Friday, November 25, 2005

This gave me a laugh...

When I read this morning that protestors were back in Crawford, Texas and had celebrated Thanksgiving with "an Iraqi meal" I had to laugh.

Er, hardly anything in here is "Iraqi". Salmon????? P-L-E-A-S-E! I have seen salmon in exactly one place in the Middle East, which was in a sushi bar in Jordan. Where's the teshreeb? The masgoof? And they seem to have mixed up Middle Eastern food, with Iraqi food when it comes to Tabouleh (Lebanese) and Lentils (mostly eaten in Iraq only in lentil soup during Ramadan). Kind of like someone over in Iraq saying, "we're having an American style dinner, in solidarity with the soldiers that are risking their lives for our freedom, we're having grits and hamburgers." Permit me to risk saying that I think that our soldiers would have some choice jokes to make over that idea of 'solidarity'.

You know, really, what bothers me about this is how anyone can possibly delude themselves that they are somehow making a difference by doing this? Which once again, shows you how much they care to know about the culture that they are so wound up about representing. Do they really think that any family member of an Iraqi that has been killed cares what they are eating?

Here's a quote from the article:

“The idea is that it's an Iraqi-style meal to eat in solidarity with the Iraqi people who are dying there,” said Linda Foley, a protester from Azle. “We're not having the traditional indulgent American dinner.”

OK, now I'm REALLY laughing. Do they have any clue of how large an 'average' Iraqi meal is? (About the same as one of our "indulgent Thanksgiving feasts".) Forget about feasts when guests are there, or during Eid!!!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Giving Thanks...

Today is Thanksgiving here in the US. A celebration based on a story of cooperation between two peoples long ago, natives and occupiers, who together formed a bond of friendship while battling a harsher element (in that case, our cold New England winters).

Of course, I can't help but translate that personally to our story with Iraq. I will be spending the day with my brother-in-law's family, while he is in Iraq. His wife is doing the cooking, along with another friend of hers, whose husband is also in Iraq. They've been friends for a long time, used to run a catering business when they were at Ft.Campbell with the 101st, so there is no need to say that dinner will be fantastic. We'll have seven kids about the house between us, and every time we look at them running around each other with delight, we'll think of their dads missing this, another moment lost along the way in a fight for something bigger than themselves.

And we'll thank God, that they are still alive, that we have loved them, that for all the sacrifice, freedom will taste that much sweeter today.

So, to all the people I love in Iraq, both American and Iraqi, in the spirit of that cooperation and giving of thanks, I leave you with this:

(Iraqi hands I love that cooked and shared with me things I never let go of.)

Happy are never out of our thoughts. And most of all...Thank You.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Book Blogging

I am reading Night Draws Near, by Anthony Shadid, at the moment and will be blogging a review as soon as I am finished.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Iraq The Model

Happy 2 years of blogging! Comments are open there for you, so go let them know how much they are appreciated....

What a difference a year makes...

Note: I'm bumping this post, originally published on the 7th, because it got stuck in the middle of a pile of other posting, and it's one that I would like people to know about, particularly leading up to elections in Iraq.

A year ago I was just weeks past a meeting with some Iraqis. They were from Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad. We were discussing a number of things, but one of them was the upcoming election.

There was a man there from Ramadi that said “what election, you are crazy, it will be just as it always has been, they will tell us what to vote.” An argument ensued, and he looked in shock at people from Baghdad who were frustrated trying to explain to him, “if you go and put your name on the list, I will vote for you, it’s not the same now, you can join a party and you can vote for whom you like!”

I heard then about the corruption that was still rife in these areas, how people couldn’t learn much but rumor, how covering anything less innocuous than a soccer game could get you killed.

Since that time, I’ve seen amazing progress. What we are doing in Iraq is not in vain. And the reasons I believe that are due to what I’ve seen and experienced, so I’d like to share them.

In March, I was in Iraq for the second anniversary of OIF. I was traveling that day, both in and out of the ‘green line’ that separates Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq, with Iraqis. On that day, I saw the American flag raised with the Iraqi and the Kurdish flags. At every checkpoint, out came my US passport, and I got “Americhi” and enthusiastic smiles and thumbs up and “thank you”. The smiles and the eyes say a lot in Iraq. I was not in a convoy. I was not with military. There was no reason for any of these people to fear me, or to think for even a moment that they would need to pretend something they didn’t feel.

When I got back to the hotel I was staying in that evening, I watched in what I am not honestly able to call disbelief, but was dismay as the news broadcast protests against the “war with Iraq”. I had spent the entire day experiencing Iraqis thanking us for what we had done, and yet here was London and Washington with people marching against what I had spent the day collecting smiles for.

In March, riding high off elections, the feeling in Iraq was hopeful. On Radio Sawa, we listened to an Iraqi song that played often that was about national unity, from Dohuk to Basra, (north to south) and naming all Iraqis as brothers and sisters, Kurds, Shia, Sunni. Certainly that has been my experience in Iraq in the past year. I’ve seen far more cooperation between different sects than I have self-segregation.

In July I had the opportunity to go back to Iraq and jumped at the chance. I stayed in an Iraqi friend’s home in Kirkuk. I drove through the country with my Iraqi guides. I saw Iraq, not from inside the green zone, not from inside a tank or a convoy, and not only from the beauty and safety of Kurdistan. This was scorching July heat. And it was not what I expected. It was so much better. Most Iraqis love to talk. And I love to listen. Here are some of the things that I heard that show the changing mindset in Iraq:

“No more Mortal Gods.” (In reference to, of course, Saddam, but the discussion was centered on the pictures of Clerics and Politicians that are abundant in Iraq, that the people discussing felt that it encouraged too much idolatry of one person.)

