Happy Valentines Day, everyone! Apologies for the absence; I've been absolutely up to my ears with work and the house renovation over the last few weeks, and then had to fly to Doha unexpectedly last Sunday. It's one of the trade-offs of working with another culture that you have to give up your weekend sometimes to adjust to their schedule (Fridays are their Saturdays).
Anyway, I was flying back yesterday and for the first time we had an absolutely clear sky without cloud cover and could see the geography below in detail. I was so curious about the landscape that I switched off my movie to track our progress on the inflight entertainment system – and discovered we were flying above one of the most contested areas in the world.
Our flight path took us over Basra, where I saw the US military base, and on over valleys that looked surprisingly verdant. There were snaking rivers that I found out later are the Tigris and Euphrates, major arteries that empty into the Persian Gulf. We flew over other cities like Najaf whose names have become synonymous with the loss of American soldiers. And then we flew over Baghdad.
I never ever thought that in my lifetime I would see, even from the air, a city that has been defined, for the majority of my life, by war. As we passed, I kept imagining images of protestors pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein and how when I was in Germany for New Years they captured and executed him. I thought about the war that ideologically tore America apart for the first decade of the century and to this day splits people on basic democratic issues. And I thought, this is so close to a part of the world that I am drawn increasingly into on a personal and professional level that I can't ignore its proximity nor its importance.
Expats leave their home countries for opportunities and experiences, and so frequently those opportunities and experiences happen in places beyond their new homes. So even though an expat from the US might assimilate to life and work in the UK, there's an even bigger challenge when her work takes her to the Middle East where cultural norms and values are that much more different.
It can be hard to be an American in the UK; it can be even harder to be an American in the UK who goes to work in the Middle East – where do you belong? Who are you representing? What is 'you'? Who are 'you'? I thought I had all of those answers, but confronted with such a symbolic place as Baghdad – even from 30,000 ft – I suddenly thought that maybe I don't have such a handle on it. And probably that means I'm closer to the truth than not.