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Arrival in Kurdistan

I tend not to get flustered easily. I’m a go with the flow kind of guy, but today it was getting to me. Everything started out as normal: heavy crosstown traffic, tie-ups on the LIE, slow going on Woodhaven Blvd. But we got to the airport in plenty of time. I checked in for my flight to Rome and went to the gate. Was that really only yesterday?
Sitting next to me on the plane was Maurizio, a construction worker from a town near Rome, who had lived for the last 30 years in Queens, New York. He was on his way back to the ‘old country’ to meet his new granddaughter. He had the weathered, dark skin of a Sicilian, but he was proud to say he was from Rome. We had a chance to speak in Italian, which was like meeting an old friend for me. A friend you might not remember as well as you wish, but you are glad to be in his presence. He spent most of the flight walking around the cabin. It was an overnight flight and he didn’t sleep at all. I, on the other hand, slept and slept. I think I slept more this night than any other red-eye I had ever been on. Maybe it’s because I didn’t sleep much the night before.
I was on my way to Kurdistan, Kurdish Iraq, that is. I had been listening for days to the tone of fear and suspicion in friends’ voices when I told them my plan. Was it going to be dangerous? Would I get sick from the food? Would I disappoint my colleagues who had invited me? What if I got lost? Or hurt? Lots of thoughts going through my head. I was determined, though, in spite of my doubts and the doubts of others, to make a go of it, to venture into unknown territory and conquer my fears. At the same time, I needed to find out what role I could play in theatre-and-peace-building effort I longed to be more a part of.
Did I have something to give, something to learn, something to explore in a country undergoing seismic changes because of a war my country started, in a country I never would have thought of visiting before last year when I met some artists from different conflict zones around the world who were doing theatre in spite of the hardships, in spite of the risk, in spite of getting arrested and torture and worse. They have inspired me, their stories washing over me and their smiles and good natured friendliness charming me. I admire what they have been doing and I wanted to be part of it myself.
So, when I arrived in Rome, took the train to my friend Scott’s apartment and walked around the City, I was feeling light. Happy. I didn’t even mind that the taxi driver charged me $25 for the short ride. (It sounded like a lot, but what do I know about taxis in Rome? Turns out, I was taken advantage of. Lesson learned.)
It was a hot summer day but with a pleasant breeze. I had lunch in a simple trattoria, enjoying delicious, basic pasta, salad, wine, fruit and coffee. Three guys sat at the table next to me, also just off the plane, but they were coming from LA and just had one day stopover on their way to Greece. What should they see in one day? They could have been the sailors from On the Town, having leave in New York for one day and wanting to see everything and fall in love in the process.
They settled on “doing” the Vatican today and saving the rest for a return visit in a couple of weeks, when they would have two days! I returned to Scott’s, packed up my things and ventured back to Stazione Termini, to get a train back to the airport. I was going to walk, but decided to take a taxi instead, but do it right this time. I called the cab company, but got confused when the language came at me too quickly. Nobody came. I tried another company. Not sure if this time I did it. I called Scott’s friend Jerry, who had given me Scott’s keys – they live in the same building on a hill between the Colleseum and the Roman Forums. Jerry called for me. I waited. I gave myself 4 hours to get to the airport and check in to my flight. The first one was ticking away.
Finally, Jerry came down to tell me he couldn’t get through, just as a taxi approached. I climbed in. It took about five minutes to get to the station and cost 8 Euro (about $12), half of what I paid before. (Lesson learned!) I was lugging my bags and as usually happens with me, I had to go to the furthest track. I arrived just a couple of minutes before the Leonardo Express was scheduled to depart. I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew we had arrived at Fiumicino.
I wanted to give myself plenty of time to check in because I knew I had a tricky connection. One flight arrived in Istanbul barely an hour before the next one was scheduled to leave for Erbil. Since I had separate tickets, I didn’t know whether I had to go out and re-check in, going through security again and wasting precious time. I wanted to get boarding passes for both flights, so I could go “in transit” from one flight to next directly.
Sitting in the taxi, I began to think about the various events I would participate in in Erbil. Did I pack the right clothes? At least I brought a sport coat. It’s in my bag right? Oh no! I had put it in the overhead bin on the flight to Rome and never collected it! Shit! I thought that I would have enough time, after checking in to Istanbul, to go to Delta to see if by chance they still had my jacket. I was feeling lucky. That feeling changed when I got to Turkish Airlines check-in counter.