“Sorry madam, we were only looking to your safety. Good luck to you, and thank you.” (From checkpoint guards as I was leaving the checkpoint with my Iraqi guides, all male. They had made my guides step away from the car and interrogated me separately to be certain I was not being held against my will. In other words, they were ready to take a bomb or be jumped by cornered terrorists in order to uphold their duty, and not to an Iraqi, but an American.)

“Elections will be different next time. In January, elections were very emotional. The Shia, they never held power, and so in some areas they went to the extreme by electing some of the elements that they did (the Basra area in particular we were discussing). Now, many people there are displeased with the way things turned out, and they have said that they wouldn’t vote the same again if they knew how radical some of the clerics would be when given political power on top of their clerical power. As well, many Sunni were provided more education under the old regime, and exposed as thus to Western thought (even as it was not allowed by the regime, to try and keep the mind from searching for more knowledge once it is given is an impossible task), which they share with the Kurds. All of this will change the election next time. People saw how over 100 parties can’t get a good number of seats and have learned to compromise and form alliances within certain frameworks. Because of what we’ve learned in the past year with the transitional government, you will see a different kind of voting this time.” (From Iraqi friends, most interestingly echoed by the people under age 40, in Baghdad, Basra, and Erbil.)

But here we come to the best news about Iraq. In the past few months, we have seen some things happening that when looked at past the surface, show an underlying trend of enormous changes that are can only be read as positive.

The first case involves an Iraqi who got pulled over on a hot day not too long ago by the Iraqi Police. They insisted that his vehicle didn’t meet current standards. They got to the police station and he was prepared to have to pay them, as this was the normal way of doing things. But, not only did they not ask for payment, when he offered it as a fine, they refused it. Not refusing just big corruption, but normal, everyday, accepted practice! Refusing easy money. In Baghdad. The IP. The same organization that three years ago was in charge of terrorizing was now asking politely for paperwork to be completed. Progress?

The next case involves some artists in Basra. Art was restricted to what the authorities allowed or commissioned during Saddam’s reign. Artists are shy in nature, particularly in this culture. Yet these artists broke all traditions to show their work. They wanted to hold a gallery showing to show their work to people in Basra, but they couldn’t yet afford a hall’s rent. So, they decided to have a “sidewalk show”. While this is normal in Europe, in Iraq this is a completely unheard of thing. (In fact many good Iraqi musicians and artists are always showing their talents in Amman when I am there, for just this reason of so many years of being oppressed.) Artists, breaking chains of over 30 years in under three. Progress?

Another case involves a group of people in Diwaniyah, that has taken up animal rights causes. They are creating a reservation for animals threatened with extinction or endangerment in Iraq. Now, people that feel the “luxury” to worry about things such as this, are clearly acting as part of their communities, they are taking personal responsibility for their country in some way, and they are not walking around daily barely surviving. Progress?

The reality in Iraq is this. All but three of the provinces are reasonably safe and controlled for the average Iraqi. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. But the trusty wheel, it just keeps rolling forward. We’ve got more trusty wheels than squeaky ones in Iraq now, but the squeaky ones need to be replaced or maintained so that the entire vehicle can move on.

One of my most treasured memories is from my trip in March. Everyone still had the faintest touch of ink still left on their fingernails from elections, not wanting to see it fade. My Iraqi friends were commenting on how they felt a good deal of gratitude our soldiers for making that day come to fruition, how close they felt to Americans because of it. We entwined our fingers and took a photo. My American hand, entwined with an Iraqi hand, and the stain of ink visible…it was the embodiment of what has been done between these two countries. And continues to be, if only we have patience and resolve. Iraq is full of good news. One only needs know where to look.

Iraq Elections

Over the next few weeks I'll be doing some blogging and hopefully an article or two on the upcoming elections in Iraq. I hope you'll come back to hear what people there are saying, as well as Iraqi expats living here, in the UK, and in Jordan.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Veterans Day

To all veterans and their families...thank you never seems like enough, but in the end it is what we say on this day. Because you allow me a life of liberty, today I remember my duty to you, to regard it with the honor it deserves and do my part to preserve it in whatever way I can. Your sacrifices remind me how very small mine are, and I look to your example for strength when I am weak. Today we should remember that all we are able to become is only because of what you have given up. But for the protectors of freedom, freedom would not exist...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Hotels in Amman Bombed...

This hit me hard. The thought that it was unfolding as I was writing the post below is all the more ironic. But hardest of all for me is that I have stayed in Amman many times and felt safe. In fact, there are more entry/exit stamps in my passport from Amman than any other city in the world. Yes, I've known there are dangers, but they are below the surface for the most part, and if you've spent much time there, as with anywhere, you get a feeling of a comfort with the area. I haven't stayed at any of the particular hotels that were hit in this, but I know where they are, and I've stayed at almost every other 'western hotel' there.

And I'm angrier than ever.

Update: I feel I should write more on this, having been in Amman 7 times in the past year. Before I first went to Amman, I was briefed on security there. Just the basics, but at the time there had been threats to certain western elements between 2000-2004, so I was told to expect to see Intell, but that if followed that it may be hard to tell whether you were being followed by Jordanian Intell or by AQ, that Jordanian Intell was very, very, well trained and nothing to be worried over, but to be aware of, as AQ operatives liked to mimic them. But the most serious threats were to western journalists reported during those years.

More importantly, as you are hearing reported now, Amman is known as the exit and entry to 'civilization' for many westerners coming in and out of Baghdad. When I was there last, after finally getting into the city from a long delayed flight from sandstorms, a few of us got together to have some good food and drinks at a popular spot in the Shmeisani district in Amman, myself, an Embassy worker, and an Aussie that had been working in Iraq. Amman has become a place for people to connect and relax, to savor hot baths and drinks and chatter in the Abdoun district, which holds western pub/clubs, and the largest Starbucks you'd ever want to see, and it was always packed with people.

