Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam Hussein’s Palaces

The name “Babylon” brings up two associations – that of an ancient city in Iraq, and of a place of sin and decadence. It’s only fitting then that Saddam Hussein erected one of his palaces on a hill overlooking the ancient site of Babylon.

This is only one of 70 such palaces, many built during the UN sanctions while Saddam’s people were short on food and medicine. Many Iraqis complained the sanctions did nothing to hurt the dictator, and this Babylon-on-a-hill seems proof of that.

Saddam had palaces in every corner of the country, and this one and another I visited in Basra are both opulent, even though they’ve been stripped of everything even remotely valuable, even the wiring. They were once fitted with the finest rugs and gilded furniture. There are rumors that there were solid gold toilets.

These empty, echoing shells are the only thing left of a huge cult of personality. Saddam’s face used to be everywhere. Statues stood at every intersection, giant murals decorated every neighborhood. He was a constant presence in the media. Saddam used to joke that if an Iraqi family’s TV broke, all they had to do was tape a poster of him on the screen. Now there are only empty plinths and whitewashed walls, and the Iraqis watch satellite channels from Europe and Dubai.

You’ll have a hard time finding Iraqis who will say anything good about Saddam Hussein. Even those who hated the sanctions, bombings and eventual invasion are glad he’s gone. Of all the people I talked to in my 17 days here I only found two guys, workers in a roadside tea stand, had something positive to say about his rule.

“In Saddam’s time Iraq was strong. Now it’s weak,” they said.

True enough as far as it goes, but Saddam’s megalomania was what brought Iraq to ruin and the vast majority of Iraqis understand this. During his reign everyone pretended to love him, because to act otherwise was to court death. In their hearts, though, they hated him. It must have galled the Iraqis to see his image everywhere, and to think about the treasures that filled his palaces.

All those treasures are gone now, except for one sad reminder of a pot-bellied dictator and his limitless greed. In a dark side room on the second story of the Babylon palace, I came across the shattered bowl of a gold-painted toilet. Not solid gold, sadly, just gold paint. Must have been the guest bathroom. It was good enough for me. I’d been in the bus for a long time and there was no other bathroom available so …

%Gallery-171444%Yeah, baby!!!!! Gadling dumps on the dictatorship!

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: “Beer run in Basra!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Shameless bottom photo taken by a laughing Per Steffensen. He was laughing with me, not at me. Really.]

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

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]

To Understand America, Check Out the Nation’s Reddest And Bluest Places

We are a deeply divided country with red states, blue states and a handful of battleground states that will decide who is elected President on Tuesday. As a frequent traveler who also follows politics, I often feel the need to hit the road just to understand the country I live in.

The country wasn’t always so geographically polarized. According to the New York Times, John F. Kennedy campaigned in 49 states in the 1960 presidential election and Richard Nixon visited all 50. This year the candidates have campaigned in just 10 states since the conventions. Many of us now live in communities that are overwhelmingly blue or red and we inhabit parallel universes with little knowledge about the people on the other side of the electoral landscape.

I’ve spent my whole life living in very blue places: Buffalo, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. I’m an independent and I have friends and relatives who support both parties, but living where I’ve lived has, in some ways, kept me isolated from red state culture.

I don’t know a single person who owns a gun (at least that I’m aware of). I don’t know any evangelical Christians, at least not well. None of my friends have pickup trucks. I’m used to walking out my door and having my choice of Thai, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Indian or any number of other ethnic restaurants, and I go out for chicken vindaloo more often than chicken fried steak.

And most of the people in my social circle listen to NPR or sports talk radio, not Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck or Shawn Hannity. I live in a very blue world.

And so, I love to get out and see what the rest of the country is like. It’s amazing how you don’t have to drive very far to be in a completely different world – a country where even the people working in fast food restaurants are white; a country where people would sooner eat rats for lunch than buy a Subaru; a country where people say “yes, sir” and “no, mam,” and mean it. It sounds silly but traveling from blue state to red state or vice versa can be real culture shock.

