Category Archives: Iraq

Baghdad Photo Blog

I haven’t been back to Baghdad in over three years.  The last time I went I wrote and posted photos whilst I was there.  This time I will engage in some serious post-visit analytical writing.  Wherever that ends up, I will repost it on my personal blog at  In the meantime – some photos.  As usual, I focussed my eye away from stereo typical images.  You won’t find a bomb blast, an armed militia or a wailing widow.  But here are some of the scenes I witnessed in Baghdad this week. I’d love your comments below.

(for a more artsy set of photos have a look at my Flickr page)



City Scape

City Scape

Construction in the background

Construction in the background



Cafe where we stopped for lunch more than once!

Cafe where we stopped for lunch more than once!

A fun fare in central Baghdad

A fun fare in central Baghdad

A Red Double Decker Bus

A Red Double Decker Bus

Abu Afif Chocolate Shop

Abu Afif Chocolate Shop

The hotel we stayed in

The hotel we stayed in


A Better Basra

I have had this travel blog for a number of years now.  I have written about travels in Afghanistan, Pakistan, even Germany and Scotland.  I also wrote during a week in Baghdad a post which proved to be a big hitter – not perhaps because I witnessed a lethal bomb explosion, but because I chose to illustrate the post with a picture of Iraqis playing football in an attempt to show another side to Iraq.

This week, I was thrilled to officially launch another story of my times in Iraq.  My book – A Better Basra touches on the political side to my diplomatic mission in the Southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah, but is also a warts-n-all personal account of my time there:  As a woman.  As a mother.  And as an out-of-her-depth civilian in a military theatre.  It’s less a sharp analysis of strategy and more “Brigid Jones of Basra”.  But it also proves to be an allegory of the British efforts to reconstruct a blighted city as part of a larger state-building game.

The World Bank blog have kindly published an extract, so I thought I would share with my own blog readers, a different extract – one that speaks less of strategic struggle and one of my battle for sanity.

Extract. Page 53.

During the day, when busy with work or in the cook-house, I was surrounded by people.  The bar provided good company, and even for the short walks between the fortified buildings that made up our compound I fed on chatty banter with anyone and everyone; from the Iraqi laundry man and the one armed gardener; to exchanging a few newly learned Nepalese words with our perimeter guards.  I got to know the Zimbabwean dog handlers and their dogs – Debbie the German Shepherd was a particular favourite.  There were members of the Danish police who always enjoyed conversation; and I loved  chatting to Taha, our one remaining Iraqi advisor.  As friendly as this was, I know myself well enough to know that this constant desire for talking was largely driven by my fear of being alone. 

On my first night in camp I had collapsed into slumber wearing just my sarong, yet it was weeks before I was relaxed enough to get undressed again for bed.  True enough, I had managed to strip down to my swimming costume and take the occasional dip to take the steam out of the 54 degree heat, but at the pool I was not alone and therefore didn’t feel as vulnerable (although in coming months I would find myself both alone and vulnerable there). 

Once the day was over, and colleagues had been bid goodnight it was just me in a concrete bunker, all alone in Iraq.  It was these quiet moments that were the hardest during my first few days at the Palace.  My life at home was so full of friends, children and family that I rarely spent time on my own.  And to be honest, even outside of Iraq I hadn’t been entirely comfortable in my own company.  So I faced all my demons at once – this was the extreme cold turkey approach to learning to be with yourself.  My main fear was quite basically of being killed and leaving my children without a mother (I know, I know, I should have thought of that before volunteering).  My second fear was (having been sternly told to acquaint myself with emergency evacuation procedures) that I would not be ready to get out in a hurry – despite the obligatory emergency bag packed by the side of my bed.  Back home, some young Sri Lankan friends had joked that their parents still had a suitcase packed on top of the wardrobe “just in case” even though they were safe in Tooting.  I wondered if I would become like them?  My emergency suitcase was a small maroon coloured holdall, and I would often wake actually clutching at the handle of the bag and nearly falling out of my bed.  It was not unlike my fitful sleep some 12 years earlier on bringing my first baby home from hospital – so concerned that my little girl would stop breathing in her sleep that I would rest a gentle hand on her chest as she slept in the Moses basket next to my bed.   There was less tenderness as I clutched my holdall of course! 