Possibly more importantly, it has become a safe meeting place for Iraqis and Westerners and the amount of conferences there involving Iraq in some way is astounding. How this will effect all of that remains to be seen, but it feels personal to me, having spent so much time there, there are a lot of emotions tied up in that city for me.

Jordanians, for the most part have been good to me, as you can see.....and I'm so sorry for everyone there.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

How Different this War Is

Just struck me again with this question from my 9 year old, who was drawing pictures for our troops and asked me, "what does the bad guys' flag look like?"

There's no war between countries here, and that in itself says a lot about what we are dealing with...and is awfully hard to explain to a 9 year old kid.

Giving everyone from Iraq a voice...

With only a month and a few days until Iraq's next election, this time for a government that will rule for 4 years, could this happen again? I'll have more reporting on this in the following days. Friends in Iraq tell me it is one of the most under reported parts of the election there, and with over a million voters worldwide outside of Iraq eligible to vote in Iraq's elections, it certainly can make a difference in the outcome there.

Excerpt from the article referenced above, from Iraq elections of January 05:

Organizing polling stations for Iraqis in the U.S.

MARGARET WARNER: This is the largest expatriate, out-of-country voting effort ever. A U.N.-sponsored group based in Switzerland has set up polling sites in 14 countries around the world.

There are just five sites in the United States: in or near Detroit; Chicago; Los Angeles; Nashville; and Washington, DC.

There, under rules set by Iraq's electoral commission Shiites and Sunnis, Christians and Kurds who fled their homeland during Saddam Hussein's regime or earlier, may vote in Iraq's first free election in at least 50 years.

DHANYA AL-GASSID: We've never had the chance or the opportunity to vote back in Iraq so we're a little excited about this. It's new and everyone's doing it; it's awesome.

MARGARET WARNER: Even if they are American citizens -- as most are -- all Iraqis in the U.S. can vote if they can prove they or their father were born in Iraq.

Election officials say there are some 240,000 U.S. Iraqis who are eligible to vote under the rules.

But proving eligibility hasn't always been easy. This man drove from Nebraska to Chicago to register.

OFFICIAL: If you have the documents at home, you can come back with them.

IRAQI: I'm from Nebraska.

MARGARET WARNER: What's more, the rules require two visits -- the first one to register; the second one, during three days over this weekend, to vote.

Kurdish émigré Daoud Ismail took the first step last Saturday. He and four carloads of friends drove six hours to the Washington area site in New Carrollton, Maryland.

DAOUD ISMAIL: We came all the way from Connecticut about 2 o'clock in the morning; we drive all the way down here to register ourself for election of Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet by the time registration closed Tuesday night fewer than 26,000 Iraqis in America had signed up. Just 11 percent of the eligible pool.

That, considering what our troops are fighting for there, is a travesty in my mind. And, from what I could gather for information, was mostly due to a lack of information and a lack of organization. Let's make it a little easier for them this time, shall we? Possibly not using a UN based group in Switzerland to make all of the decisions might help. (Yes, that's heavy sarcasm you hear.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


If you are a US Citizen, think of all those all around the world that don't have a voice, and use yours today.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Valour IT-Give something back to those who give us most.

Reminder, Veteran's Day is Friday. Please consider those that give so much to protect our rights and our liberties.

With Blackfive's post on Project Valour IT as our leader, I'm supporting the Army team!

Providing our injured troops with voice activated laptops is a fantastic way to speed healing. Anyone who has ever lived with a severe injury, disease, or similar medical issue knows how closely the mental state of a patient is tied to the physical. If you can help improve their mental state, they can more easily improve their physical state. And here is a way that you can help do just that!

For all of those waiting for this treatment, and as thanks to all of the troops out there, I donated. You can do so at the link on the right sidebar. If you haven't I hope that you will. Every little bit counts.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Sharing Iraq

I have posted beneath this entry my entire "traveling Iraq" series, which were posts originally published between August and October, but really were meant to be a true series. I wanted to share them because they are a partial chronicle of my time spent there, and the things that I learned, and how Iraq became, to me, a place of hope.

My journey is my own, and I understand too well that the experience of Iraq as a member of the US military isn't anything near in most cases to what I have had. It is one of my greatest joys that I was able to move about the country unhindered by orders, convoys, and other things that would have announced my presence, and thus completely changed the way I was able to view Iraq. Please don't forget to thank and support our troops, it is only by their service and their families' sacrifice that I write at all, and I try never to forget that.

I'll have a followup post on Good News in Iraq on Monday, November 7.

I hope you enjoy; the reading and the photos.

Traveling Iraq: A series

I’m a civilian. Because of that, I get to see places in ways that are different than the military gets to see them. After two trips to Iraq, I am gratified to have had these experiences.

Because I have had the chance to do this, I want to share it with other Americans, so that they understand, really, how Iraq is, at least from the only perspective I can give, which is the one on the ground there. For so many of my fellow countrymen and women they think of “Iraq” as one giant danger zone. That simply isn’t true. Some places are much more dangerous than others. Some places are moderately dangerous, and some are downright safe.

For some unexplainable reason, a major event has happened, either in the world or in the Middle East every time I’ve been there since November of 04. I’ve gotten to witness and experience some things that I’d never dreamed I would.

So, here are some stories and photos from Iraq, I hope you enjoy them.

Spring 2005:

My first flight into Baghdad International Airport. The views are stunning. The planes all do circles coming in, banking hard on the corners, to make any possibility of being a target of anti aircraft fire more difficult. It sounds much more dangerous than it is though, as there hasn’t been a major incident in the airport in years now, insofar as planes being downed by anything other than accident.

I’m about to find out why.