But of course, it can also be fun to travel within shades of blue or red. A couple years ago, I visited Boulder and, even coming from a blue state, couldn’t help but notice how seemingly almost everyone there drove a Subaru Outback, most with Thule ski carriers on top. President Obama carried 72% of Boulder County in 2008 and 70% in 2012, probably closer to 90% in the city itself. Obama supporters like Subarus. But you could drive across the entire state of Oklahoma, carried by Senator McCain with just a hair under 66% of the vote in ’08, and not see a single one, at least not with Oklahoma plates.

If you take the time to meet some locals when you travel, your politics probably won’t change but your perspective and understanding might. And you might not even have to leave your state to enter a whole different country. In my adopted home state of Illinois, for example, President Obama took 76% in urban Cook County in ’08. (74% in 2012)

And much more in some places. According to NPR, the residents of Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project on Chicago’s South Side where President Obama worked as a community organizer, supported the President in 2008 by the tune of 1900 to 12. But drive an hour to the south, to rural Iroquois County, which straddles the Indiana border, and you enter another world, one in which Senator McCain took 64% of the vote and Governor Romney took 71% of the vote.

A couple years ago, I attended a fair in the town of Sandwich, Illinois, just about 60 miles west of Chicago and while my son was entranced by a pig exhibition, I fell into conversation with a pig farmer named Brice who was absolutely certain that President Obama was: A) born in Africa, B) a Muslim, and C) the antichrist. If he had espoused any of these viewpoints in River Forest, where I lived, he would have been laughed out of the room.

But standing outside the pig corral in Sandwich, 60 miles to the west, his diatribe resonated with two other farmers in earshot, who told me they agreed with him. After listening to the man for a bit, and only challenging him very diplomatically, I ran off to find my wife, like a child who’d just discovered a rare species normally found only in Madagascar.

“I want you to meet this pig farmer who thinks Obama’s a Muslim!” I said excitedly to my wife, but alas, she wasn’t interested.

Brice’s viewpoints didn’t influence mine whatsoever, but now when I see something like this Pew poll from this summer, showing that 17% of the country thinks that Obama is a Muslim, I don’t have to wonder who those people are, because I know Brice and his friends in Sandwich.

In many cases, you don’t have to go very far to travel from one political extreme to the other. Check out Macon County in Alabama, for example, where 87% of voters, mostly African-Americans, went for President Obama in ’08, then drift over to Elmore County, which borders Macon on the northwest side, where 75% of the electorate, mostly whites, voted for Senator McCain. The same applies to the neighboring counties of Glascock (84% Obama) and Hancock (81% McCain) in Georgia.

In January, I had an eye-opening venture into red-state country on a visit to the Richmond, Virginia vicinity. I got a whole heaping dose of Southern gun culture after stumbling upon a “Guns Save Lives” rally in front of the capitol building. I sat and listened to a host of speakers, some of them ordinary citizens, others low-level elected officials, but they all had one thing in common: an all consuming fear that President Obama’s “radical socialist agenda” included taking away their guns.

I was fascinated, and later that day when we passed a busy looking gun store called Green Top Hunting and Fishing in nearby Glen Allen, I pulled over and brought my family inside for a look. I have zero interest in hunting and guns but the scene inside captivated me. It was a little after noon on a Sunday, right after church time, and the place was swarming with men, mostly fathers and sons who were checking out all kinds of very intimidating looking firearms.

There were row upon row of rifles you could pick up and handle on your own and then behind the counter, there were much more dangerous looking weapons you had to ask a salesperson to see. There were three salespeople at the counter and yet there was a scrum that must have been 20 deep waiting to get their hands on these weapons. I was less than a 100 miles away from my home at the time in Falls Church, but it was a world away from where I lived in and I’m glad I went.

When this election is over, hopefully on Tuesday and not weeks from now after a myriad of court proceedings, half the country is going to be furious. How could they elect that guy! My advice to everyone, no matter what the result is, is to get out and see the part of the country you’ve been missing. Most of us live in red or blue places but don’t get out enough into that other world.

I’d like to take a dozen people from Ochiltree County, Texas, where Senator McCain captured 92% of the vote, and lock them in a room with voters from Washington, D.C., which supported President Obama to the tune of 93%, for a few hours just to let them have at one another. I guaranty you that both sides would learn something form the other.