As well as the maroon bag, I had a small pouch that carried my passport, a pocket torch, a list of phone numbers, photos of my family, a pen, a notebook and my fags.  And yes, I slept with this around my neck too for the first week or so.  The other dilemma was my boots.  I actually wore sandals to work most days, but I knew in an emergency my sturdy desert boots were best, plus (allegedly) you weren’t allowed on a military aircraft without proper ankle covering foot attire, said the rules.  My boots were difficult to lace up at the best of times and would be impossible in a hurry, so the safest option seemed to be to sleep with them on my feet, loosely tied.  As you can imagine, this was not conducive to a decent night’s kip.

The air-conditioner also bothered me.  With it on, the air was cool and dry but it almost completely masked any outside noise.  Many times a night I would rush to switch it off because my ears tricked me into hearing “something” outside.  And until I actually heard my first explosion in Iraq, I wasn’t really sure what sound to expect.  Would it be a crash?  A kerr-boom?  A thud?  A crack?  However with the air-conditioning switched off, although you could hear a pin drop, even in the dead of night, the heat meant that it wasn’t very many minutes before I was a sweltering mess – especially fully dressed with my boots on.

I didn’t have to wait too long before I witnessed my first IDF attack.  IDF means indirect fire – but it felt pretty direct to me (or maybe it is “in direct fire”).  I was outside and on my own at the time, which is a zillion times worse than being inside – it is flipping loud outside and the ground shakes.

I had been in the bar that evening, which was another reinforced concrete building. The ceilings were high, the lights were bright and lusty MTV videos were projected onto the wall as people played darts or pool or sat and chatted on more FCO furnishing.  I met another man named Chris (there were four Chrises in total!) This Chris was an ex-RAF chef who worked for KBR and managed the team of Sri Lankan cooks as well as volunteering to work behind the bar.  Like any good barman he was full of quips, but the first thing I noticed about him was that, unlike the others, he had his ID card strapped to his upper arm.  I took the mickey and we were instant friends. 

Chris and I – together with every other heavy smoker – spent most of our evenings huddled in the disabled toilet at the bar, which was the designated smoking room.  There was no air conditioning and no ventilation in a room that was built to house just a toilet and a small table.  Even with the door open, by the time five of us were in there it was so crowded we were virtually sitting on each other’s laps and the air thick with smoke.  We managed to get at least ten people in there one night, including the much tattooed Sid, who despite being from the military side of camp, wore nasty shiny 1970’s shorts. I mention his shorts only because his testicles had the habit of squeezing themselves out of them whenever he sat down – so I usually chose to sit next-to rather than opposite him for fear of getting an eyeful of bollock!   Apart from his tendency to inadvertently expose himself, he was a lovely guy.

Two things struck me about the smoking room – firstly, that it might have been less of a risk to our health if we actually smoked outside in the open air and secondly – who in their right minds thought a disabled toilet was necessary in a place like this?  We had to fill in a million forms and pass a medical to get here,  surely anyone disabled would have been considered an evacuation difficulty? 

So on about day three of my time in Basra, I emerged choking out of the smoking room, donned my body armour and helmet and prepared myself for the 100 yard dash to my pod.  The bar was usually only open for two hours an evening and it was near enough closing time.  I had my torch at the ready and my door key in hand.  I was in good spirits, despite having drunk next to nothing (being drunk in Iraq held little appeal).  I swung open the heavy metal double doors and stepped out, embarking on my scuttle home.  

After just a few steps, a huge explosion shook the ground; I froze.  I could hear the faint pattering of shrapnel landing nearby. Then another occurred, not quite as close but still loud.  What should I do?  Throw myself to the floor?  Run like buggery?  Hug a Hesco?  Another explosion, closer this time.  I felt a hand on my shoulder and I felt myself being dragged back into the bar – one of the CRG security team guys had clocked me leaving and worked out that I would have been in the thick of it and bravely headed out to pull me back inside.   There were nine mortars that landed in all (no one was hurt, miraculously).  By the time the ninth one landed I was back inside the disabled toilet and my new smoky friends were laughing – “we thought you were going home!?”   Then the sirens started up and the recorded voice over the Tannoys urged us to stay under hard-cover.  No shit.  Everyone groaned as the grills across the bar were pulled meaning the bar had closed and I faced the first tedium of lock-down until the security teams had made safe the main routes.  We were stuck in the closed bar for what seemed like hours.

