Life in Iraq: An Update
As I’m writing this, I’ve recently marked my nine month anniversary of moving to Iraq.
I also mark my nine month anniversary of leaving home for the first time ever, and setting up a home, also for the first time ever. I feel like an old hand at it now, a right old mother hen, with a cup of baking soda, a splash of vinegar, and a bottle of bleach at the ready.
Not to mention an experience living somewhere few will ever even visit.
It’s kind of cool. Not the bottle of bleach bit.
When I boarded that first flight (trust me, there have been many since, back and forth and back and forth and… you get the picture- with so much travel and trips back home, in a sense I live in Iraq part time, but live in it I do) back in June of 2018, barely a week after we had said our vows, I genuinely did not know what to expect. I had never flown a regional flight in my life (if you can count Dubai to Northern Iraq as regional, coming in at just about three hours of flight time), and I had certainly never, ever, been to Iraq.
I had never even imagined I would ever go. It’s not exactly the first place that comes to mind when someone asks, so what’s on your travel bucket list?
You can read about my very first impressions of Iraq in a post I wrote a few months ago, here, but there’s so much more to say now that I’ve been there you know almost a year.
Almost a year.
A year might not seem like an awfully long time, but a year in a place as remote as Northern Iraq, can feel like a really long time. A year in an alien environment, far from anyone you know (when I say anyone, I literally mean my husband and I have not a single family member or a single friend outside of his work, anywhere even remotely close to where we live), a year making a life in a place that is not your own, all on your own.
I’ve learnt a lot along the way. And I’ve changed too.
The first few weeks were rough.
I still remember the absolute hit by a truck feeling that swamped me in my first month in Iraq. It was peak summer, with temperatures well over 100 degrees, scorched fields of grass, and dust storms on the daily. Our apartment was bare of furniture, because the ‘home’ we’d set up for ourselves (in Dubai) and packed away in a freight container, had been delayed at the border for weeks. We found ourselves in an empty apartment with nothing but an old bed and sheets, and a microwave. And a suitcase full of gluten free food I’d brought with me (smart move Siri).
Let me just impart some wisdom here for a second: don’t try making microwave pasta. I know YouTube claims it’s a thing but it’s not a thing you want to eat for dinner. There were many beans on toast meals that first month.
My husband had no choice but to dive straight back into long working days, and I was left to figure out what to do with myself for long hours alone in an apartment, in a city I had never seen, heard of, or visited- without a car, public transport, or the safety of being able to walk to your nearest supermarket.
I watched a lot of Mary Berry cooking shows and documentaries about stately homes (it’s a niche people).
And I spent a lot of time feeling absolutely alone, and to a degree, forgotten about.
The time after a wedding can be a confusing and slightly deflating time as it is. Suddenly the buzz of this massive once in a lifetime event, the countdown, the endless Skype calls back and forth with details being discussed, the constant decisions being made, ideas being shared, the excitement being thrown around like confetti, have died out- the anticipation has come and gone, and you’re left with the day to day… which can be kind of a shock to the system after nine months of go go go. But to experience that come down alone, far from friends and family- can be doubly crushing.
I also found during my time as a bride to be, that friendships can fray easily during that build up. I definitely will not be one to go into the details here, but some key friendships had taken a hit, and the girls I thought would be there, checking in on how I was feeling, how I was adjusting to being thrown headlong into a new life and new country, simply were not there. They had chosen to distance themselves, and I ended up with nothing but a blank wall (no Desinio prints here people!) to talk to, until my husband got home every evening.
It did not bode well for my adjustment to a culture and space so different to my own, so bewildering to me, and a touch depressing in it’s starkness and dissimilarity to all things familiar.
Now that I have the advantage of time and space, and nine months of adulting (I love hate that word) under my belt, I can look back and say to myself: Siri it wasn’t that bad.
But it was.
I can say with certainty now that I can totally understand the plight of women the world over who’ve had to move for love or marriage, who’ve had to stay home with their new children, whilst the world continues on outside their door, who feel like their own time, plans, life, and dreams, have come to a grounding halt, in favor of the bigger picture they’re striving towards: a home life, a family life, the building blocks.
It’s necessary but its tough. And women in that position have every bit of my sympathy.
But time, as it always does, passed. And month by month, especially with visits home, that always waited on the horizon like a shining beacon of normalcy, the time I’ve had to spend in Iraq has got easier. It hasn’t got better necessarily, but it’s got easier, largely because it’s got familiar.
In less than a year, being in a place so different to anything I’d ever seen, visited, or been exposed to, has really helped me grow- and I am kind of glad of it, hard as it’s been. You don’t buy this experience in a store.
At first, every thing in Iraq used to intimate me.
