04 February 2012

Behind the T-walls: A Regular Day

Over the last few months, I've had people asking me many times what my daily life if like here in Iraq. In this post, I am going to give you a play-by-play of what most of my days here are like.

With the distant sound of the muezzin singing the inspired lyrics of the morning adhan, I begin to stir. When I open my eyes, the first thing I see is the sliver of hazy light drifting through the barely open curtains of my window. Without this little bit of light, I'd never be able to get out of bed. My feet touch down, protected from the cold tile floor by my green wool Persian carpet.
  The 'view' from my room. 

 I walk to the window and open the dark curtains a little more, and I look up, trying to find the sky. My room is the safe room, in the basement of the building we call Hotel One on the Mansour Compound. There is a staircase outside my window, descending into the maintenance office below the Hotel, and as I gaze upward, I see dusty concrete walls topped with razor wire, up a little bit more to the now defunct Intelligence Building that has a huge hole in the middle of it from a bunker-busting bomb courtesy of the US Invasion in 2003, and I lean in a bit more, my face nearly touching dust-covered the blast paper covered glass and continuing my upward glance to find a clear and cloud-free, impossibly blue sky. This is how nearly every day begins for me in Baghdad, Iraq.

I run my hands under the tap, and the water is freezing at first, and boiling a second later. I fail miserably in my half-slumbering state to find the sweet spot on the spigot where the water is warm. Hot-cold-حار-بارد-Hot-Cold, I repeat the words in Arabic to myself, willing them to memory. I walk to my kitchen, kicking myself again for not cleaning my espresso pot and prepping the coffee before I went to bed. I dutifully rinse and dry my precious Bialetti, taking time to smell the grounds of Lavazza Crema e Gusto before putting them into the reservoir, screwing on the top, and putting the pot on the heat. I walk back to make my bed, and dress for work, making sure to listen for the signature gurgling sound of the Bialetti as it percolates my proper Italian brew.

Depending on the day, when I leave my room, either the towels or my laundry go on the dolphin-shaped hooks outside my door. The exterior corridor is usually glistening and wet from the housekeepers spraying everything down, as the Iraqis have done since the Mesopotamian era. Carrying my steaming coffee, I pass through the basketball court and out into the sunshine and haze, passing the subterranean laundry smelling the powerful scent of the already washed clothes and towels. I carry myself to the DFAC (Dining FACility), passing the idling armored vehicles along the way with British, South African, and Iraqi PSDs waiting to whisk expats away to the airport or to meetings across the city. I wish every day that I were one of the people venturing beyond our T-walls. Maybe someday I will be, and I'll be able to post pictures of what Iraq actually looks like.

 "صباح الخير" (Saba7 al7'er)
These are usually my first spoken words of the day, to one of the staff or my colleagues already eating at a table in the DFAC. I will speak these words, and other memorized pleasantries in my bag of rudimentary Iraqi conversation words several more times before I get to work, and even as I eat my meal. I order my eggs. Two whites, scrambled. I'm excited because now I can do it in Arabic. I pile my plate with slices of cucumber, and sometimes olives while I wait for the cook to send out my eggs. 

I sip the dregs of my espresso before leaving on my 3-minute walk to the office. It's usually cold now, but I don't care. I'm convinced that Turkish (or Arabic)-style coffee has absolutely no caffeine in it, and for me it certainly doesn't pack any kind of a punch. I greet more people, trying to pretend that I don't feel self-conscious about the way I can see some people stare at me. I try not to care, though even after 5 months, it still bothers me. 

There's nothing to look at on my way to work. Just t-walls, ash cans, and dust-covered vehicles that haven't moved in months because of the suspension of licenses for foreign-owned security firms. It's one of the reasons that most of us don't really get to go out much anymore. I'm thankful for the handful of times I was able to get out to one of the FOBs, or for a meeting in the IZ. I don't see it happening again for me any time in the future, though I would love to just walk out the front gates and around the corner to the market, to get a fresh juice, or to the bakery for some fresh pastries. With the re-issuance of the State Department warning and "you're on your own" statement we know we're orphans out here. Because we're here on USG contracts, we're pretty much required to have armed security at all times; I suppose it's for the best, but I find it highly annoying since having so much security brings a lot more attention to you than going around low profile.

Our offices look pretty much like any other offices, if you put them into a converted house-- it's a regular Cube-istan here with desks tucked into every room.  Our house used to be beautiful with big windows (now covered with fencing and tarp to prevent a sniper from seeing in) and stained glass.

Sometimes, I like to enjoy a nice cup of strong tea in the garden and listen to the cars pass by on the other side of the impossibly high t-walls.

If you go upstairs in the house, you can make out some of the unfinished Al-Rahman mosque on the other side of the street with green flags featuring the face of the Imam Hussein blowing in the breeze. Construction on the mosque began under Saddam Hussein; it was destined to be the largest mosque in all of Iraq. Unfortunately, construction was halted due to the US invasion and the war, and from what I've heard, no one will dedicate any funds to completing the building. So looks like the mosque will remain unfinished and decaying indefinitely.

When the workday is over, I head to go back to my flat. The sun is starting to set, and the sky is hazy with dust. Once I'm home in my room, I change clothes, and prepare to go back out to play volleyball. I rush to the other side of the compound to play with my some of my friends. They are almost all locals, and my lifeline to a life outside the t-walls encasing our compound, they exist not just here, but also in the real Baghdad, living lives that as an American in Iraq, I will probably never get to see. I hear the muezzin sing the adhan again, and I know I'm late, the sun setting on another day in Iraq, as I run to the court. We play hard on the dusty court, and if it's not too cold, we might even play for 2 hours, shouting and laughing, losing track of the time that passes. It's almost always fun, especially if I can survive without being hit accidentally in the face by the ball, which happens (or nearly happens) more than you might think.

After we finish the five- or six-games, I go back to my flat to shower before dinner. I send up a small hope on my way to the DFAC, in hopes that it's not stir-fry night, in my opinion, the worst night of the food-week.  By now, it's usually 7:45 or so, and my colleagues are probably already there. We will sometimes stay, talking until 8:30 or sometimes a little bit later, followed by the usual questions of, "what are we going to do tonight? Do you have plans?," to which the response is the same over-played joke about all of the things that we will do, if we weren't held prisoner here -- go shopping, to the market, to the movies, walking in the street, hiking, etc and all of the other things that we sacrifice as part of a free life by being here.

The sun has set on another day on Mansur Boulevard, and I'll go back to my flat to study and practice Arabic, or Skype with home, or read. Not the most exciting life, but it's the best one to be made here.