Sunday, July 6, 2008

Glamour Shots in Kurdistan

I'll be leaving Kurdistan in about 2 weeks to head back to Amman and eventually Portland, so I decided to take care of some logistics today - booking my flight, making sure everything is in line for my departure. Turns out, I need to apply for an Iraqi (expat) registration card because I've been in Iraq too long for a visitors visa. In order to acquire said registration card, I need to provide a copy of my passport, a few visa photos and a pint of blood. Well, not a pint, but I need to get an AIDS test. Good thing I asked about the procedures today, and not the day before I left...

Anyway, I think the blood test will be tomorrow, but I took care of the photos today. Overall, I suppose I'm about as vain as the average American woman when it comes to official document photos. Meaning, if I'm going to be forced to look at it for the next decade, I'd prefer a good picture, but overall I just don't care that much. So, one of the drivers and I drove over to the local photo shop to get some photos - no bigee. When I walked into the photo shop I was immediately surrounded by pictures of two and three-year-olds wearing bizarre outfits with non-matching backgrounds. For example, a two year old girl wearing a head headscarf with gold coins dangling from the edges framing her chubby face with a fanciful forest scene in the background. Now, I was just in for passport photos, but its enough to make even the least vain person worry...

So, with some trepidation I was escorted downstairs to the photo room. The photographer offered me a mirror to adjust my appearance, and seemed shocked when I passed on his offer. So, he sat me down, adjusted his lighting in a very precise manner, adjusted the angle of the photo and took his picture.

Okay, done - right?

Not at all. Next came 15 minutes of airbrushing and photoshopping the pic. I was guided to a seat next to the photographer, hereafter refered to as 'The Arteest' while he removed every freckle, blemish and wrinkle he could find. He even photoshopped out my dimple. Ok, ok, it's a chicken pox scar, but it looks like a dimple... The best part was when he decided he liked my left eye more than my right eye, so he copied and pasted over the offending eye. Then he reversed the eye so that it was shaped the right way. At this point, I had the opportunity to see what i would would like if I was cross-eyed.

The Arteest was amazingly quick with his adjustments. Meanwhile, the driver joined us and was giving advice on how much to lighten the color of my eyes, etc... At the end, the Arteest showed me the before and after pics. Horrifying. I'm never going outside without airbrushing again. The driver insisted that I get 4x6 pics for my family, so that they could see just how pretty I can be...

Stay tuned - stories about blood testing in Kurdistan will soon follow.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Evening Ramblings

The last few days have been rough. I’ve been working a lot, even for me, and I’ve had some gender/age/ethnic issues with one of the local staff members. I’m not sure which it is, or maybe it’s a combination of all three, but it was uncomfortable to say the least.

Now, I’m sitting on the patio with a drink. It’s cooled off (it’s been in the 90s here) and there’s enough of a breeze to blow the bugs away. It’s super dusty here, but our courtyard is full ripe fruit trees. There are vines wound into the trees that are literally dripping with grapes. It’s easy to imagine Iraq as the birthplace of civilization on a night like this. I’m in a residential neighborhood, so I can hear the four-year-old who lives across the street barreling down the road in his little toy car-thingee, and the cats fighting next door. It all seems so normal. I bet Baghdad does too, when it’s quiet. It’s difficult to reconcile what I’m personally experiencing with the violence and death that I know is happening in other parts of the country, just hours away from where I am now.

Although the situation is quiet here now, Kurdistan is a mess of ethnic tension that could explode at any time – although I don’t think its reached critical mass yet. It is also very close to Iran, which could be another problem if the US and UK turn their blustering against the Islamic Republic into action. There are lots of internally displaced people in the north, which adds to the ethnic tension and brings the reality of the rest of the country a little closer to home.

Some of my colleagues and I drove up the surrounding mountains a few weekends ago. From that high, I could see Iran. I could also see the city I’m living in, which looks like a little oasis surrounded by a desert surrounded by mountains. I’ve been told that it didn’t used to be so dusty here, but the locals cut down the trees in surrounding areas during Saddam’s reign and the civil war for firewood, and Saddam’s army cut them down so that the resistance couldn’t hide in the forests. The locals have started replanting trees. You can see the baby trees coming in perfect lines.

I was invited to a staff picnic on Saturday, but was told that I’m not allowed to go because of security. I did, however, manager to wiggle my way into a trip to Erbil, which is a few hours north of where I am now, at some point in the coming weeks.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

First Road Trip

Within my first week of being in Iraq, I drove (well, I didn’t drive, the driver drove) down to some of our offices that are about 2-3 hours south of my current location. I went down to meet the staff and to begin the project that I am working on, which will incorporate all of offices in N. Iraq, including some unopened ones.

