Thursday, 25 October 2012

Travelling from the UK to Iraq

Now that I've arrived safely back in Cambridge I thought it might be helpful to say a few words here about the mechanics of travelling to Iraq from the UK. First, and most importantly, don't just turn up uninvited. In case it wasn't obvious, I should spell out that my trip was made viable thanks to considerable, unobtrusive, support from the Iraqi Prime Minister's Office, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and the Shrines Authority in Kerbala. It's perfectly safe to travel speculatively to Kurdistan now—so I'll say a little bit about that below—but in southern Iraq you really do need trustworthy people who are looking after for you all the time, as significant (but decreasing) parts of the country aren't safe, and some times of the year are more dangerous than others. Make sure you're completely comfortable with the proposed security arrangements before you agree to go. It's also essential to read and take seriously the FCO's travel advice on Iraq.

Flying into Baghdad

  • The first thing to do is to get an invitation (in Arabic or in Engish) from an Iraqi host institution such as a government ministry, a museum or a university. They'll be able to email this to you; don't worry if the scan looks terrible; Iraqi visa officials are used to this.
  • Don't plan for a visit of longer than ten days, unless you have to. After the tenth day you have to report to the residency police and take a blood test. It's not worth the bother.
  • Then buy your plane ticket. I booked with the British-Iraqi company IKB Travel, based in London. Although they're a major sponsor of BISI, that's not why I used them (though I wouldn't have known of their existence otherwise). IKB are Middle East travel specialists, not just to Iraq, and have a very user-friendly website. Shopping around, I found their prices were as good as, or better than, the usual suspects and they had a lot more flights and options on offer. Unlike Royal Jordanian, their site doesn't collapse when you try to pay, and their phone service is excellent too.
  • There are no direct flights yet from Heathrow to Baghdad. You can change at various Middle Eastern airports from Istanbul to Amman to Dubai. I chose to fly with Austrian Airlines, changing at Vienna because they uniquely have a minimal stop-over time there. It turns out that this is because it's the same plane that continues to Baghdad: you just get out of the plane for security checks from Iraqi immigration officials while the plane is prepared for the next leg, and then you reboard. So although we were late leaving Heathrow I knew we'd make the connection, and that my bags would arrive with me in Baghdad. They have good vegetarian food too. (They are in the Star Alliance frequent flyer scheme.)
  • Once armed with invitation, return flight booking, passport and two passport photos you can download an Iraqi visa application form and take all this to the Iraqi Embassy at 21 Queen's Gate, London SW7 5PH. The visa section is open 10-1 on weekdays. That's it; you're done.
  • If you can't go to London, arrange with your hosts that you will collect the visa at Baghdad airport. You will still need the formal invitation—and $82 cash. The visa office—not signed in English!—is immediately to the left of the immigration booths and is identifiable by the swarm of Turkish workers waiting to get their passports back. You complete a simple one-page form (instructions are in English as well as in Arabic) and wait—for some time!—while they prepare the visa.
  • Leaving the airport: do try to have someone to meet you if you can; otherwise I assume that getting out is somewhat the reverse of getting in to the airport, as described in my last blog post: i.e., you'll need to hire a shared taxi to get as far as the public car park.

Leaving from Baghdad Airport

  • Returning to Baghdad Airport to go home, you'll need to have a printed ticket or schedule to hand, as well as your passport, as soon as you leave the public carpark. You won't get anywhere without it, even if you have a mobile boarding pass on your phone. If you're at all doubtful of printer/internet access while in Iraq, print a copy of your return flight schedule before you leave the UK.
  • Get to the public carpark to pick up your shared taxi at least 3 hours before your flight. I had a very quick and easy experience, but I can easily imagine that queues are long and tensions high on busy or high-security days. If you arrive early, then at least there's good free internet to keep you amused in the departures lounge.
  • I recommend that you don't rely on the airport cafe, unless you particularly like reheated kebabs, strange-flavoured crisps and international chocolate. You can bring food and even water into the airport.
  • Nor do the security staff worry whether you have your cosmetics in appropriate quantities in a clear plastic bag—but their counterparts in Vienna and other airports do, so be prepared for this when you change planes.
  • The duty-free shop is pretty desperate, but I did pick up some big tins of Iraqi baklava for distribution to colleagues, students and friends which haven't killed them yet....
  • I didn't need to pay for an exit visa, but I've heard that this is necessary after longer stays and/or at the end of commercial business trips. I'm afraid I don't know how much it might cost; ask your hosts or the Iraqi Embassy in London before you leave the UK.

