Saturday, July 18, 2009

Baghdad: love it or leave it

Since my last post I have traveled from Baghdad to Sulimaniyah and back to Baghdad by road. I've also been from Suli to Erbil and back. That's about 19 hours total of car time. I also turned 30, and permanently relocated to our Baghdad office. It's been a busy two weeks.

During my most recent drive down to Baghdad I noticed a lot more Iraqi security on the road, both army and police. This had the opposite effect of making me feel more safe. To enterain myself, I watched the dust devils on the road, learned the word for pommegranite in Arabic (Ro-man) and realized that I am the only person I know who admits to wearing a disguise for their job. I do consider wearing the hijab to be a disguise (and if you saw how different I look, you'd agree). I also considered that other people who wear disguises for work get paid far better than I do - but I decided to abandon that line of thought early on.

So, here I am. The airconditioner is broken in my bedroom, which is super unfortunate because it's about a million degrees outside, and I have way more work than I know what to do with. I spent Thursday going to a couple high level meetings with my regional director, and generally trying not to make an ass out of myself.

I'm new to Baghdad, and don't pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the city, but there seems to be a feeling of waiting to see what will happen. It started when the Americans pulled out of the cities, and it hasn't gone away. There have been quite a few bombings, largely targeting the Shia population, and alot of rumors of things to come. With the elections coming, the general feeling is that the next few months will make or break Iraq's fledgling democracy. We've been warned to be prepared for evacuation, and we've limited the number of expats in Baghdad to a crazy few.

In spite of that, I'm happy to be here (hence the crazy part). I'm thrilled to finally be able to visit programs that are relevant to my job, and to be working directly with the people who need it the most. I hope to be witness to the truimph of the Iraqi people in overcoming the internal conflict that has plagued them, fed largely by the US occupation.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Meeting Joe Biden - in men's pants and safety pins

When I packed for my latest trip to Baghdad, I thought I was coming down to help move our office to a new, more secure location and to write a proposal. So I packed accordingly. If I'd known I was going to meet the Vice President of the United States, I would have brought my suit...

The trip started on Sunday the 28th, with me leaving my apartment in Sulaimaniyah at 5:30 am to catch a plane to Baghdad. Of course, there was a dust storm in Baghdad, so at 9am I found out that my flight (originally scheduled for 7 am departure) was being delayed for at least two additional hours. I had a series of focus group discussions scheduled for the next day with community members in a new town we are working in, which could not be canceled. After some frantic text messaging, it was decided that I would drive down to Baghdad from Sulaimaniyah.

Our driver picked me up from the airport, and we drove about an hour and a half, and then I switched cars. Drove for another few hours, then switched cars again. After the second switch, I was entering relatively new territory for my organization. Only a few of us have made the drive into Baghdad through Diyala, and only recently has the security situation made it a feasible option. I was sitting in the front seat, looking around - excited to be traversing new terrain, and nervous about not wearing my seatbelt. Iraqis don't wear seatbelts, and wearing one immediately labels you as a foreigner. At the same time, more NGO workers die in car accidents than anything else, so it's a catch twenty-two. Sadly, it was too dusty to see very far around - it was like a light snow storm in the Syracuse. The sky was dark, but with an orange haze that you don't get in NY state... You could see the road well enough, but distance viewing wasn't very good. In total, it took me about six hours to make the drive.

I arrived to a chaotic office late that afternoon. Some things had already been moved into the new office, and staff were frantically packing files and office equipment. Now, I was supposed to arrive in the morning, so I was behind schedule. I was simultaneously writing two proposals, and had not completed my focus group discussion questions when I arrived in Baghdad in 4pm. It was a long night. When I went up the room I was staying in, I found a broken air conditioner and a room that was hovering around 90 degrees. I opted to sleep in the downstairs room with no lights, but with AC.

