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March 31, 2008

Tree Farming & the Virginia Countryside

Below is my tree farm draft article for the next issue of "Virginia Forests".   It has nothing to do with Iraq, but is part of my other life, as communications director for Virginia Tree Farm Project at the Virginia Forestry Association.  I needed to write a short article for them and I just finished it.  The picture is from my forest.  It is one of the spots I like to sit and watch the water run.  We don't cut trees in the stream management zones, which account for around 30 acres on the farm.  The picture was taken in January 2005, but it is not that different now except at this season the buds are popping and the wildflower are out.  BTW - the pictures are just mine and I just like to look at them.  They will not be part of the "Virginia Forests" publication.

 Matel tree farm

The American countryside is threatened by development and urban sprawl as never before.  The very concept of “rural” is increasingly strained as urban style communities and urban lifestyles reach to even the most remote parts of Virginia.  This can be positive as new people bring fresh perspectives and new incomes breathe life into declining communities.  But these shifts fundamentally change the character of the countryside.  When significant numbers of owners and rural residents themselves no longer have their livelihoods significantly tied to the surrounding land, their perspectives are different. 

This change happens in a variety of ways, some obvious others subtle.  The most obvious is when someone from outside the local community buys a tract forest land.  This has been happening for a long time, but the trend is accelerating.  A wholesale change in ownership patterns took place over the past decade as forest and paper firms sold off large tracks of forest land to private individuals, investors and timber investment trusts. 

The more subtle change in emphasis can take place due to inheritance or just changes in lifestyle.  Relationships and feelings about the land change when long time resident farmers or forest owners begin to earn more or even most of their incomes from non-agricultural or non-forestry sources.  Of course, children who inherit family farms often have an emotional tie to the land, but may lack practical ties or skill sets that keep them managing the land in same way.

This picture is from near the same spot as above, but during July

Matel forest

A key attribute of a traditional family forest, or those owned by paper and forest product firms for that matter, is/was that these were working lands, used in multiple ways to include profit generating activities such as forestry, hunting and non-timber agriculture.   When land changes hands, the new owners may indeed leave a forest intact.  In fact, they may have purchased the land specifically to “preserve” what they believe is the local ecology.  But preservation or changes in land management fundamentally alter its nature and that of the surrounding community by perhaps not engaging in those activities that traditionally linked the human and the natural communities.  The idea of humans are active participants in the natural environment wisely and sustainably using natural resources is the basis of conservation but it is an idea that can be misunderstood.

The American Tree Farm System (ATFS) is adapting in response to the changes in ownership patterns, motivations and needs of our constituents. As it has done since 1941, ATFS is working to improve forest management through education and advice.  Today there are 87,000 certified Tree Farms covering 29 million acres.   Obviously certifications and inspections remain the backbone of the tree farm system, but increasingly education and outreach will take on greater significance.  New tree farmers and new types of tree farmers will need to understand the nature of a working forest and its place in a sustained and healthy environment.   

Here are the boys in the pine plantation last year.  We will have to do some pre-commercial thinning this summer so that the little trees can have room to grow & stay healthy.

Espen Alex at farm

Some of the education will represent a change in emphasis from how to sustain a multiple use forest to why they should want to do that.   ATFS has often explained to owners how to manage their forests to produce timber while at the same time caring for clean water, providing recreational opportunities and creating great habitats for wildlife.   It was taken as a given that owners wanted to produce timber and gain some income from the investment in their land.  Many new owners may be less enthusiastic about making sure their land profitably produces timber at all.   They may have bought the land as a home site or in order to create a preserve of some sort where forestry or hunting are not priorities. ATFS will increasingly need to explain why it is important to keep timber lands producing timber and why they need to be managed to do this.

Well managed forests producing wood, clean water, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities are a great American tradition well worth keeping.  Each generation of forest owners must learn or relearn the lessons of good forestry.  As the demographics of forest ownership change, education becomes more important.  ATFS understands this and is ready to provide the information and education that will keep Virginia a place of beautiful, well-managed and productive forests for years to come.

Home on the Range

Al Asad shooting 

You can see we do not get to shoot very far.  We shot a bit farther back with the rifles, but not much.  We only get to shoot if someone is really close.

I have never been a good shot & I have at least a partial explanation.  I am a right handed but left eye dominant.  When I shot the M-4 rifle with my left hand, I actually could hit the target because I could actually see it through the scope.

The Marines took our ePRT to the gun range today to learn how to use their standard pistols and rifles.  Of course, we were not issued weapons and never will be.  Our ePRT members are not warriors.  However, in this kind of environment it is not a bad idea to be familiar with the sorts of weapons that are common around here.

We learned how to lock, load and shoot at the very basic level.  Of course, some of our ePRT members are very familiar with guns and for them it was review.  As I said, when I shot left handed, I could do all right.  The M-4 rifle has a good scope with a little arrow.  If you know the rough distance, you can aim along the arrow and it is easy to get the shots into the general area you are trying to hit.  Just keeping the rifle even is harder than it seems in the movies, however.  

We shot single shots and in burst of two or three.  For the bursts of three it is hard to keep the weapon stable, again, not as easy as it seems in the movies.  We were standing in what the Marines told us was the hardest stance.  You are more stable when you are sitting or laying on the ground and/or you have something to brace.  I had a lot of fun with this.  I shot more times today than I have in my entire life up to today.  Of course, that is not saying much, since I have never been much of a gun guy.

The pistol was easier to handle but it was harder for me to hit the targets. At one point, we had to shoot down metal targets (below).  I couldn’t hit any of them.  The Marines can more or less just knock them down.  Our “training” was not meant to prepare us for the Wyatt Earp type gunfights.  Only in very desperate situations would we even touch a weapon and contemplate the odd angry shot. At close range, we shot fifteen rounds into the target quick as we could.  I managed to hold the pistol steady enough to create a pattern that would have stopped even the most committed terrorist or crack head.  


I am confident that I will never have occasion to use the skills I learned today.  I am sure the Marines will work hard to keep it that way.  They were very polite and nice to me, but they saw my performance.  I shutter to think of how bad it would have to be if I was the last line of defense.  Anyway, I have absolute confidence in the Marines.

I have never seen them in actual combat, but I have seen how they react to potential danger.  They face it down w/o hesitation.  I think of those horror movies where the bad guy attacks the hapless people who scurry around in confusion.  The Marines would just dispatch the miscreant.  This is a good contrast between courage and fear.  It is not true that the Marines can always prevail, but they always go with courage and that just feels better. 

March 28, 2008

Bright Light Curses the Darkness

The profound darkness disturbed me when I got to Al Asad.   At first I didn’t like it, as I stumbled around looking for my can in the blackness, but after awhile I got used to it.  I liked the moonlight and the stars.  I developed a muscle memory that got me easily home in the dark and walking home in the dark became a nice way to unwind at the end of the day. 

