Saturday, August 11, 2018

August Missive from Mesopotamia

A Missive from Mesopotamia

A portion of the Ishtar Gate in the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad signifying one of the entrances to ancient inner city of Babylon.  Built during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II in the 7th century BCE, the original gate is in a museum in Germany.

Welcome to “Fiery August”! / ab al-lehab /  !آب اللهَّـاب
So you might recall it gets hot here.  Approximately 75 days in-country and the daytime high temperature still has yet to dip below 100 F.  And now we’re in August, which – as noted above – is a month considered hot enough that Iraqis have a special name for it.

It’s so hot during the day that my eyeballs can feel the effect.  You know that feeling in winter when you’ve been out in the cold – but not the bitter, deadly cold – having fun in the snow, and you come inside to a nice, toasty warm house and you have that kind of mild burning sensation on your skin as you warm up?  Yeah, that’s how my eyeballs feel.  Every day.

But remember:  It’s a dry heat. 

The Payoff
Recently I shared some rather harrowing, and sometimes poignant, anecdotes from Fulbright scholar applicants.  You both asked about the applicants and whether or not they were accepted, and unfortunately I don’t know.  That was the extent of my role in the Fulbright program here at post, screening applications.  My specific role here is broadly twofold:  I have the public engagement portfolio (supervising the management of six American Corners around Iraq, which are small library-like places housed in public libraries or on university campuses; to engage with our large network of US exchange program alumni of about 7000 people; and to manage our professional speakers program); and I have the cultural heritage portfolio, which involves oversight of grants from the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Heritage, oversight of the $1.2 million grant for the Future of Babylon Project, and engagement with senior government officials and leaders of cultural organizations.

But several questions have arisen as a result of the stories told by the Fulbright applicants, involving the upfront costs and whether or not such programs are worthwhile.  Maybe you don’t need to be convinced of the value of such programs because you understand the intrinsic, non-monetary value of educational and cultural exchanges.  But besides those positive elements, which are real and powerful, the United States definitely receives financial and other benefits from such programs, and such programs actually fit very nicely within the framework of US foreign policy and national security goals.

The idea of exchanges sponsored by the US federal government goes back to the years of WWII when Nelson Rockefeller proposed a program to bring 130 journalists from Latin America to the United States.  Then in 1948, Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Act, which intended to “promote a better understanding of the United States in other countries, and to increase mutual understanding.”  In 1961 Congress passed the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (known as the Fulbright-Hays Act), which established a program “to strengthen the ties which unite us with other nations by demonstrating the educational and cultural interests, developments and achievements of the people of the United States and other nations.”

In the case of most exchange programs State offers, the bulk of the funds are provided by Congress annually as part of the federal budget (other funding and in-kind resources come from foreign countries and NGOs); exchanges themselves are supported and carried out by many public and private organizations in the US and abroad; the 500 or so employees of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) in Washington are responsible for the oversight and administration of the “backroom” of exchange programs; and Public Affairs Sections at US Embassies and Consulates abroad manage the overseas portions of the programs.

Most of these exchanges – and there are dozens of them sponsored by the State Department – are organized and managed by ECA (the bureau where I was working prior to coming to Baghdad).  The entire annual budget appropriated by Congress for ECA was about $630 million dollars in 2017, which indeed is a lot of money.

Some results of that investment over time include:
  • Participants from 110+ countries in all 50 US states annually
  • 565 heads of government around the world have participated in a State-sponsored exchange program of some kind
  • 55,000 participants come to the US (more than 9 million since inception), and 15,000 Americans go abroad, every year
  • 105 alumni are Pulitzer Prize winners and 85 are Nobel Prize winners
  • 64 alumni became representatives to the UN and 31 head international organizations
  • $36 billion was contributed to the US economy by exchange students in 2015-16 alone

When a head of state or the leader of an international organization has spent time living and studying in the US, getting to know the culture and people, traveling around the nation to really get a good sense of who we are, they tend to become pretty good partners for us when they return to their home countries.  And they love to talk about their American experiences, even if decades have passed, for they are formative and often life-changing. 

