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|Monday, November 20th, 2006|
|The postponed commentary
[This is the postponed entry I originally drafted on November 17th. ]
It is about time I share some insights into this particular phenomenon. I am living with about 30 of these guys in this camp. As the only woman, I am sort of like that stray or orphaned kid that gets adopted by a tribe not his own, or by a pack of wolves or whatever. I go around and knock on the different guys’ doors and ask them for things I need and they always jump to help. Almost always. Last night, I was trying to find the guy who was supposed to give me a ride to the British Embassy party, but I couldn’t remember his name. John had his door open and so I knocked and poked my head in, explaining I was looking for this guy and trying to describe him. John finally stopped my babbling and said “Sasha, I am very very drunk.” [I later learned that he is nicknamed ‘Three-beer Johnny’]
I first became captivated by the topic of mercenaries when I was doing my graduate school thesis on the 1960-64 peacekeeping operation in the Congo. That was the time of the ‘greats’ –Bob Denard and his White Giants. At the time, I was also interning at a chemical & biological weapons/counter-terrorism think tank, and had a colleague who was fascinated with the growing attention to and debate over the use of private security and private military in our growing array of what we now term “Stability Operations.” He schooled me in this area and next thing I knew, I was a Doug Brooks groupie and had subscribed to Soldier of Fortune magazine.
So it has been my idea of heaven to end up in an environment crawling with what we call “PSD” –Private Security Detail. Many of the lines drawn about the use of force have blurred, and in particular, this idea of ‘humanitarian space’ has disappeared, leading entities such as humanitarian assistance organizations to adopt their use.
Because of my previous academic immersion into this topic, I liked being around these guys, and loved the chance to talk to them. I liked learning about their world. They are so stereotyped, but let me tell you, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. PSDs wear Oaklies (sunglasses), all of them. They wear their badges (we all need badges of some sort to allow us to get where we need to go) on their sleeves –well, biceps. There is a reason for this –they have to be ready to shoot at any time so they can’t have some ID pouch hanging around their necks, this could cause problems. They work out a lot. Most shave their heads. I could go on, but you get the picture. One last less accurate way they are stereotyped is: they aren’t that smart; they are ruffians; they don’t respect women; they are cultural morons and have no idea what politics IS, much less diplomacy.
What has inspired me to write about this today is that over the past few days, I have started getting to know these guys as people, and they are funny creatures. What I like best about talking to them are the surprises. Today, when I got back, I needed help plugging in my electrical converter thing because the prongs did not fit in the socket but I knew from the one I’d blown and therefore removed, that it was possible. (Yes, touché, if you read my first entry). So I went to find John since he is the electricity/appliance guy. I was a little intimidated after the previous night, but he was sober and jumped up to come help me. I was also trying to track people down because they were supposed to take me with them to the Crown Agents party, and so I asked John “Where is everybody?” and explained why I was asking. He said that I could come with him and his guys, but that they would not be leaving until 9 because…get this… they wanted to watch American Idol. Now, a lot of people watch it. Shrieking 13-year-olds; housewives maybe, I am not sure, since I don’t. But a retired Special Forces guy who is missing teeth and spends his free time chain-smoking and drinking beer?
Then there’s Pottie. Yes, his name is Pottie –or nickname, rather, but he is comfortable enough with it that he has it on his business card alongside the actual name, “Protgieter.” So I have to call this big South African guy Pottie with a normal expression on my face. Pottie is the vehicle guy; he is also the guy who had to come rescue me when I got lost my first night driving home and the Iraqi Police cornered my car. Pottie is one of the more attentive ones; some of the guys, like John, are scared to talk to me since they figure I am important somehow, or maybe it’s because they can tell I am fairly educated compared to them, I am not sure. But Pottie never misses a chance to poke his head in my door or bring me something –yesterday it was a fine new pair of mud-brown flannel Army long-johns. To those of you who have seen these you will understand that the Ice Age will have to return before I put those things on, even in private. In any case, one day Pottie stopped to talk and he started telling me about his various beach houses on the coast of South Africa. Now, normally we associate a lack of formal education with a lack of financial assets. But this PSD phenomenon –and what they get paid- has turned that around somewhat. Yet what I have also learned is that a lot of these guys took on researching and learning about investing in real estate long before the war in Iraq. Just because they knew they would never be a lawyer or a doctor did not mean they didn’t dream –and get constructive about their options to have a good life.
So many of these guys have a lot of investments, a lot of financial security. I learn about this because they like to talk about what they have –their homes; their boat; etc. But when they describe in detail these things to me, it is not in a boastful way, or rarely. They always get a wistful look, which is how I figured out that they talk about their material possessions because they are homesick.
This is a trend I have noticed among military guys. They each have their ‘thing’ they love to talk about; that they miss taking care of and look forward to coming home to; that they talk about more than their wives or girlfriends. For many it is their motorcycles; some, their car; houses; boats; etc. They usually have pictures, I am becoming quite versed in motorcycles.
The guys like to read a lot too. I haven’t figured out what yet, but tonight at Crown I will do further research. Finally, there is the stereotype about how they treat women. Yes, they are womanizers, most of them. And the tales they tell after their R&R trips to Dubai leave me gaping. But ironically they are the most chivalrous group of people I have ever encountered, much more so than any of the guys with whom I went to prep-school or college; more so than even the over-privilaged jet-set, cosmopolitan ex-pats I have caroused with on various continents. I am not allowed to carry anything. If I don’t seem to like what they are eating, the cooks are ordered to prepare whatever I ask for –and they notice; I can’t get away with not eating. They apologize if they accidentally curse in front of a woman. Etc etc.
Of course there are the ‘sink or swim’ types who want to see me struggle in their world; they consider a war-zone their world, and if a woman can hack it, then this means in their minds they are less masculine. So they try to make women’s lives as hard as possible. Too bad I am half their body-mass; I am expected to walk just as fast as they carrying the same weight (suitcase, footlocker, whatever) while wearing 30 pounds of body armor. They TRY to make me scared of guns, because it bothers them that I want to learn to shoot them; I am supposed to stay away from such things. These are the guys that are insecure but fortunately, relatively rare.
This entry as written yesterday stopped here. I have one more anecdote to add now about the surprises. When I walked into the kitchen upon my return form work after the DVD-buying trip, the guys, who eat between 5pm and 6 pm, were all in the dining area eating, and they asked me about my day. I showed them what DVDs I’d bought, and Johnny –who, incidentally, broke another tooth during the Crown Agents party last night and also had to be taken home early because he’d had three beers- piped up with something I would have never expected. I was explaining the story of the movie Perfume, which, I was saying, was set in a lovely town in France where the flowers for perfume are grown, only I accidentally said Grenoble instead of Grasse. He let me finish explaining why this was significant to me, then piped up politely “There’s another town near there just like that, called Grasse.” Which of course is what I had meant. I am dying to know why he would know this. But then, why shouldn’t he?
In conclusion: the common mantra here in Baghdad is that it is like Ground Hog Day (the movie). But I have to say –I don’t really ever get bored. Now really –Nacho Libre time, accompanied by a fine dinner of microwaved Easy Mac with the Cajun spices I had the foresight to bring. Breakfast, lunch and dinner of champions. Ah, yes, the Baghdad Beach Diet…
|Saturday, November 18th, 2006|
I had an entry already drafted but I will save it for later. I was about to work on it when Pottie (about whom you will learn more later, in the postponed entry) popped his head into my room very excited because he had turned on the TV and the documentary about the CASH was on CNN. I had forgotten it would be shown today, since the weekend is no weekend here. Until our conference call yesterday with the DC-based part of the GPM project team, I had completely forgotten about Thanksgiving.
It is so bizarre having the CASH documentary on the TV next to me while the helicopters roar overhead on their way to and from the very building over the wall which I simultaneously see the insides of on the TV. When Pottie ran in he didn’t realize that this was a documentary, not the news, and he was quite distraught because it was at the part when they talk about the little girl whose family shot her for helping the Americans by pointing where someone went; I think that was the story, I only caught the tail-end. I am sure the documentary will be re-shown this weekend.
Not only is the camp where I live on one side of the CASH complex, but the Freedom Compound, with the building where the World Bank offices are, is on the other side. I walk past the CASH everyday since I need to park a ways down the road from the Freedom Compound. I am never far from reminders of what is happening outside the walls of the IZ. Yesterday, as I was entering the Freedom Building, I guy ahead of me walking in was nonchalantly carrying a prosthetic leg.
The days here flip-flop so quickly between serious problems and minor ones. I was in a slightly irritated mood earlier because while I feel huge empathy and even guilt for what is happening to the Iraqi people, there are things that happen that make one feel at risk of what I call the ‘them’ mentality. I have always held that when in an assistance environment one starts thinking of the local population as ‘them,’ it is time to go home. But avoiding this takes effort some days even for the most well-meaning people. I had to check myself this evening. It started when last night, on my way home, a neighborhood kid jumped in front of my car just to be obnoxious. I drive very carefully and am quite vigilant, because between the Iraqi drivers, most of whom never really learned how to drive (there are no drivers’ license requirements here), and then pedestrians, I always feel like I am playing a video game when I drive here. The kid’s prank irritated me because imagine how demonized by his family and neighbors I would be if I hit him. Then today I went to buy DVDs at the roadside stand where a bunch of Iraqi guys sell pirated DVDs for $2 apiece (much better than spending $25 per movie at the PX! Plus it means my money gets into the local economy) and as I headed back to the car, a kid followed me pestering me to buy a watch. I told him I was out of money (I was), but he pursued me to the car. A typical thing that happens is that Iraqi street people ask us for our water bottles. So when he spied one in my car, he asked for it and so I gave it to him. He then acted like he wanted to kiss me to thank me and also was going in for a hug I think, but he was too old for that to be acceptable and I refused, and which point he tried to lunge, when I spoke sharply and he jumped back. It felt like a violation, since I had been nice and given him the water, and I felt hurt, to be honest.
