Category Archives: Iraq

Slow start in Erbil

I’m finally back in the game after a long boring summer of weary write-up and digitisation work. I’ve taken on about five hundred hours of plan digitisation for a British Museum project, which involves me drawing over lines on a graphics tablet with my mouth hanging open, listening to the less mind-numbing bits of Radio 4 or watching Come Dine With Me. A trained monkey could do it if you could get it grasp how layers work in Adobe Illustrator. Anyway, it was a relief to be heading off to the more mentally stimulating environments provided by attempting archaeology in Iraq.

We always think Safety First here at the citadel

We always think Safety First here at the citadel

So, I’m back in Erbil, dodging fatal road traffic accidents and trying to keep a straight face in archaeological committee meetings. I find that half my Kurdish trainees have permanently migrated to Europe, which is helpful. We won’t start digging until Sunday, but there’s an ambitious plan to wrap up the project here in style by killing a member of staff – they’ve found the most lethal possible section to clean and record. It’s right on the precipitous edge of the Citadel, four or five meters high, topped with a crumbling brick wall and standing on top of a four meter sheer drop onto concrete. Death may come from above or below. I’ve demanded scaffolding and put hard hats on the shopping list. As there’s little do be done in the meantime, I’ve told the staff I’ll work from home today so at least I can do nothing in peace.

My last look at the Temple of Bel. It was fine when I left it (which is the line I'm also taking on my landlady's sun awning)

My last look at the Temple of Bel. It was fine when I left it (which is the line I’m also taking on my landlady’s sun awning)

It’s been a hot, grey, windy day in Erbil, during which I’ve investigated the various available Nespresso flavours and watched my landlady’s sun awning get torn to pieces by the wind. Today has also brought news that the shitbags of Daash have tried and failed to blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, which has put me in a dark mood, although also confirms my view that most archaeology is harder than it looks and can generally take care of itself in a fight. I looked through all my photos of last time I was in Palmyra and reflected on better, less mad times in Syria, and on how much older and fatter I’ve got since 2008. It seems a long lifetime ago that feckless western girls could swan around Aleppo bars smoking and swilling industrial quantities of Arak. It’s unclear if I will ever again go to the pancake house at Palmyra or pose for photos in front of the Temple of Bel looking dirty and hungover. Sad times in the Middle East.

Empty stools at my favourite bar in Aleppo

A hazy memory of my favourite bar in Aleppo

Summer progress

Farewell to the potted kittens of Egypt and a return to the fussy elderly cats of Cheshire

Farewell to the potted kittens of Egypt and a return to the fussy elderly cats of Cheshire

There’s been quite a lot of time since I came back from Egypt. I’m not completely sure how much time now that I’ve slithered back into my rudderless UK life where every day is the same (apparently there was a bank holiday?). I think some of my time went missing in the week I went to the Cambridge Beer festival, which has added to the confusion. I also seem to have lost quite a lot of money and some of my short term memory at about the same time. The beer festival was part of my annual Summer Progress in which I sofa-hop from friend to friend, dragging them to various pubs to bore them rigid about archaeology and my ill-considered views on Middle Eastern politics. In turn, they tell me about their homes, jobs and children. This year’s progress took in London, Windsor, Ely, Cambridge, Bounds Green and Have I Got News For You? which was disappointingly hosted by Frank Skinner.

Palmyra in 2008. I mostly seem to have used a horse back then, presumably because I was too drunk or lazy to walk

Palmyra in 2008. I mostly seem to have used a horse back then, presumably because I was too lazy to walk

But woman cannot live on scones and pork scratchings alone and I’m now solidly back at my parents’ house, camped in the living room telling my dad he can’t watch Homes Under the Hammer. Luckily he doesn’t get most of my jokes about Dignitas. Of course, this also means I’ve been keeping up to date with the summer progress of Daash (Islamic State) across Syria and Iraq. I was particularly angry about Palmyra in Syria which holds some happy memories for me, having spent a short time there serving soup to German tourists as an indentured waitress in a small restaurant during a bizarre incident in 2008. It is (was?) a more than averagely magical place. I remember the restaurant owner’s father telling me stories about when the Germans and Vichy French occupied Palmyra during the Second World War; they were apparently very rude customers but stopped short of executing unarmed prisoners in the ancient amphitheatre. It really does take Daash to make the Nazis look like an alright bunch of blokes.

