Angry New Yorker

Tuesday, November 25, 2003
A break from NYC's craziness... for another brand of craziness. From my sister working in Iraq right now.

“Baghdad Tales” – An Iraqi Version of Canterbury Tales…
October 27, 2003

Arrived at work today just like any other day; dead tired. Trying to get myself motivated-must be the Ramadan spirit as my coworkers did not seemingly want to work either. The explosion hit about 8:30 in the morning. It was the loudest noise and rumbling I have ever heard. It shook the office and scared the shit out of me – now I know why one of our security officers had said to always wear brown pants just in case. . Of course, when this happened I was on the phone with my mom as I said “oh my God they bombed our office as I ran into the back of the building.” To say that that is not the thing you should ever say to your mother on the phone is an understatement. After I calmed her down and ensured the paramedics were arriving to resuscitated her, I realized it wasn’t our office. Although it was almost ½ km away I would have sworn it was in front of our office. Probably, the second time in my career that I was scared shitless- the other time was during a visit in the West Bank in Nablus, not realizing it was under closure and finding myself face to face with an Israeli tank and soldier holding a rifle aimed at my face.

Some say it is outsiders; those from other countries who are well funded who do not want this litmus test of democracy to be successful as it challenges the regimes next door; leaving their government vulnerable to the sentiment on the street. Of course, discussion around the ICRC bombing abounded. I decided the song by the Clash “ Should I stay or should I go now” was our theme song…. We all cracked up realizing the seriousness of it. Sorry conflict humor… I figured when I lose that it is time to go. Our head security officer from HQ is arriving in the next few days to assess the situation but analysis so far has indicated that NGOs are not being targeted, ICRC was a political statement and there had been many warnings that they would be hit. Large parts of this analysis makes sense but of course the “unknown” is always the greatest risk. However, we also realize that now more than ever humanitarian work is needed and so we continue, taking one day at a time.

November 5th
I finally have caught up with all the work that I have missed while I was gone. I am still hoping that I will be able to get around and visit out in the field more but due to the current events, that seems unlikely. I attempted to get out to the conference center in the “green zone” where the military is located for some meetings. It is surrounded by the former Bath Party HQ a great marble square shape building, the tomb of the unknown soldier, the monument of the Iran/Iraq war – 2 large hands holding two large swords (over 50 feet hight) and the 17th July bridge (important b/c date of revolution when the Baath party came into power). After waiting about 30 minutes in the long que at the checkpoint I do what I know best and walk up to the soldiers to ask if we can cut the line as we our late for a meeting. After much debate and explanation of what CARE and an NGO are, we are permitted to bypass the line to have our vehicle searched and our person. As I spoke with the soldiers again, one said to me “next time ma’am just come up to the line, you speak pretty good English so it shouldn’t be a problem”. Thanks, Private – I’ve been practicing my English while I am here in Baghdad – pretty good English, well, I would hope so, since it's the only language I know. ;-)

Our days revolve around work and our nights revolve around the events of the hotel. I have decided that this should be labeled “Baghdad Tales” as I feel at time I have stumbled upon an Iraqi version of Canterbury Tales. We are all on this weird pilgrimage of some sorts and the characters and events revolve around our hotel – the Cedar. We have Mohammad – a tall blond-haired, blue- eyed Egyptian lawyer from Cairo who sounds more American than I do; the BFGs – the Big Friendly Giants, who are these 4 South African HUGE guys who are with a company that are building the military mess halls and catering the food (the ultimate of outsourcing – the military outsourcing their catering??); me the token American; a whole bunch of Aussies; the AFP journalists from Lebanon and a whole bunch of dodgy Turkish; and a few Kurdish businessmen. We sit on the roof at sunset, watch choppers fly overhead, and hear explosions in the distant -- seeing the puffs of smoke dissipate into the orangish, reddish skyline. As the sun sets the lights, when they are on, twinkle and light up in the distance; at times I almost imagine I am in Florida watching the sunset over the horizon and hotel lights in the distance. My colleagues and friends, Bob and Katherine, have adopted these 2 street dogs and have been feeding them every night. So after dinner we take our scraps and bring them to Elissa, a pregnant tan mutt, and Zengo a black collie mutt. Katherine and I then do our daily walk about to get the blood flowing in the legs. We walk from checkpoint to the gate that surrounds our hotel; basically in a circle like prisoners in the prison court yard. The guards all watch and smile. We have become their nightly entertainment, but am glad as I also know that we are well-guarded. The guards all have interesting stories; one is a Kurdish squatter living next door to the hotel in an abandoned building, while other are former military guys who are not happy about having been displaced but at least I know they can shoot straight, and the former “king of Baghdad in the 60’s” - not sure what that meant as their English is about as good as my Arabic.