The next day, a small crowd of people arrived at our office for my series of three focus group discussions. Normally, I would travel to the community, but because the US troops were pulling out of the Iraqi cities the next day, I was not allowed to leave the office. After completing three focus group discussion, we moved the rest of the belongings to the new office/staff house. The new place is larger than our old office (we had outgrown it) but it was a mess. The moving people dumped all of the office furniture in one large room, and we had to beg to get our beds set up before everyone left. Luckily, the internet was working, because this was the night I had to finish proposal #1.

The next day, July 1, was a national holiday celebrating the withdrawal of US troops. Most of this day was spent dealing with the chaos of the new office and making final changes to proposal #1. I also got an email from my supervisor telling me that I had to represent my organization at a meeting with the US ambassador on July 3. At this point, I almost lost it. I was swamped with work, had a very difficult proposal to write in an insufficient amount of time, and now had to waste a day at a bureaucratic meeting. I begged to get out of it, but I was told I was the only person in the office qualified to attend. Although I am by no means the senior person in the office, I am the longest employed American, and they wanted an American.

When I called the embassy contact to reluctantly confirm my attendance, Iwas told I would have to be at the embassy several hours in advance. I hemmed and hawed, explained I was working on a deadline, and asked if I could come later. I was told no. I mentioned that I didn't have a suit with me, and that I hoped the meeting was not too formal. The person I was speaking with laughed, and said it would be a bit formal. He said there would be a VIP attending with the Ambassador, but did not elaborate.

After I finished the conversation, I emailed my supervisor again, requesting not to attend - but was given an unequivial no.

Thursday I conducted another focus group discussion for proposal #2 and started writing the draft. Thursday evening, one of my colleagues was surfing the news and noticed that Joe Biden, VP to the US of A had just arrived in Baghdad. Oh crap. The Ambassador would certainly accompany Biden the entire time he was in Baghdad, which meant there was a high chance that the unnamed VIP was Joe Biden. I was mulling this over as I pulled my only pair of dress pants out of the washing machine, and discovered the towel I had washed them with had shed light brown lint all over them. Now, I'm not talking small amounts - I'm talking lint that gets caught in the pant fibers and never comes off. My black pants looked like they had uneven, yellowish-brown polka dots all over them.

Total panic ensued. I might be meeting the vice president, and the only other pants I had with me were jeans. My female colleague's clothes were too large. There was no time to buy anything new, because the next day was a Friday, and everything is closed in the morning. Thankfully, my male colleage suggested I borrow his pants. He is very slim, but miraculously I managed to squeeze into them. Then we spent an hour trying to figure out the word for safety pin in Arabic, and calling the drivers who were picking me up in the morning to ask them to bring safety pins. Friday morning, thankfully, one of the drivers came with safety pins. So, we safety pinned the pant hems (a good 5 inches) and off I went.

When I met with the embassy rep at the designated meeting point, he told me the meeting had been canceled because the sand storm had prevented the Vice President from flying to the Embassy. The Vice President. We were right! And thank god the meeting was canceled. I felt a distinct sense of relief that I was off the hook (and a little disapppointment - but mostly relief). The meeting was supposed to be a small roundtable discussion with civil society representatives, and the other three participants were all at the meeting point. Two of them left immediately, but I stayed with the embassy representative and a Sheikh who had traveled for the meeting. I was interested in hearing what he had to say about his community and his experiences. While we were having tea, the embassy rep recieved a call that the meeting was still on, and we were to travel to the vice president's location.

After the two participants who had departed returned, we were transported to Camp Victory in the back of a military humvee. Now, these humvees don't sit low to the ground, and I'm short. Plus, I'm wearing super-tight mens pants, which means the crotch sat lower down on my thigh, making it difficult to raise my leg very high, much less to almost waist height. I managed it, praying that the seam wouldn't rip. It didn't, but I think one centimeter higher and I would have had some unfortunate ventilitation.

This was my first (and hopefully last) time riding in a military vehicle. There were two narrow benches in the back, which we crammed into. One of the soldiers made me put on a bullet proof vest before getting in. Now, it is July in Iraq. I'm wearing pants and a long sleeved shirt (I knew a Sheikh was attending) and a super heavy bullet proof vest. There's no AC in the back, and we've got a half hour drive ahead of us. I decided I'd write a letter to my deoderant company if I didn't come out of this experience stinking.

