Islamists Renew Attack On Timbuktu’s Heritage

Timbuktu
The ancient treasures of Timbuktu have come under renewed attack by Islamists, the BBC reports.

The Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) has vowed to destroy all the city’s medieval shrines of Muslim saints, which they say are contrary to Islam. The city in northern Mali has been under the control of a coalition of Tuareg and Islamist rebels since April. They declared the independent state of Azawad and soon fought among themselves, with the Islamists gaining the upper hand and imposing harsh Sharia law.

Ansar Dine came under international condemnation when it destroyed some of the shrines earlier this year. Reports indicate they destroyed four more on Sunday. It is not yet clear what Ansar Dine will do with the hundreds of thousands of early manuscripts preserved in Timbuktu.

Timbuktu was a center of trade and learning from the 12th to the 17th centuries and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its many early buildings. It has long been a popular destination for adventure travelers but is far too dangerous to go to now. The BBC reports that Ansar Dine recently cut the hands off of two people they claim were criminals. It’s unclear what their crime was. Perhaps they didn’t want to see their Islamic heritage destroyed.

The BBC has an excellent slideshow of Timbuktu’s endangered treasures here.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Visiting Iraq: The Practicalities

Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
Will Iraq become the next big adventure travel destination?

Short answer: Not yet.

Long answer:

At the moment most of Iraq is closed to solo travel. The Iraqi government has authorized only a few group tour companies such as Hinterland Travel and Babel Tours. These tours have a set itinerary and offer very little freedom for individual movement. This is not the fault of the tour operators. The security situation dictates that the government approves the itinerary ahead of time. Our translator had to carry a ream of official papers to get us into each stop on our itinerary.

In addition, guards from the Interior Ministry accompany each group. I had a bit of friction with these guys. I wanted to stop and talk to people, or wander off on my own when I felt the situation was safe enough. They didn’t like that.

Group travel in Iraq does offer some advantages. The distances are long and having a bus to take you to the far-flung sites is very convenient. Having a translator along was another important asset. Plus the tour company handled all the visas. The group visa is approved ahead of time in Baghdad and the tour company sends you a copy of the approval letter. The visa itself is picked up at Baghdad airport. Anyone who has traveled extensively in the Middle East knows what a hassle the bureaucracy can be. It was nice to have someone else deal with that for once.

The first question on everybody’s mind, of course, is safety. Iraq felt far safer than I thought it would. I ditched the guards and took a solo stroll through Baghdad and went on a beer run in Basra with no trouble. Bad idea? Maybe, but most of my best memories have come from bad ideas.While Iraq was safer than I thought, it wasn’t as safe as I hoped. At times I was glad to have those guards around. In some places like Nasiriyah and the Sunni Triangle we got nasty stares. Only once did we face open hostility, when an old woman at the house of Imam Ali started chucking rocks at us. She was too far away to hit us and the police quickly shooed her away. The incident was depressing rather than frightening.

Our tour leader Geoff Hann says the security situation is improving. He’s been coming to Iraq for years and on our trip he kept commenting that there were fewer checkpoints and fewer troubles with the police. Considering the numerous waits we had at checkpoints (once for two hours) I have to wonder what his previous trips were like. Hann and other observers say there will probably be solo travel in Iraq in the next few years. Of course the security situation could change tomorrow so it’s probably best not to make any predictions.

The one major exception to all this is Kurdistan, which is open to individual travel already. It is far safer and more stable than central Iraq. This is not to say that it’s like visiting Belgium. Travelers should still register with their embassy and use caution and common sense.

Like with most adventure travel destinations, travelers need to come to Iraq prepared. Hinterland Travel provided us with a long list of medications to bring along. The pharmacies turned out to be pretty good, but it’s better to be on the safe side. Mineral water is a must, as is sunscreen. Even in the winter the heat could be punishing.

Those willing to brave the dangers and inconveniences of traveling in Iraq will be richly rewarded. As this series has shown, there’s an incredible amount to see, from famous ancient cities like Ur and Babylon to beautiful mosques in places like Najaf and Karbala. The best, the most important, part of any trip is the people. The Iraqis didn’t disappoint me. The vast majority loved the fact that I was there. Over and over again people came to welcome me to their country. As for the minority who gave me poison stares and that one woman who chucked stones, who knows what they’ve been through? I can’t judge them. Maybe when I pass down their street again five years from now they’ll give me a second chance.