So when I got back to the compound tonight and a neighborhood kid hanging in the car park called out ‘hello,’ I just kept walking, since he was standing with a bunch of other men I could not see in the dark, and I was afraid of encouraging more mistreatment. But then as I walked to the gate I felt badly because if he was a nice, well-meaning kid, then I had just done something unfriendly.
So I asked Pottie about it, and he said the kids are ok, and that the ones I had seen around the compound don’t have a father, and the mother is unemployed. He tries to help them by giving them left-over food from our mess hall. He is going to buy them a ‘geiser’ as he called it, so that they will have hot water. But he also said that the kids can get fresh, and when they do, he puts more distance between himself and them, and they usually get it.
Everyday seems like a game of trying to know who to trust, who not to. And then second-guessing ones decision. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the soldiers who have to kick down doors looking for arms caches or bad guys, encountering cowering, frightened families who may or may not have something to hide.
Among the DVDs I bought are “Uncle Saddam,” a documentary that John, one of my compound-mates, said is very well done. Another is “Voices of Iraq,” also good he says. It was made by a group of producers who distributed 150 digital video cameras to Iraqis and asked people to film their everyday lives. They later came and asked for the footage and made this film. The recipients of the cameras include everyone from mothers and kids to insurgents. Finally, I bought “Perfume,” (I read the book while in Iraq last year and was riveted. I did not know there was a movie!) and “Nacho Libre,” the last being what I will watch tonight. Now, in fact. Until next time…
|Thursday, November 16th, 2006|
|The Good, the Bad, and the Bizarre
Last night after my meetings finally concluded, as I waited at the palace pool to meet a friend for karaoke night (I will explain this in a moment), I found myself wondering how long it would take for the nostalgia to wear off. I walk around sentimentally re-encountering things that are so familiar but that I have not seen in so long and thought I never would again. Yesterday I had some meetings at the palace and when I had extra time, I walked through the section that is IRMO. I poked my head into offices and wandered through the halls finding or encountering a former colleague every few feet. I was greeted with open arms -literally- and smiles and excitement. They all thought I had come back, for another long stint with IRMO. And they made me really wish I had.
At the same time, already today I found myself getting annoyed by the things that were almost driving me over the edge by the end of my last two tours. It is not the things one would think: lack of amenities; no freedom; nowhere to shop for ones needs; little entertainment; dirty toilets; dust and grime everywhere; the mortars and other risks like kidnapping... It is the little things. I had forgotton them. Like the fact that they put toothpicks on the table in the dining facility, and the guys -not just the rough PSD guys but educated men in the State Department etc.- PICK THEIR TEETH AT THE TABLE! And you can't escape it, since the DFAC is so crowded at mealtime, strangers are packed together at tables. I am sorry, but it disgusts me, I was raised with strict manners. Picking ones teeth is something that is done in private and only when a toothbrush and flossing fail. Next thing you know I am going to see someone eating their sandwich in the bathroom.
Today I brought my lunch back to my desk since I did not want to eat alone while getting stared at by hundreds of men (literally, hundreds) plus I also have a lot of work. There was even a toothpick in my little napkin-fork-knife packet, a gross reminder even at my desk. Then I discovered another thing I forgotton drove me nuts. The sandwich guys are from Pakistan; they do not know how to make sandwiches (why would they?). And they do not speak English really. So I always end up with this messy pile of stale bread, fake cheese, wilted lettuce and soggy tomato that I later arrange properly into a sandwich. But the thing is, they get to spread the bread with the mustard and mayonaise, and I hate this because while I should be ecstatic that finally, in addition to the stale econo-buy imitation Wonderbread, also available now is stale 'rye' bread that is not cookie-cutter symetrical but randomly-shapen to trick you into thinking it was not synthetically made in a factory. Well, the bread slices should always have been adjoining in the slice-pile so that the size and shape of each slice is close to identical. Which I can accomplish since one has to go to a table on the OPPOSITE side of the dining facility from the wall against which is the sandwich line, to select ones bread. Then one returns to the sandwich guys and hands over the bread for the pile to be created. These guys have not figured out the whole thing where a certain side of one slice must get the mustard and then the other slice that gets the mayo must be the one that will allow that when the sandwich is completed, the shapes of the slices match up. Otherwise, you have the insides hanging out all over the place. Argh!
I think the thing that helps create the balance between the loves and the hates of this place is the weird stuff that provides a distraction. Yesterday at the pool, I noted the odd signs that I had forgotton to notice as abnormal after being here a while. "No drinking while armed. -Office of the RSO," "Warning -Attack Dogs on Patrol!" "No Swimming After Small Pox Vaccine." etc. And in the DFAC, I had to remember to be careful not to trip over anyone's machine gun while getting lunch. Or it being a perfectly casual thing for my friend to say last night "I'll walk you out to the parking lot, I have to go get my body-armor."
And to conclude -karaoke night, of which I offered an explanation. Every Wednesday night out at the pool, on a wood stage they set up, the MWR folks hold karaoke night. The soldiers love it, and I love watching them happy, so sometimes we pass by. It is a rather annoying event if you can't keep a sense of humor. It's like watching American Idol except everyone is dressed alike. And it is LOUD. My office used to have to brief General Harris every Wednesday night at 6pm after a grueling day racing to compile the IRMO Weekly Status Report that then goes to the Ambassador, then the State Department, then the world. We had to do it at the last minute because the data had to be as up-to-date as possible. By the time we would pile into his office around 8pm after having had the meeting pushed back several times, needless to say I was not in a festive mood, with several more hours of report-tweaking ahead after the meeting. General Harris' office overlooked the pool area and we could hear the yowling and bad quality mike barreling up into the air and over to us as we sat nervously watching General Harris examine the report - the budget numbers, the metrics- while resenting anyone who was out there at the pool and as if that was not bad enough, noisily and unabashedly making us aware they were out there.
Last night was more pleasant, more serene. I was able to recapture that happy maternal feeling I get when I see the soldiers finally doing something that makes them have fun and relax. We stayed in my friend's trailer with the door open, and through the trees could hear karaoke night and we made jokes but no-one really minded how bad most people sounded or the awful songs they chose. At one point, someone in the room said "That's why they keep mortaring us every night!" Meanwhile we watched The Empire Strikes Back projected on the trailer wall and joked that they should send those giant things called Atata stomping around Sadr City to make a point (not very politically correct, I know, but hey, we were off duty). Yes, we Baghdaddies are a weird society, but one I feel lucky to be part of.
|Tuesday, November 14th, 2006|
|And the fun returns...
As much as things have changed, in terms of the barriers and T-wall; the fact that the IZ is a maze with few landmarks left visible, and life at the Olive compound is much different from my NGO life or my Embassy life, it is in most ways the same-old, same-old.
Still recovering from jet-lag or at least the grueling demand of travel to get here, I was exhausted yesterday and left work as close to five as I could. It was also because it was getting dark and since it was my first time driving back to the compound, and I was not sure I remembered how, I wanted to leave before dark. But I got held up and so by the time I was on my way, it was dusk, and I got lost. When I pulled over to call the guy who does the vehicle stuff, so he could guide me in, the Iraqi police pulled up right in front of my door. I was not sure if I was getting into trouble or not and they would not just go away. Finally, I managed to communicate that a friend was coming and they seemed satisfied, so I think they were just trying to help.
I eventually made it back to the compound, and entered my freezing trailer (I don't have any heat, and it gets down to the 40s at night). Even though it was only 6pm, because of the cold, and the fatigue, I crawled into bed and promptly dozed off. About an hour later, two mortars came in, the second one pretty close. When I was in my previous positions, we kept body armor in our trailers, in case things got bad. For some reason, they don't here. This mortar attack was only 2, and I probably would not have put on my armor, but I felt better when I had some just in case. I think I might inquire about having some, I requested it in our contract with them. In any case, as I lay there in bed waiting to see if more mortars would come in, and I heard the usual sudden flurry of helicopters circling that follows a mortar or rocket attack, it felt so familiar -in such a neutral way. Not good, although it did have that "I'm home again" feeling; not bad, I was not rattled the way I would once get in a way that began to wear me down after a while in previous years.
Then this morning, we had no water, so I could not shower, even though we have a very important meeting today where I am introducing myself, and our project, to ministry of planning officials, and donor country embassy staff. Great. It turns out that there was a terrorist attack on the main water supply. Yes, the weird rythme of life here is steady, if regular chaos can be considered a rythme.
|Sunday, November 12th, 2006|
|Baghdad Tour Three, Arrival
I just arrived a few hours ago in Baghdad. It has been interesting already. I forgot what it is like to be a lone woman in a man's world. I forgot too about the flies and the dust. Argh! I have already replaced my heeled boots, cute skirt and free-flowing hair with khaki cargo pants, my Harley Davidson boots, and a pony-tail. (As you know, I somehow lost my desert boots, too bad, b/c it is much warmer than I remember this time of year being.)