The line wasn’t too long. Still 2 hours until my flight. When I got up to the counter, they told me that, yes, they could give me both boarding passes – to Istanbul and Erbil. I would just transfer directly without going through security again. I relaxed a bit. I wanted to carry on my 2 bags (I had left the third, larger one in the luggage storage area for the week I’d be gone.) They weighed the big one and told me I would have to check the bag. It was too heavy to carry on. Since they insisted it would go to Erbil directly, I agreed to check it. She prepared my boarding passes, tagged my luggage. And then she asked me THE question that changed everything. The question I should have lied in answer to. “Where is Erbil? Is that in Turkey?” “No, I said, it’s in Kurdistan.” “Kurdistan, isn’t that in Iraq?” (You’d think an airline worker would know these things, right?) “Yes, I said.” “Well, she said, do you have a visa?”
I didn’t. Adalet, the artist who invited me told me I didn’t need one, coming from the United States. (The least they could do, I figured, since we “liberated” them from a cruel dictator. But what do I know?) She began to do some research. Unconcerned about the line of people behind me waiting to check in, she made some calls, did a lot of reading on her computer. She came to the conclusion that yes, indeed, I needed a visa or, barring that, a letter from some official that invited me to come the country. I said that Kurdistan wasn’t really the same as the rest of Iraq, that I was told I didn’t need one, that I had to get on this flight! I could feel the panic rising from my stomach to my chest.
I called Adalet, but I couldn’t get through. I emailed him on my phone. I texted. No response. My phone flashed: Only 20% battery left! I couldn’t find a place to plug it in. I called my partner, Frank, back in New York. I wanted him to search my old emails to find something that could be considered an invitation that I could use to get past the authorities. He tried, but I could not explain or he could not understand how to log in as me, so he could get my email. I sensed my anxiety was contagious and he was catching it. My phone was losing its charge. I only had minutes left. I hung up and tried Adalet again. “TIM messagio gratuito. Questo numero non e coretto. ….” I checked to see whether he answered my text or email. No.
I then decided, as it was one hour prior to my flight, that I needed a higher level of help. I went to the main Turkish Airlines kiosk and told the woman what was going on. She started her own investigation. Oh my God, I am never going to make this flight. I am not going to have time to go to Delta and get my jacket. I am going to disappoint everyone. After a short investigation, she said that I did indeed need a visa. She printed out the “rules” for me. Reading it over, I noticed at the bottom that US nationals could get their visas in Erbil on arrival, but the sentence was cut off on the printout. I showed this to her. She started to discuss it with a colleague, who obviously wanted to go on a break or leave for the day. She made a call. Perhaps I could go after all. Yes! Go back to the check-in desk and show them the “rule.” She will call ahead to let them know I was coming. Less than 45 minutes to departure and I still had to get my boarding passes, go through security, find the gate, etc.
I started to run. When I got back to ticket counter, the attendant was calm. She got the call and processed my tickets. “Aisle or window?” she asked. I couldn’t care less! “Aisle,” I said. I checked the one bag and grabbed the other and my boarding passes. Which way to the gate? I went the wrong way. Turn around. Run. I get to security and the line is long. Only 30 minutes until departure and you have to get there 15 minutes in advance. Get through; look for the gate. Pass all of Duty Free, which seems like miles of shops. Get on a train to the Gates. When I get to the gate, they are already boarding. We take a bus from the gate to the plane. I feel hopeful.
When we land in Istanbul, I have less than an hour to make my connection. The ticket lady said, that would be ‘no problem.’ I followed the signs for In Transit passengers. Go up these stairs. At the top, I am in the middle of a food court and another mall. There is NO signage about which way to go to the gates. I choose left. Wrong! I ask a worker who points me in the other direction. I start to run again. Again it’s the furthest possible gate. When I get there, there is another security checkpoint with an xray scanner. A long line. I see the gate where I am supposed to be. They are checking in and boarding a bus. I wait. The bus pulls away. I try to push ahead, but everyone else looks panicked as well. Another bus pulls up. There are still people on line. I go through the metal detector and…it buzzes. Take things out of my pockets. I go through again. I get wanded. Okay. I can go.
I run to the gate and have to wait because there is a problem with someone on the line. They don’t have the proper visa! Oh my God. Is this going to come up for me again? Were they wrong in Rome? Finally, I approach the guards. They are youngish and good looking. US passport? Okay. They stamp me. My heart jumps. Have I made it? I board the second bus. We stay right there for a long time. Will we miss the plane? After awhile, a couple of more people get on the bus and we drive to the plane.
Here I am, writing this. It’s a smooth flight. I think I’ll take a nap.