Category Archives: Kurdistan

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.

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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

Foreign idiots in a car

The sickly pumpkins of Iraq

The sickly pumpkins of Iraq

It’s the morning after an unwisely alcoholic Halloween and things have just got to the point where I think I might live after all. I went to a barbeque, where I got savaged by an enormous orange cat (small tiger?), and then onto the Halloween party at the Palmyra Hotel, and then I woke up. Earlier in the day I managed to procure an Iraqi pumpkin and carve a passably evil face into it. It is of a slightly sickly hue in comparison to its garish western equivalents and is much wetter, causing a brown slime to accumulate in the bottom and an appearance of sweating. It is in all other respects charming.

Iraq's most annoying dog sitting on the aqueduct at Jerwan

Iraq’s most annoying dog sitting on the aqueduct at Jerwan

This weekend is very much a contrast to last weekend which I spent in blameless sobriety, give or take a few glasses of wine here and there. Instead I went together with a few friends to hire a car and get out of Erbil. We decided to go up north of Mosul to see some of the Neo-Assyrian stuff, taking with us an elderly and inaccurate antiquities map to make sure we didn’t take a wrong turn and end the weekend by being sold into sexual slavery in the new Caliphate. As things turned out, what we really should have been worried about our own breath-taking stupidity in the area of car husbandry.

Spoiling the Mazda's fun

Spoiling the Mazda’s fun

Our first stop was at Jerwan where the Assyrian king Sennacherib built a whopping great aqueduct in about 700BC to bring water to Nineveh and keep his slaves busy. The peacefulness of the place was somewhat spoiled by a large dog, which kept up a constant barking for the full forty minutes we were there, and by the rumble of Peshmerga artillery shelling IS positions to the south. We were joined by a local Peshmerga who was on leave, along with his sons and his tractor, which turned out to be fantastically lucky. After Jerwan we attempted to visit a small tell site but taking a wrong turn we drove right into a huge pool of mud and sheep excrement from which the Mazda was unwilling or unable to remove itself. Every attempt managed only to burrow it in deeper and throw huge sprays of brown slurry in all directions. In the end it settled contentedly in the deepest part like a fat black pig. Fortunately, we had just met a man with a tractor who we called and within half an hour we were watching sheepishly as he dragged the Mazda unwillingly out by its arse. I even forgave him for attempting to grope my breast back at Jerwan. The local children took us to their village to wash the car off and laugh at us. We went home via Khinis and Akre and several very narrowly avoided car accidents.

The king doing his king thing at Khinis

The king doing his king thing at Khinis

Out of gas: waiting to be rescued again

Out of gas: waiting to be rescued again

On the second day we headed for the ancient monastery at Mar Mattai northeast of Mosul. We were having a jolly old time until the Mazda mysteriously ceased to function. Having pushed the car out of the path of the death-dealing fuel tankers which were thundering around us, we consulted the Mazda’s manual and after a period of denial were forced to accept that we had in fact run out of petrol. Fortunately, Kurds like nothing better than rescuing mentally deficient foreigners from their own stupidity and soon enough a nice man had driven one of us off to buy fuel at the nearest petrol station and then helped us to funnel it into the car. We finally arrived at the monastery with just enough time to have a cup of tea with the head monk and sit through a church service with a lace doily on my head before it was time to get back in the car. So ended the many valuable lessons of last weekend.

Mar Mattai: Praying for a release from idiocy and a safe drive home

Mar Mattai: Praying for a release from idiocy and a safe drive home

Drowning in nonsense

A brief break in the weather leaves a happy rainbow over soggy erbil

A brief break in the weather leaves a happy rainbow over soggy Erbil

Over the last two days I’ve been having a passionate affair with a Nespresso machine. My housemate picked one up in yet another looting incident after some oil people had to leave the country. It came with about 300 little coffee capsules in about twenty flavours; I’ve tried most of them in the last forty-eight hours but have decided to leave the last six flavours until tomorrow after having a dream about my eyeballs popping out of my head and trying to squash them back in with my thumbs.

