Outsiders in Iraq

Road to Baghdad
April 11, 2011

The petty merchant jobs in Iraq are filling up with Chinese traders. So, where do staff in the western-oriented food establishments come from? Those workers are brought in from even poorer parts of the globe. All the newly-opened coffee houses and western food chains I've been to have their rosters filled with employees brought to Iraq from developing countries:

I wouldn't think twice about meeting some food-service worker who was born abroad if I were back in the U.S.. But, who is making the arrangements for all these people to come work menial jobs in Iraq?

I assume that recruiters are going to countries that have competence in English to seek out those with few prospects at home. Burma, India, the Philippines--those countries all share the common denominators of former English-speaking colonial masters and limited employment opportunity for the masses, today. I suspect there aren't that many locals from within Iraq who have the command of English necessary to give an ex-pat the illusion that they're dining back in some chain in their home country. Those born here who have acquired that level of English probably have plenty of other job opportunities to pursue beyond serving coffee.

Who is making it worthwhile to bring an employee from across the planet to work a low-level job in Iraq? We westerners. I was taken to all of these establishments by CouchSurfing hosts. I relied exclusively on CouchSurfing while traveling throughout Iraq because I wasn't sure whether there would be an ATM from which I could withdraw cash anywhere in the country. As there weren't any cash machines connected to international networks back in Iran, all the money I had to additionally see me through Iraq was what was left in my pocket after two months without a withdrawal. I knew I'd have to be frugal.

CouchSurfing may be wonderful at many levels, but relying on it exclusively for places to stay has meant spending time with expatriates more of the time and making fewer connections with local culture. (Not many locals here offer to host.) I can't complain. I've been given free accommodation over my entire time in Iraq. In one city, Erbil, my host insisted that dinner be his treat. We went to both the undercover Papa John's and the undercover Dairy Queen to split a pepperoni pizza and wolf down a double-cheeseburger each: my first meal at an American restaurant in seven months. Thanks, Andrew!

I'm not sure what the rationale is for these established businesses slightly tweaking their logo and assuming a different name when setting up in Iraq. It wasn't just the restaurants who operated incognito. I presumed that a gas station with a fan-shaped logo and yellow-and-red color scheme named "Shall" was just some local knock-off, until I saw how consistent their operations were throughout the region. Another gas station was clearly BP, down to the green and yellow logo of Fibonacci spirals. They were doing business under the initials "S.H." throughout Iraq.

I found it amusing to consider how all of the people who hosted me here have also come to Iraq for the same reason as those serving them: swapping ability in English for dollars and a place to live. But, as all of my CouchSurfing hosts were from western countries, I'm sure they got a better package than the people who came here to work at fast-food outlets. I did wonder how much of this weird economy of bringing in workers from South- and Southeast Asia to feed westerners with imported mozzarella is trickling down to the common Iraqi.

Erbil Citadel
More limiting my experiences in Iraq than staying with westerners who work here is the reality of the political situation. I can travel only within the autonomous region of Kurdistan. This is the safest part of the country. The visa I was issued on arrival was good for a 10-day stay strictly within Kurdistan. Even if I hopped into one of the many shared taxis heading south, I wouldn't be allowed through checkpoints to places I'd like to visit someday, such as Baghdad and Basra. Even nearby Mosul and Kirkuk are too volatile to spend time in. When I skirted Kirkuk going to and from Sulaymaniyah those were the only checkpoints I saw still staffed by U.S. Army soldiers. (On both ways the troops looked utterly bored, standing or sitting around in their blue-and-grey camouflage uniforms, waving every vehicle through.)

I've had a limited exploration of Iraq, but I'll return some day. Each time I log onto CouchSurfing the website displays which area of the world I'm connecting from. All sorts of locations that ooze archaeology are popping up. "Last login: Ninwa (Nineveh), Iraq. Last login: Babil (Babylon), Iraq." The museum in Sulaymaniyah displayed cuneiform tablets among other artifacts from nearby Ur. All are reminders of what historic treasures lie just a short drive outside of the Kurdistan region.

I'd love to see the rest of Iraq, especially those archaeological sites. But what 10 days I had are up, today. Hopefully a more stable, safer period will come soon--and I'll come again and explore more fully.

Next stop: Turkey.