Now they have installed a big light that pierces the darkness and shines in my eyes, making it hard to see the moon and the stars.  Beyond that, the less you can actually see of Al Asad, the prettier you can imagine it to be.  The stark chemical light against concrete barriers is not pleasant.

It is surprising how well you can learn to see in low light.  I recall skiing at night in Norway and how that had a special magic.   Al Asad is not like that, but I have learned to enjoy some aspects of the Iraqi night.  Funny how things grow on you.  At first you may dislike it; after awhile you accept it and then miss it when it is taken away.  Walking home in the dark, I noticed the phases of the moon and the contours of the clouds dimly illuminated in the moonlight.  On several occassions there was a haloed moon. Of course, I could see and enjoy the stars.  This was good.

March 27, 2008

Friends Leave

Reid & Dennis  

Above is a picture of Dennis,  our agronomist, and  Reid who has done engagement with local leaders on a truly impressive scale.

My good friend Reid Smith will be leaving Iraq today.  He is one of those I mentioned a few posts back re losing my best.  I am losing him a little earlier than anticipated because of bureaucratic mazes we couldn’t find out way through.

Reid has his own newsletter about his time in Iraq.  As military person, his perceptive is a bit different than mine, but the similarities far outweigh the differences.  Below is a copy of his last post in Iraq.

Hey everyone,

I planned on staying here in Iraq until mid May in order to complete my one year boots on the ground.  As sometimes happens, the paperwork got screwed up.  The State Department, who doesn’t have a thorough understanding of how the Army orders process works, failed to request an extension to my initial mobilization orders.  Now, with less than a week’s notice, I have to clear out. 

The bottom line here is that I am coming home earlier than anticipated.  I know, I know, I should be happy right?, but this made me very angry at first because I feel like I’m just now getting really good at my  job.  That’s just the way it is sometimes.  As my first platoon sergeant, SSG Velez told me in 1984 in his very strong Puerto Rican accent “well ju know sir…sometimes…ju just get f----d”.  This is a true statement if ever I heard one.

I’ve now had a few days to let it settle in and I couldn’t more excited to go back to my home and family.  Everything works itself out the way it is supposed to and I’m very glad to be headed home.
From my perspective we have defeated the insurgents.  We are only dealing with amateurs now and of them there are only a few stragglers. Those few that we do encounter are poorly led, poorly equipped and poorly trained.  In our sector for the third time in a couple months an  insurgent has blown himself up accidentally.  The latest blew his own hands off and if not for prompt medical care he would have died. 

In another case we were able to locate an IED emplacement group while they were meeting together.  We could have simply bombed them and been certain of killing them, but in order to make sure no innocent people were killed we used different techniques.  This is important because terrorists frequently travel with women and children just for the protection they provide relative to our targeting.  It took us three tries, but task force elements finally got them and no innocents were hurt.  This is an amazing capability we have developed as a military and you should definitely be proud.

We recently had one Marine Infantry battalion complete their seven-month rotation here and head home without having even one KIA.  This was  1/7 Marines who I worked with in the city of Hit, they were extremely active, did a lot of great work.  This is remarkable when you consider that normally in just one month at the National Training Center, in a training environment, we will suffer at least one soldier killed as a result of accident or mishap.

Now it is up to the Iraqis to take the victory over the insurgents we’ve handed them and be successful at governing themselves.  This has been my job over the past 10 ½ months.  It has been frustratingly slow work, but we have seen significant improvements and I am confident now that we will succeed.

It has been quite a ride and now as I look back I will miss both my team mates and the Marines who I’ve had the honor and privilege to serve with.  I will miss the many Iraqis heroes who I’ve become friends with who struggle daily to make this work despite a constant threat to their life and that of their family.  It’s an odd thing how as bad as this place sucks, it does get in your bones in a way that is hard to describe.  Without trying to be too melodramatic, perhaps it’s the fact our struggle here in many ways marks the success or failure of America  in the post cold war world. 

To all of you who have supported me with your e-mails, letters, packages etc I just want to provide a very heartfelt “Thank You”!  I would add that it doesn’t stop here and even though everyone is tired of this war, the troops over here still very much desire and appreciate your steadfast support. 

In terms of support I haven’t run into anyone over here who simply desires and end to this for their own personal safety.  This is an all volunteer force and if there is any disappointment felt at being here it normally surrounds not getting any “trigger time”.  We want the victory we’ve worked so hard for and will settle for nothing less.  We hear people often say “I support the troops”, but what we wished we’d hear more often is “I support victory in Iraq”.  

Semper Fi

March 26, 2008


Sorry about not writing for awhile.  I arrived safely back in Iraq, via Kuwait.  My trip & being back in Iraq is my new normal.  I have written about such things before.  You can only go on your first helicopter or c-130 ride once.

I have been involved in some inside management issues, which I was not going to write about, but as I consider it, I think it might be important to mention some of the prosaic things that occupy a lot of our time here, so here are a few.

Five new team members have arrived in the last couple of weeks.  Let me introduce them.

I have a new deputy and he is a great guy.  As a retired USAF bird colonel, my new deputy knows the military and how to manage a team.  He also worked as a program manager in Baghdad, so he knows the inside game there.   We have already developed a good working relationship.  We agree on goals and seem to have complementary skill sets.  I do not think I could have hoped for a better situation. 

Our economic and budget specialist is a young man on his first tour outside the U.S.  He is also exactly what I need at this time.  In October, we got a budget for making grants to stimulate projects among the Iraqis.  My team and I were extremely enthusiastic about these things.  It allowed us to build influence and complete project that would create an environment unpleasant for the insurgency (our mission).  But all grants require accounting and all projects must be tracked.  All of us were into doing.  We had a bias for action.  This is good, but you can action yourself right out of business.  I was beginning to become seriously concerned.  Now I got somebody who has the skills and inclination to take on the task.

The new civil affairs man is an Army Lieutenant Colonel with experience in Iraq.  I am asking him to be our man in Rawah/Anah.  This is a place we have needed someone for a long time.  He has been working hard to get up to speed on the tribal and civil relationships and he has the experience to command respect.  I am confident that we can expect good things from him.

Just yesterday we got two new bicultural-bicultural specialists.  Since I just met them, I cannot say anything in particular.  They are native Arabic speakers and both have experience working with coalition forces in Iraq.  I insisted that our colleagues be American citizens and have security clearances and both our new guys fit the bill.  We work very well with Iraqi citizen translators in the field, but on the base it is hard for anyone to work w/o a clearance and only American citizens can get one.  It is a bit of a myth that we do not have enough Americans who speak Arabic.  This may have been the case a few years ago, but we now are doing okay with finding and hiring fluent American citizen Arabic speakers.   

Perhaps the biggest challenge of team leader in an isolated, intense and stressful environment like ours is to balance the personalities, skills & predilections of team members.   Team member skills are complementary and the team leader has to make sure these synergies work.  Not everybody can work in this environment.  The day before yesterday I lost one of my team members.  He arrived only a couple months ago and has not been a strong performer.  He went down to Baghdad for some routine work and never came back.  He literally fled the country mentioning that he had enough.  Since he was a contractor, that is his prerogative to quit, but I have never before experienced anything like this before.  I keep on thinking of that rhyme, “when in danger when in doubt, run in circles scream and shout.” 

