Remembering Baghdad

Remembering Baghdad

By Deborah Hefferon, Retired Consultant in International Education and Cross Cultural Training

July 2020

 

This is a snapshot of one foreign woman’s impressions of a country at war, while she was armed only with: the shallow remains of Arabic language learned 12 years earlier as a Peace Corps Volunteer, her personal U.S. educational experience to extrapolate as a road map for others, one recent National Geographic article on Iraq, and an open heart.

 

View from Melia Hotel, Baghdad

On January 1, 1985, my husband and I flew from icy Dulles Airport I to Baghdad. His work with a Japanese consortium on Baghdad 2000, an ambitious urban planning project, was the impetus for our trip at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. While Bob planned a city of the future, I worked as the overseas educational adviser at U.S. Information Services (USIS) housed on the U.S. Embassy compound. My understanding of the job was slight, but I knew it would be a significant adventure.

My arrival came on the heels of the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, 17 years after the United States and Iraq had severed diplomatic relationships. The government of Iraq, feeling flush with oil money and optimistic about the post-Iran-Iraq war future, awarded hundreds of full graduate scholarships for study abroad. From the moment the advising office opened, a flood of students was on the threshold, including the scholarship recipients, privately funded students, and third-country nationals. Going to America was once again a choice—an attractive choice.

When a country becomes synonymous with war, we face the danger of losing sight of the face of the people and culture. Maybe the best way to describe my 18 months in Baghdad, during those troubled times, is to share a few moments from my everyday life and the students I was privileged to meet.

Paper Bag I

Getting the proper bank statements to demonstrate one’s financial ability to fund a U.S. education was not easy. Perhaps the family did not trust Iraqi banks. Or perhaps the family was Kurdish. I explained how to prepare for the visa process, including the financial criterion, to the engineering student. His father, who accompanied him on the next visit, said he clearly understood the need to prove financial capacity. He clasped my hand with both of his and dramatically looked me in the eye: “You have my word that I have enough money to pay for my son’s education in America. You tell the university and the visa official of my promise.”

With great fear of insulting the gentleman who had just offered me his word, I slowly explained again the need to demonstrate one’s financial ability. The father returned the following morning for the visa interview with his son, all the forms completed, and a large paper bag. He invited me to peer inside the bag—inside were stacks of neat bundles of Iraqi dinars and U.S. hundred dollar bills tied in twine. I escorted him personally to the consular officer.

Paper Bag II

Four young marines came to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy. In their honor, and in the annual tradition of marines worldwide, November brought the Marine Ball. There was great excitement throughout the embassy. Of course Bob and I would attend, but what I would wear weighed heavily on the minds of my Iraqi colleagues who had closets of glittery apparel. Clearly my ankle-length black dress needed sparkling up. The morning of the ball was busy. My desk was constantly surrounded with students, their mediators, their parents. At some point that morning, one colleague set a paper bag on my desk. I gave an off-handed “shokran” assuming it was the special date pastry I liked, or perhaps a falafel sandwich. Lunchtime came and went, the flow of students didn’t cease. Eight hours later, in a rush to leave for home to somehow transform myself for a ball (visions of fairy tales danced in my head!), I thought to look in the bag. Inside were about a dozen thick ropes of gold chains: 18K, 22K, heavy, dazzling—with the nonchalance of a friend loaning me her nail polish, my colleague never even asked me about the jewelry until we met later that evening.

War I

I was the administrator and proctor for ETS exams. On testing days, soldiers from the front and military personnel obtained special leave to sit for the exams; they traveled far. The university buildings were ghost-like on Saturdays. Someone with a big jangle of keys always had to be summoned to open the classroom door. One GMAT administration brought 10 young men to such a classroom on a raw January day. Each student had traveled a long distance to be in Baghdad on the date and time printed on his entrance card. They looked grave and scared in the face of quantitative and qualitative multiple choice exam. Thirty minutes into the test, the all-alarm air raid siren screeched relentlessly. We immediately crawled under our desks (a maneuver I had learned at age five in a Philadelphia elementary school—I was amazed at how easily I relearned it). We waited. More sirens, an explosion, and footsteps running provided an eerie background while we waited for the all-clear. When it came, the students looked at me with great anticipation. I checked the manual and read aloud that the test should be aborted if there is any disturbance or disruption, anything at all amiss. The horror that spread across their faces would have been more appropriate on the front. I polled the group—it was unanimous that we should add the time lost and continue the exam. When I filled out the test administrator’s forms later that day, I opted to leave the white space blank under “describe any out-of-the-ordinary circumstances.”