Get out and see how the other half lives. Your politics probably won’t change but if you take the time to talk to people, you might at least understand where they’re coming from.

Where to go to get a taste of red- 2008 & 2012 election margins for 10 of the country’s reddest counties

· Uintah County, Utah (NE Utah- 83% McCain, 90% Romney)
· Madison County, Idaho (NE Idaho- 85% McCain, 93% Romney)
· Garfield County, Montana (E. Montana- 82% McCain, 89% Romney)
· Crook County, Wyoming (NE Wyoming- 81 McCain%, 85% Romney)
· Ochiltree and Roberts Counties, Texas (North Texas- 92% each, McCain, 91% Romney, 93% Romney)
· Beaver County, Oklahoma (NW Oklahoma- 89% McCain, 89% Romney)
· Blount County, Alabama (North-Central Alabama- 84% McCain, 87% Romney)
· Holmes County, Florida (NW Florida- 82% McCain, 84% Romney)
· Glascock County, Georgia (East Georgia- 84% McCain, 85% Romney)

Where to go to get a taste of blue- 2008 & 2012 election results for 10 of the country’s bluest counties

· Multnomah County, Oregon (Portland area- 77% Obama in ’08, 76% in ’12)
· Alameda County, California (S.F. area- 79% Obama in ’08, 78% in ’12)
· Sioux County, North Dakota (Standing Rock Indian Reservation, South-Central ND- 83% Obama in ’08, 79% in ’12)
· St. Louis County, Missouri (St. Louis- 84% Obama in ’08, 83% in ’12)
· Orleans Parish, Louisiana (New Orleans- 79% Obama in ’08 and ’12)
· Claiborne County, Mississippi (SW MS- 85% Obama in ’08, 88% in ’12)
· Macon County, Alabama (SE Alabama- 87% Obama in ’08 and ’12)
· Hancock County, Georgia (East Georgia- 81% Obama in ’08 and ’12)
· District of Columbia (D.C. – 93% Obama in ’08, 91% in ’12)
· Bronx, New York (The Bronx- 88% Obama in ’08, 91% in ’12)

Note: Election results were updated on 11/7.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, Flickr users James Jordan, aesedepece]

Gadling’s Annual Team Summit: Behind The Scenes In Washington, DC

As our daily roster of posts and rigorous travel schedules can attest, we work hard here at Gadling (really; it’s not all lying on beaches, slurping pastel-hued cocktails…in fact, it rarely is). We’re a small team of freelancers who mostly have day jobs to help pay the bills, whether or not writing is our primary occupation.

As part of AOL, we also have a pretty intense set of goals, including budgetary and company requirements to meet. That’s one of the main reasons our intrepid, workaholic Editor-in-Chief, Grant Martin, plans a yearly team summit for us. It’s a way to talk shop, brainstorm, work on improving our effectiveness and skill as travel writers, bond with one another, and get a working vacation in a city that for many of us is a new destination.

In the last four years, team summits have been held in Chicago, Austin, New York and, most recently, Washington DC. From May 4-6, sixteen of our contributor crew of 20 headed to the nation’s capital, coming from as far away as Northern Spain (Sean McLachlan, who none of us feel sorry for), Maui (Kyle Ellison, ditto) and Northwest DC (Melanie Renzulli). We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott Dupont Circle, right across the street from the infamous Hilton where former President Reagan took a bullet. There’s history on every corner in DC, let me tell you.

Read on to learn more about the cultural sights and flavors of DC, how many travel writers it takes to name the only autonomous country never to fire a single gunshot, why DC cops are the greatest, and when to use “dollar” as a verb. Names have been changed where indicated to protect…myself (from retaliation).

May 4
With most of the team not arriving until late afternoon, our summit officially kicks off at 7:30 p.m. with an extended Happy Hour at 701 Restaurant, a downtown lounge with live jazz. Two early DC arrivals, however, had taken advantage of a “2 for 1” happy hour at a nondescript establishment across the street from the hotel – let’s call them “Jane” and “Bob.” Jane, who’d suggested going in, thought it was a dive bar but Bob was well aware it was, in fact, a sleazy strip joint. Jane was reportedly quite embarrassed, as she’d just met Bob five minutes prior, but a good drink special is hard to pass up.