I have thought about what I might have done to help him out, but have concluded that his leaving was the best thing for us all.  I am not sympathetic.  I probably should have pushed him out sooner.  He was not working out well.  My job is to help my team accomplish our common goals and it is my duty to ensure they do.  Most of my team is great and they would perform even w/o my efforts.  Those who cannot or will not do that should go home.  I don’t want to create an environment where the non-productive can feel comfortable.  It may sound mean and I don’t think of myself as a mean person, but that is the way it has to be in our particular situation.

March 24, 2008

Seeing the Old Things

Athenian grave market 

I made it to the Archeological Museum today – finally.  No strike today.  Lots of the things there I have seen many times in pictures.  It is interesting to see them in real life.  The museum is very well organized. Each of the exhibits has explanations and descriptions in Greek and English.  The English is very good, obviously written by an educated native speaker.  Many of the sculptures are grave monuments and they can be very poignant.  As the descriptions explain, they often show the deceased saying goodbye to his/her family and the joys of life.  The artists capture the expressions very well so that we can feel the grief across the millennia.


            I also saw the gold mask of Agamemnon from Mycenae. This is the real one. The one in Mycenae is just a copy.  There are also lots of pots.  Pots are some of the most important clues to archeologists because they are so common and cheap.  When they break, people don’t bother to retrieve the all pieces.  They just sweep them outside.  Ancient cities tended to rise in layers of dirt, refuse and pottery shards, with each layer representing a different time period, so everything lays around in distinct layers and archeologists can use pieces of pottery to identify and date cultures. 

March 23, 2008

Nothing Too Much

Stream in Athens park 

This is the kind of place I always find, a little stream in a quiet park.  I am sitting again in the garden park near the Parliament.  I put the kids on the plane at 0655.  My plane doesn’t go until 1805, so I figured that I would go to the Archeology Museum, the one I missed because of the strike.   I will write about that later.

I sat at this very spot before the kids came a few days ago.  The feeling was different.  That day the sun was shinning; today it is overcast and drizzly.  My moods reflected the weather on both occasions.  Then I was about to get on the Metro to go and get them at the airport so that we could see Greece together.  Today I am getting ready to get on the Metro to go back to Iraq.  The kids have left.

The excitement of Iraq wore off with the first step I took in that dusty desert. Now I just want to finish my job.  Some people think it is a bad idea to go on R&R, especially the short ones I have chosen.  The received wisdom is that getting out for a short time just makes you want to stay out.  Of course that is right, but most people still want to take the R&R. 

Aegina view

Above is a very from a hill in Aegina, an island near Athens.  Maybe because I am in Greece, I remember the classical debate about having and not having.  Some thought that you should not have anything you could lose, so as to avoid the pain of loss.  Most Greek thinkers were moderates, however,  who didn’t believe in excess – nothing too much. They understood that an excess of pleasure seeking would lead to unhappiness, but they also knew that an excess of denial would produce the same result. 

I enjoyed being with the kids and finally seeing this place and adding Greece to our shared landscape of memory.  The joy of having done these things greatly outweighs the pain of losing it and the memory will brighten up my time left in Iraq.  It is not that long anyway.  I have half done and since I have saved my R&Rs for the second half of my tour, I have lots of time out coming.

Below are cats in Poros sharing the catch.

cats in Poros

Iraq has been a fantastic experience, but it is less attractive prospectively than retrospectively.  This is a great thing to HAVE done, less fun to be doing.

March 22, 2008

Island Hopping

Mariza espen on Hydra 

Much of Greece consists of islands.  The Aegean is really a drowned mountain range with the peaks protruding above the water and the valleys sunk below.  And the islands are very close together.  You can usually see the next island from the one you are on.  This invited exploration even by sailors who didn’t like to be out of sight of land. 

Below is the Orthodox church on Aegina. Aegina is a big island, as you can see from the background.

Espen Mariza Aegina

We took a cruise to three islands: Poros, Hydra and Aegina.  Poros was not very attractive.  Well, the island was pretty but the houses were that 1960 socialist style.  It was worth seeing, but not worth going to see.  Hydra was beautiful.  The natural setting was spectacular and the buildings were well constructed and good looking.  There are no cars on Hydra, which makes it an exceptionally good place to walk. Aegina is the biggest of the three and it was an important center in ancient and medieval times. There is an ancient temple and a Greek Orthodox monastery.  This island is fertile and is a paradise, with olive & pasticcio groves mixed with citrus framed by pine forests all overlooking the blue sea.   The pictures do not do it justice, but look at them anyway.

Above is the Temple of Athesis on Aegina.    

Cruising itself is not much fun. A cruise boat is like a big floating bus.  But being there among the islands is great.

Below, Espen deals with the early wake time and the slow boat syndrom.

Espen sleeping on boat

March 21, 2008

The Theatre

Mariza at Epidarus 

The amphitheatre at Epidarus supposedly has nearly perfect acoustics.  We walked up to the top and indeed we could hear people speaking down in the center.  Evidently the sound waves flow up the hill and then some bounce off the stone seats in back of each audience member.  Given the speed of sound, this is not enough to produce a discernible echo, but prolongs the sound.  This is not perceivable and our brains make the necessary corrections so the whole thing enhances our senses.  At least that is what I heard.  This is one of the birthplaces of drama.  It started out as story telling and gradually developed into the kinds of things we would recognize as a play. 

This theater is still intact because it was isolated and people didn't have as much incenitive to steal the stones.   Many ruins are not wrecked by time, but rather by salvage.

Epidarus started out as a healing center dedicated to the god of healing, Aesclepius.  People would come here to make offerings to the gods.   After a while the priests developed a modicum of physician skills and you can trace the origins of medicine to these places.  Of course most of what they did had little more effect on actual sickness, other than the value of the rest and psychosomatic benefits.  The ancient Greeks were profoundly superstitious people.  All pre-modern people were/are superstitious because they don’t have any scientific alternatives.  Even those of us who should know better still fall for faith healers, shamans and other charlatans.

The natural setting is beautiful and if you got to hang around here watching plays and not having to work, I bet many people did recover their health, so I suppose it worked.  The proximate cause is not always the apparent one, or that one advertised.  I remember reading that in the 18th & 19th Centuries many of the very young women who married old rich guys were evidently barren.  Their husbands sent them off to “take the waters” at some spa, where lots of young men worked and the miracle of the spa restored their fertility.  

March 20, 2008

The Workers - United - Will Close All Museums

Protest in Athens

I would have to tell the story of today by telling what we didn’t do.  We didn’t go to the Archeological Museum.  We didn’t go any other museums.  We didn’t even go to the park.  All these places were shut because of a strike/demonstration by government unions.  We DID see them marching and chanting.  It was very 1930s except the banners are more colorful: less red, brighter pastels. 