These guys, since I am the only woman in the compound; and the only client for whom they are providing life support -that's industry lingo for housing, food, transport, etc.,- are so excited and nervous to have me here that they are annoying the heck out of me. I just want to unpack and get my phone and start setting up meetings. And they do things like traipse dirt into my trailer (so much for the rumoured room in a house) when they come to give me an electrical plug converter which they think they have to plug in for me, like I have never seen one before... I am fine with technology, weapons, and handling my own luggage however dirt and grime upset me. I will definitely be wearing flip-flops in the shower.
I was shuffled onto the Royal Jordanian flight from Amman this morning an hour earlier than my ticket said. I was not the only one perplexed; I had started chatting with the guy behind me in line at check-in, and when we checked in at the counter we were told to run because it was last call. That was odd, since it was 7a.m. and the flight was for 8a.m., according to both our tickets. When we spoke up about this (I wanted to go to Duty Free, so...) the Royal Jordanian guy simply said "That's the old schedule." and that was all we got. ?? So we went running to the gate and at the next security point the RJ guys said "Why does your ticket say 8?" There was no reason or time for a discussion so we just kept rushing to the gate, as my new friend commented "As if we printed our own tickets?" We made it, although I am still suspicious because it seemed that despite seat assigments, they were just cramming people onto the plane until it was full. My seat was taken however I ended up next to a cute American PSD (private security detail, i.e., bodyguard) on his way to Fallujah and we discussed at length fishing for most of the trip. He has a traumatic catfish story that affects him to this day.
When I disembarked and got my luggage (it arrived!) I was immediately met by one of my security detail, and as he pulled my bags out to my convoy, I ran into a favorite Jordanian colleague from my FIRST job here with the NGO, it was a great way to arrive! We exchanged business cards so hopefully I will get to see him while I am here.
Then we went out to the convoy where the cute American guy also had a convoy waiting, and for some reason I was glad he saw I also had one for me. They suited me up; the flak jackets now have collars, which I like; when I had the Army-issue flak jacket and helmet, my neck area was exposed, which I did not like. Anyway, they strapped on my (way too big but they are getting me a proper one) helmet, then strapped me to the wall of the armored vehicle, which I did not like either because I could not see out the window properly that way (I understood why they did it; most injuries in these armored vehicles are because of people being thrown around the car, not from shrapnel etc b/c these things are STRONG). It also reminded me of when I was 5 and had an eye operation and they strapped me on my back to the stretcher to keep me from moving during the operation, which frustrated me because I was used to sleeping on my stomach.
Then, with all this going on, and them giving me the security briefing before we hit the road, they opened a cooler I had not noticed before and offered me an ice tea or water or diet Coke. I had forgotton how weird this place is.
The BIAP road really is soooo much safer than when I was here before; tons of Iraqi police and Coalition military on the lookout. The Iraqi police who ride in the back of their trucks with the machine guns ready wear black ski-masks to hide their identity. It was my first real reminder of danger. Otherwise, it was quite surreal; the weather is perfect today; warmer than I expected but with that perfect edge of cool -Indian summer; sunny, clear skies; and greener than it used to be, plus they've finally cleaned up the vestiges of the war from that road so it was actually pretty; it felt nothing like the foreboding, eerie road that I remember travelling in the middle of the night in the rhino.
SO. Because we are giving so much of the Green Zone back to the Iraqis, real estate with-in is hard to come by, and so the Olive Group is dispersed. I am in one of several of their compounds. There is a kitchen area but it is for the cooks. I am still trying to figure out the demographic, since that dictates the food. There was Iraqi food lying about in the kitchen area, and I told them that is what I prefer. But meanwhile, nervous and eager-to-please, they'd made me spaghetti with tomato, carrotte, zucchini -ok- but then string beans in the mix. Oi vay. And then Kraft singles with the Arabic bread I'd said I like. And a salad I would have eaten but I just could not eat that much. However they are so worried about my happieness I did my best to eat as much as I could -they were watching and taking note, you see. There are a lot of Lebanese working for them who eat in this compound, so hopefully I will soon get Lebanese-style food. There are also a lot of gurkhas (Nepalese). So there is a somewhat Indian smell to some of what I smelt cooking.
After lunch I was introduced to my vehicle, which unfortunately is a huge SUV, a Pejero, that is armored. We had said I would use a soft (unarmored) vehicle in the Green Zone (same thing as the IZ, by the way) however they (Olive Group) were not comfortable with that, so now I have this huge heavy car to learn to drive. Even the windows are armored (that used to be about $6,000 extra on an armored car; probably more now). And they gave me a long tutorial regarding how hard it is to drive here now, since there are all these Iraqis driving around and they don't know how to drive; they are aggressive crazy drivers; then there are the drills by the military and the private security guys where... well, I better stop there. Good thing I have health insurance while here...
SO. So much about the Green Zone has changed! There are a lot of Iraqis with access now, which impacts my freedom of movement even with-in this supposed safe haven. It feels like being in a maze since there are no landmarks; everyone has even MORE T-wall up and has created their own secure compounds with-in the IZ, or "I-zed" as I will probably start saying since my life-support co is British, my boss is a Brit, etc. etc. Although we have Irish, South Africans, and Aussies in the mix too. I love the bizarreness of this place; as sad as I thought I was to leave my condo, now here, I find myself regretting that I have only 40 days. But once those first mortars start coming in, or once the helos start getting to me (noisy; and shake my trailer), perhaps my mind will change again. My compound is right next to the CASH (Combat Support Hospital, as everyone will soon know b/c of the CNN series). We can see from our roof the helo area and so we can count casualties coming in, hear the helos everytime they rush off and return, and watch the wounded/dead being hauled out onto stretchers and transferred to the CASH building. I have only been here a few hours so I have not seen this yet, but I was taken up on the roof for orientation (to understand where the camp is vis-a-vis the landmarks I used to know -and be able to see!) and the guy handling me was explaining this about the casualties being brought in. He said the numbers are quite disproportionate to what we get from the news i.e. what the Administration allows to be known. I guess I will be able to make that estimate first-hand soon.
OK, I apologize for the verbosity, however I needed some time alone finally, after all these guys swarming me trying to be helpful but really just irritating me. So I am writing long droning e-mails to people as an excuse to stay in my trailer and have some down-time finally. I chose you as one of my victims.
I will keep you posted; I might restart my blog, it is good because it keeps me writing so that maybe one day, I really will be able to publish that novel.
PS Casualties are coming in right now, my first set since I got here 2.5 hours ago. I am tempted to run up to the roof but I am sure that I will have plenty of chances to see what my handler was talking about. Oh -you probably want to know more about my trailer. It is twice as big as the one I had w/ the State Dept, and I have a double bed!! A nightstand, a small refrigerator and even a microwave!!; unlimited supply of diet Coke (they may come to regret that); another small nightstand on which is the TV with a DVD player, and I think the TV gets CNN! A table and chair, where I am seated now -so, my desk really; and then another chair, a real one with arms, where I can sit and read or whatever. And then my own (dirty) bathroom with a (scary dirty) shower stall. And a small footlocker (like a college-dorm quality cupboard) for my clothes. The best thing is that I have a window above my table and it is not sand-bagged! My State Dept trailer was so dismal because they'd packed it in sandbags so my only light, ever, was the flourescent light on the ceiling (same flourescent light here but I have the window!) The window looks out onto other trailers and some run-down Iraqi buildings; the piping for the ablution units, and a very sad mini palm tree in a pot. But morale-wise, the sunlight in the morning will be great.
OK. Time to make phone calls.... Ciao ciao-
|Sunday, January 8th, 2006|
|The Talabani Cheese Incident
The Talabani Cheese Incident – Looking Back to Unwritten Cheese Diaries: January 6, 2006
Despite gaining some disdain for certain aspects of our foreign policy machine, I also worked among some of the most impressive people I have ever encountered while I was with IRMO (the Iraq Reconstruction and Management Office, the ‘technical experts’ that support the Embassy as part of the reconstruction effort). I discovered one of these people thanks to a close call with some presidential cheese.
One afternoon my colleague and office neighbor from the IRMO Office of Environment came wandering into our office in search of crackers. This was not unusual, people frequently stopped by due to (a) our DVD collection, (b) the shelf stocked with microwaveable food and (c) the proportion of the Information Management Unit (IMU) that consisted of young women. (Less often, it seemed, did anyone actually stop in for information).
I learned that my office-neighbor was planning to serve some cheese later that evening, and was invited to join. While I had modest expectations –thinking that the occasion was more about the bottle of Chianti he’d procured than about the cheese involved, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the cheese we would be sampling was in fact from [Transitional Government] President Talabani’s farm that he had brought for us and handed off at a meeting with my colleagues earlier that day. I admit, my Environment colleague’s Alabama origins and certain other low-maintenance/unpretentious aspects of his personality had led me to assume the cheese might very well be sprayed from a can or scooped from a jar (let me add that the only cheese being readily available in the IZ being that found at the PX, the FOB -version of which makes a 7-11 look like Whole Foods.*
Even given the Talabani-farm origins, I did not expect to be impressed; years earlier, a hunt for local cheese in the Muslim area of northern Cameroun, that I had heard existed and wished to sample, turned out to demand energy in great disproportion to the pleasure allowed by the tasting when it finally came about (it was suspiciously-flavored, grainy, oily goop in a jar), however as a cheese connoisseur it was almost a duty, I felt, to taste this local Iraqi cheese. So despite what was probably my most pressing and imminent deadline during my IRMO tenure, I made time to pop next-door at the appointed hour.
