Tag Archives: Iraq

Multi-cultural Cosmopolitan Baghdad

Lady at the Chinese Restaurant

Lady at the Chinese Restaurant

Oh yeah!  I just managed to drag my notebook and all its cables from the desk back to the bed, so I can cuddle up in bed whilst typing.  I feel a bit like a hospital patient with a life line drip to the world (or maybe more like a victim of the Matrix).

I am sooo tired.  At least my head ache had gone this morning.  As I went to bed last night it pierced my brain so much I started having an anxiety attack about dying of a brain haemorrhage and trying to work out how the British Embassy would get my body back to the UK.  But this morning I’ve got that lovely tired teenager feeling, where I just want to stay in bed, cloaked in bed clothes, and relaxed but not asleep.  I did a good amount of ceiling-staring before I properly stirred – I think my poor brain is completely overloaded.

What is really taking it out of me is spending all day speaking through a translator.  I can’t imagine how exhausted he is.  Translating my English into Arabic isn’t a problem, but it is tougher for him going from Arabic to English and he is doing so with a classroom of up to ten students (who invariably all speak at once).  But we have a great rapport and everyone is good humoured with the situation and very patient.  I have learned that by barking “shabbab!” (guys!) it grabs their attention.   The most exciting thing is that I think we are really making progress – and although everyone is usually exhausted when they first arrive – having been through long waits in the hot sun and faced aggressive security to get into the Green Zone – by the time they leave in the afternoon, they remain enthused about the work ahead and every one of them contributes with passion to the discussions we have.  I have total respect for their resilience and for their treatment of me.  I wouldn’t be comfortable coming to Iraq to train people if I didn’t think I had some unique skills to share.  Frankly some of the “capacity building” provided by the international community is a bit patronizing and pushes out-of-step values that aren’t relevant to Iraqi society .  But the gang I am working with are very receptive to some outside expertise in a foreign language – and I am very excited about continuing to work with the team in the future, and supporting them in any way I can.

classroom

classroom

Work aside, we have many laughs together.  Yesterday two women arrived on the course so I sat with them at lunch time in another room from the men and we shared some Iraqi salads and rice and some conversation – one of the women is a part time journalist who spoke a little English.  (BTW we were separate from the men because the room they ate in was too small for us all to fit in). Unlike her colleague she wore a hijab and I could feel a core of strength inside her.  Although I speak no Arabic I can tell by how she is interacting with the others that they follow her lead.   I told her that being a journalist in Iraq was one of the most dangerous professions in the world (press freedom is a real issue here).  She nodded and told me firmly that she liked it.  She specialises in writing about human rights abuses – so she is no lightweight celebrity correspondent.  Again – nuff respect.

In complete contrast I was invited out for a Chinese meal with a group who work where I am staying  this evening (and we were joined by an odd American woman with a strange look in her eye).  I could have been in another world really.  The “restaurant” was really another huge portakabin which they had curiously built a willow-pattern bridge at the entrance – for no apparent reason.  Once inside the international community was having supper.  Beers served in tea mugs.  The usual tack on the walls.  And tired looking Chinese waitresses who apparently turned tricks in the back room.  The company was great and we talked about music, France and Sheffield (which made me miss my old man summit rotten).  Although an outsider to the private security world, I have travelled enough to tell a tale or two and understand how it is to leave an institutional organisation but keep in a similar line of business.    

Earlier I met Salam Pax!  OMG, not only my all time favourite famous blogger, like, ever!  (note – I don’t speak like this normally, this is a joke).  Given his story, and given how everyone back home say how “brave” I am coming to Iraq – I am slightly ashamed to show the picture below.  Yes…erm…..some of Baghdad is actually QUITE nice.  This is the Hotel Rashid.  Not half bad (although I lost a little sleep as I can’t remember if anyone paid for my tea or not and fear I may have done a runner from five star Baghdad).  I found Salam to be the nice man I expected through our online exchanges.  There is some chance I may do some work with him soon – which is great because he seems to really “get it” in terms of communications.  The other lovely lady in the photo is my mate J, who I seem to bump into all over the world.  Where’s YOUR blog then J?  Eh?  Eh? Honestly.

 j, me and sp

So I’m to work now – much preparation to do.  I really SHOULD get out of bed.  [stretch].  I want to get out and about and take some photos to share with you later. [yawn].  Bye for now.

