Wednesday 24 October 2012

Not about the toothpaste

The whatever-it-was bug passed in the night, and I woke this morning feeling fine. By the time we reached Baghdad I was as ravenous as hungry Basim (see yesterday)—which was just as well, because we were treated to one of the most sumptuous breakfasts I have ever had.

Today we were a two-car entourage—Drs Ahmed and Hisham with me and Mrs Hisham; Dr Hanna and her husband with the tiny but dynamic Dr Fatma from Diyala University plus Michel Jambo from the French organisation CIMPA-ICPAM which supports mathematical research in the developing world. A particular patron of Drs Hanna and Fatma, he arrived a few days after me, thus doubling the international contingent of the international conference, and is now staying on for a few days in Baghdad.

For reasons I couldn't fathom he's being put up at the guest house of the University of Baghdad's College of Physical Education, and so we found ourselves treated to a slap-up mid-morning feast courtesy of Professor Reyadh Khammas, Dean of Sports, in a natty white Nike tracksuit. He coaches and plays for the national volleyball team and met us freshly-showered after a training session. I can't tell you how incongruous—and welcome—a sight he was here, where no-one exercises, girth correlates closely to age and only the poorest people walk or bike anywhere.

Breakfast here is ususally flat bread, Dairy Lea-style cheese triangles, hardboiled eggs, thick dipping cream, and slices of cucumber, tomato and olives that no-one eats. Then there is tea so strong that it would strip the enamel from your teeth if the half-ton of sugar in it hadn't got there first. This morning was all that, plus apricots in honey and what I can only describe as baklava pancakes—layers of soft yet slightly flaky pastry soaked in sugar syrup—and cardomom flavoured Turkish coffee. Here you can see Dr Fatma to the right of the Dean presiding in his boardroom. (I'll post the photo later; I'm writing this from the airport and my camera cable's in my suitcase.)

Lamia texted to say that she'd been stuck in traffic for two hours trying to get to the Museum, so we called that appointment off and went straight to the Green Zone for my meeting at the Embassy. Security all round Baghdad is heavy, with ubiqitous tanks, concrete blast barriers (henceforth CBBs) and stop-and-search. (Now I see another reason why young men wear skin-tight clothes: it's a clear signal that they can't possibly be carrying a concealed weapon under a spray-on T-shirt.) Green Zone security is a several steps up again. The nice driver from the Prime Minister's office who collected me from the airport on Friday with Ahmed was there for us again, as you can't enter with the right clearance. Then there were more ID checks and sniffer-dog searches. Even within the GZ tanks are everywhere and all the compounds are surrounded by razor-wire, CBBs and security cameras. As you might guess, it's better not to take photographs, so I didn't. But I'm sure you've seen the news footage. It's completely different in look and feel to the rest of Baghdad.

The Gurkas at the Embassy took a long time to check my identity, but kindly allowed Ahmed, Hisham and Mrs H to wait inside the compound while I had a brief but super-efficient and friendly meeting with Jim Scarth, the new Director of British Council Iraq. BCI have been long-term supporters of BISI, faciliting visas for our visiting scholars in particular, so it was good to meet and thank him face to face. A new, streamlined visa service will be in place by the end of Eid (mid-November, essentially), which means that with Jim and his colleagues' help we should be able to get our Kerbala colleagues to London in the spring without too many problems.

Then, at last to Baghdad Airport: security levels ratchet up even further. I wasn't complaining, after news at the Embassy that IED attacks (I always want to write IUD! That would be something else entirely...) are ratcheting up pre-Eid the day after tomorrow. Coming in last week, as night fell, and with all the benefits of a prime ministerial car, I hadn't fully appreciated what an exposed place this still is. After driving several miles down CBB-lined motorway, I said goodbye to Ahmed and Hisham, and entered a high-security 4x4 taxi with six other passengers for the remainder of the journey. By the time we reached the terminal we had been through two sniffer-dog inspections (bags in car; bags out of car), one thorough rummage through my dirty undies, and at least four ID inspections. It really isn't about the size of your tube of toothpaste here. No-one cared at all about my bottle of water.

But, as everywhere this week, the checks were both good-natured and efficient, with queues moving much faster than Heathrow. I've spent the past hour in the early-70s brown-and-yellow lounge, eating lunch (crap, like all airport food; hurrah again for breakfast) and enjoying free wifi.

There's lots I haven't written about yet. Some of it–our (very favourable) inspection of the Kerbala museums' stores and conservation facilities, for instance—is best saved for my formal report to BISI. But I'm planning to say more once I'm home, especially about Nippur; and the contrasts with my 2001 visit; and about the sorts of international support and contact my academic colleagues here need, both in archaeology-Assyriology and in mathematics. So please do keep reading.

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