A group of about 5 people had gathered, 5 of my favorite people incidentally (aptly, these were members of the IRMO Office of Water Resources, and IRMO Office of Private Sector Development) and were already sampling the fresh cheese which, though mild in taste, was a treat for the very fact that it was the first truly fresh food I had had since arriving months earlier, being a prisoner of the DFAC (Dining Facility; army mess-hall, basically) since the IZ restaurants had become off-limits to Chief of Mission personnel. So I happily joined in, sipping red wine and eating this cheese from Talabani’s farm, that most closely approximates fresh mozzarella in both texture and taste, a detail that will become significant in a moment.
After enough cheese to feel I had actually eaten rather than simply tasted, in strode the star to whom I alluded above, the Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture. I had never actually sat down and talked with him, my job had never demanded it and in addition, he had been out of the country for a while. Without a pause he crossed the room saying “I hope that’s pasteurized,” sat down at the table, and proceeded to prod, sniff, and eyeball the cheese as if it were a malleable, miniature, potential enemy. Five of us looked at each other, mouths full, cheeks stuffed, and after swallowing someone asked “Why…?” realizing at this point that we, as ‘technical experts,’ should probably have thought about this on our own already. But we had not, and so Paul launched into a detailed “Bacteria 101” lesson, interspersing his technical lecture with painful-sounding anecdotes from his time in some capacity with the FDA that involved him with the laws regulating the import of cheese from France. As it happens, he held that position at the time when the ban on the import of raw-milk cheese from France was instituted. [Actually, it turns out that the new requirement was a waiting period of 60 days before such cheese can be imported, since it takes 60 days for the bacteria to grow into something relatively innocuous]. I remember that new regulation being passed, it directly impacted my life, as I was (and still am) a regular consumer of Morbier, among other cheeses that rely on their raw-milk base for their particular allure. It all has something to do with the moisture-content of the cheese, the moister the more dangerous.
Apparently terrible things happen to the digestive system when the wrong kind of dairy-related bacteria is consumed by humans. Death actually sounded like the kindest of the variations of response Paul listed. I asked if perhaps the wine might kill such bacteria? No. Scotch? (This particular group, by the way, was to become the core membership on which to base the 6pm Scotch Club, an invention to aid us in getting from one bi-annual Baghdad Martini Foundation event to the next). No. How long would it take to know whether or not one was in the clear? Five days.
Figuring the damage had been done, I ate a little more cheese and then returned to my report. Five days later, I was still in good health (which is more than I can say for the report), as was everyone else, so apparently, Talabani’s Iraqi cheese passes the muster. Now, what Baghdad martinis can do to the system is a subject for another day –maybe. As the Marines on duty can probably remember in clearer detail than the rest of us, what happens at the Baghdad Martini Foundation best stays at the Baghdad Martini Foundation…
[Incidentally, headlining the Winter 2005 issue of the FDA: “Got Milk? Make Sure It’s Pasteurized;” http://www.fda.gov/cdrh/fdaandyou/issue05.html#1
You see, I don’t just irresponsibly fling around my stories without the knowledge and well-being of you, the reader, in mind. I am well aware I can be very convincing and I take that responsibility seriously The place to go, besides a war zone, for gruesome stories as well as other back-up info re my story and background info re why “eating raw milk products is ‘like playing Russian roulette with your health.”]
* Forward Operating Base, in this case, the International Zone (IZ), which is home of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, among other things. Current Mood: cranky
|Thursday, January 5th, 2006|
3:44a.m., January 5, 2006 (Night shift)
Well, it has been some time since I wrote. There are several reasons. At first, it was that I was still figuring out what was safe to talk about and what was not –both from the ‘Operational Security’ standpoint, as security has gotten to be a much more delicate issue since I left, and then also because of the political sensitivity of my job. I took baby-steps and wrote a few entries when I first got to the Embassy in April 2005, however I stopped when I received a few e-mails from strangers who had somehow found their way to my journal even though I started it as something for friends & family only.
Another reality check was the level of security awareness one feels living in the International Zone. I remember thinking of it as paranoia when I was a Red Zone resident, although towards the end I think the reality caught up with the attitude that earlier had seemed melodramatic to me.
Then work took over just about all my waking moments and most of my energy, and what little time & motivation remained went towards a social life by which I mean: Thursday nights after 21:00, basically, with the occasional foray to the Blue Star Café, RZ’s house for dinner, or one of the ‘secret’/private bars. And Fridays at the pool, although the Fridays-at-the-pool crowd got considerably smaller towards September, as friends left/rotated elsewhere, and the weather grew cooler; and somehow, or maybe this was just me, some of the euphoria dwindled as well with the approach of fall, and more serious topics took over the mood, such as the Constitutional referendum, the elections, and what would happen come January.
Well, here we are. I have since left the Embassy, in search of more substance; a political creature I am not, although I appreciated the opportunity to learn that rather than guess it. And so, in a flurry of activity and a departure for the world of the private sector that came a few months earlier than I might have originally planned, I left Camelot. Something that can only be understood by those who have spent time here is that it was much more difficult to hand over my MCI phone than it was to have my diplomatic passport voided or my Embassy reclaimed. That phone was my link to the outside world, my lifeline, and also my daily reminder of what club I belonged to; much more so than the black-covered passport that only came in handy once, when going through Iraqi customs during Ramadan with my Duty Free bag; much more so than the State Department badge, although it got me into certain meetings (where, were it not for Jolt gum, I would have often fallen asleep).
There is no way to leave Camelot without some sense of a scandal having occurred, whether there is truth to the stories or not. If the waves in my wake have lingered, I do not know because my new venture has meant a relocation as well, one that might as well have involved oceans and mountains, because any travel outside the IZ these days is a serious undertaking and I have only been back to the IZ twice since I moved to my new location.
And it is from here, tucked far behind T-wall and barbed wire, that I ‘watched’ the elections. I thought it would be a disappointing experience, but because it was the culmination of so much of what I and almost everyone in my world the past 2 1/2 years has dedicated themselves to, no matter where in the world I might have been December 15, my attention would have been riveted on this. But in fact I was here, in earshot of the car bombs, but also in the pipeline to receive the earliest photos of the ink-stained fingers, the toothy grins and ballot-submissions, and everyone’s favorite, two children who stained their fingers so as to feel included with the adults in the excitement. One Iraqi newspaper reported a story about a couple that planned their wedding for the 15th and went so far as to hold the ceremony at a polling station, an event that was in many ways one of the most defiant counterinsurgency gestures since Saddam was overthrown, because they not only braved the polling station themselves, and not only for the time it would have taken to wait in line; they asked their friends and families to do the same, and for an entire day.
But enough politics. OpSec once again precludes any detailed description of my surroundings, but I can provide a general overview. I live in a trailer still, although this time it is a real trailer; that’s right folks, a step up, since my home at the Embassy compound was actually a modified shipping container with an ablution unit (shower & toilet) inserted between the two compartments, the other of which was inhabited by a female MP I saw once the entire time I was there.
The landscape is much nicer here; I can see a horizon, rather than being in a maze of sandbags and T-wall, concertina wire & gravel. There is that still, but because of the nature of the compound, there are open spaces. I get to drive occasionally, although there is not anywhere to go but the PX or the gym, and little time for either. One relief is that my business-casual attire has been retired to my trunk, and the heels have been replaced by Harley Davidson boots. Now, you being ‘friends & family’ will know that I am far from your nature-girl or tom-boy-type when it comes to my everyday wardrobe; but business attire and a ban on the desert boots for Embassy personnel is damned ridiculous when one is dealing with gravel, barbed wire, long walks through concrete mazes between buildings, and the occasional donning of the flak jacket & helmet in 100+ degree weather.
Actually, I was reflecting upon my attire just yesterday, and what it might say about who I am/have become. I was wearing black Benetton pants I used to wear to work in DC; the Harley Davidson boots; athletic socks my current supervisor gave me a month ago because I rarely have time to drop off/pick up my laundry and was out of clean socks; a Brooks Brothers no-wrinkle shirt, and carrying a Camelback backpack rather than a purse or briefcase; I carry my cell-phone in a holster on my hip because everything one does here must be utilitarian, efficient. Accessories included: “Oaklies” (the preferred-eyewear of the PSDs); a gold watch that was a gift form the Serbian sniper boyfriend from Iraq Tour One (as I have come to call the June 2003-August 2004 stint); and my Indian bangles. Ointments included: anti-aging cream for the eyes; some medicine for a damaged toe (I also have a new scar on my right leg from that incident, a night that shall remain part of my oral history only…); and my perfume (very utilitarian when it comes to getting computer help without filling out a request slip).
