Hostility And Smiles On The Streets Of Nasiriyah, Iraq

Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel, Nasiriyah
There comes a time in every trip when the honeymoon ends. The initial romance of being in a new place wears off and you begin to notice the pushy vendors and the dirty hotel rooms. The first blush of love fades like a flower in autumn, hit by the cold winter wind of reality.

My honeymoon with Iraq didn’t end with tourist hucksters or filthy hotel rooms – so far we’d had none of those. My honeymoon with Iraq ended when I saw the crater in front of my hotel in Nasiriyah.

“Car bomb last month,” the guard explained as he sat in his metal folding chair outside the front door, Kalashnikov resting in his lap. “It kill two men and two babies. One man a teacher.”

We had just come out of our hotel to meet a squad of policemen, all wearing Kevlar and toting the ubiquitous AK-47. Our tour leader, Geoff, came up to me.

“This is our escort,” he said. “Let’s go for a walk around town.”

Yeah, let’s do that.

Nasiriyah, a city of half a million people on the Euphrates River 225 miles southeast of Baghdad, has been through a lot in the past 20 years. It shows. Many buildings, like the old cinema shown above, are pockmarked by small arms fire. The bridges that spanned the river were destroyed during the invasion and replaced with pontoon bridges. Blast walls and barbed wire are even more common here than the rest of Iraq.

There were only four of us on the tour now, the other six had opted for the shorter tour and were now safely home. With half a dozen police, two guards from the Interior Ministry, and a translator, our little band of foreigners looked far more important than we were. I didn’t like that. Important people are targets. That’s why the bomber set off his explosives in front of our hotel – it’s the nicest in town.

%Gallery-171836%The streets of Iraq all look pretty much the same – concrete buildings and blast walls. Some municipalities have gussied up the sidewalks with potted plants and colored bricks, but most places just have the same grim gray surfaces. We walked through this dreary landscape, the police forming a large circle around us and keeping a tense eye on every passerby.

Suddenly an iron gate opened across the street and a crowd of teenage schoolgirls came out, all neatly dressed in blue uniforms and matching headscarves. They were headed in our direction and as they paced us on the opposite side of the street we got a lot of sidelong glances and giggles. I was even graced with a smile. Maybe Nasiriyah wasn’t such a bad place after all.

One thoughtless member of our group snapped a photo of them and got frowns in return. Idiot. Do you take photos of schoolgirls back home in England? Luckily for him no irate Muslim father came over to defend the family honor. That would have been fun to see.

The police hustled us into a busy market and their tension ratcheted up noticeably. There were few smiles or welcomes here. People gave us hard looks or long, studying stares. It reminded me of the Sunni Triangle. The Sunnis had suffered the worst under the invasion and after the change of Iraq’s power structure in favor of the Shia. Nasiriyah, however, was mostly Shia.

So why the hostility? Perhaps it was the heavy losses the local Shias took when they rebelled against Saddam and the West did nothing to help. The city was also the scene of a hard-fought battle in the 2003 invasion over the control of those long-gone bridges. Maybe it was the police escort that soured people to us. Maybe it was that we were being hustled along and didn’t have the opportunity to break the ice.

That opportunity came in the middle of the marketplace. Our guide ushered us into a shop as the cops guarded the door. I took one look at the shelves and decided to join the cops on the street. The shop was filled with tourist dreck – cheap tin ashtrays sporting the Iraqi flag and plastic minarets of Samarra. Who sells tourist trash when there are no tourists?

I stepped back onto the sidewalk and one of the cops gave me a dubious look before swiveling around to scan the crowd. From an alley a few steps to my right, a little boy peeked at me. Another little boy peeked around him, and then another. Big brown eyes studied me. Unlike the adults on the street, who gave the half-circle of policemen a wide berth, the kids didn’t seem to notice my escort at all.

They ducked back out of sight. I could hear them calling to their friends and in a second a whole crowd of kids burst out of the alley. They stared at me, blinking, unsure, and then one of them pushed another up to me. That one laughed, spun back around, and pushed his friend toward me. In a second, the whole lot of them descended into a giggling riot in miniature, each one trying to push another up to the strange apparition in their street.

