A Sneak Peek At The Soon-To-Reopen National Museum Of Iraq

National Museum of Iraq
The National Museum of Iraq is as battered and defiant as the country it represents. Battered because it has suffered looting and neglect, defiant because its staff fought to protect it. Now they’re rebuilding and the museum will soon reopen.

I got a sneak peak while visiting Iraq and was overawed. I knew I would be. Here is the treasure house of the dawn of civilization. Giant statues of Assyrian guardian demons stand next to cases filled with wide-eyed Sumerian statues pleading with their gods. Detailed bas-reliefs from excavated palaces show scenes of war and hunting. Cases full of cylinder seals show scenes of Babylonian life in miniature.

My favorite was the writing. The first scribes developed a simple system around 3300 B.C. or even earlier. Clay tokens represented objects such as sheep or jugs of beer. These were often sealed in clay envelopes with an impression of the tokens on the outside, thus creating the first contracts. Soon tablets were used with a system of writing that was mostly pictorial – a bull’s head represented a bull, etc. As the needs of the developing civilization grew more complex, so did the system of writing. The pictures morphed into almost unrecognizable collections of lines, and words for abstract ideas appeared. The writing was done with a stylus on soft clay to make a series of wedge-shaped impressions called cuneiform.

Looking at these ancient texts was hypnotic. The same process we’re engaged in right now, with me writing and you reading, was going on 5,000 years ago in a vastly different culture. We don’t have to know each other or even be in the same country to communicate. It was an incredible innovation that opened up countless possibilities for the human race.

As I studied the galleries I was amazed that anything survived the chaotic days after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. The Coalition troops hadn’t been given any instructions to protect the museum, so looters broke in and ransacked the place. Museum staff came back in force and drove them off, a brave act considering the looters were armed. Eventually the museum workers convinced the U.S. Army to post some guards.

It was too late. Thousands of priceless artifacts had been stolen. Some were later recovered but most have disappeared into the private homes of “collectors.” Luckily, the museum staff had hidden some of the best artifacts in secret locations. They told no one, not even the Coalition, about their existence until the situation had stabilized.

%Gallery-170304%Now workers are busy finishing up the displays. Twenty-two galleries have been completed and there are five more to go. Some rooms survived the war relatively intact and will look familiar to those who were lucky enough to visit before the war. Others have been completely remodeled. The museum officials didn’t allow me to photograph those. It seemed an odd restriction. Wouldn’t they want people to see their hard work? When traveling in Iraq, you get used to random rules. You just have to shrug your shoulders and move on.

In one room I found a member of the staff restoring an Abbasid sarcophagus made of teak. As I studied the intricately carved designs he explained in perfect English that he was filling in the cracks and chips with a paste made from powdered teak and “micro balloons,” tiny polymer spheres that act as a chemically inert adhesive. I asked if I could take a picture of his work and he said no.

“That’s the museum’s rule, not mine,” he said apologetically.

He and his coworkers have done a good job. The difference between the traditional galleries and the remodeled ones is astounding. The new galleries have better lighting and signage and show off the museum’s artifacts to much better advantage. All the galleries, both new and old, have signage in both Arabic and English.

The National Museum of Iraq is due to have a grand reopening in two months. As with everything in this struggling nation, the date is subject to change due to security issues and funds not getting to the right place at the right time. The work is almost done, though, so one of the greatest museums in the Middle East will almost certainly reopen in 2013 to teach a new generation of visitors about the wonders of Iraq’s past.

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: “Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam’s Palaces!”

All photos by Sean McLachlan

Iraq Street Art: Beautifying The Blast Walls

street art, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
One of the first things you notice when traveling in Iraq are the blast walls. These giant concrete barriers are everywhere – in front of government buildings, schools, mosques and dividing Shia from Sunni neighborhoods. They remind me of the “peace walls” put up in Northern Ireland to keep opposing sides from killing each other.

Like the Irish peace walls, they’re ugly, and some locals have decided to beautify them. Iraqi street art has its own distinctive flavor. This Banksy style example in Baghdad sends a message any Iraqi can empathize with. Others are simple graffiti. Many more are officially sanctioned and proclaim the importance of education or rebuilding.

There are even some at the ubiquitous checkpoints, showing happy soldiers being nice to people. Some of the troops have even decorated the checkpoints with plastic flowers in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to change the vibe. The plastic flowers are nice, but you’re still being stopped by Kalashnikov-toting guys searching for suicide bombers.

%Gallery-171121%I prefer the civilian art, especially the one shown below, showing a weird TV-headed figure balancing a heart and a gun. Check out the gallery for more!

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: “Ten Minutes Of Terror In Iraq!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

street art, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Iraq Road Trip: Who Takes The Ultimate Adventure Vacation And What’s It Like?

