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.

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