Dying light over the city of Palmyra

Dying light over the city of Palmyra

The fall of Palmyra to Daash also underlined something that I’ve long suspected; that a site being designated as a UNESCO world heritage site counts for piss all. The citadel of Erbil, where I’ve been working for a couple of years now, was given World Heritage status last year. Most of the Kurds I talked to thought this was great as they assumed it would open up UN money to improve and protect the site. ‘Ha ha!’ I would reply, ‘You think UNESCO are going to give you money?’ Instead of money, UNESCO give new World Heritage Sites a big long list of things they expect done if you want to keep your World Heritage status. In theory, UNESCO should supply guidance and expertise, but in practice UNESCO tends to employ (in my limited experience) well-meaning, ineffectual incompetents (no offence), who at best achieve nothing and at worst totally bugger things up. Other than money, World Heritage status is often assumed to imply some degree of international protection from harm. As has been profoundly demonstrated over the last year, the world won’t lift a finger to save its heritage. All we get are statements of condemnation, which only encourage Daash by telling them how upset we’ll all be if they destroy heritage sites. If we could convince Daash we don’t give a shit (which in practical terms the international community doesn’t) Daash wouldn’t waste the explosives. The World is rubbish.

Islamic State vs The Archaeology

I got back from Iraq last weekend and immediately came down with a stinking cold. I’m going to have to face facts; that I’ve developed an allergy to Istanbul Ataturk Airport, possibly due to the price of beer there.

The delicate job of getting the site portaloo over our irrigation canal foot bridge

The delicate job of getting the site portaloo over our irrigation canal foot bridge

As people keep bothering me about all the nasty smashy things Islamic State (or Daash as we call them in Iraq) are doing to antiquities in the north, I thought it might be time for politics to poke its fat, wet nose into my blog (which sounds really horrible now I’ve written it down). As regular readers are aware, I do like to keep things light; partly because I think there’s probably enough earnest, hand-ringing misery being written about the Middle East already, and partly because I’m very stupid and incapable of forming reasoned arguments.

Of course I agree with all the statements of outrage expressed by my fellow archaeologists, and would like to add my own, albeit with a great deal more swearing and less good grammar. However, I’d like to take a quick look at things from a slightly less bleak perspective.

Nineveh

“That’s for the infidels, and that’s for that girl who laughed at my tiny penis, and that’s for the hipster who stole my beard, and, ..and… …(sob)”

Austin Henry Layard. There was a man who really knew how to destroy an archaeological site, and how to carry off facial hair. I think I'm in love

Austin Henry Layard, excavator of Nineveh. Now there was a man who really knew how to destroy an archaeological site, and how to carry off facial hair. I think I’m in love

Firstly, although the destruction in Mosul Museum and at Nineveh and Nimrud is certainly a cultural heritage disaster, it hardly affects the sites in terms of archaeology and is small potatoes compared to the damage done by the jolly old 19th century archaeologists like Layard. The loss of archaeological information is minimal. Most of the unexcavated deposits are safe and sound below the surface and all that gaudy statuary above ground is fully recorded, so in archaeological terms it was ready to go anyway. The problem with trying to destroy the archaeological past is that you always just find something older underneath, and on and on it goes like in my nightmares. Archaeologically they might have done us a favour. I’m writing a funding proposal in my head right now called ‘Discovering the pre-Assyrian origins of Nimrud’, which is all going to be much more financially feasible now that the Islamic State have removed the late period overburden for me. And after all, I’ve been destroying archaeological deposits professionally for over a decade, these pricks are just amateurs.

