musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Update

I saw a couple of clouds a few days ago in Iraq. I went inside to get a bottle of water and when I come out they were gone. I think they were just lost.

Fare Thee Well

To be honest, I was annoyed. Very annoyed. I usually don't let things that are out of my control bother me, but for some reason this time I couldn't help it. Maybe it was because my 4am flight, for which I arrived at the airport the standard two hours early, got delayed 3 hours. Or maybe it was because mosquitos ate me alive while I tried to sleep on the hard, not-so-clean floor of the Erbil airport. In the end, despite never having felt unsafe (or even uncomfortable for that matter), I think I was just ready to leave.

Despite the troubles leaving, my time in Iraq was interesting, if nothing else because it was decidedly uneventful. I worked, I ate, I slept, I touristed a bit, I worked... you get the idea. The best part about the whole trip was the opportunity to meet, and work with, some of what has to be Iraq's most genuinely nice people. Hardworking and honest, each had their own unique story of how they got to where they are. Some were from Baghdad and escaped the violence while others trace their ancestry to before Christ.

One of the latter, our office manager who speaks a mixture of Kurdish and Arabic at the office and Aramaic at home, was kind enough to take me to a beautiful restaurant the night I left. Wave after wave, the food came and went, all accompanied by the most delicious bread you've ever tasted. We sat outside, in the cool darkness of the manicured lawn, watching young Iraqis smoke hukka and old Iraqis drink raki (I don't remember the Kurdish name for it, but it is the same as Turkish raki). I could barely see my food, but it really didn't matter. Hummos followed by grilled lamb followed by fresh vegetables - they all went down happily and easily.

To all of our Iraqi staff - I salute you for your patience, your perseverence, and your dedication to re-building a county desparately in need of help. You all are the future of Iraq.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Dear Employer,

Please hire someone at HQ to serve me tea 3-4 times a day. I have become accustomed to this practice while in Iraq/Jordan and do not think I can continue working without this crucial support.

Kind regards,

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ibrahim. For Dress.

I met Iraq today. Well... Kurkish Iraq, but close enough.

If you've ever taken a world history course, you know that Iraq's story dates back to the Babylonians and before, a time before Islam or Christianity characterized by rich culture, warring tribes, polygamy and idol worship, and a more than a bit of pride. The citadel in Erbil is part of that story.

Arguably one of the most endangered cultural sites in the world, the citadel has bowed to countless masters, survived scorching summers and snowy winters, and still stands to tell the tale. If only its walls could speak. An unfathomable 6000+ years old, it still rises above the bustling city of Erbil, an ever present reminder of the region's great past. I was told that people still live within its walls to this day, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.

Walking among the ruins (naturally with my five heavily armed friends), I couldn't help but think of what it used to be like. Were there once imported palm trees lining the steep and dusty road to the center of the old city? Were there fresh water fountains where today there is a pile of rocks?

I got a brief glimpse into the past walking through the Kurdish Textile Museum. Being Turkish, I was naturally interested in the elaborate looms and fine yarns used to make Kurdish carpets; but what intrigued me more were the buildings housing the museum and the abundant framed photographs and paintings, covered in decades of dust. Upon entering a narrow corridor, visitors are welcomed by a large open room with colorful stained glass windows lining parts of the roof and second floor balcony. Carpet-filled floors pad the feet while you gaze into the black and white eyes of a middle-aged Iraqi man lounging in the afternoon sun, his face seeing through the camera and at any visitor who may happen by his dusty photograph. Off the second floor balcony were multiple rooms, each with a slightly different theme (record players, carpets, guns, etc.) yet brought together by the feeling that this "museum" used to be the mayoral manor, or perhaps a guest house used by a rich Saudi merchant on his way to Constantinople.

Outside again, we march past a group of armed pêşmerge escaping the heat under an ancient arc, one of many entrances to the once grand citadel. We say hello ("Choni kaka"). They smile and nod. Beyond the wall we look down on traffic, shoppers, salesmen, beggars, and old men; Iraqis going about their daily lives. Behold the old market.

"Do you want to go down?" chimes Hamdija.

"Is it safe?"

