A Missive from Mesopotamia
Greetings! / as-salam ‘alaykum! / Peace be upon you! / !السلام عليكم
I will be honest, I’m not sure if the Arabic is 100% accurate (or even 10% accurate), as I can only say – poorly – about five words or phrases in the language and I can’t read it one whit. The written language is elegant, fascinating and beautiful, but in the State Department’s wisdom, language training was not required for me this time. Actually, that happens with some regularity, based on a number of factors, and in this case the job did not require language training since it was a NOW position (needing to be filled as soon as possible).
So for this tour – here, where it all began, in the land “between two rivers” (the meaning of the word Mesopotamia) – English will have to do. And of course, within the Embassy itself it’s not much of a problem since all of our local employees speak English (often better than many Americans).
But the meaning of this greeting is simply lovely. So: peace be upon you.
Well, it’s a big ol’ world out there, but of course you know that I’ve landed safely in Baghdad, capital of Iraq. Or as local cell phone provider Asiacell helpfully reminded me, the Cradle of Civilization:
And it’s a good thing my household goods also managed to arrive safely, and in the correct city, since the stenciling engineer managed a bit of creative spelling for Baghdad:
I had a bit of a circuitous route to actually get here though, due to an ill-timed thunderstorm back in Washington on the day of my departure. Actually, less the day of my departure, and more succinctly the hour before my departure. The sky was darkening as Kate brought me to the airport that evening in late May, but within 30 minutes or so after actually checking in and handing over my one very large suitcase, the rain started. And wow, did it come down.
So then the delays began. In the end my flight was not cancelled, only delayed, but since I had a late night connection to Amman out of New York that I was now going to miss (and Royal Jordanian only has one flight a day), I had to reschedule. Complicating all of this was my final destination and the fact that, as a diplomat arriving to post in Baghdad for the first time, we can’t just take any old commercial flight into Iraq. As a result of the limited flight schedule from Jordan to Iraq, my departure from Washington was actually delayed from Tuesday until Friday. So that silly thunderstorm bought me a few extra days at home with my girl and my dog, and I won’t ever complain about that.
|Poolside beer in Amman, Jordan.|
|First look at the Euphrates River in the heart of Baghdad.|
But no matter, I’m here now, my stuff has arrived, and all is off to a good start. And that’s half the battle, n’est pas?
|My first meal in Iraq was a Subway sandwich,|
Coke and chips at the airport.
|The arrival of my household goods came complete with randomly placed stickers from a favorite pizza place in Alexandria, VA.|
It’s A Dry Heat
Yup, it is. Not one day since my arrival has the daytime high temperature been below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. (For you metric-types, that’s about 38 degrees Celsius.) Granted it’s only been three weeks, and the hottest days are yet to come, but that’s still pretty hot.
And it is indeed a dry heat. It turns out that, actually, there’s something to that. Lack of humidity in the air actually lessens the effect of the heat, much like the wind increases the effect of the cold during the winters up north. Further it turns out that Baghdad sits at 33 degrees 31 minutes north latitude, which is very nearly the same as that of Phoenix, Arizona (33 degrees 44 minutes north). And you know what they say about the heat in Phoenix.
I couldn’t see much evidence of anything on the ground below as we flew from Jordan to Iraq, and we had a pretty clear view all the way. Outside of the urban areas, or other locations where water prevails, it’s pretty darn desolate looking, and given the severe climatic conditions, it’s hard to believe anything can survive out there. But of course life exists despite the harshness, and of course this place has been home to civilization for more than 12 millennia, which says a little something about the adaptability of the people, the flora and the fauna of the area.
|It surely looks desolate from the air.|
Raison d’etre? Eh, non…
I am here for work, of course, but I prefer the attitude I first heard from friends in Australia: We work to live, we don’t live to work. But work is important, and so we have to do it, I suppose. And if, for some inexplicable reason, you missed the explanation from a few years back about the work we do in an Embassy, here’s a quick refresher: United States missions overseas can house any number of federal offices, but are dominated by the leading, and oldest, foreign affairs agency in the federal government, the State Department. In a really small mission, State may be the only department/agency present, and in large missions, there may be dozens of alphabet-soup offices, including USAID, FAA, FBI, FDA, DHS, IRS, ATF, federal Marshals, and more. As Embassy Baghdad is the largest US mission in the world, we have just about everyone here, but I only work for State, as you know. So what is it that I do all day, then?
I’m a Foreign Service generalist, which means at any given post, I am able to work in my cone (Public Diplomacy) or any other generalist cone (Management, Economic, Political or Consular), based on the jobs that are available and whether or not I can get hired for a particular job. There is some variation, but these five generally make up the basic structure of an Embassy (Econ Section, POL Section, etc.). My Foreign Service specialist colleagues also tend to fit within that structure, although they usually work in the same field from post to post in jobs like IT or Diplomatic Security.