In archaeological terms, it is also pleasing to reflect that Daash will be virtually unrecoverable archaeologically. There may, in places, be a Daash horizon consisting of the rubble of nice things, but there will be no Daash layers or structures as they don’t make anything or build anything because they’re too busy being mad and masturbating over footage of themselves on Youtube. In general the archaeological record is bigger and uglier than most things, including Islamic State, and can look after itself. IS won’t be around for long in any case with their high staff turnover and crippling sexual insecurities; the archaeological record will barely notice them.

Well, so much for Daash, now back to the usual shite.

The strange performance art of the photography pole

The strange performance art of the photography pole

The last week of the project went off reasonably smoothly. When we dismantled the women’s toilet, the cess pool was found to have a drowned mole floating in it which had swelled to the point of being entirely spherical. On Monday I was coerced into giving a lecture on climate and architecture to a hundred sixteen-year-old boys at the Nasiriyah Institute of Fine Art, after which one of the boys took his shirt off and performed the epic of Gilgamesh via the medium of interpretive dance. Sat in the front row things were pretty grim; trying avoiding eye contact and keeping a neutral face. Those were thirty long minutes.

On Wednesday our finds assistant Nasralah shot a dog. It was an excellent single shot kill from about 150m with an old rifle. We’re still not sure exactly why the dog needed shooting, I hope it wasn’t just the barking. On Thursday, in a heroic effort of will, we finished the last half litre of vodka and on Friday me and F watched all six hours of the BBC’s 1995 series of Pride and Prejudice. We ate a lot of crisps and heckled Mr Darcy constantly about his trousers.

The last of my private stores

The last of my private stores

I now have one week in the warm bosom of my parent’s television before I have to go and dig up dead people in Egypt again. The war against the old stuff never ends

In the nursery

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

End of another long day. It's a slice of Iraqi tea and then up the mudbrick hill to bedfordshire

End of another long day. It’s a slice of Iraqi tea and then up the mudbrick hill to bedfordshire for me

Once upon a time there was a dirty, tired, bitter old woman who desperately wanted to finish digging holes in an ancient palace so she could write it up and go home and live happily ever after (or at least watch tv in her pyjamas for a week). But this couldn’t happen because every time she got close to finishing excavating her last room some old crap would turn up and she would tear her hair and curse the gods and clean and photograph and plan it. Today it was a dead baby in a pot.

Kinder surprise

Kinder surprise

We’d excavated a couple of these external buttress chambers before and they just have a bit of dumping material inside and unsurfaced mud brick at the bottom; this one should have been quick. I’ve been digging room 304 out for nearly three weeks now and difficult things keep coming up to make me unhappy. Strangely childlike things. First there was the farmyard activity play set. This featured a range of animal figurines, vehicle parts and little farmers, all lovingly modeled in soggy unbaked clay and then mashed up. They presented themselves as a mass of sturdy bases from man figurines, the back ends of large-testicled bulls, and beaten up horse torsos with their heads knocked off (I also used to knock the heads off my toys if I didn’t like the way they were looking at me).

 

Fully functional pottery rattle; all the cool kids have got them this year

Fully functional pottery rattle; all the cool kids have got them this year

The next thing to turn up was a rattle. A real Old Babylonian, 3700 year old rattle, made of pottery and still rattling. I flipped it intact out of the deposit with my trowel with a merry little rattle and then I gave it a good rattle next to my head and danced a little rattle discovery dance. It’s now been rattled by everyone on the project, by all three Iraqi antiquities reps, by our driver, by the UK Chargé d’Affaires to Iraq and by half her security entourage. On Saturday it will be rattled by the Minister of Antiquities for Iraq. It’s just been x-rayed at Nasiriyah hospital to see what makes it quite so rattley.