Demonstrations are always the same.  You get the big march and the chanting in simple words and cadences that the cognitively challenged can repeat w/o too much trouble, something like "The workers - united - will never be defeated."  We saw on the news that some fire bombs and tear gas were used after the main demonstration.  The protestors looked peaceful enough when we saw them.  I think most were just ordinary people, but there are always some of the violent guys who take any opportunity to make trouble.  

steep walk

We walked a lot, since the Marriott shuttle couldn’t drop us or pick us up in town. I had a good time being with Mariza & Espen.   Above is one of the steep paths we climbed.  Since I didn’t get to go to the museums, I have rationalized it away.  It is true that actually seeing the real thing is sometimes less satisfying than seeing a really good photo, since you can usually see more detail in the photo and there is more explanation.  That is what I am telling myself anyway.  It is not entirely wrong.  I recall when Chrissy and I saw the Mona Lisa in Paris.  It is smaller than you think and farther away than you would want.  The same went for Stonehenge.  On the other hand, even on this short trip the Acropolis and Mycenae were more than I expected.

Anyway tomorrow we have an island cruise day and then the kids go back to America and I go back to Iraq.  They rhythm of that reminds me of Davy Crockett’s campaign slogan.  I will recall as best I can.  “If you reelect me, I will serve you well and honestly; if you do not, you can go to hell and I shall go to Texas.”  I felt funny not being in Iraq for a few hours, but I came to my senses.  Still I have to go back so I may as well make the most of it. 

Espen has decided he will look angry (and tough) at all the photo sessions from now on, so whenever he notices the camera...well you see.  Who knows why?  But I will post in any case.

Espen in Athens

I did get him when he wasn't looking, however.

Espen in athens 2

March 19, 2008

Cyclops' Wall

Mariza & Espen at Myceanae

The ancient Greeks thought that giant Cyclops built the walls of Mycenae, since they could not understand how such big rocks could be brought to the site and stacked.  When I looked at the place, I could see how they were astonished.  The rocks are big and the hill is high, but with simple tools and a lot of persistence the ancient Mycenaeans did not need the help of Cyclops. Nevertheless, despite all the monumental precautions their civilization was destroyed and Mycenae abandoned.  These Bronze Age warriors were no match for Iron Age weapons of invaders.

BTW – it is not true that a man armed with iron weapons was so much superior to one armed with bronze, but iron is more common and so more men could be well armed. Of course the most famous representatives of Mycenaean culture were Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaus & Odysseus.  The Iliad makes it sound like these sorts of heroes were the only guys who counted on the battlefield and they were.  With bronze weapons and kit, only a few can have complete armor, horses and chariots AND even fewer have the talent and time to develop the skills of an expert fighting man.  The Homeric heroes were a lot like tanks on a battlefield.  They could mow down the opposing infantry until they ran into a hero from the other side, hence the importance of single combat.  Besides, it makes a better story.  The later Greeks developed the phalanx, where they all stood in lines with spears and shields and pushed the other side until somebody broke.  Individual valour was merged with the larger group. It was an excellent war machine, but not as cool as Achilles v Hector. 

Greece scene

The 19th Century amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann used the Iliad to find both Agamemnon’s Mycenae and Helen’s Troy.  When he found a body in a tomb and took off the death mask, he thought he had looked on the face of Agamemnon and the gold death mask is still often associated with the face of Agamemnon, but modern historians think that the king with the golden mask predated the Trojan War period by a couple centuries.

We still take much of our understanding of the period from Homer, who wrote centuries after the events based on oral tradition, which tends to be corrupted.  The Mycenaeans had a written language.  There was great excitement when it was deciphered, about 50 years ago now, but all they wrote about were lists of who owned what and where things were stored.  It did prove that they were indeed Greeks (or proto-Greeks) but there is no literature or sense of history.   Knowing that Agamemnon owned a dozen sheep &  three cows in a particular local valley was probably really important back then, but fails to capture our imaginations today.  Mycenaean civilization remains pre-historic in the practical sense of the term.

Nevertheless, Mycenae is impressive even today in its ruined state.  The Lion Gate you see in the picture is sort of a reverse arch, with the triangle in the middle bearing and spreading the load. 

Espen at lion gate

The natural setting is beautiful.  Most of the scenery we saw as we drove past Corinth into the Peloponnesus was beautiful.  The mountains in Greece go right down into the sea giving the country an unusually indented coast and long coastline.  Greece has more miles of coastline than all of Africa and no place in Greece is very far from both the mountains and the sea.  Little fertile valleys sit next to barren rocks and all have access to the sea.  It is a unique combination and scenery is not the most important consequence.  Geography helps explain much of Greek history and achievement.  

The picuture is a fish farm, BTW. Sorry for the blurr. I took it from the moving bus.

Fish farm

It has been really great to see the geography of the places and people I studied since I was a kid.  I realize how little I understand.   It is possible to know lots of facts and understand little.   When you put your feet on the ground, it is easier to understand the history.

March 17, 2008

Kids Arrive in Athens

Mariza & Espen at Parthenon 

Mariza & Espen arrived about an hour & a half late. They were tired, which was good since they arrived late and could go to bed soon.  We had supper at a place called “Goody’s” a fast food place.  Even with all the money I get for being in Iraq, we cannot afford (or at least I cannot tolerate) to eat at the restaurants in Marriott.  It would be costing around $50 a person.  It is expensive around here in general and it is not only the strong Euro.

Mariza espen athens view

I let the kids sleep late and we had the Euro tourist breakfast of bread & cheese and then headed down to see the Acropolis.  Marriott runs a shuttle bus to the downtown.  We walked up the steep path to the Acropolis.  This place is not handicapped friendly and the rocks are worn smooth, shinny and slippery but it is worth the trip.  Actually, there is not much left of the monuments on the Acropolis, but standing amid all this history and at the origins of our civilization is a special experience.  Espen and Mariza enjoyed it too and that made it a much better day for me than yesterday when I scouted it out alone – and yesterday was a good day. 

I have grown old and softer especially my feet.  I walked all day yesterday and most of the day before and on the third day my feet hurt.  Tomorrow we plan to go to Mycenae.  It is a bus trip, so I figure I will walk a bit less and the old feet will recover. 

athens rock stairs

Mariza got sick.  We don’t know why.  She ate all the same things we all did, but she threw up a little.  As I write now, she is feeling better and I hope she will be in shape tomorrow.  

The irony of trying to eat in Athens is that the gyros are not good or not avialble.  They just don’t have those rotating meat things I saw in Turkey or that I remember from the Greek restaurants in Madison.  I had a poor imitation of the legendary Zorba’s of Madison gyros. It was actually just little pieces of meat with the bread and sauce.  I may never again enjoy the total experience.  Last time I went to Madison, I found only one gyros place and it was run by Mexicans.  Evidently there are not enough Greek immigrants anymore and these guys were way too polite.  I recall the Zorba’s experience as something like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld.  YOU! They would say and if you didn’t answer quick enough “no gyros for you.”  Well, not quite that, but the feeling was the same.  