Iraq, Iraq roadtrip, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
We heard our first gunshots a week into our trip. We were resting after a long drive in our Baghdad hotel when shots crackled through the night. Anyone who was sleeping immediately got up. Nothing wakes you up quicker than gunshots in Iraq.

Insurgency? Sectarian violence? No, a wedding taking place in front of the hotel.

Iraqis like firing in the air when they’re celebrating – when their team scores a goal, when someone returns from the Hajj, when someone gets married, or just because they’re happy. It used to freak the hell out of the American soldiers.

When we got outside we found a crowd of guys dancing to a brass band while women stood to one side and clapped. A few of the younger girls danced with each other. The men were all dressed in Western styles, as were some of the women. Other women, especially the older ones, wore the abaya, a loose cloak of black cloth covering everything except the face and hands, which some women cover as well.

The appearance of a crowd of Westerners didn’t slow down the wedding at all. Most people kept on dancing like we weren’t even there. Some came up to say hello. One guy stuck his phone in front of my face and showed me a photo of himself in uniform next to some American soldiers. “Friend! Friend!” he shouted over the music.

Soon the bride and groom went up to their room and the party broke up. We went to our rooms too. We had another long, dusty drive the next day.

Heat and dust. Way too much heat and dust on this trip. And I went in October.

Iraq is a big country and its best sights are spread out over hundreds of miles, so we did a lot of driving. We went the length of the nation, from Basra in the swampy south to Kurdistan in the mountainous north. Much of our time, however, was in the vast desert in the middle.

Driving is easy thanks to an excellent highway system built by Saddam Hussein. It’s been well maintained ever since. The absence of potholes would put many U.S. state highways to shame. Despite the good roads, travel is a lot slower than in peaceful countries because of the numerous checkpoints. Concrete blast walls line the roads where watchtowers and armored personnel carriers keep a close eye out for terrorists. Sometimes the guards waved us through, sometimes they held us up, once for as long as two hours.

Blast walls, like the one shown above, aren’t just for checkpoints. They’re everywhere – in front of government buildings, schools, gas stations, mosques and dividing Sunni from Shia neighborhoods. Security is a constant issue here and you’re never allowed to forget it.

%Gallery-170776%Iraq, Iraq roadtrip, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
Our tour leader told us that “sometimes” we’d have a police escort. “Sometimes” turned into “most of the time.” We usually had a different group of cops each day and it was luck of the draw whether they’d be friendly or aloof. The annoying thing about them was how they often got in the way of my interacting with regular Iraqis. People tend to treat you differently when have an armed escort. There were a couple of times, though, when I was really, really grateful for their presence.

We started out with ten travelers, six of whom only stayed for nine days while I and the rest stayed for the full 16. Because of a scheduling mixup I had an extra day alone in Baghdad at the end. That led to some weirdness I’ll get to later. My companions came from all over – Canada, the UK, Norway, Spain; we even had a couple of Americans. One kept saying he was from Canada, and while I generally have a problem with Americans pretending to be Canadians, I let it slide in this situation.

There were no women. This was both good and bad. It’s interesting to travel in the Middle East with women because they get to speak to a lot more local women and thus have a very different experience. I traveled in Syria with a woman and it was fun comparing notes at the end of the day. We had two completely different trips. The presence of a woman does tend to complicate things in Muslim countries, though.

We were all seasoned travelers and nobody appeared particularly nervous, although we all got uncomfortable at times and dealt with it in different ways. One middle-aged guy was really gung-ho, like he regretted never being in the army and was trying to compensate. Once when we got out of the bus to visit a mosque in the tension-laden city of Mosul he told us to, “Lock and load, boys.”

Gag.

Everyone had read up on Iraq and had their own special interests in archaeology, politics, or religion. All except for Mr. Gung-ho, who knew almost nothing and cared even less. He was just there for the bragging rights.

One guy was a doctor who fortunately never had to use his emergency room skills, and another was a programmer with a talent for photography. He has an awesome travel photo collection online. My roommate was a 68-year-old Norwegian engineer who groaned every time he looked at the electric wiring. He kept taking photos of dodgy fuse boxes and substations so he could give a lecture to his coworkers when he got home. He’s also an accomplished sailor who took small boats across the Indian Ocean and far north of the Arctic Circle. If I’m doing stuff that cool 25 years from now I’ll consider myself a success.

Iraq, Iraq roadtrip, Iraq tourism, Iraq travelThe Iraqis treated us with a mixture of wariness, curiosity, and friendliness. In “My War,” Colby Buzzell’s excellent memoir of his time with the U.S. Army in 2003-4, he noted that “[the women] would stare at us but as soon as you made eye contact, they would look away. The Iraqi men were a little different. They stare too, but don’t look away, and if you wave, which is something they never initiate, they wave back, nervously.”

Things have changed a bit since then. The women still look away, except for a few younger ones who will hold your gaze and smile for a tantalizing moment. The men have chilled out much more. They rarely wave first, but when you wave or say salaam alaykum most burst into a smile and return your greeting. In the frequent traffic jams the folks in the next car would often roll down their windows and start a conversation.