Like Jane and Bob, many of us are meeting for the first time – an occupational hazard. The evening is casual, and most of us catch up on gossip, get to know one another and talk shop. Several enjoyable hours later, we splinter off into groups: those of us who want to call it a night and enjoy the balmy weather by walking back to the hotel, and those who want to tear it up. Sweet dreams.

May 5
11:30 a.m. Noon: Most of the team gathers at DC’s Eastern Market, a historic public food hall, for a walking “Food Tour of Capitol Hill.” Led by DC Metro Food Tours, which also offers cultural culinary visits to Little Ethiopia, Adams Morgan and other neighborhoods and nearby cities, it’s a way for us to get our writerly juices flowing, as well as learn a bit about the area. It’s also a potential means of generating income, whether we write it up for Gadling or try to sell a story to another outlet. Travel writers: always working.

We have an abbreviated tour due to time constraints, but spend an interesting two hours learning the history of Capitol Hill, particularly Barracks Row, an enchanting micro-neighborhood of tree-lined streets and sweet little row houses. Historical points of interest include the birthplace of musician John Philip Sousa, the Marine Commandant’s home and the Navy Yard.

DC is well known for its ethnically diverse cuisine, which is due to both its immigrant history and the number of embassies located within the city. Capitol Hill, the largest Victorian neighborhood, has, over the past 200 years, been occupied by laborers, craftsmen, members of Congress, the military and significant populations of African American, Latin American and European immigrants.

The three restaurants we visited were chosen for their ethnic significance and popularity. We begin with North Carolina BBQ and soul food (candied yams, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and sweet tea) at the famed Levi’s Port Cafe (beloved by politicos). Our guide explains that DC is considered a bit of a Southern city due to its geographic location and the number of residents who originally hail from the South.

We move on to delicious Greek mezze at Cava Mezze, and finish up with fried yuca and manioca, carnitas and margaritas at Salvadorian restaurant Las Placitas. By the end of the tour, all of us have a better understanding of DC’s historical roots, and how they’ve developed its culinary scene.

3 p.m.: Business and Technical session at HuffPost offices downtown. The core of our visit, this team meeting is dedicated to the year’s goals and objectives, brainstorming and new media and travel industry trends. It’s also a chance for us to ask questions and get feedback from Grant on our individual and team performance and address any concerns.

One of the things Gadling is being more meticulous with this year is improving standards. We recently acquired our very own copy editor, the wonderful Robin Whitney (so if you see a typo, blame her…just kidding, Robin!).

7:30 p.m.: We meet for dinner at Station 4, a new, modern American restaurant near the Southwest Waterfront. I grab a cab with “Victoria,” her husband, Sean McLachlan, and Chris Owen. Our driver was a dapper West African gentleman clad in a funky-ass suit. He possessed a distressingly advanced vocabulary and knowledge of global politics and geography, and kept us in hysterics the entire ride. In his lilting accent, he’d ask us questions and quiz us on trivia like, “Name all of the countries in Africa that have four letters in them,” “What is the only autonomous country never to fire a single gunshot?” and “Name all of the world’s countries located within a country.”

He had no idea we were travel writers, which is good, because we were stumped most of the time. Victoria secretly videotaped the entire episode only to delete it after viewing. She explained that the shame was too great and it read like a bad joke: “A former archaeologist, a musician, a photographer, a food writer and a cruise expert get into a cab…”

After dinner (and a few too many glasses of vino), it was determined by someone that we were all going to take the Metro to a bar in Adams Morgan. We set off in clusters – keeping a posse of 16 together is damn near impossible when cabs and mass transit are involved, alcohol or no.

Thus began a new Gadling summit activity, what Pam Mandel dubbed, “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Adventure One entailed having your ATM card digested by a Metro ticket machine and being trapped underground for an hour waiting for an employee to resolve the issue. Adventure Two utilized DC’s popular Capital Bikeshare and involved a scenic tour of the city’s historic sites, culminating with a dramatic finale at the Washington Monument.

