A Family Night Out In Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
After a long road trip around Iraq, I find myself back in Baghdad. It’s our last night together as a group. For our final dinner we decide to eat a famous Baghdadi recipe at a famous landmark –mazgouf fish at Abu Nuwas Park.

Abu Nuwas park runs for one-and-a-half miles along the east bank of the Tigris in central Baghdad. It’s named after an early medieval poet who was half Arab and half Persian, and wrote poems in both languages. His poetry celebrated wine and sex and made fun of the Arab nostalgia for Bedouin life. This ensured trouble during his lifetime and fame after his death.

In keeping with the Abu Nuwas’ liberal tradition, the park that bears his name is a neutral ground for the city’s warring factions. Everyone comes here to relax, not fight. Of course there’s still the usual cordon of armed guards. Trust is in short supply in this country.

Once inside, though, it doesn’t feel like Baghdad at all. Families have picnics on blankets spread under trees. Kids do cartwheels on the grass. The Tigris glitters with reflected streetlights. A fountain at the edge of the riverbank shoots up water as colored lamps make the jets pulse red and purple. Music mixes with the calls of vendors selling nuts, candy, and Spongebob Squarepants balloons.

We’ve come to dine at one of the city’s most popular restaurants, Mazgouf, named after a large fish found in the Tigris that’s considered a delicacy. The fish is cut in half down its length and stuck on spike next to an open wood fire to slowly cook. When it’s done, it’s pulled off the spike and put on a plate. The scales and eyes on the outside are still preserved, making a sort of bowl from which to scoop out the goopy and incredibly rich insides. The restaurant at Abu Nuwas Park is said to be one of the best.

We find the restaurant and sit outside. As usual, the people at the next table come over and welcome us to Iraq. Mazgouf is made to order so there’s a long wait before we get our meal. Once it comes, everyone digs in with relish. I’m no expert on mazgouf but it’s the second-best meal I’ve had this entire trip. It’s so rich and heavy I can only finish half of it, although I’d love to eat the whole thing. The mood at the table is celebratory. We’ve made it through Iraq unscathed. Everyone is thinking of home but disappointed to be leaving.

While everyone else is leaving tomorrow morning and the guards will go off to other duties, my flight isn’t until the following morning, which means I get a whole day to myself in Baghdad. This worries me only slightly. My time in Iraq has taught me that the country is far safer than most people believe, and my hotel is in a good neighborhood. Besides, staying in the hotel all day simply isn’t an option. I just hope I don’t have any trouble when I go out alone.

After dinner we stroll around the park. The mood is relaxed and festive. So is the dress code. A woman walks by in a skirt and I almost keel over. It’s the first bare female leg I’ve seen in more than two weeks. Young couples who may very well be unmarried walk hand in hand, whispering to each other. I’ve stepped into another world. It’s even more relaxed than Kurdistan. Flashing lights and squeals of laughter draw me down a path and to another gate.

%Gallery-172598%It’s an amusement park. Kids are zipping around on bumper cars in the middle of a pool, or shooting down a giant inflatable slide. Their big brothers and sisters play videos games in a nearby arcade.

Getting in requires going through another checkpoint. There’s a brief hassle as the park’s guards demand that our guards leave their guns behind. Captain Ali, the senior of our two guards, doesn’t like that idea. I’m not sure how it’s resolved but we eventually get through, only to be stopped again.

“What now?” someone in our group groans.

“Photo! Photo!” the park guards say.

“Oh, OK.”

We all line up and take each other’s photos. I still haven’t figured out why Iraqis all want their photo taken. Only one of them has asked for a copy, and he never emailed me so I could send it to him. Maybe they just want to be part of my holiday memories. That’s cool. Memory made.

As soon as we’re through I ditch my guards. I don’t think those kids on the Merry-go-Round are going to shoot me, and after more than two weeks of these guys dogging my movements I’m sick of them. I slip behind some spinning ride with flashing lights and I’m gone.

Swarms of laughing children zip past me as I wander among the rides. I shake my head in amazement. How is this possible? This country is torn apart by war and sectarian bitterness and here everything is just fine. These families are the Iraqi majority, the decent folks who want all the bullshit to stop so they can get some enjoyment out of life. It would be silly to think they’re “just like us”; they’re not. But they’re enough like us that when this whole mess sorts itself out, I know who I want to come out on top.

“Mr. Sean.”

I turned around. Aw crap, Captain Ali has found me.

“We need to go now,” he says.

“Yeah, yeah.”

I turn away and keep walking. He trots patiently behind. This is a game he knows he’ll win.

