Saturday, October 30, 2010

No Man Stands Alone, But

I was a tropical island for Halloween.

This helps to prepare me for my first rest & relaxation (I leave in 16 days 5 hours) which will be



Zanzibar! ZANZIBAR.

I've already started taking the e-learning SCUBA diving course.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

After Lunch in Iraq

After lunch, in the kitchen at the office. Dirty dishes stacked in the sink waiting to be washed. Unread e-mails popping up one by one in my email box. The cleaner pulls me aside, points at my deep purple shirt (once was white – dyed with indigo by a friend’s mother in a village in The Gambia), points at her deep purple eye shadow. Next thing I know I’m tossed into a chair and my cheeks are being powdered and blushed – my lips are being stained red – my eyes are purplized. Our wonderful Somali colleague enters the kitchen to kneel and pray in the corner. After he prays, he tells me I look pretty.

Now I am back at my desk, reading my e-mails, and everything is the same. Except my lashes feels heavier with mascara, there’s lipstick marks on my coffee cup, and I’m smiling.

Monday, October 11, 2010

October Monday

Today the weather broke.  It rained all day.  The air dropped, now cold.  It is no longer summer.

Tonight the sky was soft and colorful.  The rains washed all the dust away.  Even the little ticky-tacky houses looked pretty in a way, in the pink light.  I spoke French in my French class and then came home and hung out with housemates for a bit, talking work and nonsense.

And when I finally dragged myself back up to my room this evening, I discovered that not only did our housekeeper (whom we never see, whom I've never met) clean my room and make my bed -- she made me a present.  My small pillow that I've had for ever, for my entire life, long ago lost all its pillow cases....  She sewed me one.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Vacation Day

There is not enough time to write on my web log. There is work SundayMondayTuesday and WednesdayThursday as well as FridaySaturday. Then I fall into bed exhausted. Sometimes I drink beer with colleagues. There is not time to write and not time to read.

Two weeks ago I took one weekend day off and we went up north into the countryside. We went to a 20-foot waterfall that may once have been natural but men came and poured down concrete and constructed metal stairs and railings and some of the railings rusted. It is a very popular spot covered by swarming Baghdad tourists. Purple plastic cowboy hats made in China were being sold by vendors along the steps. “They may have made a misstep with all the concrete, but they make up for it with the dangerous lack of rules,” said one of our friends as we scrambled up the algae-covered rocks beneath the hot sun, our feet submerged in the freezing water. At the bottom of the waterfall, beneath a metal framework that held picnic tables, men in white suits with rakes and shovels shoveled and raked silt or something from the stream. Don’t know why.
After that waterfall we went to an amusement park twenty minutes away on curving mountain roads. Because it wasn’t much past noon the sun was hot high up in the sky and no one except the foolish foreigners (us) were at the park. No lines. Rides sitting dead, keys turned switches flipped making motors spin just for us. The amusement park had bumper cars a Ferris wheel a spinning thing (with minimal seatbelts) and a rollercoaster with cars that you drive yourself – push the lever forward to go and back to brake. The rollercoaster cars circled on tracks dipping down through the mountain.

As we were leaving the buses pulled in. The sun was lower in the sky and the tourists from Baghdad had left the waterfall and were ready for a night of adrenalin in little steel cars.  

On the way back to Erbil we stopped at a second waterfall. This one is commemorated on the back of the 5,000 dinar bill. On the back of the bill it rushes powerful flooding water in the middle of wilderness. In real life there is concrete concrete and more concrete. In the pool beneath the waterfall plastic blow-up rowboats are rented (5,000 dinars a pop) and you slip out of your shoes and climb into one of the boats – oh a far cry from my Ndege-Samaki – in your long pants, long-sleeved shirt, the ends of your head wrap (if you wear one) dipping into the pool as your companion in the boat tries his best to row you beneath the freezing rush of water.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Dreams and Schemes and Circus Crowds

Last weekend we went to the circus.
(As one does on Sunday nights in Iraq.)
There used to be a lion but they left the poor dear out in his cage in the July Iraq sun without water.
So no more lion.
There were still cats and a snake and two tiny hairless dogs.
But mainly there were acrobats and tightrope walkers and clowns and one amazing magician.
Which is the best kind of circus, anyway.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


This morning we awoke to a world blanketed in a fine layer of dust. It’s not as romantic as the first snowfall in November, but it was a change, at least, from concrete-concrete-concrete and cars.

