Monthly Archives: September 2015

Trying not to explode

It's just a bomb, what harm can it do, right?

It’s just a bomb, what harm can it do, right?

I’m still on my Eid holidays, the length of which is one of the few benefits of being employed by the Kurdish Regional Government. The holiday cut last week down to just three working days but we managed to fit a lot in, one way or another. On Sunday morning the workmen continued to clear the rubbish where last week’s awkward Qurans were lurking. Going through a particularly rich vein of plastic shoes, chicken wire and fire extinguishers, I notice a largish rusty bit of iron coming up so I jumped down to give it a scrape with a trowel. What I uncovered were the sinister rusted tail fins of a fairly large mortar round. “It’s a fucking bomb!” I exclaimed, removing myself from the trench with much speed and little dignity. I turned back to see one of the workman, with to my mind a maniacal grin on his face, stick the shovel under the mortar and flip it out of the ground. I just about managed to stop him from chucking it over the wall down the five metre drop to the spoil heap. Then it was time for everyone to laugh at the funny foreign lady who thinks bombs sometimes explode if you hit them with a shovel or drop them five metres onto concrete. It was really hilarious, I’m still laughing inside.

Area F - precious few places to stand, nowhere to hide

Area F – precious few places to stand, nowhere to hide

The second trial of the week came with the arrival of a reporter from BBC Arabic along with a swarm of camera crew and producers. I have long experience of safely handling this sort of situation by walking quickly in the opposite direction and finding somewhere to hide until they go away. In the past I’ve successfully hidden from Reuters, National Geographic, Al Iraqiya, Rudaw, Hezbolah TV and Alastair Sooke, but this time there was no way out – literally; this part of site is tiny and there’s only one exit. I told the reporter that cameras make me unhappy, so he said he’d just take some quotes down, but within ten minutes there was a sound guy shoving a microphone up my shirt. I tried to think of intelligent things to say but it was hard when 90% of my brain was trying to work out what the hell to do with my arms. Luckily they only used two tiny clips and dubbed me over in Arabic:

http://www.bbc.com/arabic/multimedia/2015/09/150925_iraq_arbil_castle

The only exciting thing I’ve done with my holiday is to visit a German dig up in the mountains. I went with my housemate and her driver and a fine gift of beer and biscuits. It was nice to talk about archaeology for a change – all we talk about at the Citadel is food and when can we reasonably go home. The journey there and back was probably the real highlight as I was entertained/terrified by our progress down a endless dreadful road in a Nissan Sunny with no rear brakes and no discernible suspension. My housemate’s antics were of particular interest as she attempted to incite our driver to violence by constantly telling him to slow down, maintain two car lengths between us and the car in front, activating and deactivating the hazard lights seemingly at random and lecturing checkpoint guards on how they should paint lines across the speed bumps. We mysteriously survived the journey.

The mountains near Rania

The mountains near Rania

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Rucking, mauling and digging in Iraq

The best view in Erbil - from the roof of the citadel's new gate, which will hopefully open one day

The best view in Erbil – from the roof of the citadel’s new gate, which will hopefully open one day

It’s Friday in Erbil and I’m being unpleasantly reminded of why I don’t drink much wine any more. The shaking has mostly stopped now, but I’m still feeling a bit… sullied. I was out with the ‘Erbil Film Society’ last night, which turns out to be a small group of oil people with a projector and an unlimited amount of free food and booze, which is never a bad thing and yet never really a good thing either.

The teaching of section drawing becomes a fairly intimate affair when part of the section is essentially in a tunnel

The teaching of section drawing becomes a fairly intimate affair when part of the section is essentially in a tunnel

The excavation proceeds slowly, partly because it’s still very hot and there’s no shade most of the day by the south gate, but also because we’re all very lazy and my Kurdish co-workers want to go home at 2pm and who am I to argue? We had another hold up yesterday of a new and exotic kind, just when I thought I’d seen all the possible ways in which archaeology can be impeded. We’re clearing a deposit of modern rubbish that was used to fill the gap between the archaeology and a modern wall. The rubbish is of the usual Middle Eastern kind – lots of plastic bags and an inexplicable wealth of shoes and pharmaceutical packaging – but then we hit a rich seam of burnt books, which on inspection appeared to be Qurans. Turns out you can’t just chuck a Quran on the spoil heap, you have to watch for forty-five minutes while two Kurdish workmen reverentially scoop handfuls of ashy pages into plastic shopping bags, making a huge hole in your neat excavation. I asked what they were going to do with the bags of Quran ash but they just shrugged and put them under the pomegranate tree for safe-keeping. From the flakes of ash poking out from the rest of the rubbish I have a sinking feeling that this will prove to be a Quran-rich deposit and we’re going to spend a lot of next week on holy-book-disposal instead of science.