Here in Baghdad, I work in the section which deals with Public Diplomacy (more about this in the next edition), officially called the Public Affairs Section, which is headed by a longtime veteran of the Foreign Service, the Public Affairs Officer. He has a Deputy, and then the section is divided into two parts, the press or information side (led by the Information Officer) and the culture side (led by the Cultural Affairs Officer). The press side does what you might expect: Promotes our message to the public and deals with traditional and social media, and the IO serves as the Spokesperson for the Ambassador. The culture side manages educational exchanges, guest speakers, a network of small libraries called American Corners around the country, and cultural events like musicians and artists. Across the section are a number of locally employed staff, Iraqis who are really the experts in their respective areas and who are truly the backbone of the section, and the Embassy more generally.
In the past (you may recall), I was a Consular Officer adjudicating visa applications and helping American Citizens. Here I am the Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer, and my particular portfolio covers both education and outreach. On a practical level, this means I work side-by-side with our local staff to arrange and manage educational exchanges (like the Fulbright program, for instance); to oversee the affairs of the seven American Corners around Iraq; to manage the nationwide network of Iraqi alumni of those educational exchanges; and to conduct outreach to Iraqi citizens, educating them about all of it. As you might imagine, this type of work fits my professional background quite nicely.
I’m new here, and I didn’t really take over for another officer (several years ago there were four ACAO positions, but all were cut during a drawdown because of the rise of ISIS back in about 2014), so at the moment I’m just learning the ropes and easing into each portion of the job. For example, among other things right now, I’m in the midst of screening the 170 Fulbright Scholar applications (from more than 400 initially submitted). This can be a bit dull on occasion, but once in a while I’m humbled and shocked out of the routine when an applicant shares a pretty compelling anecdote about their lives or their aspirations.
Here are a few snippets from select applications, usually from the Personal Statement section. Of course they are writing to convince us to approve their applications, so some skepticism is warranted, however knowing what we know about Iraq in the past several decades these ring true. Most of the applicants are the age of Tommy and Sophie (mid-20s or so), so reading them wasn’t emotional at all. Keep in mind English is not their native language; I have not edited anything other than to add context in brackets in a few places:
- “My life is a ship of ambition sailing in the sea of adversity and to my ambition.
- “I am a son of war. I was born in 1981 and the war between Iran and Iraq had just started. I remember how afraid I was on my first day at school.”
- “My father always says to me ‘Because you are a woman you will never be human.’ That is why I want to prove to him that because I am a woman I could be what I want, when I want.”
- “Being forbidden to step out of the house if I had no headscarf covering my hair made me hate the fact that I was female. …. When I was 16 a friend visited me and brought me a gift. As soon as he left, my [illiterate] father told me ‘You must marry one of my relatives immediately or I will kill you.’ ’’ She then closed her essay with: “ ‘A lion is a lion, whether male or female.’ This proverb from my country mean strength has no gender. I have proved to my people that I am a lion.”
- [From an applicant wanting to study prosthetics in the US.] “One day when I was sixteen, I was waked up by crying of my mother. I hurried to know what was happened, she said that her cousin H and her son A exposed to explosion in Baghdad. A died and H unfortunately lost her leg. From here, the suffering of H and her family began to get an artificial limb that is suitable for her extra weight. She went to governmental health institutions but the service was limited and inefficient. She impelled to go to Canada to get perfect care. Fortunately, H had a sufficient amount of money to travel and buy an artificial limb, whereas there is a lot of terror victims that are unable to travel and buy a limb. …. Despite the tragic situation in Iraq, I always believe that we can overpass all challenges by studying, working hard, succeeding and never giving up.”
- “Coming from a poor family, nothing came easy in my life. My mother died when I was 6, my sister had married three months before my mother died, so I was alone with a father, who devoted the rest of his life for the sake of me. My father, out of love and faithfulness, instilled in me the importance of standing on one’s own two feet. He also taught me the value of family and love, as no matter how strong a person is.”
- “Since I was a young boy I have been eager to educate myself. I used to live in a village because my father was Peshmarga and we ran away from Saddam regime. The regimes party opened Arabic school for the villagers not to educate them but to spy on them; I went to school for 2 years in the village I learned nothing because most of the days were off for no reasons. …. Before I finished the second level, we abandoned the village and ran away to live in a mountain in the cave because we heard news, if we stay in the village, they will capture all Pashmarges and kill us all. …. Then in 1988 we ran away to Turkey because we heard that Saddam Hussein’s party will use chemical weapon against people. Meanwhile I started Kurdish school at the beginning again in the camp in the city of Mardin Turkey when I was 11 years old, our teachers lived in a camp too but none of them were qualified enough as a teacher. I reached class 5 in a very difficult condition with not many pencils and papers. Our board was an old tray, that we used to make bread on it, and no chalk as well but luckily in the Camp we found a white rock, we use it instead of chalk. I reached level five then we returned back to Kurdistan. … I never gave up my hopes and dreams.”
