Erbil, Iraq

It’s funny how things work in life.  I spent nearly 10 years in the Navy, before and after 9/11, and never once stepped foot in Iraq. Even sailors were sent to Iraq for convoy duty.  I had a buddy get moved from an instructor position at a Naval Electronics Training facility in Chicago to go walk with the Marine Corp as they protected convoys travelling across Iraq.  No branch was safe.  Well, here I am now a civilian for coming up on 5 years and where am I?  Iraq.  Yep.  The company I work for landed some good work for us here in Northern Iraq, Kurdistan Region, and I’ll probably be coming back and forth here for quite some time.  Believe it or not, I’m glad.  Glad to be somewhere I’ve never been before – that’s the explorer in me – and glad because the pay is exceptional.  If I’m going to leave my family for a month, I might as well make more during that month…  I am a firm believer that there ain’t nobody taking me from this Earth until God is good and ready for me.  From that perspective, I’m just as safe here as I would be commuting to work 46 miles a day across a big city.  I have to admit that I struggled with some fear when I first found out that my next project was to be in Iraq.  In most Westerner’s minds, Iraq stirs up all sorts of negative thoughts, images, and feelings.  It’s not exactly unwarranted either.  We’ve been sending troops over here to fight for/over one thing or another for decades and little more has resulted from it than more fighting with an even greater loss of objectivity.  Moving right along…

So, how does one prepare to go to Iraq.  I skyped some of the boys who were already in country at the rig.  I got some pre-arrival briefings from the security company who moves us about the country.  I made sure the software on my laptop and iphone were all up to date.  I overate some Breyer’s Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream (My favorite)  I bought new boots and packed enough Starbucks instant coffee packs to last me and the boys a month.  Those things are stupid expensive!  Next time it’s Nescafe.  And I spent a lot of time just thinking about stuff.  By greatest concerns were not for me but for my Wife.  I knew what she would be thinking about and I wasn’t sure how to be a good support.  For both of us, we just needed to keep recognizing that God is in control.  Because of what I believe, I rest well knowing that to be true.

Going to the airport is always kind of weird.  All the kids know I’m leaving, and my Wife and I know that this goodbye means 30 days of distance.  What do you talk about on the way to the airport?  How do you make young kids understand 30 days?  The ride is either quiet, or we find something simple to chat about like what things we might like to do when I return.  Pulling up to the drop-off at the Terminal is always the hardest part.  I have to get all of my stuff out at such a pace so as not to earn the attention of the TSA guy, but then I have 6 kids and my wife I want to hug and kiss goodbye.  It all seems kind of rushed and feel like I should have somehow made my departure more than just a whirlwind of tossed luggage and hugs for teary-eyed kids.  I have 5 daughters (soon 6), so you can imagine the emotions run a little higher in our home.  I try to keep myself composed… not that I don’t want my wife and kids to see me cry – I’m the first to bust out in a movie – but once they drive off I don’t want to be left standing at check-in with blood-shot eyes and snot running down my face.  I’m liable to earn the attention of that TSA guy.  I have to switch gears quickly if I’m to have any sort of mind to get through all it takes to get from front door to plane door.  There’s dropping off luggage and asking half a dozen times if my luggage is reallllly checked allllllll the way through to my final destination.  Then there is the TSA Olympics to participate in:  First event is the one arm 50-lb bag hold while I use the other arm to fish for a second form of ID because my passport wasn’t good enough.  Then there is the balance and dexterity event where you demonstrate your ability to stand on one leg while removing 11″ high steel-toed boots at a pace that will keep the lady behind you from feeling she’s going to miss her flight while simultaneously removing a watch, wedding ring, bracelet, iphone, and wallet… and backpack which must also be stripped of laptops, camera, chargers and anything else TSA is challenged to believe is a valid consumer electronic.  Next event is an easy one.  Go stand in front of the We-Make-You-Naked-Machine-Or-We’ll-Rape You-In-Public-With-These-Here-Rubber-Gloves.  I always opt for the machine.  No Olympic event would merit attention if it did not require the participants to exhibit some form of endurance.  So the next event is to have everyone do everything they just did, in reverse order.  The conveyor starts throwing your belongings out the otherside; out come the boots, hop around putting on 11″ steel-toed boots while gathering trays weighted with your valuables, don said valuables, reassemble your laptop, camera, charger, and other consumer electronics, then get out of the way of the lady you just made late for her flight to a town that is only 2 hours away.

Finally made it to the gate area and it’s time to hurry up and wait.  I flew to Washington’s Dulles and boarded a flight to Vienna, Austria.  It’s summer.  It rained.  We’re on the tarmac for 4 hours.  The pilot must have put a little moonshine in the fuel tanks because he managed to reduce the lateness of our arrival to less than an hour.  I still missed my connecting flight to Iraq.  Not such a bad thing though.  I’m “stuck” in Vienna for a whole day, all expenses paid, and the camera in my backpack is clawing at the zipper to come out and play.  The airline put me up in a hotel right near city-center.  From the Ananas Hotel (sucked), I was a ten minute walk to the famous Karlskirche Roman Catholic Church.

Here are some shots from walking around downtown…

This Bug sitting back in a narrow side street was just too cool.  I’m an aircooled VW fan for sure.  I’ve had a number of them over the years.  It’s kinda hard to see it in these low-res pics but check out the shop window.  It’s a headshop called Peace Maker.  Bong anyone?  VW’s..  Pot… Hippies…. get it?  Nevermind.  I thought it resonated with this scene.

What a relief!  Mwahaha.

Railing along the sidewalks beside the river/canal.