Sandstorms here, when they come, are not accompanied by howling winds, gusts, mini-tornados. One of our colleagues was out late last night at the circus with one of our drivers and his two little girls. Our colleague told us. When the sandstorm came just suddenly everything was hazy – the moon was fuzzy and big – the sky and the concrete earth were the same color dark – and visibility was nill.

It just dropped on us as if from nowhere.

It’s not like Darfur – it’s not like Chad – my colleagues said. I once saw part of a sandstorm in Cairo but was protected by the mammoth city.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Somehow it’s the weekend again. I'm not sure quite how that happened, or how it didn't happen earlier. This does not mean no work. (There is oh so much work.) It doesn’t even mean no office. But it does mean sleeping in a bit.

It also means a morning walk through the park across the street where dozens of weddings are being celebrated and women in white gowns pose for photographs and children in traditional Kurdish outfits chase each other up ladders and down slides.

And it means a night out at the big ex-pat bar where you’re threatened to be tossed in the green pool if you don’t join in on the round of tequila shots being passed around, so you lick the salt, dump the Cuervo on the ground, suck on the lemon, make a face in pretend – and stay dry.

It means crouching down by cars in the gated community we live in to see the little kittens hiding by a tire.

It means swan boats and go-karts and sitting around chatting with friends, snacking on pistachio nuts that taste like Christmas Eve cocktail parties.

Well. That's all what it meant last weekend. This weekend it means working.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Today I was so tired when I went to the grocery story (and it is only Monday!) (the equivalent of Tuesday for those of you whose week doesn't start on Sunday) that I forgot to remember that I had no money in my wallet.  I forgot to remember that I had none at all.  I filled a plastic bag full of eggplant and zucchini and then, when I couldn't pay, I carefully put it all back.  

When I returned to my car empty-handed, my colleague N, who is one of our drivers who drives us places, looked upset.  He refused to drive me anywhere until I accepted his loan of 25,000 dinar (about $21.20) and went back into the store to buy my dinner.

Friday, September 24, 2010


At first this weekend I was jealous of my friends in DC enjoying DC brunches.  Then we went to a local hole-in-the-wall and I saw breakfast.

Fresh honey, fresh cream, fresh yogurt, walnuts, piping hot-from-the-oven bread. After that, I was basically jealous of myself, because the food was so good.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Normally, if we go out for lunch, we grab sandwiches, or we send a driver to buy us sandwiches. Sometimes we stay in the office and the drivers cook for us. Other times we pack our lunches. Today we went to a sit-down joint. It was huge and florescent, like two university cafeterias stacked one on top of the other, with chandeliers. It was a mass of contradictions. Both floors were so huge that bottles were delivered to tables in shopping carts to accommodate all the water for all the thirsty people. The bottom floor was reserved for the men and we had barely stepped toe over the threshold when we were ushered away, whisked upstairs to the dining area where women, children, and families could sit. Most women upstairs were covered head-to-toe, often in bright colors, and were as likely to be engaged in conversation with the men at their tables as they were to be chasing down their children. I felt naked in my black tee-shirt and khaki cargo pants (I’d forgotten my scarf to offer at least a bit more shoulder-coverage), but there were a handful of Iraqi women also with their hair showing, also showing their elbows and lower-arms. None of the waiters spoke English but they tried their best to understand our points and gestures and we tried our best not to be too annoying. We (my Kenyan colleague, my American colleague, and I) seemed to be the only foreigners in the place and they were patient with us. The restaurant had wheelchair ramps and an elevator.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Same-Same but Different

I got to the field, sort of, for the first time yesterday. I visited a refugee camp here for the first time. Afterward, it occurred to me that it may have been my first visit to any refugee camp anywhere. I’ve spent time in dozens of IDP camps in northern Uganda and a small handful in eastern Congo. But refugee camps, those are different.

This refugee camp, outside of the small city [redacted], houses some 12,000 people who fled from [redacted]. There is controversy surrounding [redacted] and some are suspected members of [redacted]. The houses are built of sandy-colored stones and have satellite dishes atop them. There are gardens and the camp-management office has plumbing and is air-conditioned. Electrical poles shoot upwards and wires crisscross the sky.