Live from Baghdad – day two

landing in baghdad

landing in baghdad

I feel soooo much better after a good night’s sleep.  Once I got my brain to stop talking to itself and filtered out the sound of the helicopters (which shake my whole tin can of a room) I had the BEST night’s sleep I have had in ages.  At least ten hours.  Not surprising really as I categorically failed to get any sleep at all the previous night.  The main contributor was the knowledge that because things are better here now, it was very unlikely that there would be any IDF (rockets or mortars) landing over night.  Very different from my stay in Basra – where it was a nightly occurrence and kept us permanently on tender hooks (which as a vegetarian, I have just realised is a horrible expression).

The place where I am staying is a collection of porta-cabins reinforced with pile of sandbags and the odd T-wall.  I am told that the T-wall’s are disappearing as the city recovers.  T-walls are large reinforced concrete 10 foot high slabs – at least they are supposed to be (at $500 a shot one would expect it) – but I learned yesterday that someone recently drove a car into one (by mistake) and shattered the T-wall to reveal it was packed with egg-boxes.  Lumux.

I was very lucky to meet Z yesterday – the only female ex-pat where I am staying.  I was suffering a severe lack of toiletries and beginning to feel a bit rank by the end of the day so Z took me to the local Iraqi store to stock up.  It was great to wander around in the evening sun and gather some supplies (biscuits, yoghurts and what MUST be hooky Malborough Lights at $11 for 200).  And amongst the crumbling T walls, rubble and dusty palms I was introduced to an ice-cream parlour – complete with bistro chairs and a patch of bright astro turf outside.  Is cafe culture arriving in Baghdad?  It’s early days, and the Green Zone is clearly not representative, but as I sat eating the best apricot ice-cream ever,  overlooking a football pitch filled with young people exercising, watching a pale sandy sun disappear over the horizon I was delighted with the scene.    The reality came in some of the harrowing tales that Z was telling me about her time in the military.  Not unusual to find exceptional, incredible people in a place like this – and they are not all Iraqis – Z definitely among them (but I don’t think she even recognises it herself). BIG respect to our unsung heroes.

Live From Baghdad

my room

my room

PLEASE EXCUSE MISTAKES – Typing on a screen not much bigger than a postage stamp with a VERY slow internet connection….

So.  I made it through my first working day in Iraq.  I am sitting shivering under the AC in my porta-cabin bedroom (better than a freight container) in the International Zone in Baghdad.  I’m eating chocolate and smoking to keep me awake as I successfully managed to skip a whole nights sleep en route…and still managed a pretty productive, exciting and moving work day.  Spending a whole day with a group of Iraqi’s is amazing and I stand by my opinion that I have yet to meet an Iraqi who wasn’t polite, caring, and well…just lovely.  Enjoyed a hearty lunch of flat bread, hummus and vegetables amidst lots of laughs.  Exchanged war stories with the team who are looking after me – and had a trouble free road trip through the red zone (putting body armour on WAS like riding a bike).  More from me later, but for now some pictures and an account of my journey here…written en-route.

