Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Summer 2019 Missive

A Missive from Mesopotamia

When Things Go Sideways
I started this post some time ago, long before things were OBE (Overtaken By Events, as we sometimes say). 

Back then, what you’ll see here in a little bit rang more current than now.  But perhaps you took note of how things changed suddenly in Iraq for those of us deployed there, so here’s a little “inside baseball” recap as we reacted to events well beyond our control, and certainly beyond my experience as I’ve never been part of an Ordered Departure before. 

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Pressure has been building in this region for months, one might even say years, but really intensified as of last year when the president withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (the Iran Nuclear Deal) which had been negotiated by the P5 +1 back in 2013.  Combine that unilateral action with the reinstatement of economic sanctions and the designation of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as an international terrorist organization, and mix all of that with last summer’s water and electricity crises in southern Iraq (an area dominated by Shia Muslims and rife with Iranian influence), and the area has been on tenterhooks for months. 

In the midst of last summer’s crises in the south of Iraq, the State Department enacted a de facto closure of the Consulate General in Basrah, and in Baghdad, malign forces launched several projectiles into the International Zone (formerly, and still informally, known as the Green Zone) from areas in the capital known or suspected to be strongholds of Iranian influence.  This spring, in April or early May, information began to indicate we might be reaching a tipping point, and just then the president publicly linked to these tensions the already-scheduled deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a squadron of bombers to the Persian Gulf, which caused the anxieties to ratchet up even further. 

It was in the midst of this increased tension that I flew up to the north of Iraq to our Consulate General in Erbil on a long-planned TDY (Temporary Duty) to help out in the short-staffed Public Affairs section there.  I was scheduled to return to Baghdad on Wednesday May 15, which would then give me 12 days remaining in my one-year tour in Iraq, allowing me to complete my tour and return to the US as scheduled on May 27. 

Iraqi Kurdistan Region from the air en route to Erbil, Iraq.

Outside Grant House at the US Consulate General in Erbil, Iraq.

Scenes from inside the French grocery chain
Carrefour in Erbil, Iraq.

The Erbil Yacht Club is a small restaurant for employees
within the confines of the Consulate General grounds in
landlocked Erbil, Iraq.
Local Kurdish artist showing off his gallery
to us from the Consulate in Erbil, Iraq.

Photos from within the gallery below:

My colleague Rush and I meeting with
grant recipients in Erbil.  Their NGO provides
critical support and needed skills to
women and young girls.

On Sunday of that week (May 12), we were notified that the Consulate General – the entire Mission, in fact – would fall under a nighttime curfew from about 900 pm to 700 am, as a result of the aforementioned increasing tensions and the four bombings on four oil tankers that had occurred earlier that day in the Strait of Hormuz.  (The Strait supports the flow of some 18.5 million barrels of oil – roughly 20% of the world’s supply – through their narrow waters every single day, so this was a big deal.)  As the fluid situation changed from hour to hour, other security measures were contemplated or instituted, both in Erbil and in Baghdad, and leadership and security teams worked with Washington to enact predetermined plans, put in place in the event of just such crises.  By Tuesday evening, it became clear that trip wires in that planning document had been crossed and that an Ordered Departure (OD) was imminent, although this was only internal information and nothing had been formally announced to anyone, including those of us on the ground at post.  A full staff meeting was scheduled for the next morning when presumably the course of action would be explained, and details of what was next shared. 

An OD is one of several options for moving American employees and their families out of a country to safety, and when the decision is made requires the evacuation by commercial means of all “non-essential employees.”  Which positions fall into the category of “essential” involve decisions made long prior to when an OD happens, which is just smart planning in a sometimes dangerous and unsettled world.  If the two of you haven’t figured it out by now, my position is, or rather was, considered non-essential, along with hundreds of others.  (Another common evacuation is called an Authorized Departure – Haiti has been under an Authorized Departure since early 2019 – which essentially involves keeping all American employees on the ground but mandating the evacuation of family members only; there are no American spouses in Iraq who are not already employed by the Mission, and there are no children allowed at all.  There are other evacuation options as well, the most extreme involving the emergency evacuation of Americans by any and all means necessary.  The situation in Iraq was – still is – serious, but not that serious.)