I guess that is pretty much me. I suppose I have not changed much over the years, with the exception of new scars; I seem to add one each time I transition geographically, this has been the case since the Cambazola cheese-knife injury the week before I left for Italy the summer I was 19. I seem to collect cheese-related stories as well. Which reminds me –my next story will be the Talabani Cheese Incident. Until then...
|Monday, October 17th, 2005|
|Iraqi Constitution Referendum
Iraqi Constitutional Referendum: October 16, 2005-10-16
Yesterday, as you know from the news, was the referendum on the Constitution. It was uplifting to be here for it, even though we could not get close to the ‘action’ of the vote. The Green Zone lock-down insulated us from the mood on the streets, but it was enough to know what was going on that day and realize that each of us in our own small way was a part of the effort that brought us to this moment. The only experience that gave me a sight or sound to distinguish this day from any other was when at 5pm, as the polls closed, celebrational fire erupted around us. I was walking with two colleagues from the Embassy Annex to a meeting down the road when it started. Initially, we assumed it was a gun battle, and it sounded as if it was coming from Assassin’s Gate. Indeed we were not the only ones with this initial impression; the gurkhas were hurriedly donning their body armor and the radio traffic picked up with urgency. The gunfire was not really a concern, we have become so used to it, and we knew it was not a threat to us. Compared to incoming mortars and rockets, the peppering of gunfire is merely background noise that has little to do with our immediate safety.
But this episode has significance because it was the only thing we had to mark the sights, sounds and sensations that create the euphoria one feels upon witnessing an event such as yesterday’s referendum. Experiencing a people’s steps towards freedom is addictive. It is what keeps people like myself returning to the challenging and rudimentary lifestyle that these missions impose upon those who flock to be part of a certain type of history, one formed by forces that are interwoven with violence.
The next few days will be tense, as the votes are counted and the insurgency fiercely struggles to use this final window to prevent what would be a great political victory. While this may be counterintuitive for those who have followed the war from their living rooms, when the violence escalates, it is the sign that we are winning; politically or militarily or at times both simultaneously, for were we losing, there would be no incentive for these acts of terrorism.
Two nights ago, the eve of the election, I barely slept, waiting for the expected onslaught. Why it never came that next morning I am not sure; but the day was relatively quiet. Perhaps the insurgents thought that they had already instilled enough fear to deter voting. But by the time the polls closed, it was clear that already we had achieved a political victory, due to the number of people who turned out to vote, despite the threat.
And so, like clockwork, at 7-ish this morning, in came the rockets. It was shortly after 7 a.m. and I was in bed procrastinating getting up, pushing it to the limit in terms of making it to the 8 a.m. meeting. I was lying there thinking that even though I still could afford to laze around a few more minutes, perhaps I should get up and put my contacts in, in case there was an attack, since once there is, then I really DO need to be able to see, in case I have to run or to help myself if I am injured, and it is also very difficult to put my contacts in after a first explosion, since my hands shake.
I had just finished that thought when I heard one distant thump, then a second. I jumped out of bed and tried to ascertain if what I had heard was a distant explosion, when I heard the first rocket go close overhead and then impact somewhere to the right of my trailer. I stayed standing, concentrating on listening for the next one, fearing that if I moved I would not hear it coming. A moment later the second one hit, somewhere to my left. I jumped to my bed and hugged the mattress, wondering if there was anywhere to go, knowing of course that there wasn’t. As I crouched there trembling slightly, Condoleeza Rice’s voice flowed in the background from the CNN interview that I had on TV. I had never noticed before how even her voice is, both in terms of tone, volume, and even pace of her words is consistent. It was a strange contrast to what was going on in my reality at that moment and I wondered what she would think if she knew what was going on as she sat there so calmly.
I waited for some amount of time I cannot measure, then got up, knowing it was over for the moment. I went and as has become a habit, with shaking fingers, put in my contacts then went to the door to wait for the Giant Voice. The Voice, a loudspeaker system that announces attacks, all clears, etc. throughout the Green Zone, does not really reach my trailer. Even with the door open, I cannot hear what it is saying, but I have learned the announcement patterns, the nuances of the voice. The order of highs and lows, the cadence, and the length of the noise/sentence tells me whether I am getting instruction to take cover, some other instructions, or that all is clear.
The worst part of these attacks, which usually occur around 7:30/8 a.m., when I am in my trailer, is that I can’t see anything. I have no windows, I am in this metal box and from my bed I stare across at the opposite wall, which faces the river (with rows of T-wall between me and it), the direction from which the fire comes from. It feels like being in a pitch black room hearing your attacker breathing, knowing where he is but not being able to see him, not knowing how close he might be, or what he might do next and how soon.
After a few minutes of standing at my door in the hot, early morning sun under an innocent-looking blue sky, listening for the Giant Voice to come on and give me some guidance, I decided to get dressed and call into the office if I had not heard the ‘All clear’ by the time I was ready to leave.
All in all, I had lost ten minutes because of the attack, but it was enough to assure I would be late for the 8a.m. meeting, so I skipped it, and instead got breakfast. It was a good day –there were English muffins; when they’re out of them, there is only flavorless, dry, econo-buy white bread. There was strawberry yogurt, which usually goes quickly and all that is left is those weird flavors like banana-pineapple or kiwi. Finally, the new highlight of the dining hall, there was cottage cheese. And so I was able to start my work day my favorite way: eating breakfast at my computer while checking personal e-mail, mostly if not completely alone in the office.
So many days are like this; I am jarred to reality by violence, whether it is a mortar attack or a car bomb somewhere across the river. Then I get in the shower and start my day with a calm rhythm, I insert myself into the masses of people at the palace who are doing the same thing, and the day continues with that hum of activity rising and falling in waves just as it does anywhere; in Manhattan, Tokyo, Paris; in little towns across the U.S. and villages in Africa. Occasionally, maybe every few days, there is a daytime attack and we have to run into the halls and wait it out, or if in a windowless room, the meeting goes on, people stay at their computers, one barely misses a beat except perhaps to crack a joke. We call life here “groundhog day;” each day is the same to the point that we forget what day of the week it is, even what month it is, something that is in part a product of the long hours, the 6-7 day weeks; in part a result of the repetition of faces, actions, and meals. But once in a while there is a day that is a little different, a day like yesterday, which is what makes all the rest of this a satisfying life.
|Monday, April 18th, 2005|
Due to operational security requirements and political concerns, this time around my journal is going to be limited to a vetted list. Both the bad guys and journalists can make use of or manipulate the most harmless-seeming info, and so I am taking this journal off public access. What that means is, if you qualify as friend or family and would like to be on that vetted access list, please e-mail me.
It is upsetting that the bad guys currently have the power to limit our freedom of speech and the sharing of experiences, but I console myself with the idea that voila, all the more reason we need to be here. I do believe that with-in my lifetime, Iraq will reach that point where one can make that dream trip I have, of going from Umm Qasr through Baghdad to Amman in a convertible with the top down and the music blaring on the stereo. But until then, this is the way it must be...
Thanks for reading.
|Wednesday, April 6th, 2005|
|April 6, 2005: While You Were Sleeping...
April 6, 2005: While You Were Sleeping
Iraq has a government! They just finished the ballot count (it is about 11:45 local time). My three Iraqi colleagues were all glued to their computers, with the count sounding like an echo as their computers received the webcast at slightly varying speeds. So much of the morning, I have been working against a back-drop of "wahid, wahid whaid....wahid wahid wahid..." interspersed with their excited comments. So far, nothing drastic seems to have happened regarding an attack on the Green Zone, despite forecasts of doom.
I am less emotional about this than I was a few days ago when they elected the National Assembly Chairman/Speaker. After a while, well, work must go on. Hakim is so excited it is almost silly; an American colleague finally tried to say to him diplomatically that this is not the end, only the beginning. Contrary to the media's portrayal of Americans here exaggerating Iraqi enthusiasm and their gratitude towards the U.S., we are finding ourselves trying to reign in their optimism, lest they be disappointed when the speeches are over and it's back to noses to the grindstone while the bombs continue to go off and the electricity continues to fail as the heat increases.
Not that pessimism is called for either. Just realism, a balance. But for today, I suppose the Iraqis have earned the right to some euphoria. It is just daunting; these are educated, motivated people yet at the same time they are so fragile... and so too much optimism is emotionally dangerous to them.
One of the gleeful commentaries going around the office was that, according to our Iraqi colleagues, Saddam is watching the process from his cell. They start laughing and mapping out scenarios of how he must be reacting, whether he'll have a heart-attack, and they start chuckling. Catharsis, I guess.
Right now is a strange time because so much is uncertain. One of the things I realized when I first returned, and the insurgency was still considered the main context in which we are operating, was that it is a simpler time because of that. June 2003 was simple because we were innocent, there was hope and energy. After the UN attack the killed Sergio de Melio, and subsequent attacks such as the one on the Jordanian Embassy and then the hotel attacks, things became confusing and that lasted until we had to recognize a full-blown insurgency around April 2004. Since then, things have been simpler again.
But that is about to change I think. It is hard to know what effect the election of the Tranisitonal Government will have on the security situation. The insurgency could increase, since they will be working all summer towards writing the constitution and preparing for the elections of the actual 'permanent' government. It could decrease because the Iraqi people are optimistic and are therefore more willing, even determined, to take back their country from the bad guys and therefore they will be proactive rather than evasive regarding playing a role in rooting out these bad guys; their participation in this is the most effective strategy there is for squashing the insurgency.
We shall see. Meanwhile, I am keeping my head down, my chin up, and waiting until some smoke clears so I can go rug shopping. You may stick me in a trailer but you can't suppress my penchant for interior-decorating...
Stay tuned, because April 9 (anniversary of the statue toppling, US takes Baghdad, etc.) is this Saturday, and it could make things interesting.
|Tuesday, April 5th, 2005|
|April 5, 2005: Yikes!