ON MY WAY

I am typing this on a rather oversized apple screen in a business class lounge.  I feel a sense that a certain number of my lonely privialged travelling companions might be looking over my shoulder, but a have no choice.  A Nomadic blogger must be true to her trade and get on with the job in hand.  The BC forum recently discussed business class travel – I can say that this experience is so far no different from others – the rooms is full of uptight white men in suits.  Me, in my sparkling shalwar kamiz headed east probably puts me in the sore thumb category, but oh well.  The most exciting thing about this place is the array of magazines for the taking.  I am stuck between The Spectator, Economist and the New Statesmen )which is lurring me on the front page with an Afghan story.  I MUST pick up some newspapers for British friends I meet in Baghdad – it’s like an unwritten law, you take papers to people in war zones.  Like pencils for school kids in the developing world.  By the time I have scopped up the freebies in this airconditioned lougne my carefully packed hand luggage will weigh me down I know it.  It is already biting into my shoulder every time I pick it up.  I am actually gloating from the fact that I have everything I need for a week in Iraq in hand luggage only.  I imagine I may tell a different story this time next week.  What strikes me as VERY odd is the last time I entered Iraq (by road from Kuwait three years ago), I wore my desert boots, combat trousers and laboured with a heavy back pack full of essentials.  A whistle.  Spare water bottles.  A compass.  No – I wasnät in the military, but I was very serious about spending time on a military base.  Talk about overly prepared – spot who took the briefing TOO seriously.  Not the best kit for meeting Iraqis I grant you – but luckily (or not) I didn’t meet many of those, so I was well camoflagues amongst my post-conflict non- Iraqi colleagues.  This time, after three 8yes three) pinot grigios in the business class lounge, I will take my whitsle and compass free bag on board a business class flight bound for Baghdad.  No spiral decent in a Hercules for me.  Hopefully I will be taken to the heart of the city and spend the week with Iraqis.  No combat trousers in sight.  I plan to dress like the woman I am and gte my job done in a way that will inspire, enthuse and share skills.  Unfinished busines this.  Its the ripple effect,  but a good one this time.

So enough, my flight is being called.  Enough of this luxury, time to board.  I NEED to get sleep.  For I have a mere three hours on the ground before I start work.  Inshallah the connection will work!

ON MY WAY PART TWO

So the wine worked.  I am very drowsy and hoping that the pulsating of this beast of an aircraft and the warmth of its business class belly will lull me to sleep.  It’s 20 hours door to door from my English village home to my temporary base in Baghdad.  I start work just hours after I arrive, so I NEED to get some rest.  Trouble is, I have just clocked that I only have 2 hours and 40 mins left on this leg of the journey.  And I still have a swine flu form to fill in (as does everyone, I hasten to add – I am no nomadic carrier).  MaybeI have  enough time to catch a film and then doze? But they haven’t even delivered my dinner order yet, so not much chance, I think.  I think there is a Tom Hanks movie about death row in 1935 called Green something that might tempt me to close my eyes.  I will give it a go.  Nuts juts arrived.  And some coke lite.  I am breaking all my rules today.  Alcohol, caffeine, gassy drinks – All not good for the aging nomadic digestive system.  Still, the bald guy sitting opposite me is qwaffing the wine.  His glasses are so thick they look like they are hurting his nose as they rest on it.  Big white towelling socks and he starts with fright everytime we hit turbulence.  Don’t blame him for the wine.

I am missing my kids terribly at the moment.  They have been in Hungary with their dad (who’s GF is part Hungarian), whilst I have been renovating and rehearsing and nursing in France.  They are as I write this mid air back toEngland, so our planes may have passed in the sky, sadly I will have to wait a little longer before I see them.  The day after I get home, we are having a party to celebrate our wedding (yes, I have sadly left behind my husband of less than three months too AND his two girls who are over from France.  Sigh).  I did get married in real life, not just on Twitter, so I my juggle with domesticity and  Nomadicity is very real.  Still, back in the day, I always said that house-wives would do a much better job of clearing up the streets of Basra than young male (foreign) soldiers with guns.  So let’s hearing for post-conflict peace building mums.

To absent friend and family.  And Tom Hanks.  Here we go.

LATER….

Another airport lounge another country.  It is at about this stage that I forget which country I am in.  I always think there is little more disrespectful to a place than to merely transit.  I am judging this place by it’s tacky chandeliers and leather sofas.  And furniture.  Lots of furniture.  The lounge is rapidly emptying and staff are turning chairs over on table  – but at least I have a sofa.  Although I’m not the slightest bit tired yet, just as well – I am sure that the constant droning announcements in a foreign language will keep me on my toes.  Funny how even though no English is spoken I can still tell than names are being mis-pronounced.

STILL ON MY WAY

Hey-up, I think I have just managed to get connected to the internet on my little notebook.  I gave up on the lounge Dells which offered little in English and I couldn’t find the letter i on the keyboard.  Ah not so good – I only have 34 minutes remaining in battery life and I don’t hold out my chances of finding a UK plug socket here.  Just had a chat with a man heading to Jeddha whos daughter wants to work for the UN.  Nice guy – he showed me where the wine glasses where.  I always feel uncomfortable helping myself to food and drink in business lounges.  I might get used to it though.