But before I go into that, I need to tell you about Baghdad in spring. It looks like paradise. It did not look like the hell I saw on tv, not at all. There are giant areas of housing of course, it’s a huge city, of about 6 million people. But, many of even the smaller homes keep a “backyard garden”. So there was still plenty of green, and that’s what surprised me, how lush it was, how the groves of palms were almost forests in places, how the Tigris (Dijla there) sparkled in the sun. I don’t mind saying after all the time I waited to go to Iraq, my first views of Baghdad put tears in my eyes. I whipped out a piece of paper and started scribbling down my thoughts and feelings about what I was seeing. I gave it to my Iraqi friend that was accompanying me to read. I got back a grin of pride and understanding.

Back to BIAP, as it is fondly called. The protocol there is constantly changing. As we landed, the tarmac was FULL of armed guards, I doubt anyone has seen a civilian part of an airport more guarded than this one. As we disembarked the plane, we got on a bus that brought us to the main terminal. I had to go get a visa, which is an interesting process in itself. I got my visa, in typical Iraqi style, no rush, no hurry, but with graciousness, and once the man issuing them saw that I was doing Internet work, he immediately perked up. He was so happy to see I was from the US, and he was also so happy I might be able to help him with a computer issue he was having. I took his e mail, he gave me my visa, and we said ma’as salama (goodbye, until later).

Luggage was taken off the plane (though it had been scanned in Amman of course), BIAP isn’t your typical “stopover” airport between flights. Everyone disembarks. Everyone goes through customs. Everyone gets their luggage x rayed, AND hand searched (don’t bring anything that might embarrass you or may be culturally insensitive). After all this is completed, you are led hurriedly through one last round of security (women are separated at all airports in the Middle East for security “wanding” and pat downs), and then finally, back out to the plane. Oh, I wouldn’t want you to miss the chaotic nature of this process, it’s all done with the people flying and yelling, rushing about, getting their visas, their luggage dealt with, their passports stamped, paying their exit fee, while the Iraqis that work there take it all in stride, as Iraqis do, relaxed, no rush at all. When you get back to the tarmac, and think, “phew, now we’re going to re-board”, there’s one last step. You leave all of your carry on luggage in a line, while a guard takes a dog over it to find any hazardous materials, or traces of them, both on your luggage and on your feet. Ours was a shepherd, and she was a beauty, but all business. At this time, a mortar exploded outside the gates of the airport. I have say that I didn’t flinch, really it didn’t even affect me. There’s so much noise already, with blades whirring, and people shouting, that it was just one more noise.

Conclusion, Baghdad International Airport may just be one of the safest airports in the world right now. They are doing a hell of a job keeping it that way.

Now, I was off to Erbil……and here’s what greeted me there.

Traveling Iraq: continued...

We started driving, through Erbil’s downtown (right) and toward the mountains until we came to the hotel. Security was tight here, they check the car with mirrors, everyone gets out, they check luggage and then you are allowed in, after much difficulty with communication, as the guards only know Kurdish, and little Arabic and English. This is something that I would see repeatedly during my time in Kurdistan, though the educated class, particularly those under age 20, know English and quite well, and many know Arabic also. In a few cases, you can find Kurds that know Arabic but feign ignorance of it, simply out of pride and a separatist attitude. A mild cursing will usually cause you to be able to quickly find the truth of anyone's language abilities. Either way, however, I've found when you don't have words, you can usually still get your point across through broken speech in different languages, and hand gesturing as well as simply a look or a smile.

After a few days in Erbil, I went on a road trip, to Shaqlawa. Now, this is a village in the mountains, and also a “resort”. Let’s just say that we found the village at least 3 times, but nobody seemed to know where the resort was...but the drive alone was worth it. The scenery was just amazing.

It was great fun, and on the way back to Erbil, I got to do the driving. I LOVE driving in anything close to a 3rd world country, because the road rules are: make up your own! It was surreal to be driving through Iraq, even if it was Kurdistan...and I loved every second of it.

When we stopped at a stream for a break and here I saw one of a shepherd’s boys and he allowed me to take his picture, and I gave him some coins which he was quite pleased with. We went from there to a restaurant back in Erbil. I had some kind of kabob I believe, but someone else had teshreeb, and for me, one taste and I was hooked. This stuff was amazing. The lamb is falling off the bone, and the bread is soaked in the cooking juices, and it is messy and sooo delicious. Iraqi bread is even better than “nan” (Indian bread), and that’s coming from someone that had an Indian friend whose mother fed me well (thank you Mrs. Vaswani!).

The next day I was driven to the beautiful waterfalls. There are many of them, cascading over rocks, over flowering plants, and they were stunning. There, my initials were carved into a tree. How odd to anyone here, I know, but you must understand that I took this as a huge compliment, as for one to make my mark in Iraq is to say I belong as they do. I will always remember that place, I took in every last detail of it, walking around, looking at the people, the water, the green of springtime, convincing myself that I was truly there. I took lots of pictures, but mostly I just soaked everything in. The beauty was overwhelming.

Oh, I forgot to tell that on the way through the mountains, there are children all over the roadsides selling the spring flowers of the mountains there, these are the ones that you see here, and I can't describe how very much I love this photo. They are called “narcis”. I spent most of the day with my face buried in their heavenly scent. Tomorrow would bring even more surprises, but for this day, I was content, perfectly so.

Traveling Iraq: pt.3

Okay, first I'd like to describe what driving in Iraq is like. Just put yourself back in the 1970's and you've pretty much got it, but without road rules. Shove as many people as possible into a smallish car, and no seat belts, drinks and snacks all around, music (Bee Gees is popular, may as well stay with the 70's theme), and the joke is, while in the car, you feel freer than you do in the US!

Then, when hurtling down mountain roads where you can't see around the bend, pass the car in front of you. And if you are stuck in a traffic jam, just keep creating your own lane until there are no more definitive lanes....never use a map....just ask 15 times for directions, spend an extra hour or two on the road. Be essentially as inefficient as possible, but as ingenious as you must as well. Be prepared to patch a tire, or try a different route, and be patient, as there are people who don't even know what village they live in, forget about the way to the nearest city.