To and from Kurdistan

This is much easier: you don't need a visa but just get your passport stamped on arrival. Most flights arrive and depart in the middle of the night, though, with long stop-overs in transit airports. Coming back from Sulaimaniyah last May, I took my sleeping bag in my carry-on and slept for several hours in Amman Airport. Make sure you have suitable currency for the transit airport in case you need food/drink/duty-free. Leaving Kurdistan, the security is also pretty heavy: expect full-body searches and zealous, if unsystematic, inspections of your luggage (with potential for random confiscations of innocuous items such as batteries; geological hammers are apparently OK but pink Filofaxes extremely suspect).

Insurance, security, etc.

I don't bother with insurance for short stays; I imagine it is prohibitively expensive. But I do make sure that as many people know where I am at all times. Take a cheap, unlocked phone with you (an old one, or buy one on Amazon) and get an Iraqi SIM card as soon as you can. I'm happy to lend mine to UK colleagues, as it's got lots of useful numbers in and regular use keeps the account active. Distribute your phone number to all and sundry, at home and in Iraq, and call or text regularly so that the people who care about you know you're still safe.

It's also a good idea to let the British Embassy know before you leave when you'll be in-country and to give them your contact details too. You can find the relevant email addresses on the FCO website. It's also very sensible to register with the LOCATE database. Keep a scan or photocopy of your passport in a safe place. Carry your actual passport with you at all times, as you're very likely to need it at checkpoints.

For women, long loose-fitting clothes are strongly recommended, for sun and heat protection as well as for social comfort. I always wear a wedding ring; expect to be asked about husband and children; invent them (consistently) if necessary. In many places outside Baghdad and the other big cities you will feel less conspicuous in hijab, and this will also reduce the likelihood of you being stopped at checkpoints. Other than in Kerbala and Najaf, abayas are only necessary inside mosques, and the doorkeepers will always lend you one at the entrance, when you take off your shoes—for propriety's sake, make sure you have tights or socks on. Outside the Kurdish city centres, don't wander around unaccompanied, even in super-safe areas, unless you are prepared to fend off constant expressions of concern for your safety and reputation from concerned passers-by.

Home again

You've got to love Heathrow when everything runs as it should do. Through e-passport control in no time; suitcase waiting for me on the baggage carousel; lost parking ticket unproblematic as I'd booked it online.

South Mimms Service Station garage, not so much... In the middle of the night it rivals Baghdad Airport cafe in the type and inedibility of the food on offer. The fact that there is ten times as much choice of unappetising comestibles is no compensation. Still, a stale pain au chocolate and some lukewarm tea see me home by 1 am.

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.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Iraqi history, ancient and modern

My standard stress dream is that I am about to give a big public lecture for which I am utterly unprepared. For a terrible five minutes this morning, my nightmare became reality.

Now I understand why I was feeling so wobbly yesterday evening and didn't want to eat when we got back to Diwaniyah: I had a major case of the runs coming on. (Don't worry, I brought immodium with me.) So I didn't sleep much last night, and was so wiped out this morning that I didn't register that the highlight of my tour of Al-Qadissiya University's Department of Archaeology was actually meant to be a talk by yours truly...

Guess who hadn't brought her laptop with her? I thought about just showing the students Oracc, as I've see from the access stats that no-one in Iraq knows about it outside Baghdad. But of course they don't have internet in their lecture rooms (or probably anywhere much else outside my swanky hotel and professorial offices); it's impressive enough that they have two data projectors. Miraculously, deep in my handbag, just where it shouldn't have been, was the USB stick onto which I'd copied Sunday's conference paper. The morning was saved.

