Saturday 6 April 2013

From Green Zone to Green Zone

I left Nejef at 5.15 on Thursday morning, driving up to Baghdad with kindly engineer Dr Faris of U.Kufa. He had an appointment with the Ministry of Higher Education, I was heading to the British Embassy in the International Zone. As we drove through the lush date-palm groves on the banks of the Euphrates I felt a pang of regret that I hadn't been able to spend longer in this loveliest of Green Zones before moving on to the next.

Because my travel arrangements had been rather ad-hoc and last-minute (despite my best efforts to get everything in place before I left London, we inadvertently created a bit of a problem for the Embassy, who needed to arrange a secure pick-up for me outside the IZ. In the event, no security team was available until 1pm, so I had several hours to kill in Baghdad.

We reached the outskirts just after 7 and promptly hit one of Baghdad's legendary traffic jams. Most of the vehicles surrounding us were little white open-backed trucks, driven by men in traditional grey or beige dishdashas and black-and-white keffiyahs and laden high with lettuces, cucumbers and tomatoes. Occasionally we saw two or three cows tethered in the back instead. It soon became apparent that they were heading for one of the many wholesale markets on the edge of town. Once we had passed the last of these the traffic moved freely again. (As is my idiotic wont, I'd left my camera in the boot of the car. I'm good at this.)

During my last trip, there was always joky banter with the officer on duty; this time we were simply waved through without stopping (although some grungier cars and taxis did get searched). At one checkpoint the guard barely glanced up from the messages on his mobile phone; at another, the concrete blast barriers were adorned with a plethora of pot plants.

First stop was Dr Faris's Chevrolet garage, as his car was due for a service. Our route took us right through the city centre, past landmarks both vaguely familiar and completely new to me. We crawled past Zahra Park, caught a glimpse of the Iraq Museum (orange), and happened to cross the Tigris by Sinak Bridge, next to Al-Mansour Hotel (green) where I stayed 12 years ago. Happy to see it still standing; I wonder if it still has the same vaguely louche 70s decor inside?

My room in Al-Mansour hotel in 2001 and the view from the balcony across the Tigris. Even if the decor hasn't been upgraded, I assume that the spooky TV-spy-system-that-cannot-be-switched-off has long gone.

After a leisurely cross-cultural brunch of saj and pizza, the pick-up finally took place on the airport expressway at just after 1.30. I stepped out of the taxi (accompanied by Dr Faris's driver; his car was still in the garage) and much to my surprise was bundled into a bullet-proof vest with a great deal of urgency. In the armoured car (machine-gun on floor) I was briefed on procedure in case of direct attack while an identical car ahead of us waited until the road was clear before pulling out. It was a pretty bewildering few minutes after the super-relaxed pace of the first half of the day.

I received a very warm welcome from my British Council hosts at the Embassy: director Jim Scarth and office manager Ismail Sada. Ismail, it turns out, is from Kerbala and a good friend of my delightful translator Mr Razak (who is chatting to me in the top photo here). It had been Raz's first, trial day working for the Shrines Authority when I was there in October and I was really pleased to hear that he'd been kept on. Ismail was just off home for the weekend, and promised to ring Raz to give him my greetings.

Jim and I had formally agreed ahead of time that I would be responsible for my own transport and security outside the Embassy compound, but this needed renegotiating with the security team once I arrived. That took a while to be resolved, and much to my regret meant that I had to miss my Friday appointment with Dr Munther Malik, head of the Archaeology Department at the University of Baghdad.

My (over-large) body armour offers a different sort of protection to abaya and hijab. The latter are rather more comfortable to wear!

It was rather a surprise to be back on British territory after several days of full Iraqi immersion: Lancashire hot-pot and apple tart on the dinner menu, porridge and fry-ups available for breakfast, and even Pimms at sundown (not, to be fair, a regular event) on my first night here. I have my own secure flat or "pod", surrounded by concrete-filled Hesco bags. Direct attacks are rare now--it is mostly Shi'a gatherings and high-profile election candidates who are targeted, mostly by Iraqi Al-Qaeda--but Jim showed me where a mortar had landed not far from his office last year. We're protected by a large team of Gurkhas as well as the UK security staff. I'm enjoying UK-levels of internet access, and very interesting conversations about Iraq with a whole range of people: not only Jim but also Deputy Head of Mission Robert Deane, defence attaché Paul Baker, and many other knowledgeable and committed people.

This afternoon I've been inspecting the library of our institutional predecessor, the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, which has been in container storage here for several years, and which hasn't been used since 1990. It is kept in locked tin trunks which have let in a bit of dust but otherwise protected the books very well. I'm very grateful to Mark Forrester, Head of Corporate Services here, who arranged for the inspection, and to John Quinn and his team for locating them and giving me access.

Soon my down-time ends and tomorrow I start the next round of visits: to see BISI's good friend Dr Saad Eskander at the National Library and Archives--who has done so much to facilitate the non-Embassy aspects of my visit to Baghdad--and to colleagues at the Iraq Museum, including former BISI visiting scholar Mohammed Kasim Jwad (far right in the top photo here), whom I'm greatly looking forward to seeing again.

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