Espen on rock

As important as gyros is to human happiness, there is much more to the country.  I expected to enjoy Greece, but I have been pleasantly surprised so far. My disappointments are that I will not see it all.  For example, I will not go to Thermopylae.  It is not on the beaten track, even after the success of “The 300”.  As I understand it, silt and erosion has widened the pass since the time of Leonidas, so it is hard to picture the battle anyway.  Maybe it is best to keep it in the imagination.  I saw the old movie “The 300 Spartans” when I was in 5th grade and that is what started me reading about the ancient Greeks.  Forty years later I know that movie was not accurate in most details and the real Greeks were much more interesting than those in the movie, but I still acknowledge what started me down the path.  After so many changes, I guess we sort of stay the same, or more correctly I think we circle around the same places. 

John and Mariza Matel at acropolis 

I was worried that the kids would get sunburned.  I am a little tan from living in Iraq - and I have a hat - but they are still pale.  Sunblock is expensive and harder to find around here than I thought but we got some.  It cost 20 Euro or around $30.  Note to self - bring sunblock.

Things Are Getting Better

Acropolis looking up 

I talked to an English guy named Joe, who evidently made a lot of money selling prosthetic and orthopedic devices.  Exciting as that business was, he preferred history and knew a lot about it.  He said that he had been coming to Athens for more than 20 years and had seen a lot of improvements.  That is why I didn’t find the smoggy, dingy Athens I had expected, he explained.  He pointed out that 20 years ago you couldn’t look out from the Acropolis and expect to see the mountains because they were usually obscured by smog.  The green space had been much less green and was filled with garbage back then.  The Greeks had made significant progress.  He also confirmed that much of the forest I had seen coming in was a recent improvement. 

agora in athens

Contrary to what you might think watching the news, things have generally been getting better, especially in Europe and North America, where forest cover has increased and water and air quality has improved remarkably.  As a teenage environmentalist, I recall reading all those books that predicted mass famines by 1985, resource depletion and general collapse of the environment by now.  Instead we get this (see below).

Agroa trees athens 

What a beautiful place.   That is not to say our problems are all finished.  China is already making our pitiful attempts are planet wrecking look like a junior varsity effort of a class C team, but if we in the West can make such progress, I suppose they can too.  If they work really hard, maybe the athletes at this year’s Olympics in Beijing will be able to breathe deeply as they compete and that temporary improvement might be the start of something bigger.

Below is a parade next to the Greek parliament.  I just happened on it. 

greek parade

March 16, 2008

Travels in Kuwait & Greece

Temple of Zeus 

Blue Collar Expeditionary Force 

A guy called Wayne helped get me from the Ali Al Salem to the Kuwait International airport.  He was an American from Georgia who had owned a construction company of his own, drove trucks in the U.S. and Iraq and now worked for KBR taking care of State Department people transiting Kuwait.   

When he drove truck, he was headquartered in Al Asad.  He was in Anbar when the heavy fighting was still going on and it was very dangerous to drive around.  He told me that for security reasons they would not stop when things fell off the trucks.  Sometimes they were just little things like pallets of water, but often the were higher value items such as building supplies.  Local Iraqis could make a good living scavenging.  It is a variation of that old “it fell off the back of a truck” saying.

Wayne moved to Kuwait from Al Asad because he was beguiled by the idea of getting back to “civilization”.  He regretted the move and missed the Marines at Al Asad.  He was less fond of the Kuwaitis. With the immense oil wealth, few of them actually do any useful work, at least not much of it.  They are also largely nocturnal.  This makes sense because of the heat during the day.  This package of traits formed the basis of Wayne’s grievances.  Muslims fast during Ramadan form sun up to sun down.  This is really no hardship for most Kuwaitis since they can sleep during the day and enjoy life al night.  But the law in Kuwait enforces Ramadan rules on non- Muslims too, so outsiders like Wayne, who work during the day, are the ones who pay the big price.

A couple of Bosnians actually gave me the ride to the airport.  Their outlook was similar to Wayne’s.  They had worked in Iraq and liked it better than working in Kuwait.  I guess I can understand.  As I am writing this from Athens, I am feeling a little anxious about not being at Al Asad.  It is a totally unexpected feeling.  You know what is what at Al Asad.  There are no real options.  You eat at the chow hall, go to work and sleep in your can.  Outside you have to plan a lot more AND things all cost money.   Don’t get me wrong, Athens is great so far and I will write about that too.  But I do have to acknowledge the anxiety that others have told me about and I never understood.

I think it is harder for Wayne and the Bosnians.  From my short exposure, I think I would hate to live in Kuwait. On to a physical environment no better than Iraq’s is grafted a society that is simultaneously decadent and puritanical.  When I drove through the place at night, it looked like it had snowed.  A dust storm covered the ground and the trees.  In the light of the moon and the street lamps, it looked like snow, but snow is clean and new fallen snow is fresh. There is nothing pleasant about a layer of dust.



My flight to Athens was scheduled to leave at 0310.  In fact it left a bit later.  I got into Athens at around 0700 local time w/o having slept more than a couple minutes on the plane.  Athens is nicer, cleaner and greener than I imagined and the mountain relief is higher.  The mountains on the way from the airport are covered with pine.  I think it is a new forest, however.  Most of it looks young, less than 50 years old, although since I am unfamiliar with the local species and growing conditions I may be wrong.  My guess is that the trees are recently established and before that time goats and sheep prevented forest regeneration.  When you look at old pictures, you see that the hills of Greece were a lot more barren a in the past.  I was looking at some prints from the Ottoman times in the late 18th Century.  They usually feature shepherds with their flocks picturesquely denuding the landscape.

I was a lot less tired than I thought I would be, so I used the morning to scout out some of the places I might take Mariza and Espen.  It was good I did.  I followed a path that said “to Acropolis.”  It wound through closely packed houses and through what looked like people’s backyards.  After following the serpentine path up the hill, I ran into a fence.  This was probably a back way up to the summit.  It was an interesting walk.  A couple of steps behind me was a group of old ladies in comfortable shoes.  I had passed them on the way up and when I passed them on the way down, I told them about the fence.  They seemed less amused that I had been and grumbled loudly in their British accents about ancient civilization being unable to handle simple contemporary tasks.

City Athens

This is a picture from the path and below is part of the path.  All in all, it was worth the trip.

back path to parthenon

March 15, 2008

A Noah's Flood Class Storm

Water at al asad 

I wrote about dust and wind, but when Chrissy asked me if I would write about water, I told her probably not, because there was not enough water around here to comment about.  Today there was.  We had a bodacious Noah-class thunderstorm, one of the most violent thunderstorm I ever experienced.  It knocked out our power and left big and deep puddles all over the place.   The disadvantage of boots designed for the desert became quickly apparent as I walked through ankle deep water.

