted him to explain. 

"Saddam put me in prison after I refused to fight in the War. Bad things happened to me in prison. I only got out because my sister worked and got some gold to buy my way out."

"But I had to wait for a while and during that time, I was tortured, starved...," he recounted shaking his head, his voice trailing off. 

"I hate Arabs! Evil people!" 

Quite an oxymoron in declarations as he later admitted that Ramsey was not his real name, but one that he had taken from former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clarke, who infamously decided to legally represent Saddam after the U.S. led invasion after 9/11.

"My sister got the money to buy my escape. And after, I lived in the mountains for two years. I had to hunt my own food and sleep under the stars."

"So, I know these mountains better than anyone around here. I can tell you all the secret hidden places that nobody knows about. And there are many places I know that you would like to see, you know- the churches."

"Your English is perfect," I said, doing my best to lift the somber mood. Even though his friends did not understand a word of English, they recognised the name Saddam and must have instantly known what Ramsey was talking about. Besides, from the far away look in his eyes and grimaced face, it was impossible not to know that he was talking about something that to this day brought him insurmountable pain. 

"I lived in Austria for many many years after I left the mountains. I love Austria. You know the music and everything. Very nice. I had a woman out there who helped me a lot," he said nodding his head as he admitted his appreciation for his girlfriend's efforts. 

"Are you married?" asked my friend. 

"Yes. I have big grown children with their own lives and families now."

I could have done the math but decided not to. It was obvious that during his incarceration, exile in the mountains, life in Austria and girlfriends that he had been 'married' with children. 

Sitting down outside of a building in the shade of a big parking lot, this scene, with the makeshift tables and chairs could have easily been one from the Caribbean. 

Of course, hearing Ramsey continue to talk about his many girlfriends over the years despite his marital status made it easier to see the similarities in my own home environment. 

Even though he spoke of a few, you knew that there had been many dalliances and love affairs. But, you never got the idea that these affairs of the heart were meaningless to him. 

Just a fact of life for a man who had seen and experienced tragedy on a level that I don't think most of us could ever understand. 

"Take care of her."

As we ended our second round of tea, Ramsey indicated that it would be best that we return to the taxi office. On our way back, he flirted with me unashamedly. 

I blushed. 

An old man with one tooth making a young black woman succumb. 

Proving that he was old school, he stopped at a street vendor who was selling a myriad of items including rosaries, and insisted on buying me one as a gift. 

"You know, you are welcomed here at anytime. You can come to my house with my wife and I will cook a dinner you will never forget."

"I would love to," I said politely accepting his invitation knowing that the likelihood of me going to his house was nil. 

I guess my discomfort, disguised in a big smile and flushed cheeks may have been obvious to him because then he turned to my male friend and instructed,

"Take care of her, you hear me?"

The two men, separated by pedestrians and onlookers, looked at each other and nodded. 

He hugged me, held me close and stared into my eyes saying nothing. 

It has always been fundamental to my belief that the value of a man is in his understanding of his role in a woman's life: protector. 

I don't think in my adult life I had ever felt more so than in that moment. And for that I am grateful.