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.

[Image courtesy Wikipedia]

A Family Night Out In Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
After a long road trip around Iraq, I find myself back in Baghdad. It’s our last night together as a group. For our final dinner we decide to eat a famous Baghdadi recipe at a famous landmark –mazgouf fish at Abu Nuwas Park.

Abu Nuwas park runs for one-and-a-half miles along the east bank of the Tigris in central Baghdad. It’s named after an early medieval poet who was half Arab and half Persian, and wrote poems in both languages. His poetry celebrated wine and sex and made fun of the Arab nostalgia for Bedouin life. This ensured trouble during his lifetime and fame after his death.

In keeping with the Abu Nuwas’ liberal tradition, the park that bears his name is a neutral ground for the city’s warring factions. Everyone comes here to relax, not fight. Of course there’s still the usual cordon of armed guards. Trust is in short supply in this country.

Once inside, though, it doesn’t feel like Baghdad at all. Families have picnics on blankets spread under trees. Kids do cartwheels on the grass. The Tigris glitters with reflected streetlights. A fountain at the edge of the riverbank shoots up water as colored lamps make the jets pulse red and purple. Music mixes with the calls of vendors selling nuts, candy, and Spongebob Squarepants balloons.

We’ve come to dine at one of the city’s most popular restaurants, Mazgouf, named after a large fish found in the Tigris that’s considered a delicacy. The fish is cut in half down its length and stuck on spike next to an open wood fire to slowly cook. When it’s done, it’s pulled off the spike and put on a plate. The scales and eyes on the outside are still preserved, making a sort of bowl from which to scoop out the goopy and incredibly rich insides. The restaurant at Abu Nuwas Park is said to be one of the best.

We find the restaurant and sit outside. As usual, the people at the next table come over and welcome us to Iraq. Mazgouf is made to order so there’s a long wait before we get our meal. Once it comes, everyone digs in with relish. I’m no expert on mazgouf but it’s the second-best meal I’ve had this entire trip. It’s so rich and heavy I can only finish half of it, although I’d love to eat the whole thing. The mood at the table is celebratory. We’ve made it through Iraq unscathed. Everyone is thinking of home but disappointed to be leaving.

While everyone else is leaving tomorrow morning and the guards will go off to other duties, my flight isn’t until the following morning, which means I get a whole day to myself in Baghdad. This worries me only slightly. My time in Iraq has taught me that the country is far safer than most people believe, and my hotel is in a good neighborhood. Besides, staying in the hotel all day simply isn’t an option. I just hope I don’t have any trouble when I go out alone.

After dinner we stroll around the park. The mood is relaxed and festive. So is the dress code. A woman walks by in a skirt and I almost keel over. It’s the first bare female leg I’ve seen in more than two weeks. Young couples who may very well be unmarried walk hand in hand, whispering to each other. I’ve stepped into another world. It’s even more relaxed than Kurdistan. Flashing lights and squeals of laughter draw me down a path and to another gate.

%Gallery-172598%It’s an amusement park. Kids are zipping around on bumper cars in the middle of a pool, or shooting down a giant inflatable slide. Their big brothers and sisters play videos games in a nearby arcade.

Getting in requires going through another checkpoint. There’s a brief hassle as the park’s guards demand that our guards leave their guns behind. Captain Ali, the senior of our two guards, doesn’t like that idea. I’m not sure how it’s resolved but we eventually get through, only to be stopped again.

“What now?” someone in our group groans.

“Photo! Photo!” the park guards say.

“Oh, OK.”

We all line up and take each other’s photos. I still haven’t figured out why Iraqis all want their photo taken. Only one of them has asked for a copy, and he never emailed me so I could send it to him. Maybe they just want to be part of my holiday memories. That’s cool. Memory made.

As soon as we’re through I ditch my guards. I don’t think those kids on the Merry-go-Round are going to shoot me, and after more than two weeks of these guys dogging my movements I’m sick of them. I slip behind some spinning ride with flashing lights and I’m gone.

Swarms of laughing children zip past me as I wander among the rides. I shake my head in amazement. How is this possible? This country is torn apart by war and sectarian bitterness and here everything is just fine. These families are the Iraqi majority, the decent folks who want all the bullshit to stop so they can get some enjoyment out of life. It would be silly to think they’re “just like us”; they’re not. But they’re enough like us that when this whole mess sorts itself out, I know who I want to come out on top.