My host for today was Dr Mohammed Saied Mahan, whom I had never met before: an architectural historian who head the Department of Archaeology. It was also a genuine delight to catch up with Dr Abbas Al-Hussainy, an old friend of BISI's and a close collaborator of my predecessor as Chair, Roger Matthews. (Roger and Harriet: Abbas sends his very warmest greetings.) So I gave a much simplified version of a part of last weekend's talk (which was already pretty basic) to the assembled students, and Dr Mohammed (middle, far right below) and Dr Abbas (in the dark suit next to me) translated paragraph by paragraph.

As you can see, the male students all have to wear white shirts. I don't suppose there's any regulalation that they have to be hipster-tight as well, but these young men are super-fashion conscious, with very skinny jeans, pointed shoes and various elaborate hair products. Their female counterparts tend to favour bright hijab and fairly slim-fitting clothes: mostly long skirts but I did see some trousers under knee-length dresses on campus too.

Then to the Old Babylonian site of Marad (below), deep in the countryside, where the university has dug for three seasons over the past 20 years, most recently by Dr Abbas. Dr Mohammed is planning excavations there next year. If you happen to be reading this from a university Archaeology department anywhere in the world and would be interested in collaborating with them, whether at Marad or at Nippur, please do let me know. They are desperate to develop co-operations with external universities, and—as I hope this blog is showing—Al-Qadissiyah province seems to be very safe these days.

We were pressed for time, so I didn't ask to stop for photos, but the countryside around here is really unspoiled—not least because it is so poor. We crossed the Euphrates, and then drove along a very pretty canal dotted with reed huts—Akkadian qirsu. There were several large bedouin tents in the middle distance, and little flocks of schoolgirls walking home to lunch with big white ribbons in their hair.

By this point were were on our way to a tiny summer palace built for the inhabitants of Diwaniyah for King Ghazi, second king of Iraq (r. 1933-39) and restored just three years ago. Set in extensive gardens, it consists of just three rooms—a front hall, living room and bedroom—plus stables, garage and a telephone exchange(!) at the back. The hall has a fire-place, which I didn't think twice about, but which the Iraqis thought was very peculiar (and which they didn't know the English word for). Ghazi seems to have been quite the British puppet, though the Mandate had officially ended before his reign. I must re-read Charles Tripp's History of Iraq when I get back. (And I'm not just saying that because Charles is BISI's Vice-Chair: it's a brilliant piece of writing which I loved when it first came out and now need to revisit.)

Here we see back row l-r: Faisal I, Ghazi, Faisal II, just a toddler when he came to the throne and assassinated in the revolution of 1958; hungry Basim (of whom more below), Dr Mohammed, me, and a very nice sociologist whose name, unfortunately, I didn't get.

Today's checkpoint joke: that Dr Mohammed, having left his ID in his jacket on the back of his office chair, can choose to be anyone he likes if we get stopped. But in fact we sail through them all with smiles and nods today, until the last one before Diwaniyah, when we just explain what's happened and everyone has a good laugh.

Inside Al-Qadissiyah province, the checkpoints (manned by police, not soldiers) are all quite light touch for respectable citizens; as far as I can tell, searches tend to be focused on multi-occupant taxis and really battered old cars. My colleagues see them as protective rather than restrictive and don't see them as a worry. Inside the province they're just little booths at the side of the road; at the provincial borders they're more like motorway toll stations but with machine-guns instead of credit card readers. No pix allowed, in case I pass them on to terrorists; likewise police stations (which are still subject to attack in other parts of Iraq) and army installations.

