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My Life in Iraq

My Life in Iraq

Editor’s Note: The following article is part of a series of reflections from people travelling or living in new places.

Brent Antonson is Canadian born, and has lived in Estonia and the United States as well as a year inside both Russia and China. He taught English in Zhengzhou in 2011. Antonson has travelled from his earliest days, collecting life-changing experiences in Europe, Mongolia, 49 American states, across Canada, and China.
His adventure is the source of his creative thinking and writing. He published a book about living and teaching in Russia entitled "Of Russia". His most recent adventures hail from Iraq. Here he shares his thoughts on his life in Iraq so far and the journey will be continued. Stay tuned!


I am in Iraq. It still sounds strange to say that. Iraq has always been ‘there’ and now it’s ‘here’.

Erbil is a city of 1.3 million people in Northern Iraq, the semi-autonomous Kurdish area, and it’s where I have a new posting as an English teacher. My arrival here last night was anything but straightforward. As a blizzard in Istanbul cancelled flights, mine – the last leg of a Vancouver-London-Istanbul-Erbil stretch – stuck firm on the departures board. I figured if you’re flying into Iraq, you can’t let any type of weather scare you from taking off. You’d never live it down and your co-workers would snap you with towels in the locker room. In the dark of the taxiway, I noticed our right wing was three-quarters covered in thick snow and ice which will keep you on the ground, even if you are going 400km/h. But a little white de-icing truck with a lift and someone who drew the short straw parked at the wingtip and power washed the wing with chemicals and the flaps were tested a few times. We were soon above the weather and under the stars.

It was a short flight. As we crested our cruising elevation, we began our 3am descent into Iraq. Some twenty minutes out, the entire cabin went dark, emergency door lights, everything but the fluorescent floor strips. And no anti-collision or wing-tip lights either. Since no one else freaked out, I stared into the inky blackness of a fully-loaded A321 and waited. We landed safely, entered the large terminal and waited for our luggage. Due to security reasons, people meeting you are gathered at a building five kilometres away. I piled my 87 kilograms of luggage onto a small Kurdish woman and her children. There wasn’t any breathing room because no one wanted to miss this bus. The driver fired up the diesel engine and drove us through checkpoints to the ‘meeting place’ that was controlled by men with machine guns braced against their hips.

I stepped off the bus and put my foot into a muddy Iraqi mud. Amir and Carl spotted my Canadian luggage tag. My new boss Carl and I had exchanged emails for 18 months about a teaching position in Iraq but at that time I had a contract to teach English in China. We kept in touch and I notified him when China did what it did to me. After completing the application process, I was offered a contract for the coming year. So it was a long-awaited meeting. And Amir was the man you would want to have with you in any situation, from exchanging money and paying bribes to locating Kraft Dinner. He is only three degrees of separation from anyone in the world. By day he is the company’s receptionist but off the clock he is the Best Problem Solver (in the Whatever-It-Takes category) in Erbil, fifth year in a row. Carl and Amir had waited in the cold for the two hours our flight was late. Not a good time of day nor state of mind to make good first impressions. I asked if I could make my genuine first impressions the next day since currently my day had about 74 hours in it.

As Amir started the car and weaved through the men with machine guns, Carl asked about the flight. I told him that the cabin lights had gone out and what an uneasy feeling a black airplane is. He said that was done to avoid anti-aircraft missiles. Sometimes, he said, the planes will do wide circles and then quickly land in order to confuse these persons with anti-aircraft machinery. I figured there was likely an app that would eliminate the confusion of the anti-aircraft machinery but this was all said matter-of-factly… without any shock and awe in his voice.

We drove through the tightly closed Erbil suburb of Ainkawa, not far from the airport, and stopped. My lodgings are in the Czech Consulate; I have a roommate named Mark who I would later meet who is a teacher at the same school and is from Halifax. There is also 24-hour armed security. We stood on the dark street and Carl handed me my door key. I’d been awake for almost half a week. My first class would start the following day. With that, they sped off as the morning sun started to stain the clouds.

"I’m in Iraq… here, not there,” I said to myself before turning inside.


Observations - Iraq  

A Pictorial Accompaniment 

This is the Czech Consulate where I have the third floor. That green thing is our generator which we need because of rolling blackouts that happen 5-25 times a day, from 5 minutes to 12 hours. So this is our generator for such the generator would be easy right? flip a switch or three?





My street. In the last 18 months, (minus my quiet days in peaceful Vancouver where they use leaf blowers Wednesdays at 8am), I have had construction going on around me all day, every day...from the horrific migraine-inducing drilling through concrete in China to the... well, to my street in Iraq. It has no name, therefore I have no address, more on that later. There are 15 houses on the street, 3 are under construction. 

How you deal with people who don't see things your way?



 This is THE CHURCH, landmark for many. Now I've found I live in a world where very little surprises me. Sure some things in life are a curveball, a few culture shocks which usually are to do with what some people eat, sometimes you need to learn a little to get a lot but sometimes the very common, the assumed, the given, even the uncommon is common.  


BUT every now and again you learn something you'll never forget. Our numerical system (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,0) is called the Arabic system, though the Hindus got hold of it, messed it up while at the same instant the Europeans came in, stole the Arabic system while the Arabs were watching the Hindus dry clean their copy of this new system. But Oh! The PRE-EU took it!  So we got stuck with 1234567890 which is in and of itself a fascinating and logical creation. 1=has one angle, 2=has two angles, 3=three angles, 4=four angles, 5=five angles, and so on...and the best invention to exemplify their numerical work, 0=zero angles.

And so we have the Arabic system, which isn't Arabic (٠‎ - ١‎ - ٢‎ - ٣‎ - ٤‎ - ٥‎ - ٦‎ - ٧‎ - ٨‎ - ٩‎) but is called Eastern Arabic. Phone numbers, tips, military marching bands, license plates, food, life, death, fudgesicles...all in a Hindu-Arabic numerical system. It's bad enough you have to learn $50USD = 61,000D but to learn new numbers, their characters? Yes the Dinar. There are no coins in Iraqi currency so one does tend to acquire many small 250 notes (worth quarters). So the key is to have as close as you can to 61,000 before slapping down your $50 USD.



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