The wrinkle in all of this, personally, was that I was not actually at my post of assignment (Baghdad) if there was going to be an evacuation, I was up north on TDY, and I wasn’t sure that the planners of an OD were completely cognizant of what to do with me in such a situation.  So on Tuesday evening my friends and I shared concerns and speculations, as well as a glass or two of wine, and returned to our rooms so as to be indoors by the time the curfew set in, with no knowledge of what might happen overnight or what decisions might be made about our immediate future while we slept.

Given these tensions and conditions, few of us slept soundly those couple nights, particularly overnight into Wednesday as there were quite a few additional helicopter patrols taking place low over the compound from the nearby commercial and military airport.  Combined with all the uncertainty of the situation and the threats coming from Iran or Iranian sympathizers, many of us woke on Wednesday more groggy than normal.  I reported to the office as usual, and prepared for one form of departure or another, as for me it was pretty simple:  I had one weeks’ worth of clothes and supplies, as well as the various required electronics of modern life, and was packed and ready to go – I just didn’t know where I was supposed to go.  I wanted to return to Baghdad, mostly to complete my tour but even if I was to be evacuated, I at least wanted to swap out some items and prepare my apartment for an eventual – hopeful – pack-out, especially if I was not going to be present to supervise it.  (In extreme circumstances, as happened to colleagues of ours who closed down the embassy in Sana’a, Yemen several years back, occasionally one might never get back what they can’t carry out the door.)  What I expected was that my wants would be subservient to the needs and desires of the State Department, which would be made clearer (we all hoped) at the Mission-wide meeting to be held at 1000 am Wednesday.

At this meeting, the chargĂ© d’affaires (basically the substitute ambassador when the actual ambassador is absent for whatever reason) and several other members of our leadership and management teams explained what was happening.  An Ordered Departure had been authorized by Washington overnight and would begin in a matter of hours that very day.  Questions were addressed and a list of names was read off as to who would depart immediately, and if those people hadn’t already begun making preparations for this OD, they now had about two hours to return to their apartments and prepare to leave post, possibly with no opportunity to return.  (Ordered Departures are congressionally allowable in 30-day increments, up to a maximum of 180 days.)  Anything of importance in offices or apartments that was absolutely essential to carry by hand would need to be collected and packed – in just about two hours – and everything else would have to stay behind.  An additional complication when evacuating from Baghdad specifically is the means of departure:  The initial flight would be by helicopter from an Embassy helipad as was normal, but with so many people to get to the airport in a very short window of time, weight limitations were scrutinized far more carefully; whereas in the past there might have been a bit more flexibility on this point, these next couple of days were going to be very tight in terms of the flight manifests and weight limitations.  Consequently, those leaving from Baghdad were limited to one suitcase of 50 pounds and one carry-on of 20 pounds, and absolutely no more.  Extra bags and extra pounds were not an option, and some colleagues had the unfortunate experience of having to pull items as they prepared to board the helicopter, leaving an extra pound or two behind, hopefully to be retrieved later with the rest of their personal property still sitting in their offices and apartments. 

Not being in Baghdad, and assuming other people also recognized I was not in Baghdad, I did not wait to listen to the announced list of employees who were supposed to leave immediately.  Unfortunately, my name was indeed on that list.  Colleagues in my office in Baghdad quickly noted my situation to the powers that be, and I stayed put for the time being up in Erbil and wondered what I should do.  Ultimately, I worked with the management officers in Erbil, who gave to me the same information they had given to Erbil colleagues scheduled to leave right away on Wednesday, and I followed those instructions while I waited for airline tickets as well as a formal decision as to whether I was leaving the country or returning to Baghdad. 

The first shuttle bus from the Consulate General in Erbil to the airport was to leave the compound at 145 pm for a scheduled Austrian Air flight to Vienna at 330 pm.  By about 1100 am or so I had submitted the required paperwork, and then I waited.  I cleared out my inbox, returned items borrowed for the week to the office where they lived, had a bite to eat, discussed with colleagues their plans, deleted more emails, said goodbye to local staff, and generally wondered fruitlessly when I would be notified as to my travel plans.  At 140 pm, I finally messaged the travel office in Amman, Jordan, and asked rather urgently whether or not I was supposed to be on the shuttle to the airport, which was scheduled to leave in five minutes.  The travel technician immediately responded, indicating that yes, I should be on that shuttle as I was ticketed on that flight to Vienna.  Nice of them no notify me with plenty of time.