We spent time in the Handicap Center for a distribution. We saw exactly zero people-with-disabilities in the Handicap Center. People-with-disabilities’ relatives arrived to pick up wheelchairs for them. Frozen bottles of water were handed out all around, even to the children. No one begged for my empty water bottles. The older women at the center wore these long, colorful dresses with long sleeves, sleeves so very long that the ends were gathered behind the dress and tied up and there was still enough fabric for the women to have full use of their arms. A couple of kids showed me how to pull leaves off of a tree and chew them. The leaves tasted kind of minty. One little boy arrived to pick up a wheelchair for his brother which he was patently too petit to carry so we went with him to his home, assisting. The brother was about 11 years old, skinny as a matchstick, legs twisted up with one another like a corkscrew, lying on the floor of their house in their compound. The brother didn’t seem miserable but he didn’t seem healthy. The hair on the back of his head was all rubbed off from lying on the floor so much, like an infant's would be. A mom or an aunt was patiently wiping the brother’s face with a washcloth. We dropped off the wheelchair and left.

The [redacted] refugee camp has been open for more than a decade, since [redacted]. I thought about Mungote IDP camp, near Kitchanga in Massisi, open for two years, with shelters of thatched banana leaf roofs not taller than a man, and uneven volcano rock, clogged latrines, and mud. I thought about the camps in Northern Uganda, each with its own personality, some with huts crammed together and crumbling and dirty, some lovely with small gardens and swept dirt, open for twenty years. Like every city in the world, it seems to me that every camp is unique, dependant on culture and history and governing bodies and access to wealth. The Handicap Center we visited at the [redacted] refugee camp had its own truck.

Iraq isn’t a poor country full of poverty-struck persons. This is a rich country full of paved roads and electrical lines and other public works, even in the camps. But this is still a country with a horrible war surrounded by other countries in war. That makes humanitarian aid a different beast here, doesn’t it? And yet at the same time it is always the same.

What is The Same is that all these camps, no matter the circumstances, are inhabited by people who are reliant on others for subsistence, who are unable to govern their own lives.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Be a Part of It

Last night at about 11 pm friends and I went to a small smoky bar for drinks. All the other patrons were Iraqi men. Someone put a CD of Ole Blue Eyes (The Chairman of the Board) (The Voice) (Frankie Sinatra) and my friends and I began singing along. One of my friends got particularly loud on a verse of New York, New York and as the chords waned at the end of the song the other drinkers hidden behind the shisha smoke burst into applause for him.

This probably sounds romanticized or distilled, but it really happened. It happened like that. Other things happen here, too. They are important, but also.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Weekend Guide for Ex-Pats in Ainkawa, Iraq

Ainkawa, a Christian-dominated suburb of Erbil, is the wedding dress capital of this city, probably the wedding dress capital of the KRG, possibly the wedding dress capital of Iraq, and maybe even the wedding dress capital of the world. If you stroll down the shopping street, the storefronts go like this: Shisha store, wedding dress store, grocery store, wedding dress store, wedding dress store, restaurant, wedding dress store, shisha store, bar, wedding dress store, and then followed by a few more wedding dress stores. Saturday a handful of friends and I are going to go try on wedding dresses, maybe stop by a Lebanese beauty center, and definitely get glamour shots taken. We’ll probably follow this up with some go-kart racing, just to ensure there’s not a total and complete overload of glittery ridiculousness to our day.

Other weekend plans include: Hitting up the usual bar, rug shopping near the citadel, and possibly bowling. Oh Iraq. This is not quite what anyone I know pictures when they think of you.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Painted on the backs of buses are words in Arabic and Kurdish. Our driver N tells us that these words often read Slow down, father. We will wait for you, meaning, don’t speed – don’t endanger yourself or others – don’t die in traffic. Once N saw one that read Slow down, father. Otherwise mother will have to remarry.  N laughed and laughed.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Waxing Cresent

Yesterday was nine Septembers after 11 September 2001. So many wide brush strokes and little painted details of my life have changed since then. And what have those nine Septembers meant for people in Iraq? It was also Saturday, a weekend. Four friends and I drove into the countryside. We climbed a mountainside up to a cave where some things happened, once, a long time ago, although I was unclear what, because so much was only in Arabic. And then, after those things happened, they were written down in the, um, the Bible, apparently. But I don’t know which chapters or what verses. There was candle wax covering the mountainside and the interior of the cave. Christian pilgrims burn small flames in prayer or praise or remembrance. Driving home in the gloaming the sun was a perfect red ball beneath the rising moon, a sliver for the Jewish New Year, a new moon to commemorate the finish of the Muslim month of fasting and the second day of Eid.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Friday, September 10, 2010