“Mr. Sean.”

I turned around. Aw crap, Captain Ali has found me.

“We need to go now,” he says.

“Yeah, yeah.”

I turn away and keep walking. He trots patiently behind. This is a game he knows he’ll win.

Families come up to me, asking that I photograph their children or forcing their kids into impromptu English lessons. The kids take it with good grace, as curious as their parents about this strange foreigner who’s wandered into their fun.

Well, almost all the kids take it with good grace. One man drags his toddler over and urges her, “Say hello. Say hello.” She bursts into tears.

“Tired?” I ask.

He smiles and nods.

“Yes, tired. Late night.”

We laugh, one father to another.

Another tug at my arm. It’s Captain Ali again. Go away.

“Mr. Sean, we need to go.”

He leads me off, holding my wrist like a naughty child. I could complain, but he’s the law and even though he still has a reserve of good humor, his patience is at an end. We head for the exit.

Three bombs exploded in Baghdad this morning. More than a dozen killed. The story is already being broadcast by all the major news channels, with the usual blaring headlines and snuff film visuals. I take a last look around at Abu Nuwas park, at the picnicking families and the laughing children and the guys selling balloons. There are no TV cameras here.

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 Solo Stroll Through Baghdad!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

A Run-In With The Iraqi Police

Iraq, Iraqi police, Iraqi
All I wanted was to buy an Iraq National Football Team uniform for my son, a perfectly normal thing for a father to do on his first day in Baghdad. The problem is, doing something normal in Baghdad can land you in serious trouble.

We were in one of the city’s many souks, those famous Middle Eastern markets where you can buy just about anything. There were shops for metalwork, books, hardware, music, antiques real and fake, and even a stall where you could buy Iraqi police and army uniforms without actually being in the police or army.

I was with a group of nine other adventure travelers. Accompanying us were two plainclothes officers from the Interior Ministry who were supposed to keep us in their sight at all times. We also had a driver and an interpreter/guide named Mohammad. I’d already drafted Mohammad into the task of finding my kid something none of his buddies had.

As my companions visited a medieval mosque, Mohammed told me of a street of sports shops nearby. In the strange geography of souks, shops selling the same items tend to cluster together, so off we went to the sports street.

We didn’t take our guards. That was a mistake.

%Gallery-170178%You might think that’s a dumb thing to do in a place like Baghdad and you may be right, but not for the reasons you think. You see, the streets were crawling with police. Every block or so there’d be another watchtower, another armored car, another checkpoint. Anyone who wanted to shoot me would get shot himself two seconds later. That wouldn’t matter to suicidal terrorists, but most of them target Shiite pilgrims these days. Besides, if I wanted to live my life in fear I had no business visiting Iraq in the first place.

My concerns turned out to be misdirected. Going off without our guards didn’t put us in any more danger from Iraqi terrorists, it put us in more danger from the Iraqi police.

We passed through crowded streets lined with shops on the ground floors of crumbling concrete buildings. The space overhead was crisscrossed with a cobweb of electric lines inexpertly spliced together by locals tapping into Baghdad’s unreliable electric grid. Some Iraqis stopped to say hello, others simply stared. Nobody looked particularly threatening.

My first spike of fear came when Mohammad stopped at a vendor selling a strange white liquid filled with seeds out of a big red bucket. Each seed was encased in a clear blob the size of a bean. He picked up a glass from the stall, scooped up some of the brew, and handed it to me.

“This is balongo, very good for the health,” Mohammad said.

“What is it?” I asked, eying it suspiciously.

“Kiwi juice and water.”

Mmmmm, Baghdad tap water. Well, it wouldn’t be the riskiest thing I’d do on this trip. I downed my glass and found balongo to be tasty and refreshing with a weird lumpy texture. Hopefully it wouldn’t give me a bad case of Saddam’s Revenge.

Soon we came to the sports shops. The racks were packed with football uniforms – for Real Madrid, Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester United. Iraqi National Team kits were few and far between, and there were none in children’s sizes. Everyone kept pointing to one shop on the street, the only one, they said, that had uniforms for children. It was also the only one that was closed.

Defeated, we retraced our steps to rejoin the others as I snapped photos, careful to avoid taking shots of policemen or official buildings. A cop standing by an armored personnel carrier waved us through a checkpoint. A moment later his officer came running after us.

“What are you doing here? What was that photo you took? Did you take a photo of the bank?” he demanded.

