Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Office

Most everyone knows that my office is in one of Saddam’s old palaces. But don’t get the wrong idea; between war damage, post-war looting, and all of the “improvements” we’ve made, it’ll take millions just to put this place back together again. Plus, from the looks of things, the original construction wasn’t quite up to, shall we say, Western standards.

My cubby is one of the few real offices in the building. Most of the rooms are just temporary structures consisting of seven-foot tall frames of two-by-fours covered with rough plywood. These rooms are hardly ever square, due to the fact that they serve as partitions to larger existing rooms that are more often wedge-shaped than rectangular. The walls may be whitewashed and are usually covered with maps, blow-ups of aerial photographs, and the ever present white boards, without which network guys seem unable to communicate. Most often there are four or eight mismatched desks crammed in, each with three separate computers connected to the three principle networks, one each for the unclassified, secret, and top secret work. A fourth system is shared with our coalition partners, which is what we call the Brits and the Aussies. Ironically, in what may be a telling commentary on the true level of trust that exists between Americans and Iraqis, there is no shared Iraqi-American network.

You have to cut through one of these plywood work spaces to get to my office. The entryway is outlined in green marble, with a carved wooden door that has the shape of a dome on it (a familiar motif). Inside, the walls are nicotine-stained plaster with lots of chinks and nail holes where pictures used to hang. Mismatched conduit and the occasional network cable hang from the walls, as do several large status boards and a slightly outdated listing of commonly used US and Iraqi phone numbers. For some reason, military numbers seem to change much more often than their civilian counterparts, which may explain why military directories never seem to be current. The floor itself is covered in scratched gray tile that, much to the consternation of the commander, never, ever, looks clean. I am not sure what this room was actually used for before the war, but it has blue and white tile-walled shower and - get this - a wooden sauna off on one side. Neither of these little gems is working, so we store supplies and equipment in them. And sometimes .50 caliber ammo.

Judging by the décor in the rest of the palace, I think there was originally a small chandelier hanging from the 12-foot ceiling, but it’s been replaced with a bank of florescent lights. That’s a good thing since the sandbags in the windows pretty much prevent any sunlight from getting in, and most of the chandeliers that I have seen seem designed more to impress visitors than to illuminate - they are usually made of cheap, lacquered brass with plastic crystal beads and small, under-wattage light bulbs, but, hey, who can tell when they hang so high? Exactly the kind of thing I wouldn’t buy at Lamps-R-Us.

There are four long air circulation vents in the ceiling as well, which works well for the AC but not so well for the heat (believe it of not, I wish that I had brought my long johns, even for in the office). Besides the constant whir of the air handlers, these vents regularly provide us with deep, metallic, thumping sounds emanating from the somewhere in the bowels of the building, although no one so far has ventured a guess as to what they are. Occasionally we can also hear rats clattering through the ducts, and once I even saw a tail hanging down right through the vent slats. Ballsy rodent.

All of our furniture - two desks and a folding conference table - is PI, that is, post invasion. Everything not bolted down (and much that was) fell victim to the weeklong looting spree right after we took Baghdad - when the Americans moved in the place was empty. They even took the wire from the transformers and the filters from the heating system! I can just imagine one of Saddam’s fancy over-stuffed chaise lounges that used to be here (trimmed in real fake gold, no less), now crowded into some poor slob’s cramped living room, ten kids on it, all facing a flickering TV. When the electricity is on, that is.

I share the office itself with Stupid-Lady. She doesn’t usually say too much. She’s considers herself a minimalist, which I think to her means that she keeps her desk clean. This is as opposed to my own desk, which is usually buried beneath piles of large-scale maps, network diagrams, and scraps of notes from week-old meetings. I think minimal also applies to the quantity of work she does, which, by my estimate, consists of updating a PowerPoint slide on the weekly report for the boss on Victory. Ah well, if Darwin is to be believed, then I suppose we all do that to which we are best adapted. All I can say is… eight days and a wake up.


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