Blind Dates and Empathy

I have a habit of getting into crazy arguments on first dates. Once I threw down my napkin and $20 on a table because, in a restaurant where people of only one skin color were serving people of only another skin color (in DC, shockingly), a blind date argued to me that the segregation of populations of societies by racial heritage was natural. Another time I took heel because a date argued the necessity of sweatshops as a part of the natural progression of a society from unindustrialized or "underdeveloped" to "developed". But his logic was flawed and mystifying. In every case study he offered to me was the assumption that he, if born in a different city of a different time, or his sister, or his cousins, would be the ones making the difficult decision to run the sweatshops. He didn’t, he couldn’t seem to picture his mother as the one who was sitting in a harshly lit loud warehouse for hours pricking her fingers and swaying on her feet. He saved his empathy for the management making the tough decision to not allow unions and to not have healthcare, because, while painful (for The Other) now, it would lead to the eventual betterment of all of the society. When I am a guest in a village somewhere that is poor, that does not have access to clean water, to education, and I see a mother, I picture her as my mother. I can’t help it – she could have been, if my mother and I were born at slightly different times or longitude/latitude lines. If I see a woman who I don’t know, of course I comprehend that she won’t be exactly the same as my mother, but she might share some of my mother’s traits. She might have some of my mother’s vast intelligence, or some of her deep kindness. Indeed, I have to assume that she may. A man may share some of my father’s desire to protect those around him. People cannot be tossed aside. A human life is something crucial, not a cog in a machine to form a more perfect society. Society exists to protect life, not the other way around.

And that’s also the problem in so many INGO communication devises – as Shotgun Shack wrote, people aren’t props to be positioned in this way or that way to earn money for a community organization. Community organizations are there to protect the dignity of people. Not the other way around! The logic behind the commercials showing skinny dirty children and flashing digits for donations is so very hopelessly convoluted and flawed.

Moreover, I have such trouble comprehending the implied assumption behind so many of these commercials that Jane and Joe Potential Donor Public (okay, my crazy first dates aside) do not have the intelligence to grasp some of the complexities of the work that NGOs do in the field, if Joe and Jane were given a chance with a more truthful explanation. It is honestly no wonder that there's the generally held hypothesis that any celebrity or burnt-out college student or one of Rachel’s blind dates can drop everything to start a successful NGO. Large NGOs propagate that notion with every single commercial they release and brochure they send out in which they ask people to view beneficiaries as The Other, waiting for rescue, as Rapunzel helpless in her tower; as Cinderella, tattered and dirty and desperate for their kiss; as poverty struck, stuck, unhappy lives that need to be molded and manipulated by others.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Blessed Eid to those who celebrate it and happiest New Year to those who celebrate it.

We are having a celebration of our own today. Three of us are working from home, lounging on couches, comfy in one of the ticky-tacky boxes. And one of us is just back from intensive security training in Jordan. She stuffed her duffel bag with treats from the Amman supermarkets. So we are baking fresh real Betty Crocker brownies in the gas oven and we are snacking on slightly melted delicious Hershey’s chocolate chips straight from the bag. My counterpart in Jordan sent me magnets, a little pretty cloth wallet, and CDs filled with work information that will save me so much time. A colleague and I walked to get lattes this morning. There is a party in the US compound tonight.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Eid Mubarak

عيد مبارك‎ means Have a blessed Eid.

I sat with my housemates two nights ago during Iftar (إفطار‎). My housemates are a Somali man, a Pakistani man, and a Sudanese man. Our Chaldean (الكلدانيون) colleague cooked their meal for them. They are all quite nice. We talked about our home countries, foods, and, because I wouldn't let it go, one of the budgets for work.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Driving through Erbil

Our colleague N drives us around Erbil at night. I am already used to curling up in the front seat, listing to his tapes of ABBA and Boney M, while N tells stories about his life.

Tonight when I got back into the car after dinner, I said to N, "How are you?"

N responded, "I am okay if you are okay."

