Solo trip to the arabic part of Iraq
The Sun is raising some time between five and six in the morning. I am opening my tired eyes and the first thing what I notice is the city sign of Tikrit - somewhere here we can find the birth village of the notorious dictator Saddam Husain. I am just passing the area which was occupied by the radical organisation Islamic State in the years 2014 to 2017. I am sitting in the shared taxi with two other people. I have convinced them and the driver that I am a tourist. Would you believe it? A tourist in Iraq? Yes, that is me and I am traveling to Mosul - the city where no tourist eye has been seen for almost 20 years. And so the real adventure begins.
Behind the gates of Nineveh
I am arriving to the motel, the place where I am planning to spend two nights, very early - round nine in the morning. Since my room is not ready yet, the owner takes me on a small quick tour round the gates of Nineveh. Unfortunately, there is not much left from the sights. All preserved gates were destroyed by "Daesh" which is the acronym for the Islamic State. "They just took big excavators and demolished everything", Saed, the owner of the motel explains. There is "pleasant" 40 degrees celsius outside and we are passing the ruins of this historic city.
My preparation for the trip is simple, I print out all interesting places, sights and landmarks that I want to see and I show them to local taxi drivers. Here, in Mosul, they always know how to get to the place which I want to visit. Traveling by taxis in here is cheap, one drive within the city costs two US Dollars, which is 3000 Iraqi Dinar. The taxi driver takes me to the museum, which unfortunately looks very deserted, except for several tombs inside. Actually, ninety percent of artefacts has been stolen, destroyed or sold on the black market. No-one cares about the historical sights in this war country which is misused by people who know how to profit from it. This is the grim reality. I do not spend much time in the museum and rather continue to the old town. I am particularly interested in the ruins of the castle Bash Tapia from the 12th century. This castle has been also damaged by the Islamic State. Indeed, there are only few places left in the city which have not been destroyed by the Islamic State. Just at the corner I see a church which is in a horrible condition. The crucifix from the church steeple is missing, there are bullet marks everywhere and the church cupola is blown up. It is really horrible. However, the mosque located opposite to the church is also devastated - it seems as they were fighting in it. My melancholic feelings from this disaster are very quickly overshadowed by the group of construction workers who are repairing the nearby building. They want to have their picture taken with me. I make their wish come true and we make some cute pictures together. While wandering the streets of the old town, which is literally a big pile of ruins, I come across a guy wearing traditional Iraqi costume. It seems he is pouring some tea, however the reality is different. Later on, I find out it is Sous, beverage which taste is really awful but has miraculous healing and antioxidant benefits. Locals drink it a lot and after some time even I am becoming a big fan of it. When I see someone pouring it, I stop by, drink a cup of it and have a feeling that I have done something beneficial for my health. Sous is made of liquorice root which grows by the rivers. To prepare this beverage, just take the root out of the soil, wash it at home, leave it in the water for 24 to 48 hours, wash it again and then drink the extract of it. It is particularly good for your kidney cleanse and detox.
I am coming back to the city centre where we can see military checkpoints located every 200 - 300 meters.
Majority of soldiers do not even notice me, but some of them stop me and they are surprised by who I am and why I am traveling alone. They check me, call the headquarter but in the end they always let me go. They are not aware of the fact, that the free movement for tourists has been already allowed in the whole country. In the past the only possibility how to travel round Iraq was via travel agency and together with the armed guards. This new rule guaranteeing free tourist movement has been valid for seven months so far, but majority of soldiers have no knowledge of it, therefore I am often stuck at the checkpoints for 20 to 30 minutes, until I finally can move at least 300 meters further.
I am mesmerised by the ordinary people, they are kind and friendly, they do not shout at you and they appreciate your visit. Anything what I want to buy either in the store or at the market is offered to me for free. I feel as a guest who brings joy to them. I have not noticed any homeless person or street beggar. Iraqi people are strong and determined despite all things they have recently overcome, they remain proud. I am absolutely astonished by their attitude and I already know that I will definitely come back here once again. In the heart of the city I see another damaged church. This one is not in a such horrible condition, there is missing crucifix on the church steeple and bullet marks are visible everywhere. One local policeman tells me that they use to call the church tower "clock watch" and in the past it used to show even the correct time.
