It has been almost six weeks since I moved out to Iraq. It has gone quickly, as everyone told me it would. I’m now in Beirut on my first breather break. I didn’t expect that I would need this break as much as I feel I do now. I need some space to reflect on my first period in Erbil – all the people I have met, information I have absorbed, and the new life I have taken on.
Besides the heat, the first thing that struck me about Erbil were the nice clean streets. The skyscrapers and newness of all the buildings. The nice new cars. This was not the Iraq I had pictured in my mind. Back home it is easy to forget that, despite the conflict, this is a middle income country. The heat really is overwhelming though. Even as I arrived in the middle of the night it was still hovering around 35C. During the day it reaches 45C – and 50C in Baghdad!
The accommodation is beautiful but it feels very much a golden prison. The restrictions on my movement took awhile to get used to (I still do not think that I am quite there yet). Nothing is spontaneous. So I spend nearly all my time within a very small space with the same people. For six weeks at a time. Fortunately my colleagues are great, but the lack of personal space and the inability to really switch off from work is tiring.
If I am honest, I have found the experience much harder than I expected. The combination of starting a new job and being the only member of my team in this location was difficult. Learning the context and how to do your job whilst also having to learn how to operate in a very new and slightly bewildering evnironment was quite overwhelming. At points I’ve felt inadequate; stupid even. And very alone. When I start a new job I need lots of reassurance but when you’re on your own it is hard to get that from colleagues remotely. I’m sure as my confidence builds I will feel much more comfortable. I also need to be easier on myself and accept that I cannot be an expert within a matter of weeks.
I have met some wonderful people in Iraq so far. The NGO community based in Erbil is large and very welcoming. I have not yet met as many Kurds socially as I would like. That is something that I will need to work on. I have been to dinners and parties, and even Chinese karaoke. I have spent a lot of time lounging by the pool at weekends since there is little else to do. Now that I’m slowly starting to understand my job and the context, I would like to spend more time focused on my social life and building a stronger network of people around me so that I do not feel so isolated.
I have been fortunate to travel around the country a little since I arrived. I visited some programmes up in Dohuk, which entailed a seven hour journey through the Kurdistan mountains of northern Iraq. The city is fairly close to the Syrian border and the surrounding area hosts some of the largest numbers of Iraqis displaced by Daesh/ISIS. The temperature dropped quite considerably as we moved out of Erbil. The landscape was starkly beautiful. Row after row of burnt yellow mountains. I am hoping that in time I will have more opportunities to explore the rest of the Kurdistan region, particularly in the spring when the landscape is most vibrant.
I also managed to visit Baghdad – something I will do fairly regularly during my time in Iraq. I was probably most nervous about visiting the capital, in part because of its violent (recent) past and present. The situation in Baghdad is noticeably more tense than in Erbil, where foreigners are able to have much more freedom of movement due to lower levels of insecurity. Arriving into the city from the airport there were many visible differences from the north. The architecture is much closer to the Gulf – low, flat-roofed villas in desert beige. Palm trees lined the roads. The International Zone feels a bit like what I imagine Pyongyang to be; wide open streets with very few cars and even fewer pedestrians, big government buildings, and weirdly spotless in comparison to the “red zone” outside. There is a strong sense of insulation from the real Iraq. Around 40+ violent instances occur every week in Baghdad – car bombs, suicide attacks and the like – but you do not tend to hear it from inside the walls of the International Zone. It is very strange to see still so many remnants of Saddam Hussein’s rule within the city. I am hoping that over the next few months I will have the opportunity to do a cultural tour of the International Zone.
Life in Iraq will take some getting used to. Despite being overwhelmed by my first few weeks, I am excited about so much of what is ahead of me. It will be challenging. But I am looking forward to learn with the experience, and develop both personally and professionally. I have to remember that this is an incredible opportunity that very few people have. I will grow in confidence and make the most of that in time.