That is just what - just exactly what - JB, our chef in Congo, used to say to me every morning.

I love that.

Monday, September 6, 2010

je commence à m'adapter

I was back at the Ministry this morning. No more blood drawn, which is nice, because I still have a bruise from last week. I had to answer questions about myself, about my resume, about my mom and dad and my height and skin color. (The skin color question I found particularly odd as I was sitting in front of them and had just handed over three photos.) I got indignant about all the questions prying questions and the thumbprints taken and the waiting until it occurred to me that, in my own country, we scan people’s retinas. And that this is a country at war. And then, when debating my skin color, they pointed out that I am tan, which for whatever terrible made-up social-nonsense reason is a compliment where I am from, and made me, as a product of my culture, feel healthy and pretty, the opposite as in The Gambia where people would call me pale and fat when they wanted to be most gratifying, and I would say thank you a little sadly. I will only have to go back to the Ministry two or three times until I am cleared to receive a six-month residency card.

Yesterday an Iraqi colleague and I signed up for French lessons together. I am so excited for the lessons. There will be no English spoken in the classroom (why would there be?) which will be good for my brain, as it will have to process and express using French only. Only French. French lessons will also be something that are mine, away from the violence, away from the humanitarian need, away from the eternal office/guesthouse/expat-party cycle: Just mine.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Pennies from Heaven

We can use Iraqi Dinars here, or US Dollars, like in Congo.

There are no coins, like in Congo.  I do miss coins.  They are miniature works of art, shiny round bas-reliefs that jingle in your pockets.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sasha Fierce

My employee ID number in Congo was 007. That was pretty bad-ass.

My employee ID here in Iraq has a photograph of me crouching on top of Mt Nyiragongo. The photo is cropped so you can only see my face, not the volcano. It’s my own little joke.

Holding onto my IDs in my pocket makes me feel tough.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Palaces on Sand

When I lived in Northern Uganda was the first time I realized that for all the shocking horrors in the world – the deaths out of nowhere, the violence that you can’t conceive, the pain that you can’t explain – there is just as shocking, more shocking, goodness. People who see their families murdered and then continue to care about their neighbors, who keep their capacity to love. That beautiful courage is just as unexplainable as the violence – more so, because it comes from a place of strength, not of weakness. In Congo I met people who lost everything in a natural disaster and then rebuilt, who keep the faith and the conviction that everything would turn out alright.


As for the funerals I will be missing – as I wrote to my aunt, I've always found the idea of funerals a little strange. Dead is dead, nothing less but nothing more. Funerals are about saying goodbye, but we never truly say goodbye to loved ones. They are always with us. I continually think about dead friends and relatives, and I don't think about them as gone. I think about them as ever existing influences on my life -- which they are. They helped to raise me and to foster my development as a person. Same with my uncle -- he is quite literally still with my family, as he helped to shape us. We would not be who we are without him. Therefore, while we will always miss him, he can never be gone.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Now That We're Apart

A few days after I moved to Iraq, my uncle died. It was both expected and it was not. He had been sick since 1989. He’d started to seem invincible. My cousin wrote me about the death on Facebook and then my mother e-mailed me. My uncle was very, very, very good at impressions, and could speak French. Well, you’d swear it was French he was speaking, by tone and inflection, until you pieced together the syllables to form only nonsense words. He was good at all sorts of other impressions, too – any person you mentioned, he could mimic. He probably could have made a living as an actor or a comedian. He was an editor in New York.

This morning my mother e-mailed me again to say my great-aunt only has a week to live. That one was even more surprising to me. Apparently she’d been sick, but I hadn’t known. She forges jewelry out of metal and collects really beautiful pieces of religious iconography. I brought her back a small painting of a biblical scene the first time I was in Ethiopia. She took me to a museum once and we looked at designs made out of Arabic script and then we had the best lunch together.

I have a friend who sends me random SMSs where ever I live. Uganda, Congo, Iraq. She makes me think that the world is small and that I am not so far away. Other times the world is insurmountably huge and I am so far away.

There is not warm sunny news coming out of Goma. Two nights ago there was a (politically motivated) murder in front of the restaurant we all frequent. There were hundreds of women and children mass raped. An airplane carrying aid workers traveling to assist those women and children was shot at. The aid workers are currently hiding in a forest, according to the Associated Press, who is not naming them. Other expat and national aid workers have received death threats just this week. My expatriate friends in Goma have evacuation insurance. My national friends in Goma do not. Rwanda’s government is upset by the OHCHR report. It’s all so frightening.

