All I wanted was to buy an Iraq National Football Team uniform for my son, a perfectly normal thing for a father to do on his first day in Baghdad. The problem is, doing something normal in Baghdad can land you in serious trouble.
We were in one of the city’s many souks, those famous Middle Eastern markets where you can buy just about anything. There were shops for metalwork, books, hardware, music, antiques real and fake, and even a stall where you could buy Iraqi police and army uniforms without actually being in the police or army.
I was with a group of nine other adventure travelers. Accompanying us were two plainclothes officers from the Interior Ministry who were supposed to keep us in their sight at all times. We also had a driver and an interpreter/guide named Mohammad. I’d already drafted Mohammad into the task of finding my kid something none of his buddies had.
As my companions visited a medieval mosque, Mohammed told me of a street of sports shops nearby. In the strange geography of souks, shops selling the same items tend to cluster together, so off we went to the sports street.
We didn’t take our guards. That was a mistake.
%Gallery-170178%You might think that’s a dumb thing to do in a place like Baghdad and you may be right, but not for the reasons you think. You see, the streets were crawling with police. Every block or so there’d be another watchtower, another armored car, another checkpoint. Anyone who wanted to shoot me would get shot himself two seconds later. That wouldn’t matter to suicidal terrorists, but most of them target Shiite pilgrims these days. Besides, if I wanted to live my life in fear I had no business visiting Iraq in the first place.
My concerns turned out to be misdirected. Going off without our guards didn’t put us in any more danger from Iraqi terrorists, it put us in more danger from the Iraqi police.
We passed through crowded streets lined with shops on the ground floors of crumbling concrete buildings. The space overhead was crisscrossed with a cobweb of electric lines inexpertly spliced together by locals tapping into Baghdad’s unreliable electric grid. Some Iraqis stopped to say hello, others simply stared. Nobody looked particularly threatening.
My first spike of fear came when Mohammad stopped at a vendor selling a strange white liquid filled with seeds out of a big red bucket. Each seed was encased in a clear blob the size of a bean. He picked up a glass from the stall, scooped up some of the brew, and handed it to me.
“This is balongo, very good for the health,” Mohammad said.
“What is it?” I asked, eying it suspiciously.
“Kiwi juice and water.”
Mmmmm, Baghdad tap water. Well, it wouldn’t be the riskiest thing I’d do on this trip. I downed my glass and found balongo to be tasty and refreshing with a weird lumpy texture. Hopefully it wouldn’t give me a bad case of Saddam’s Revenge.
Soon we came to the sports shops. The racks were packed with football uniforms – for Real Madrid, Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester United. Iraqi National Team kits were few and far between, and there were none in children’s sizes. Everyone kept pointing to one shop on the street, the only one, they said, that had uniforms for children. It was also the only one that was closed.
Defeated, we retraced our steps to rejoin the others as I snapped photos, careful to avoid taking shots of policemen or official buildings. A cop standing by an armored personnel carrier waved us through a checkpoint. A moment later his officer came running after us.
“What are you doing here? What was that photo you took? Did you take a photo of the bank?” he demanded.
“No, I was taking photos of the street,” I said.
“Taking pictures of the bank is forbidden,” he told me.
“I didn’t,” I started showing him my photos. “Look.”
Then came a rapid-fire conversation in Arabic between him and Mohammad. The volume rose and Mohammad looked more and more defensive. Frowning, the officer got on the radio.
It’s always a bad sign when a cop starts talking about you on the radio.
“Our general is coming,” he told me.
Great. We went back to the checkpoint and the officer offered me a chair. I remained standing.
The whine of a police siren cut through the babble of the market. An SUV with tinted windows and a big Ford pickup truck with a machine gun mounted on top sped down the road towards us. They screeched to a halt, kicking up a cloud of dust. Half a dozen guys dressed in Kevlar and toting AK-47s leaped out and surrounded us.
That was a bit of overkill. Did they think I could outrun their bullets?
The general stepped out of the SUV, a short, trim man with a military bearing and a Saddam Hussein mustache. At least he didn’t have Saddam Hussein eyes. I’d have really started worrying then. Another rapid-fire conversation in Arabic ensued, with my limited ability in the language utterly failing to keep up. Mohammad showed them his credentials from the Interior Ministry. I showed him my photos. The complaint changed from me taking photos to me being without my guards.
The general appeared more resentful than threatening. His whole attitude seemed to say, “You know what it’s like being a police officer in Baghdad? Why are you making my day more complicated than it already is?”
Eventually he let us go with a stern warning not to stray from my guards again, a warning I strictly obeyed as long as I was in his section of Baghdad.
“Goodbye,” he said, shaking my hand. “Enjoy Iraq.”
With that he and his men got back in their vehicles and sped away, leaving me in another cloud dust. It was my first example of the strange combination of hospitality and paranoia that typifies travel in Iraq.
I did eventually find that uniform, but that’s another story …
Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.
Coming up next: “Iraq Roadtrip!”
[Top photo courtesy Captain Hussein of the Iraqi police. These were not the cops who nearly arrested me. There are times when you pose for pictures, and times when you don't. Bottom photo by Sean McLachlan. This is the one that got me busted]