The drive was beautiful – mountains that looked like wind swept sand dunes on both sides and a river running beside the road most of the way. We drove through some small towns, or maybe villages would be a better word. They reminded me of Kabul in that they were little strips of storefronts, all one story, all connected and with the same paint jobs. But here the shops weren’t made out of mud brick like they were in Afghanistan, they are made of cement.

As we drove along the villages dropped off and there was nothing but checkpoints, mountains, the river playing hide-and-seek and white Nissan pick-up trucks. They’re everywhere. Seriously – you’ll see three or four of them together on the road – like little herds of wild Nissans, traveling together for protection.

You could also see lots of agricultural land beside the road – and lots of sunflower crops. I assume they are grown for their seeds, but it made for a cheerful ride – I mean, who can look at fields of sunflowers and not smile?

The checkpoints were uneventful; we were waved through most of them. When I got out of the car at our first destination, it was hot. Much hotter than it had been up north. I visited two offices, then caught a ride with a driver who only speaks Arabic, which was fun. We talked about music, his mothers dolma (stuffed grape leaves) and the economy in the US. He told me about his wife and child, and then told me I should get married and make dolma – then I would be happy.

It was a bit of a frantic trip because we can’t travel after dark, so down and back with two office visits in between was a lot. The next time I go down, I’ll stay overnight, and the driver has promised to bring me some of his mother’s famed dolma…

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Departure and Arrival

I found out I was coming to Iraq exactly one week before I left. Not much time to most people, but not bad in my line of work - last time I had 72 hours notice. When by boss informed me, at a Memorial Day BBQ on a Sunday afternoon, I was shocked. I’d been expecting a trip to Kuwait, or maybe Palestine, but Iraq wasn’t even on my radar. Well, it was on my radar – how could it not be for someone who works in humanitarian assistance -- but not a place I was expecting to go to anytime soon.

It’s funny, even in Afghanistan the majority of the aid workers say they won’t go to Iraq. Too dangerous, too morally unclear. And I was one of them. Living in Kabul, saying Iraq was the one place I wouldn’t go. Interestingly, my boss didn’t ask me if I was willing to go – she just told me to book a ticket. So, after a frantic week of wrapping up projects in Portland, I hopped on a plane to Iraq (not directly, of course - first Chicago, then overnight in Amman, and then Iraq). On the flight from Chicago I sat next a security contractor who was nice enough, as long as I ignored his patronizing attempts to hit on me while trying to seem like a nice, married guy with two small children…Thank god for the sleeping pill C slipped me before I left.

Less than a day in Amman, which included a quick debrief with the Iraq country director and a visit to the colleague who’d lost a toe to diabetes and been medivaced out of Iraq a few weeks before…then a plane to Northern Iraq. I was sitting on the plane, repeating to myself, “Holy Shit, I’m going to Iraq” for the two hour flight. We landed at a tiny little airport and I got in without any hassle. The driver who picked me up from our office spoke Arabic thankfully, so we were able to communicate – somewhat. My Arabic is rusty, and I’m not familiar with the Iraqi dialect, but we managed.

In Kurdistan, being Arab, even Arab-American, is a bit political. This area is traditionally inhabited by Kurds, a people who speak their own language and have their own culture, for all that they are in Iraq (there are also Kurds in Iran and Turkey – damn Brits and their arbitrary borders). During Saddam’s reign he decided he didn’t like the Kurds having so much control over the area, so in addition to genocide, he forced (and in some cases, bribed) Arabs from the south to move into Northern Iraq. They call it Arabization. So, being an Arab here comes with all kinds of baggage. Saddam used Arabization to split up powerful tribes in Southern Iraq and to break down the Kurdish stronghold. Now that Saddam is gone, this has resulted in a lot of Kurds returning to Northern Iraq, and a lot of Arabs getting kicked out of homes they were forced (or bribed) to move into. To complicate matters, a lot of Iraqis from other parts of the country have relocated to Northern Iraq because it is safer than Baghdad, the south, or some of the other governorates. So, there’s a lot of racial tension in the North at the moment.

Now, I’m not insane. I’d heard a lot about the part of Iraq I was heading to from coworkers before I came. I knew I would be in one of the quietest, arguably safest, cities in Iraq. I am still shocked by what I have found. Life is fairly normal here – no bombs going off, no crazy security, just people going about their business. Of course, you don’t have to travel very far for the situation to change, but it’s still an Iraq that you don’t hear about much on the news.

At this point I’ve been here for about 10 days, and aside from 2 meals in restaurants, one trip to the mountains nearby and one trip to an office a couple hours south of where I am staying I’ve been on the same street, just doing the office – home – office routine. Not exactly a ringing endorsement to keep reading, i realize, but I'll write about my trip south in my next entry. I will be traveling a bit while I'm here, so stay will come eventually.