So what does one actually DO in Baghdad? It’s somewhat different for those who live in the International Zone (IZ), and those who live outside.
For those in IZ, it is possible to take spin classes, yoga, go to salsa lessons. It is also possible to attend bi-monthly meetings of the Baghdad Cigar Aficionado Club (I have to confess, I went to one).
How could I not go? It was outside, Saturday evening, at the pool I go to on Fridays. This time, instead of tattooed bare-chested hunky young men, there were middle aged pot bellied men (mercifully fully clothed), smoking an absolutely ENORMOUS cigar. They were either in uniform, or wearing the security uniform: khakis and blue polo shirts.
The head of the group was standing at a mic (there were at least 40 men there, a handful of women), talking about the stogie they were smoking in similar terms to wine. “A soft nutty flavor, with a hint of pepper….”
I went with my best gal pal Joanna (a tall and lovely London solicitor, out here working for private legal firm which helps businesses negotiate Iraqi legal requirements).
Our main reason for going, aside from curiosity, was to snag one of their shirts: which had a great emblem, but is sadly made of rather icky nylon fabric.
Aside from riveting social events like that, there is the usual round of parties.
Baghdad’s International Party Scene
By usual I mean that every other month the security team of the Italian Embassy throws a party at their embassy. They have a proper pizza oven. With house music blasting, there is a line of Italian security guards making pizza, very very good pizza, dancing to the music. A huge crowd comes to these parties, for the pizza and dancing and general merriment. During the hot season they would spray the crowd with hoses to cool us down.
Other months the Dutch security put on a party at their embassy. No pizza, but a larger dance floor, disco lights. At the last Dutch party, they had set up a dancing cage on the bar. At one point there was a couple in there, giving a fairly graphic, although fully clothed, demonstration of what men and women enjoy during their off time. Later on there was a naked man dancing in the cage.
The UK Embassy periodically has parties. There was an 80’s school night disco. The UK parties have a curiously innocent air to them, group giggles and silliness, coupled with championship drinking ability.
There are parties at the US Embassy too, but not very sought after as the bar “Bagdaddys” is a cavernous, atmosphere-less room. The UK bar on the other hand feels like an English pub: a pool table, dart board, comfy seats, dim lighting. And it’s near their pool, which means swimming at night in the hot season (which is mercifully finally coming to an end. Which also means the return of flies and mozzies).
Tues nights is the UN bar for some reason. Small, cozy, money from all over the world behind the bar, flags from all over on the ceiling. I don’t get there very often as I tend not to go out during the work week unless for something special. So I confine my socializing to weekends, i.e. Thurs-Sat nights.
People living in villas in the IZ give house parties. There are also parties out at the press compounds in the red zone, which I go to on occasion, both to keep up to date with the ever-changing list of international media here (I still get very thrilled to meet journalists from NY Times, NPR, BBC and Guardian). But also to see some different faces from the usual crowd.
Baghdad Scene is Changing for Everyone
So as you can see, there is a very lively social scene here.
But our wonderful Liberty Pool is soon being given back to the Iraqis. I’m immensely grateful to have had it this summer. Not sure how I would have coped with the heat without it.
Most of the little tea shops and stores on the bases have been shut. So the place is changing. There are more T-wall barriers going up alongside roads in the IZ.
As they open up more of it to regular traffic, they create a kind of tunnel of walls for people to drive through, protecting the IZ residents from Iraqis driving through.
For my birthday recently I went to the diner in the IZ (Dojos), with eight girlfriends. We had an extremely good time, and then continued on to the UN bar. Dojos diner is behind Dojos spa.
The spa is in fact a converted trailer, the front room is where they do mani/pedi and hair, and the back is the massage area. Run by Filipinos, the four women there give FANTASTIC massages — very very strong — with a lot of stretching and twisting.
It’s quite amusing to see some of the large security and military men come through there and howl in pain when these small women get to work on them.
My Work is Changing Too
Work as in my media support organization continues to go very well.
We’ve been very busy expanding our training programs, having found training centers in Baghdad and Basra to support and transform into permanent media training centers. We’ve been very busy on the media law front too, working with UNDP and other UN agencies to get some good media draft laws created.
I was at a two-day conference in Istanbul focused on media law in Iraq. We started a group which meets every month with the US Embassy and UNDP to discuss press freedom issues. The group has become very active, becoming a major organizing force behind a big demonstration for press freedom which occurred in August.
One of them wrote an op-ed after the big ministry bombings in August entitled ‘Down with the Government”, which I thought was a great sign of freedom of expression. That being said, journalists continue to be fined, beaten, arrested, threatened and assassinated here. It remains a very dangerous profession; the journalists here are a brave bunch.
My Future in Baghdad
Currently we are waiting to hear about a new round of funding we hope to receive from the Dept of State. That would keep the program operating through 2012 (although I have no plans to stay here that long!) We should know that soon, our current program expires March 2010.
We’ve finally signed with a new security company, and I still have my favorite guard with me. So all is well on that score…
All focus is now turning to the upcoming national elections, slated to be held January 16, 2010. We probably will not run the press center for as long this time, maybe for the final two weeks. We will generate a lot of outreach programs (tv, radio, print etc).
These are the big elections, so tension is rising.
The Parliament is currently debating on the election law itself, which will determine whether the elections are open list (voting for candidates) or closed list (voting for parties). The electorate want open list, the politicians want party list (closed list will enable many of them to keep their seats, open list less certain).
There are big splits in the Shia: between the religious and more secular parties, as well as within the Sunnis, along similar lines. The Kurds just want to remain as separate as possible, and are trying to push for a referendum on a draft amendment to THEIR constitution which would permit them to annex the ‘disputed’ areas of Kirkuk, which is where all the oil in the north lies.
So tension is rising all over.
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