The next morning I was off to the airport to catch the once-a-day flight to Erbil, Iraq.  As I guessed, this was not a full flight.  Mostly businessmen and expats.  Once you fly south of the mountains at the border of Turkey and Iraq, it just turns into a big dust bowl.  Little villages and towns dot the vast spanse of dirt and rock.  It’s hard to imagine what ever attracted people to live here thousands of years ago.  “Pack your bags kids, we’re moving to the biggest sandbox you’ve ever seen.  Bring lots of water and food because there’s barely enough there to sustain a rodent.”  Different strokes…

The city of Erbil, aka Ibil, aka Irbil, aka Arbil, aka Hawler.  I’ve learned to go through the list of aka’s when speaking with locals cause it seems everyone here calls the same place different names.  I say “Er-bul” and they say “huh”. Then I say “ARE-BEEL” and they say “AH, YES YES, HAWLER”.  I give up man.  Erbil’s city center is called “The Citadel” and is claimed to be the oldest continuously populated city on earth.  Some 7000-10000 years old!  They’re presently in the process of restoring it back to its original beauty.  It’ll make an excellent tourist attraction for history buffs or anyone who appreciates ancient cultures.  You can sense the age here. It’s amazing!  The Citadel stands well above the rest of the city, commanding the attention of anyone walking by at street level.   The New York Times wrote an interesting article about The Citadel.  In it they state, “Among the peoples that have lived in this neighborhood are the Hassuna, Akkadians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Parthians and Abbasids.” See it here.

Our security escort, Bashar, tooks us through a few checkpoints and on up to the top of the Citadel.

There were a few guys hand making the bricks they would use to restore walls and buildings but other than that, we were alone outside.

Inside one of the buildings was a museum of sorts.  It had a lot of very old hand made rugs and household type items.

One of my favorite photos came from here.  Down on the bottom floor there were rugs covering the windows – I assume to block some of the heat – and from between the rugs I saw this pretty vase that had a spray of wheat sticking out of it.  I couldn’t resist the shot so I gently pulled the rug away from the window so I could get behind it for the shot.  It was like an oven!  I LOVE the warm light diffused by the muslin cloth tacked to the window frame!  The high-res image really looks great.  All the textures in the wall and ledge just add to this scene.  I printed and framed this one for the house.

The steps to the basement of the Textile Museum had a strong geometric pattern that stood out exceptionally well in Black and White to the stairs and door.

Wandering around outside we came across a little shop that sold all sorts of jewelry, lamps, coins, and things of that nature.  I bought all the kids some beads, and a pretty bracelet.  I liked the way the tiled lamp fixtures draped lazily along the roof over the tables outdoors.

I came across an old door that had come off its hinges and I was able to squeeze through to look around.  I know I know. Shame on me.  It was so worth it.  While I was shooting this scene, the city’s towers came alive with the call to prayer.  Having that as a soundtrack to photograph this area was perfect.  I also shot some HD video footage.  I’ll see about posting it when I’m not on this slow satellite connection.

This next photo took me off guard.  I walked further back into that area where I had squeezed past the door and came to a dark little room.  There was a crack in the ceiling, providing the only light.  Coming from the bright outdoors it took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.  I had my back to the wall, looking around the room for anything worth a photo.  As I went to leave I turned around and saw the wall behind me.  My eyes went straight to the girl’s tears and then to the bullet holes.  One and one made two pretty quickly.

I was choking back pretty hard on what I was imaging happened here.  Knowing about Saddam’s attempt to eradicate the Kurds, my thoughts went immediately to that conclusion.  His troops would go through towns and, without provocation, murder innocent people.  I have no idea what actually happend but I did ask our Security guy and he said it was a memorial.  It is written in Kurdish.  The Red writing in the upper left says, “I love you”.  The writing directly beneath is the name, Mohammed.  The symbol in the middle, I’ve been told, means, “The Name of God”, and is often found in the Quran.  The High-Res version of this photo reveals a little red cross to the left of the center symbol.  Whatever it is all of this symbolizes or memorializes, it is striking to behold in this unrestored back room within the walls of the oldest city on earth.

The trip out to the rig is a bit of drive.  Leaving from Erbil, heading southeast towards Kirkuk, it takes about 4 hours.  Almost half of that time is spent offroad in 4×4’s.

The drive through Kirkuk is a downer as there is still so much that remains unrestored after all the fighting that’s taken place there.

After Kirkuk, the land just opens up to a vast, wandering landscape set against a backdrop of jagged mountains. Just have a look.  This was not what I was expecting to see in Iraq.  Stunning!

Do you see the sheep dog in the water?

Look behind the big mound.  Look how far it goes!

Now approaching the Rig Site.

Being that this IS Iraq, the Rig Site has a large security force.  There are about 100 Peshmerga (Kurdish Army) located here in camp with us.  They have watch points on the tops of the mountains around us and multiple checkpoints along the road.  I’ve found them to be pleasant and friendly.  I met this man, Jacob (Western spelling), and we did our best to have a conversation with our hands and by drawing pictures in the dirt.  It was great!  The sun was setting and he moved around a lot so this was as sharp as I got.  Still worth posting…

and finally, here is the rig site.  We are literally in the Middle of Nowhere, Iraq.

4 thoughts on “Erbil, Iraq

  1. Hey Tom,

    Is it Kurdamir-1 with Talisman Energy?
    I heard that SLB was responsible for MPD operations in that time. We drilled Kurdamir-2 (WFD MPD).

    Your photography is excellent. Keep your good work up. I’ll follow with your blog, if you don’t mind.



  2. I can’t believe how many times I’ve looked at these pictures, and still- every-single-time I see something new! The landscapes in Iraq are just breathtaking! The wall in the back of that old building, with the memorial, bring tears to my eyes… and make me thankful, yet again, for my spoiled life. This has to be one of my favorite posts. It fills me with so many different emotions… You have such a gift for photography (story telling)!


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