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.
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.”
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.
The 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]