OK, well, my narrative re my return, how it feels, etc etc will have to wait again. The latest news is that (a) soon after the ballots were counted and speeches were made at the National Assembly, a rocket landed in the swimming pool at the Rasheed Hotel, which is across from the building in the IZ (formerly Green Zone, now called "International Zone"). No-one was hurt. There was also a mortar. No big deal though. The National Assembly convenes tomorrow to vote on the by-laws regarding the further elections of the new Transitional National Government -for a president and a PM. SO we will be requireed to wear our flak jackets and helmets whenever we are outside for the next few days.
Which is fine with me. Although my jacket is bulky and not as nice as the one I had the last few months when I was here before, I have a newfound fondness for it after last night. I slept with. In my bed, not on. I'll tell you why. I went out for my pre-bed cigarette -we are not allowed to smoke in the trailers, plus I prefer not to. It was about 11:25, when as I gazed absent-mindedly at the sky, I saw a rocket launch and heard it wooshing through the sky. I thought "Hmm, wonder where it's headed for." A second later it reached the apex of its trajectory and 'turned' to head towards its destination -which happened to be straight towards my trailer park. I thought "Hmm, that is not good." I knew I had about 3-4 seconds before impact, so I dove into my trailer, cigarette still in hand, and put on my jacket and helmet, which was hard, but I did not have time to go throw it somewhere. I then sat on the bed and counted. I never heard an impact, but moments later I heard the helicopters, so I knew I had not immagined it.
OK, I have to go to a meeting. More soon.
|Sunday, April 3rd, 2005|
|National Assembly Elections
My next entry was supposed to be about my Kuwait to Baghdad leg, and what it is like to be back but I must defer that and capture something overwhelming as it happens. While most of the world is focusing on the death of the Pope, here, something much more gripping is unfolding, and it is good. The National Assembly today elects their chairman and two deputies, and as I write this, my Iraqi collwague to my left is watching a live webcast of the voting. They are counting the votes right now, calling each of the 232 votes. The National Assembly has 275 members but 43 abstained due to security fears (threats) or one of my Iraqi colleagues suggested some Sunnis may have decoded to boycott.
But 232 is enough. Once these three are elected, they will manage the voting for the PM and his two deputies, and the President and his two. Then they will rewrite the constitution, and by December there will be elections for the permanent government. This is the first erally big step in the process. My Iraqi colleagues are so excited, gathering around Hakim's computer watching the tally take place. Hakim keeps exclaiming "This is beautiful! This is the real victory!" If he keeps it up I am going to cry.
I am so glad to be back!
|Wednesday, March 30th, 2005|
March 30, 2005: Transit
Well, I have made it as far as Kuwait in one piece. I don't get my day of rest, I arrived late last night, had briefings through the day today and am up early tomorrow to head for 'Baggers.' It will be another long day tomorrow but then finally, I will put my bags down and hopefully not move again for a year.
I am very lucky. Within an hour of arriving at the hotel in Kuwait, my buddy Z was on his way from Kuwait City to pick me up and have me sleep at his house since all that seemed to be available in the female quarters at the Kuwait Hilton was an Army cot :-( He returned me here this morning after a decent night's sleep (I met Z on my way in the first time and we have stayed friends; he worked in Baggers at the same time as I). It turns out I do indeed have a room in the women's quarters (this is a KBR set-up). So tonight I will sleep there. Meanwhile, I lucked out b/c another friend I met last June happens to be here on his way out of Baghdad to Philly, where he lives, and he has a huge beautiful suite where I am now sitting drinking fresh kiwi juice and getting ready to get in a sea-salt bath while he goes to some 'pinning ceremony' for his company. Then I will meet him for a Mongolian BBQ on the beach, then an after-party in the suite and then... to bed to bed, as the trip in is a nightmare. They are doing cork-screw landings everytime now, plus, argh, many other hardships ahead involving tents, planes, helicopters, the 'Rhino,' (the armoured vehicle that gets us from the plane to the area I will be working), a truck and a trek with my luggage, oi vay.
So that is all for now, folks! More later, to confirm safe arrival at my final destination.
|Thursday, February 3rd, 2005|
February 3, 2005: Iraq Elections
When asked why I am willing to uproot, to forego stability, relationships, probably the option of marriage and children if I keep doing this, it is difficult to explain. The best I can come up with usually is “When I see something that needs to be fixed, I feel I have to go there.” And I feel so lucky that when I see something like the tsunami, or the situation in Congo or Sudan or Haiti, I actually have something to offer, something I can DO besides watch the news and feel sad.
The elections in Iraq however are a much more powerful example of why; why the trade-off of having most of my possessions in storage; buying over-priced pre-paid minutes instead of a cell-phone plan; always being ready to lose a boyfriend because one day, I will go again… is worth it. It is what it felt when I saw Iraqi people with that ecstatic perma-grin as they waved their stained fingers in the air; the e-mails I have received from Iraqi friends both in Iraq and abroad telling me that they “love Mr. Bush,” they love my country, they feel excited about the future. One of the most wonderful things about it has also been what happened here –for the most part, partisanship was put aside for a day and Americans too seemed to be rejoicing; the news focused on the good things about Sunday, not on the bloodshed.
I can’t believe I was privileged enough to be a part of it. A very tiny cog in the machine, inconsequential, but for the first time in a while I have felt proud about my time there. Coming back from Iraq smack-dab into the height of the pre-US-Presidential-election, in which Iraq was a political pawn, used by both sides, was very tough. And given the leanings of the majority in DC, most of the commentary I was getting every time I mentioned or it was revealed that I was in Iraq, was not favorable. So at the exact phase of my life when I was healing from the challenges, seeking approval of my and my colleagues’ efforts, trying to get back energy sucked out of me over those fourteen months and hoping that all this was for a reason, I was hearing “It’s all screwed up; it’s doomed.”
But this Sunday, I called a friend in Iraq, an American guy working to support the Ministry of Interior; the guy, incidentally, who wrote the security plan for the elections; and he was so happy he could not stop laughing. He described shuttling his Iraqi colleagues in a van to the polling booths, and how they hung out the windows waving their blue-inked fingers, chanting and cheering.
We did this, in part, and should feel proud. But more importantly, the Iraqi people did this by being willing to die in order to exercise a right with which they are barely acquainted. Now is a window of opportunity; the optimism that existed when I arrived back in June 2003 seems to have returned for the moment. However what is different now is this: the US led the Iraqis back then; and back then, that was OK. Now, it is time to take the training wheels off the bike, so to speak. One of my favorite quotes has great pertinence today: “Go to the people; Live with them, Learn from them, Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, When the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, We have done this ourselves!’” [Lao Tsu (China), 700 BC].
The Iraqi people started with so little to build ON when it comes to democracy. But ‘what they have’ to build WITH, is intelligence, courage, and an amazing amount of optimism and faith in the future. What Sunday proved is that the Iraqi people are now both eager, and up to the task, of doing this themselves.
|Saturday, October 2nd, 2004|
|October 2, 2004: The Road to Recovery
Returning to DC was, as I expected, like returning to some non-violent version of Baghdad. So many people go back and forth between the two, that the community has not changed very much, excpet no-one is carrying guns here. The topics are all the same; the hurricane bout was a nice break, despite the grief it is causing so many people. I was just relieved to see something else on the front page of the newspaper once in a while.
This live journal is not done yet; I have several entries either ni bullet form or in prose, in my handwritten diary, awaiting transcription or elaboration, before I post them. Documenting my return is as important as documenting my departure from DC and my arrival in Baghdad, I think. And I may go back. I WILL go back, although maybe not for several years. My hope is that before I hit 40, I can fulfill the fantasy I used to have there -still have it: to drive from Baghdad to Amman (that takes you right through Anbar Province), in a convertible sports car with the top down, and music blaring. And without a Private Security Detail or any guns at all except maybe for fun. That has been one of the things I have had the slowest pace adjusting to -freedom of movement.
SO. For those of you still checking here, keep doing so. I will probably have commentary and reflection to share up through the U.S. presidential elections and the early days of whatever new administration with which we end up, since Iraq seems to be THE central issue. Then there are the Iraqi elections in January. I would like to get there for those, if only as a monitor. Meanwhile, keep an eye on the October 9 elections in Afghanistan. My assessment is that these will be regarded as the U.S.'s dress rehearsal for Iraq; a test or indicator of whether or not the Iraq elections can succeed. I think it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Afgghanistan elections get back on track and 'succeed,' the Iraq elections will stand a much better chance due to greater confidence from Iraqis. Or, vice versa.
We shall see. I will end there, lest I fall into the category of a political blog. My upcoming 'pre-quel' entries (those journal notes I fell behind in transcribing) deal more with my personal experiences like the rocket that hit the palace 75 meters or so away from where I was waiting to go to the airport; what it felt like to be on my way back, etc.
So stay tuned...
|Sunday, August 15th, 2004|
|August 15, 2004: Mortar Mania
The lull that we experienced just after the transition has ended. For several weeks now, the mortaring has intensified, to the point that I have spent a couple night sleeping in my flak jacket -that is a weird feeling to wake up to. Many people have started running to the bunkers but there is not enough space in them for even a fraction of the people here so... I am not sure if there is another night of heavy moartaring I will stay put or make a run for a bunker. My trailer is at the far end of the row from the nearest bunker -which consists of a cement cube with 2 open sides, and then cement road barriers in from of the open side to shield those somewhat.