Now we can move on.

The next day we headed for Dohuk. To get there, one would normally go through Mosul, which, for obvious reasons we did NOT want to do. At every checkpoint, we got the oddest looks, Shia and Sunni Arabs, sometimes with Kurds as well, and an American female, was enough to confuse the heck out of anyone! But to me, it really represented the new Iraq. This was still only 8 weeks after elections, and unity was feeling stronger at that time.

I love Dohuk. (The photo to the left are people on the street watching a wedding party process through town.) I'd like to say that I got so many kind responses in Kurdistan. Many times I would end up getting “Americi?” when they saw my passport, and then get “you are most welcome here” or “you are our guest here”, or just a very enthusiastic thumbs up and smiles and waving from the guards at the checkpoints. It was a long drive, almost 5 hours, in part because we were trying to avoid certain spots, in part because we had to keep stopping to ask directions, (at least 20 times, no exaggeration-they don't use maps there) you just ask the Kurdish version of “hey Johnny” or “hi there Johnny”, equivalent to us saying “Hi mister!” as we stopped and asked for directions to Dohuk “NI Mosul!” (meaning not to/near/through Mosul). One person actually said, “God help you if you go to there, don’t do it, or you will not live to tell”. We blew a tire on the road, there were so many cars with plates from Mosul on that road and though I am able to say I felt no fear, some of my guides were feeling a bit anxious over me being there. That's the terrible thing. I can handle causing myself fear, but not being the cause for others. The other thing that was disconcerting was watching the driver every time a rock was sent up from a lorry, and hit the windshield with a crack, he would automatically duck his head as a reflex. That brought home the reality of living in Baghdad for the past years to me. I couldn’t possibly feel as scared as most Iraqis, because I haven’t lived in that climate of fear for that long. But I remember too well the feeling immediately following Sept.11 here. Too many have forgotten it. Yes, we were resolved. But most were always waiting for the next attack, specifically in the first week following. I only wish people could keep that in mind when they are losing patience with Iraq. For them, it is like living in NYC every day as the day after September 11, only the attacks don’t stop, so the fight/flight reflex is always just below the surface. And they've been doing it for decades. And people wonder why it's taking "so long".

Back to Dohuk. The sunset, shown in the photo to the right was beautiful as we drove back into the city after an excursion. The traffic was quite bad, but only going into town, as it was the eve of the Kurdish New Year. Dohuk is friendly, it still feels like a village, there is a certain warmth to the people there, even as it is growing into an obviously ever more prosperous place to live. So, we sat in traffic, but not unhappily, as the weather was nice (not like July, let me tell you those stories you've heard about the heat there in summer are too true!) and there was a great feeling in the air of excitement and at the same time of peacefulness.

Nawrouz, or Kurdish New Year brings something else. This evening before means that everyone burns tires in celebration, the lights in the photo to the left are all from burning tires. It sounds odd, but it really is beautiful at night to see those fires. I wish I could have captured it, but in the mountains to the right of those in the photo, there was even a fire way up at the top. I wondered if the person who did that had a personal oasis in a cave up there...

The next day everyone takes their families on picnics in the mountains, and we were planning to do the same. To prepare for this, we went to a local marketplace (below). You've seen photos of this before if you have visited Michael Yon's site. Next time, I'll take you with me to Sulaf, a beautiful mountain village near Dohuk, where I arguably spent one of the best days of my life.

Traveling Iraq pt. 4-Sulaf

Today is a day like no other. A day I'll remember for the rest of my life. There are some experiences that truly change you. That you know will retain an extra special place in your memory forever. I've had more of these moments in the Middle East in the past year than I have in about the past ten years of my life put together. But this is one of the peaks.

It is the Kurdish New Year. Everyone is on holiday, except for those that must work in the morning for people to prepare for the rest of the day, which are mostly shopkeepers and butchers. For all of Kurdistan is going on a picnic in the mountains today.

We split duties preparing for the trip. The car must be checked and filled with gas. We must have implements for a barbeque. And we must have all the ingredients as well, the main one being a freshly slaughtered lamb. Once all of this is done, we are off into the mountains, driving aimlessly, looking for the perfect spot to picnic.

There are signs of unity everywhere. On radio Sawa, the song that is on is singing "we are one Iraq from Basrah to Dohuk" goes on to sing of Iraqi unity, from north to south, from people to people, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, men and women, are all children of Iraq. I caught this display of two Kurdish flags together. The Kurds are very proud and independent, but still they are part of Iraq, and on this day, it was so nice to see it displayed in many ways.

We drove and drove. We entered the small village that is the resort part of Sulaf. You can see here in this photograph that there are a few places at the foot of the mountains. In the mountains are caves that the Peshmerga trained and camped in back in Saddam's time as the story goes. You can see them as visible large splotches in the mountains. On top of one of these buildings as we drove by were a group of students graduating from Baghdad University. They were dancing on top of the roof of one of the buildings here, celebrating Nawrouz, and they too were singing songs of the new Iraq. The entire day seemed full of a happiness that nothing could possibly shatter.

We finally decided on the spot to have our picnic. It was up behind a farmhouse, on a hill, overlooking the mountains. There was an old Christian church of some sort there. It was peaceful, it was beautiful, it was heaven on earth. I looked out to catch the sun shining in rays on the top of a hill where literally it looked as though the top had been shorn off, and a small city built on the hill. The sun shined on it in a way to make the city look surreal, ethereal even.

Well, this is about a picnic, in the Iraqi style! Out came the lamb, to be chopped and prepared. Iraqis know how to make a bbq. That lamb was the best thing I've ever tasted in my life, with some roasted onions and tomatoes, with Iraqi bread, and the juices running on it. I will have other picnics in Iraq, but this one will be the one that remains with me forever, as do many of our first great experiences in life.

