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Notes from Baghdad


A friend of mine is currently serving in Baghdad and over the last couple of weeks has been sending out some really interesting notes about life in war-torn Iraq. Given that she is also a woman, and has to deal with the unique weirdness that can create in a Muslim nation (and, frankly, in a military setting), I have found a lot of the stuff she writes to be insightful on several fronts. First, she has to deal with the challenges of being very much in the minority. Second, she spends a lot of time examining the challenges on an emotional level. Finally, she really explores the “stranger-in-a-strange-land” aspects of her time in Baghdad.

I’ve asked for her permission to strip the identifying details and share them with others, as I think they’re a really good read. The notes she sends are almost completely non-partisan, and rarely mention the political implications of the war or make an effort to “cheerlead”. They’re just her thoughts on her current situation, and they’re pretty interesting

I’ve posted the full text after the jump, but thought I’d highlight my favorite part of her most recent dispatch.

The unusual becomes commonplace and the completely bizarre becomes completely acceptable.

Even the interaction between people is different. Social norms do not apply. There is an intense need for human connection that drives relationships between people to form quickly and sometimes in unconventional ways. For example, at lunch the other day, I ran into a fellow passenger from my maiden rhino voyage into the IZ. I had not seen him since the morning of our arrival, but he recognized me and asked to join me at the table. Two hours later I found myself able to recite back the intimate details of his life: Where he has lived in the States over the past fifteen years; the names, ages and pursuits of his two sons; the circumstances of his divorce; and the people he most often calls back home.

A few evenings prior, I was dining with a co-worker when an army captain sat next to us, showed us pictures of his grand-daughter‚Äîhis “reason to get home”‚Äî told us all about his wife and children back in Indiana, gave us a full account of the last twenty years of his life, and shared with us his political affiliation and views on the 2008 primaries. He kept commenting on what a pleasure it was to carry on a normal conversation with two-young women.

There is Romanian special operations captain who I occasionally meet for coffee in the evening, simply because he tells me that I am the only person he speaks with outside the office and how he looks forward to it every day. I don’t know what he does here in Baghdad, but I do know all about his beautiful daughter, the reasons for his divorce, the grueling physical and psychological training he endured to obtain his commission, and the songs currently on his I-pod playlist.

It can take years to build relationships in the real world. Here, it may take only hours.

Click through to read more.

To: Michael Turk
Subj: The Zone, The New Normal, and Human Connection (Baghdad Dispatch 3)

Greetings friends,

I am now into my third week in Baghdad. I have adjusted to the heat, my stomach is now immune to the questionable bottled water, and I am finally sleeping through the night, despite the constant hum of air traffic above. As I have learned very quickly, any victory achieved here, however small, should be received with much exaltation. So I am rejoicing the fact that I have somewhat successfully acclimated to the strange new world I now call home, in what I am told is record time.

It has been quiet here these past few weeks. (I am ferociously knocking on my desk as I type this, of course.) Almost uncomfortably quiet. With the confluence of so many threat-inducing events (the Petraeus/Crocker testimony, the commencement of Ramadan, and now the tumult over the latest Blackwater incident), many people expected September to be a rough month. It seems, however, that the Madhi Army is abiding by Al Sadr’s command and is standing down for a period of time. But whether or not the relative quiet is only a temporary reprieve or a latent and hopefully lasting effect of the troop surge, it has put many people at ease and made the IZ a comfortable environment to ease into, if such a thing is possible.

Speaking of the IZ, I have mentioned it only in passing in the last two email updates, so I now owe you all a full account of what life is like in the strangest place that I have ever lived.

The Zone, The New Normal, and Human Connection

The IZ (International Zone) is the roughly three-and-one-half square mile patch of land located in the Karkh beladiyah (or district) of Baghdad. It is nestled in a curve of the Tigris River. (Imagine if you will that the Tigris is an arm bent at a ninety degree angle. The IZ is located inside the elbow.) The Embassy Compound (where I live, work and spend most of my time), is the smaller and more secure area immediately surrounding one of Saddam’s former palaces. The compound houses the palace, the gym, the DFAC (there is an obscene amount of food here, but that says nothing about its quality), the post office, the laundromat, and that’s about it.

The palace itself is an enormous concrete monstrosity that in a brilliant twist of irony is now home to the largest U.S . mission abroad. The interior has some spectacular rooms–one which houses a mural of Iraqi scud missiles shooting into the heavens. (It’s utterly bizarre.) There is a dimly lit rotunda beneath a blue dome off of which the two wings of the palace radiate that is quite impressive. And there are several atriums and gallery-type spaces with palatial ceilings and detailed tile work that are quite a sight to behold. But what Saddam possessed in power, he certainly lacked in taste, because the palace is also filled with some of the most heinous furniture, light fixtures and decorations that I have ever seen. These Saddam-era relics are now mingled with hundreds of computers, cheap plywood desks, file cabinets, and every other manner of office equipment, adding to the oddity of the environment. Yet, in walking any of the long marble halls, one can tell that in its prime, this was once a majestic residence.

