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]

10 Minutes Of Terror On Vacation In Iraq

Iraq, Samarra

I’m in Samarra, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, the birthplace of the insurgency and a hotspot for sectarian tension in war-torn Iraq. My heart is racing and my mouth is dry. This is the most frightened I’ve been in months.

But I’m not scared of the Sunnis, I’m scared of plummeting to my death.

I’m climbing one of the famous spiral minarets of Samarra, a pair of towers with a narrow staircase snaking up the exterior. They were built in the ninth century. The taller one is 52 meters (171 feet) and the shorter one is 34 meters (112 feet). I’m on the shorter one. It doesn’t feel short to me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a fear of heights, a phobia that years of rock climbing never cured. That doesn’t stop me from going up one of the most famous monuments of Islamic architecture, though. I’m a sucker for medieval buildings.

Up I go, step by step. They’re steep, a bit uneven, and they relentlessly narrow as they rise higher. You can see just how little room there was between me and the abyss in the above photo. That’s my foot at the lower right, and beyond the step you can see our bus, which comfortably seats 20 people.

The stairs are wide enough, I tell myself. I’ve climbed narrow spiral staircases hundreds of times and have never fallen off.

But there was no risk of death on those, a little voice tells me.

“Shut up,” I reply, and keep climbing.

%Gallery-170252%They tell me the muezzin who ascended this minaret five times a day to give to call to prayer was blind. He’d keep one hand on the wall and climb without seeing how high up he was. I can’t decide if that’s a good hiring decision or a bad one.

I keep both my hands gripped on the aging, crumbly brick. I’ve been climbing for what seems like hours. Surely I must almost be there?

“Go back!” someone shouts from below.

You’re kidding me, right?

“Go back, there’s no room!”

From around the corner comes another member of our group, a Norwegian sailor who has no fear of heights. When he sees me he stops.

“Go back,” I say.

“Don’t worry, I’ll pass you,” he replies.

“That’s a really bad idea. Go back.”

He comes close. I flatten myself on the wall as he reaches around me, grabs the edge of the brick, and eases past. You can see his brave/foolish move in the photo gallery, as well as the beautiful panorama that awaited me when, a few steps later, I reached the top.

It was worth the climb. Even more rewarding was that sharp-edged feeling I had the entire time going up and the adrenaline rush of the even more hazardous trip down. Colors and sounds were vivid, every step a crucial moment – every moment a lifetime of excitement.

Want to get high? Skip the drugs and grab your fear by the balls.

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 Sneak Peak At The Soon-To-Reopen National Museum of Iraq!”

[Both photos by Sean McLachlan]

Iraq, Samarra

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

Muqtada Al-Sadr Promotional Posters–Why Saddam’s Hanging Makes For Good Advertising

Muqtada Al-Sadr, Iraq
Like it or not, Muqtada Al-Sadr is the new face of Iraq.

Posters of him are everywhere in the Shia areas, alongside the faces of his father and father-in-law, who both rose to the rank of Grand Ayatollah. They appear on the upper corners of this poster. His father was murdered by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who oppressed the Shia.

Iraq has always been divided between the minority Sunni and the majority Shia, two sects of Islam with more similarities than differences, but enough differences to create centuries of bloodshed. Check out the BBC for a good summary of the differences between Sunni and Shia. Since the beginnings of Islam the Sunni have been in charge, and every subsequent colonizer or national government has kept the Sunnis on top. Everyone, that is, until the Coalition established democratic elections and suddenly the majority got to rule.

Muqtada Al-Sadr popped onto the American radar during the Coalition occupation. He criticized the U.S.-led occupation and in response, the Coalition closed down his newspaper. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army then rose up in revolt. The Coalition tried to arrest al-Sadr, which led to a protracted battle with heavy losses on both sides. Al-Sadr remained a free man.

This bloody victory made Al-Sadr’s reputation. He soon controlled large areas of Iraq and killed off many of his opponents and forced many Sunnis to become refugees. He also installed his version of Sharia law. Alcohol vendors and other “undesirables” were frequently executed. On the other hand, his organization distributed food and rebuilt infrastructure.

Al-Sadr also played the political game. His party did so well that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, shown on the lower right of this photo, had to form a coalition with him. Al-Sadr’s greatest personal triumph came when Saddam Hussein was executed, a scene that appears next to al-Maliki in this poster. It seems to say, “Vote for us, we got rid of Saddam.”Below is another al-Sadr poster, with the man himself on the right. The faceless figure in the center could either be the Imam Ali or Mohammad. The Imam Ali is often shown with his face depicted, and even the Prophet Mohammad is sometimes depicted in Shia art. The periodic flare-ups of indignation against depictions of Mohammad are mostly a Sunni phenomenon.

Traveling in Iraq, I’ve been constantly confronted with posters of a man with Iraqi and Western blood on his hands, a symbol of the ongoing sectarian divide. Sadr’s organization claims it has renounced violence, but with the ongoing clashes between Sunni and Shia I find that hard to believe.

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: “Video Games With A Refugee!”