I went out to run at around 5 pm.  It was a normal day until then, a little dusty.   As I ran NW I notice the sky was very black.  There was a bank of clouds coming.  It looked like something out of an apocalyptical movie, or on the funnier side, that sky scene from Ghost Busters.   The black clouds looked angry.   I ran out for around five minutes and then decided better to turn around and run back home, quick as I could.  That was smart.  Even as I ran back I could feel the big cold drops begin to fall.  The wind picked up.  Fortunately, it was right at my back so it pushed me along and I didn’t get the rain in the face.  Just as I got back to my can, all hell seemed to break loose.  Think of the storm music from the William Tell Overture.  It just started to pound like that.  It went on for around a half hour and then, also like the storm in the William Tell Overture, just stopped.  

Now it is clear but chilly.  The rain washed the dust out of the air and it smells good to have a little moisture in clean air.  I am writing this part at night on battery.  Tomorrow I will go out and take some pictures of the water in the daylight.   Although I expect much will have drained off, I think there still will be a lot. 

The ground here does not accept water.  It doesn’t soak in.  What doesn’t drain off just sits on the surface until it dries out, leaving a salty ring to make the erstwhile puddle.

March 13, 2008

Mayor Daley Rule

Wrigley field 

A long time ago in my Foreign Service career I discovered the Mayor Daley rule.   The Mayor Daley rule is named after the major of Chicago (take your pick which one) and it is simply a test of reasonableness.  It works like this.  When planning to provide/inflict a program or policy on our foreign friends and colleagues, I ask myself how I would feel if a foreigner proposed doing a similar type of program in the U.S.   To make it more concrete, I think of it how it would play in Milwaukee or Chicago. 

If I conclude that it would be inappropriate applied to us/me/Milwaukee/Chicago, I have to ask myself why I think it is appropriate for them.   Sometimes after further consideration I understand that it IS appropriate, but usually I have to modify the program in light of the paradigm shifting thought experiment. 

It is also important to be aware of CHANGING circumstances.  I remember when working in Poland many of the programs that worked well right after the fall of communism were no longer useful a few years later.  At some point, our tutelage is no longer required.  That doesn’t mean that the job is done; it only means that we cannot take it any further.   Our goal as a PRT is exactly this – helping the Iraqis get beyond needing our help. 

I remember when we taught Mariza how to ride a bike.  I always held onto the seat and she couldn’t balance alone.  Then I let go and before she realized she was balancing by herself; she was riding.  Of course, she kept on going and ran right into a brick wall on the side of the road.  I can still picture it on the little road above our house in Oslo.  I raced over to make sure she was okay.   She was happy to have been able to ride the bike and didn’t seem to consider the fall very important.

The reason I am thinking about this has to do with some of our governance programs.  A couple of our contract trainers were weathered in at Al Asad on their way to Rutbah.  They wanted to turn around and go back.  This would have been a bad thing, since we promised a program to Rutbah and we need to keep our word.  I saw that communication in person would be better so I drove up to the landing zone with one of our Marines to encourage them to press on.  They ended up taking our advice.  In the process of talking to them I also got a chance to find out more about their program.  The program seemed very good, but I wonder if it passed the Mayor Daley test.  

I am concerned that the program was too generic.  Every place is different and programs must be adjusted to local needs.  I am afraid what we are doing might be like taking the Chicago program to San Francisco w/o modification.  Comments about Cubs & Bears probably would not mean the same things in both places.  I don’t directly manage these particular programs or people & I am not aware of any trouble, but I am making it my business to figure out how well they are working in light of the Mayor Daley rule.

The Cubs are the baseball players, right?

March 10, 2008

Losing my Best

Helicopter window  

Above and around the post are pictures from a recent helicopter ride.  One of the cool things we get to do is ride in helicopters.  These flew very close to the ground and I got to see a lot of desert, river and green fields I usually do not see so close up.   In the little helicopters, you can come close enough to the trees to pick leaves (if you were foolish enough to reach out).

This will be a tough month.  The ePRT was set up last year about this time and this year many of the first waves of team members are rotating out.  I am losing some of my best people.  They have a wealth of experience that they are taking with them.  

Rotations are always hard.   We work so closely and intensely together and these guys have become my friends.  I am also seriously concerned that our team will be weaker w/o their expertise.

The case that upsets me the most is Reid.  He is a good friend AND he would like to stay for a couple more months, but our arcade rules do not allow it.  It is ironic that we implore and compel people to come to Iraq and at the same time send willing volunteers home when they want to stay and when they still are doing a great job.

Reid jokes about Al Asad that it is like being in prison in several ways: you have a set routine; you are surrounded by a fence; you cannot leave; and the way you got to either place sounded like a good idea at the time.

        farmland in Iraq

On the other hand, I am also half way home.  I got here in late September and this is about the mid-point.  My replacement has been named.  I understand that there were a few people who wanted my job.  That is good.  FSOs come through when we are really needed, even if we grumble along the way.  I am glad that there is somebody lined up to carry on the work.  I am glad I volunteered, glad I am here and I will be glad to be finished.  This has been a remarkable experience.  

River Euphrates palms

The work is very interesting and I get to do things I never imagined, but I miss Chrissy & the kids.  I miss the green and pleasant places back home.  Beyond that, the job here is very stressful.  I worry that I am not doing a good job.  What am I overlooking or just not doing right?   In this kind of job, you never know for sure and the stakes are very high.  I am often literally asking my colleagues to risk their lives and the Marines risk their lives whenever they protect one of our missions.  This is a big responsibility.  I am so grateful that we have so far had no serious incidents.

helicopter landed

Today has not been a great day, but I am confident that tomorrow will be better.  After all, where else can you do the things we do?

March 06, 2008

Leadership & Management

The picture is from my walk to the botton of the Grand Canyon - and back up a few years ago.  It was a long day and thinking of it reminds me that things take time and lots of forces working together over time create big results.

When thinking about my role as ePRT leader, many of the usual management descriptions spring to mind such as coach, mentor and various sports or military analogies.  Of course routine management of staff and resources takes up the bulk of the time.  They are necessary, but often not the most value-adding activiites.  On further consideration a less common analogy came to mind, one that probably adds the most value for the leader of a diverse team – reporter.

All the members of my team are experts. They know lots of things I don’t know and they often work where I cannot watch them, far away from Al Asad doing the things they are especially qualified to do.  I have to trust them.  It is impossible for me precisely to direct their work; more correctly it is impossible for me to direct them closely and expect good results, because (see above) they have skills and talents that are beyond my own.  I need to take advantage of their skills, imagination, innovation and initiative while still guiding them toward our common goals so that each member can best contribute his/her skills to achieve those goals. Synergy is the tired old word, but it applies well to teamwork like ours.  It applies even more when you consider that our skills and actions are only part of the total effort that involves so many other USG & military officers, contractors and - most important - our Iraqi friends and allies.  It is much more appropriate to think in terms of influence rather than authority.