The rest of my departure story is not quite as dramatic.  I flew from Erbil directly to Vienna with whatever I had in my possession for the prior week, had a nice dinner at a Jamie Oliver restaurant, and stayed the night in a nice hotel in the city where it was about 60 degrees cooler than in Erbil (as it was over 100 F there and I kind of left in a hurry, I also had no coat and the suitcase with all my clothes was checked through to DC).  The next morning I flew to Washington.  Memorial Day was my original departure date from Iraq, and since that has come and gone, my tour in Iraq is now officially complete. 

Fortunately, I had left some clothes here in Arlington where we were living prior to leaving for Iraq, so I’m not left with just what I had in Erbil, plus, you know, there are plenty of stores nearby and I have a credit card, so that also helps.  Given that I wasn’t there to personally supervise the movers packing my things, some items were left behind (presumably donated to needy moving company dudes) and some things can’t be shipped back to the US once they’ve already been shipped overseas duty-free, so any consumable items I had intended to, you know, consume during my last two weeks were also donated, but this time the half-dozen bottles of wine and various food and cleaning items were just donated to the cause of those colleagues left behind.  (You’re welcome.  And thank you for packing me out.) 

Once again I find myself fortunate for any number of reasons.  My tour was almost over when the OD occurred, so the disruption to my professional life was minimal.  After I arrived in Washington, I had five business days remaining in my tour.  I spent them helping out in an office related to Iraq and Middle East public affairs issues, but the reality was that this office wasn’t going to assign me any big projects or anything, and since I was nearing completion of my tour anyway, even doing remote work related to my job back in Baghdad was not going to be very helpful.  So I did what I could, worked on the paperwork necessary to process my Ordered Departure and subsequent Permanent Change of Station (PCS), passed along whatever key information I could to the office staff working here in DC, and completed my tour.  Because I was already scheduled to depart before the OD decision was made, I had several key items arranged prior to heading to Erbil, the most important of which was the plan to have the movers come and pack up my apartment.  Luckily for me, those awesome colleagues who remained behind agreed to pack up my office documents and supplies, and to supervise the movers as they packed up my things.  (Whatever the movers packed of my stuff arrived in late June.)  Since I was first in the queue it all went off fairly easily; colleagues who departed with me in those first few days but aren’t scheduled to complete their tours until later in the summer aren’t quite so lucky, and will be working on all those arrangements for weeks or months to come.  And they may have left behind significantly more consumable items than I did if they had several months left, unlike me.  That is just the pits.

And so that’s the way an Ordered Departure goes when it goes smoothly.  We didn’t depart from the roof of the embassy by climbing a rope ladder into the helicopter under a hail of gunfire or anything even remotely like that.  Due to good planning, a modicum of luck, and great staff who essentially worked miracles to pull of the departure of a very large percentage of American staff in just a couple of days, everyone who was supposed to, departed quickly and with a minimum of complications, despite the herculean task before them.  I’m very grateful to work with such professionals.

The mountains of Kurdistan to the Turkish border
from the air as I departed Iraq for the final time.

"The Kurds have no friends but the mountains."  - Kurdish adage

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming!

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Hello once again!
Welcome back to the proverbial crosshairs, mes amis.  No doubt you’ve noticed this region has been back in the news of late (well, not like the area ever left the news, I suppose), and if you’ve been following along with me the past 11+ months, perhaps you’ve spent a few passing moments wondering how this might be affecting those of us posted here in the Cradle of Civilization. 

The short answer is that, while no doubt geopolitical events have made necessary certain precautions amid a heightened security situation, life and work have largely continued apace, and most of us have not had serious changes in our daily routine.  Living where you work and working where you live – surrounded by many who are here expressly to protect us and our interests – means that even under such circumstances (even worse in some parts of the world) we continue to do our jobs.

And so the programs continue to be administered, the grant applications are examined and discussed, and plans toward something akin to normalization continue.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I had a chance once again to hang out and share a meal again with my friends Naz and Wafa.  And also once again, they had invited several people from outside the Embassy to do a little shopping at the Post Exchange store and then to stay for a bite to eat.  I haven’t had the chance to join Naz and Wafa since last fall – partly due to my R&Rs, partly due to their respective travels, or just because the timing didn’t work – and so I hadn’t seen the Serbian or Greek Ambassadors for some time. 