 

The mud brick playpen. Perfect for all bronze age toddlers

The mud brick playpen. Perfect for all bronze age toddlers

The rattle turned out to be from a partitioned-off corner of the room which is now referred to in all my notes as the ‘playpen’. It’s enclosed by a thin mud brick wall at about waist height with a raised floor and no doorway (in fact the whole room has no doorway; I initially thought the playpen might be the lift shaft). I suppose all things considered I should have been expecting the kinder surprise this afternoon. At the dig house I found a potato which looks exactly like a 5-6 week old human embryo, and no good can come of that sort of omen.

Ill-omened potato foetus

Ill-omened potato foetus

Babylon the Great

The lion of Babylon making nice with a man

The lion of Babylon making nice with a man

It’s been a week of wind and rain in southern Iraq. This morning the truck almost got stuck in the mud on the way to site again, which would have saved us all a great deal of windy, freezing misery, but it was not to be. It finally dragged itself out by its four-wheel-drive onto the express way where it carried us wailing to site. At night I have been kept awake by the drumming of rain on the roof of my shipping container and by my possessions knocking into the furniture as they wash across the floor.

Rani, about to find out if that other button does turn the truck into a hovercraft

Rani, about to find out if that other button does turn the truck into a hovercraft

Friendly neighbourhood policing

Friendly neighbourhood policing in Diwaniyah

We had a special treat this Friday, which was to go and be cold and wet in Babylon instead of being cold and wet at Ur. At least it gave the dig directors a break from our whining, which was probably the point of the exercise. We were passed northward through the heavily armoured hands of four provincial police forces, all of whom cultivate the amateur-enthusiast aura of American bible-belt militias, mixed with a bit of official pomp and a few scarves knitted by their mums. Luckily they took off their more interesting accessories and larger guns to escort us around the site.

 

 

In the sensory vacuum of Baathist Babylon reconstruction, F falls victim to existential doubt

In the sensory vacuum of Baathist Babylon reconstruction, F falls victim to existential doubt

 

Babylon in the rain. It does have atmosphere; specifically that of an abandoned soviet holiday complex built too close to the water table. The majority of it is taken up with Saddam’s enormous empty reconstructed buildings erected in the 1980s, which remind me of a dream I once had about living in a concrete grain silo after the nuclear apocalypse. They at least have the soothing effect of minimalist visual calm due to there being absolutely nothing that catches the eye.

 

There are some original parts remaining. The raised brick reliefs of the Ishtar gate still give you an idea of the grandeur of the place, and parts of the ancient processional way have been preserved; ornamented on this occasion by the addition of a dead fox artfully arranged on the bitumen lined pavement. Overlooking the whole enterprise is Saddam’s huge palace, which would have given him an excellent view of what he was spoiling. I was hoping to buy something monstrously tacky from the gift shop but in this I was also disappointed as it seems to have been closed for at least twenty years and now had only two elderly men sleeping in it. Instead I sampled the delights of Babylon’s only ladies’ toilet, which had no lock, paper, bin or running water. Cradle of civilization, my arse.

One of our policemen admires the charming dead foxes of the Great Processional Way

One of our policemen admires the charming dead foxes of the Great Processional Way

The lunatic fringe

 

As the Blues sense victory, the Reds super-weapon stalks over the battlefield shooting lasers from its cycloptic eye!!!!!!!!!!

As the Blues sense victory, the Reds super-weapon stalks onto the battlefield shooting lasers from its cycloptic eye

It’s a regrettable truth that archaeology attracts far more than its fair share of mentally deranged people, not just within the subject as a commercial and academic pursuit, but also from society at large. Itinerant fruit cakes gather around the subject like kids round a carcass.

The first season's unfortunately shaped test trench

The first season’s unfortunately shaped test trench

We got a call this week from the British Ambassador congratulating us on discovering the world’s earliest shopping mall. The consular staff had read it in the Iraqi press; how we’d found a big building full of little shops. I suppose you could call it that, provided we assume that most shops in the Old Babylonian period sold only broken pottery and dust. This was in fact one of many colourful interpretations of our data by members of the excitable press. The very best example of the genre for this particular project dates to the first test season when two trenches were dug across each other to chase rectilinear wall lines. This produced a sensational article on Wikipedia (recently removed but still available via the Worthy Christian Forum) which claimed we had discovered a temple in the form of the earliest Christian cross, dating to 2000 BC (…).