- “I finished my undergraduate years during the worst years of civil war in Baghdad/Iraq. Going out and returning home safely was a miracle happening every day. If it was not for my resilience and passion for study, I might have led a different life.”
- “As far as I can see, women in our society face violence and exploitation, most notoriously in the case of the killing, torturing, raping, and burning of Yazidi girls.” [Yazidi’s are indigenous, monotheistic, Kurdish speakers in the region who practice a blend of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism.]
- “For an instance, a month ago during dinner time, [my young son] looked at me with a blame look on his eyes and said, “Dad, why haven’t you told me Western people don’t like Iraqis and want to kill us all?” A question that struck me to the point that I couldn't sleep that night thinking about a solution to change this ideology. It is true that we have recently defeated the terrorists’ militia, ISIS, from our country. However, we are all responsible to defeat the seed of terror characterized by mislead hate and absurd assumptions.”
- “Later, I would like to work in the area of research and development for NASA to achieve my dream by service all humans and to get on Nobel Prize in the Peace in this field if possible.”
- “I came from a small village that is around Diyala city where women were still looked at as a housewives only and nothing else, no education, or job, or any kind of improvement .Many of my friends and the elder girls got married and dropped out of school by the 6th grade or earlier age. In my time the only people I knew who had been to college in my village were my teachers. There were no other role models in terms of academic aspirations or career options, this didn’t braking me from education because my father was different than the others in my village. He understood the value of giving women the opportunity to get education and encouraged me all along to finish my education.”
- “After the war in 2003, the internet was introduced to Iraq, and I used my savings to subscribe to the internet. That opened up a whole new world for me, as I had access to a sea of information.”
- “Having a good education is the best weapon to overcome life in its difficulties and fight conditions and overcome them to achieve my goals and make my family proud of me.”
It simply astonishes me that despite years of open conflict, including nearly four years under the threat and barbarism of ISIS, people continued to go about their lives, attending school and university, doing what they could to live normal, human lives. And of course that’s to say nothing of the risks many of them took (or still take) by working with or fighting alongside those trying to defeat the enemies of humanity.
What an incredible, admirable group of people. Lions indeed.
So it’s no secret any longer that American Embassies have become something like imposing mini-fortresses of late. It wasn’t always this way, but the events of August 1998 changed everything. In a perfect (or not even perfect, just less dangerous) world, the US Embassy in a country would be warm and welcoming to all who wish to visit. But with the simultaneous bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 – twelve Americans – and wounded more than 4000, security for people and facilities became a primary concern. Of course not all Embassies are built like fortresses, since most weren’t in the first place; it usually happens when a new Embassy is constructed, of which there may be a couple every year.
Case in point, the US Embassy here in Baghdad, which opened in 2009. Wow is it big (about 100 acres), covering a plot of land just a hair smaller than Vatican City, which, you know, is a country. But the Embassy in whole is a compound, really like a small city and is pretty self-sufficient, as well, with its own power plant, wells, water treatment facility, and fire station. Due to the security situation in Iraq, the Embassy compound is where all employees live as well as work, and so there are lots of buildings here, including a number of small apartment buildings which resemble late 20th century dormitories on a college campus in the US, and which are reasonably comfortable in all respects. Those of us assigned here for 12 months or more live in these apartments. There is other housing stock on the compound as well, but I haven’t been in them yet, and don’t know what they’re like, but they do have descriptive names like the SuperMax (very large, nearly windowless building resembling, well, a prison) and CHUs, which are Containerized Housing Units (pronounced as if you sneezed or were talking to a child about a train). These other housing options are were our temporary duty staff live, those here for just a few months at a time.
Since we live and work here, the State Department has gone to some lengths to make us as comfortable as possible, which is very helpful when you can’t leave the compound to, you know, grab a coffee or catch a movie. There are couple of fully equipped gyms; two pools (one outdoor and an indoor lap pool); basketball, tennis and sand volleyball courts; a fully equipped mess hall and several small “grab and go” places for food; a bar that goes by both The American Club and Baghdaddy’s and which doubles as the chapel on Saturdays; a US Post Office; a barber and salon; and a couple small shops including a Post Exchange (PX) that is essentially like a CVS or Walgreens.
|The indoor lap pool.|
|Pride Month trivia contest at Baghdaddy's,|
hosted by these two beauties.
