Welcome to "Erbil", the bar of ex-aidworkers

the public bar is closed

I read through the last (for now) post of Harry Rud, an aidworker who returned from several years in Afghanistan, now working at the organisation's UK HQ. Someone mentioned in the comments, we should start an ex-aidworkers' bar. A place to indulge in reminiscent memories of dusty pasts...

I thought.. What would be the ideal ex-aidworkers' bar? The bar is to be called "Erbil", for sure. To remember the UN bar up there as the only safe place to drink (and eat for that matter) after the Iraq war (the second one that is).

The bar is really the only place you can go, to meet those in the same "zone" as you. THE spot to chill out and exchange another story "I remember when I was in.." after yet another day trying to save the world and realizing you didn't make a shit of difference. Was mostly after catching your two drivers syphoning out the petrol from your car. That was this morning. This afternoon, you fired the guard as he fell asleep on his stool next to the gate and did not wake up even if you hooted right next to him.

There are old yellow-ish pictures on the wall showing people in happier times. All of them taking in the same bar, of course. Mixed with postcards sent from holiday places. All reachable within the R&R cycle.
There is a trace of stains from the time John thought it would be fun to shake that cheap champagne bottle on his birthday, years ago. A bottle he risked his life for, smuggling it through airport customs.

The tables and chairs are a mishmash of different makes. Mostly cheap plastic. Collected after the bombing of a local community center back in 2005.

The servings of drinks differ as the weeks go by, dependent on what container Patrice - the MSF logistician - was able to smuggle into this darned muslim country. Some months, whiskey is the only drink, as the beer container got stuck at the port, lack of sufficient baksheesh.
It is amazing in how many different ways you can drink whiskey. And in how many ways you can use it. Including lightening up a short shot, and then, flame and all, put it on your forehead where it sucks itself out of oxygen. The half burned round sucking mark stays on one's forehead for a week. And is the trademark of "Erbil", our bar.
Mal once tried the same trick by sticking two of those burning shots onto his balls. He can only grin at that memory now... As I said, there are many things you can do with whiskey.

Andrew is always sitting at the same stool at the corner, no matter when you come in. You wonder if he really has a job at Care International, or if he became a beneficiary himself. His brother, Jolly -nobody knows his real name- is famous for the fancy dive he took in the swimming pool in the back. Forgetting the fact they never filled it up again after the 1995 earthquake which cracked up the foundation of the pool. And the spilling water flooded the underground safety shelter. Something which really upset that ex-Foreign Legion security officer we once had. Remember him? I remember his face, but can't remember his name. Rodriguez, wasn't it? He did not last two days after we took those shots from him dancing naked on this very same bar, and emailed it to the director of UNDSS in New York.
Little did we know they wouldn't think that was not funny. Bureaucrats!

They serve a mean chicken, here. Full of spices to kill everything living in your stomach. Special recipe of Paul, who once owned the bar. Until he drove over a landmine up-country, shopping for two lambs to put on the barbie on Xmas.
It takes about one hour to get the grilled chicken serving, as all is fresh. The chickens roam in the backyard. After the order the cook disappears for 10 minutes with an axe in her hand.
If you want to understand what food poisoning means, you eat the salad too.

The music is always the same choice out of five CDs. The rest was nicked. Aidworkers can be thugs when it comes to personal entertainment. The CD of Tom Jones' "Sexbomb" is kept for special occasions. Diana Ross' "I'm coming out" always keeps hicking up at the same spot, until the bartender gives the CDplayer a kick.

But you don't hear the music, you concentrate on that drink, and the distant noise of your VHF handheld, as a desperate radio operator tries to go through the daily radio check list. And on the distant muffled sounds of yet another grenade attack (all pre-recorded of course).

There is a large, half torn poster of Bukavu, at Lake Kivu. Must be from the Fifties, as the cypresses are not chopped into firewood yet, and the Hotel Karibu is still there. Those were the times when the living was good, and aidworkers were well respected civil servants, representing the social welfare and education arm of the colonizing country.

The electricity is cut twice a day, after which Abdul, the current owner, manually kickstarts the old grumpy 5 KVA generator, which makes the lights shimmer slightly in a rhythmic pattern.

The guests are always the same. Julie, ex-Jalalabad (shagged on R&R in Islamabad) sitting with Patricia (shagged in Juba), and Olivia, the ex-UNHCR reproductive health specialist from Goma (shagged in Mombasa). Olivia actually picked you up with the catch phrase "I have a container full of condoms, expiring next month" (HT Michael). Or was that Shelly? Anyways, does not matter, all of them give you the evil eye anyways. As if it was your fault you wanted to remain celibataire and were only looking for a quick fix?

At the next table we have Joaquim from ECHO, still looking for that single killer project to fund. A project that would propel him into the higher echelons of the Brussels Ivory Tower. For the moment, he is doing his best looking important, going through the 50 pages assessment report, full of baseline data and stakeholder interviews.
Cathy, the Texan chick (shagged in Monrovia) from USAID sits next to him, reading Bush's new book "How I won the Iraq war". As usual, Antoine, the head of mission Lutheran World Relief, joins in (tried to shag you in the Kigali transit lounge, of all places). Bible at hand, as per habit. You remember the fight you had with him, as he kept on spilling profanity on the security repeater in the middle of the night. Usually after he crawled back from the bar to his compound. You've never seen anyone wasted like this.

And then there is the table of the three OCHA dudes. Normally the loudest of all tables, as each keeps on raising their voice on top of the other. They never shut up, do they, those OCHA dudes? Professional deformity, the talking. They are either the youngest or the oldest of the whole bunch. Either fresh graduates naive enough to think aidworkers want to be coordinated, or the pre-retirees fired from every single other agency for incompetency.
Just last month, they all had a fit when their office was closed. Security phase IV, meaning "essential staff only". It was the public acknowledgement OCHA was not essential, all found. Except the Humanitarian Coordinator, of course, who got NY to intervene and allow the "Holy Threesome" as you call them, back into the country.

But all of that is "what once was", of course. Memories mixed with the cheap whiskey. Memories as all of us have decent jobs now. Jobs none of us likes. With only one common thought: "I wish I was back there". In Tblisi, Luanda, Bor, Djamena, Peshawar, Dili, Mogadishu, Nazareth (in Ethiopia, not Israel) or Gulu.

And then at 21:45 someone rings the bell (an old ship's bell that George found on the shipwrecks' beach near Karachi) and shouts "Last call, curfew at twentytwohundred!". After which we order those last 10 shots-to-go. Hand back our make-believe handhelds and safari jackets at the reception, pick up our attache case, straighten our tie, and step into our BMW.

Driving back to our suburban villa we make a mental note not to forget to pick up the lawn fertilizer tomorrow morning. And the tickets for the mid-term holiday in Tenerife.

Picture courtesy Lost in Berlin


J. 17 June, 2010 16:33  

As of right now, my new life ambition is to own a franchise of "The Erbil" in, say, Coasta Rica... Koh Chang... maybe Istanbul (Sultan Achmet district, of course).

One of the best aid blog posts I've read in a very long time. Rock on!

Ash 20 June, 2010 17:17  

Awesome post. Rings scarily true :)
Except, in Yemen the bars are a little light on the ground right now.

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