Sunday, April 26, 2009

Baghdad - day 3

So this is day 3 of our great adventure in Baghdad. I again skipped breakfast at the DFAC (dining facility AC-something or other) in favor for 30 mins more sleep. We haven't gotten much sleep all week since we stay up so late and we are usually out by around 8am.

We gathered in the lobby of our building, put on our bullet proof vests and helmet and headed out to get in our cars for another red zone move.

On the way in the red zone:

This time, we were headed to the Iraqi National museum for a tour. This is a picture with our US cultural affairs specialist

From Iraq - Day 3

We were really fortunate to get a tour as the museum recently re-opened. We had a behind the scenes tour of the museum and it appeared opened that day just for us (it was otherwise empty). We went through two floors of magnificent treasures. Unfortunately we saw many that were re-creations of the original piece as they were in other museums around the world. We were told during our tour that many of the pieces we were seeing were returned by foreign governments and local Iraqis but there was still quite a bit missing. The entire gold room had only pictures of the exquisite jewelery and when we asked where the originals were, they wouldn't tell us where but only that they were in a very secure place.

From Iraq - Day 3


From Iraq - Day 3


From Iraq - Day 3


From Iraq - Day 3


From Iraq - Day 3


From Iraq - Day 3


From Iraq - Day 3


Our federal agent with me after trying forever to convince him to be photographed:

From Iraq - Day 3


First recorded handshake in history:

From Iraq - Day 3


Ancient Quran:

From Iraq - Day 3


Pages from Quran written by Ali bin Abi Talib
From Iraq - Day 3


Sahih Bukhari:

From Iraq - Day 3


From Iraq - Day 3


From Iraq - Day 3


Talking with the head of the museum:

From Iraq - Day 3


Chief engineer of museum:

From Iraq - Day 3





After the tour, we headed to the VIP room with a conversation with the head of the museum and the chief engineer to discuss their challenges and how we might be able to help. They mentioned that they had simple needs such as a way to reach Symantec to solve an installation problem with Norton Antivirus as they were really worried about spyware. We were really shocked at the basic things they needed help with. Another thing they mentioned was the need for training ( a recurring theme in almost every meeting). They also said they were going to spend time building a website and we had suggested to them to get all of their artifacts online and let the chief engineer focus on what he does well and leave the website building to others. We had hoped that this project could be something we help with in order to get their magnificent treasures online for Iraqis and the world to see.

After this, we were off to the Ministry of Science and Technology for 2 hrs of presentations by various departments of the Iraqi governments on their use of technology.


Our driver - lots of ammo on his belt - you can see the tip of his machine gun on the bottom right

From Iraq - Day 3


Snipers on the roof watching us:

From Iraq - Day 3


The idea was that each presentation would be 10 mins and then we'd have 30 mins for open Q&A with the the audience. Unfortunately, many presenters presented in Arabic and so we lost a lot of time due to translation.

From Iraq - Day 3


Many went on for much longer and frankly, there was not much depth in the presentations and so I am not sure it was very useful for at least me personally. One of the presentations was from a Shia sheikh who spoke frankly about the issues of IT in the country (never expected this from a sheikh!) but he had really good comments and was constructive in his thoughts. We had hoped for presentations by the private sector; they were able to invite one CEO to talk about his thoughts about the government and the challenges in the country. He was really frank and I was quite impressed about how critical he was about the government. Mind you, there were ministers in attendance! He talked about how the economy was stalled, there were only a few private companies doing business, it was next to impossible to get a loan from a bank since the banks do not trust the government, employees had 3 months of vacation a yr, the government basically controlled everything, you required licenses to operate even simple businesses such as hosting, all IT certifications were through the govt, lots of corruption, and so on. It was a real eye opener to hear this and we were really happy we got to hear him discuss this. We had hoped to catch up with him that night but it never happened.

From Iraq - Day 3


Since it ran way over, we had absolutely no time for any Q&A so after the presentations, we headed out. In the entrance, there was some press there and a few people gave interviews. As Jack Dorsey (founder/chairman of Twitter) was giving a TV interview, I walked behind the cameraman and not estimating the thickness of my bulletproof vest, I knocked the camera and it went flying to the left. All I hear is an American cameraman saying 'Oh Sh*t!'...They kept going but they weren't too happy about that - oops! :)

We then headed out and were on our way to Zain Iraq - one of the big mobile operators there. One thing that was really interesting was the driving style of the convoy itself. I was told to not mention some of those specifics so I'll just say that it was fascinating watching the various maneuvers as we went through the city. From what I could tell, Iraqis seemed to oblivious and completely used to this. I rarely noticed anyone even batting an eye as we drove by in 6 heavily armored American suburbans with helicopter cover - quite remarkable.

Zain HQ - notice their security on the top left

From Iraq - Day 3


We met with various executives at Zain and their consultant that eases their relationship with the goverment. We also had lunch there and had a great conversation about their challenges in Iraq and some of the lessons they have learned in the country. In talking to one of their directors over lunch, he was telling me how their relationship with the government was very good and it seemed easy to work with them. He seemed pleased with their interaction.

After this meeting, we headed to the famous Rashid hotel that was bombed during the war when journalists were staying there. We met with many university students to talk about their use of the internet and what they would like to see change in the country and in the government. We also spoke at length about how they can personally make a difference in changing the perceptions of their country and to get their message out.

From Iraq - Day 3


From Iraq - Day 3


It was remarkable to see how passionate and open minded these students were. Many of those in CS/IT were women. It seemed that the group was either in CS/IT or in Medicine. Nothing else! Frankly, they reminded me of students you see at any other university. They had the same things on their mind although they were really passionate about trying to make a difference by talking about the little things they were doing.

From Iraq - Day 3


From Iraq - Day 3


Leaving the famously bombed Rashid hotel after seeing the students
From Iraq - Day 3


After the hotel, we headed back to the Embassy compounded and attended a cocktail reception with the Charge d'Affaires Ambassador Butenis. This was a 1 hr informal get together with various Iraqi companies and US officials. I had a few great conversations with some local companies about their business models. One was a local mobile operator, another was an Iraqi youtube competitor, another was a local content portal. I also had a detailed conversation with the advisor to the Minister of IT and him and I discussed the issues of communications at length. He conveyed to me that all is well and that many of the connectivity issues would be solved but I pushed him on this based on what I had heard from others during my trip. I could tell that there were many different perspectives on these issues and it was never as simple as any one of them that was expressed to me.

Later that night, we had a plan to go smoke shisha at the compound next to us but we didn't have the right authorizations to leave our compound and get to the next. So many of us ended up hanging out in front of the club (cleverly called American club). We ended up hanging out at the going away party for someone that was leaving Baghdad for Bahrain and joining the foreign service. Lucky for me, I headed to my room at 10pm to wait for a phone call. Well the phone never rang and so I fell asleep. This was great since I was lacking sleep all week!

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