 

The alien escape capsule is found mostly intact, but did the pilot survive the landing?

The alien escape capsule is found mostly intact, but did the pilot survive the landing?

No.

No. That’s ceramic space technology for you

Fanciful tales are by no means restricted to intellectually deficient journalists trying to rake a publishable story out of tedious old crap. There are plenty of crazies out there churning out nonsense simply because they’re window-licking simpletons. This project has acquired its own conspiracy theorist, whose name I won’t mention in case she finds my blog and starts accusing me of supressing the truth about all the alien technology we’re excavating for the US government. She’s written a book about the site, available on Amazon, which as far as I can tell claims to be an investigative piece about our secret archaeological work funded by the oil industry and shadowy government agencies. I’ve only read the sample pages free on Amazon as I refuse to pay her money (even though she claims all profits will go to the Society for Truth in Archaeological Research, which I fear may have but one member). She seems to think we’re either looking for alien technology, hiding the truth about the origins of humanity, covering up radical new evidence about biblical scripture or hunting for Nazi gold. One of those.

I’m not quite sure why she thinks we’re so secretive; the project has a website, a facebook page and a twitter account. Her in-depth research, which she claims to perform in Ohio wearing pyjamas and listening to Bach, mysteriously doesn’t seem to have found any of these. The truth is out there, if you can find it amongst all the crazy shit.

The big beige

Beige as far as the eye can see

Beige as far as the eye can see

Sometimes I wonder, as I watch my bright green holdall approach on the airport baggage carousel, why all my travelling things are strong primary colours. My laptop case and my camera are bright red, my small holdall is bright blue, my tablet cover is bright green. Sometimes I catch my reflection in the customs area two-way mirrors and I look like a dirty clown. The answer may lie in the unrelentingly colour-free environments to which I’m usually heading, southern Iraq being the example par excellence. This place is beige, so beige at times I feel like I’ve woken up in a sepia silent movie and am surprised when people speak out loud and it doesn’t cut to a dialogue frame with “Oh no! Wind has blown my bonnet off!”

Our plastic flowers used to be pink and the grass used to be green

Our plastic flowers used to be pink and the grass used to be green. This picture is in full colour

The beige is everywhere and gets everywhere. It never seems to be in quite the right place and the desert is always full of diggers and bulldozers moving the beige around a little bit, pushing a ridge here or a little pile there to see if that makes it better. From the air the beige looks like it’s been scribbled on by toddlers. This process of beige adjustment has been going on indefinitely, as we find from the archaeology. Perhaps one day the people of Iraq will get all the beige just where they want it and be happy and rejoice and live in peace.

A pauses to shake the beige out of his ears

A pauses to shake the beige out of his ears

The other major redistributor of beige is the wind, which we’ve had quite a lot of so far. Every morning F asks me what the weather forecast says about the wind today. I tell her, and watch the tears of purest beige roll down her beige encrusted cheek. On site my on-going recovery of fragmented cuneiform tablets is not enhanced by the beige howling round my head, scouring the plaster off the wall faces and dusting over the excavation surface. I’ve been wearing my beige-tight goggles and trying to keep the beige out of my ears. It blows down the collar of my shirt from where my T shirt channels it under the waistband of my trousers and into my pants. Back at the house I go to my beige steel dragon and shower it off with slightly beige water until I have a beige shower tray. As I write this J is trying to wash the beige out of our clothes but all this does is produce gallons of beige water to silt the drain up. The clothes remain beige.

The sad tank of Eridu

The sad tank of Eridu

This morning we visited Eridu and Tell Ubaid, two more large mounds of beige. At Eridu we played on a broken tank with a big warning sign in Arabic next to it. At Tell Ubaid we found some human remains eroding out of a shallow grave on top of the mound. They were wrapped in a green waterproof.

