Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mikes Notes: The NEC Social Scene

July 4, 2009 - At this point, I am getting very, very short.  The summer transition season has started, and new people have begun to arrive.  Some friends and colleagues with whom I've worked for almost the duration of this assignment have left or are preparing to leave.  In reviewing what Anne had written, I realized that, while certain fundamental changes have occurred, her observations about the overall environment here and the pressures under which we work still remain quite valid.  As one of my preparations for departure, I want to renew my focus on setting down my observations and advice for those following me.  I find it very interesting to hear the impressions of my new colleagues to the Embassy, Baghdad, and Iraq, and what they hope to take away from their generally one year here.

 

I have some additional topics definitely in mind, and, if I don't get to them here, I hope that I will have the time, energy, and dedication to send my last notes to Anne from my next assignment.  Anne's observations and mine will gradually become obsolete as people change and the Embassy's relationship to the Iraqi government changes, but I think this website will always remain a good starting point to assess the implications of taking a job here.  I'm also happy to see that Aaron Snipe, my colleague at PRT Muthanna, has a blog with his perspective on life as a Foreign Service Officer in Iraq, "Wingtips on the Ground"  (www.wingtipsontheground.com).  Aaron is a fine writer, and he does a terrific job of documenting the joys and frustrations of working at a Provincial Reconstruction Team.  Having been to Tallil Air Base and experiencing firsthand the conditions that he has to cope with, my hat is off to Aaron for his sacrifice and contribution.

 

During the orientation course in Washington in preparation for this assignment, a mental health practitioner used a set of rhyming words to describe what effect Iraq service might have - that we could emerge as "a drunk, a chunk, a hunk, or a monk."  The pressures here might cause us to drink too much, the easy availability of DFAC food might cause us to eat too much, we might handle stress by constantly working out in the gym, or we might react by devoting ourselves excessively to work and retreating into ourselves.  I certainly have the "monk" tendency, since I tend to be an introvert who recharges his batteries by spending time alone.  The fact that I'm writing this at 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday night of a three-day weekend might seem to be an indicator of my monkish tendencies.  While it is certainly true that I often spend weekend evenings in my room, what this fact overlooks is that I was up until 3:00 in the morning the previous night, after going to the Triple Canopy security company's Fourth of July celebration and getting several nightcaps afterwards at the American Club.  I feel the need to dry out and recuperate, although I might still get to the Marine House later this evening.  As I think Anne can attest from our time together in the Foreign Service Officer A-100 orientation training, I do appreciate a good party.

 

In a very early note shortly after my arrival, I commented that life here seemed to combine aspects of camp and dorm life.  The subsequent months have given me no reason to change that first impression, and indeed have reinforced the similarity to being in a frat or sorority.  With the exception of the rare couple where both husband and wife have work here, all of us are either single or "geographic" singles.  Other than work, we have few recreational outlets; we generally cannot go out on the town for dinner or to a concert and have no family concerns to absorb our time.  Although Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) sponsors various activities such Texas hold 'em poker nights, salsa dance or aerobics classes, the main outlet seems to be partying, of various intensities.  The social events can range from decorous dinners in one of the DFAC's side rooms to the packed events at the Danish or Italian Embassies (more on that later).  Copious amounts of alcohol tend to be consumed at the various events.  At one point, Anne made a comment regarding a common Facebook friend's frequent photos of parties and dinners, and the food at them, and that he seemed to be socializing in Baghdad much more than she was in Washington. 

 

The frequent comings and goings of people on one-year assignments provide a reason to have frequent parties to farewell and welcome them.  This weekend, for example, in addition to the Fourth of July festivities (including the Embassy's own), Sunday evening will be the Ambassador's reception to farewell and welcome the high-level diplomats who handle economic and assistance issues, as well as two other informal get-togethers hosted by departing colleagues who are trying to finish up their supplies of wine, beer, and booze.  I've been invited to other farewell events over subsequent evenings, including drinks at my boss' apartment for a departing economic officer, separated by a couples wedding anniversary celebration.  If I get to every event, I will have been at a party four nights in a row.  While I also often spend weekend evenings in my bedroom watching a DVD, my evenings are likely to be filled quite frequently now until my departure.

