Part 4: Baghdad – city of cigarettes and sand

In my new shoes – with my soles still sensitive from walking barefoot on the hot roads of Cairo – we boarded the plane to Baghdad. I was surprised that there were so many people on board. I suppose I had started to believe the media reports and their representation of life in Iraq as non-existent.

I was excited. Where Cairo was a modern city, albeit steeped in history, Iraq was the war torn country where Imam Hussein had been martyred; where Imam Ali had lived his last moments. I was on my way to the country that shaped the creation of Shia Islam, and which was so deeply etched in my own spiritual consciousness. The anticipation cut deep and I didn’t know what to expect. Afraid of giving form to a feeling that lacked substance, I just hugged myself and the thought that in an hour, I would be in Iraq!

My thoughts were distracted by the antics of a fellow pilgrim. A married man in his mid 30s, he was travelling with his wife, 7 year old daughter and infant son. His friend, many years his senior, dared him to ask one of the young and attractive air hostesses for her number. Sitting next to his wife, he tried and she refused politely. He tried again, and she more forcefully and loudly turned him down. The other men on the flight were openly smirking at him by now. Meanwhile, his wife was quietly tending to the small child in her lap.

Not to be dissuaded, the man stood up and standing a little too close to the hostess, tried to explain the situation to her with a whisper. She kept the drinks cart between them as he explained in halting English that he had been dared to get her number, and asked if she could scribble a fake number onto a piece of paper so that his friends would think he had succeeded. He even promised to let her hold his son for a moment.

All eyes were fixed on her, except those of the other air hostess in the cabin who kept her eyes averted. In clear tones, the lady again explained again how he was preventing her from doing her job, and that she was not able to entertain his request.

He finally admitted defeat. Smirking, and accompanied by the brash laughs of his friends, he sat down next to his wife and allowed the air hostess to pass with her cart.

I was mortified; not for the air hostess who had handled the situation calmly but for the pilgrim;s wife at having to watch her husband behave in such a manner. But the rest of the group seemed to take it in their stride, and continued their game of musical chairs perched on each other’s armrests; while others happily removed and replaced their overhead bags for the entirety of the flight.

As we neared Baghdad International Airport, the view from the plane was much like that of the desert sands before Cairo, except there was no visual relief of trees, water or infrastructure. The desert blended into the grey facade of the airport, and even the dark green leaves of the odd palm tree appeared sandy. A dry baking heat greeted us as we stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac.

The women tightened their head gear to hide their hair: some of us put on a small white skull cap under the rida to hold back wayward strands while others draped a coloured scarf over the rida, tied peasant style with the point of the scarf hanging down the back. Sleeves that had been folded or scrunched up to the elbow were pulled down to the wrists; others put on long sleeved jackets and some slipped on a pair of detachable sleeves which started just under the shoulder and ended at the wrist with elastic. We had heard stories about the punitive measures taken against women who were not adequately covered, and were reluctant to endure any public reprimand.

The inside of the airport building was sparse. empty angular corridors leading to a large customs room with diagonal benches. It was filled with dark, swarthy men with black hair. Our arrival drew glances, and as our organisers gathered our passports for bulk submission, we sat down. It took nearly two hours but eventually all the forms were filled, passports stamped and redistributed and we moved into the baggage claim hall.

One look at the impatient and aggressive airport officials with their rough and guttural voices, and I was relieved at being one of the women folk who could leave the negotiating and haggling to the men. I wasn’t surprised that there weren’t any female officials at the Baghdad airport.

Our luggage collected, we waited in the foyer: for what I wasn’t sure. I was slowly adjusting to the lack of information and control, and developing patience for the hours spent waiting, even though I had no idea what I was waiting for.

There weren’t enough chairs for our group, and so some sat on available benches, others perched on their bags and the rest stood around chatting. Some of us visited the foreign exchange counter, and returned with loud laughs of how many thousands of Iraqi dinars they had received in exchange for USD 20.

Still chaffing from my private currency exchange experience in Cairo, I also exchanged 20 dollars, for which I received 22,500 Iraqi dinars. The rest of our pilgrimage would be spent in Iraq – Najaf and Kerbala – and any mementoes or gifts for family and friends would be bought in dinars.

