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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.