The BFGs have been great to us and have hooked us up with T-bone steak one night and Maine 2-lb lobster tails another night – who would imagine eating surf and turf in Baghdad? I am trying to get them to snag me a turkey so I can cook a good ole fashion American thanksgiving with Stove Top stuffing and mashed potatoes. We spent several nights in the hotel restaurant as they now have a nightly entertainer – an Iraqi man playing a keyboard and singing a mix of Arabic and some English melody songs. So we have spent many a night dancing around, hooting and hollering like fools -- “yaa habibi…” -- to the same songs that are played over and over like a broken record.

I have been able to visit the local Catholic church – I went to church last week and it was so interesting; I felt as if I had stepped back into time to 1000 yrs ago and how church must have been in the early days. There was lots of chanting and singing and it sounded enchanting even though I couldn't understand the language. I had to cover my hair to receive communion, luckily I was with my coworker who told me this otherwise I would have been embarrased. Afterwards she took me to their Mary grotto and we lit some candles before the crowd came from the church. It was interesting.

The night before I was to leave to Cairo for some R&R I woke at around 3 a.m. to what sounded like thunder overhead. As I realized that it is not rainy season and it therefore could not be thunder, my mind tried to reason what it was. I realized it sounded like mortar fire really close but more like it is outgoing than incoming so I thought "do I run to the bathroom?" ( my designated safety room) or wait… well in true lazy fashion I rolled over, put the pillow over my head to protect me just in case from flying glass, said a quick prayer and went back to sleep - best sleep I had all night.

I left for the week of Nov 6th – 15th for some meetings in Amman and then 5 days in Cairo. What a great city Cairo. It was so nice to finally be in a normal Arab city- it reminded me of NYC, but Cairo truly is a city that never sleeps. Cars and horns beeping 24hrs a day and people out until all hours. I met up with some friends from Jerusalem and another friend who I met when taking Italian lessons in Italy 3 years ago. It was great to go out like a normal person to late in the evening hanging out in restaurants on the Nile, smoking hubbly bubbly in the market coffee shop, taking a sailing trip down the Nile, pampering myself with a facial and massage, shopping tilll you drop, and of course visiting the pyramids; riding a camel and seeing the remains of the pharaohs and King Tut in the museum. It was great and the weather was perfect.

Since it was Ramadan, the city was decked out in Ramadan lights and dining tables decorate the city streets and market places waiting for “il fitr” or the time for when “break fast” is served. As it is time to break the fast that has been occurring throughout the day, you are invited to eat at these tables free of charge. As we walked thru the market place watching these people in the square eat their food, we were invited to share and given big plates of kibbeh (like falafel, but with meat inside) and cousa (a pasta like dish with cheese and sauce)- uumm umm good! The food was delicious and I laughed as I thought could you imagine ever accepting a plate of food from a complete stranger on a NYC street? What a nice tradition.

My friend who I met in Italy invited me over for Il Fitr one night at his and his wife’s house and then went to a local Cairo coffee shop and hung out with his friends until late in the evening like a local Cairene would do (how they ever get to work the next day is beyond me). Of course, all those stories you hear about the traffic is true and worse. I have never been more scared and convinced we would die than driving in the taxi in Cairo – I shut my eyes 9/10's of the time I was in a car. Although Baghdad is just as bad.

Well back in Baghdad just in time for operation “Iron Hammer” or a name something like that. Most of the evening we have been hearing what sounds like heavy artillery firing in the distance, which we have now found out is 105mm artillery firing from a AAC130 gunship plane somewhere in the Northern end of Baghdad – remember Baghdad is quite large so what occurs in one area, another area may not even be aware of this.

At this point you are probably wondering what the hell am I still doing here. Well I ask myself that as well and realize maybe I’ve gone mad but more likely it’s the fact their watermelon season is from May thru at least Nov and I LOVE watermelon. Actually, I have a sense of responsibility to help those who need help, to get this place to the point it needs to be in order to really be free, to help finish what my country has started. How can you not when you look in the eyes of children such as these. Hope all is well in your part of the world.

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