More flights arrived – all from neighbouring Arab countries – and the airport staff asked us to surrender our luggage trolleys for the new arrivals. A small struggle ensued when one of the airport staff removed a single suitcase from a trolley and started taking the trolley inside the baggage hall.

The owner of the bag, a moody and rather aggressive girl, reacted angrily at this and after shouting abuses after him and waving her arm in the air – while the rest of us looked on in surprise – she flounced off after him. As he gathered other discarded trolleys, paying her no heed, she grabbed one trolley and mumbling under her breath, she struggled to load her suitcase back onto the trolley.

He meanwhile returned and saw her making off with one of his trolleys. He raised an arm in response, and then thinking better of it, shouted some expletives at her and pushed the weaving line of remaining trolleys into the baggage claim area.

An hour or so later spent looking around the airport foyer which held little of interest, a bus pulled up outside the wide glass doors of the foyer, and we rushed to load our bags onto the bus and grab a seat.

Mum and I were travelling light. From our experience of Ashura in Dubai in 2003, we knew the lighter we travelled the more enjoyable the journey would be, and so we had a carry on bag each and mum had a small purse which contained travel documents. We carried our bags onto the bus, and sat with them in our laps while the others supervised the loading of their large suitcases into the hold.

There were globs of hardened chewing gum all over the floor and window sill of the bus, and sweet wrappers stuffed into the jagged crevices of the mug holder. Torn nets were hanging from the backs of the seats, and tatters of blue and red plastic bags floated from the seat handles. The seat covers were also matted and crusty. A far cry from Cairo.

There was too much luggage and too many people for this one bus, and after half an hour of loading and offloading the bags – jokes were bandied around about how some of the larger and heavier bags didn’t contain personal belongings but a pyramid that had been sneaked on board – the rest of the group began to board only to find that all the seats were taken. They started to alight again, saying that they would wait for the second bus when the organisers clambered on and clarified that there wouldn’t be another bus.

We looked around at each other – were to travel in this fashion all the way to Najaf – half seated, half standing -where we knew we would be spending the first 4 nights? The bus driver jumped into his seat, lit a fresh cigarette – the pungent smell of which I had become accustomed to – and we lurched out. Whispers travelled down the aisle that this was a shuttle bus that would take us to the bus terminal just outside the airport, where we would board another vehicle to travel to Najaf. There was a restriction on the kinds of vehicles that were allowed into the main airport area.

There were new roads being constructed in the sandy terrain of Baghdad city, as we headed out of the airport and towards the bus terminal. They were lined with shorn, tightly cropped coconut trees that had their leaves tied together with a red sack like material that resembled hemp with all their branches pointing upwards in a straight line.

These trees had been plugged into ready holes, probably transplanted from another area to enliven this one which had endured its share of shelling and bombing. A construction crew was circling the trees with their machines, smoothening the soil, and there was a large white blimp in the sky to the right of the new highway.

As we neared the bus terminal, five to six pick ups painted in army camouflage lined the left. They had police sirens on top of them, large yellow and black radio transmitters centred on the front bumper, and two automatic machine guns mounted on the modified back. The soldiers were dressed in full gear, and their caps had patchy spots as if sections had been outlined in black kohl and coloured in with grey.

The bus terminal was filled with rough gravelly stones of an ashy white colour. Around eight white and lilac mini vans were parked on the right. They were government owned buses as private vehicles did not have permission to make the journey from Baghdad to Najaf. Broad black lines were drawn onto their bonnets like moustaches. Were the vehicles also observing the practices of sunna, or was the black mark a sign of respect for their passengers who were on pilgrimage?

Tall young Iraqi boys dressed in torn English football branded tracksuits and long sleeved tops stood around. They helped us to offload the luggage from the large single bus which had transferred us from the airport and onto 5 white and lilac coloured mini vans.

Eyes of light brown, hazel, grey and green sparkled out from faces that had been tanned to a golden shade by the sun. With big grins and bright white teeth, they voiced loud greetings: “Salama, salama”. And then as the buses began filling up with bags and people, posed the inevitable one word question in their guttural voices that could not hide the softness of their youth: “Kerbala?” “Najaf?”