Upon arrival at the meeting place, we were escorted in almost immediately. I managed just enough time to dash into the restroom and try to sort out my frizzy hair and melted make-up before it was time to go. As the the only woman, I was given the honor of leading the group into the meeting room. The Vice President was standing in a receiving line, introducing himself and shaking everyones hands. The first thing I noticed about Joe Biden was that he had very pretty blue eyes. I didn't expect the vice president to have pretty eyes, for some reason.

I was escorted to a long, oval shaped table. An attendent was helping me find my seat (there were slips of paper with people's names at each seat). He assumed I was Iraqi; and because I was a woman, someone's assistant, so he was looking at the far end of the table. Meanwhile, I found my seat on my own. A woman, another handler, asked who I was and when I said I was one of the participants, she moved my seat so that I was next to the acting UN Ambassador and directly across from Biden. Meanwhile, the other handler was still bumbling around.

I took my seat, pulled out my notebook, and said another small prayer. I was in a room full of important people, and I didn't know who anyone was. Somewhere in the room was the US Ambassaor to Iraq, and god knew who else. I was the youngest person in the room by at least ten years (not counting the handlers and coffee pourers) and the only female participant. And, I was wearing men's pants with safety pins. This was clearly a sink or swim situation.

To provide a little backstory, my big boss emailed me when he found out I would be meeting the ambassador. He told me to be opinioned, and not 'nice' as I usually am. Obviously, this man doesn't know me well, but it was clear he wanted me to make an impression...

The vice president opened the conversation and facilitated the conversation himself. He opened with a question about tension between Kurds and Arabs, and between Shias and Sunnis, asking if improved economic development would relieve the tension. I responded immediatley, saying that I did not think that economic development would help to the situation between Kurds and Arabs, because the Kurds are actually doing pretty well economically - except in situations where you have displaced Arabs in poor Kurdish communities. The UN Ambassador agreed with me (this was when I figured out he was the UN ambassador).

After each participant responded othe first quesiton, the VP asked about the reason for why many Iraqis don't have access to basic services - was it a lack of resources, or poor management? I was the second person to respond to this question, and I said it was poor management resulting in a lack of resources, because poor management encourages corruption, which results in a lack of resources to provide assistance. One of the other NGO representatives disagreed with me, saying it was just poor management. Biden responded by saying the number one complaint they get when speaking with Iraqi community members is that corruption is preventing them from accessing basic services. haha!

In his third question, Biden asked how US assistance could be more effective. I was the first participant to speak, and I took a deep breath, and asked if I could speak frankly. I told him that the PRTs (provincial reconstruction teams - military doing humanitarian assistance and developement work) weren't an effective use of resources. I said that while their hearts were in the right places, the civilian population were often afraid of their uniforms. This meant that the military was not speaking with the most vulnerable population a majority of the time, and were relying on information from only one or two people to design projects. I said that this resulted in an environment ripe for corruption, and that as a US taxpayer I was not happy with the results.

There was one final question about security, and then the roundtable ended. It lasted for 90 minutes, although it was only scheduled for one hour. At the end, Biden walked around the table and thanked me for my participation. WOW. Then, General Odierno - THE GENERAL - came up to me and told me he appreciated my comments and agreed with them. Holy shit. Then, one of the other NGO participants came up and told me that I should be more careful about what I say, and that I made the US ambassador nervous with my comments about PRTs, and that I need to show more caution when speaking with VIPs. Typical. I responded by saying that the president of my orgnaization have given a testimony to congress saying exactly what I said, and I was comfortable with my words.

Aside from Biden personally thanking me for my participation, the best part actually happened this morning. My supervisor received an email from the embassy saying that several US Gov representatives who had been observing the roundtable commented on how much they appreciated my organization's comments and particpation. ha! Guess they didn't notice how badly I was shaking.

And that was how I met the Vice President of the United States of America.