Several thousand civilian, military and contract personnel spend their days busily typing away at their desks in the makeshift embassy offices. These personnel sleep and shower in the trailer communities surrounding the palace–communities with names like, “The Palms”, ” Riverside” and “Embassy Estates”–as if we could be fooled into thinking that we live in condos and not trailers. (Yes, I sleep in a trailer and work in a palace–I’m still trying to figure this one out.) Enormous palm trees sprout out of the dusty earth between the trailers, shading plastic lawn chairs and picnic tables where people gather to eat and relax on the evenings that we are not warned to stay indoors. And of course, there is the infamous palace pool‚Äîthe social hub of the compound‚Äîwhere you can not only swim laps and play water sports, but where the embassy social office organizes barbeques and outdoor movies.

In case you think for a moment that you have stumbled into a resort and not a combat zone, there are enough tanks, humvees and up-armored SUVs driving around to shock you back into reality. Equally as sobering are the concrete t-walls that enclose the entire compound itself, and also many of the structures within the IZ. They block the horizon and any view of the city, so that almost everything in sight is either dust or cement. In many ways, this place can feel somewhat like a prison.

Your world is very small if you limit your movement to the Embassy Compound, alone. If you have access to a car, you have the “freedom” to travel around IZ, which is also home to various military installations, the PX, shops where local Iraqi vendors sell their wares, a very shady liquor store, contractor compounds, the embassies of several other nations, several Iraqi ministry buildings and complexes, the Al Rasheed Hotel, and the remnants of Saddam-era Iraqi monuments. Traveling around the IZ is not necessarily easy and not always safe, but it is imperative if you want to work, attend meetings, and not go completely stir-crazy.

Since you can borrow a car and drive around, you can get a speeding ticket in the IZ. You can also play horseshoes or sunbathe by the pool, go rug shopping, take beginner salsa lessons, and even run a 5k with 200 other people zealous enough to go jogging at 6am. Meals are served four times a day, but you can drink coffee any time you like at the 24 hour coffee shop (the Green Bean), which will serve you up any imaginable coffee beverage a la Starbucks. If you need a drink and you are not in the military, you have several options that do not require a trip to the shady liquor store: there is the RSO bar, the OFF-Site bar, the FBI bar, and the British Embassy (which apparently throws a kicking happy hour every Thursday night). I will have a full report on this one next Friday morning.

In the IZ you are in the minority of you are: a woman; not carrying a weapon; wearing a suit or heels; not wearing a uniform; and not covered in dust.

There is constant noise. Helicopters (too often medivacs) and military planes roar above with regularity, and there are periodic distant booms that the seasoned resident will recognize immediately as car bombs or IEDs. But there is also the frequent sound of laughter and on weekends (which are Fridays and Saturdays), the sounds of makeshift garage bands—playing covers of every imaginable song—spilling over the concrete t-walls and filling the hot night air.

This is a place of striking contradictions. But over time, these are the things that become familiar and the things that become “normal”.

You soon fail to notice that the person beside you at dinner has a loaded beretta in their belt. The signs around the compound that say things like, “Alcohol consumption while armed is prohibited”, and “Deadly force authorized. Stay back 100 meters”, and “No sweaty PT gear in the DFAC”, cease to be so amusing.

As a female, you learn to not be uncomfortable because three tables of soldiers stop eating to gaze at you as you wait in the lunch line, or that the team of Iraqis filling sandbags outside your hooch, stop working to stare at you as you pass by in your tank top and shorts on the way to the gym. Counting the steps from your trailer to the nearest “duck and cover bunker” becomes routine. And it no longer seems morbid to display your blood-type on your body armor. In fact, it no longer feels odd to wear body armor.

The unusual becomes commonplace and the completely bizarre becomes completely acceptable.

Even the interaction between people is different. Social norms do not apply. There is an intense need for human connection that drives relationships between people to form quickly and sometimes in unconventional ways. For example, at lunch the other day, I ran into a fellow passenger from my maiden rhino voyage into the IZ. I had not seen him since the morning of our arrival, but he recognized me and asked to join me at the table. Two hours later I found myself able to recite back the intimate details of his life: Where he has lived in the States over the past fifteen years; the names, ages and pursuits of his two sons; the circumstances of his divorce; and the people he most often calls back home.

A few evenings prior, I was dining with a co-worker when an army captain sat next to us, showed us pictures of his grand-daughter‚Äîhis “reason to get home”‚Äî told us all about his wife and children back in Indiana, gave us a full account of the last twenty years of his life, and shared with us his political affiliation and views on the 2008 primaries. He kept commenting on what a pleasure it was to carry on a normal conversation with two-young women.

There is Romanian special operations captain who I occasionally meet for coffee in the evening, simply because he tells me that I am the only person he speaks with outside the office and how he looks forward to it every day. I don’t know what he does here in Baghdad, but I do know all about his beautiful daughter, the reasons for his divorce, the grueling physical and psychological training he endured to obtain his commission, and the songs currently on his I-pod playlist.

It can take years to build relationships in the real world. Here, it may take only hours.

While it seems strange to reveal the intimate details of one’s life in such a short period of time, it also feels necessary in a place like Baghdad. There is a visceral need to feel that you are surrounded by friends because you know that just beyond the t-walls, there are plenty of people who are your enemies.

I have never before lived in a war-zone and I realize that the world I have described is not typical of one. But there is nothing around here that is typical. It’s a new kind of normal that I have never known. Welcome to the IZ.



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Written by Michael Turk