The luggage carriers on the minivans filled up quickly and so the larger bags were placed in the back row in a teetering, delicately balanced pile. We were crabby from the heat and knowing there was a long road trip ahead of us, eager to be on our way. Our grumbling increased and the more outspoken among us even urged the driver to hurry things up.

“Sabar, sabar,” he counselled.

He was the picture of sabar himself: a calm, round face with tanned pink cheeks but seemed completely unfazed by the dry and dusty heat. His broad curved shoulders were draped in a loose-fitted blue grey cotton shirt, with cuffs rolled up to mid arm, and he wore baggy trousers, also in a grey shade, and open chappals that had a strap across the front of the foot. He lived in a country that was stumbling out of a crippling political and economic crisis, and I was embarrassed that he had to counsel us on patience.

Finally we were all settled in the vans, and began our road trip to Najaf. There were clumps of barbed wire that were used to demarcate areas just outside the airport, and camouflage draped over tall look out posts. We passed cars driving in the opposite direction which had white flags fluttering from the back window. And I saw a metallic statue of a man with wings taped to his outstretched arms; his knees were slightly bent as if about to jump and take flight. Icarus?

The new roads that I had had a glimpse of earlier were matched by fly-overs with solar powered street lights and new buildings. But alongside the clean grey of cement was the old shine of metal. Tanks parked under highways draped in more camouflage with dismembered parts of tanks littering other corners.

I saw a rubble filled compound with one building rising out of it. It was a makeshift structure bolstered by sand bags. It was painted blue and white and had a large window out of which the end of a machine gun was visible. My eye was caught by the weak flutterings of the red, white and black of an Iraqi flag along the side of the road.

As we drove out of the city with its wide highways and onto the dual carriageway, orange and yellow taxis zoomed past our mini vans. I saw a statue of an stiffly posed man dressed in a turban and a cloak with a long beard. Behind him stood a heavily draped woman, stooped, with barely the suggestion of facial features. They were both looking at three metallic doves.

More trussed up coconut trees lined the avenues leading out of Baghdad, like the ones I had seen at the airport. Tied and encumbered, they were an apt reminder of the fate of the country and its women.

Bullet riddled and grey buildings lined the near horizon side by side with the odd new building that was painted yellow and orange, and boasted reflective green glass windows and doors. Next to it stood a transitory minaret created from green wire mesh, on which speakers were attached. A graffiti message scrawled on the cement island in the centre of the road read Life is love, Love is life.

Every couple of kilometres, there was a cement wall created from blocks measuring between 2 metres in width and 4 metres in length, with copper rods protruding from the top. They were painted alternatively red, black and white – the colours of the Iraqi flag.

A couple of hours out of Baghdad and the war ravaged feel of the country disappeared through the thick glass windows of the mini van with its air conditioning. The houses no longer bore scars; the roads were lined with small businesses selling juice, water and roast chicken; trucks were parked alongside the shops and there were no more tanks in sight.

But as we drew closer to Najaf, the invisible army and police presence returned and we were stopped at numerous road blocks with requests to see our passports, verify our nationality and the reason for our visit. Our mini van driver handled each one however, and I was glad the buses were government sanctioned. No doubt private vehicles would have encountered a lot more red tape.

Shortly after dusk, we came to a tall bridge which welcomed us to the city of Al Safha Al Najaf. Its walls had large pictures of Imam Ali’s shrine, and in bold letters it pledged to make Najaf the centre of Islamic culture.

As we drove into the holy city of Najaf, the rudimentary cement walls bordering the road followed us but were no longer painted black, red and white. The road had metamorphosed from one that belonged in Iraq to one that belonged only to Islam and to Muslims.

And then we drove past the shrine of Imam Ali. A hush fell over the mini van, which since Baghdad had been filled with the sounds of chattering and chewing. We gazed in awe at the huge golden dome with its two towers of green light, and the throes of believers streaming in.

January 2 2013

The solar powered street lights and piles of construction sand that dotted the Iraqi capital.
Highways heading out of Baghdad.
The young Iraqi boys who helped us load our bags into the minivans.



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