Ur fry

The wind taking the top off our site tent. This made F happy as we no longer made her go outside to smoke

The wind taking the top off our site tent. This made F happy as we no longer made her go outside to smoke

Just one week into the excavation and we’ve invented a desperate new sport for the afternoons – Zembil Ball. This involves standing on the drive throwing a football into the top of a stack of zembils (rubber buckets made from used car tyres) from increasing distances. By the end of the season perhaps the game will have developed more complexity and become fully codified, or more likely, we’ll get bored of it in a few days and find another pointless way to occupy our teeny tiny minds.

I catch another tiddler. Not much eating on that

I catch another tiddler. Not much eating on that

On site it’s been a week of occasional high winds and disappointingly tiny cuneiform tablets. I’m beginning to feel that the archive room has been overfished and the only remaining stock is below breeding size and I should probably throw them back. We’ll see how things go next week, I still have hope of catching that huge white tablet that took my leg and haunts my dreams (actually, most of my dreams are still about trying to get to an interview on time).

Yesterday we had our blood tests for our residency papers, luckily they’ve dropped the stethoscope exam and the chest x-rays. However it still involved being inexpertly punctured with a needle, being tittered at by girls in lab coats and having to have my photo taken with the blood doctor who, unlike me, looked like he’d never had so much fun in all his life.

antediluvian carrots

antediluvian carrots

It’s Friday which is the cook’s day off. Me and F have been volunteered to cook dinner, which everyone else may or may not live to regret. We’ve decided to do stir fry as we managed to find soy sauce and packets of instant noodles in Nasiriyah yesterday (along with the pure and brilliant gold of three packets of real Lurpak lightly salted butter). We weren’t so lucky at the vegetable shop where we had our pick of a carefully curated historical collection of vegetables dating back to at least Christmas. We bought some sad-looking green peppers, some mysteriously slimy-looking mushrooms and some rubbery purple carrots, which I sincerely hope are the sort that are supposed to be that colour. We got back to the house to find that the cook’s last act of cruelty before going home for the weekend had been to cook the chicken we were going to use for the stir fry (or more accurately, he’d put it in a saucepan of water and lovingly boiled it for about four hours until he was sure it was completely flavourless). We will now be having tinned tuna stir-fry with a possible sprinkling of left-over spam. In deference to the Ur dig house kitchen misery generator we have resolved to call it Ur-fry.

Ur fry. Not nearly as bad as it could have been considering it mostly consists of elderly courgettes and three tins of Iranian tuna

Ur fry. Not nearly as bad as it could have been considering it mostly consists of elderly courgettes and three tins of Iranian tuna

In the end, we did not poison anyone.

Greater and lesser failures

Apologies for the long winter silence, I won’t make excuses; partly because they’re boring and partly because they’re not very good. At any rate, I’m back in Iraq and back on the blog.

One of the many self satisfied lizards of southern Iraq

One of the many self satisfied lizards of southern Iraq

Getting here has not been easy. The day before I was flying out I had an interview at the British Museum for a temporary curator job, which is more or less the job I’d like above all others. Given this, I’d taken extraordinary measures to make sure I was prepared and on time – I stayed closer to London at my sister’s and booked an earlier train than the one that would get me there in plenty of time. Alas, after 20 minutes my train stopped, stuck behind a broken one ahead, and didn’t move for over an hour. As I watched all hope of getting there on time slowly tick away I reflected on the universe’s certainty that I don’t need a job and wished that I could share it. I finally got there half an hour late after sprinting through the London transport network. They put me straight into the interview, which I don’t recall clearly because I was distracted by my brain screaming AHHHH! AHHHH! AHHHH! AHHHH! over all the interviewer’s questions.

Steel Dragon 47: My own little slice of heaven

Steel Dragon 47: My own little slice of heaven

I got my rejection by email the next morning as I was trying to pack for Iraq and recover from my hangover. It seems that the British Museum prefer their curators to be less late, sweaty and incoherent with rage. I’ve found some solace in engaging in a protracted exchange of sarcastic emails with Chiltern Railways customer services, but it’s a hollow sort of pleasure.