"Sure, why not?" Not quite the response I was looking for, but I think in Bosnian that means yes. At least I hope it does.

After taking a few pictures in front of a large statue of a man sitting with a Quran open in his lap (I was told this was a monument signifying the first place that Allah ever cried) we climbed down the steps leading to civilization. Immediately bombarded by the sounds and smells of a bustling city, I finally feel as if I'm experiencing Iraq (minus the Jackson five who won't get more than ten feet from me at all times). We walk along the street, past a butcher (is it a good idea to put raw meat in the window where it receives direct sunlight?), a baker, a restaurant, and a tailor, until coming to a covered section of the market. Not another gringo in sight, we dive in.

The one English-speaking local security guard asks me not to take pictures, as this will attract attention to me. My question is, how are two 6'3 white guys (Hamdija and me) speaking English going to attract any more attention than we already are? In any case, the camera stayed in my bag as we wandered through what looked to be a centuries-old market, full of anything one would need to survive. The smells of the food section were matched only by the vibrant colors of material these Kurds use to make their traditional dresses. A symbol of both pride and prestige, traditional Kurdish outfits are beautifully and expertly crafted by the tailor even for everyday use.

Although I took no photos of it, the sights and sounds of the market will stay with me for some time. This was not a tourist destination, but rather a place for Iraqis to go about their daily lives. I was a mere visitor, here one second and gone the next; these people have been buying the necessities of life here for centuries, perhaps even millenia. Each store owner greeted me with a smile, though none tried to sell me anything. After many trips to the covered bazaar in Istanbul, this caught me as a little strange. Were they afraid of me, or intimidated by my own personal basketball team shadowing my every move? Or were they fed up with the presence of foreigners in their beloved country, wanting nothing more than to get on with their daily lives without the trouble that seems to follow Americans wherever they go? In any case, I felt completely safe yet unwelcome, as if the tailor with whom I spoke (his sign said "Ibrahim. For Dress.") would rather I leave his shop than linger to try and find a present for my girlfriend. I know it wasn't personal, but I couldn't help but wonder if things would be any better under different circumstances...

"Yalla, let's go."

Friday, June 20, 2008

7

Days it's been since I've seen a cloud...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Compound

What is it like being in Erbil? Does everyone have a gun? Is it safe? Do they have toilets?

Interesting. Potentially. Relatively. Yes.

Arriving in Erbil, I was honestly expecting the worst. We hear about Iraq on the news almost daily, about this bomb or that suicide attack, this politician or that jihadist, this US soldier behaving badly and that Sadrist militia member vowing to avenge a terrible loss. It's all very sad and had a definite impact on my preconceptions.

The truth of the matter is that Erbil is full of construction and activity, a sign, according to our office manager, of progress and economic growth. "If you saw Erbil 12 months ago, you would not recognize it today." Indeed, on my way to lunch with he and five of my closest security buddies, I saw women walking in the street, businessmen selling tires, policemen directing traffic, and an unreported semblance of normality. To be fair, bombs get more hits (no pun intended) than economic progress.

Don't get me wrong, Iraq (including Erbil) is still a volatile place and could potentially erupt. Erbil's history, economic growth and current demographics point to the contrary, but it is, after all, Iraq. Needless to say, I don't argue with Hamdija when he tells me to do something. Nonetheless, the steady pace of life and undeniable signs of progress are a welcome reprieve from the steady barrage of bad press.

Our office and house form part of a larger neighborhood, walled on all sides with tightly controlled entry and exit points. Historically, this particular neighborhood has been predominately Kurdish Christian, as evidenced by several churches just outside the walls. A microcosm of the world around it, the compound is fully self-sustainable, complete with generators, water tanks/indoor plumbing, garbage removal services, etc. The house and office also both boast high speed internet and continuous electricity, a fact for which I am eternally grateful.

Three "restaurants" inside the compound cook you anything from pizza to shawarma to kebap to pancakes, obviously focused on the demands of the large international contingent. The Edge serves as a "bar" at night, offering your favorite choices of Turkish beer and a large projector to show Euro 2008 matches (guess where I will be Friday night when Turkey plays Croatia?). In addition, four "shops" sell corner store necessities and liquor, no doubt catering to the large security personnel contingent (including the "7-eleven," named as such by a sheet of paper taped to the window).

