A Solo Stroll Through Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
I am alone in Baghdad. After a farewell dinner and a visit to an Iraqi amusement park my travel companions have left for the airport. Our guards from the Interior Ministry have gone off to other duties and I’m staying unguarded in my hotel. I don’t fly out until tomorrow.

I’m not supposed to leave the hotel. Guards are supposed to be with me at all times. While I understand why the government insists on this rule, I’ve found the guards annoying. They’ve often made me move on when I’ve wanted to linger at a place or continue a conversation, and I get the feeling some people didn’t approach me because of their presence.

Now I finally have a chance to see Iraq without them. I’m not nervous about this. Well, not too nervous. My hotel is in a good neighborhood and I walked in Basra without a guard and had no trouble. Besides, the biggest risk here is from car bombs and I don’t really see what a guard can do about that.

I don’t have much of an area to explore. I can’t go through a checkpoint alone. The best result I could get from that stunt would be a stern lecture and a police escort back to my hotel. The worst result is something better left unexplored. So my Baghdad tour is limited to one neighborhood circumscribed by police barricades.

The neighborhood is a good one by Baghdad standards, shops and apartment blocks and a few official buildings. The main landmark is the National Theater and a couple of swank hotels. It’s considered an up-and-coming and reasonably safe area.

The only problem is that it’s the last day of Eid al-Adha, a celebration of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, known in Christianity and Judaism as the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s one of the biggest holidays in the Muslim calendar and most places are closed.

I pound the pavement past rows of steel shutters. It looks like most people are taking the day off. A middle-aged man and his son come up and say hello. Their English is almost as bad as my Arabic and the conversation soon falters. What I want is to find a like mind, someone with open eyes, a good education, and good English who can explain his country to me. The National Theater seems a likely place. I head over there. Closed.

I continue on my quest. I have a few more “Welcome to Iraq” conversations, each time cut short due to language. I curse myself for not studying more Arabic. One young guy says he’d love to smoke some hash with me but he’s all out. Yeah, pot paranoia on the streets of Baghdad. That would have made an interesting article.

%Gallery-173222%One of the few stores I pass that’s open is a liquor store. The owners, two guys who look to be in their late 20s, wave me inside. “Where are you from?” “How do you like Iraq?” The usual conversation starts, hampered by bad English and terrible Arabic.

They invite me behind the counter and give me a glass of whiskey and some string cheese. String cheese. I kid you not. I didn’t know they had string cheese. Yet another insight into Iraqi culture.

My two companions really, really want to leave Iraq.

“But business is good here,” I say, eying the wad of bills in the cash drawer.

“Yes, but too many troubles,” they say. “Sometimes Muslim militia come here, take bottles, and no pay.”

I shake my head. A lot of the so-called Islamists are actually simple criminals grabbing an opportunity.

They ply me with questions about how to move to Canada, my home country. They’re disappointed to hear that Canada wants people with money who can speak English but seem hopeful about the refugee angle. They’re from one of Iraq’s many persecuted minorities.

As we talk a steady stream of customers come through. None look at me. Muslims always have this guilty look on their faces when they buy booze. It’s the same look Western guys get in porn shops. As a joke I start serving customers. My two buddies think this is hilarious. None of the customers bat an eye. Iraqis act nonchalant when stuck in a strange situation they’re trying to size up. It’s a survival technique. To show that you notice is to become part of the scene, and that’s not always healthy.

One of the liquor store owners runs over to a nearby bakery and brings back some fresh, hot pita. Ah, Arab hospitality! This is followed by a second (third?) round of whiskey, another form of hospitality that isn’t as rare in the Middle East as you might think. As they break out more string cheese I notice it’s getting dark outside. My day of independence is ending. My one real chance to have an immersive experience in Iraqi culture ends with string cheese and an alcohol buzz in a liquor store.

It would have to be good enough. When I told a friend back in Spain that most of my interactions in Iraq were friendly but all too brief and superficial, he replied that Westerners and Iraqis need to have more friendly, superficial meetings. At least it’s a start, he said.

Good point, but I wanted more.

Guarded group travel has insurmountable limitations that one day of partial freedom can’t break. Those serendipitous experiences don’t come on demand. You need time and luck. For me they came a few times on this trip – with pilgrims at the Shia holy shrines, with a child refugee in my hotel lobby, and with an artist on the tough streets of Nasiriyah. Each time these experiences could have – should have – turned into daylong interactions. Each time, though, the group agenda and my guards’ concerns meant we had to move on.

Luckily the security situation is slowly improving and there’s talk of individual travel opening up throughout Iraq like it already is in Kurdistan. Perhaps in a few years I’ll be able to come back and explore Iraq the way adventure travel is supposed to be done – slowly, with no itinerary, and alone.

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: “Ten Random Observations About Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

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]

Iraq Road Trip: Who Takes The Ultimate Adventure Vacation And What’s It Like?

Iraq, Iraq roadtrip, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
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.

%Gallery-170776%Iraq, Iraq roadtrip, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
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.”

Gag.

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.

Iraq, Iraq roadtrip, Iraq tourism, Iraq travelThe 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]