I arrived at Ur on Thursday afternoon and was almost immediately handed a bowl of rice and beans in tomato sauce (rice n red), which elicited a range of powerful emotions. I spent yesterday making myself at home in cell (shipping container) 47, in which the toilet still doesn’t flush. Today was our first day on site. We’ve borrowed an Italian team’s truck as transport, which has come complete with the Italian team’s compilation CD of driving music. Our progress today was to the accompaniment of Pink Floyd’s ‘One more brick in the wall’, ‘We are the Champions’ by Queen and the theme tune to Indiana Jones, which has given us some notion of the inner mental life of an Italian archaeological project.

Many hands making heavy work of the tablet room backfill

Many hands making heavy work of the tablet room backfill

At the site we found thirty men from the local village waiting for us. We’d asked for six. The problem was resolved in a distinctly Iraqi way by deciding that this week twelve men would work and split the wages of six and then swap in with a different twelve next week and so on, meaning that the six wages will be split among twenty-four men, thus making no one very happy but no one very unhappy. Except us that is, as we’re now stuck with far more workmen than we have work for and a weekly problem of going through what we want them to do all over again.

We managed to get all of the back fill out of the tablet room by the end of the day so tomorrow I will begin the lonely hunt.

For the dig house we receive another enigmatically mis-translated poster

For the dig house we receive another enigmatically mis-translated poster

Untidy endings in Erbil

The new citadel gateway: the big exit

The new citadel gateway: the big exit

In the way of all things, the end has come and I’ll be leaving Erbil tonight. I’m enjoying a last bit of crisp, sunny Kurdish autumn before I get a big wet smack in the face at Manchester, where heavy rain is forecast. On the excavation the last week was predictably annoying, as all things tend to be in Iraq when you find you have a deadline to plan for. I turned up on site on Sunday morning, bright and early, with a full five-day-week’s worth of work planned only to find that the site was crawling with soldiers and men in dark glasses peering down holes and looking under tarpaulins. The Kurdish prime minister was coming to visit, I was told, and there would be no work today as everyone was busy burying untidy cables and picking up rubbish in their best suits. Then I was told there would be no work the next day either, as it was the Shia holy day of Ashura and everyone would be busy fasting and beating themselves with chains. Oh, and Tuesday would probably be out too as everyone had to get through their Ashura come-down and make up for all the eating they’d missed. The last week of work had just shrunk from five days to two days so when I’d finished wailing and beating my little fists in the dust I sulked off home throwing foul looks at the men in dark glasses, who I think were sincerely glad I wasn’t hanging around to spoil the shiny suit aesthetic with my dirty trousers and grumpy face.

Middle east expat wet dream

Middle east expat wet dream

I spent my unexpected holiday digitising the site plan while listening to Radio One, both of which had negative effects on my mental health. On Ashura I made a pork feast for me and my housemate – I got two pork tenderloins, stuffed apple and cinnamon in between them and wrapped them together with apple smoked bacon. Then I cooked it in apple juice to create a porky masterpiece. I would like to call it pork Ashura if that wasn’t incredibly offensive. Other holiday activities included staring into space, watching my housemate’s dog crap in the corner (invariably as I eat breakfast) and making a late night ill-considered on-line purchase of expensive electrical goods.

Final day challenge - a bit more than I bargained for in the way of bricks

Final day challenge – a bit more than I bargained for in the way of bricks

Returning to site on Wednesday I abandoned my original five day plan and decided to make everything behind the city wall flat with a big pick and see what showed up. This in fact yielded rather too much and I ended my final day in an undignified frenzy of planning while the workmen sat around smoking and eating my goodbye biscuits. Then I went out and got drunk.

Today I’m faced with the weary prospect of packing my life up again, and cleaning the bathroom (the later being a trial that with my current situation I only have to endure once a year or so, thank christ).

ugh, packing. Just when I'd got everything just right

ugh, packing. Just when I’d got everything tidy