Today we are also worried about car bombs especially at the gates, since today they begin the conference to elect the National Assembly. It is being held in the Rasheed Hotel, which is on the other side of the Embassy Compound than the Embassy (formerly the CPA). So far they have only mortared the Chancery, that was during lunch. And last night during dinner they were hitting pretty close, but I do not think anyone has been hurt.
Meanwhile, I have decided to leave. Not at all because of the security situation, but rather, to step back and think about what role I want here next, if at all, and to take a break to get the right perspective. I hate to leave when so much happens everyday, and if I am here, I can check on people whenever I hear a big boom. They are mortaring us several times a day and it never makes it to the news, so I will have no way of knowing what is really happening on the ground, at least not unless my people here keep me informed, but even we don't really think of mortar attacks as 'news' anymore. More like background noise that one should keep track of just in case it's really close. Like Friday when I heard the launch of a mortar or rocket and so I was alert and ready when it ended up hitting a fuel truck at the airport. I have some great photos of the fire, by the way.
I will also miss the rare oporuntities, like Friday also, when I went to the range with a well-known independant warrior-type and he taught me to shoot an AK-47.
But I have been here 14 months and it is time to step back for a bit, I think. I hope that once I am really on my way, things like sushi, not worrying about IEDs in the street or car bombs etc.; not having to walk for ten minutes through a maze or barbed wire just to get frm the parking lot to the Embassy Gate, etc etc; going to a restaurant, a movie theatre, a CONCERT, wow; and then of course friends and family, those will start to give me butterflies in my stomach -the good kind.
On that note, I shall sign off, so that I can get my affairs arranged. My next entry will probably be from Dubai or else when I get to DC. I will keep this diary to track my re-entry and re-adjustment; plus, I intend to return in a few months, so this is not the last chapter! Stay tuned!
|August 3, 2004: Bizarro-world
August 3, 2004: Bizarro-world
This isn’t as good as the time a guy zipped by with his car filled to the ceiling with potato chips (not little bags of them; I mean actual potato chips), but it is still weird enough to share. I work in a big hall in the Ministry of the Interior where the ex-pats and Iraqi employees are mixed; we help each other with translation or clarification or words when needed. So someone came up to me for help just now, and I had to help him with the following:
“he drowned” vs “he died;” “he fell from a building” vs “he was pushed;” and finally, the finale, “he was selling pornography.”
The trend I noticed was that this guy kept asking how to clarify that the victim died on his own, he was not killed; in fact he drowned on his own, no-one drowned him; and then that the next victim fell by mistake, no-one made him fall; and I presume the last guy was not in the pictures he was selling so this clarification did not come up, however I did momentarily shock the gentleman asking for help when he said “bad pictures” and I responded without hesitancy “Oh, you mean of naked people? That’s pornography.” Maybe I should not have seemed so comfortable with the topic.
In any case, I wonder why this clarification was such an issue. I explained to him that unless one specifies that someone drowned someone else, if one says “He drowned” it is presumed that no-one else was involved. Ditto regarding falling from a building. Now, Arabic grammer is such that the verbs all belong to a group, one could say. They have the same root, but then certain letters are added in –pre-fixes, suffixes, and letters in the middle- to indicate the context of the verb. So ‘to teach’ and ‘to study’ have the same root. These extra letters make the verb indicate whether the verb is transitive or intransitive or reflexive or passive, and the meaning changes accordingly, so ‘to study’ is structured kind of like the reflexive of ‘to teach’ since when one is studying, one is teaching oneself. SO. The man may have been assuming that to die was the ‘root’ form of the verb, and that there might be modifications of that root to indicate whether the guy just died, or was killed. OR, it could suggest that his approach reflects the mentality of this society, in which they suffered many mysterious deaths, and every death had to be questioned; conspiracy theories abound in the Middle East, but not without a reason, and we’re talking about a place where no-one would bother to call the police if a family member went missing, because they pretty much assumed that one of the internal security forces had nabbed the person and the wisest thing to do was lay low and keep quiet.
I’ll stop there before I launch into my theory of how I think it is no coincidence that the Bulu word for ‘rotten’ is ‘ebola’ even though supposedly Bulu did not descend from Bantu which is what is spoken on the area of the Ebola River, for which the virus is named. Instead I’ll share with you the plan I just hatched to find out if my colleague found the right word for “pornography” in Arabic; it is not in my dictionary, which was published here. So JNT, a non-Arabic speaker, looked it up in the books we have at our satellite location, and IMed me that the word is “ee-ba-he.” I have no way of checking the Arabic spelling in order to verify the pronunciation, so instead, I’ll just test it out. When I go over to the main palace, where little kids flock around selling pirated DVDs, I’ll point to one of the DVDs with a scantily-clad woman on the cover and ask “Hatha eebahe?” and see what reaction I get. I’ll keep you posted.
|Sunday, August 1st, 2004|
|August 1, 2004: Happy Story
August 1, 2004: Happy Story
Yesterday I ran into David. David is a 13-year-old kid who hung around the Sheraton when I was living there; he is the former fedayeen kid who ended up an orphan, and like other orphans and other children who were in the delinquent detention center I wrote about last summer, they started hanging around the Sheraton to beg for money and food from the journalists et al staying in the Palestine & Sheraton, and from the soldiers. And I think part of it was also that it was something to do. David seemed brighter than the others, and his English was pretty good. M and I adopted him in a way, giving him money for tasks (some devised, some honestly things we needed) so that he understood the concept of earning money, but mostly, we spent time with him and had him share meals with us (at times, there just was not a task to assign him for which to pay him but we knew he needed to eat, so…) and we would arrange for him to come swim with us at the pool on Fridays.
I think when we first met him, he did smoke hash and sniff glue with the other kids; he had a volatile temper and mood swings at times. I had gotten in the habit of asking the kids I liked –and that includes the one who one night but the switch-blade to my neck- “Have you been smoking hash? Sniffing glue?” without lecturing but to give them a guilt trip. Asking that when they ran up to me created a useful juxtaposition between their innocent need for mothering and affection, and the fact that they were doing things to prevent me from approving of them. I wanted to give them an incentive to stop their vices. That was my thinking anyway.
David now has access to the Green Zone. I was walking from the parking lot to the palace (now, technically, the embassy) and I heard someone call my name. I waited, and David in his typical style came dashing out and hurled himself into my arms, which is what he would do when I made my occasional trips back to the Sheraton after I moved out to my company’s villa last November. Then he slings his arm over my shoulder, tells me how he missed me, tells me I am beautiful, and then we start catching up/gossiping. It usually begins with his question “Have you seen M?” (we broke up 8 months ago but I think David has this dream we will get back together; we were his first ‘parents’) and then after I say no, the conversation moves on to my marital status (after it is established that I have not seen M, David then wants to know if I have moved on) etc etc.
SO. How did David turn up in the Green Zone? A British priest hired him to help with translation and other small tasks; David now has a cell phone, and an e-mail address! He proudly pointed out that he dresses well now. This priest, A, basically did what M and I wanted to do full time but could not, because our jobs precluded it; A said to David “You are my son now” and is being the family David lost somehow. It gets better. I asked David “What are you going to do when school starts?” because one of the disservices we (ex-pats) sometimes do when we hire these kids is that we create a disincentive for them to go to school, a longer-term solution for their well-being. M and I used to talk to David about the importance of going to school, and he said he hated school, he was mistreated, etc etc. Because he has been a child soldier in the fedayeen, he was not properly socialized and did not naturally fit in with the other kids. He was out of his element.
Well, when I asked him about school, his eyes widened and lit up, and he announced to me “I like going to school now!” I asked him why, and he said now he has ‘parents’ to wash his clothes and send him there properly. I took the opportunity to get real, frank, on-the-street feedback on how we’ve done reconstructing the education system here. I asked him if school itself was better or worse than under Saddam. He said better; I asked why, thinking that we had actually succeeded in providing improved materials, upgraded conditions (functional plumbing and sewage systems; books; etc) but his response was not what I expected. He said that he likes school better now because the teachers don’t hit the kids anymore. He said that under Saddam, they could do anything they wanted; they would hit the kids with a big stick. Now, they don’t, and so now, David, the hash-smoking, war-traumatized orphan looks forward to going to school instead of wheeling and dealing in the dirt outside the Sheraton.
AND IT GETS BETTER.
I was ecstatic to see David again, and doing so well. Even though he’s is a 13 –probably now 14-year-old kid, we stood there like friends and exchanged e-mail addresses and Iraqna cell-phone numbers. I looked forward to regular interaction with him again, but then he told me that later this week, he is going to London with the priest. I asked him for how long; he said 3 months. He was very blasé about it until I said congratulations, and wow, he had never been outside of Iraq, had he? Then his face got excited again and the meaning of the trip impacted him, but in a distant way, because while the idea of going to London excites him, I think it is so abstract to him that he hasn’t quite gotten his mind around it yet. Meanwhile, I found myself feeling dismayed, a very selfish thing, but I had missed him, and suddenly here he was back in my life, but so briefly. But the point is, he has a future now. I don’t know what the purpose of the trip is; and I may still be here when he returns, in fact I intend to be. But even if I never see him again, I don’t think either of us will ever forget each other, because so much has transformed, for him, for me, for his country, since we met…and through all these changes in our lives, we keep crossing paths.