Sigh.  Manyhours stretch before me.  Laptop dwindling.  No book to read.  Just Private Eye and a pile of papers on media regulation and human rights issues in Iraq.  You can only take in so much.  Maybe I will set and alarm and try and rest…I did see a sign for a “rest room” but fear they might mean lavatory.

So glad I spoke to my daughter this evening – all bright and bubbly from her holiday, it will be great to be back next week – and Im am sure the adrenaline and excitement of being back in Iraq and having lots of work to do and things to talk about will make it speed by.

PS – The Green Mile film was actually pretty good.  Although I missed the ending!

MUCH LATeR

OK, I am delirious with tiredness now.  I only have 15 mins left of laptop battery and I have read the evening standard.  This vast place has emptied out now and only three flights are showing before mine but its still hours away.  I found out that the rest rooms were what looked like three dentists chairs separatedby curtains.  Very odd – I didn’t fancy spreading out to sleep in there.  Just spotted a couple of contracturs surely headed for Iraq.  Sunburnt and shaven headed, burly men with the standard ID POUCH ROUND THIER necks, probably with Operation Iraqi Freedom on it.  They think they are being ironic.  I suddenly feel overdresses in my outrageously ornate black floaty shalwar covered in gold beads.  I fit in VERY well with the decor in here, but how will it be arriving on my own into Baghdad airport?  No doubt I will hit a wall of heat.

airport sleep

airport sleeplanding in baghdad

Between Brittany & Baghdad

Brittany house

Brittany house

I am still in France for now – nursing aching hands after days of destroying weeds in the garden using my hands and a loaned petrol strimmer.  I say “garden” – it’s not really that yet.  “Patch of land” probably more appropriate thing to say at the moment.  Although in a small hamlet we do have a next door neighbour – with a grander house and an OCD-neat garden.  It puts whatever attempts I make to tame our wilderness look futile next to his perfect lawn and rows of Leylandi.

My poor man has been sick with a fever for days – but seems slightly recovered as he is out of bed, sitting opposite me tucked into the book version of  The Baghdad Blog by Salam Pax.

Appropriate reading.  I have lived a strange existence this week –  one minute building shelves, hoofing lumps of timber around or visiting the Dechetterie (the town tip), the next minute researching Iraqi media, human rights and chatting online to Iraq-connected friends.  Not to mention tending to the needs of my unwell husband, who would have been a lot better sooner I think, had England recovered themselves in the Ashes.

I am going to Baghdad fairly soon and I have been encouraged by the blogging fraternity (including them on BC) to keep an account of my travels on my travel blog.  I will of course write some hefty strategic communications pieces both for Albany (who have had the grace to send me to Iraq) and the World Bank (who loyally seem to publish my every word) – but this travel blog is where it’s going to be at.

The news on my imminent trip so far, before I even GET there is that it’s going to be HOT.  Over 50 degrees says aforementioned Mr Pax.  It’s also going to be exhausting – I arrive in the early hours and start work straight away.  I am more than happy with this however – and raring to go.  My last trip to Iraq in 2006 ended abruptly with premature-evacuation and a sense of incompleteness and disappointment.  I look forward to perhaps not achieving a climax, but getting some sense of balanced satisfaction for all parties involved (I could probably continue the innuendos, but I’ll stop there).  I hope I can share my expertise with the Iraqis I meet – but equally hoping to learn from them too.  Something I  forgot about was what a nightmare security is.  Trying to get anything done is difficult and/or expensive.  I am trying to arrange for a group of Iraqi journalist/blogger friends of mine to have an informal chat with me and the people I am working with – but it seems like this cannot be done.  Piff.  I may try and do something online instead.  Anyone know the best way to have a multi-location conference call with webcams?  Skype isn’t my best friend at the moment.   The security restrictions won’t be as bad a life in Basra Palace three years ago, but I am very much restricted to the Green or International Zone (3.8 square miles surrounded by bomb blast walls).   So long as I meet more Iraqi’s this time I will be happy (although my Iraqi friends in Britain seem far more concerned than some of my gung-ho post-conflict friends).