[Both photos by Sean McLachlan]

Moqata Al-Sadr, Iraq

Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Ethiopia, ethiopia, Harar, hararWhat makes an adventure traveler return to a place he’s been before? When so many other destinations beckon, why spend two months in a town you’ve already seen?

Because there’s so much more to see. Harar, in eastern Ethiopia between the lush central highlands and the Somali desert, can take a lifetime to understand. For a thousand years it’s been a crossroads of cultures, where caravans from the Red Sea met Central African merchants, where scholars and poets have traded ideas, where a dozen languages are heard in the streets.

Harar’s influence spread wide in those early days. Harari coins have been found in India and China, and a couple of my Harari friends have subtly Chinese features.

The Harari have always mixed with other tribes. Some say if you live within the medieval walls of the Jugol, the old city, and follow Harari ways, that you are one of them. Hararis have their own language spoken only by the Jugol’s 20,000 residents, yet this language has created literature, poetry, and song for centuries. As Harar faces the new millennium, a dedicated group of artists and intellectuals are working to preserve and add to this heritage.

But this is no Oxford, no Western-style center of learning. Harar is different. The day starts at dawn with the muezzin’s call to prayer. Hararis are moderate Sunnis with a broad streak of Sufi mysticism. There are more than 90 mosques hidden in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Jugol, and more than 300 shrines to saints. Harar is considered the fourth holiest city of Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

The morning is a busy time. Oromo farmers from the surrounding countryside fill the markets with their produce. Camels and donkeys jostle each other in the narrow streets. Kids go off to school. Offices and shops fill up. As the sun reaches its zenith and presses down on the city, people retreat to the cool interiors of their whitewashed houses with bundles of qat under their arm. Groups of friends chew this narcotic leaf during the hot hours of the day. As the buzz sets in, people relax and engage in long, animated conversations that after a time lapse into quiet reflection. One man will go off into a corner to write the lyrics to a song, while another will set to work on a Harari dictionary. Others will remain together, sharing stories about Harar. The afternoon and evening are spent in studious concentration, the main benefit of the so-called Leaves of Paradise.

%Gallery-91953%

%Gallery-91809%Night falls and people still work. Ethiopia is a developing country and want is never far away, so everyone puts in long hours. As the final evening call to prayer echoes away, the Hararis set down to eat or chat in cafes over a cup of the region’s coffee (considered by many the best in the world) or retire to a shrine to perform all-night ceremonies of ecstatic chanting.

Then Harar’s other residents appear. Packs of hyenas gather at the edge of town, waiting for the humans to go to sleep so they can prowl the streets, eating the garbage or scraps left out for them. The Hararis consider the hyenas neighbors and they share an uneasy but close relationship. The Jugol walls even have low doorways to allow them to pass. Hyenas are magical beings, able to take the djinn, spirits, out of the city. Some say they’re djinn themselves, or blacksmiths turned into animal form. Sometimes as you walk home along a moonlit alley one will pass by, its bristly fur brushing against your leg.

I’m spending the next two months living here. This is a journey measured not in miles traveled but by people befriended and knowledge gained. I’ll sit with Harar’s great scholars and artists to learn about the heritage of this unique city, and I’ll meet the regular people–the Oromo farmers and Harari shopkeepers, the Tigrinya university students and Somali refugees. I’ll watch traditional blacksmiths working the way their ancestors did, and women weaving the colorful baskets that adorn every Harari home.

As a former archaeologist, there are some mysteries I want to explore. I’ll visit the ruins of Harla, said to be the predecessor to Harar, and investigate the prehistoric cave paintings at Kundudo, the region’s sacred mountain. I’ll descend into the Somali desert to visit Chinhahsan, where the 16th century conqueror Ahmad The Left-Handed is rumored to have had the capital of his vast but brief empire. Among the ruined castle and crumbling city walls I’ll look for the truth behind the legend.

I’ll also venture further afield, taking in the sights of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s bustling capital. If I can assemble the right team, I’ll lead an expedition to Maqdala, a mountaintop fortress deep in the Ethiopian wilderness where the mad Emperor Tewodros defied the British Empire. I might even return to Somaliland.

There’s another reason I want to see Harar again–to catch a feeling that comes only once every few trips. Sometimes you’ll come to a spot where everything falls into place. The person you need to see appears just at the right time, the bit of information you’re searching for comes from an unexpected source, the mood is serene and the hospitality never ends. I’ve had that a few times before, like at Kumbh Mela, a giant Hindu pilgrimage that attracted 20 million people, but this feeling of everyone getting along despite their differences, everyone striving forward despite their lack of material resources, that’s a rare thing to experience.

So I’m going back.

This is the first of a series titled Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints. Join me as I discover more about this fascinating culture. A word of warning: the entire country is on dialup and there are frequent power cuts. I’ll try to post at least twice a week but please be patient! To be sure you don’t miss an installment, subscribe to my Gadling feed and in the meantime check out last year’s Ethiopia travel series.

For some views of my temporary home, see this video of a day in the life of Harar.