The farmhouse has two children that came out to look at us from a safe distance. The farmer already assented to allow us to come up and picnic in back of his place, so it was just curiousity driving the kids to see what we were up to. I saw two farmdogs out there playing with them. They were wandering about, and, well, I'm an animal lover to put it mildly. And a dog lover even more so. And these were quite obviously bred from some sort of strain of the Great Pyrenees herding dogs. So, I couldn't help myself. I gave a sharp whistle, and the dogs responded instantly. Yes, yes, I know the rules. Don't pet stray animals, especially in places where they are likely to carry all manner of diseases.......but these weren't exactly your run of the mill strays (of which there are plenty in the Middle East, cats and dogs alike). They played with the farmers' kids, and that was good enough for me.

After feeding them the remainder of the lamb bones, I took a walk up the hill to find a lone Kurdish shepherd there. (Click on photo at top of page to enlarge.) He was watching his flock (right), and he assented to saying hello and allowing me to take his photo. As far as I could tell, he had never encountered a foreigner before, especially a female one, and he seemed greatly shy. He was, my companions explained, ashamed that he had broken in on a group picnic. He did give me a quick smile though, and after I took a couple of photos, I left him with his flock in peace.

The drive back was a bit long, and so I took another turn at the wheel. This was one of the most interesting bits of my journeys in Iraq. You see, women in the countryside aren't seen driving, most especially they are not seen driving men about! We had two women in the front of the car, and men in the back. The roads were absolutely jammed with cars returning to Dohuk from picnicing, and as we got closer to where the road turned to the city, authorities were routing traffic around to the right, which we knew would take another 45 minutes, when if you were allowed to go left down the straight path, you would be in Dohuk in 15 minutes. Luckily, Iraq treats her women with some deference. A male is not to be insulting to a female, or he insults every male in her family. All I needed to do was smile and point left, and say "Dohuk, Dohuk" and look a bit befuddled, and the very nice gentleman decided that I would be allowed to cut through the roadblock and signaled to the next man to allow me through, and we all cheered in great relief.

Back in Dohuk, I collapsed on the bed after learning the traditional ways that different sects pray with the prayer rugs that are left in most "hotels" for guests. The rest of my night followed the day with a state of blissfulness that is near impossible to describe, the kind that comes with a grace and sweetness when you are in the hands of another culture, realizing once again that the human heart is basic in its needs the world over.

Photoblogging my way to Sulymania/Pt.1-(Promise to keep)

In July my trip to Iraq landed me in various places. Sandstorms were terrible, and flights from Jordan into Iraq were cancelled day after day. Being stuck in Amman can be maddening, when you are trying to get into Iraq, but I've developed a certain, difficult to explain fondness for Amman. That gets its own post though.

Well finally, I arrived in Iraq. I spent some time first in Kirkuk, which I very much loved. I couldn't exactly walk the streets in the daytime, but I enjoyed being in an Iraqi home, and eating the most delicious food, and connecting my laptop to the phone line for dial-up (which wasn't so bad actually). I got my first taste of Arak, (Iraq's native alcohol) which a US Marine had generously warned me NEVER to drink, said it was like drinking gasoline. (Being a Marine, it's likely he tried to drink it straight.) I, however, enjoyed it-mixed with water, it tastes like anise, or as I said "like drinking black jellybeans"! (It's a bit over 100F in this photo..taken a bit before midnight.)

Before this trip, I had been e mailing back and forth with Michael Yon for some time. We had talked about meeting up to tour Sulymania together, as he hadn't been to that part of the Kurdish region, but he was feeling uneasy about his means to get there. Those of you that read his last post know why. It wasn't meant to be, but I promised to catalog my trip there for him. And while I'm at it, blogging will be heavy this week with the Constitutional referendum upcoming, but remember one of the reasons that it will be able to be held, is because of the bravery of many, many people. Yon has brought us the stories of Americans and Iraqis, and for that many of us are thankful. Please go hit his tip jar so he can keep reporting. Also, while I will be blogging more, I'll continue to tell you to go see the IRAQI bloggers for the best news. That's your first hand guide. The rest of us are second to the people on the ground. If the blogosphere has taught us anything in the past two years, that's surely been one of the major lessons.

We had a fantastic 1 am family meal that was delicious! We had curried lamb, and an amazing dish that is now tied with teshreeb and syrian cuzi as my favorite fare, that is a handmade thin and crispy pastry crust filled with pilau (rice-with all the spices that make it taste amazing) and wonderful balls of lamb that are like treasures among the rice and raisins (these aren't your normal raisins!) plus the traditional Iraqi bbq....this time chicken.

Heat in Iraq in July is so intense that your body temperature rises as you eat, your body is trying to cool itself and metabolize food at the same time, and this causes you to feel as though you are overheating in the most terrible way! This is part of the reason that these two meals were so wonderful, as the electricity was up and working for the 4 pm meal, so we had air conditioning, and the 1 am meal was eaten outside, on the patio. And for dessert, and any time in between, pastry rolled with iraqi dates words for that!

I was able to go out into Kirkuk at night, and the place was hopping! 10 pm, I'm needing water and ibuprofen and there are still people all over the place. Hit a road block where police were breaking up some large fight. Though I'd have loved to take photos, that's another liability in Iraq. You can't afford to take photos of things that are violent in nature, as you may be suspected as a terrorist, or supporter (unless you are embedded-like Yon is), and I also try to keep a low profile to protect my Iraqi guides, who put their lives on the line just by being with me.

In Iraq, especially in summer, the hours kept are very different from ours. Usual waking time is 10am, then breakfast at 11-12. A large supper at 4-5 pm, and dinner at 12-1 am. Sleep is anywhere between 2-4 am until 10 am again. Everyone sleeps in a large room, (like this one) or on rooftops. The largest room is usually equipped with an air conditioner and an air cooler, and is closed off to keep it cool (relatively speaking of course...85F feels very cool after constant temps over 100F). This helps to make things bearable. Electricity went off for a few hours at a time, a few times a night, to save when it is needed least, so you'd sleep in cool, wake hot, and then hear the electricity kick back in again and back to sleep.