It was true that in the first few days I couldn’t sleep through being so worried about leaving my children without a mother, but once I experienced that first attack and after witnessing a couple more quiet thuds in the dead of night, it was amazing how quickly one adjusted to the situation.  They say you remember your first, and it was true, I wasn’t ever quite as deeply frightened as that first time outside the bar – despite the increase in attacks and the loss of life to come.

A Better Basra is available in print, ebook, and Kindle from Askance Publishing

The Truth About Art and Love

Coming Out of the Closet about Creativity

I have stretched the boundary of this ”travel blog” many times before – and I’m about to do it again. I’ve always advocated that blog’s are at their best when they are up close and personal – and whilst I have shared the death of my mother, blogged whilst depressed or scared and under fire in Iraq and even Tweeted my wedding – there is somewhere I haven’t gone yet.

You may or may not know that I am an artist. I wear the label like an alcoholic wears Johnnie Walker (hidden in the drawer or tucked into an inside pocket) . I was born with the affliction (it was a genetic disorder handed down from my grandfather via my mother), and whilst it does on occasion cause joy, in the main it is more akin to a frantic compulsive obsessive disorder. It is only by associating my creativity with healing, provision of comfort for others or political meaning that I have felt comfortable even talking about it. Usually I feel self indulgent and a bit mentally ill when the passion to create takes over. Hence I barely talk about it. At least not in any depth.

Last year I was turned down for an Arts Council grant – largely because I presented my proposal as a community cohesion project and neglected any reference to my own artistic development. They must have viewed me as someone trying to meet a cold political aim with technical application of my skills.  I said nothing about myself.   The project may have been about  tolerance and diversity, but it said little about what I, as a living breathing artist could contribute or about my mental approach to my craft. Perhaps because, like a drug addict, I am loath to admit I am a “user” (of the paint brush).

My creativity does relate to my travels – so perhaps safe to talk about it on my anonymous travel blog. In the 36 countries I have visited, I have painted or sketched in every one of them. A nomadic closet-artist. On occasion I have exhibited my work – the British Council kindly sponsored a solo show of my self-indulgence in Slovakia in the 1990s. And my beloved Sri Lanka has been host to more than one of my exhibitions (along with other “users”). I’m getting used to the whole humiliating ritual of painting in private and then hanging things on the wall for friends and strangers to look it. It feels very “show offy” and I liken it to an AA session. My name is Nomadic and I’m an artist.

So here is the bit that I missed out of the Arts Council proposal. A few weeks ago I was approached by a retired ballet dancer and asked if I could paint his portrait. He asked me about the process – what was involved. I’m not used to sharing this, but once I started talking you couldn’t shut me upnd I realised I had a need to share.

If I paint a portrait of someone I don’t ask them to sit in a pose for hours as I stand pompously before them with my canvas, stroking my chin and squinting at the subject. Rather I spend time with the subject, watching how they move, how they talk, what makes them laugh, sometimes witnessing uneasiness, sensing flaws, and understanding what moves them, what makes them tick. I listen. I look. I may record the encounter with a couple of sketches and photographs, but this is more of a record to jog the memory of the empathy and intimacy discovered.

Then I return to my studio (a room at the back of my garage with paint spattered cheap carpet and the faint odour of nicotine from smoking times past). I will probably do a fair amount of thinking and “sleeping on it” before I begin. I usually begin with a basic layout plan, although this may change. I alternate between sessions using a thick pallet knife, a broad brush, a fine brush and sometimes fingers. I rub paint onto canvas, scratch into it, or daub it. The wonderful thing about oils is the freedom to move it around the canvas – it’s fluidity. I use fine washes and I use thick blobs. Some paintings will take months to complete, and each session of work will have a different mood, a different feeling, another layer. My work is very much about the process and the emotion involved. By the time I am nearing the end, I have very much fallen in love with the subject. I feel I “know” them better almost than they know themselves. This is the creepy, stalker-bit, which I usually keep covered. It’s not a sexually or needy love – but a love of that person as a human-being. So yes, it’s true to say I love Derrick Ashong, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham and even John Humphrys although I have never told them so.