Time for my visit to Mosul has not come yet, however I still desire to see and feel this city and I cannot wait to hear stories from people who lived in the area ruled by the Islamic State. One elderly man starts telling me: " You know Peter, those people who stayed here under the Islamic State regime were afraid even to go to the local shop. In the begging all fighters were kind, but later on, the terror began. It was extremely difficult to live in a fear for two years." I have a feeling that some people lived in a lockdown long time before us.
After my visit to Mosul, I have decided to see the biggest Iraqi Christian town Qaraqosh which was also under the control of the Islamic State, but in October 2016 was set free. You can find there the Church of Immaculate Conception which is the largest church in the town. When I enter it, I see it is full of kids and the priest is speaking to them. It could be the training session for their First Communion. I don not spend a lot of time here as in the next local church. There, I talk to a local priest, Father Roni, who is about to listen to the confession of two locals. When speaking about confession, I should also attend one. There is something what makes my heart heavy. Since I have some spare time I am going to my first confession in the Middle East. Sometimes I believe that our life paths are predetermined, don't you.
Getaway from Sinjar
It is not easy to get anywhere in Iraq. Having valid visa does not mean anything. We are in the country which overcame a war recently and locals are not used to free movement of foreigners. Therefore, do not expect friendly atmosphere as in Iraqi Kurdistan where the tourism is more developed. Since I have a plenty of time, I am going to visit my friend Mohamed from Duhok - a city located in already mentioned Iraqi Kurdistan. He does not feel like meeting me in Mosul, the place where he grew up. I completely understand why is it so. However, I am not sure if I can get to Duhok because Arabic and Kurdish part of Iraq issue different type of visas and they do not cooperate with each other much (or at all). In the end, after I pass through five precise controls, I am finally arriving to the town of Duhok. While waiting for Mohamed and wandering around local bazaar, I come across Ali who helps me to find a place where I can charge my phone credit. It is a nice 24years old Yazidi guy who comes from the town named Sinjar, but is currently living with a family in a refugee camp located close to the town of Shekhan. He works for Peshmerga - Kurdish armed forces and in his free time he likes wandering around the streets of Duhok or Erbil. I invite him to smoke shisha together (in the end I am the one ho is being invited). Ali starts speaking:
"Peter, I have to confess to you, I do not believe in God anymore. It was august and it was very warm outside, when I decided to flee from Sinjar with my family in order to run away from the Islamic State. We were running to Syria through a mountain. I saw several people dying, including a woman with a child. I saw so much suffering before my eyes so I just became embittered by God." I know that it is easier for Ali to confess these feelings to a complete stranger than to his local friends. Here, If you do not believe in God, you remain misunderstood. I appreciate his trust in me, but it is difficult for me to listen to these stories. However, this is one of the reasons why I set off on this journey, to find out the truth.
Iraqi man in China
After a while, Mohamed is arriving and the subject of our discussion is immediately being changed. This little friendly guy has been my friend since 2014 when we met while I was standing in front of a hotel and smoking cigarette. He asked me if I needed help. I did not need any, but I decided to invite him for a cup of tea (again in the end it was me who was invited). In that time I was still suffering from a little trauma that happened to me in a hotel in Kalar town. I got stuck in a shower and could not open the door. I had to break the door window with my elbow so that I could get out. Whole situation looked kind of bloody, but I survived. In that moment, our friendship started and it lasts until now. I respect and admire him. Mohamed is a modest and humble man with a great sense of humour. I really like him and I visit him regularly. I know almost his whole family. His stories from China, where he was teaching English, are hilarious and they always make me laugh a lot. One of them is really perfect. Mohamed is traveling on the tube in Shanghai and suddenly he sees a man fainting. No one cares about it, but Mohamed helps him. He takes him out of the tube carriage and calls for help. In the evening he is watching the breaking news about a foreigner who helped a stranger in China. This is Mohamed, he never cares only about himself.
