Monthly Archives: October 2013

False starts

Today was supposed to be the first day back on site after the Eid break, so I crawled weeping from my bed at 7am (I have been mostly getting up at noon), put my digging boots on, filled my pockets full of knives and string and stumbled off in search of a taxi. The office was locked which was a bad sign. I walked over to the site to find it full of crisp packets and plastic bags and completely empty of workmen. I walked back past Asad the guard; “Nooo buddy here!” he said “Ha ha ha”.

The third worst cup of coffee in the world. The world's worst coffee is of course brewed by the Garden City House Hotel, Cairo, which has now ceased trading for the good of mankind.

My third worst cup of coffee ever. The world’s worst coffee is of course brewed by the Garden City House Hotel, Cairo, which has now ceased trading for the good of mankind.

Determined not to wholly waste the taxi fare I went out through the main gate and down to the square where I sat at one of the tea booths and asked for a nescafe. A nine year old boy made me a mug of something that tasted like the milk from a bowl of Cocoa Pops, if you heated it up and stirred it through with petrol. I pretended to drink it while reading Wolf Hall and refusing a string of offers to have my boots cleaned. The nine year old boy charged me a thousand dinar, which was about three times as much as the going rate for a real nescafe. I rolled my eyes but gave him his money; I try to avoid having fights with primary school children before 10am.

The British contribution to Erbil's historic citadel

1920s water tank: The British contribution to Erbil’s historic citadel

The Eid holiday continued as it started; as a litany of drink related incidents punctuated by extreme boredom and the World Cup Qualifiers. As the alcohol-to-archaeology ratio of this blog is already embarrassing me, I shall instead tell you about a book I partially read. It should have been an interesting book about the British Mandate period in Iraq, but the undoubted talent of the author turned it into a turgid wade through late Imperial bureaucracy, unrelieved by style, narrative or pictures. He leaves out all the fighting.

I did learn some interesting things however. The British took on the mandate of Mesopotamia after the First World War, partially because they wanted the oil, but mostly because they didn’t want the French to have it. The British were initially in favour of Kurdish independence but this mostly fell through because the Kurds were entirely unable to come up with a single leader with whom the British could sit down and have a cup of tea. Frustration over the lack of a proper tea drinking partner eventually led to the RAF bombing Suleimaniya in 1925. Things were not especially helped by Gertrude Bell running around giving some fairly poor advice. Gertrude Bell was an archaeologist, political officer, writer, traveller, spy and mountaineer who was largely responsible for the creation of Iraq. It is possibly down to the fact that she spread herself so thinly that she was able to do a moderately large amount of damage in so many different spheres. I personally restrict myself to the damage of archaeology and that’s enough for me. Perhaps one day I will finish the book and there will be a happy ending (maybe a wedding) but I’m not optimistic. The major legacy of British rule in Iraq seems to be the sensible use of three-pin plugs.

Gertrude Bell, on whom I won £30 at Ascot the autumn before last

Gertrude Bell, on whom I won £30 at Ascot the autumn before last

The devil makes work for idle hands

The wheelbarrow ramp situation on site is starting to resemble a fairly challenging early 90s platform game

The wheelbarrow ramp situation on site is starting to resemble an early 90s platform game

I’m undergoing a process of decontamination. I’ve had a long shower, put all my clothes in the washing machine, eaten two pro-biotic yoghurts and brushed my teeth twice. If only I could give my brain a good rinse under the tap I might be ready to rejoin society. I have the week off work because of Eid, which is a time when people are supposed to return to their families for a period of peace and sober contemplation and sheep sacrifice. Naturally, I took this opportunity to go on a two day nihilistic drinking bout of unusual ambition.

Octoberfest in Iraq

Octoberfest in Iraq

The first stage was a basic re-run of my very first night in Erbil in the spring: I started at the German Bar, where the delights of Octoberfest have begun. On arrival I ordered a two litre stein of a powerful wheat beer and settled in to watch the freshly imported German um-pah band being led by a vastly fat, drunk man in lederhosen. As my bucket of wheat beer was delivered it was announced we were leaving in fifteen minutes and should drink up, which, against expectation and good sense, I did. With this strong start under my belt we moved on to The Edge in the American compound. Above the bar is proclaimed ‘What happens at The Edge stays at The Edge’, for which I am profoundly grateful. I remember spectacularly winning at darts by ending with two darts in the green of the bull, and I remember dancing (sort of) and being pursued by a very very drunk American.  My last memory of the evening was of watching Thai boxing in the British consular building, then I woke up in all my clothes on a friend’s bed with a German woman on the phone asking where I was because I was supposed to be going with her to Lalish.

Schwartzbier: evil in a tall glass

Schwartzbier: evil in a tall glass

I did not go to Lalish. Instead I stumbled off to the German Bar breakfast porkathon in an effort to recover my wits. Unfortunately, just as I looked in danger of sobering up, someone bought me a beer and things went south from there. In the end I stayed for eight hours, drank seven litres of schwartzbier and played a German drinking game that involves hammering a nail into a tree. When it got dark the um-pah band played Waltzing Matilda and handed out free beer. But all things must end, and eventually it becomes necessary to change one’s clothes, so a very drunk friend drove me home where I took some ibuprofen and watched two episodes of Downton Abbey.

I do not recommend the digestive effects of a diet consisting only of bacon and schwartzbier.

Staggering on

The Irish drunk - philosopher, poet, knee-squeezer

The traditional Irish drunk – philosopher, poet and knee-squeezer

Against my better judgement I found myself at the ‘Irish Bar’ again last night, drinking a strange beer from the British Virgin Islands and being slowly lobotomised by the mind-buggeringly awful music. I did, however, manage to find something authentically Irish this time in the shape of Paul; a drunk elderly man from County Down. He bought me a beer while slurring incoherently about the Mountains of Mourne and being way too free with his hands. If I could have had a pint of stout and ended the night under a table roaring Whisky in the Jar the experience would have been complete. When I asked what his job was he said ‘Ah work wit m’shovel’.

living on the crumbly edge

living on the crumbly edge

On the excavation, things have achieved a healthy sort of monotony, except for the occasional hangover and deadly car bombing. I was on site when the bombings happened last week; it was quite a bang which scared all the birds off the citadel and made me drop my plumb bob. Everything got back to normal pretty quickly though and we didn’t even get the afternoon off. The main dangers that I’m actually experiencing, other than suicidal Kurdish driving habits, are to do with cleaning off the top of the enormous fortification wall prior to planning it. This involves balancing on crumbling ancient mud brick with a five metre drop on one side and a strong cross wind. I feel my experience working aloft up the masts of tall ships has helped with the emotional background to this process. One of my Kurdish colleagues won’t even go up the step ladder to take site photographs.

Same old, same old. Erbil weather is not the most exciting

Same old, same old. Erbil weather is not exciting

Nice green pot, alas full of encrusted shit as it had been used as a drain

Nice green pot, alas full of encrusted shit as it had been used as a drain

I’m finding that excavating in the middle of a big city is a bit different to the digs I work on out in the middle of nowhere. One issue is that I’m just so dirty. Urban Kurds are a pretty well-groomed lot, overlooking their rather excessive use of powerful aftershaves, and I do get some rather concerned looks walking through town in my best old clothes covered in filth. Taxi drivers in particular seem filled with doubt about my right to be in any such state, being female, alone, very foreign and very dirty. Many seem unprepared for such an exotic beast. On Wednesday the taxi driver who drove me home offered me some of his perfume. I was unsure if he was making a pass or making a point about sweaty, smelly foreigners.