Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It's Like Wonderland, But With Guns

It’s surprising how quickly one can adjust to a surreal environment. Perhaps it’s the surrealness (I just created that word) that actually makes it easier to adjust. If the environment is so far beyond “normal,” then your mind won’t even try to recognize it as normal. Your brain tells you, “You’re in Wonderland, so just deal with it.”

The embassy in Baghdad is unlike any other mission in the world. As one person described it – it’s the largest, most complicated inter-agency beast ever devised by mankind. It’s difficult to describe the experience in a way that can be grasped by someone who isn’t here. Let’s start with the Palace. Yes, the embassy currently resides in one of Saddam’s former palaces. It takes me anywhere from 5-10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. I’ve only gotten lost once.

Security here is unlike at any other mission. Not only do we have a huge staff of Foreign Service security agents, there is a large number of contactors. I would estimate that half of the people under “chief of mission” authority are security folks. Add to that the large number of uniformed military wandering the Palace and the surrounding compound. To put it simply, there are a lot of people with guns.

The hours are long, but not insane. This is not really a bad thing because I’m still learning what people do when they’re not working. I bounce back and forth between the compound (where we live and will eventually work) and the Palace. This weekend I may wander across the street to a local market and also accompany a colleague to the rug store. I may also go over to one of the pools. The food is… decent. I won’t starve here, but I won’t get much culinary delight either. We have kitchens in our apartments, but there’s no place to buy groceries (hence my trip across the street to the local market).

The apartments are comfortable. To accommodate a larger-than-planned number of residents, they converted one-bedroom apartments into two-bedroom apartments by turning the living room into a second bedroom. So we have our own bedroom and share a kitchen & bathroom. There’s a gym at the compound that I go to whenever I can. Overall, the daily routine is fairly monotonous. The movie “Groundhog Day” is a common reference among employees.

Working in the front office will be a great learning experience. I can already tell that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I don’t regret for a second my decision to come here. My portfolio includes the Political-Military section, the Public Affairs section, Hostage Affairs and a whole lot of acronyms I couldn’t begin to explain. That probably sounds more impressive than it is. I move paper back and forth. But I get to read a lot of interesting things.

With all the hoopla last year about the State Department possibly “forcing” diplomats to serve here, it’s surprising how many people here have either extended their tours or have returned for a second tour. Even with all the frustrations, inconveniences and dangers, there are a lot of people who love what they do and are very committed. I’m proud to be counted among them.

2 comments:

Mom said...

Heather, thanks for answering some questions I had.

Liam said...

Heather, I've quoted you and linked to your blog, here:
http://www.ilw.com/articles/2008,0918-schwartz.shtm
Thank you and be well.