War II

After my advisees had been accepted at U.S. universities and granted visas, I invited them to our home for dinner. “Home” had initially been in the Melia Hotel, and then after a few weeks, we relocated to Haifa Street, a showcase of new apartment buildings, art galleries and smooth sidewalks. In month four, the building across from ours was hit by a SKUD missile. Eighty people died. With plaster in our lungs from our falling bedroom ceiling, we were moved out of the city to an abandoned village that a Finnish firm had built and occupied. The pre-fabricated, threeroom houses were fitted with four air conditioners; when all of the air conditioners were running, we swore that the house would be lifted off the ground. We lived for the next year in Finn Village, as it became known, with furniture that could have come from Ikea. A dense oil palm plantation abutted our property, and a bit further down the road, a medieval brick factory spewed out smoke. If Iraqis wanted to socialize with foreigners, they had to obtain special permission from a ministry. I knew it was a cumbersome process but somehow each student I invited jumped through the hoops and joined my husband and me for a departure dinner. I tried to cook something akin to a typical American meal. I gave practical advice, trying to anticipate their questions, over meatloaf or chicken stew. Their curiosity always took us late into the nights. The air conditioners roared.

Peace I

In 1989, after the Iran-Iraq war had ended, and just before Iraq invaded Kuwait, I was invited back to Iraq by USIA as a consultant. I held meetings with the U.S. educational advising office and conferred with university and ministry officials. In a private meeting at the Ministry of Education, I sat across from an official at a green metal desk. Mid-sentence, he opened his top drawer and pulled out a paper bag. He offered me pistachios. “These are lemony, from Iran.” He looked around the empty room, and then added wistfully: “Iran always had the best pistachios.”

Peace II

In 1995, I was leading a recruiting tour to the Middle East for Linden Educational Services. At one of our favorite high school visits in Jordan, I found myself chatting idly with Baccalaureate students in Amman. We were talking about the concept of home as many of the students hailed from other countries. The Palestinian students talked about the challenges of passports. A few students were reticent to even tell me their nationalities. I pushed them. “It is a country Americans don’t like,” said one brave boy. “Are you Iraqi?” I asked. They nodded in unison. “I used to live there. I love Iraq.” We talked excitedly until the bell ended the college fair. That night, back at the hotel, I received several phone calls from parents of Iraqi students. The conversations began something like this: “Miss Deborah? I understand that you are the American woman who likes Iraqis.” And so I came to know Iraq a little and like it a lot. I also was invited into the family of overseas educational advising, a profession of which I am still proud to be associated. Despite the turbulence, it was a lucky time for me—so many doors opened. I hope for the day when Iraqi Fulbright Scholars study across the United States, when ECE is asked to update The Educational System of Iraq, when one of my advisees who is now a friend can visit his parents in Basra during the children’s summer vacation, when I am sitting in Dulles Airport and the next flight called is Baghdad. Baghdad!

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About Deborah Hefferon:

Deborah Hefferon, based in Washington, DC, is a recently retired consultant in the fields of international education and cross-cultural communication training.  She has lived and worked in eight countries (Morocco, Scotland, Haiti, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Egypt, and Iraq) and has consulted in over 65 countries with governments, private organizations, universities,and NGO’s.

Ms. Hefferon has an MA in counseling from the University of Maryland, an MA in Linguistics/TESOL from American University (Washington, DC), and a BS from West Chester University (PA) in Education.  She has written for numerous publications on educational issues and currently devotes her time to writing and publishing poetry.