Friday, March 27, 2009

First Iraqi Tour since 2003!

Iraq March 2009

Eight of us were on the Iraqi tour: five Brits (one of whom was a Russian with three passports), a Canadian and two Americans. Ages: 36 to 79. All had traveled extensively, Only one had not been to Afghanistan. For over two weeks of March 2009, we traveled from Kurdish Iraq to the Marsh area.

The trip was organized by Geoff Hann who operates Hinterland Travels and who was the leader of the band. Three of the group had traveled with him before. This was the first authorized civilian traveling group since 2003. The scheduling was unpredictable as the present Ministry of Tourism had little experience in managing more than the Iranian pilgrimages to Kerbala.

For example: we were to have two security guards. Then it was none or Twenty. We chose none, which I felt was safer than even two traveling with us. There was a small bus, driver and interpreter (who saw himself as in charge despite the fact he had never been to most of the places). Occasionally, we picked up police cars, front and back, at times with sirens roaring and lights flashing but most of the time, we were left alone.

And I do mean left: left sitting at checkpoints while police and militias decided what to do with us. Not safe for us. Sometimes, they would drive us to the next check point, heave a sign of relief and a wave as they returned to their post and left the problem with the next bunch. Sometimes, they just let us go.

Forty checkpoints between Basra and Baghdad. Unknown number of speed bumps. No one travels fast in Iraq.

Baghdad: We stayed on three occasions at the old Sheraton, outside the Green Zone but inside security walls; across from where Saddam’s statue was toppled. It was comfortable but not well maintained. There were variety of security people with green, gray, blue, and tan based camouflage uniforms but, all with Kalisnikovs, the weapon of choice in the Middle East.

Ugandans, male and female, handled the Green Zone checkpoints, all four of them. Two pieces of picture identification required. Thorough search - I know, I worked in a prison at one time in my life.

Traffic ranged from tanks to donkey carts. There were concrete walls lining the main thorough fares and concrete blocks necessitating a zigzag approach to enter most streets. A besieged city still, for car bombs and shooting still occur.

We did get to the Kahidmain mosque but never did make it to the nearly opened Museum - which wasn’t open during any of the stays in Baghdad. I was told by the press there wasn’t that much in it; some of them had also gotten a run-around. We did visit an Anglican Church. During the last stay in Baghdad, we returned to the Green Zone and saw the Crossed Swords and then finished up with the Arc of Ctesiphan, an awesome structure in an area guarded by the Sons of Iraq, ex AlQaeda lads.

The North: While there was a fair amount of security around and we were refused admission to Nimrod, things seemed calmer in the Kurdish controlled area. Enroute to Erbil, police escorted us to magnificent Minaret and Mosque (in process of repair) at Samarra. Impressive even though the Minaret was in a Railway yard with barbed wire rolled in front of it.

We drove past Kirkuk, reportedly a bit dicey and not the place for our driver to get lost - but he did. He couldn’t read the Kurdish road signs so he had to ask the locals. Signs are Kurdish/English - no Arabic! Got to Erbil ok with half a pizza for supper. The next day it was The Citadel and textile museum and Mar Benham, a Syrian Orthodox church just out of Mosul.

Then the long drive back to Baghdad and onto Babylon, where Iraqi officialdom and the Iraqi press discovered us. As I didn’t trust their claim not to run anything until we’d left the country, I had nothing to do with them - and they did run material within a couple of days! For security reasons, I didn’t want to be on anyone’s TV until I was well out of the way.

The South: Babylon was extraordinary. The lion and the tower of Babel; Saddam’s old palace which had been stripped of anything valuable. Then to Kerbala with a police escort, leaving us at the town’s border. I felt like I was entering another country for on came the scarves and hejabs. This was the city beloved of Shias, with the Shrine of Abbas and Hussein, martyred grandsons of the Prophet. Our Canadian found a fellow Canadian, here on pilgrimage. There were throngs of Iranian pilgrims wandering about, paying their respects.

Then to the AlTar caves and the desert fortress of Ukhaidher. We were driving around in a sand storm with a 20% visibility on road with long lines of trucks hauling potash. There was a stop at Khifal, an old Jewish Shrine of Ezekiel where I managed to bash my head coming out of the toilet. We ended up at Najaf, the holy city with the tomb of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and fourth Inman.

Then, traveling from one check point to another, we arrived at Nippur, an extensive site and major religious center. We were escorted by the local guards who liked having photos with us and gave us tea at the end of the tour though having only enough glasses for several people at a time.

Moving on, we landed unexpectedly at Samawa in the crummiest hotel of the trip - which is saying some - and where our Russian-Brit got arrested but was returned to the hotel, after trying to sight see around town. Not much to see from my point of view! But in the morning, we were at the site at Uruk where the ziggurat over looks what had been palaces, temples and walls. To Nasiriyah and another basic hotel.

From there to the US Army base where we made arrangements to enter Ur, another archaeological wonder, one I was most interested in as Leonard Wooley, one of TE Lawrence’s coworkers at Carchemish, was the lead archaeologist. It got complicated as someone didn’t get the word our group was to be admitted, which led to a morning wait in the bull pen. However, two female Army Specialists went way out of their way to get us in, feeding and watering us during our wait. And we did get in, supervised by an apologetic captain in the Chaplain corps; we were allowed to photograph so long as cameras weren’t aimed toward the nearby Air Force installation. Amazingly, the site seems in good condition.

