Coffee, Cigarettes, and Chemical Weapons

Far too often I make the mistake of believing I know exactly how the day will go before I even get out of bed.   And why wouldn’t I?  Only hours earlier I had tucked myself in with plans confirmed, schedules coordinated, and a list of things to do – each item with its own tick box.  And still, after all this time, I am surprised it surprises me when quite frequently, my days do not go as planned.

A few months ago I woke up feeling particularly good.  It had taken a few weeks but, as is usually the case with change, I was finding my new groove.  I was living and working in a “new to me” city and settling into my new position.  I could say “good morning” in two of the three local languages.  I could walk to the office from the house without getting lost.  And I could point to the majority of our projects on at least one of the maps hanging on the office walls.    I took a moment to enjoy the feeling of the groove and reviewed the day’s list.  I was feeling so good, I mentally added “quit smoking” and then got out of bed.

In my new world, there were the usual things one enjoys when relocating: the people, the scenery, the challenges.  But with this move it was the coffee I had really come to appreciate.   I had arrived with the intention of giving up coffee under the mistaken belief that the options would be limited to Nescafé Regular of Nescafé Decaf.  But during an “explo” to one of Erbil’s shopping centers, I had found heaven in a bag – freshly ground coffee blended with cardamom.  My mornings had come to take on ritualistic tones.

I went downstairs and found some colleagues/housemates in the kitchen.  Each one silently moving about, enjoying their own morning rituals.  I stepped into the silent dance, acknowledging the others with a nod, reaching around one to get the Turkish coffee pot, sliding behind another to open the cupboard where the coffee lived, adjusting slightly to make room for another to sit down on the chair behind me, then brushing by yet one more to light the stove.  I then waited for that magic moment when I would pull the pot off the stove – just after the foam bubbled up and right before the coffee boiled over.

Magic moment done and “Tick!”, I sat down.  The smell of cardamom hovering over the kitchen table and growing stronger as I raised the cup for my first sip.  Heaven.  Then, through the mist of cardamom, I saw a blur.  It was one of our doctors and he was moving fast; rushing into the kitchen, oblivious of the ritualistic morning dance taking place.  He flopped down in the chair directly in front of me.


“Mmm – hmmm”, I said, trying to slow down time, at least long enough to take the first sip because I knew my groove was about to go off the rails.

“I got a call this morning.”

“Mmm – hmmm”, I said, feeling the heat of the coffee on my lips.  It was too hot and time was too short.  Hating myself for doing it, I slurped.  I had no choice.  I knew it would only be this first taste of coffee that would go as planned for the rest of the day.  As the first sip found its way home, I put the cup down and looked into the doctor’s eyes.  I was ready for it.  Whatever it was.

“There was a chemical attack last night and they want to know what we’re going to do about it.”

Ok.  Maybe not entirely ready.  Now, it is true that when those words were spoken, we were sitting in a country where there was a history of such things.  And not in the distant past but quite recently rather.  In fact, just a few days ago.  The concern was great enough that our teams had been through basic trainings on the topic and in the kitchen that very morning were two medical experts in emergency planning and response.  So it wasn’t completely out of the blue.

I looked over to see if the experts had overheard the conversation.  They had and I could see they had both abandoned their own morning rituals and were making their way to join us at the table.

Giving a few moments for everyone to settle in I recognized the all too familiar feeling of being surprised at being surprised that my day was not going to go as planned.  I then let my thoughts work their way to a place of rationality.  First however they had to start with the reptilian and most basic thoughts of flight or fight, “OK.  Everyone out now!”  To the ego-centric thoughts of, “Well honestly.  Can’t these people stop fighting with one another?   I can’t even enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning.”  Until my thoughts made it to the edges of rationality with, “Ok.  At least there are some experts in the room, let’s see what they have to say and figure this out.”

I then tossed out the list of things to do for that day and reached for the cigarettes.  Together we would just have to work through this Gordian Knot of what working and living in Erbil.  This particular knot it turned out was made up of an early morning phone call; communications in a common language that for both individuals was their second language, the justifiable fears of living in an area within range of chemical weapons attack, and the overriding desire to do something about it.

After more coffee, too many cigarettes and some phone calls in multiple languages, we reached clarification on what had been heard as compared to what had been said.   There had not been a chemical attack the previous night.  The early morning phone call had come from a concerned colleague who could not sleep and wanted to know what we as an organization were capable of doing.

And you know what surprised me the most?   Up until that moment I never would have imagined that I would spend a weekend morning with trusted colleagues, coffee, and cigarettes, discussing chemical weapons.   And while no other boxes were ticked that day, I was once again reminded that if we let it, life will take us far beyond the plans we imagine.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.