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.