Erbil is calm, calm, calm. It seems insurmountably far away from every place I know.

Then here in Erbil a colleague rushes in and asks me questions about that comment made by this person at that meeting then, and another colleague asks me to help with translations, and there is the same old hustle and bustle that there is in any aid/development office I have worked in. And then a new colleague/friend, knowing I’m feeling down, sings me a song about Staying on the Sunny Side of Life, right in the middle of the office. Like all friends do, everywhere.

Monday, August 30, 2010

I will go eat baklava soon to get better.

Feeling a bit weak in the knees from the morning – heat, hunger, thirst, movement, blood loss (at a hospital; on purpose; required tests) - not to mention getting so deep into a novel that you forget where you are – all these factors loosen your joints.

I went – I was taken – to the Department of the Interior’s residency office today to begin the application for my ID card. Before going I had so much work to do and only time for two quick sips of milk-coffee. And then once there – it’s Ramadan – you just don’t want to drink water or eat out in the open when everyone else is fasting. We went – I was dragged – from office to office (I lost count after the 7th) and they took my phone, took my photo, took my blood, and chatted on with my colleague in Arabic or Kurdish. The heat was stifling but the offices were cool enough. Then we drove drove drove to another place, to a shiny blue hospital for a second blood test. The hospital was lovely but the nurse was a bit of a sadist as he tied my arm up tight, and then chatted for a while with his buddies, waving the needle around in front of my eyes. I know he didn’t mean anything by it but it HURT like a son of a witch. When they took my photo, it printed out one layer at a time. First there was me all yellow. Then yellow-red. Me yellow-red-blue. Me totally. In living color. It was like the old printing presses that Mr. Rogers went to visit in his neighborhood, that you watched on TV as a kid.

In between the offices and the giving and the taking, I was deep into a novel. I was in Florida right after World War II.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

This Sunday: My Second Monday

When I was in the States I could walk free drive free. Here I have drivers again. Some things here are totally liberated and some things are very secure. For example, when you go to drive go-karts, the bottom of your car is checked with a mirror for bombs – but at other times you can walk through gardens, ‘round fountains, past sculptures. Alone.

Some NGOs keep their staff locked up in a compound unable to leave without serious guards. Some NGOs let their people run throughout town. Security experts make approximately two billion USD a month for their salaries. Security experts have a vested interest in making other people believe that this city is dangerous so that they remain employed. They are all men. They are well-to-do. They get into scrapes.

In a few weeks, I will get to go to a neighboring country and receive security training.

When I read the news about Goma, North Kivu, it sounds as if the atmosphere is heating up. It is scary. Here, with the weather at 120° Fahrenheit, things are cool. We are going rug shopping tomorrow. We are going to a quiz-night at a local pub. I am worried I might be jinxing myself, but: I like my job so far. It’s interesting. It’s busy but it’s engaging. I have responsibilities.

Thinking about living in one singular place for a whole year is outrageous but does not seem impossible.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Second Saturday

A garden next to the gated community I live in
I ate apple pie and pasta at a Labor Day party last night. The party was held down a dirt road by a University in town. The party was thrown by international education ex-pats: American, Canadian, Turkish, and other nationalities. I met them in a supermarket checkout line. They are new in town, too.

Tomorrow, Sunday, the first day of my second week at work. Time is already going quickly.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


From the Lufthansa Airbus I got my first view of Erbil (one week and 19 hours ago). Erbil is a city is a circle built in rings, like Paris with its arrondissements. Surrounding Erbil is brown. And tan. And gray. From the air Erbil looks like its own little oasis.

Two of my colleagues and I walked through a public park in Erbil a few days ago. The park has croaking frogs and a man-made pond with swan-shaped paddle boats. Sprinklers blasted all over the park with the force of a huge engine. Oh the water wasted! Oh the green grass growing! A little oasis of green green grasses amidst the dusty concrete jungle of the Middle Eastern city.

This morning I clicked open our daily security briefing email. As has been the case every day since I arrived, and every day since 2004, on the map of Iraq Erbil is colored green-means-safe. And all around, all the other provinces, are red-red-danger or slightly-red-worry or red-red-red-evacuate. But Erbil is green.