Where to go now? My next journey leads to Baghdad, though I was here already with a travel agency in 2017. I want to see Ahmad, another friend of mine, who works as a tourist guide. I call Ahmad after spending half day by unsuccessful entering sights in Baghdad. "Ahmad, my dear friend, tell me, aren't you by any chance guiding anyone today?" "Yes, Peter, of course, I am in the hotel waiting for some Russians right now, would you like to join us?" "Sure", I agree straight away. It is extremely difficult to get anywhere without a local guide. There are guards everywhere and sometimes nothing works to get in, they simply do not let you in any sight. Military State. I am arriving to the hotel lobby and having a seat next to Ahmad. In a while, Russians are coming and I offer a handshake to greet them. From the very first moment it is obvious that these guys (and one lady) have no sense of humour and they seem pretty cold. Ahmad looks at me inconspicuously and quietly asks: "Do you think they are assholes?" I burst into tears immediately. I realise, I really like this guy.
We visit several monuments and sights together, including Mustansiriya school. It is a famous Muslim Madrasah that was established in 13th century. It was specialised in teaching not only religion, but also math, astronomy, medicine and philosophy. It is one of the most important sights in the city. Afterwards, we move to Sheikh Maarov Karachi Mosque with a vast cemetery. This mosque belongs to Islamic mystics who practice Sufism. The sympathisers of this religion tries to get closer to the God by using various breathing methods together with singing and dancing. Nearby, we can find the oldest minaret in Baghdad called Sitt Zubeida together with its mausoleum. It dates back to the Abbasid era and has strange, unusual shape. This place smells really awful, while Sufi mosque has a pleasant scent. Suddenly, some kids run to us from the housing estate located next to the minaret. And some cute pictures are being taken with them. Later on, we arrive to a local bazaar, where I get old Iraqi postcards from 80s and 90s. It is even possible to find there old Baghdadi book guides from the same years as postcards. In that time, people used to visit Iraq a lot, currently it is very rare. Roughly 30 kilometres southeast of Baghdad we can find a monument called Ctesiphon - ancient city of Madain. During Parthian and Sasanian era it used to be the seat of kings and the administrative centre of the Middle East. I arrive here at midday and it seems that I disturb soldiers while taking siesta. As usually, they do not want to let me in unless I pay 15 US dollars bribe. I am leaving angry. While walking around the sight I manage to take a really nice photo of it.
Close to the heaven
Back in Baghdad I am saying goodbye to Russians and Ahmad and my next steps lead to the next world - this time spiritual one, to Najaf where you can see the largest cemetery in the world with more than five million people buried there. One legend says that this place once belonged to Abraham - an ancestor of all prophets and therefore this place is considered as a piece of heaven on the Earth. I was walking through this place once in the past, however, not in such heat. It could be 50 degrees celsius outside, there is no one around and I am starting to feel weak. It is too much even for me, so I decide to hide in the shadow of the tomb of Ali - the cousin of Mohamed. This place is one of the most important holy sites for Shia Muslims together with Karbala in Iraq or Mashhad and Qom in Iran. I am fascinated by the tradition when family members bring deceased person in the coffin to this place. Before they place them to a tomb, they walk around the tomb of Ali and pray in the courtyard. It has an extremely strong atmosphere.
What impresses me a lot about Iraq is its variety of environment. From mountains to deserts, from areas attacked by the war to holy places. So, also my seventh visit of this country (although lasting only a week) remains full of experiences. Even the heat exhaustion which I am taking back home was worth it.
BASIC INFO ABOUT IRAQ
Official name: Republic of Iraq
Capital city: Baghdad
Official languages: Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian - dominant in Christian population
Government: Federal parliamentary republic
Governorates (Provinces): Baghdad, Saladin, Diyala, Wasit, Maysan, Basra, Dhi Qar, Muthanna, Al-Qädisiyyah, Babil, Karbala, Najaf, Al Anbar, Nineveh, Duhok, Erbil, Kirkuk, Sulaymaniyah
Religion: Islam 98% , Christianity 1-2%, the rest: Yazidism, Mandaeism
Area: 438 317 Km2
Population: 30-40 million
Highest point: Cheekah Dar (Black Tent), 3611 meters above the sea level
Natural sources: oil, gas, phosphates, sulphur
Best time for visit: definitely not from June to September
Date of trip: june 2021
Author and photos: Peter Gregor