Free movement is allowed within the compound walls, which I've found can be somewhat unnerving at times but mostly quite welcome. Any move outside the compound walls must be pre-approved and taken with a full security detail in tow. Walking down the street, you find security contractors sporting Kalashnikovs and lounging under makeshift tents to avoid the oppressive sun. Armored SUVs adorn the streets with a lovely combination of black on black, beautifully complimenting the sand-colored buildings and dusty streets. At night, lit cigarettes identify the locations of the guards while dim lamps provide just enough light to avoid impending potholes.

Although not terribly interesting, the compound provides basic necessities and a hint of adventure (although I'm sure this would wear off after one too many meals at the Edge). It does worry me a bit that the sight of 6 men drinking tea and holding large guns is becoming rather routine, even after 2 days... Alas, c'est la vie in Iraq!

All in a Day's Work

So this is my first time to Iraq. I don't think I ever thought those words would come out of my mouth, but after touching down at 3am yesterday morning in Erbil, the reality of my situation can not be denied. I slept on the plane from Amman, but somehow had a terrible time falling asleep in my new surroundings. Let me explain:

The Amman airport is modern by most standards with an excellent duty free selection open 24 hours. Did I mention the Starbucks?

The Royal Jordanian flight was uneventful. The 2 sandwiches and a muffin in the middle of the night were a bit strange, but everything from the seat belts to the "seat back and tray table" discussion were the same as anywhere else. I don't know why I thought that somehow it would be different, but I did.

Jolted awake by the wheels touching down in Erbil, it finally hit me. Welcome to Iraq. I know, I know, Erbil is part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and is much different than, oh say, Baghdad. I have no desire to go to Baghdad - but that's not the point. In my simple mind, Iraq is Iraq is Iraq.

Any possible anxiety I felt about my situation was muffled by the calm demeanor of my fellow passengers. Porters offered to carry my wheeled bag (la shukran) and taxi drivers offered to take me wherever I wished. The pristine airport was simple yet effective, a stark contrast to the massive and security-check heavy Paris Charles de Gaulle I passed through a few short days ago.

Unfortunately no one was waiting for me; at least they weren't there yet. I had been assured that an escort would pick me up and take me to the "compound" where our house and operations center were located. Luckily, after a few tense moments filled with checking to see if either of my phones had service (they didn't) and casually checking the sky for incoming rockets, I was greeted by the large, toothy grin of my new best friend, Hamdija. Originally from Bosnia and sporting a pair of Oakleys even in the middle of the night, Hamdija took no time in pointing out my age. "They told me you were young, but I didn't think you would be that young!" Thanks Hamdi.

The black suburban with tinted windows is pretty much what one would expect out of an armored vehicle. Blast proof doors and a thick metal vault in the back apparently come standard on these things. The driver, a smaller Kurdish man whose name I promptly forgot (clearly not as memorable as my BFF Hamdija), greeted me with an awkward smile and soft hello. Off we went.

Once we breezed by the airport security check point (although this could potentially be chalked up to my active imagination, I'm pretty sure the guard was waving for us to stop), we approached another vehicle waiting on the side of the road. Our car stopped rather suddenly and Hamdija jumped out to greet the 4 Iraqis now outside their white SUV. A brief exchange of words was followed by an exchange of one of the largest weapons I've ever seen. Having also gathered his handgun, Hamdija was now fully Rambo-ed out and we were ready to go. Turns out the white vehicle is our "soft" car where as I was traveling in the "hard" one. Whatever way you spin it, 6 heavily armed men picked me up from the airport.

The ride from the airport was uneventful, characterized by fast and interesting driving patterns, mostly on behalf of the tailing vehicle. It wasn't long before we arrived at the "compound" where I will spend the next 10 days of my life. I must say the accommodations are much nicer than I expected them to be. Unfortunately, even after a comparably uneventful journey and a beautiful house, I still had trouble falling asleep. Maybe I shouldn't have had that last chicken shawarmah in Amman.

More to come on the compound and the quirks of temporary assignment in Iraq...