From there to the Marsh Arab country where water is returning into the marshes (Saddam drained it off to move the residents out) and where the old timers are slowly moving back.

Basra: Much security but less of the divisive cement walls. Unlike Baghdad, people were out on the river bank, promenading at night: men smoking hookahs, kids running around and families out for a stroll. While there was evidence of the two invasions, one war and the sanctions, it seemed less depressing than Baghdad.

There were four Ministry of Tourism guides with us, two women and two men. The women were clear that no headscarves were needed and all were most hospitable. I suspect we were the tour of the year!

We went to Qurnah, the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates and where nearby is Adam’s Tree, where supposedly was the Garden of Eden, Another Ali mosque, memorials to Indian and Gurka soldiers and a boat ride on the Shatt Al Arab, where trash and fish met along with upended boats and ships left from various conflicts.

However, one of the most memorable experiences was getting stamps for postcards at the Basra post office. In front of the building were at least 100 people, mostly men,waiting with an equal number inside. It took the Army to get us inside and up the stairs where postal employees went to find the person who sold stamps. This was all complicated by the interpreter's misunderstanding that we wanted souvenir stamps. Help came from a young woman who spoke quite good English, whose brother was a graduate of Portland State University, Oregon, where he now lived and worked. Apparently, people were waiting at the Post Office for remittances; the Army was there to provide for their security.

Back to Baghdad with a stop at the Tomb of Ezekiel (assuming he’s not buried in Israel) and a brief photo op for me at Kut, historically interesting as the place the Brits surrendered to the Turks during the First World War. Upon arrival at the Baghdad ex-Sheraton, we were set upon by press and television: good publicity for Geoff who will be leading future tours into Iraq and fascinating for me, an ex-journalism student, having my fifteen minutes of Andy Warhol fame.

Security on the Baghdad Airport road is tight. For a time, this was the most dangerous road around. Getting there, you take your vehicle to a large parking area where you switch into an approved auto. Dogs check b oth vehicle and luggage. Then to the airport where again, dogs check luggage before you put them into the airport x-ray machines. No chances are taken and the road is secured with cement barriers and walls.

With a late start and all the security checks, we missed the flight to Damascus. The Ministry representative, a Mr. Ali (I had a fantastic guide in Sikkem, also named Mr. Ali) chased around and got us on later Sham Air flight, so we got to Damascus in time to check in a very comfortable hotel I’d recommend to anyone, the Alfami near the old train station, used by Explore and Imaginative Traveler. Several of us wandered off to the souk and then to dinner.

Later, we went around to the old Railway Station, where a French group were having a reception, with juices, wine and petit-fours. We were invited to crash the party. It was an elegent ending to the several week excursion.

The next morning was the flight to Heathrow, where I spent the night in Terminal 1, being too cheap to get a hotel room. Caught up on Emails.. Security moved all the overnighters - about twelve of us - to Gate 36. where they came with cocoa and coffee at 4 AM. I met an very interesting Irish woman, an editor from Cairo, who had been married to an American. We chatted and had breakfast before her flight.

United flight was about one-third full so I could stretch out in Economy Plus. So not too bad a flight back.

Impressions: On the whole I think the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism likes the idea of tour groups but really isn’t prepared to deal with them. They had poster and cards prepared, but were at times, less than helpful when it came to implementing the itinerary.

I did have much more freedom in getting about than I expected. In the morning in Basra, I was able to get out and pick up breakfast: bread at the bakery, and cheese and yogurt at the corner store. Utilities were more reliable than expected - electricity went off occasionally for a short time. Bottled water was always available: Iraqis drank it as much as we did. Towels, toilet paper and soap were not always provided at hotels which often featured creative plumbing and strange electrical writing.

Food was plentiful: Usual Middle Eastern breakfast: bread, cheese, yogurt and the occasional egg. Main meals included soup, a selection of starters and then either chicken or lamb with rice. I shared with one of the other women throughout and had more than enough. I discovered Rani which was a nice fruit drink, much, much better than Fanta, CocaCola’s contribution to Middle Eastern soft drinks.

Despite security glitches, I never felt frightened. I was cautious and aware throughout but not scared. I should also mention that my experience with our Armed Forces was excellent: these people went out of their way, both at Ur and in Baghdad, to help us get where ever we wanted. That’s my team, good guys/gals all. I feel better about paying my taxes this month.

The people we ran into were friendly though I didn’t have much opportunity to talk with local Iraqis. Kids, as always, were great and I had them hi-fiving from Baghdad to Basra. We had shy smiles from the women, friendly smiles from the younger men and looks of curiosity from the older people. The security people always gave us a wave when we finally passed through.

I did talk with several contract workers: two with NBC News (Pilgrim Security and ex-SAS) and several at the Damascus Airport. They seemed to be stable, right-on guys; several were ex-cops working with the police.

Overall, a good trip but one I would recommend with qualifications: one should be more of a traveler than a tourist. Be prepared to rough it; have a sense of humor and don’t expect an itinerary to be anything but an expression of intent. Everything is subject to change. And take responsibility for your own security.

Cost: including airfare, about $6000, give or take, for the trip. Add on another $720 for the cat’s care. But for me, this was a window of opportunity I couldn’t resist. So well worth it!

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