I picked one, knelt down in front of him and said, “Hello.”

The kid fled to the back of the crowd. One of the braver ones came up to me.

“Nasiriya is my home. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Canada. What’s your name?”

Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel, NasiriyahThat’s all it took. Suddenly I was giving an English lesson to a dozen entranced children. The passersby gave me amused glances. One guy came up with his little girl in his arms and asked me to take a photo. Even the cops eased up a little.

As we talked I noticed a couple of the kids standing in front of the alley were looking up and shouting angrily. I looked around the corner. A young boy, maybe 10 years old, sat on the roof two stories above. He extended his arm over the narrow ally, a bottle held in his little hand. He looked me right in the eye, the corners of his mouth turned upwards. But he wasn’t smiling.

“Is that for me?” I asked.

His expression didn’t change.

In another time and another place I might have stepped into the alley and called his bluff. I decided to stay in the street. I wasn’t sure people bluffed here.

Little hands tugged me away from the alley.

“Photo! Photo!” the gaggle of kids demanded. I raised my camera and snapped a shot, then showed them the picture as they squealed with glee.

“One more! One more!”

My travel companions came out of the shop and I said a quick goodbye to my little buddies as the cops hustled us down the street. Soon a tug of war developed between us. The police wanted us to hurry, but I and the others kept slowing down to look in windows and talk with shopkeepers. I peered into one storefront and spotted walls covered in artwork. That stopped me in my tracks. An artist’s studio? Here?

I entered, greeting the three men inside. One sat behind a desk sketching a group of galloping horses. He looked up and smiled.

“Welcome! Come in,” he rose and shook my hand. “Wait!”

He sat down again and made a few more strokes of his pencil. When the picture was done to his satisfaction he tore it from the sketch pad and offered it to me with a flourish.

“For you. To remember Iraq.”

We all started talking. He was a prominent local artist and invited me to his exhibition opening the next morning. One of his friends was an artist too, the other a teacher. We talked of his paintings, which ranged in style from Daliesque surrealism to sharp-eyed realism, and the conversation expanded to a dozen different subjects.

And for a moment everything was OK. I’d found one of those oases that exist in every city, no matter what the people have been through, a place where art and culture and books have value and meaning. A place where people who share no religion or heritage or life experiences in common can be fast friends because of their mutual love for those precious things that separate civilization from savagery.

I’d found the exact place in Iraq I wanted to be. The conversation soared, both sides eager to connect, and I thought back on the other places like this I’d found. At a Bulgarian university and an Ethiopian birtcha. At late-night Madrid literary bars and hick towns in Missouri. In fact, I’d found them everywhere. The only difference was that in some places it took a little longer.

A policeman trudged into the studio, looking as out of place as a grenade in a sack of Easter eggs. He gestured for me to follow him. He’d been doing that for the past five minutes but now he really meant it.

It was time to go. I would not be attending that art opening. That hadn’t been pre-approved and stamped and filed and scheduled by the local authorities.

There comes a time in every trip when the honeymoon ends. The champagne has been drunk, the cake is all gone, and it’s time to return the keys to the bridal suite. Now comes the long, tough reality of learning just what you’ve signed up for. Like with marriage it isn’t always easy, but getting to know a country for what it is, not what you hoped it would be, can be a lot more rewarding.

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: “Visiting The Great Ancient Sites Of Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Visiting The Sacred Sites Of Shia Islam

Shia, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
“She wants you to take her picture,” a man said when the old woman in the black abaya came up to me.

We were standing in the mosque of Imam Husayn in Karbala, Iraq. This is one of the holiest shrines for Shia Islam. It was near here that Imam Husayn, son of Imam Ali, was killed along with his supporters by the Caliph Yazid. The Shia believe that Ali and Hussein were the rightful successors to the Prophet Mohammad. The Sunnis believe that the Ummayid Caliphs like Yazid had that honor. For the Shia, Husayn’s martyrdom has become a symbol of their oppression at the hands of corrupt governments.

I got that message loud and clear as soon as I raised my camera.