 

During another memorable period in February, I went to a UK Embassy charity event on Saturday, Prime Minister Maliki's dinner for international provincial election observers on Sunday, an informal get-together at a picnic table with colleagues on Monday, and farewell party for a good friend at the American Club on Tuesday.  By Wednesday, I was happy to spend a relatively quieter (and dry) evening watching a movie offered by the Embassy Cinema Society ("Jar City," an Icelandic detective movie) with diplomatic colleagues from the British Embassy.

 

At the Palace, we could have drinks at the "OFF-Site," so named because it was located in the same building where the UN Oil-for-Food, OFF, documents were stored.  The OFF-site was manned by Embassy volunteers, and there was another establishment, to which I was never invited, called the "Lock and Load."  Because of General Order Number One, which, among other provisions, forbids soldiers under Multinational Force Iraq (MNF-I) command from drinking alcohol, the Post Exchange (PX) store by the Palace did not sell alcohol.  We had to make the trek to the Green Zone's liquor store, nicknamed the "Pharmacy," to obtain any liquor.  Once we moved to the New Embassy Compound (NEC), however, to our great joy, the NEC PX sold all manner of hard liquor as well as beer and wine.  The American Club, also called "Baghdaddies," is also located just across the street from the apartments and is open on Thursdays and Fridays (our weekend nights, since Sunday is a work day).  (Although I preferred another choice, Duck-and-Cover, the name Baghdaddies was chosen by a vote of the Embassy community.  Most people seem to prefer to refer to the bar simply as "the American Club.")

 

Other drinking establishments do exist in the Green Zone, although no commercial ones, which I gradually located, thanks partly to the fact that my job requires that I interact with diplomats from other embassies.  There is a bar on the UN compound, and the UK Embassy also has a bar that is open most days of the week.  The UK Embassy is also quite active in hosting social events, such as the "Help the Heroes" charity auction that I referred to and the St. Andrew's Day Ball, a black tie formal event that really spirited me and other attendees away from Iraq.  The ladies in attendance were decked out in their finest, and several of the British diplomats were dressed in kilts.  On this and one other occasion, I was able to pretend that I wasn't in Iraq.

 

Two smaller embassies, the Italian and Danish, seem to specialize in throwing parties.  The Italians have a monthly pizza party to which invitations are highly prized, and the Danish security detail also throws parties for which they try to carefully control the male-female ratio.  I managed to get invitations to both, but quickly decided that I was way too old for the single bar scene atmosphere at both events.  The pizza at the Italian Embassy, not unexpectedly, was quite good.  I'm also under the impression that the security companies located in the Green Zone have a parallel party scene to which relatively few Embassy people are invited.  Finally, the Marine House here holds infrequent open houses usually on Friday nights (which, remember, are like Saturday nights elsewhere).

 

In addition to the wilder parties, more decorous events also take place on the NEC.  We all have kitchens in our apartments, so there are some people who like to cook and entertain.  I mentioned the incredible dinner that I attended in another entry, which would have been memorable even in Washington, DC, but was completely out of this world in Baghdad.  A woman who was originally from Taiwan was also an excellent cook, and developed ingenious ways to obtain the ingredients for various dishes, methods which she would not reveal to others, probably because she broke several Embassy regulations in doing so.  A group of compatible single women here have initiated a "ladies night out," during which they take turns hosting each other.  I am quite happy to be invited to a colleague's apartment on Friday to try his Arabic cooking.  I definitely try very hard to become friends with anyone who says they throw dinner parties.  I've also tried my hand at cooking, bringing sushi into the office and "spam musubi," a favorite dish in Hawaii, to a party.

 

I realize this description of NEC and Green Zone parties creates a very skewed picture of life here.  The fact is that we have few distractions other than work and socializing.  We don't have to take our cars to have the oil changed or to wash them, we don't have to do weekly grocery shopping, or attend PTA meetings; we are either working, very often for ten or twelve hours per day and often on our nominal weekends, or we can party.  We work many hours with people and, to be honest, I often prefer to be by myself, rather than to socialize with the same people.  In the end, however, we have to seek some distraction, and other people's company helps us to forget where we are and the limitations that we have on our freedom and our peculiarly restricted lifestyle, which, despite the partying, is rather monastic.