What’s a girl to do when facing unemployment and mounting credit card debt? Well, in 2008 website copywriter Gretchen Berg reluctantly decided to sign up for a two-year stint teaching English at the American University of Iraq. Then she wrote a memoir about it – I Have Iraq in My Shoe: Misadventures of a Soldier of Fashion (Sourcebooks 2012).
Although Ms. Berg has a fondness for travel and has been to all seven continents, she is clear right from the start that Iraq is not on her must-visit list. She’s in it for the money -$75,000 (tax-free) to be exact, which will more than cover her debt and buy a few pair of designer shoes to boot.
With a lot of self-effacing humor, Ms. Berg takes readers along on her visit to Erbil in Northern Iraq where she does her best not to venture outside the campus compound (called English Village). She brings as much America with her as possible dragging nine duffel bags full of stuff including a blender and Sex and the City DVDs. For the necessary home comforts, she’s forced to pay close to $3000 in overweight baggage fees.
I started out with I Have Iraq in My Shoe entertained and hopeful that Ms. Berg would change her mind about not wanting to stray too far from the compound. About a third of the way through I realized that wasn’t going to happen. I do have to admit I would not even go to Iraq for the same reasons Ms. Berg doesn’t want to go exploring – safety, heat, the second-class-citizen status of women, excessive cigarette smoke – so I tip my hat to her for at least getting there.
Ms. Berg does such an excellent job describing her compound residence that I started to feel claustrophobic myself and aching for a change of scenery and topic. Since she used the fashion spin, I was disappointed she didn’t do a little research about fashion in Iraq. Perhaps discuss with her female students about what role fashion might play in their lives and how they feel about the restrictions. But I also realized that Ms. Berg isn’t really into fashion, just shoes which she continued to buy online while in Iraq and have them sent home. (She does give us one bit of interesting fashion information: While at a local shopping mall Ms. Berg observed that as long as a woman is completely covered and wearing a hijab, skin-tight colorful clothing and high heels are acceptable, at least in Northern Iraq.)
What we have is a humorous read about the ups and downs of an American woman stuck in a place she does not want to be. For the most part I Have Iraq in My Shoe is engaging enough. The narrative is straight forward and Ms. Berg does poke fun at herself and her co-workers, who are an eclectic bunch united in partying and staying put in the compound. But other than the men in Iraq have terrible body odor, there’s very little cultural insight.
Still, if you’re in the mood for a light summer read with plenty of good humor give this one a try.