A reprieve from violence. An oasis of grass, water, and peace.

But how does that happen? Why on earth? I’m so eager to read more, more, more to better understand the WHY.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

And they all look just the same

Today (Sunday) was my first-ever day of work in Iraq.

Sunday is my Monday. My Monday is now over! Your Monday starts tomorrow. Thursday is my Friday. Friday is my Sunday and Saturday is Saturday for us all.

Culture shock is weird.

Work: Work is new and overwhelming but I know (I know!) that it will not be new for long.

Play: Tomorrow we are going to race go-carts. There is also bowling here and an amusement park within the city. There are gondola rides and a Ferris wheel. I am lucky with my new colleagues so far. They are welcoming and inclusive.

At our house, we have electricity constantly, through either city power or generator. There are big grocery stores. There are liquor stores. I was lucky to be invited to the home of a driver colleague. It was lovely with rooms decorated by color: Purple and pink, red, green. His two little girls were watching Nickelodeon on TV (Hey Arnold! dubbed into Arabic).

When I was in high school I spent a year in Italy. Looking at a world map would sometimes make me dizzy – I would realize I was on the other side of the earth from where I was born. When I first moved to Senegal it was the same. But then there was The Gambia, Uganda, Congo – the dizziness stopped – living overseas was normal.

Now it is back.

It’s not a bad thing. It’s just that I'm across a whole 'nother sea. It's just that – for all the similarities – I know (I know!) it is a very different place that I am right now than I have ever been before.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky

Kids ride their bikes at dusk though the paved roads of the gated-community-compound in which I live.  It's sweet.

Friday, August 20, 2010

So this is Iraq

It is the middle of Ramadan, and I have landed in Northern Iraq. It is ten degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler here than the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Death Valley. I compare everything to Goma – views, temperature, security rules – which is silly because Goma is a completely different world. Erbil is more Kinshasa so far. Paved roads and cars. I went to the grocery store to stock the fridge. Brief moment of panic when I couldn’t find cheeses, but then, there they were. And Peter Pan peanut butter. Dried apricots and almonds. I went to a party my first night here and stayed out until 5 a.m. because that was only 10 p.m. for my jetlagged body. I hung photos of best friends up on my bedroom wall and slept in pants tailor made for me when I lived in Uganda.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

In the In-Between

In DC in the summer there is heat like a wet wool blanket. There are picnics with sangria and live jazz in the Smithsonian sculpture garden. There are swimming pools built into the roofs of apartment buildings and rainbows in the mist being sprayed on public gardens. There are $10 million dollar proposals that you are hired to lead-write, and there are bosses who support and praise you, and there are interns who come to you to ask you for job advice. There are little boutiques with sweet colorful overpriced plastic jewelry. There are tourists wearing helmets zipping by gleefully on Segways. There are friends who will skip work with you and flee to Six Flags Water Park on a sticky hot day. There are friends who welcome you into their homes, cook you homemade dinners specially designed around your picky palate, friends who have little items scattered throughout their place that you have given them over the years. There are friends who lay out fresh fluffy towels for you and make sure you have enough pillows. There are friend who stay up listening to your stories about the different places you have lived, and who tell you stories of their own, because they understand. There are trapeze classes and pedicures where fish eat the dead skin off your feet and there are kayaks to rent down by the river. There are friends that you have had lunches with in college, in The Gambia, in graduate school, in Uganda, and in Congo, who you now have lunch with in DC. There are friends who will climb with you up onto a bridge in downtown DC, on the other side of Roosevelt Island, and straddle their legs over the edge, hold their noses, and leap leap leap into the clear air, flying down into the cool Potomac with a huge splash that sends water droplets whirling through the atmosphere, emerging back into the sunlight gasp gasp gasping for air from adrenaline and laughter and joy.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Welcome to my new web log.

I am moving to Erbil, Iraq, on 18 August 2010.

Before that I lived in Goma, DR Congo.

Before that I lived in DC.

Before that I lived in Kitgum, Uganda.

Before that I lived in Vermont.

Before that I lived in Basse Santa Su, The Gambia.

Before that I lived in Dakar, Senegal.

Living for one year in Erbil will be the longest I've lived in one spot in, like, forever.