So for now – in blissful limbo in France.  Enjoying French sunshine, French wine and some hard work.  Enjoying quiet countryside, visiting loved ones, and deep in research  before heading East.  Last time I landed in Baghdad it was a spiral decent in a Hercules and I was standing up in the cockpit.  This time will be different.  Soon.

Nomadic x

PS – We managed to get a free butler style kitchen sink from a tough looking old farmer bird at the Dechetterie today.  She was going to chuck it out!  You will see from my picture – we are yet to have a sink in our luxurious kitchen (dishes done in the bath) – so it is very welcome.

Cuisine

Cuisine

France First

French Renovation

French Renovation

All this excitment about going to Baghdad,  I forgot to mention that I  hit the road again and headed for France last night (Iraq not till the end of next week).  Ten days of mamouth hard work to follow as we continue to make our little house in Brittany more and more habitable.  We at least have hot and cold water, some (limited) electricity, and a roof clear of holes.  The windows are doors are filling the holes they should be (with a few gaps here and there).  This weeks task is to build a basic kitchen – put in a sink at least.  And build interior walls to make a second bedroom – AND most importantly put a door on the bathroom. 

My job this afternoon is to go out in the blistering sun and pulls up weeds from the garden – which looks like a jungle.  The garden is surrounded by cocky looking maize – the farmers choice this year, which makes our patch of land look a little inadequate.  The neighbour next door has an emaculate garden, so I think I owe it to him to deal with the weeds and tidy up a bit – get the old pallets, piping, cement mixer out of view maybe.  No sign of the other half – he and his pal went looking for said door early this morning.

I best get cracking….

Path to Peace

This story was originally published in Kindred Spirit Magazine in the UK in 2007.  This is the unedited, original version.  A very personal story of my unusual own path to self discovery in Iraq two years ago.  I am posting this on International Day of Peace and Global Ceasefire  as part of the Blog 4 Peace campaign sponsored by the UN to illustrate that peace can be found in the most unexpected places. 

 

I knew before I fully embarked that I was going on a terrific journey.  I packed my art material’s, a guide to Chi Gung practice, some ambient sounds, and had the intention to perfect the ten minute Tai Chi form I had learned.  Anyone would have thought I was bound for retreat or a relaxing holiday – but I was about to enter a strange and violent world.  As I armed myself with what I termed “my spiritual support” the words of Thomas Hardy came to mind – “If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst.”

I had volunteered to be part of British reconstruction effort in Southern Iraq and was set for a six month journey of discovery.  Away from family life for the first time in thirteen years there was an unexpected freedom to be found at the British base in Basra.  I was no longer required to clean, cook or wash clothes.  With the mundanities gone all that there appeared to do was work and reflect.  Another change for me was saying goodbye to my house in rural Cambridgeshire, and home became a small reinforced concrete “pod” containing only enough material possessions I could carry in my kit bag onto a military helicopter.  I considered this a real freedom and already understood that I needed to shed in order to gain.

My new colleagues came from walks of life I had rarely encountered – soldiers, military, police, prison wardens and a 98% male environment.  Previously I have sought diverse friends, but this was testing all my boundaries and although I asserted myself quite forcefully at times, I found I rarely had to alter my calm approach and my gentleness was often welcome and refreshing for some of my new adrenaline filled friends.

And as the physical situation became more and more dangerous, I began to see rays of sunshine, shafts of hope and the tenderness and compassion within those around me began to leap out.  There was no doubt I was among truly remarkable people.  I remember a young soldier came to my office.  He was hot and tired after a long day on patrol, but his eyes were bright and good.  He was part of the current military operation, where British and Iraqi troops went into deprived areas and “cleaned them up”.  He had spent the afternoon repainting a school but had misgivings about whether he was “making a difference”.  He had met a young girl with a hole in her heart who needed an operation but could not afford it – he wanted to help and had heard that I was someone worth exploring this with.  The compassion he showed was a treasure, and I was to learn that there were other British civilian and military staff who regularly funded the studies and healthcare of some of the Iraqi people they had met on their own journey. 

