Category Archives: Erbil

Pillaging

The pig freezer

The pig freezer

I had bacon for breakfast this morning. Bacon and freshly ground Starbucks coffee. This surprising bounty came as the harvest of my new found favourite hobby; looting. My housemate and I were invited to come looting by friends who work at the airport. A foreign contractor had evacuated its staff during the incident (like Voldemort, people here don’t refer to IS’s August advance on Erbil directly, mostly so they don’t have to classify it with words that might make people unhappy, such as crisis, near-invasion, when most of my friends left me or the time I realised I wasn’t one of the people with an automatic seat on the last plane). They’d left at very short notice and under some stress and although the company had promised to ship them some of their possessions there was a strict upper weight limit. This left eighteen flats full of expat stuff, much of which could be given to Erbil’s many refugees, but much of which could not; specifically larger electrical items, frozen foodstuffs and alcohol. My housemate’s house was pretty empty, now the two of us have three tvs and four fridges. Being only a temporary inmate, I concentrated my efforts on the consumables, by which I mean meat, the sauces that go with meat, and booze.

I think this is doable in the next five weeks, right?

I think this is doable in the next five weeks, right?

The abandoned freezers produced an astonishing range of world foods, much of it in the form of huge quantities of lovingly curated pork, including tenderloin, gammon steaks, all manner of bacon, ham, sausages, and some kind of so far unidentified Icelandic flat-pack orange-coloured pork chops. There was also Californian fish, Honduran prawns, American hamburgers and steaks and steaks and steaks. And chips and Branston pickle. I also snaffled around 200 abandoned dvds, including at least six copies of Badboys II. Surprisingly none of them have so far turned out to be porn. The alcohol situation is frightening in its possibilities; in the corner of my room, where Kurdish visitors can’t see it, there is a tower of booze. I have four cases of beer (plus assorted others), two litres of rum, three bottles of bourbon, gin, whiskey, wine, Bacardi breezers and a bottle of saki. We are the most infidel infidel’s house in Erbil. If IS come for us I reckon we could drink ourselves to death before they break through our barricade of pork-filled freezers. I also feel I have gained experience which will prove useful after the apocalypse when the survivors will have to live by scavenging from the ruins of our decadent consumer world.

stairway to the underworld, or at least a hefty insurance claim

stairway to the underworld, or at least a hefty insurance claim

On site, things continue to be both dangerous and depressing. Due to lack of funds we’ve gone down to just two workmen to shift the spoil. We haven’t sacked anyone, they’ve agreed to all go down to one day per week on a rota meaning every day I have to explain what needs doing all over again. In the deepest part of the excavation, which I now need to record, we’ve come to the limits of all our sensible ladders. The workmen have instead produced an abomination in ladder form, probably made by one of their children as a school woodwork project, which is long enough but so clearly potentially lethal I’m surprised the teacher let him take it home. It’s full of knots and cracks, creeks ominously while in use and has the fresh sappy smell of utterly unseasoned wood. I’ve banned the heaviest Kurdish trainee from using it, partially because I’m afraid he’ll break it but also because he is the very last person I want to fall on me.

Keeping calm in Erbil

More or less my first archaeological action this season was the satisfying destruction of a nice big wall

More or less my first archaeological action this season was the satisfying destruction of a nice big wall

My first week back in Erbil has been unexpectedly like most other weeks I’ve spent in this part of the world – I’ve had many uncomfortable conversations with taxi drivers, several unpleasant interactions with animals and I’ve eaten five times the amount of bread I’d want to eat in an ideal world. The main difference is that I’ve badly strained the muscles in my face which make the appropriate expression for when someone tells you something really terrible. I usually only get to use these a couple of times a year; when friends suffer a bereavement, and at Christmas and Weddings. Now these muscles are getting a full daily workout. Kurdistan has had quite a scare and a lot of people are suffering but most seem keen to make the best of it and keep looking forward. On Thursday night I went to the German bar where the live music was against a background of ‘Keep Calm’ messages including ‘Keep calm and stay in Erbil’ and ‘Keep calm and trust the Peshmerga’, which I’d like on a T-shirt if possible.

The pant-wetting chasm outside the city wall, into which one of us will surely fall to our deaths if we be not first buried alive

The pant-wetting chasm outside the city wall, into which one of us will surely fall to our deaths if we be not first buried alive

On the excavation things have got off to a bumpy start. In my absence the strategy appears to have been to locate the deepest part of the excavations head down with a sense of urgency. Even by my low standards of health and safety the site is now a massive screaming death trap and if we all make it out alive I’ll never write sarcastic comments on risk assessments again. I’ve been recapping some of last year’s work with the local archaeologists, such as why we sometimes write things down and which side of the tape is in metres. I’m sure it will all come back to them.