Back-up checkpoint joke: that we don't have time to stop for checkpoints on the way home, because our driver Basim is absolutely ravenous, having skipped breakfast this morning. And indeed he pretty much eats my lunch as well when we get back. Which is just as well, as I'm still a bit gippy and only feel like cardomom rice—yum!—and protein-rich drinking yogurt, labn. The hotel Maitre D' (here in the restaurant with me) is a former student of my conference translator, the erudite Dr Basim (not hungry driver Basim), and likes to quote Shakespeare to me so I don't want to offend him by leaving too much uneaten. (I have to say, whatever Dr Hanna's opinion, I think I look much less gaunt with all my hair.)

And now I have to pack for Baghdad tomorrow, where I'll be going to the Green Zone to visit the new British Ambassador Simon Collis, who has recently become BISI's Honorary Vice-President. I need to talk to him about the Karbala collaboration and start the process of arranging visas so that the museum staff can visit London in the sprint. Then, if the traffic isn't too heavy, I'll meet Lamia at the Iraq Museum to see colleagues there. But even if that doesn't work out I will be on my 4pm flight home, whatever happens. Amazing as this week has been, it's also been very intense and I am looking forward to being back in my own bed tomorrow night. Odd to think that I'll be posting my next entry from Cambridge.

More shrine pix

Here are more photos from yesterday's visit to the holy shrines in Kerbala, some taken my my host Ahmed Zainy, some by the shrine's official photographer (with many thanks to Ahmed for getting hold of them so fast).

In the VIP reception lounge of Imam Abbas's mosque. I am chatting to Raz, my translator, and Lamia is catching up with Dr Mohammed the textile conservator's news.

In the very Victoria and Albert-ish Al-Kafeel Museum, stocked entirely with objects donated to the mosque. As well as mosque furniture, coins and manuscripts there is a large collection of antique weapons—swords, daggers, pistols, rifles. These last commemorate the Battle of Kerbala in 61 AH (660 AD), at which the prophet's grandsons Hussain and Abbas were killed and which thus caused the split between Sunni and Shia Islam.

Signing the visitor's book, just before giving an interview for the shrine's magazine. Later I was interviewed for Karbala TV. I am so famous in Iraq now... (And in case you are wondering about the ring: no, I haven't just got hitched. That is the Ring of Argos, which has travelled everywhere with me in the Middle East for many years and whose powerful protective properties make it worth every penny of the tenner or so it cost.)

In the very well appointed research library. (From now on, you can take it as read that everything here is very well appointed...). They have a public library too, furnished in calm blond wood. Public education and charitable work are significant elements of the mosque's activities; there's a public kitchen too, where we ate lunch. The women on our table were given carrier-bags and take-away cartons so that they could take home what they couldn't eat (mutton and okra stew with rice).

With the head of the mosque library, whose name I'm afraid I didn't catch. (I'm hoping Lamia will fill the blanks; I was so much the centre of attention—you can see that unfortunately the photos are all about me—that often it wasn't possible to scribble down people's names.) Most importantly, though, Mr Kamal the head of manuscripts conservation was full of praise for his bosses work, saying that he gives full support and funding, and wants renovation work to be carried out to the highest international standards. As far as we could see—and we were given an exhaustive tour—it is.

In Mr Kamal's spotless manuscripts conservation lab, a short walk from the mosque. They have separate rooms for biological and chemical treatment of the books, to kill infestations, unstick pages, and stabilise the paper. They also make their own paper to traditional methods to use for repairs, as well as rebinding the books while keeping as much of the original leather as possible. Here Mr Kamal is showing me a recently finished project, as one of his three staff looks on. All of them are educated to at least degree level and have had a lot of further specialist training in many different methods, so that they can judge which is techniques are most appropriate for each situation. They also carry out their own research and are committed to using traditional methods as much as possible.

Meeting the imam. The big moment for the museum staff, for without the imam's go-ahead this project couldn't happen. In fact it was easy to find a lot of common ground, as I think this photo shows. He spoke very passionately about the need to use the highest scientific standards to conserve the shrine's collections, in order to further both research and public education. Muharram is just coming up—it begins on 5 November this year, with Ashura on the 14th—and we spoke of the pilgrims we had seen walking the road from Karbala. (No photos, I'm afraid—even if we hadn't been whizzing past behind tinted windows it would have seemed rude to treat them as spectacle.) The shrines get some 50 million visitors a year, most of them during this ten-day period, and so the museums will see heavy traffic then too. But put of the mission is also to educate non-Muslims about Shia Islam; all are welcome in the mosque as long as they are appropriately dressed and behave decorously.