I was beginning to see that within every bad experience or situation, it is often laced with equal amounts of good. Considering Iraqi poet Mahmoud Darwish’s claim that Iraq was a “desert for those who look for God in the human being” (from his poem “A horse for the stranger”), I soaked in the glimpses of light which others seemed too often miss in this environment and began to point them out to others:  The calm and jovial army Chaplain – “the Padre” who strode around the base with a biblical wooden staff and a cheery word for everyone he met; the heroic CNN journalist who lived in a dangerous part of Baghdad and had seen grotesque experiences in his personal quest for the truth; the Basrawi journalist who struggled through our tight security in order to bring me deliciously sweet dates from his own garden; and the kindness one prison warden showed in caring for a stray cat he had adopted.  But none illustrates this more profoundly than the selflessness of our personal security team who would and have laid their own lives down to protect us. These riches began to fill me up as I understood the beauty and resilience of human nature and I recognised in myself, as my inner calm grew stronger with every rocket and mortar attack, what it meant to flourish in adversity.

And it was not simply to witness these little gems, it was seeing the whole.  The good and the bad, to understand and empathise with a soldier or an Iraqi policeman in entirety is as valid and uplifting as understanding a wise sage or enlightened soul.  Self discovery and development can happen when surrounding yourself with like minded people in peaceful flowing environments, but equally moments of real clarity can be found in real contrast, in difficult moments, and when facing death.  It helped me to explore and recognise the extremes and possibilities within the human design.

In approaching my own spiritually I drew strength from my reflections and each morning I would wake and, after waiting for our security teams to clear the grounds of any unexploded munitions, I would creep to the banks of a nearby lake and feel the strength of the sand under my feet, coloured pink by the rising sun.  Alongside the small bee-eaters and kingfishers diving for insects and fish, I began to perfect my Tai Chi, and loose my self consciousness to such an extent that others around me too wanted to learn.  And so I learned not only what it is to have inner peace, but the added pleasure of inspiring calm in others. 

I saw the poetry in my Iraqi friends.  Each journalist I met introduced themselves on tatty business cards embellished with delicate flowers as an “artist”, a “writer” or a “poet”.  I understood how poetry is central in Iraqi people’s sentiment and temperament. That despite unspeakable hardships, creativity and life continued to flow through them, as did Basra’s awesome Shatt Al –Arab waterway, in an unstoppable gush.  Though peppered with barbered wire the river retained it’s sparkle and allure and overwhelmed me each day.  Iraqi poet Badr Shair al-Sayyab writes in Death and the River,  “are you a river or a forest of tears?”  The answer for me was both, and more.

As I reached the end of my first tour I recorded my feelings in a diary. Sitting in an air-conditioned freight container with my art materials, my guide to Chi Gung practice, and ambient CDs stuffed into my kit bag at my side, I felt not just an overwhelming sense of being alive, but I realised a long sought after dream of “being here now”.  Perhaps this is only possible after facing and witnessing death.  Again I thought of Hardy and wondered if I had taken a good look at the worst.  I reflected on how in my culture death is hidden, kept away and rarely spoken of and how unhealthy this was for the spiritual development.  I wrote, “in this freight container lidded with corrugated metal, situated in the dirty grounds of Britain’s biggest military base in Iraq, I feel as free as a bird”.

Hello world!

NomadicLike any good Nomad – I HAVE MOVED. 

All pevious ramblings can be found on www.travelpod/members/nomadic.  From Bristol to Baghdad (is just a shameless list of everywhere I have ever been 1970-2007), Into Afghanistan (my first free-to-speak flirtation with blogging) , musings on the UAE, and On the Edge in Bonn.  Travels after June 2008 will be posted here.

The scenesetter – I am a single mother of three who is not adverse to living on the edge and visiting some of lifes more challenging places.   I like to write about it.  4nomadic is now my self indulgent web place – where I can rest my kit bag, hang out and share some of me travel treasures with you. Pure escapism. 

Nomadic can also be found online at www.nomadic-wisdom.blogspot.com