Reflections on Iraq
As we approached from the air, the Iraqi landscape displayed muted tones of gray and sepia, marshland waters glistening amongst swaths of desert. In the distance, an oil refinery floated on the horizon, gas flares gleaming. Entering this land that had been largely defined for me by sound bites from the news, I was unsure what to think or feel.
On our first day in Basra, we five American and British travelers, none of whom had been to Iraq before, were a mix of curious, expectant, and eager to understand the country better. Our first foray was to visit the small and approachable Basra Museum, once a palace of Saddam’s. As we wandered through a series of bite-sized rooms, stepping from case to case, each filled with small artifacts–a face sculpted in bronze here, a sleek duck-shaped weight from the Bronze Age there–we adjusted our minds to where we were and what we would see, in a sort of walking meditation. We each found a piece that spoke to us, as the country inevitably would, and shared our discoveries.
Each succeeding day, as we embarked via our small bus on the next phase of our road trip, we did the same thing, exchanging our different perspectives, appreciating that, little by little, we were becoming less ignorant about Iraq.
The Iraqis we met over the ensuing ten days were overwhelmingly hospitable. Their kindness was the backdrop to our daily travels, to each experience, from the baker selling flatbread at the entrance to the Iman Ali shrine in Najaf, who would not permit us to pay for the bread and further insisted on buying us cans of juice to accompany the bread, to the tea seller on Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, who would not let us pay for our Dixie cups full of hot sweet tea and asked only that we tell everyone back home about the “true” Iraq. Constantly aware that the US and UK had invaded Iraq in 2003 and occupied the country until 2011, we were dazed at the warmth of our reception.
As we traveled through Iraq, we were grounded and comforted by delicious meals, always accompanied by friendly welcomes and attentive service. These meals often began with soup and always included humus and warm flatbread; many featured tabouleh, and sometimes baba ghanoush and many styles of kebab, and, of course, rice. Every meal ended in a reassuringly predictable way with sweet black tea served in small glasses called istikhan.
At every meal our guides and our driver would sit and eat with us, the guides especially sharing the stories of their young lives. In a way, these four men represented the length of the country as two were from Kurdistan, one from Baghdad, and one from Basra. All too young to remember the really brutal times, yet each still lived with the threads of the aftermath. Their narratives provided context and frame for this past that informs their lives like a ghost but is palpably real in their ongoing struggles with unreliable electricity, lackluster and insufficient medical and educational support.
In one conversation that especially struck me, one of our guides passionately described how he longed to see other corners of the world, meet people from other countries, and study abroad. However, most non-Muslim countries refuse to grant visas to Iraqis, even Iraqis with means and a job waiting for them. Our companion described a friend of his with a job waiting in the UK and the means to support himself apart from his new job, being denied a visa. This same scenario repeats itself relentlessly, he said. Impressionable, eager, smart young men and women are all painted with the same brush and considered too much of a risk to be allowed a visa, relegating them to circumscribed lives simply due to their country of origin.
And yet, despite all these challenges large and small, each of these four young companions managed to be poised, kind, and generous. As one small example, near the end of our journey, we checked into a hotel where there was no kettle in our rooms. I had come to rely on the kettle for the comfort of having tea at night and coffee in the morning in my room. I mentioned this to one of our guides and he told me he would get me a kettle and some milk. I said, really, you could do that? But then I followed with, don’t worry, I’ll be fine. About an hour later, there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find my guide standing there with a brand-new kettle, still in its box, which he had just purchased along with a carton of milk. It was one of those moments when you are stunned and delighted in equal measure, and I spontaneously gave him a hug of immense appreciation and not a little embarrassment.
Juxtaposed with the friendly welcome of the Iraqis we met throughout our journey and the moving experiences we accrued day to day was an immediate and abiding sense of the physical desolation of the land. Beginning with our first walk through Basra and in each city thereafter, we had the overwhelming sensation that the country was both under construction and deconstructing, in a perpetual cycle. The landscape is under threat in many ways, from drought and desertification to lack of infrastructure. Perhaps a small, but still a poignant example of one of the many challenges the country faces is the demise of the date palm. Iraqis are very proud of their dates, one of the symbols of their culture. The country used to boast some 30 million date palms, but between the wars and climate change, there are now only half this number of trees.
As we absorbed our varied experiences and acquired the knowledge we needed for context, there were many moments that we knew would stay with us for a long time. The late afternoon light at Girsu as we walked almost reverently among the ruins, with only the site caretaker-cum-guide for company, trying to sidestep fragments of ancient stone tablets inscribed with Cuneiform, the first written language. The blue-eyed truck driver and his cat, Sweetness, with whom we sipped tea in a Baghdad tea house, learning how he shared his blanket with her at night and bought her only the finest cuts of meat. The warmly welcoming nomadic camel herders we chatted with by the side of the freeway, as they prepared to cross in front of a stream of trucks to the next stretch of desert.
We also realized that the journey was exerting an emotional toll as we traveled and learned, especially about the recent history of Iraq. We heard about the brutal Machiavellian way in which Saddam came to power. We developed a basic understanding of the complex relationship between Iran and Iraq and its impact on the country’s politics and economy. And we were reminded that the Iran-Iraq war was initiated by Saddam lasting from 1980-88, with massive loss of life and no gain for either side, and that shortly after that war, Saddam invaded Kuwait, and the Gulf Wars ensued.
The quality of life of most Iraqis diminished considerably following each war. In particular, the Marsh Arabs were singled out for their outspoken dissatisfaction with Saddam and his regime, and in retaliation, Saddam drained the Marshes, their home for over 5,000 years, until only 10 percent remained. One particularly memorable encounter was our visit with a local Marsh Arab family in their home, where we partook of tea and coffee and later masgouf, a seasoned and grilled carp.
While there, a series of slim boats streamed up to the dock and disgorged a crew of USAID-sponsored volunteers returning from collecting garbage, which is prevalent throughout the Marshes and Iraq as a whole. With them was a fellow dressed as a clown, whom we learned employed humor as a tool to teach the children in the Marshes about ecology. All of the crew wore shirts and windbreakers made from material printed with images of the endangered marshlands and wildlife. I admired a hermit thrush on one man’s shirt, smiling and gesturing toward the bird. Without skipping a beat, he took off the shirt and handed it to me. Though I initially tried to return it, I soon realized this was not the right response. Instead, I slipped a Masai beaded bracelet from Tanzania onto his wrist.
As our explorations continued, we were smitten by the land and the people. One of the most moving moments of the trip was our visit to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. Many wait their whole lives for the opportunity to visit this sacred site. Women enter separately from men and have their own distinct experience. A strong sense of sisterhood and community pervaded the space. There was an unexpected and heartwarming solidarity that was palpable, a giving over to something larger than oneself. The closer we got to the shrine, the more engulfing the immersion; literally and figuratively, we were swept up in a tide of devotion.
As we streamed along with the devout, one curious and friendly woman turned to me and asked where I was from. I answered and asked her the same. She replied, and then said, “I love you,” and I said, “I love you too.” Somehow this brief interaction offered a sense of hope.
Now home and ensconced in my own life, Iraq still haunts and inspires me. I continue to feel a deep sense of responsibility to explain to anyone who will listen what I learned on our journey. And I am profoundly grateful for the privilege of having had these experiences and interactions, for the opportunity to tell my story, and hopefully persuade others to travel to Iraq, to see and understand this extraordinary land and its people for themselves.
Ready to learn about and understand modern Iraq? Read more about our ON THE ROAD TO BAGHDAD: EXPLORING SOUTHERN IRAQ or contact one of our travel specialists at 888-570-7108.