Led by a team member I’ll call “Ulysses,” it was by all accounts a weekend highlight. Especially when Ulysses, distracted by the wonder that is the Lincoln Memorial, slammed at full speed into the back of a parked police car, denting it. Fortunately, he wasn’t injured, and the tolerant officers only issued him a ticket for reckless pedaling.

A number of team members congregated at a popular watering hole called The Big Hunt, holding court until closing. Over on Adventure Four, Bob and Jane got into a debate in the cab over the name of the strip club, which piqued the interest of their fellow passengers, an angelic-looking blogger we’ll call Tiffany, and an esteemed member of the team whose identity shall heretofore be known as “Paul Theroux.”

A trip to said club ensued in the name of research. Readers should note that DC gentleman’s clubs are to be avoided on Cinco de Mayo eve because of the vast numbers of tequila-saturated frat boys in residence, rowdily “dollaring” (a term invented by Tiffany, blowing her “America’s Sweetheart” cover) the girls on stage. Bob and Jane were surprised to note that they’d already achieved “regular” status, and they’d like to go on record as saying that DC gentleman’s club staff, in their limited experience, are some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet in the, ah, service industry. Paul Theroux smiled inscrutably while watching the Greeks, and remarked that the evening had developed into quite the “sociological experience.”

Day Three
All rise and power down copious amounts of caffeine for the 11:30 Noon 12:30 p.m. behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (post coming soon, so I’ll dispense with the details other than to say it was spectacular and an absolute must on your itinerary if you’re planning a visit to DC – and it’s free).

1:30 p.m.: Minus a few early airport departures, a final gathering at the HuffPost offices to hear travel writing gurus/team members Don George and David Farley do a presentation on how to craft more effective narrative travel writing. It was inspiring and interesting, even for those of us who are veterans of the genre, and made all the more enjoyable by the arrival of six pizzas ordered by Grant (Upper Crust on Pennsylvania Ave. NW does it right).

Sadly, most of us had to depart for our respective airports within the hour, but hugs all around, and promises to visit one another soon are made. All kidding aside, it was a truly memorable weekend for both work and play. I can only speak for myself (and what I gleaned eavesdropping on others) but the camaraderie and enthusiasm amongst our current team is something that’s very rare. I feel blessed to have such a fun, talented, diverse group to work with, as well as the leadership of an editor like Grant.

I should also add that it’s the first time I’ve enjoyed DC, despite eight prior visits. It’s true what they say: it’s not where you are, but who you’re with.

Special thanks to McLean Robbins and Jeremy Kressmann for their help in arranging assorted venues and activities for the summit.

[Photo credits: Lincoln Memorial, Flickr user pochacco20; row houses, Flickr user flickr-rickr; rest, Melanie Renzulli]

British Brewery Campaigning To Save Traditional Pubs

I’ve talked before here on Gadling about how British pubs are in danger. In 2011, an average of 14 per week shut down, and the trend is continuing. This is due to a number of factors, including the economic downturn, competition from cheap supermarket alcohol and ever-increasing taxes.

Now Wychwood Brewery has started an online petition to “Stop the Beer Duty Escalator.” Taxes on beer go up annually at 2 percent above the rate of inflation. The petition says this adds “considerably more pressure on the British pub, the cornerstone of many of our communities” and asks for this practice to stop.

“Going to the pub is a core British tradition and so is enjoying great beer,” the petition states. In a company statement, Wychwood Brewery said, “Imagine a world without pubs. Imagine communities with no heart. Imagine thousands of livelihoods affected.”

While this sounds like exaggeration, anyone who has lived in the UK for any length of time knows that it isn’t. Pubs really are a cornerstone to the national culture. The majority of people are regular pub goers, either for a quick pint of real ale or to watch a game or to enjoy a Sunday roast. They’re also a great way for tourists to experience the country and meet locals. The withering of that culture is reducing quality of life. I spend every Easter and summer in Oxford and every year I see prices go up and pubs close. It’s depressing.

Wychwood is aiming for 100,000 signatures, which will force the petition to be heard in the House of Commons. So far they have 27,517. If you’re a resident of the UK, I say sign this petition. You’ll be fighting for one of the nation’s cultural institutions and helping independent businesses.

[Photo courtesy Andrès Moreno]