My Kurdish colleagues use a hand tape to gather pomegranates from a nearby tree in a further illustration of their extraordinary work ethic

My Kurdish colleagues use a hand tape to gather pomegranates from a nearby tree in a further illustration of their extraordinary work ethic

So spins the earth, and so eventually the Rugby World Cup comes around, in about three hours’ time in fact. Me and my housemate are off to our friend A’s house where he’s cooking a bacon-based pasta dish and putting his enormous TV at our disposal. I have an excellent night ahead of bacon, beer, rugby and explaining rugby to an American. I’ve already tried explaining the scrum to her, which elicited expressions of horror, so we’ll have to take it slowly. I’ve actually managed to find rugby to play here, which makes me think there might be hope for Iraq after all. I’m now playing touch rugby twice a week just down the road, although I am struggling a bit with the heat and the creeping advance of creeky-knee-ed age. Still, it’s good to be doing something here other than drinking, smoking and complaining.

The storm before the calm

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The dreary view through the office window of the citadel flag

Erbil hosted a major lightning exhibition all last night, with a sort of End of Days wind theme running through it. Personally, I spent the evening watching it all from the garden of the Chaldean Club with a shisha and a few beers while the wind slowly gathered up all the litter in the neighbourhood and deposited in the sheltered corner where L and me were sitting. We were well over ankle deep in napkins and plastic bags by eleven o’clock and surrounded by an accumulation of all the restaurant’s plastic rubbish bins, which were one-per-table at the start of the night. It did dawn on me, in hindsight, that I’d spent three and a half hours in a serious electrical storm smoking from a three foot tall metal pipe, but you live and learn. Or you get struck by lightning and die.

The bit of the citadel which is currently the most likely to kill us all. Now with the added weight of a day and a night of rain water

The bit of the citadel which is currently the most likely to kill us all. Now with the added weight of a day and a night of rain water

Sleep was not all that easy between the lightning, thunder, the banging of the many wind-borne objects and the fiery explosions of electrical things in the street outside. I have a mind to get some thicker curtains. None the less, I arrived on site this morning more or less eager and more or less on time (the good fortune of getting one of those taxi drivers who think nothing of wheel-spin and the odd dead pedestrian), keen to finally start some digging after last week’s endless pointless meetings. Alas, after just forty minutes of joyful section cleaning, during which I tried to demonstrate how to get as dirty as possible in the shortest possible time to my immaculately dressed Kurdish trainee, the rain arrived. I spent almost the whole day in the site office trying to look busy, but mostly trying to get into the Hornblower books, which on first impressions are dreadful. I kept trying to take advantage of the dry spells but every time I went back to the site it started bucketing down after five minutes. As one of my assistants said, ‘The rain, it like you’ before going back to checking facebook on his phone.

Sack-of-shit. Same old cheery disposition. Same smell

Sack-of-shit. Same old cheery disposition. Same smell

Everyone else went home at 2pm and I was left in the company of Sack-of-shit, the malevolent office cat who has disappointingly failed to die in the last ten months. He lay under the cabin for half an hour keeping up his constant angry meow, at which point I decided to drown him, failed, and went home. I was pleased to hear at the weekend that the enormous orange cat (tiger?) who I had a fight with last year on Halloween was run over by an SUV while I was away. I enjoy the satisfaction which is natural at the death of an enemy, but I will still carry the scars to my grave.

As a post script, here is another picture from a now lost Palmyra:

The view down from one of the now destroyed funerary towers, as I check to see if my horse has run off yet

The view down from one of the recently destroyed funerary towers, as I checked to see if my horse had run off yet