‘These idiots are here for tourism?!’ the Iraqi police officer stuttered disbelievingly in the direction of his subordinate.
Moments earlier our bus had come to a halt at a dusty checkpoint on the highway connecting Basra and Baghdad. Along the roadway, a procession of oil trucks and army humvees toss an aromatic grey-brown mist into the air which needs scraping off the contact lenses each evening. On each side of the road, buckets of dates and their hawkers contest the slither of shade offered by the palm trees.
No one could fault the officer’s pithy resume of our nature and purpose. It is fair to say that Iraq remains a country better known for five star generals than hotels. Two days earlier, my travel companion was lying awake in our Karbala hotel room, feigning tiredness to avoid another visit to a mosque, when a car bomb detonated over the street in a garage forecourt, slicing rivets in our window ledge.
From outside, we observed the beaming faces of the young Shia walking serenely towards the black cloud that sauntered menacingly over the nearby markets giving the cruel impression that this sort of thing was so quotidian that no one’s lunch break sandwich dash had really been ruined. For us, the idiot tourists, the hallucinatory drag of the crowd in the direction of a potential secondary device turned concern into bewilderment. My fear turned to me pathetically asking for some guidance as to how to catalogue what I was witnessing. We finally broke away from the crowd and headed in the opposite direction.
Despite the danger, none of us felt any great need to justify why we were in Iraq. Our tour company Hinterland Travel had been doing good business here right up until the height of sectarian violence in 2008, because there are things hiding below the Mesopotamian soil far more enchanting than boring old petroleum. The tragic poetry of war in this region makes every bombing an excavation of sorts, Iraq having been the launching pad of countless civilizations dating back to 3500 B.C. In Babylon we followed the gaze of Alexander the Great in his final moments, in Kufa and Najaf we visited the grounds upon which the Shia-Sunni divide was conceived by dagger. We walked in the footsteps of everyone from Ezekiel to Gertrude Bell.
Needless to say, 2014 will not be looked back on as the dawn of revival for the Iraqi tourism industry. ISIS weren’t helping things, but even without their presence haunting our every move, our trip was going to be a gruelling nine-day fight. Our guide, Geoff Hann, a Yorkshire man whose nimbleness over the desert ridges would put men of half his age to shame (a man of half his age being 38), was left to chisel out a viable tour from whatever remained after security, the availability of local guides, and the conspicuously religious flavour of the sites pre-approved by Iraq’s tourism ministry had been factored in.
On day one, we pull out of Baghdad airport at 150 kilometres per hour along what used to be the most dangerous road in Iraq. The blast walls on our flank are easily thick enough to stop an RPG but our driver isn’t taking any chances. Leaves and garbage fill abandoned pillboxes along the route, and sprinklers feed the palm trees which divide the sides of the road into the fleeing and the foolhardy.
As we arrive at the taxi point (large vehicles are no longer allowed near the airport), lines of young men queue up to do what the billboards tell them: join the fight against the invaders in the north. Everywhere you look in Baghdad today, the face of Imam Ali, the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad according to Shi’ah Islam, cloaks the storefronts and billboards. He appears to have deputised the Iraqi government in times of war. I guessed Al-Abadi’s posters were stuck in traffic.
We soon enter the labyrinth of blast walls, guard posts and traffic gridlock which the Iraqi capital has become. Before long we stop suddenly and a huffy soldier storms onto our bus demanding a phone be handed over after someone had used it to document his stretch of overly-policed pavement. It was okay: like most Iraqi soldiers it was his first day.
In Arabic, Baghdad is often referred to as Madinat al-Salaam, or City of Peace. Driving over the Tigris as the city’s laden orange sunset pulls in, looking over the silent pavements towards the oatmeal-coloured towers from which Saddam’s power once bled, we begin to comprehend why this name, whether a noble lie or an ignoble joke, remains crucial. A product of its city, the Tigris has always been nonchalant as to the nature of its cargo, from the silt which fed the earth, to Iraq’s disappeared who would end up under it. The silence on the surface doesn’t stop me from imagining a great dagger banging and scraping and howling along against the bed.
As we enter the city centre, curtains of electric wiring couple dishevelled building to dishevelled building. Grated by the elements, each structure is missing a panel or a window. The money for maintenance is going to the man sat blocking the entrance way with his mounted machine gun and hand-held iPhone.
Incessant car inspections have made movement around Baghdad so languid that buses and taxis now resemble carbon-spewing coffee houses, centres of Iraqi social life and gossip. Our security team debate the recent disappearance of Saddam Hussein’s body which had inevitably inspired a deluge of hearsay about its current location. They also make bold claims as to the ability of Baghdad to stand firm against ISIS. Ahmed, a wide-framed Baghdadi with a lively face and a shaved head tells us ‘Baghdad is becoming like one hand; if they come we will kill them all.’