This time I’m staying with a lovely lady and her lovely dog. It’s all been lovely so far except my second evening in the house when the Bichon Frisé in question spent half an hour in a concerted effort to have violent sexual intercourse with my forearm. This was accompanied by a background refrain of ‘He’s not usually like this!’ Thankfully things have cooled off and we have since developed an attitude of mutual respect for each other’s bodily parts.

Should have left him there, the little...

Should have left him there, the little…

The other major animal related incident was my heroic rescuing of a kitten stuck on a drain pipe on the exterior of a tall building. I was handsomely rewarded by being scratched and pissed on. It could have been worse in the lottery of cat emissions, as my housemate sagely pointed out.

GISing in Stoke-on-Trent

Just a short post as very very very little has happened recently; I’ve been truly, deeply bored and I don’t want to spread it to the general population. At least ebola victims have to worry about passing on their bodily fluids, which sounds like exactly the sort of excitement the summer’s been missing. I’ve spent a lot of time lying on the sofa feeding my dinosaurs on Jurassic Park Builder, eating yoghurt with a big spoon and shouting at Judge Rinder (the new UK version of Judge Judy which has provided the first viable 2pm alternative to Doctors). I’ve also fallen back in love with Star Trek the next generation which is on CBS Action at 11am, giving me something to set the alarm for.

Last time I posted I was wrestling with the decision of whether or not to go and excavate in Erbil with ISIS at the gates. I eventually decided I needed the money more than I was worried about being beheaded by fruitcakes and to go out as planned. I was halfway through packing when the director of the citadel decided to delay my arrival for four weeks. I was initially pleased that he was responsible and concerned for my safety as a lone foreign woman flying into a war zone, but later discovered that the budget hadn’t arrived and he didn’t have the money to pay me.

When the world was young, my first archaeology job was digging up pottery factories in Stoke-on-Trent. This is the only photo I have of these times, and this is just how I remember it; a bit like a siberian gulag

When the world was young, my first archaeology job was digging up pottery factories in Stoke-on-Trent. This is the only photo I have of these times, and this is just how I remember it; a bit like a Soviet gulag

Other than writing another postdoc application for future rejection, the only archaeology I’ve been up to has been the sort you do on a computer rather than the good sort. People in archaeology go on about GIS (Geographic Information Systems) as if it’s some sort of magic practiced by archaeo-wizards who can use it to answer any question. Anything. So wishing to learn this deep magic I paid £117 to be taught GIS for archaeologists by Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent. It turns out that GIS isn’t magic, it’s just a computer package for drawing maps with an unusually poor user interface. It was a weary day. It was also an illustration of one of those uncomfortable divisions in archaeology. While I was waiting for the course to start in the morning I was chatting over coffee with the other twenty-odd people who were there for the two courses running. When the two course leaders came to collect us, all the women went off to the forensic archaeology course, on which there was not one man (I blame Silent Witness and Bones), and all the men came with me to the GIS course on which I was the only woman. Why why why? Women of archaeology! There is nothing to be afraid of, we can survey too. And men, Osteoarchaeology needs your manly attentions, and being a conservator doesn’t necessarily make you gay; you can like gluing things together and women.

I’m finally off to Iraq on Sunday, it’ll be great to get away from the Scottish referendum coverage.

The fighting season

I’m supposed to fly to Erbil in nine days’ time to continue excavating on the citadel which, all things considered, could have worked out better. The Foreign and Commonwealth office, as of yesterday, advises against all travel to most of Iraqi Kurdistan and the UK government has asked all British citizens to leave Erbil. That’s if I can get there at all seeing as most of the airlines that fly to Erbil are cancelling flights today. I now have to seriously consider the choice between bailing on the excavation, losing my airfare, two and a half months of pay and a certain amount of archaeological street-cred (trench-cred surely?) – we archaeologists traditionally laugh in the face of petty local deadly religious wars (see previous posts concerning Leonard Woolley) – or I could ignore the wise council of Her Majesty’s government and go out to Erbil to be butchered by angry jihadists. It’s all very difficult, on the one hand I really need the money, but on the other hand I don’t want to die and I do want to see the new series of Doctor Who. Seriously, I don’t know what to do.

The new Doctor Who says fuck the fuck off you dickless ISIS  c**ts

The new Doctor Who says fuck the fuck off you dickless ISIS c**ts

 

[On an unprecedentedly serious note, watching a region I’ve come to like very much (in spite of its lunatic minority and poorly justified policy towards bacon) disintegrate into murderous chaos has been exceptionally painful. I’ve been deeply angry and frustrated over the short-sighted inaction of the international community over both the state of Israel’s murder of almost 2000 mostly innocent civilians in Gaza and the unchecked barbarity of ISIS/ISIL/IS in Iraq and Syria, all in the name of supposed just and merciful gods. Other than shouting at the television, my only response has been to give money to the Red Cross for Gaza and to the National Secular Society as mankind’s only long term hope.]