Here’s one anecdote for your consideration.  Start by thinking of the population of Iraqis most at risk of turning to extremism (young males), and couple that with one young man who shows promise and is willing to take a healthy risk by applying for a State Department sponsored exchange called Between the Lines.  The teen applies and interviews for the program (part of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa) and is accepted, then applies and interviews for the appropriate visa, and is approved.  He flies off to Iowa City to participate in a two-week creative writing program with other young adults (15 – 18 years of age) from the US and all over the world who speak English, but also their native language (Arabic, Russian, Turkish, or Armenian).  He learns, has fun, makes friends, expands his horizons and returns to Iraq within the last month, writing in his final report

            “This would have never happened without your help.  The Embassy
and Consulate were very helpful with me.  They made this dream of
mine come true.  The people I met there were very nice.  We became
friends immediately after our first conversations, they became more than
a family to me.  …. This program made a huge impact on me.  I learned
a lot and improved my writing skills.  It showed me that the key to
everything is FRIENDSHIP and LOVE.  It changed my WAY OF
THINKING.  Between the Lines was a brilliant, first step to achieve a
bigger dream!  I recommend everybody out there to apply to this
wonderful program next year, it will change you in a very good way!”

And so now, for a relatively small investment, we have a young man here in Iraq who has pretty strong positive feelings about the United States, not to mention about himself and his own country and future.  In addition he’s now an alumni of a State program, and we can stay engaged with him as he grows and matures, engaging him in other programs, and have him promote this and other programs we offer to Iraqi citizens, young and old alike.  Perhaps one day he, too, will be a head of state.

And then there’s the benefit in dollars and cents, which is pretty substantial.

I’d say that’s a pretty solid return on investment, wouldn’t you?

The Day to Day
Most days for me are pretty routine.  I head to my office on my seven-minute (walking) commute and arrive around 800 am.  I do all the things a typical cubicle driver might do (attend and participate in meetings, send and answer emails, plan future programs or events, that sort of thing), it just happens to be at a United States Embassy and often involves engaging with Iraqi populations (officials from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, leaders of local NGOs, alumni of US exchange programs, that sort of thing).  We have a small cafeteria in the building where I work, or we can walk across compound to the large full-service cafeteria (creatively called the D-FAC, or Dining FACility) for lunch.  The routine continues until 500 pm or so, and I head back to my apartment to change so I can go swim a few laps or ride the stationary bike.  Dinner at the D-FAC again, a little baseball on Armed Forces Network or perhaps some cribbage (my cribbage partner is here now), and then I’m usually sound asleep by 1030 or 1100.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

I spent some of my free time with this
little project.  :)

Occasionally, however, I’ve had the good fortune to get out “beyond the wire,” off the embassy compound and out into the city.  So far I’ve been out for meetings six or seven times, and in late July was able to get out four times in one week, one of which was a visit to the National Museum of Iraq with my boss where we were scheduled to meet with the Director.  We spent about an hour discussing previous and future areas of cooperation (well, I just sat there as the discussion was entirely in Arabic, but I was essential to the meeting, absolutely essential).  Then we had a private, guided tour of the museum, which was super cool.  It probably helped that in recent years US State Department Cultural Heritage grants paid something like $8 or $9 million dollars to help reconstruct two separate halls within the museum, and further State has spent more than $33 million total toward the training of Iraqi archeologists, preservationists, conservators and museum specialists (among other reconstruction and preservation efforts) throughout the country, and some 3,000+ artifacts have been repatriated to the country, all since 2003.  We are committed to helping Iraq preserve its place in history as the birthplace of the written word, the wheel, and of countless other inventions and innovations. 

Strong Iraqi tea with the Director of
the National Museum of Iraq.