The first day from Kirkuk, we drove off to Sulymania. I was excited, it was the one part of Kurdistan I hadn't yet seen. So here is the trip from Kirkuk to Suly.

Coming out of Kirkuk, you can see the old castle on your right up on the hillside.

Tents on the roadside from a refugee group of displaced Kurds waiting to get back into Kirkuk.

Dust devils, you can see one on the left, faint, saw more than one, but they were elusive to capture on the digital.

Goats running down the road, a common site here. The sign reads on the first line:
"End of tahweela" (tahweela =temporary change in road path due to construction)
The second line says "to Sulymaniya" in both Arabic and Kurdish.

Now we start coming into that's part 2.

Photoblogging to Sulymania/Pt.2

Now I'm getting closer and closer to Sulymania and the change begins to become obvious in the scenery. (Clicking on the photos will give you a fuller view if you wish.)

The thing that you feel the most here is that it is a city of the people. I don't know how else to explain that, but in Suly, there are not so many "iconic" images of political and religious figures. They have their place, sure, but it's not on the side of every building. There is an amazing amount of construction, the signs of a growing economy. The landscaping is pretty coming in towards the city part of the region, with these murals on the walls, and greenery.

The marketplace is incredibly busy, traffic is jammed. In fact, it reminds me a bit of what I imagine early Amman might have looked like (those electrical wires though, they are everywhere in Iraq and you feel like the entire place may catch on fire from an electrical issue at any time!). I am in a part of Iraq where I feel safe to walk in a marketplace, where the modern blends with the traditional.

There are people in western clothes, people in traditional Kurdish dress, where a woman entwines grape leaves on the sidewalk, while hundreds walk by on their mobile phones. This is a place where you can see all kinds of people living harmoniously. And it makes you feel optimism, it makes you feel the possibilities for this country.

Look at the dress for example of the people in the photo below. There is one man in the background that is dressed in Kurdish dress. The rest are all dressed in a more westernized style.

The more I am in Iraq, the more I see this, granted it is more prevalent in the cities, Baghdad and north, but there is a mix of women in headscarves and women in tight jeans and tops, and women in classy clothing that we here call in our working environments "dress casual". It's more noticeable in the women honestly. The men, well pretty much any male under 30 is in jeans of some sort. Then there is a mix between "professional" dress and casual and traditional in some areas regarding the men over 30. It really depends mostly on where you are, and what you are doing.

As I walked through the marketplace, I enjoyed gazing at all of the shops. There was everything you can imagine there, just as in any large marketplace in the world. But more, really, I was enjoying gazing at the people. I was enjoying that I was in a marketplace, in Iraq, that the heat was stifling and I didn't care, that I was experiencing something that most people just get to dream about. One of the most enjoyable things to watch is Iraqis haggling. I've gotten so used to it now, that I am horrified if we don't walk away from a place at least once before coming back to barter more. It's really a game in which there are many factors. People are trying to sense each others' weaknesses. Also, the amount that the businessman will make deals with you depends on great degree how his business is. Can he afford to let you walk out thinking you may not come back? Have you let him know how very much you desire that item? It's a game of bluffing, played all over the world, in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, that is foreign to most Americans.

It started getting late, and it was time to head back to Kirkuk for the night. I had taken this photo of some boys playing soccer in the street when first getting into Suly, and I thought of it now as the sun started to set.

For me, the day was waning....

But for these kids, their future is at it's dawn. And in Sulymania, it's looking bright indeed.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Valour IT-ARMY!

With Blackfive's post on Project Valour IT up, I am getting to choose a winning side no matter which I choose!

Providing our injured troops with voice activated laptops is a fantastic way to speed healing. Anyone who has ever lived with a severe injury, disease, or similar medical issue knows how closely the mental state of a patient is tied to the physical. If you can help improve their mental state, they can more easily improve their physical state. And here is a way that you can help do just that!

Still it was a hard choice for me which branch to support... Working with the Marines a lot made me a Marines supporter for life. And then there are three Navy members in the family. But I've got to go with my family history, and with my current family members serving. All ARMY. My grandfather was an Army WW2 vet, (and I have the original German pistol he got there so as not to forget), my Uncle and my Father both served in the Army-(my dad in reserves), and I have two brothers in law in the Army (one in Iraq-(below), and one in DC). So for all of them, and all of the troops out there, I'm donating. I hope you will too.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Iraq still needs. And America grows weary.

I was explaining this to a few people of late, both Iraqis and Americans. One was an Iraqi that thought there might be some support for programs that are essentially “private microfinance”, in other words, people here buying products made there in order to help the economy and also get a good product back for their input. I had to tell him that the audience here is much more limited for supporting that kind of thing than it was even one year ago.

One was an American gentleman that is in the beginning stages of a non-profit startup. When I explained to him the problem, he said, “Wow, that’s just what I heard from the lady that runs another non- profit that supplies soldiers with things from energy bars to toothpaste. And she’s got two sons in Iraq, and it’s depressing her that people and companies no longer want to give the way they did in the past.” “How did you know that?” How? I’m an American, and I’m in touch with the military community, Iraqis, non-profit world, and the blogosphere in one way or another daily.

What I told him was this. It’s harder than ever to get funding for projects in Iraq now. Here’s why:

-We are more of an impatient, short term, instant gratification society than we used to be.

-Americans are looking at almost three years of being in Iraq and all that most of them see is “nothing has really changed much” (they are looking only at levels of violence-there's a reason for that, but that's another post). Meanwhile, they are still having taxes going to be used in Iraq (and that money does NOT just fuel the military, it fuels all kinds of civil programs there which are designed to get Iraqis working and learning, which is very important, but undervalued in the press).