After my mum died it was a good few months before I could contemplate creating portraiture and I turned to nature and began looking at trees and all things growing. I felt completely “in tune” and empathetic to my environment – as I believe extreme stress and mental disturbance can generate. I found pretty quickly that the process of expressing this feeling on canvas was pretty similar to when I painted a portrait. I began to fall in love with the apple tree in my garden, with the grass growing and my son’s potato plants (even though we planted them too close together).

I’m not sure what to do with this love but channel it through art and for the first time, talk about it here. The power of it scares the hell out of me – but it is very passive. At most I may shed a tear as I paint (a recent painting of Mary/Maryam mother of Jesus/Isa generated many of those, for she is in everywoman and I am she).

You probably find it very odd that this passion (or “Junoon” as a new friend would call it) is more difficult to write about than the loss of someone close, romantic love of my husband, or my own mortality. These things I write about, usually because I know that other people share this. I know that by sharing my own grief, love and fears that I will be providing comfort to others. But by sharing the intense-up-closeness-generated in the act of painting I feel I am stating my difference. What marks me out from others. I may appear a bold individual soul, but inside I really do just want to be like everyone else. I anticipate readers will mutter “huh….that’s wierd” or “bit creepy, I hope the freak doesn’t want to paint my portrait”, but I hope, just maybe, that there is someone else out there who shares this spiritual high.  Someone who gets what on earth I am talking about. Who can weep with joy and understanding at a tree, or a face or the wind.

So, Arts Council, yes it is about the process. The meaning. The feeling. The insanity. The high. Don’t expect me to be putting into a turgid funding application any time soon though.

This boundary stretching travel blog will be back on course after a short interlude of non-travel. A few weeks should do it.

Peace on Earth

Original blog on the World Bank CommGap site

I have just finished writing my New Year cards.  I have a troublesome gall bladder to thank for providing me with the opportunity to sit (very) still and reflect on the past year, scribble the names of those close and lick low-cholesterol envelopes.  I made my own cards this year – using a photograph I snapped of Baghdad’s green zone at dusk back in August. The picture is a cityscape dominated by trees, razor wire and pink bougainvillea competing for space and  to the left- caught aflame by the setting sun – a communications tower stands high. Very fitting for a communications specialist dedicated to peace and stability, but not your usual seasonal greetings card (although a clichéd dove is just visible on a branch).  I hope it will find a welcome place on the mantels of my friends alongside fat robins, snowmen and silhouetted camels.  And I hope it will provide some meaning, and a moment’s thought not just for those in Iraq, but for people everywhere for whom the threat of violence is a reality. It is probably ambitious, but I like to aim high – *Peace on Earth* is printed in each of my  cards.

Frontline Journalist Released after Six Day Afghan Ordeal

I’ve just learned from a Frontline Club Tweet that award winning Guardian journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and two other journalists have been released after being held hostage for six days in Afghanistan.

I met Ghaith in Iraq a few years ago.  I hadn’t met many journalists before and to be honest my view was wholly negative.  Tabloid, paparazzi, no respect for privacy and out to make money from stories any way they could.  But over the summer of 2006 I met a different breed of journalist which made me change my mind about that.  Ghaith was one of them.

Along with a CNN crew (including Michale Ware), Ghaith and I shared a few intense days working  together at the British base in Basra. Ghaith and his friends had been living outside of the green zone in Baghdad and scoffed at my tales of incoming mortar attacks and narrow misses.  This bunch had looked death in the eye far more frequently than I.  They spoke of the dead burning on the streets of Baghdad and stood outside to smoke during rocket attacks.  When I tried to brief them on security – to rush undercover as soon as explosions were heard – Ghaith chuckled and his CNN pal muttered that they would in fact do the exact opposite – capturing the devastation of war on camera was their mission.

I have since battled with myself as to whether the media coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have actually helped resolve conflict or made matters worse.  There is argument for both.  But what is clear is the exceptional nature of this calibre of journalist.  People like Ghaith spend their whole lives amidst unrest, their mission to record it as best they can, whether they are embedded with coalition or NATO troops, or hanging out with villagers, they are moved by a desire to tell us back home how it is for the people.  Today’s war dead are 75% civilian.  Just a hundred years ago it was only 5%.  Like the War Poets of the first world war, who used their craft to express the horrors they witnessed, so does the modern day journalist.