Marble face of a Sumerian woman from about 3000 BCE,
returned to Iraq after being stolen in 2003.

An example of a small clay tablet with the ancient
writing system called cuneiform.

A 'signature' for documents using a carved stone cylinder. 
Small carved masks, the largest of which
is about the size of a golf ball.

Clay tablet of cuneiform explaining
the Pythagorean Theorem.

7-foot tall example of the Code of Hammurabi, carved into black diorite and containing 282 laws, considered one of the first examples of written law.

A small carved face of a woman of substance.

A portion of the Ishtar Gate.

Two of the newly renovated exhibit halls funded in part by US federal government grants.

Last week my good friend/colleague/cribbage partner and I visited a local school for the gifted to see the facility and meet with students.  Another State Department program (the English Access Microscholarship Program) supports the English language education the students receive, mostly in after-school programs.  Normally, you would think a visit to a school might not really be a big thing, but that all changes when REPRESENTATIVES FROM THE EMBASSY are coming.  We might as well have been Ambassadors for all the effort they expended.  We found ourselves in large cafe-gym-a-torium-type facility, large airplane hangar fans and a handful of portable air conditioners trying desperately (and largely failing) to keep the room below 90 degrees, with an audience of about 75 tweens and teens, along with a handful of instructors and parents.  They had organized a whole program for us, which included our having to judge the artwork they had created accompanied by the English they used to describe the work.  And then there was time for us to say a few words and take questions, too. 

It was all very, very nice, and then all of a sudden it got a little uncomfortable, and not just because we were sweating through our clothes.  We were treated to a video compilation of the “Ten most patriotic American songs” on a portable video projector while just the two of us – the honored guests – picked at two enormous pieces of super-sweet sheet cake (each) and enjoyed our Mountain Dew (the kids would get all sugared-up after we left).  Each song was really just a small portion of the song and music video, accompanied by a little explanation.  Finally the video reached the #1 most patriotic song, Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A.  In and of itself, not a big deal (other than thinking to ourselves “Who came up with this list??”), and then the narrator dove into the fact that this song really gained in popularity in 1991 during the Gulf War, and that it further increased in popularity in 2003 with the US invasion of Iraq. 

Um, yeah, that was awkward.  Fortunately, it appeared that no one but us could actually hear the narration, or they were so excited about the forthcoming massive sugar high that they weren’t really listening.  We essentially pretended that nothing was out of the ordinary, thanked them for their “warm reception,” and headed out to our waiting armored, air-conditioned Suburbans for the return across town to the embassy. 

The Archbishop of Baghdad
Prior to my arrival, a good friend who had been here in 2017 did an email introduction to a couple of really nice people here at post.  My very first week here these folks emailed to invite me to a small gathering the next Saturday.  Casual and informal, I very much enjoyed meeting Nazar and Wafa, both of whom are Chaldean Catholics and were born and raised in the region (Wafa here in Iraq, and Naz in Kuwait) but moved to the US decades ago and have returned to work at the embassy as contractors through their company.  In addition to Naz and Wafa, the other invitees included the Catholic Archbishop to Iraq Jean-Benjamin Slieman, the Romanian Ambassador to Iraq Iacob Prada and a couple of his employees, a handful of folks from our embassy, and a host of other super interesting people.  (US Ambassador Douglas Silliman and his wife came one evening for a bit as well, which was the first time I had met them.)

Wonderful spread of traditional dishes
prepared by Naz, Wafa and friends.

That first evening together I quite enjoyed myself while we drank wine and snacked on homemade dishes made by Naz and Wafa, all the while chatting and just generally enjoying one another’s company.  Most every Saturday since they have hosted similar gatherings, with a core group that returns for the good food and good company each week, including me.  Naz and Wafa have been on R&R the last few weeks, but the last gathering before they left was particularly fascinating for me.