Just keeping up with all the good work they are doing and helping other do is almost a full time job. I found the best way to get this done is to use the skills of a journalist/analyst rather than a boss or supervisor.  When team members return from sojourns in the field, I sit down with them and listen to their experiences, concerns and aspirations.  I put myself in the mind set of a reporter and ask myself how I would explain this in a written article and then how I might answer questions if I was on one of the panels on a Sunday morning news program.  Of course, listening is good leadership and understanding is essential to right action, but this is only the first step.  My responsibility goes beyond asking questions and reporting.  My job is to coordinate and guide the whole team and create synergies among team members.  If I were to plot my team members’ activities on a Venn diagram, I add the most value when I can find and accentuate the places of overlap.  Let me illustrate with an example.

In the Hadithah region, I asked my USDA expert to partner with local officials to enhance plans for restoring land productivity in ways that were both ecologically and economically sustainable.  At the same time, our governance expert worked on issues of land tenure.  Cloudy land title is one of the biggest impediments to responsible development in the region.  (Little things like a small QRF grant to organize the records office can leverage into much bigger results.) All the while our business development team member developed and implemented a plan for an equipment rental operation as our city planning expert delivered GPS mapping software to expedite forecasting and platting of communication networks and communities.  Each of these tasks was worth doing on its own merits, but when coordinated the total accomplishment will be greater than the sum of its parts.  That is what I do when I am successful and I think the talent for doing this is the key skill for PRT leaders.

Lao Tzu says about leadership that when the best leaders have accomplished their purposes, the people say that they have done it by themselves. That is good team advice.   I also find that thinking about my job and writing it for others who are unfamiliar with the details helps me understand my own plans.  Thanks for listening.  Comments are welcome.  Any of my team reading this - we can talk.

March 05, 2008

Aida on Rails

Some bandits robbed a train last week.  I thought that only happened in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” days.  Unfortunately in this case no horsemen came galloping out of a boxcar to chase the miscreants.  They got away with some oil bound for the refinery at K3.  I really don’t know any details of the circumstance.   It was probably just an inside job and a lot less picturesque than I imagine it.  But I have been learning a little re the transportation network in Iraq.

Iraq has the biggest rail network in the Middle East.  Rail lines reach from beyond Mosul in the north, west to Al Qaim and south to the Persian Gulf.  During the early 20th Century, the Berlin to Baghdad railroad line (part of which was the famous Orient Express) was an irritant in German-British relationship, as the Brits thought the Kaiser in league with the Turkish Sultan, who controlled Mesopotamia, would use the rail network to threaten access to their colony in India.  Iraq was in the middle of things then and geography has not changed.

In a reasonably peaceful Middle East, Iraq will serve as a gateway from east to west, north to south.   I am told that container ships could offload their cargos in the Eastern Med ports onto railroad cars, which could then go overland through Iraq to the Persian Gulf where they could either serf local markets or be transshipped.  Goods could also go the other directions.  It would cut shipping time by about a week over going through the Suez Canal and save millions per shipment.   Containerization of cargo makes this a profitable venture. 

The Iraqis recently ran their first passenger train from Baghdad to Basra.   This is more of a political than an economic endeavor.  Passenger rail loses money.  This trip to Basra cost around $6000 more than it made in revenue, even fully loaded.  I personally love passenger rail, but the economics are tough. 

Tougher than passenger rail are prestige airports.  Iraq has lots of airports.  Saddam Hussein built them for his vast air force, which he never used.  Some people say that they should be converted to civilian use.   The is easier said than done, or put correctly cheaper said than done.  Most big passenger airports also lose money.

In the case of both rail and air, the freight tends to make money and the passengers lose money.  It is not widely appreciated that the U.S. has one of the best rail systems in the world.  I found an interesting webpage re.  It is overlooked because ours is mostly a freight rail system.   The Europeans move people; we move goods.  One is easier to see than the other, but the efficacy of our rail system is reflected in the less expensive goods we can get.

Waleed trucks

Away from the ocean or big rivers, what doesn’t move by rail usually moves by road.  It is best to take as many trucks as possible off the road, by putting their loads on rail.  I prefer to ride my bike or take a train, but I know that most people prefer to drive.  If the choice is between taking the passenger car or the big truck off the road, I think taking the truck off is the obvious choice.  

The realization that container cargo could be sent throught Iraq like this was a surprise to me, a paradigm shift.  Ferdinand de Lesseps would also be surprised and perhaps a little chagrined that his great creation was being outclassed by something as mundane as freight rail. Maybe they should play the chorus from Aida as they load the first rail cars.

March 04, 2008

One Farmer to Another

Trail in Milwaukee

The picture is not Iraq.  It is from one of the spots I used to hang around as a kid in Milwaukee.  People often think this is "virgin forest".  This wall dividing forest from forest shows how nature regenerates.  You often find signs of walls and fences that used to mark cultivated fields that are now in the middle of the woods.

Iraqi Colonel seemed almost a little shy at first.  He answered questions with as few words as possible and did not elaborate much beyond what was required.  When we went down to breakfast, of flatbread, eggs, cheese and marmalade, there were often long silences. Then we started to talk about agriculture in Iraq.

It seems the colonel is the proud owner of 25 donum (in Iraq 1 donum =  0.62 acres) of farmland between Basra and Karbala.  Twenty-five donum is a fairly good sized farm around here, especially 25 donum of irrigated land.  The colonel grows truck farm products like tomatoes and has tried, so far w/o success, to raise a few beef cattle.

We talked about the importance of being close to the soil, one (part-time) farmer to another.  The colonel mentioned that he had seen some good irrigated and dry land farming practices in Jordan and Egypt and in the not too distant past Iraq had also been a leader in this area.   Unfortunately, agriculture had fallen into a state of disrepair.  The unsettled conditions of the war didn’t help, but much of this problem resulted from the challenge of a country like Iraq that is rich in oil wealth.   Many farmers didn’t want to stay on the land, because they saw opportunities for more money and less work in the non-farm economy.  Often the best farmers were the first to leave because they had the resources to go and try something else. 

Iraq is not like the Eastern U.S. or Central Europe.  In these rainy places, when people stop cultivating the land, you get weeds, grass and then little trees. Within only around twenty years in a place like Virginia you have a beginner forest.  It quickly reverts to a natural state. Iraq also reverts to a natural form when the hand of man is removed, but the natural form in most of this place is desolate desert.  It takes significant human effort to create productive land and significant effort to maintain it.  When maintenance stops, it can be disastrous, as trees and vegetation die setting up a depressing domino effect of fewer plants sustaining ever fewer plants until there is nothing left but dust and after the wind blows that away, there is nothing at all.  Dust to dust. Restoration is possible.  We agreed that restoration would be good for the Iraqi economy and even better for the Iraqi spirit. 

March 03, 2008

Catching Passport Fraud

 Waleed passport processing

Foreign terrorists are the most serious problem, but fraud at border crossings is a border crossing problem in all times and places and routine fraud is a lot more common. The POE at Waleed processes many travelers every day and among the travelers are some dishonest people, some very clever. 