The Baghdad Hotel sits like a foreign legion outpost in the wilderness, blockaded on all sides, overlooking the carcases of hundreds of befouled tour company shop fronts. The hotel employs an army of receptionists who are understandably vigilant to the mission creep which may arise as a result of our arrival.
Leaving early on day one for the same reasons that everyone in pointing distance to the equator does, we head straight for the National Museum of Iraq. The National Museum of Iraq is the opposite to the British Museum in the sense that all the artefacts in it are now back in the hands of the peoples from whom they once came.
‘The looting was the best thing to ever happen to this place’ Geoff tells me under his breath as we enter the first of three halls which were recently redesigned in collaboration with British, French and Italian experts. The widespread looting blamed on the ambivalence of American forces in 2003 had thankfully sparked alarms at UNESCO and the FBI. Before long, anthropologists and archaeologists were fast-roping down from above, searching for clues as to where the 10-15,000 missing artefacts had disappeared.
I ask for an interview with the museum director but he is in Qatar. Annoyingly for our local guide, Aseel, a Baghdadi of a liberal, if somewhat erratic disposition, we appeared far more interested in the reappearance of these objects than their advent. She tells us ‘Much of the contents of the three rooms is recently acquired. Where did we buy them? The museum buys them from some citizens. Others have given these things back voluntarily.’
A number of Iraqi tour groups wander past us as we move between the three rooms which contain impressive heirlooms from the Sumerian period (3500 B.C onwards) through to the Islamic period. The hard work of trying to fill the remaining 11 halls is going on in the stale spaces in between. In the tobacco soaked corridors which seethe with sombre-faced personnel, the ambiance is of a 1920s private investigator’s office: paper files, yellow shirt collars and nervous secretaries scurrying between the holes in the walls.
There is one road in Iraq which every journalist writes about: Al Mutanabbi Street, the tiny but celebrated refuge of Iraq’s cultural scene. Tucked away on the east side of the river, this street takes you from the sleepy banks of the Tigris, through to a humming market district where infinite traffic lanes of cart pushers shout and scrape their way past the postcard stands and juice sellers. Towards the crawler lanes, the pavement softens underfoot, as ranks of books, from Nietzsche to the Qu’ran seep out from the unlit bookshops. We are told that the surrounding area used to be a hub for Saddam’s intelligence services, no doubt to keep an eye on the four-eyed instigators as they followed the familiar route from café to bookshop to prison cell.
I steal a moment down an alleyway. The burned out husk of the Iraqi National Archive dominates the street. It contained Iraq’s biggest collection of public records dating back to the Ottoman period. ‘It’s a terrible crime by Iraqis against Iraqis’ Geoff says, too sad to step inside. The building was destroyed in 2003, reportedly as part of an effort to erase evidence of Ba’athist crimes. Looking through the charred scaffolding of the window, I see the first grass lawn of the whole trip. Two young Iraqis sit peacefully in the book cemetery. Everything that is valuable here seems to end up as a sooty layer in the atmosphere.
Later that day, we negotiate our way into Baghdad train station, an imposing feature on the Baghdad skyline, architecturally perched between a grand mosque and Victorian power station. ISIS do not appear to have a T.E Lawrence among them: Iraq’s railway tracks remain in surprisingly good shape. Although northern routes are currently suspended, around four hundred Iraqis board the southbound train for Basra twice a day, traveling in style. Reaching speeds of 160 kilometers per hour, the hyper modern carriages appear designed more for the Swiss alpine than the marshlands of southern Mesopotamia. Locals tell me it remains a cheaper way of traveling than the bus. Reason for hope.
Leaving Baghdad the next day in the direction of Babylon, a young boy from one of the local villages turns to our lead vehicle and claps. The road has been attacked from the west in a number of occasions as ISIS attempted unsuccessfully to encircle the capital. It makes sense that the Iraqi army get their tea ‘on the house’ here. The checkpoints finally subside and the road ahead clears.
After a two hour drive south, we overlook Babylon, the city in which Alexander the Great breathed his last. The cut-glass sandstone of Saddam’s summer palace idles into view. The road loops us round the hill on a scuffed pathway with barbwire embankments. To our right, every element seems in collusion: an army of his palm trees continue looting the Euphrates. A tributary traipses past in crumpled uniform, not able to meet the eyes of the new regime.
Our coach peaks the hill and stops at his wooden door. We enter his humble foyer. Looking up you realise that flicking a light switch in Saddam’s manor was not motivated purely by the desire to see during the hours of evening. When woken, the thousands of lamp fittings which hibernate above our heads were a reminder that he could reach you, from the villagers below to his moneylenders in Kuwait.