Our entourage walking through the main prayer hall of Imam Abbas's mosque (the GYP is front right). Again you can see renovations in progress: the yellow-and-black hazard-warning borders seem peculiarly apposite.

The museum of Imam Hussein's mosque is very different in feel and outlook to the one in Imam Abbas's mosque although are of an age—i.e., only three or four years old. There is more here about the history of the shrine, from pre-Islamic finds from the site—spotlit in the case behind us (plus three cylinder seals , much to Lamia's delight)—to the damage and looting inflicted on it by Saddam's forces in the 1991 uprising after the Gulf War. This is very much the personal vision of museum director Mr Alaa (centre, in black with the stripy tie; turns out he went to university with Lamia's daughter Nour!), while Abu Laith prefers to focus on the objects.

Note too the Shia green walls and simple carpeting here, compared to the rich blue-and-silver aesthetic of the first; and while Abu Laith's museum is open-plan, with wall cases around the edge and table-cases in the centre of the room, Mr Alla has arranged his cases to create sub-galleries while also, cleverly, spelling out Hussain's name when viewed from above. You exit the museum into a gallery looking down on the main prayer hall. This, says Mr Alaa, is the real, living museum and it is hard to disagree with him, it is such a captivating and restful sight.

As should be obvious by now, Lamia and I were treated with exquisite hospitality and attention for the duration of our visit, yet this was not mere ceremony. The staff here know they've got something good going on—though of course were delighted to hear us confirm it—and are keen to make it even better, and to share what they have. As I wrote yesterday, the collaboration is Dr Mohammed's initiative but the whole institution is fully behind it, so far as we could see; I am very excited at the prospect of helping to make it happen.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Welcomed to the heart of Shia Islam

Just back from Kerbala half an hour ago, where my hijab and abaya behaved perfectly, and where I met an extraordinary array of highly committed, energetic, well trained and imaginative museum curators, conservators and librarians at the holy shrines of imams Abbas and Hussein.

In short, Lamia Al-Galaini and I were there to discuss the potential for a long-term collaborative project between Al-Kafeel Museum and BISI. The project has three strands: conservation, research and public education on the shrines' collections. I have taken a zillion photos, and will be writing a formal (and positive) report for BISI in due course. But as I am completely exhausted by the day—in a good way—and need to sleep in preparation for another very public day tomorrow, for now I will just post a few pix.

  1. With Assyriologist Dr Saad (left) and former BISI Visiting Scholar Dr Mohammed Jwad, textile conservator par excellence, whose initiative this project is, in the impressively appointed Al-Kafeel Museum, immediately off the prayer hall of Imam Abbas's mosque. (Too dark to see here—we need to wait for Ahmed's much better pix—but the quality of the objects and display furniture are so high you could almost be in the V&A.
  2. Dr Mohammed and his manuscripts conservation colleague Dr Kamal in front of the entrance to Imam Abbas's shrine. The mosque is like a snake shedding its skin, under constant improvement, expansion and reconstruction. Many archaeologists and historians of art are understandably concerned about this never-ending renewal, but the building has to adapt to modern needs—the latest innovation is a Malaysian sliding glass roof, currently being installed—and the museum is doing its best to keep pieces of the old fabric of the building.
  3. Dr Kamal, Museum Director Abu Laith, and Lamia in the very well appointed, Czech-designed manuscripts conservation lab. Abu Laith is also the shrine's PR director and so his phone is always ringing.
  4. My embarrassingly large haul of gifts, some practical (e.g., CDs of techy object scans), some informative (e.g., bilingual booklets of the Museum's work, some simply overwhelmingly generous (e.g., near top right an actual tile from Imam Hussein's mosque, which I will donate to an appropriate UK museum as soon as is feasible)

I don't yet have pix of our meeting with the Imam, a thoughtful, liberal and enterprising man whom, the museum staff say, have given them every support, financial and infrastructural, in their work, and is fully behind the nascent collaboration. He is the personal representative of Imam Sistani in Najaf and thus wields considerable political as well as religious authority. So it was a bit like having an audience with the Pope's right-hand man: an amazing honour and an indication of his commitment to what we hope to do together.