As you might imagine, security is kinda important to people here. Enormous lengths are taken to protect those of us who work here, and let me tell you, I for one appreciate it. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that ISIS was a-knock-knock-knockin’ on the front door to Baghdad, a city of about 8.5 million. For those of us in the diplomatic corps, it’s a necessary part of the job to meet with local government or educational officials and important contacts, usually done out in the city or around the country, but that which is normal in other places doesn’t happen here, at least not in the same way. Mostly people come to us, which is in itself a challenge since the Embassy is located in the International Zone (formerly, but still popularly known as the Green Zone) and also has limited, controlled access. We do go out to meet contacts occasionally, and I’ve done so once already when I joined several colleagues as we met with University of Baghdad administrators in advance of a guest speaker coming to Iraq to discuss the water crisis currently threatening the people and country. I hope to have other opportunities to meet people and see some of the country, but I’m not counting on it.
The Flag and Mrs. Hemingway
During that trip “beyond the wire” (off the Embassy compound), while sitting in the back of an armored SUV driving through the city, knee-to-knee with a young Iraqi-American as we awkwardly negotiated the tight space with our Personal Protective Equipment (PPE, helmets and Kevlar vests) and work bags, I heard a touching personal story.
‘Ahmed’ was in charge of this visit to meet with university officials (and in fact is responsible for all of the logistics for the upcoming visit by the American speaker), and he has an interesting back story. As a high school student coming of age in war-torn Iraq, he learned English to such an extent that he was then employed as an interpreter and translator for international forces based in greater Baghdad. While doing this work, he lived at the base with these forces, and commuted back to his school in order to complete his studies. When the time came for exams, he appealed for flexibility from school administrators for he had job responsibilities that would prevent him from testing at the same time as his classmates. The school expressed no sympathy and denied his request, and so he never completed high school here in Iraq.
Several years passed and our young protagonist received a green card and moved to the States. Living in suburban Washington, DC, he was alone in the country and focused on his studies. So focused he was, in fact, that while only just miles from the nation’s capital, he never visited. In fact, he never visited any other states, despite wanting to, that’s how focused he was. At one point, at the ripe old age of 20 or 21 and trying to complete a high school diploma with a bunch of American teens as classmates, he had an English teacher named Mrs. Hemingway (I know, right?), and spent his evenings and weekends studying at the very library where Kate now works. I am certain he had many moments in his young life when he felt absolutely despondent, desperate and just wanted to give up, maybe even return to Iraq, which is completely understandable; many of us with far easier circumstances feel that way on occasion. But during one of those difficult stretches, he was fortunate to come into contact with “the one” that most of us have in our personal history. It was the indomitable Mrs. Hemingway who never gave up on Ahmed, who pushed, cajoled, and ultimately convinced him to stay the course and finish his schooling.
Ahmed graduated high school, joined the US military, completed his bachelor’s degree, and became an American citizen. He now works here in the Embassy, and last year heard about an interesting program offered by the Marine Security Guard Detachment (MSG) for those of us who are serving here: If you buy a US flag and provide it to the MSG, they’ll fly the flag over the Embassy in honor of a family member, colleague or friend, and then return the flag folded in the traditional tri-fold manner including a certificate with all the details. A few months after Ahmed learned of this program, Mrs. Hemingway received her flag and certificate. Ahmed shared with me the heartfelt text message she sent to him after it arrived, and how touched she was that he thought so much of her to do this. It’s clear that Ahmed and Mrs. Hemingway have forged that special bond, and that his life is immeasurably better for having made the effort. I imagine hers is as well.
I have to say that it’s a little difficult to feel particularly strong and intimidating all dressed up in your PPE riding around in your armored vehicle when you start to tear up.
Well, I’ve completed one month here at post, with eleven to go. I try to stay busy and to build a routine around work and life outside of work, and so have started swimming laps and riding on the stationary bike, hoping to lose a couple pounds, get in a shape that is a bit less round. When it’s a bit cooler maybe I’ll run outside if it’s not too dusty, but for now it’s just too darn hot. A friend is coming to post next month and that will hopefully provide for some cribbage winnings, some levity and a bit more social interaction, since most of the people here at the moment are getting ready to leave post, and under those circumstances it can be challenging to make the effort at developing a friendship with the new guy. That’s understandable, and I still have plenty of time to build those relationships that are so common in this life, and am confident that will happen in due time.
Kate continues her adventures around northern Virginia with Riley the Wonder Dog, and is enjoying her work at the Fairfax County Library along with the occasional trip home to Minnesota or to take in an event in the DC area once in a while. Tommy and Jenna just moved down the street to a new apartment building in Baltimore and are busy making preparations for the wedding in just over two months. Sophie is thriving back in The Greatest State in the Union, continuing her writing and working her two jobs with the Minnesota Historical Society, building a life with her roommates and friends in Minneapolis.
All in all, and under these unusual circumstances, life for us is good. We hope you can say the same.