I wonder what he will do, what he will become now. I hope he stays in Iraq to use his intelligence, resourcefulness and determination to help continue rebuilding Iraq. I hope a lot of things for him, which is why I have to let go of him now, I suppose. Although I do hope I have the chance to get a photo with him before he goes; I have photos of him from last fall, at the Sheraton pool, this skinny, dirty confused kid. I don’t think I will believe that there are these happy stories here unless I have some visual proof to remind myself after he is gone that this isn’t all car bombs and mortars and the critical press and beheadings; it is not just heat and dust and fear and frustration.
And so, that said, it is time to get back to work, because sometimes, all our efforts do matter… Current Mood: contemplative
|Saturday, July 31st, 2004|
|July 29, 2004: Creative Dining in the Green Zone
July 29, 2004: Creative Dining in the Green Zone
Kraft “Easy Mac” microwave-dependant cheese noodles. That has become my main staple. When I am really lucky, I have hot salsa on hand and I add a spoonful (and that way, I have a vegetable!). I get hungry enough that I actually enjoy this. I have not yet reached the point that I actually enjoy those tuna-fish “lunchables” where you squeeze tuna out of a foil bag into a plastic tray and mix in mayonnaise and relish, them slime it on to crackers –of which there are never enough so then I have to finish the stuff by eating it straight with a spoon. But at least those come with everything you need, even a napkin and a mint, all for $1.29 at the PX! Meanwhile, the Kraft Easy Mac is just the noodle packet and the cheese envelope. I don’t have a bowl, and since there weren’t any at the PX, I devised a way to make it in two card-board coffee cups (one isn’t big enough for the water to boil the noodles w/o overflowing). But I am almost out of the paper cups, and then I don’t know what I will do. The cups aren’t sold at the PX, and there is nowhere else to buy things except souvenirs and rugs or alcohol, with-in the Green Zone. I stole the cups from someone’s desk at the new Iraqi Ministry building (well, it’s a palace) I am squatting in for the moment. It was the desk of an ex-pat person who has never been here since they dropped off their boxes, so I don’t feel too guilty. As a grad school professor once said of the small scale conflicts we started facing in the ‘90s, “Hungry people do bad things.” (He was talking about Sierra Leone, but it’s just a matter of scale).
Only in Iraq could one make a connection between the culinarily-challenged environment of the Green Zone, and a major theory regarding the relationship between international security and economic development.
Anyway, eating has become tough again. Gone are the halcyon days of having a pot, a pan, a metal fork. Far on the horizon is the day when I might enter a supermarket once again. I am 100% in the Green Zone now, and thus back on the Baghdad Beach Diet. This time it’s not because of the threat of food poisoning (my hotel days) or halted convoys (mutilated-civilians-hanging-from-a-brid
ge-in-Fallujah aftermath). It is because there just isn’t time, it is too much effort, to dine in the dining facilities, the “DFAC”. The lines. Three –nay, 4; to sign in, to check the main entrees, realize it’s all gross, so on to the salad bar, and another line for a soda or juice drink. And it all tastes the same. It’s always some flavorless pasta; grilled cheese; meat things with weird sauce; over-steamed vegetables. Plastic utensils, plastic plates, salt in those little packets of which one needs ten to get any flavor. I know men of lengthy military experience who have learned to be shipped and carry around in their pocket assorted condiments, foremost survival condiment being Tabasco sauce. I myself am partial to garlic power (Mom! When’s that package coming?).
In Peace Corps, some volunteers with the help of local women published a cookbook, half American recipes adapted to what was available in our villages, and half local recipes. I am thinking of doing the same but it will be based on what one can buy at the PX or steal from the DFAC. Because there IS food there, now, it’s just not put together properly. There is grated cheddar, hot peppers; tomato slices, canned mushrooms; soup to which one could add things; there are always French fries that can be dressed up… The quality isn’t great, but that’s where the Tabasco can help –it mutes that processed-cheese, glucose-based, freezer-ripened veg, suspicious-smelling-meat taste that everything seems to have, no matter what food group the entrée comes from.
I may be forced to eat lunch there today, having eaten my Easy Mac for breakfast (along with 1.5 hard-to-peel boiled eggs; those eggs made it a fancy day; and they were hard-earned; I have to get up at 5 if I am going to make it to breakfast in time to be at work on time). SO while there, I’ll do recon; because along with the recipes, my book will need to include a section on easy-to-learn DFAC theft techniques. Let me know if you are interested in a copy…
LATER THAT SAME DAY:
Well, there was no line when I got to the DFAC, the first sign that something was awry. It turned out that that the reason was that they were serving us MREs. Those aren’t so bad. During the Fallujah-famine as I have come to call it (see early April), it was down to peas & carrots & Tang. I would have loved an MRE. So I have no complaints; MREs are like a tougher-to-open Happy Meal.
I finally got the scoop on the reason behind this deviation from the usual cusine; there are two things I have heard, and they are close enough: (1) the kitchen staff, which is mostly Pakistani, went on strike because of the two Pakistani truck drivers that were killed; (2) KBR gave them the day off out of respect. So much happens here that I feel no need to delve further into why. Those are much closer to the truth than what I was originally told, which was (1) “something happened” that I would be “Told later;” (2) a convoy didn’t make it in.
OK, tune in next time for “Sand-Bag Me, Baby!”
|Thursday, July 29th, 2004|
|July 19, 2004: It's a Man's World
July 19, 2004: It’s A Man’s World
No-one really talks during meals here. At first I thought I had some effect on whatever table I chose to sit at; I thought it was personal, until the other night (day? All the meals seem the same except breakfast), I realized that no-one had been talking at the table when I sat down. So tonight, as I sat next to but not really “with” some of our security guys, silent, I checked out the other tables with Americans and noticed not only was there not much talking going on at most of them, but that there were quite a few people eating alone –and by choice, not because there was no table for them to sit at with other Americans.
So I am going through another kind of minor culture shock. I am used to working in a male-dominated field; that’s no biggie. And I am used to the fish-bowl effect of being a foreign female, and the only one, and so the stares I get from the trainees (usually about 50+ at once since the main time I encounter the trainees is during meals) irritate me, but they aren’t a new thing to adjust to. But what is different here is that I am LIVING in this male dominated environment. That is a great understatement, as the ratio, while improving, is rather drastic. As of yesterday it is 350/4, up from 350/2, when I first got here a month ago.
In any case, I am realizing men really aren’t big talkers. Now many of you are thinking “Uh, you just figured this out?” Well, no, but I just finally started believing it. I used to think it was just an excuse; an excuse men made or that women made for men about why they wouldn’t pay more attention to us –b/c we equate the two. But now I am seeing they don’t talk much to each other, either. I always figured that they talked to each other as much as women talk to each other, it’s just that they wouldn’t communicate with each other. Because you see, most women do not equate those two.
But let me take this revelation one step further; I think it’s mainly American men who don’t talk. Because the Iraqis were talking to each other; and when I sit with the Filipinos, which usually happens only because one of the 2 female guards accosts me in desperation and asks me to sit with them; then the table is usually talkative. I like it when that happens (one of the females grabs me in the chow hall), because I want to mix in with the Iraqis and Filipinos more but the mixing is frowned upon by my colleagues for various reasons, however they understand or at least forgive when I keep one of the 2 female guards company, and the Filipinos do mix with the Iraqi employees; not the trainees though, for security reasons and in my case, gender reasons as well. The Iraqi employees are in general better educated than the police-in-training, and have been well-vetted. Actually, that depends; the ones who work for us generally are; there are 2 here who used to work for my first company’s security company, ad they are both very nice and respectful to me as a woman. But the grounds-keepers, dish-washers etc. are worse than the police trainees, and so I steer clear of them.
In any case, it’s interesting that American men, not men in general, are less talkative. Why is that? Right now, a colleague is in my office on the phone with his wife, and all he has said for the most part is “Unh hunh, unh hunh” and I don’t think it is just a privacy thing because I left the room to give him privacy and when I walked back in after a bit, he was already “unh-hunh”-ing. I have one colleague who seems to do most of the talking with his fiancée, however, he tends to do most of the talking in any situation anyway. It’s so bad that I wrote a spoof of the types of stories he tells (he is always the hero, and while often the stories involve references to weaponry, more often they concern some intellectual victory of his) and the spoof was so easy to write in a way that captures his verbose style of narrative, that I had the stocky body-builder colleague next to me in tears (of laughter). My point is, we consider the guy a girlie-man and incidentally, this man talks a lot.
I wonder if these men get lonely, not talking. I would. I get lonely because they don’t talk. Now I have stopped talking much. At my previous job, I craved meal-time companionship and now I eat in a tent-full of about 100+ people at any given time, and I still get lonely. More so because the sight of people eating alone has always depressed me. One of the things I find to be one of the most heart-wrenching sights in the world, more so than starving children in Africa or fleeing refugees (maybe b/c I have become numbed to these, who knows), is when I see a senior citizen eating alone in a fast-food restaurant. So I sit there wishing I could somehow fix these men around me so that they weren’t feeling as lonely as I am convinced people who eat alone must feel –all of them. And I wonder if it is pride, or shyness, or some societal pressure on them not to be too expressive or interactive because it is not manly. So. A gun can be fun, but I don’t think I would be happy with the whole package that is this man’s world.
But I still think it’s funny the Arnold called the Democrats girlie-men. And I assure you that I would much rather be a manly girl than a girlie-man. On that note, it’s time for some dry-fire…