If writing was invented in Babylon then graffiti was invented in Saddam’s summer palace. Passing from reception to grand hall to auditorium, a biroed cenotaph to the living, to the survivors, the gloaters and the pre-emptors chars each wall.
The previous tenant’s appreciation for savagery required a calm location for repose, and here we find it: each room overlooks a slice of prime Iraqi real estate. Visible from one aspect, the boundless flats of the Fertile Crescent have a soothing impact on the nerves. It is a great spot from which to escape reality, either for an embattled dictator or for a tour group who are becoming increasingly aware of other foreign groups approaching from the north, so eager to share Iraq with us, talk with us, and even have us appear in their holiday photos.
In the evening we retire to Karbala, one of the holiest of cities for Shia Muslims given the presence the ancient Shrine of Hussain Ibn Ali. Pilgrims materialize from all directions crowding the forecourts as the evening draws in. Children run and then launch themselves across screens of ablutional water which cool the marble floors. Fans blow a fine wet mist directly into the mass of families to make the evening heat more bearable as they await prayer time.
Notwithstanding the importance of the sites, they are still being protected by the golf ball detectors which sent the conman James McCormick to prison for ten years. Against all explanation, the former Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri Al-Maliki assured the world that they could also identify explosive devices and that the teams that tested them were in error. The next day we receive a loud and shrapnel-laden confirmation that Maliki was lying.
While the car bombing opposite our hotel was the only major faux pas of the trip, it wasn’t long before the palpable reinvigoration of conservative religious belief in Iraq came to disrupt our travels.
‘Since the time of the prophet, Jews and Christians have not been able to enter the mosque’ the local mullah in Kifl tells Geoff. I looked round our group trying to ascertain which of us he suspected of allegiance to the tribes.
Tourists are not a rarity here, so why the hostility? The grounds depicted on the plans stapled to his trailer walls concern the renovation of a site which pre-dates Islam. Iraq’s Jewish community, which teeters on the brink of extinction, revered Kifl as the location of the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel. A synagogue remains to this day. The Jewish diaspora raised concerns that the renovation would mean the destruction of their historical links with the area, while certain residents of the town believe that the plan to invest in tourism infrastructure may steal the area’s charm.
Despite not being able to look round the mosque, we are given English language guides to the renovations. The guards have no problem in telling us that the money for renovation is coming straight from the Iraqi government. In fact, every mosque or religious school we had seen between Baghdad and Najaf appears to be in a state of renovation or expansion. The unhidden priority of the previous Iraqi government was to build fortress Iraq in which the guns faced inwards and the people faced upwards.
The town of Kifl has been a crossroads for some of the world’s most notorious armed groups and their detractors including the PLO, Mossad, and more recently, Al Qaeda. We walk through the ancient market where shiny American military surplus is sold amidst the perfume and men’s underwear. A local tea seller, operating in the tunnel-shaped underworld which makes up the ancient thoroughfare, asks me where I am from. I reply ‘London’. He smiles and says ‘Ah! London, the great city of war!’ I pretend not to know what on earth he could mean.
It is fitting that we end our last full day in Iraq in an oil town, Samaweh. Our long-suffering bus gets to sample the local delicacy.
We head to the shores of Sawa Lake where the shells of old holiday homes attract scavenger carts and bemused wildlife who pick the bones of Ba’athist leniency. A friendly local named Qasim is accompanied by a battalion of offspring. They stroll amidst the salt mounds on the shore of the lake and shutter their eyelids to the water which still glows around dusk. I point to the abandoned beach houses and ask him about them. He replies ‘these are from before religion was big’. Every few yards a whiskey bottle reminds one to put on shoes. The party isn’t over, it’s just skulking in the corner.
As we scuff and trample over the remains of ancient Uruk, our last stop before the x-rays and the airport lounge, our Baghdadi guide Aseel, tells me, ‘Now that I have had the chance to visit these places for the first time, I realise what beautiful sites there are in Iraq. I’m disappointed that our government doesn’t take more care of them.’
On the last day I asked everyone why they were in Iraq and the recurring theme was the fear of erosion. Babylon’s once mighty walls are being eaten away by salt due to under investment in historical preservation, scenic lakesides are picked over for scrap, café entrances are scuffed and singed by nihilistic explosions. The call of the new caliphate had awoken the pious and non-pious alike, sparking a sense of urgency among our group to come to Iraq before the map itself is consumed.
Joseph Shawyer travelled to Iraq with Hinterland Travel, specialists in the seriously far-flung.