The voyage back to the office

Swimming back to the office

The sun has finally come out today after a week of dreary rain punctuated by thunder storms. The refugees living in the unfinished shopping mall around the corner (in a manner reminiscent of zombie apocalypse movies) have hung everything out to dry from the incomplete rooftop. The citadel turns out to drain surprisingly poorly for high ground, and what does drain drains into the site, cutting gullies into the ancient walls and pooling in the deep trenches. The alleyways between the office and site are now of a semi-aquatic nature, sometimes requiring careful sounding to avoid sinking up to the knees and occasional scrabbling over the ruins of fallen walls brought down by the weight of their water soaked bricks. My two female trainees have mysteriously stopped coming to site, which I’m sure is wholly unconnected with their choice of ballet flats as excavation footwear.

I hear it was an excellent year for brick crocuses

I hear it was an excellent year for brick crocuses

I’ve escaped by throwing myself into the paperwork, examining the ‘records’ of the first season of excavation when no international adviser was present. Scant enough already, they bear testament to the perils of the unsupervised use of English by under-qualified persons. Of greatest interest is the collection of enigmatic sentences entered into the ‘Detailed description’ section of the context sheets, attesting to such diabolical objects as an ‘Angle iron, cercal, coration on serf black color’ and mysterious allusions to ‘Days of mud brick, clay and chipson’. The horrors of season one are made plain by references to a ‘Will maid bar backed brick’ and a ‘Flow bottom 044- mad by nore’. If anyone can translate nonsense please get in touch, there’s a publication credit and a packet of bacon in it for you if you can tell me what a ‘tow loin’ is.

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The archaeology office cat, who I refer to variously as ‘Bag of Bones’ or ‘Sack of Shit’ depending on what and how much it has eaten

As almost all of my posts from Erbil have so far featured a cat photo, here is a photo of the office cat. When it has turned over all the bins it sits in the office door and cries continuously in tones of great malevolence. It bites anyone approaching within two feet. At the start of the season it was deathly thin and appeared to have been hit in the face with a car, but has since grown fat and demanding on a diet of powdered milk and instant coffee fed to it by the girls in the office. I scowl daily upon the nourishing of this monster.

Semi-functional alcohologist

Erbil can seem quite tranquil from a distance and without shouting at you in Kurdish about pottery

Erbil can seem quite tranquil from a distance and without someone shouting at you in Kurdish about pottery

Archaeologically things are at a bit of a low ebb in Erbil. I’ve been back on site for three days since the end of the Eid holiday. We now have no workmen because there’s no money to pay them, meaning that digging has effectively stopped and there are only a few monstrously tall elevations to draw. My trainees have also not been paid and are, understandably, less and less interested in being around. Well, there’s the money but I think they might also be sick of leaning out over crumbly mud brick death canyons dangling a plumb bob. They’d all gone home by 1:30pm today, leaving me to work alone in the pit of despair. They also locking my bag in the office along with my money, ID and house keys before they left, which was thoughtful of them. At least it’s nice and quiet on site and I can listen to my ipod or take a little nap or throw rocks at the pigeons without anyone judging me. I might be going a bit ‘you-know’ (mad).

Oktoberfest - return of the ruinously expensive one litre steins of black beer

Oktoberfest – return of the ruinously expensive one litre steins of black beer

I enjoyed the traditional expat Eid holiday; drinking heroic quantities of alcohol every day until my brain started trying to crawl out of my ears for a breath of air. In the early stages this just involved the usual Erbil pursuits: Oktoberfest at the German bar, house parties, BBQs, crashing that Nepalese party and having drunken sprint races in Sami Abdulrahman Park with fuel men from the airport. Then I agreed to get out of town and go to the mountains around Choman with some friends for four days. I knew it was going to be a rough road when I found I’d drunk five cans of beer in the car on the way. One of my fellow holiday makers brought her cat along which made the journey even more entertaining due to his/her (complicated) unwavering interest in what the driver was doing with his feet. Having been raised by expats the cat was a needy alcoholic.

Henry finishes off his second Amstel, dribbling much of it into my lap

Henry finishes off his second Amstel, dribbling much of it into my lap

Mostly we played board games, smoked and watched documentaries about religion, which are far more entertaining when you’re drunk and willing to pick a side. One day we took a drive up through the mountains, keeping an anxious eye on the GPS to make sure we didn’t accidentally take a much longer holiday in Iranian prison. I learned a lot about what minefields look like and about all the places in a Lexus you can hide beer cans when you get to a checkpoint. I spent the last day of the Eid holiday back in Erbil feeling exceptionally sick while watching Downton Abbey and drinking fizzy water with my housemate.

Within 2km of the Iranian border we drink some schnapps and think about our options

Within 2km of the Iranian border we drink some schnapps and think about our options

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.