It’s been a bad summer, mostly spent on my parent’s sofa watching the World Cup, Wimbledon, the Tour de France, the cricket, the Commonwealth Games and the Horrible Wars. As well as making this my most physically inactive summer ever, it’s been extremely disappointing; I wanted England to win the World Cup (I know) and the cricket, Roger Federer to win Wimbledon, Chris Froome to win the Tour de France, the Palestinians to win in Gaza, the government to win in Ukraine and anyone but ISIS to win in Iraq. At least we did pretty well in the Commonwealth Games.

Drunk in a pub in Abingdon I experience considerable, if somewhat questionable, pleasure

Drunk in a pub in Abingdon I experience considerable, if somewhat questionable, pleasure

I haven’t been doing much archaeology; I wrote a paper, did some reconstruction illustrations and a very boring desk based assessment for a site in Croydon. I read a vaguely archaeological book this week, written in the 1950s by a journalist travelling through the Middle East; ‘Flying to 3000 BC’ by Pierre Jeannerat. My heart sank during the introduction which was nauseatingly floral (‘The Great Pyramid is no mere bulk of freestone; it is also made of poetry’) but this soon settled down into more readable anecdotes about runaway donkeys and climbing pyramids in eveningwear after dinner parties. The coverage of the archaeology is rudimentary but it’s worth the read because Jeannerat meets some of the more famous archaeologists of the day. He gets shown around Nimrud by Max Mallowan and has lunch with Agatha Christie. He gets shouted at by Kathleen Kenyon from the bottom of her trench at Jericho. Disappointingly, Iraq is more or less skipped in favour of an extended dream sequence which involves Jeannerat reading a book from the distant future in which the world is wisely ruled over by elephants who are struggling to make sense of the archaeological remains of the barbarous human civilisation which preceded them. Going into details of the socio-religious structure of the future elephantine world and biographical details of the elephant author, professor Dermpacky, this sequence consumes around a fifth of the book and is mind-bogglingly pointless.

I find your lack of bacon disturbing

I find your lack of bacon disturbing

Outside archaeology I have amused myself by going to beer festivals and trying to adapt my sleep patterns so that my waking hours overlap as little as possible with those of my parents. My greatest triumph was going to my sister’s boyfriend’s Starwars/Game of Thrones themed birthday party as a Jedi direwolf.

Public relations

Disney's Robin Hood: the first man I ever loved

Disney’s Robin Hood: the first man I ever loved

I’m drinking tea on my parent’s sofa reading my old John Constantine graphic novels, while receiving malevolent looks from my dad. I made him turn over from The One Show for the safety of both of us. I’ve been back in the UK for forty long hours now, though I made some of them go very fast by seeing Thor: The Dark World and drinking five pints of Cheshire Gap at the pub. The last week in Erbil was fairly packed. On site I completed The Megaplan (you can fit a lot of bricks in a 20m x 15m trench and now I know them all personally), my team won the Halloween quiz at the T Bar and were rewarded with lots of small, free, colourful drinks (which seemed like a good idea at the time), and I went to a refugee camp where we made life better for a bunch of Syrian children by making them watch Disney’s Robin Hood until they cried. I pretended to be amazing at Egyptian Arabic by translating the dubbed sound track back into English for my colleagues, while in fact simply recalling the script word for word having watched Robin Hood at least three hundred times between the ages of 7 and 28 (when the second DVD wore out).

Media mess: A late medieval wall proves to be the perfect buffet table

Media mess: A late medieval wall proves to be the perfect buffet table

We finished the season by holding a large press conference in the trench. I spent much of this hiding, and grinding my teeth as I watched members of the Kurdish press pulling bones out of the sections, scrambling over architecture in four inch heels, and using the ancient walls to put their drinks on. There was a thrilling minute during which a particularly fat cameraman stood on a section of wall supported only by optimism. I remained undecided as to whether the damage to the wall might be worth the sight of him breaking his legs in front of twenty TV cameras. I have since had to endure my colleagues sending endless YouTube clips of me looking shifty and irritable on various Kurdish satellite channels. I finally got paid (in cash). At first they wanted to pay me in Iraqi dinars but I had to point out that there wasn’t even nearly enough room in my luggage.

The Parthenon: still not finished

The Parthenon: still not finished

Because I haven’t suffered enough, instead of going home I went to a five day conference in Athens on Kurdish archaeology. When I say ‘went’, I mean I registered and then spent five days shopping and drinking wine in cafes. I dutifully went to the Parthenon, but was extremely careful to learn nothing whatsoever. Particularly memorable moments were the military museum (where I discovered that things haven’t gone so well for the Greek military since the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC) and seeing a dog run over by a taxi. I have changed plane in Istanbul airport nine times in the last twelve months and aim to never go there again.

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: https://oldstuffinhotplaces.com/2013/05/12/disgracing-myself-in-erbil/ 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.