Serbian Ambassador Balov was previously an advisor in several areas of the government of the Federal Republic of Serbia, and Iraq is his first post with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The Greek Ambassador, however, has worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of his country for several decades, and like the Romanian Ambassador (who was unable to stay for dinner this time), he is a seasoned raconteur. 

As Naz was putting the finishing touches on dinner, several of us enjoyed a glass of wine and were chatting, catching up a bit.  The Greek Ambassador was sharing stories from his long career living and working all over the world and how at one point back at the beginning he was offered a job with the US Embassy in Athens, which he declined as he had recently passed the exam to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) for his own country.  He then paused nostalgically, chuckled to himself, and shared a little witticism that was told to him many moons ago by a seasoned colleague.  He recounted a saying they have in Greece that not only do you have to be stupid to join the MFA, you have to take a test to prove it!

Ramadan Kareem!

We’re in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan (actually the name of a month in the Islamic lunar calendar, just like December or June) all across the region at the moment.  Well, all across the world of course, but it’s felt more acutely in this region where a large percentage of the worlds’ one billion Muslims live and which is the birthplace of Islam. 

It’s likely that you both know a little something about Ramadan, but I would wager it’s a bit less likely that you have experience with how the nuts and bolts of celebrating Ramadan really go down.  It really becomes important to know more when you work in a Muslim country or with Muslim colleagues whose work schedules may need temporary adjusting, or when one’s own attitude and outlook might need a bit of adjusting to accommodate colleagues who are perpetually hungry and often tired.

For Muslims of the world, Ramadan is one of the most highly anticipated times of the year.  Not unlike major holidays of all the worlds’ religions, greetings are one of the most common rituals.  Even in non-Arabic speaking countries with large Muslim populations (Indonesia, for example, the largest Muslim nation on earth) it’s common to hear Ramadan Kareem (basically have a generous Ramadan) or Ramadan Mubarek (blessed Ramadan), both of which are Arabic phrases. 

Beyond simple greetings, the one thing most people likely associate with Ramadan is the act of fasting, or sawm, one of the five pillars of Islam.  Like anyone, Muslims fast for a variety of reasons, but for the devout fasting is meant to bring worshipers closer to God through steady remembrance, reflection and sacrifice, similar to why Christians fast during the 40 days of the Lenten season.  Part of the requirement is to abstain completely from all eating, drinking, and smoking from dawn until dusk, every day during the lunar month of Ramadan (about thirty days).  Sexual intercourse is also forbidden during fasting hours, and Muslims are encouraged to refrain from gossip, arguments and idle time. 

Fasting anywhere and at any time can be challenging, of course, but this challenge is heightened in an area of the world where the heat is hot (did I mention it gets hot here?) and the days are long.  As the Islamic calendar is lunar, the months of the year “travel” throughout the year marked by the Julian calendar, so in some years Ramadan occurs in the summer here, some years in the winter, and in others everything in between.  When Ramadan began on May 5th this year, sunrise was pretty early in Baghdad (a little after 5:00 am and getting earlier) and sunset occurred relatively late (a little before 7:00 pm and getting later). This means fasting would take place for just more than 13.5 hours each day (it doesn’t get much longer, either; the calendar day with the most hours of sunlight – the summer solstice, June 21 – has 14 hours and 21 minutes of sunlight this year).  If you were going to eat at all to manage your day, you’d have to get up before sunrise in order to do so or suffer an extremely long, very unhappy day until you could break the fast at sunset.  I suspect the first few days of Ramadan aren’t too difficult, but later in the month must be quite an ordeal.  Many of my colleagues report rising in the wee dark hours, pre-dawn of course, eating a big breakfast (suhoor), and then going back to bed for a couple hours before coming in to work, which must be a whole different challenge.  Obviously if you live in the southern hemisphere December would be the most difficult month for Ramadan, and if you lived at one of the poles, well then that would just be unfathomable if Ramadan occurred in the summer!

As with nearly everything, there are exceptions to these rules, so many young children, the elderly, the sick, and pregnant or nursing women are exempt from the rules of the fast, as are athletes competing in tournaments or people in the midst of travels.  I wonder how someone on the International Space Station would fare?

Each day at sundown – specific times for sunrise and sundown are determined by Islamic scholars despite modern science – immediately after the evening call to prayer (the maghrib), an iftar is held, which is the evening meal breaking the fast.  Many will use this opportunity for communal dining, and often organize iftars for students, travelers or the poor, as Ramadan is also a month for focused generosity and almsgiving.