Families come up to me, asking that I photograph their children or forcing their kids into impromptu English lessons. The kids take it with good grace, as curious as their parents about this strange foreigner who’s wandered into their fun.

Well, almost all the kids take it with good grace. One man drags his toddler over and urges her, “Say hello. Say hello.” She bursts into tears.

“Tired?” I ask.

He smiles and nods.

“Yes, tired. Late night.”

We laugh, one father to another.

Another tug at my arm. It’s Captain Ali again. Go away.

“Mr. Sean, we need to go.”

He leads me off, holding my wrist like a naughty child. I could complain, but he’s the law and even though he still has a reserve of good humor, his patience is at an end. We head for the exit.

Three bombs exploded in Baghdad this morning. More than a dozen killed. The story is already being broadcast by all the major news channels, with the usual blaring headlines and snuff film visuals. I take a last look around at Abu Nuwas park, at the picnicking families and the laughing children and the guys selling balloons. There are no TV cameras here.

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: “A Solo Stroll Through Baghdad!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Video Of The Day: Pong Traffic Light


What do you do when you’re waiting to cross the street? Do you people watch, run through your mental to-do list, or count cars? If you’re in Germany, you might get to play a little Pong while you wait for the little green man to flash. A recent video on YouTube uploaded by Caburaska shows a German demonstrating the Pong traffic light game, played with a willing stranger (and potential love connection, judging from his face after their high-five) at a busy intersection. According to the video comments, the game might be just part of a project rather than a city-sanctioned installation, but it’s still pretty cool. I’d like to see Frogger at stoplights next.

Seen any cool games on your travels? Post a video link below or on the Gadling Facebook page for a future Video of the Day.

Photo Of The Day: Brooklyn Cyclone Summer

photo of the day - Coney Island Cyclone
For many of us, there are few things more American or summer-like than Brooklyn‘s Coney Island. It’s been the site of family fun, local seediness, freaks of nature, and luxury development plans. Throughout its many iterations, Coney Island has retained its particular mix of beach, carnival, and city resort. Today’s Photo of the Day by Flickr user David Ellwood captures Coney Island’s Cyclone, one of America’s oldest wooden roller coasters and an icon of summer and amusement parks. The Cyclone celebrates 85 years of thrills this year, and hopefully will continue to spell summer fun for years to come.

Send us your favorite summer travel photos (or get us excited about fall and winter travel) by adding to the Gadling Flickr pool for a future Photo of the Day.

Using Google Maps To Launch A Zombie Invasion

Zombie, Zombies
It was only a matter of time.

The zombie craze has now infected Google Maps. A horde of living dead is coming to your street. A new app called Home Sweet Zombie from Confused.com allows you to type in the surname and address of someone you hate, then sit back and watch as zombies descend on their house. It’s a great way to get back at your former boss or the significant other who dumped you. If you’re filled with self-loathing you can even send them to your own house.

This app was designed by Jamie Gibbs, who writes about all things geeky on his blog. There, he reveals that he has more zombie stuff in the pipeline.

I tried it out on a few addresses in different countries and most worked. The only time the program came up blank was when I typed in Obama and the White House, proving once again the liberal bias among zombies. This also raises the question of whether they’re really as dead as they claim. I mean, has anyone actually seen their death certificates?

[Photo courtesy Confused.com]

Rubens At The Palace Allows Guests To Be Harry Potter For The Day, Magic Wand And All

rubens at the palace Do you ever wish you could be Harry Potter for the day? You know, walk around with a magic wand, wear a cloak and giant glasses, hangout at Gringotts Wizarding Bank and visit all the places the young wizard himself did? With a stay at Rubens at the Palace in London, now you can.

The luxury boutique hotel, which is located across from Buckingham Palace, is currently offering a “Harry Potter Experience” package. Guests will not only get the chance to take photos at Harry Potter movie set locations, like Platform 9 3/4, Diagon Alley and the Leaky Cauldron, Gringott’s Wizarding Bank, Victorian Leadenhall Market, and Brockdale Bridge, they’ll also get to feel just like Harry Potter himself. Package amenities include:

  • Complimentary breakfast
  • World-class accommodations
  • Three-hour Harry Potter tour in a chauffeured black cab
  • Harry Potter wand with cloak and glasses
  • Turndown service with Harry Potter cupcakes
  • Framed family photograph taken before the tour
  • Certificate of tour completion, to prove to everyone you did, indeed, visit all the set locations

Package is valid until December 31, 2012. Prices start at $965 per night, based on two adults and two children under 10 years old. Email bookrb@rchmail.com or click here to make a reservation.