Tag Archives: kurdistan

Getting over the finish line

In the deepest part of the deepest trench, fortification wall Phase 1a (Neo-Assyrian?) continues on down

In the deepest part of the deepest trench, fortification wall Phase 1a (Neo-Assyrian?) continues on down

I got paid today with the usual stack of grubby hundred dollar notes tied up with an elastic band. However satisfactory this may be in terms of being able to throw it up in the air while jumping on my bed, it presents me with problems; security issues, the means to make poor spending choices, and an ethical dilemma concerning tax declaration. The movement of abstract numbers from one column to another is not quite as emotionally involving as dirty green pieces of paper in a plastic bag.

The view from the bottom, up two and a half thousand years of wall

The view from the bottom, up two and a half thousand years of wall

A co-worker delicately balances her laptop on pottery context [209]

A co-worker delicately balances her laptop on pottery context [209]

Winter has come to Erbil; it’s dark and rainy and I have to wear my coat in the office. The clocks have gone back in Britain and I’m making excellent progress in building up my winter fat reserves via a high diet of beer, kebab and office biscuits. It’s almost time to go home. Unfortunately there are some things I have to do first, chief among which is to write up the site by Saturday. This is a mighty task given the amount of this and that we’ve dug up over the last three years. I’m running out of tasteful pastel shades to colour all the architectural phases for a start, eventually something’s going to have to be magenta. We’ve also run out of space in the tiny plastic office now that most of the table surfaces are being used for laying out pottery. The floor is ankle-deep in biscuit packets and I have to lay the plans out over whichever pot sherds our stand-in ceramicist isn’t currently studying.

I picked up my official kit on the way home from work. White - not the best colour for a new digging t shirt...

I picked up my official kit on the way home from work. White – not the best colour for a new digging t shirt…

I’m not holding out too much hope of finding a lot of writing time on Friday and Saturday. Somehow I’ve found myself running in the Erbil International Marathon on Friday, although only in the 5km ‘family fun race’ for the old and the lame and the smokers. I assume this state of affairs is ultimately my fault although I can’t actually recall how it came about. All I know is that it’s going to make me deeply unhappy, probably at about the 1.5km point. I’ve always thought there’s enough pain and tedious repetitive toil in the world without taking up endurance sports. Now I’m older I understand that some people enjoy performing the same physical action over and over again for a very long time until they feel sick, but I still view these individuals with vast suspicion. My housemate has declined to take part in the Erbil Marathon as she considers it to be a potential terrorist target. When she announced this my very first thought was that if Daesh kill me at the marathon on Friday I won’t have to hand in the excavation report on Saturday, which is a measure of how things are in the report writing department. Should I survive, I plan to drink myself to death during the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday night.

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Wax on, wax off

I’m on to my second tube of toothpaste in Erbil, which means I must be past the six week point. It’s curious how Iraqi Colgate Max Fresh tastes faintly of chewing gum and yeast, compared to UK-bought Colgate Max Fresh which only tasted of toothpaste. I suspect I might be straying onto dangerously existential territory there.

Mohammed No.1 gazes down at Mr Kazam, who gazes down at Mohammed No.2, who gazes down into darkness

Mohammed No.1 gazes down at Mr Kazam, who gazes down at Mohammed No.2, who gazes down into the abyss

As I’ve only got three weeks left I’ve decided to crack on down in the deep sounding outside the fortification wall. A part of me realises that working on this site for three years has now warped my sense of proper health and safety procedures beyond all the bounds of sweet reason, but another part realises that no one in their right mind is ever going to let me dig a hole as ridiculous as this again so I should make the most of it and hope no one dies before I’m safely out of the country. We are finally now reaching our limits, at the maximum reach of the ladders and the level staff, and it’s getting uncomfortably hot down there now we’re that much closer to hell.

Visibility has also become an issue in the stygian gloom pervading at the bottom of Area E. I’ve taken this as an opportunity to move my assistants to the next stage of enlightenment on the path of Zen mudbrick archaeology. I tried to get them to listen to the different sounds a trowel makes when it hits wall, wall plaster and general deposit. ‘You must hear the wall’ is the best I could render it in Kurdish, but luckily it was too dark to see the pity in their faces. They’ll have a different look when I tell them to paint that fence again.

The little clay people of clay Ankawa dance a little clay dance outside the clay church

The little clay people of clay Ankawa dance a little clay dance outside the clay church

Off site I had a somewhat harrowing experience over the weekend. Our neighbour two doors down invited me and my housemate B over to hers, which she does fairly regularly for reasons beyond adequate expression or comprehension. On this occasion she told us to take our clothes off while she started to dress us in garments extracted from a pile of plastic bags. I get through a lot of things in the Middle East by letting it happen while I send my brain off to think about something else. I thought about the necessarily fatalistic attitude towards death displayed by 18th Century naval officers for ten minutes and came back to find that I was expressing admiration for an enormous print of Jesus with a flaming, bloody heart, and that I was dressed as a Kurdish princess. It was all mighty confusing. The next day our neighbour invited us to the Syriac Culture Museum, where she works, for the grand opening of a huge model of the old village of Ankawa, which the museum director had fashioned out of clay and wasted life span. On our tour of the museum it was curious to note that all the clothing we’d been forced into the previous night was now on the mannequins used to illustrate examples of Kurdish village wear from the last century.

This one was a particularly bad look for me, but at least I didn't have to try the men's costume. Maybe this was for a Eurovision entry

This one was a particularly bad look for me, but at least I didn’t have to try the men’s costume. Maybe this was for a Eurovision entry

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

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

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

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