In homage to the people I had met, I embarked on a series of portraits.  It took me over two years to complete, and the collectionCorrespondents in Conflict – War Poets of Today was fittingly shown at the Frontline Club in London earlier this year (and continues to tour).  The portrait of Ghaith (above)  is one of my favourites – he is wearing his “lucky” body armour streaked with salt from sweaty encounters.  I wonder if he was wearing it in Afghanistan this week – for it appears as if luck may have been on his side.  Long may it continue that way.

Perception In Iraq

Just a quick one liner and a link.  For those interested in what I was actually DOING in Iraq in August- some clues on my Albany blog

Ten minute Turkey

Ten minute Turkey. Or instant Istanbul. I have only JUST come down to earth. Literally.

My last day in Baghdad was a blast as you will have seen. The training course ended prematurely, so we didn’t get a chance to review and reflect on much save the days tragic events. Nevertheless, some fascinating insight and frank discussion and my passion for Iraq is re-ignited – I plan to return to this place and commit more of my energy to development, not least of the communications skills of the Human Rights Ministry.

So…. on with the travel blog [more analysis no doubt in other online frequented haunts which will be linked here]. I left low-profile style to the airport like a cat slinking off the savannah. Are you saying I’m fat? No. It’s body armour, cunningly disguised under an old shirt. The bombings had produced traffic jams and road blocks and we inched our way towards our target with trepidation as the departure time grew close.

With no air conditioning at Baghdad airport and no real method of communicating gate numbers, my stay was brief and unpleasant. Back in economy class this time I was seated next to two chirpy mercenaries who having been dry for 9 weeks drank eight cans of beer each for breakfast. Class. The whole group were vaguely entertaining, but rude about Iraqis, disrespectful of Islam, and over-emotional about how close “the lads” were. Bodily function and chest shaving was a popular topic of conversation, as was cheating on the Mrs back home by pretending they had been stranded in Istanbul. Quite a lot of oppressed homosexuality going on there I would wager.

Of major concern during my flight, apart from sleeping and tending to my own bodily functions (VERY sorry gut), was the lack of check-in for the Istanbul-London leg of my journey. By the time our delayed flight touched Turkish land there was a mere 20 minutes to check-in and board the next flight. The majority of the mercenaries loitered, delighted that the turn of events meant a company paid enforced piss-up Ottoman style. But one of the more shaven and drunk members of their team was as adamant as I to catch the next flight.

The pair of us sped through Istanbul airport flashing our passports like Interpol officers. We used his superior body strength to gain ground, and my diplomatic skills to push through queues. The Turkish Airlines check-in clerk wished us good luck and told us to “run fast” as we left his desk. We arrived at the gate literally AS the doors were closing. We were red-faced and panting as our fellow passengers tutted us on board. In my mind it was a scene from a movie. A Bond movie perhaps – Bourne Identity or Mission Impossible. In reality I think it was more of a classic British Comedy. Clockwise maybe.

I’m back home now. A cool summers breeze whispers through the room. I am spending the day in bed trying to shake the afore-mentioned gut issue and the nicotine habit. Two days of rich food and alcohol haven’t off course helped. Nor has opening our house to guests this weekend to help us celebrate our wedding. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way, and it was an utter joy to spend time in such splendid company (and I did try not to bore guests too much with travellers tales). Although we got married on Twitter, I think it’s fair to say we know how to play in real life too – we are still clearing up several days later.

So, I will be back to Iraq as I said, and I will write about it here. But worth noting that this kind of travel experience wouldn’t be possible at all without the wonderful support of my new husband. So here’s to you, J. I love you, mate.

Also with thanks J’s family, my own family and to all our friends. Particularly A&B in Bristol. Thanks too to Albany Associates, the United Nations, Blogcatalog bloggers, My Security Team, my colleagues at and the Ministry of Human Rights in Iraq for making the experience possible. Lastly thanks to near two thousand of you who read my blog whilst I was in Baghdad and for all the messages of support I have received for my writing.

Ramadan Kareem – May Peace be Upon You all! (which I tried Tweeting in Arabic earlier and totally f*cked up, so I’m sticking to English here)