Nor do I yet have any photos from the mosque or museum of Imam Hussein, simply because I was so tired by then that it took all my energy to give Museum Director Mr Alaa my full attention. At this point the hijab and abaya came into their own as an all-enveloping comfort blanket and I snuggled into them in the car on 2-hour drive home too.

Dr Hanna taught me so well yesterday that at breakfast this morning the lady mathematicians were all absolutely delighted with my hijab. It stayed in place with only minor adjustments all day (you can see that magenta leopard-spots won out) and I eventually learned to hoick the abaya up at the back before I sat down to stop it riding too far back on my head. The academic gown analogy held up all day too; the abaya didn't feel at all uncomfortable or weird in the context.

Tomorrow, though, when I will be visiting Al-Qadissiyah University's current excavations near here, I shall revert to cotton trousers, walking boots and a loose shirt.

I should also say a few words about the Shrines Authority's brand-new translator, Mr Razak ("Raz"). He was on a first, trial day today so everything was as new to him as it was to me. Yet he coped marvellously, switching between technical descriptions of manuscript conservation and high-level diplomacy with the imam. He studied in Sunderland for 5 years in the 1980s and since 2003 has translated for various international NGOs in Iraq. He was also very easy company—translation is as cultural as it is linguistic, I am discovering—and was far more useful and interesting than the glib young person who travelled in our car with us. I do hope they keep him (Raz, not the GYP).

Today's checkpoint joke: that the driver of our Shrines Authority's big black Subaru with scary tinted windows has greater access to everywhere in Iraq—perhaps the world—than even the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, thanks to his fat wallet of 20-odd ask-no-questions ID cards. We sailed though every checkpoint, some extremely serious as Kerbala is a potential Sunni target, with a wave of the card— a different one every time.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Magenta leopard-print

Whatever made me think that today would be a quiet day, with plenty of free blogging time? The last time I spoke at an Arabic-language conference, in Amman a couple of years ago, I was one of about a dozen Euro-American guests, so wasn't always the centre of attention. This time, though, I was the main attraction: the sole "international" component of this International Conference. I've done interviews with ten or more Iraqi TV channels, not just about my talk but bluffing my way through questions about the importance of mathematics for rebuilding the new Iraq. I've had my photo taken with every mathematician in Iraq, it seems, in every possible permutation and combination. It's not surprising really, and it wasn't hard to relax into it, and everyone was very affable, but I'm not sad it's over.

My day (and Ahmed and Hisham's) was made much easier by the arrival of several more English-speakers on the scene. Many of conference partipants who were educated in the 70s, or in the past five years, wrote their PhDs in the UK: I heard happy reminiscences of life in Dundee, Manchester, Sussex, and a dozen other British cities.

The erudite and slightly lugubrious Dr Basim, expert in the novels of Henry James, was seconded from his professorial duties in the English Department to be my personal translator. But his own conversation was much more interesting than the official speeches, and he clearly enjoyed the opportunity to display his command of idiom. I shall adopt "terribly irksome" for my own, I think.

Diwaniyah Assyriologist Dr Saad Sina has been a long-time email correspondent of mine (yes, another online friend), whom I met for the first time today. We spent a happy hour or two this afternoon reading photos of Old Babylonian letters and economic documents from nearby sites. He is a very good cuneiformist and didn't really need my help, but it's always fun to read tablets and together we made a few small improvements to his already impressive readings. He'll be coming with us to Karbala tomorrow, as he's a good friend of Lamia's.