The end of this month of intense prayer and worship is marked by a grand holiday, Eid al-Fitr, a day for gift giving and celebration.  Of course eating during daylight hours is now finally allowed, so on Eid families will often host elaborate feasts in parks, picnicking outdoors in the sunlight for the first time in a month.  I suspect relief accompanies these festivities as well, for I’m told it can be a long 30 days when one has to work and conduct all the normal business of a modern life when even a sip of water or a single almond or date will violate the fast during daylight hours.  My local colleagues tell of a non-Muslim American officer from some time in the past who was intrigued by the idea of fasting for a month, and decided to take on the challenge in solidarity.  Evidently he made it into the first day before he couldn’t take it anymore.  It must be quite a challenge indeed.

Baghdad Today
When I meet people who know or learn that I am living and working in Baghdad, the response is a nearly universal mixture of concern and curiosity.  I always explain the living conditions we have as diplomats in a post-ISIS conflict zone, and tell of my ability to get out beyond the wire and the basics of remaining safe in such a zone.  I hope that, if nothing else over the past year, I’ve managed to convey that while the country and city is certainly in a difficult transitory period that may last years or decades, it is vastly different (better) than it was just a few short years ago. 

Do residents of Baghdad live just as they once did twenty, thirty, forty years ago?  No, but who among us citizens of the world do?  Is it completely safe?  Is danger lurking around every corner, causing stagnation and the cessation of “normal” life?  Also no, to both.  And while danger does exist, so do many of the signs that the city is returning to something akin to normal, albeit in fits and starts.  Where the international community can, we try to give the Iraqi people a hand in moving forward.  Progress may be slow, but progress does, in fact, exist.

I conclude with this small anecdote to illustrate the point: 
A few months past I was talking to a colleague who had served multiple previous tours in Iraq with the US military, and who was now in his fourth or fifth tour here, this time as a security contractor.  He was describing the road linking the Green Zone in city center and the airport, once called “Route Irish” and an extremely dangerous route in the years after the invasion of 2003.

Routinely the site of roadside bombings, drive-by and random shootings, as well as suicide bombings at checkpoints along the route, my colleague compared what he experienced and saw back then (around 2006) to today, here in 2019.  Back then, International Coalition military vehicles would make contact with fighters and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) along the entire route, starting immediately within the first 100 meters after leaving the airport. 

Now, as we drove that same route together, we passed working water fountains and underground sprinkler systems watering the grass in the median, and young men in yellow reflective vests, not suicide vests, picking up trash all along the route.  He considered the difference thoughtfully, noting “It’s really good to see” this progress.

Indeed it is.

Until Next Time
Back in April, I had a fantastic final R&R to Dubai, Portugal and finally to Spain where I met up with the entire Team and some good friends, but stories about that wonderful adventure will have to wait until we can sit down together and break some bread or share a nice bourbon.  Give a call, we’ll see about getting together.  We’ll be living in the same apartment outside of DC from prior to my departure to Iraq, so let us know when you are in town and we’ll make it happen.  Would love to see either of you when you’re here visiting our nation’s capital.

Given that the next 10-11 months of my life will be solely spent in training, I won’t be providing Foreign Service updates until the time comes to PCS for Istanbul.  Once we arrive in Turkey, be prepared to be regaled with tales about the boat “Hiawatha,” which was once owned by the Consulate in Istanbul and still provides excursions out on the Bosporus for Consulate employees; and how the old Consulate General building (now a swanky Italianate hotel in a thriving district in the European side of the city just across from the Golden Horn) was “won” in a game of poker.  Seriously.

In the meantime, enjoy your northern summer or southern winter, stay in touch, and be well.  We are happy and healthy, and hope you can say the same.

Working visit to a 9th century Abbasyd school in Baghdad
with my friend and colleague Mohanned.
Working with Public Affairs colleagues for a TV interview
given by the Consul General at a
local five-star hotel in Erbil.

(Total coincidence that I'm wearing the same shirt.  These photos were taken months apart!)


The opinions expressed within are my own and not those of the U.S. Government.
Please do not disseminate widely without permission.

Riding in the newly liberated old city of Mosul, December 2017.
Award willing photo by Salam Musa of Baghdad.