The new director of the passport unit was a real professional.  He showed us a variety of fake visas, each more professionally done than the last.  At first they were easy to detect.  Forgers merely replaced a page or photo shopped in a different picture.   They became more and more professionally done.  Eventually, the only way to tell the fraudulent passports from the real ones was by matching their serial numbers.  Finally it was not even possible to do that.   The director showed us a perfect fake passport.  If it was perfect, how did it come to be detected?  The director was a very intelligent man, but unassuming.  He reminded me of Colombo on the old television series, a little disheveled and diffident.  He explained that his experience made him think something was wrong.  As he asked a few questions, it became clear that the passport holder knew few details about the city where he ostensibly lived.   The director cracked the case the old fashioned way: with experience, persistence and intelligence.  As I said, a real professional.

The director told us that the most common passport besides Iraqi was Syrian. This is not surprise at the Syrian border.  Next most common?  Swedish.  Who'd a thought that?  But it makes sense. Lots of Iraqis have gone to Sweden over the years seeking asylum.  Now they come back, at least temporarily, but it is still good to have that kind of document.

The POE has access to decent equipment, but it is hooked up to a primitive system.  To make the black light machine work properly, the director had to jiggle the plug in the outlet.   Offices left the impression of an abandoned building.  The director told us that he was going to go down to Baghdad and make sure he got some renovations done.  If he is as good at this part of his job as he is at detecting fraud, he will probably succeed.

March 02, 2008


Mosque in Waleed 

I always thought it was a joke.  Iraqi men would ask me if I was married.  When I said, “yes”, they would ask me how many wives.  We both laughed a little.  Then a couple of weeks ago, I thought I would play along with the joke and when they told me that they were married, I asked the same question about wives.  To my surprise, it had been a serious question and almost everybody has more than one.  It should not have come as a surprise.  This is a Muslim country and the men I meet are usually well off and so are the kinds of guys who can afford larger families, but somehow it never really occurred to me.

Some of these guys are very active.  One old toothless sheik has a very young son from a very young new wife.  While I suspect it is possible that there might be more men on the job, nobody is particularly surprised by this.  A local mayor mentioned in passing that he had three wives and fourteen kids.  He also said, perfunctorily, that he was getting married next week.  When I pressed him on the fact that he didn’t seem that excited, he explained that he was just marrying his sister in law.  His brother had died and somebody had to take care of her.  He got the job to keep it all in the family. 

The extended family is one of the pillars of the polygamy.  We tend to project the system into the American context of a nuclear family just with a couple additional women.  That is not really how it works here.  It is more of a welfare system married (literally) to a system of tribal or dynastic alliances.  Tribal affiliation is the key to success for individuals.  You can be born into a tribe or you can marry into a tribe and if you are particularly clever you can marry into up to four tribes.   This both complicates and simplifies genealogy because after a few generations there are lots of overlaps, so you have fewer family lines but a lot more permutations among them.

If you assume that there is rough gender parity for 18-25 year-olds, polygamy means that if some guys get two or three wives, others don’t get any at all, or at least they have to pick up the older women from the age groups where women come to outnumber men.  I suppose in a culture where a lot of men died in warfare, such a system works out well.  I recall reading about the Blackfoot Indians of Montana.  They were a particularly warlike people and sometimes as many as 2/3 of the male population was killed in the low-level but perpetual warfare they favored.  No matter.  The remaining men did triple duty and each generation was as big as the one previous.   

I don’t think this is the way it is working in Iraq.  It is just the traditional Muslim practice and seems fairly routine & uncontraversial at least among the men of western Al Anbar. 

March 01, 2008


street in camp at Waleed 

Angelina Jolie has been here, but this time it was only us.  I don’t know how many Palestinians are stranded in the camp.  The numbers evidently vary as people come and go.  My guess is that there were around 1200 people in the camp, but I am not very good at these sort of estimates.  I have heard estimates ranging from around 900-2000.  These people had come from Baghdad around three years ago.  During the bad days a couple years ago, various groups could not agree on much, but they often agreed that they did not like Palestinians.  We really didn’t have a plan or any reason to go to the camp; we only wanted to see it because we are often asked about such things.  It was not what I thought, not the picture I had in mind.

Actually the PICTURE was what I expected, the UNHCR tents, squalor and crowds of people hanging around w/o much to do.  What was different from my mental model was what was going on and the people themselves.  The people were friendly, but not particularly interesting in us.  A few kids came around; some people gawked a bit, but most just went around their business, such as it was. 

Fruit seller at Waleed

I stopped at a tent where they were selling fruit and vegetables.  The bananas looked fresh and better than those we get in the chow hall.  Tomatoes looked wholesome, but were imperfect, i.e. lots of bruises and nicks.  Only the cauliflower didn’t look acceptable.  It was past prime and browning.  It was probably suitable only for soup.  All the fruits and vegetables were well presented and the shopping area was neat.  The shopkeeper told me that his wares came from Rutbah; most originated in Syria, but still came through Rutbah.  I thought that was a little odd that things coming from Syria would pass right by the camp, go all the way to Rutbah and then come back, but the guy insisted that was the case.  The grocery tent also sold rice and flour. I noticed that it said “product of Syria” in English on the bags.  He didn’t have much rice on hand.

In nearby tents you could buy the other necessities of life such as cigarettes (Galois was the only brand I saw on offer) and various types of soft drinks.  I didn’t see any contraband such as alcohol, but I didn’t look very hard.  One shop featured as small number of canned good and there were some small consumer electrical products. 

Just having a market surprised me but it makes sense.  People naturally organize themselves around markets if they get the chance.  The refugees get a food ration, so these foodstuffs are just supplements.

Goat butcher in Waleed

I didn’t see any fresh meat in the shops, but I did see fresh meat being produced.  We were greeted by the sights, sounds and smells of butchering as we walked into the camp.  I was not impressed by the sanitary conditions.   We didn’t actually see the sheep slaughtered, but when we came in the blood was still flowing, running downhill and soaking into the sand.  They had cut the head clean off and set it near the carcass.  By the time we had finished our visit; they had largely skinned the beast and killed another.  We did not see ourselves but were told that the butchers just toss the waste products near the highway overpass.  We did see tuffs of hair blowing in the wind.

The camp featured a recreation hall and a school.  We didn’t want to go into the school because we didn’t want to disrupt the classes.  The recreation hall was decent sized.  There was a fine pool table with some guys were playing pool.   They evidently had no cue ball, but that did not deter them.   There was also a few guys playing checkers and the television was on, tuned to Al Jazeera news. 

The camp was an unpleasant place, but nobody looked undernourished or even very poorly dressed.  This time of the year life is probably not very uncomfortable, but in the colder times of the winter and especially during the oppressive heat of summer conditions must be almost unbearable.  At any time of the year, boredom must be a factor.  

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