The general impression I got from a lot of Iraqis was that they wanted us to understand that we were welcome.

Another thing Buzzell noted was that every time he went on patrol he’d come back with his pockets stuffed with gifts. This happened to us too. Possibly my weirdest experience in Iraq was one night at a restaurant along a highway. It consisted of one huge dining room serving up quick dinners for hungry motorists. The crowd was mostly truck drivers, busloads full of pilgrims, and a weightlifting team loading up on carbs.

The TV was playing “Black Hawk Down.” A bunch of the Iraqis were really getting into it and I got sucked in too. It’s a damn good movie, after all. I don’t know if the Iraqis found it ironic to be watching an American war movie in the middle of Iraq, but I sure did. I kept waiting for them to cheer when any of the American soldiers got tagged. That never happened.

After seeing American troops blast through Mogadishu, we headed out to our bus. On the way out, the owner of the restaurant came up to me with a smile, said “welcome,” and gave me a pack of chewing gum.

Who knows? Maybe he did the same thing when American soldiers were on his street instead of just his television.

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: “Moqata Al-Sadr Promotional Posters – Why Saddam’s Hanging Makes For Good Advertising!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

A Run-In With The Iraqi Police

Iraq, Iraqi police, Iraqi
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]

Iraqi police, Iraq

Ten most corrupt countries of the world

You spend every holiday weekend annoyed that you can’t talk your way out of a speeding ticket. If only there were some way out of that predicament … aside from taking your lead foot off the gas, right? You may be out of luck on the New Jersey Turnpike, but there are plenty of places in the world where money talks, according to a new study by Transparency International. So, if you tend to disregard local laws and customs, you may want to pick one of the 10 countries below for your next vacation.

WARNING: You may need to bring a bit of fire power for some of these destinations.

1. Somalia:
Is this even a country? It has no real government to speak of, not to mention a history of piracy, mob violence, warlord brutality and kidnapping. So, chew a little khat to take the edge off.

The Good News: You can’t really break any laws where there aren’t any.

2. Myanmar: Okay, the human rights issue here is pretty severe, and the military regime is known for being among the most repressive and abusive in the world. So, don’t complain about the thread-count in your hotel.

The Good News: There’s plenty of wildlife to enjoy as a result of slow economic growth. A bleak financial outlook is good for the environment!

%Gallery-106020%3. Afghanistan: Ummmm, there’s a war going on there – you may remember that. So, you’re dealing more with warlords than conventional law enforcement officials. This takes some of the predictability out of your mischief, and it does amp the risk up a bit.

The Good News: There are several options for civilian flights. Also, fishing is fine, but you can’t use hand grenades.

4. Iraq: Again with the war … The easiest way to get there is to wear a uniform, but that will make bribing your way out of trouble far more difficult.

The Good News: Prostitutes may not be in abundance, but if you have an itch in Baghdad, you’ll probably find someone to help you scratch it.

5. Uzbekistan: The CIA describes the government as “authoritarian presidential rule.” Is there really anything else you need to know? Yes, there is: Uzbekistan has a nasty human trafficking problem.

The Good News: Uzbekistan’s currency is the Ubekistani soum – that’s what you’ll use to bribe your way out of trouble.

6. Turkmenistan: Uzbekistan’s neighbor is no prize, either. Instead of trading in skin, though, Turkmenistan prefers drugs. It’s described in the CIA World Factbook as a “transit country for Afghan narcotics bound for Russia and Western European markets.”

The Good News: If you’re in the heroin business, this is a crucial stop in your supply chain. If you’re not, well, there isn’t a whole lot of reason to care about the place.

7. Sudan: The global financial crisis of 2008 actually affected this country. Until then, money was flowing in just as fast as oil could flow out. Then, economies crumbled around the world, which dealt a nasty blow to the country.

The Good News: There’s at least one form of equal rights in Sudan: both men and women can be drafted into military service.

8. Chad: Why is Chad so corrupt? Well, this may have something to do with the human trafficking problem, which the country “is not making any significant efforts” to address. Rebel groups in the country add to the likelihood for mayhem.

The Good News: Chad ranks 190 worldwide in terms of GDP, which means your bribe dollars will go much further than in more developed nations.

9. Burundi: A dispute with Rwanda over sections of the border they share has resulted in various conflicts and a spirit of lawlessness that will make your own nefarious plans pale in comparison.

The Good News: Though landlocked, there is probably some great real estate alongside Lake Tanganyika.

10. Equatorial Guinea: Any country that has failed to try to combat human trafficking is probably a top spot for corruption, so it isn’t surprising that Equatorial Guinea made the top 10.

The Good News: Government officials and their families own most of the businesses in the country, so any broad complaints can be addressed by a handful of people.

[photo by The U.S. Army via Flickr]