“No, I was taking photos of the street,” I said.

“Taking pictures of the bank is forbidden,” he told me.

“I didn’t,” I started showing him my photos. “Look.”

Then came a rapid-fire conversation in Arabic between him and Mohammad. The volume rose and Mohammad looked more and more defensive. Frowning, the officer got on the radio.

It’s always a bad sign when a cop starts talking about you on the radio.

“Our general is coming,” he told me.

Great. We went back to the checkpoint and the officer offered me a chair. I remained standing.

The whine of a police siren cut through the babble of the market. An SUV with tinted windows and a big Ford pickup truck with a machine gun mounted on top sped down the road towards us. They screeched to a halt, kicking up a cloud of dust. Half a dozen guys dressed in Kevlar and toting AK-47s leaped out and surrounded us.

That was a bit of overkill. Did they think I could outrun their bullets?

The general stepped out of the SUV, a short, trim man with a military bearing and a Saddam Hussein mustache. At least he didn’t have Saddam Hussein eyes. I’d have really started worrying then. Another rapid-fire conversation in Arabic ensued, with my limited ability in the language utterly failing to keep up. Mohammad showed them his credentials from the Interior Ministry. I showed him my photos. The complaint changed from me taking photos to me being without my guards.

The general appeared more resentful than threatening. His whole attitude seemed to say, “You know what it’s like being a police officer in Baghdad? Why are you making my day more complicated than it already is?”

Eventually he let us go with a stern warning not to stray from my guards again, a warning I strictly obeyed as long as I was in his section of Baghdad.

“Goodbye,” he said, shaking my hand. “Enjoy Iraq.”

With that he and his men got back in their vehicles and sped away, leaving me in another cloud dust. It was my first example of the strange combination of hospitality and paranoia that typifies travel in Iraq.

I did eventually find that uniform, but that’s another story …

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 Roadtrip!”

[Top photo courtesy Captain Hussein of the Iraqi police. These were not the cops who nearly arrested me. There are times when you pose for pictures, and times when you don’t. Bottom photo by Sean McLachlan. This is the one that got me busted]

Iraqi police, Iraq

Going On Vacation In Iraq

Iraq
Who the hell would want to spend their vacation in Iraq?

Lots of people, if they knew the reality behind the media image.

Iraq is the cradle of civilization, with famous sites such as Babylon, Ur, and Uruk. It’s also home to stunning Islamic architecture, lively souks and a variety of terrain ranging from snowy mountains to marshland, along with way too much desert.

And then there are the people. Anyone who has traveled in the Middle East can attest to Arab hospitality. Get away from tourism hotspots like Egypt and parts of Morocco, and you’ll find the Arabs to be warm, welcoming, and always ready to sit down and chat. It seems the less visited the area, the more interested the locals are in meeting foreigners. Using this logic, I figured Iraq should be a pretty friendly place, besides the occasional terrorist, of course.

Because of security concerns, individual travel in Iraq is forbidden. Luckily, a few hardy adventure travel companies offer group tours. I chose Hinterland Travel, run by Geoff Hann, an old hand in the region who I interviewed a few years ago. He was running tours there even back in the days when a certain pot-bellied tyrant named Saddam was in power.

So I’m traveling in a war-torn region rife with sectarian violence under the care of a man I’d never met? Isn’t that a bit stupid? Car bombs, Al Qaeda, people being beheaded on Youtube videos, hello!

Yeah, yeah, I know. But there are 31 million people living in Iraq 365 days a year, so there’s got to be a lot more happening there than that. That’s what I signed up to see. I’ve been to so-called dangerous regions before – Palestine, Kurdistan, and Somaliland, to name a few – and every single one of them turned out to be less dangerous than TV wants us to believe. The media thrives on death. When the famine ended in Ethiopia, it dropped off the news. When the civil war ended in Colombia, it dropped off the news. And how often do you hear about Iraq when something isn’t blowing up?

The top photo showing a bunch of heavily armed guys is what you might expect from Iraq. But wait, they’re smiling, and those two foreigners with them aren’t getting capped! That’s part of life here – lots of guns and lots of smiles. To get even further away from the image the mass media rams down our throats, jump the cut to see another of my daily experiences in Iraq.This is the start of a new 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 Run-in With The Iraqi Police!”

[Top photo by Rob Hammond. Bottom photo by Per Steffensen]
Iraq