Monday, September 24, 2012

Guest Blogger Book Review: I Have Iraq in My Shoe

By Allie Smith

"I have Iraq in My Shoe" by Gretchen Berg is one of the coolest memoirs I’ve read in a while. Girlfriend is BRAVE and she can write! I was enthralled from the first page and couldn’t put the book down.

Gretchen Berg was a soon-to-be out of work copy writer, with a passion for designer shoes and world travel along with the obnoxious credit card bills to prove it. In the middle of a recession, her job search proved futile and things were not looking so good. By chance, an old friend suggested she come work for him, teaching English to adults in foreign countries. He was full of promises of a tax-free high salary, free housing and the opportunity for lots of travel…the only thing he didn’t offer was designer shoes. Problem solved, right? Before you can say Manolo Blahnik, Gretchen was on a plane to Iraq. Yes, Iraq.

This story personally resonated with me. Years ago when I was a young twenty-something, footloose and fancy-free girl, also with a large credit card bill, I was in a similar situation. I also was given a unique opportunity, mine being to live in Puerto Rico, with free housing and a salary much greater than I would have earned back home. At the time, everyone in my life thought I was cah-ray-zee….and I probably was, because I didn’t speak Spanish and knew not a soul. While reading Gretchen’s book, I couldn’t help speculating (while laughing) how my peeps would’ve reacted to my saying, “Hey, I’m going to move to Iraq for a couple of years.” From personal experience I can attest that life in a foreign land may sound exciting, but it’s often not easy.

So Gretchen signed a legal employment contract to move to Iraq. This was not a military job. She was not escorted to that country. She booked a ticket and got on a plane by herself. Gretchen is a smart, good-looking, very independent, single, white female who moved to a war-stricken, conservative Muslim country all alone. Cojones I tell you!

I absolutely adored Gretchen’s journey. Her tales of packing and trying to dodge and negotiate variable extra luggage charges were frustrating, but funny for the reader. There were also many other complications, when Gretchen found herself trying to assimilate to a living situation for which she was less than prepared. She had to deal with loneliness, homesickness, boredom, extreme heat exacerbated by an oppressive dress code, Diet Coke withdrawal, and ironically, good old American corporate politics.

Gretchen was placed at a campus in Northern Iraq, thankfully far from Bagdad. (Presumably it was much safer). Gretchen soon fell in love with her new hometown of Erbil, despite her less than ideal living conditions. By far, her biggest obstacle was enduring the highly discriminatory, insulting and archaic societal views of woman that exist in Iraq. Remember, this is a thirty-something woman who’d been living on her own for years. “I am woman hear me roar!” Not in Iraq, where she constantly heard, “Woman can’t be trusted.” That was the nicest thing she heard. I cannot, for decorum’s sake, tell you some of the other things she was told.

Things weren’t all bad. She did find some expatriates to commiserate with, while attending progressive dinners and enjoying cocktails. She also really enjoyed teaching and was humbled by the good humor of her students, many of whom were desperately trying for a better life while living in a land that had experienced war and hardships for decades. Most of her students had been brought up by a single mother, because their fathers had been killed in the horrific anti-insurgent campaigns against the Kurdish people, during the late 1980s. She was also surprised by the respect and gratitude her students showed her. Yes, even the men.

Gretchen’s experience in Iraq was cut short when she was laid off, which is never fun. But after a year’s time, Gretchen was ready to go home. She gained a lifetime of memories and wisdom and paid off her credit card debt – go girl! She also traveled to nine countries and got to add some awesome shoes to her collection. Her experience was invaluable, and gave her lots of material for a funny, touching and inspiring memoir.

Allie Smith, a former CPA who five years into her career decided that she hated working with numbers and willingly gave it all up to be a stay-at-home mom, lives in suburban Atlanta with her husband and four children. In between carpool, play dates and refereeing the kids, she loves to read and write. The mother of a child with autism, she is currently working on a memoir of their journey.

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