In preparation for the trip, Dr Hisham's sister-in-law has lent me a hijab and abaya so that I will be appropriately dressed for one of Shia Islam's most holy cities. (I won't have to cover my face, although somewhere in the back of a drawer I do have a niqab that a long-ago boyfriend bought me in the Gulf in a misguided attempt at a joke. Laughing at other people's sense of modesty is not my idea of humour; we parted company soon after.)

Hisham also introduced me to Dr Hanna Munther Ali of the University of Basra, who this evening became my Islamic fashion advisor... Here she is in a killer leopard-pattern hijab, sitting with her charming husband in the hotel lobby.

Dr Hanna whisked me up to her room for a practice session, and much to my surprise deemed the black headscarf I had been lent to be unsuitable. Apparently it was the wrong shape and too likely to inadvertently reveal hair. So now, thanks to her generosity, I am the proud owner of a magenta hijab and matching pins (which goes perfectly with my handbag and diary).

This is my first attempt at putting it on for myself. (Note the blingy gold walls of my hotel bedroom; it took several experiments with/without flash and wall lights to take this shoddy shot...) The finish isn't quite right yet: you can see that I haven't got the final, left-hand pin positioned correctly, so that the scarf is a bit baggy there. But before the last annoying micro-blackout (they last just a couple of seconds but then the wifi takes ages to reset) I spent 20 minutes or so watching some of Amenakin's chatty youtube hijab tutorials. I'm fully expecting Lamia to veto the pink leopard-print though, so I've also been practising with a dark grey scarf I bought a few Philadelphia trips ago, when I needed some protection against the icy air-con of Penn Museum's Babylonian Section. It never crossed my mind, as I was cruising Macy's sale, that it (or I) would end up going to Karbala.

I've been curious to try wearing an abaya (and to go to Karbala) ever since reading Elizabeth Warnock Fernea's amazing Guests of the Sheik (another Philadelphia purchase) several years ago. In the 1950s newly-wed Fernea lived with her anthropologist husband in a small village near Diwaniyah for two years while he carried out fieldwork. She was soon "adopted" by the local women who inducted her into traditional Iraqi life and even took her on Ashura pilgrimage to Karbala with them.

When I lifted the abaya out of the bag it seemed a familiar sort of weight and material, and then when Dr Hanna draped it over my head I realised why: it is a close cousin to my voluminous academic gown, which I had to wear quite regularly at Oxford for college dinners, governing body meetings and exam invigilation. In Cambridge though, it mostly hangs of the back of my office door, and once or twice a year gets slung over my arm as I go and make sure the exam paper I've set isn't riddled with typos and stupidities. So tomorrow shouldn't, I hope, be too much of a sartorial challenge, whether I'm in sober Macy's grey or chichi Basra style.

No pic of me in the abaya yet, simply for vanity's sake: the contrast between gold wallpaper and black fabric was too much for my cheapo camera to cope with and made me look white as a ghost. Tomorrow, I promise...

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Date-palm and Tamarisk

Now I can die happy: I've seen Nippur.

I've got an early start tomorrow, so for now I'll just post some pix, but as I've got a full day of mathematics lectures in Arabic to get through tomorrow, expect some more detailed posts about today to appear then!

Today's checkpoint joke: that Ahmed, sitting in the back with me, is English too. To be fair, he is wearing a Università Venezia t-shirt. Hisham's in the photos too—the older man. I was briefly introduced to the dapper young mathematician in the striped shirt, but as he has no English and I have no Arabic I can't tell you much about him.

Some scrubby date-palm and tamarisk landscapes with animals; the ziggurrat of Nippur; an inscribed brick of the Sumerian king Ur-Namma who ruled the region from the city of Ur in the early 21st century BC. (My mathematical escort were ridiculously impressed that I could read this; but Ur-Namma bricks are Sumerian 101...). But sorry, Steve: no random pieces of Sumerian literature lying around.

Ahmed's photos are much better than mine, but as they're so high-res they're taking forever to upload from email. Tomorrow; or Flickr when I get back.

