Greetings from Baghdad

Posted by on August 25th, 2010 at 3:59 AM

Greetings from Baghdad. I’m writing from the International Zone (IZ), which until recently was called the Green Zone. I’m here at the invitation of the Iraqi government, via a Washington, DC-based non-governmental organization. I’ve been here for two weeks, running a workshop for senior civil servants on policy analysis and policy writing. It’s a bit surreal.

I don’t speak Arabic, and I’ve never been to the Middle East before. Strangely enough, my lack of experience in the region, and my determined focus on the technical side of policy analysis, has been helpful, since the Iraqis have pretty much had their fill of Americans telling them what to think and do.

To give you an example, today I gave a lecture on the postwar reconstruction of Germany and Japan. They suggested the topic, for obvious reasons. Yesterday we talked about the Internet as a research tool. Tomorrow I will give my final presentation, on oil and the global economy. We’ve also discussed the Western media, policy memo writing, survey research, focus groups, international relations theory, and the basics of social science methods.

My “students” are permanent staffers, not politicians. Most of them are in their late thirties, forties or fifties. The ratio of men to women is 5:1. I have not asked them about their political affiliations, their opinions about the March 2003 invasion or their feelings about the old regime. I’m curious about these issues, of course, but I am trying to be as modest and low-key as I can possibly be. Some of them are very smart indeed, judging from their questions, and they all take copious notes. They are a lot more fun to teach than my regular students, which is not surprising given the inherent drama of the situation.

How did I land such an improbable gig? Well, my Ph.D.’s in political science, and for a decade I worked at a place called the Social Science Research Council. As an SSRC staffer I gained lots of experience in running meetings and workshops. I don’t think I was the first person they approached. It was a word-of-mouth process, as these kinds of things usually are.

One of my friends told me I would need to spend the first three days of the workshop apologizing for my government. That strikes me as just about right. But the attendees seem to appreciate my technocratic stance. In fact, attendance is higher this week than it was last week. That is probably a good sign.

Naturally, I’ve mostly stayed in the IZ. My very presence in the so-called “Red Zone” (i.e., Baghdad proper) would endanger anyone I was travelling with. Baghdad shops are open, and people are out on the streets. But there are bombings everyday, and kidnapping is a major concern. The rule at the compound where I’m staying is, “no joyrides.” This means I’ve had lots of time to surf the net and write my lectures.

When the Americans controlled the IZ, this 10-kilometer by 5-kilometer corner of the city enjoyed 24-hour electricity. When the Iraqi government took over, they rightly put the IZ back on the city grid. Ordinary Baghdad residents can count on 1-2 hours of electricity per day. The building I’m in has its own generator, but it breaks down at least 10-15 times a day, mostly because of the heat.

August is not the best time to visit Baghdad – it’s Ramadan, which means people spend the day fasting (and are a little tired out as a result), and the temperature hits about 120 degrees by late morning. The weather is dry, but intimidating. Everytime I spend more than a few minutes outside, I start to get dizzy.

Flying into Baghdad was a little unnerving. The airport itself looks like it was built by the Dharma Initiative. I probably spent half an hour in a security room, as they checked and rechecked my credentials. Driving from the airport to the IZ was also memorable. I was in a “level 6” vehicle, which means not only bulletproof glass, but an armored roof and undercarriage. I wore a flak jacket and a helmet during the drive. Those are the rules. The men who picked me up at the airport were armed. Moving around Baghdad is serious business, for locals as well as for privileged folks like myself.  

Is there a comics connection to this story? Yes. As it turned out, my translator learned English by reading superhero comics. He’s published several science fiction stories in Arabic-language books and magazines, and is also a painter and graphic designer. He served in the Republican Guard during the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted eight years. He’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.  

If all goes according to plan, my translator will be moving to the United States sometime in the next few weeks, as a refugee. He regularly receives death threats for working in the IZ. I intend to write about him again, when he’s in the U.S. I was about to write, “when he’s here in the U.S.” But of course I’m not there. I’m here. I plan on returning, but not in July or August. They tell me the best months to visit are either November or March.

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