-Many Americans have given, more than once, during the first two years of OIF and are “done” with it mentally. The thought goes, “I gave to that charity, and that one, and I’m still giving through taxes to Iraq.”

-Natural disasters. The tsunami happened. Katrina happened. The earthquake happened. When these disasters occur, all funds are immediately frozen and re-allocated within the government. Things like shipping over items for Universities in Iraq, which was a program that the State Dept was part of, get all of their funds for that frozen and stripped to help alleviate whatever is determined to be the highest priority need of the moment. Plus, people themselves give to these worthy causes as well, and that means that there’s only a limited supply of cash to go around from the everyday people that make up a lot of the support base for non-profits and disaster relief agencies.

All of this means to me that the needed people are not making a good case for Iraq, for why we are there, or what our soldiers are doing, or how we envision it could be, based on real examples of change, if we are patient. Note to people in DC: Yes, yes, the enemy is strong and determined but we are more so…blah, blah, blah. This is AMERICA, people want to hear something NEW. Even if it isn’t new because it just hasn't gotten play, make it sound new! For crying out loud, marketing isn't that different from politics, and in fact plays a hefty role in it, like it or not. Reality is, the blogosphere is still limited, though its potential is not. I personally know more people that still watch the MSM for their news, and I know a heck of a lot of bloggers, so that tells me something. Corporations often don’t give where Iraq is concerned, even in support of our troops, because they are afraid of being politically labeled.

Our military deserves better from her people. We ought to ask ourselves what is truly at stake here? And pick a side. And then support it, and know that it will be like having a child. It may need to be supported for years. But at the end, you get the joy of watching them fly away to self-fulfillment and a life of their own, learning personal responsibility and the joy that can come with that.

And isn’t that what we all want to leave behind from our time on this earth? Something more than just us, than our careers, our money, our material goods? Something that reaches into history. Something that long after we have died, leaves even one person’s life better. Something that makes a difference.

You can still make one. And you are still needed in this. More now than ever.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Calling attention to our differences...

I’ve always held that it does no good to measure people by their ethnic, racial, gender, or religious lines. Understanding how those things may have an effect on a person can be helpful. Measuring the person by it, that’s just plain ignorant.

The more attention you call to your differences, the more you isolate yourself, and bring about your own victimization. I’ve had a reader here that has e mailed me about “women’s rights”. I’m not the spokesperson for this, as anyone who knows me can tell you. I’ve long worked from a young age in male dominated fields of work if you were to speak statistically. Why are some women successful in these areas, while others feel “held back”? 9/10 of it is your personality. I’m lucky that I’ve gotten to experience what I have in the past year and a half. But I’ve worked for it, and I’ve never, ever felt like being a female holds me back from what I want to do. I might hold myself back, but that has everything to do with me as a person, not me as a female.

This I mostly attribute to my father and grandfather, who when I was 4 years of age, and wanted to learn how to cross country ski so that I could follow them into the woods, not only taught me, but encouraged me. Then, in years following, as I went with them on long treks I would get the warning first. “You can come, but you have to keep up, and there is to be no complaining.” I hiked my first mountain at age 2 (Mt. Monadnock). I insisted on walking up by myself and promptly fell so dead asleep at the top that my grandfather made a litter to carry me down in, as they couldn’t wake me. I always was a bit stubborn. And I was never ever told, “girls don’t’ do that.” Therefore, I didn’t look at myself as a girl first. I looked at myself as a capable human being. And personal responsibility was a matter of pride in an old New England Yankee family.

I like to share my experiences in Iraq, not because I think I’m some great person for having been there, I think I’m damned lucky, but because I want other Americans to know what I’ve seen there. However, the real credit goes to the people that are in there defending my rights that allow me to have become who I am, and do the things I do. That’s our military, and their immediate families, who often get the short end of the stick when talking about sacrifice. Everyone knows it is harder to risk the life of one you truly deeply love for something than it is to risk your own life. Every parent that would give themselves in a second for their child, every husband or wife that would take a bullet rather than see their beloved in pain knows what I’m talking about.

Anyhow, the point is that I have heard many times “it’s so violent over there, and you are a woman!” Er, thanks, I was unaware of that. You know, actually, being a female probably carries much more advantage in a country like Iraq than being a male does. Not that I ever thought of that until I started this conversation, but looking on it now, I can see where many things were easier for me than they would be for a male, particularly in the culture there.

I’m a woman. But I am Kerry first. And with Kerry lies all of the responsibility for decisions made, the successes and the failure, the setbacks and the disappointments and the things got right. Not one of those things will I ever blame on being female.

Do you think Rosa Parks looked at herself first as a black woman? Or maybe first as a human being that was taking personal responsibility for her rights. She knew it was because of the color of her skin, sure. And I know that there are some things that I’m denied because of my gender. But I don’t wail about it. I just keep moving towards the goal. All kinds of roadblocks get in our way in life. We don’t need to create any extras.

A longtime annoyance......

About the war in Iraq; it was a war with Iraqi government until the regime was overthrown. It is not since, “a war with Iraq”, unless you like to say it is a war with Iraq because we are fighting together. It is a war against terrorists. The war IN Iraq, fine. I’ve got a brother in law serving in that war, and a war it is, but let us be clear on who the common enemy is.

My brother in law, an Army Major currently in Ramadi sent me a photo yesterday of himself and the other 9 Army MI guys that are currently training one of the Iraqi Divisions. In the photo, there are ten US soldiers, and the four Iraqi soldiers that work hand in hand with them in the training of the Divisions and they are standing under a sign that has all of their names on it, with both the US and Iraqi flags hanging from it. And below that the sign says “terrorists suck!”.

I’ve got Iraqis and Americans I care about in the middle of this war.

It’s called the War on Terror. Now please, can we dispense with the “no war against Iraq” bumper stickers?