Driving, going to the supermarket, going through the airport with its strange check points. It was a strange world and I felt like a fish out of water, no matter where I went- even if it was just down to the pharmacy to pick something up. I needed my husband with me wherever I went, which for me was odd because I had always been quite independent and brave about exploring new places on my own.
I had gone from someone who could go about her life, take care of herself on her own, and manage what she needed to manage- to someone who needed my husband to hold my hand every step of the way just picking up the most basic of veggies. I needed him for my lettuce. It was weird.
And the weirdest part of it all, was that the moment I left Iraq and came back home, I went straight back to being independent and self sufficient. So it was totally and one hundred per cent down to where I was and how I felt when I was there.
With time, I broke through my insecurities and nerves and I started crossing little milestones, like driving halfway across town to go to the hypermarket on my own. Like managing at pop up checkpoints on my own, even when the Kurdish security forces were rude and dismissive. Like driving far more aggressively and assertively than I ever would have in my normal life, to keep up with the mad roads around me. I don’t necessarily always love the person I become when I’m trying to get a child who belongs to an ‘organized begging gang’ to leave me alone as I try and park my car outside the supermarket- I don’t like being that person- but now I can be that person when I need to.
And it doesn’t affect me at all anymore.
In the early months a bad encounter with the often quite aggressive children (many of who really are teenagers and almost as large as me) who stand by your car window and rap on the glass for a solid ten minutes, pinning you in place until you ignore them long enough that they leave, was really disconcerting for me. It left me close to tears on many occasions, absolutely frustrated beyond belief that I couldn’t carry out simple every day tasks like picking up milk or bread, without running into these situations that made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and sometimes unsafe.
But it ceases to phase me for even a moment now.
I get up, I get on with my day, I get on with things, and I don’t dwell on the military, the weapons, the security, the sometimes strange friction in the air, for even a moment now.
It’s just all part of a totally normal day here. And now its become totally, totally normal to me too.
I could never have imagined that a year ago.
Am I happy when I’m in Iraq?
No. I think happy would be a strong word. I wouldn’t label how I feel happy. Obviously I am happy to be with my husband and I do my very best to be positive and upbeat, and to fill my days with things that are productive and useful- but I’m only human. And being in Iraq does not make me happy in any way.
I have a husband who is super hard working and incredibly committed to the job he does- but that also means he's out of the house at 8am and back home by 7pm at a struggle. He then usually has to spend at least 2/3 hours working from home- running a company in a country like Iraq is a full full time job. No jokes.
So the time we spend together is minimal, and it’s at the end of the day when my husband is exhausted and I’m tired and low from spending the entire day alone, within the confines of our apartment, the only change of scene the occasional walk around our compound block.
It’s a far cry from the life I’ve lived in Dubai.
And I can’t pretend that it’s an easy experience because it really isn’t.
Today, I feel conflicted.
Iraq is not a place I can spend that much time without going stir crazy.
I am not a historian and I’m not even highly educated in the history of the country I call my half home these days, but what I have learnt from my time in Northern Iraq, is that Iraq is a very, very tough country for a foreigner. I cannot comment on the experience of an Iraqi in Iraq- apart from the troubles that have come and gone, and remain, I imagine Iraq with its massive community, and rich history, can be a delightful place for those who belong here.
But for those who don’t- it can be an entirely different story.
I’ve had so many people ask me if they can come and stay with us, solely so that they can say to themselves and to others: I’ve been to Iraq. Apparently, it’s a thing. And you know what? As a tourist, I would totally get it. We love to lord it over others that we’ve been more adventurers, dared more in our travels, seen places others can’t or won’t see.
But living here- now that’s a different ballgame. Living here is hard.
And the funny thing is- even whilst it’s getting easier, it’s also getting harder.
I know that makes little sense but bear with me.
Whilst life in Iraq is becoming less of an adjustment and a culture shock, the time spent there is dragging more and more each month, and I realize more and more each month, that outside of my four walls, there really is nothing here for me.
And that can be a tough reality to live with.
Right now, I don’t know what we will do or how I will solve this crushing feeling every time I get on a flight to go back.
Right now, I don’t know if a long distance marriage is an inevitable part of our future, especially once we build a family.
Right now, I feel guilty for the fact that our home life in Iraq isn’t enough to keep me there- even though logically I know that it’s unreasonable to expect someone to live their life out entirely alone in one space, day after day.
Right now, I know I need to head back very soon and I am nervous about it, dreading it, and wondering how many more trips and how many more weeks I can spend out there without letting it drag me down.
I don’t have the answers but if you’re going through something similar, you have all my sympathy- this is hard. And even if no one else can understand, you are doing the best job you can. Today, tomorrow, every day.
Till the next update then! xx