The woman tore into a litany about the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, describing his justness, his bravery, and his death at the hands of treacherous soldiers. I couldn’t follow it all but I knew the story, how a massive army surrounded Husayn and his few dozen followers in the desert, how the women and children begged for water and were shot with arrows. How the men fought bravely and were killed off one by one. The woman started crying, her voice breaking as it increased in volume.

I wondered who else she was crying for.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein – a Sunni – the Shia got kicked around. Many disappeared into his jails and torture chambers. Their neighborhoods always got fewer municipal funds. They were the last hired and first fired. Then Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.
The U.S.-led forces soon pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait and President Bush called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam. Shia, Kurds, and some Sunnis answered that call. The rebels took over several key cities and most of the provinces. Saddam had all the heavy weaponry, though. Saddam had the tanks. The rebels called on the U.S. for help.

The U.S. government launched some missiles, extended the no-fly zone, and said some very nasty things about Saddam, but otherwise did nothing.

Saddam’s reprisals were terrible. Nobody knows how many civilians were killed. The mass graves are still being discovered. There was more than just religious fervor coming out of that woman, there was a lifetime of suffering. I doubt there’s a single Shia in Iraq who doesn’t know someone who died because of Saddam.

%Gallery-171120%The old woman finished her testimony and she gestured that I could go. As I walked away I kept turning back to see her watching me, tears in her eyes.

It seemed that everyone in the mosque wanted to talk with me, and it was the same in the shrine to Imam Ali in Najaf. As I sat on plush carpets under exquisite tile ceilings, the melodious sounds of Arabic prayers in the background, people kept coming up to me. Some were curious and asked where I was from and why I was there. Once I answered these questions they had reached the end of their English. They welcomed me, smiled and moved on. Others had better English and stopped to chat.

Parents pushed their kids forward to practice their English lessons. Others wanted to know if I was a Bosnian, the only European Muslims they were accustomed to seeing. Telling them I wasn’t a Muslim didn’t seem to make me any less welcome.

Many of the people I met were actually Iranian. Their country has an even greater Shia majority than Iraq, and has been ruled by Shia for centuries. Iranian pilgrims come to Iraq by the millions every year. Karbala and Najaf are almost as holy to the Shia as Mecca and Medina.

One of the best conversations was with two female engineering students from Iran. Bright eyed and friendly, they were delighted to learn that I’d been to their country and had visited that matchless city, Isfahan. There’s an old Persian proverb, “Esfahan Nesf-e Jahan” (“Esfahan is half the world”) and with its stunning mosques, soaring blue-green minarets, and sparkling river I couldn’t deny it.

The Shia shrines of Karbala and Najaf give Isfahan a run for its money, though. Some interiors are entirely made of multifaceted glass, with colored lights that make the walls and ceiling sparkle like jewels. Others have vast ceilings of paneled tiles like the one shown below. The graves of the martyrs are ornately decorated in gold, as are some of the doors.

Together the girls and I admired the architecture and they urged me to take my wife to Iran the next time I go.

“Oh, she would love it!” they said. “She should have come to Iraq too.”

“She was too scared to come.”

“Oh, it’s not dangerous,” they said.

I found their innocence touching. On second thought I realized they couldn’t be so naive. They were simply being welcoming. The Iranians did have more of a sense of optimism than the Iraqis. Although they, too, have had a succession of oppressive governments, at least they haven’t been persecuted for their faith.

It was pilgrimage season. The television was filled with images of the Hajj. People were visiting Karbala and Najaf in large numbers too. One night I flicked on the television in my hotel room and saw an announcer at the same mosque where I spoke with those Iranian students. It was a call-in show and as pilgrims mingled in the background, the announcer chatted with the callers.
They were almost exclusively women and almost all were crying. I couldn’t follow the conversations very well but I did pick up the names Husayn and Ali, as well as other male names, probably of the women’s relatives. And one name was repeated over and over again with a mixture of hatred and horror.

Saddam. Saddam. Saddam.

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 Street Art: Beautifying the Blast Walls!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Shia, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Video Games With A Refugee

“Are you American?”

The little boy with the big brown eyes was sitting at the couch next to mine in the lobby of my hotel in Najaf, Iraq. He was dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt and sneakers. He peered at me over the edge of his iPad. I looked up from my email.