The Archbishop hasn’t been back for a while, and this last meeting was more like a dinner, albeit a stand-up-and-walk-around dinner.  But the really interesting part was, as you might imagine, the company.  The Romanian Ambassador was back (he’s a total hoot and loves jokes, when he then lets out a contagious laugh that fills the room), but this one also included the Ambassadors from the Czech Republic (Jan Vyčítal), Serbia (Uroš Balov), and Macedonia (whose name I didn’t get), who also happens to be a Major General in the Macedonian military.  All of them are seriously nice people, very friendly and just regular folks; they just happen to be these really important people, and mostly I feel a bit like a fish out of water in their company.  To illustrate how normal they really are, a rather surreal situation developed as I engaged in a fairly in-depth conversation with the Serbian Ambassador about the characters, plot lines and dialogue of the television series Breaking Bad.  All five seasons.  I can say with absolute certainty that the Ambassador is a serious fan.

I sometimes have a hard time taking myself (and my role in this little drama) seriously when hanging around with the likes of such interesting and colorful characters, especially given that just a couple years ago I was teaching high school students about the three branches of government.

Fortress America, Part Deux
Photography on the embassy compound is severely limited, as you might guess.  It’s restricted at all embassies, but particularly here and under current circumstances of relative instability, as security for all of us is a premium commodity.  However, a couple years after the embassy opened, Reuters photographer Lucas Jackson visited and together with the New York Times produced a small slideshow explaining to readers what the most expensive embassy in the world was really like. 

I could just provide you with the link, but instead I’ll reproduce his photos here (sans his captions) so that you, too, can see a bit of what Embassy Baghdad really looks like:

This is the Chancery, the main building of the embassy compound, which houses the ambassador’s office and the offices of several other sections.

This is taken from in front of the Chancery and shows Annex I across the street, which houses the Public Affairs Section where I work, the Consulate, and other sections as well.

The indoor basketball court.  There is also an outdoor court, a sand volleyball court, a small soccer field, and a large grassy area (across the street from Annex I, above) where ultimate Frisbee and other activities are held.
One of the two gyms.  This one is on the other side of the dividers shown in the photo of the basketball court, above.  The other one is much larger and more extensive.

The atrium inside the Chancery, which is used for ceremonies and generally is the connective tissue between all
the offices housed within.

The entrance to the D-FAC, the mess hall, the chow hall.  They serve several thousand meals every single day, and nationwide the company which has the contract to provide food for Baghdad and the Consulates in Erbil and Basrah recently served its 25 millionth meal.

The D-FAC.  I have never seen the dining hall look this fancy, and the fruit has never been so artfully displayed.  Capacity is about 400-500, and there are several small “grab-and-go” cafeterias around the compound.

SDAs, or Staff Diplomatic Apartments.  There are six like this, and then there are several other on-compound housing options for contractors and TCNs (Third Country Nationals).  I live in one of the SDAs.

T-Walls, which surround many non-hardened buildings here.  About 20-feet tall, they are designed to shield buildings (and people) vulnerable to incoming gunfire (or worse). 

Tennis courts, which double as a small cricket pitch for the TCNs (or those who descend from cricket-loving countries) who play.  Mostly people play at night after it cools down a bit, say below 100 F.

(In the event you'd like to see the original source of the photos of the embassy and compound, navigate your way here: )

Thanks For Playing!
It’s been another eventful couple of months here in the Cradle of Civilization, and as we speak (or whatever), I’m prepping for R&R number one back to the family and TGSITU for the Wedding of the Century in about two weeks.  (Please have plenty of sedatives available.)  Tis the season, I suppose, and I have been fortunate to participate virtually in two family weddings in the last two months, which was very bittersweet since I couldn’t be there in person.

And while all of this is going on, we FS-types are hot in the middle of bidding season, which will officially occur shortly after I return from my trip.  We’ll see what happens, but keep your fingers crossed for us, and we’ll let you know what’s next sometime in October.  Stay tuned!

Fortunately for us, we are all well and healthy.  We hope you can say the same.

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

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