And yes, I had masgouf for dinner too. A good day, in other words.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Back to Iraq

The last (and first) time I was in southern Iraq was 11 years ago, before the war. We drove 13 excruciating hours through the night from Amman to Baghdad in a knackered old utility vehicle in order to get to a conference celebrating 5000 years (to the day, of course!) since the invention of writing in Iraq. I remember being so ridiculously tired that I started hallucinating we were on the M40 between Oxford and London—and yet not daring to fall asleep in case someone needed to prod the driver awake. Every now and again he would shake his left arm vigorously out of the window, or slap himself in the face in order to keep alert. All the while, unlit sanctions-busting oil tankers were thundering past us in both directions and the spooky black basalt desert gradually gave way to pitch darkness. All that and the scariest customs check-point I have ever experienced. When we arrived at our hotel in Baghdad around 3am, it felt as though we had landed on another planet. And the sanctions-led communicative isolation from the rest of the world meant that we might as well have.

(I wish I knew how to do captions in Blogger. The top one is Baghdad by night in 2001, taken on my first ever digital camera; the one below is from the same trip. I put the full set of photos from 2001 on Flickr a few months ago with at least some basic tagging. I'll upload all my new ones there too but I haven't taken any yet... Wasn't allowed to at the airport, and then it was too dark or I was too tired to remember.)

And now I'm back in Iraq, again for a conference, but circumstances couldn't be more different. I flew straight into Baghdad from Heathrow with Austrian Air (with a brief stop-over in Vienna entailing a surreal dash upstairs to the security gate and then back onto the same plane). Bureaucratic confusion over my visa status at the airport was resolved slowly but smilingly, with the help of an enormous G4 security guard and my host Ahmed chatting amiably to the border guard on my mobile. No intimidating questioning or searches through my intimate belongings like last time (my digital camera a clunky novelty back in 2001), and my suitcase was even waiting in splendid unmolested isolation for me when I finally got through to the other side.

I met Ahmed online. That's really not as dodgy as it sounds, I promise! The short version goes like this: he read and liked my last book, and emailed to tell me that he was teaching a course on it at the Women's College at the University of Baghdad, where he is a professor of mathematics. You can imagine how happy this made me—my book being taught to Iraqi women maths students; can't get more perfect than that, right?—and it helped convince my editor that an Arabic edition would be viable. (It's in progress; should be out next year.) So we became email friends, and when Ahmed invited me this summer to give a keynote address to a big national mathematics conference, how could I say no?

The airport itself (no photography allowed—it's still considered a target) is a real period piece, with lots of beige plastic and pot plants. It was closed throughout the No-Fly Zone era of course, and is only gradually building up commercial service again. In the years following the war, incoming planes had to drop into a steep spiral which they pulled out of just before landing to minimise the risk of attack from the ground. The area around the airport's still heavily militarised, with lots of those big concrete bomb-proof walls along the roads, and regular checkpoints amongst the palm-trees.

By the time we were out into more relaxed surroundings it was getting dark. At one point we were surrounded by a wedding party, comprising heavily laden minibuses and taxis extruding various undulating limbs. Tiny children clamber all over the insides of family cars: I swear I saw a pyramid of at least three tiny girls occupying one front passenger seat. At some checkpoints the guards just waved us through; at a couple our papers were checked (because I am a fair-haired novelty); at another Hisham told them he was our Afghan driver (he is in fact professor of mathematics at Al-Qadissiyah University, which is hosting the conference), to much all-round hilarity.

So here I am, surrounded by jolly mathematicians in Diwaniyah's swankiest hotel and generally being spoiled rotten. My good friend (and doyenne of Iraqi archaeology) Lamia Al-Gailani has rung to say hello from Baghdad and to check that I'm still up for a trip to Karbala together on Tuesday for some BISI-biz. (She was my guide around Baghdad back in the day too.) The conference starts on Sunday, my lecture kick things off. Tomorrow Hisham and Ahmed have been promised me masgouf and a trip to Nippur! But as tomorrow is almost today now, I should end here.