“No, I’m Canadian. You Iraqi?”

“I’m Lebanese but I live in Syria. We move back to Lebanon now.”

“Your English is good.”

“I go to the international school.” He held up his iPad. “I’m looking for games.”

“You find any good ones?” I asked, smiling.

“Yeah, you want to play?”

There was something about this kid that reminded me of my own son. Maybe it was the obsession with video games. Maybe it was because he was bilingual. Maybe it was because I was missing my son so much.

“Sure,” I said.

He came over to my couch and plopped down beside me. I logged off my email and put away my laptop. He shook my hand – an oddly adult gesture – and told me his name was Mohammad and that he was 9 years old.

“I’ve been to Syria,” I told him. “I liked it a lot. Where are you from in Syria?”

“Sayyida Zainab. Want to see it? It’s on Youtube.”

“Sure.”

Then he showed me this video – bodies wrapped in bloodstained sheets being buried in a mass grave.

“They’re dead,” he said in a low voice.

I couldn’t think of what to say. This kid was 9 and this was his reality. I’ve spent the past seven years protecting my son from the ugliness of the world. Mohammad’s dad probably did the same thing until his country fell apart. After a moment I turned the video off.

“Don’t watch that, it’s sad,” I told him.

“OK. Want to play some games?”

The speed with which his mood changed shocked me. I was still numb from what I had seen.

“Sure, Mohammad. Let’s play some games.”

Yes, Mohammad, be a kid.

He’d downloaded a bunch of free apps. We played one where Obama and Romney shoot ping pong balls at each other. I played Obama and won. It was close, though. Mohammad was obviously experienced at video games.

One of the hotel employees passed by.

“See that man?” Mohammad said. “I hate him. He do this to me to tease me.”

He crossed his eyes. Suddenly I felt protective. Some guy was teasing Mohammad? For a moment it felt like someone had teased my own son.”Can you do that?” he asked.

I crossed my eyes and wiggled my nostrils at him. He smiled.

“My brother can move his ears.”

“I can’t do that. Can you do this?” I rolled my tongue. He did the same.

We searched for more apps as the massacre at Sayyida Zainab replayed in my mind. One app took my photo and Mohammad used a razor to shave me bald. Then we played a game where a cat and dog throw bones at each other over a fence. I tried to let him win while he tried to let me win. I eventually won at letting him win. To assuage his sense of Arab hospitality he fetched me tea. Then we played a parking game.

“My father had a car but somebody take,” Mohammad said, his voice going low again.
I flashed back to the video. What else did his family lose as they fled Syria?

He wasn’t so good at parking. He kept hitting other cars. Eventually he gave up and got onto the app store to look for more games. One ad showed a woman in a bikini. He put his hand over it.

“Don’t look, it’s bad,” he told me.

“OK.”

Mohammad’s two teenaged sisters, jeans showing under their abayas, sat at another couch nearby and occasionally added to the conversation from a distance. They told me they’re on pilgrimage here. Najaf and the nearby city of Karbala are sacred to Shia Muslims. I was here seeing the same shrines.

“How long you stay in Najaf?” Mohammad asked me.

“I leave tomorrow.”

His face fell.

“Oh. Let’s play another game,” he said.

“OK, Mohammad.”

My group was already gathering to visit the local shrine of Imam Ali, which Mohammad’s family had already visited. They were soon headed off to Karbala.

“You’ll love Karbala,” I told him. “The shrine is very beautiful.” Like Syria used to be, I wanted to add.

“You not going to Karbala again?” he asked.

“No. Sorry, Mohammad.”

Everyone was boarding the bus now. Reluctantly I got up and said goodbye. Mohammad looked sad.

“Keep practicing those games, kid,” I said, forcing a smile.

Then I got on the bus and never saw him again.

Sometimes you meet people on your travels that stick with you long after you say goodbye. The 9-year-old boy who likes video games and survived a massacre is going to stick with me for a long time – that and the fact that a couple of those bodies were smaller than he is.

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: “Visiting The Sacred Sites Of Shia Islam!”