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

Rude US Customs Officials: How Not To Welcome People To The United States

U.S. CustomsSome people should not be allowed to wear a uniform.

While flying from Spain to the U.S. to attend the Gadling annual team summit, I touched down first at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. I got into line at U.S. Customs to enter the country.

The line was in a huge room with a row of bulletproof glass booths manned by U.S. Customs & Border Protection officials checking passports and visas. These booths blocked entrance to the baggage claim area and, officially, the United States. The line for U.S. citizens and Green Card holders was long but moving steadily thanks to several booths being open and the generally efficient work of the U.S. Customs folks manning them.

The line for foreigners was a different story. Only one booth was open and the line was practically at a standstill. There was a bit of grumbling in various languages but no loud complaining. Everyone just stood there looking jetlagged while watching a big flat screen TV hanging over the booths.

It was playing a promotional video about all the things to see in the United States. Images of the Grand Canyon, Alamo, Yosemite and other great attractions flickered across the screen, interspersed with a diversity of smiling Americans saying, “Welcome.”

As I waited my turn, one woman in her early twenties who looked like she was from Southeast Asia walked up to the head of the foreigners’ line where an airport worker stood.

“Excuse me,” the Asian woman said with a heavy accent, holding out her ticket, “I will be late for flight.”

“There’s nothing I can do,” the worker said, waving her off. “Get back in line.”

“But the flight–“

“Wait in line!”

The Asian woman quickly retreated, looking at her watch.I was about to shrug this off as Case #4,589,513 of Airport Rudeness when the tale took a turn for the worse. After a couple of minutes, the airport worker called over a U.S. Customs officer. I hesitate to describe him because you might think I’m exaggerating, but believe me when I say he was short, with a big paunch and black, greased back hair. His face was also greasy and over a poorly trimmed mustache he had a big, pockmarked nose – a boozer’s nose, a Bukowski nose.

The airport official said something to him and pointed at the Asian woman. The passenger looked over hopefully. The officer summoned her by jutting his chin in her direction.

The woman approached with her ticket held out.

“Excuse me. I am late for flight. . .”

The officer gestured at the ticket.

“What’s this?”

“My flight. . .”

“So you’re late? Everybody’s late! Hey, is anyone else here late?”

“I am!” some British wanker chimed in.

“Go,” the Customs agent said, dismissing her with a wave of the hand.

She stood there a moment, looking confused.

“Get back in line!” he shouted.

I almost said something. I almost said, “I’m not late for my flight. I have a three-hour layover. She can go in front of me. And stop being so unprofessional.”

But I didn’t. Unlike last month’s run-in with a rude airport security official, I was trying to enter a country, not leave one, and speaking up against this lowlife wouldn’t help the Asian woman and would almost certainly get me in trouble. So I didn’t say anything. I still feel bad about it, but there really wasn’t anything I could do. The fact that he did this within full sight of several of his coworkers showed that his work environment didn’t discourage that sort of thing.

Another small man with a bit of power treating other people like dirt.

We kept waiting in line as a succession of TV Americans welcomed us with big smiles. After a while the Asian woman stopped looking at her watch. She’d missed her flight.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Photo Of The Day: Easter Island P.D.

photo of the day - Easter Island police
Spring is in full swing and Easter and Passover are coming this weekend. Looking for something seasonally appropriate, I searched the Gadling Flickr pool but instead of Easter the holiday, I found images of Easter the Island. This shot by davitydave especially caught my eye, showing the uniformed (and probably Chilean) Easter Island police looking rather stern and serious with their incredible and unusual view. I wonder what their “beat” is like? Do they see much action other than rowdy tourists and the occasional protest? Hey officers, I see some shady looking characters loitering down at the water.

Add your travel photos to the Gadling Flickr pool to be featured on another Photo of the Day.

JetBlue flight attendant hiring: police and firefighters preferred

“Turn off your electronic devices” may soon be followed by “Up against the wall!” on JetBlue flights. The airline is looking for flight attendants who have real backgrounds in safety: it’s targeting former police officers and firefighters for flight attendant jobs. JetBlue has reportedly hired “several hundred” of New York‘s finest over the past decade, and up to 10 percent of the cabin crew has had experience in emergency response work.

The first JetBlue flight attendant class included a former New York City firefighter, which caused the airline to think more about this talent pool. After all, police and firefighters are trained in dealing with emergencies, making them inherently more qualified than the flight attendant candidates airlines pull off the street.

So, I need to know: what’s next? Will American scrap its existing hiring model and look for green berets?

[photo by See ming-Lee via Flickr]

TV tourism: 132 and Bush, where are you?

COPS is on all the time, it seems, and if you have cable with more than a few channels, chances are you can flip around and find an episode on any time of the day or night. In fact, just yesterday COPS aired it’s 700th episode.

I’ve been watching the show for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always wondered something that has perplexed me until today. At the closing credits, directly after the last scene, a female cop chimes in over the radio and says, “132 and Bush, I’ve got him at gunpoint.” Simultaneously, one of the members of Jamaica’s Inner Circle clears his throat and sings the iconic theme song, bad boys bad boys, what’cha gonna do?

Where is 132 and Bush? Of all the episodes I’ve seen over the years (699, no doubt), I’ve never seen the one where this audio clip was taken from. Does this place exist? Because if it does, as a true COPS fan, I have to go.

Turns out it does exist. It’s in the east side of Portland, Oregon. [see map]

So for all you true COPS fans out there, your mecca has been revealed. Now we just need a few pictures from the location…can anyone help?

[Sources: 1, 2]