First impressions of Baghdad.

A surprising sense of normalcy flows through Baghdad.  People are moving about, work was done on the road, there was a bridge under construction, and palm trees were planted along the wayside.  We passed residential neighborhoods of various income levels, bazaars full of food, household items, furniture, and plastic toys (including a toy tank), patriotic monuments, mosques, and even a church under reconstruction.

Houses are usually made of concrete and created this overwhelming sense of gray and beige which I am familiar with from Syria and Egypt.  Traffic was thick with cars of all kinds from the fancy SUV to the beat-up clunker.  It was flowing unless one of the many road blocks slowed it down.  The more sensitive the road (for example passing important government offices or going to the airport), the more road blocks you had.  Most of them were manned by at least two armed guys, some were just obstacles in the street that made you slalom slowly.  Nobody got in or out of the airport without a vehicle switch.  There was a huge empty lot which functioned as a car port.  We had just gotten comfortable in our nice minibus with our luggage after passing customs when we had to drag it all out and get into a much less nice bus which will be our vehicle for the next two weeks.  Our minibus is not bullet proof as I thought it would be, but a rather beat-up vehicle which perfectly blends in with the surrounding traffic.

Four of the ten tour members were with me when I arrived, including Geoff, our leader.  We  were greeted by a representative of the ministry of culture who oversaw the issue of our visas.  All went smoothly and was taken care of within an hour.

As we were driving to town, a couple of military helicopters were flying over the sky, and tanks were parked everywhere.  They came in two color schemes:  White and blue and the more familiar camouflage.  Concrete booths punctuated the city marked in white and blue as well:  Those were the local police; the camouflaged ones were manned by the army.  If you looked inside these boxes, there were two men to each sitting and chatting; but a machine gun perched out the window indicated their readiness to shoot.  For American standards this is highly unusual, but I have seen similar setups in Lebanon and much worse in recent turmoil-stricken Egypt.  In fact, if I did not know that I had just landed in Iraq, I would have thought I would be in Lebanon or Egypt.  No visual differences that I could point to yet.

Very few obvious signs pointed to recent war.  But Geoff, our leader, said that in 2003 and 2004, most all the buildings were without windows, due to the bomb blasts by the allies.  But the allied strikes were very surgical taking out military targets and leaving much of the city intact.  Most of the structural damage you see today was done by the bomb blasts based on sectarian strife.  Many new buildings are standing now where bombs have left holes, and some side streets are still filled with rubble being cleared away.  But the main roads are all fine.  Again, for American standards these conditions are unusual, but I have seen nothing less in Beirut, decades after the civil war.  As always, I am surprised how resilient people are no matter the extent of the disaster and devastation they have been put through.  Life simply goes on.  It has to.  But I was also impressed by how intact Baghdad was.

The trip started with a bit of a bump in Istanbul.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I am joining a group of ten here, lead by Geoff Hann from England.  He is an experienced travel guide who has been visiting Iraq through thick and thin.  Through the various regimes and changes he managed to keep his contacts and he keeps on coming with small groups of travelers.  We travel under the direct sponsorship of the Ministry of Tourism who are sending a tour guide/interpreter and two armed body guards with us at all times to ensure our safety.

For the first time in all these years, Geoff was stopped by the Turkish emigration officers and we were not allowed to pass security with the letter of introduction he always gets from the Iraqi ministry.  The Turkish officers were not happy that the letter was written in Arabic and that it simply referred to ten people rather than provide a detailed list of names and passport numbers.  They were not going to let us continue to board the plane…  Quite an argument ensued between Geoff and the Turkish border guards but ultimately we got on the plane.  Thanks, Ganesh.  I think you will have your work cut out for the next couple of weeks.

Here we are in Baghdad.  Our hotel, the Yamama, is not one of the big five-stars in town, but it is a four-star (about three stars more than I am used to) equipped to deal with foreigners.  Most of the smaller hotels will not take in international visitors.  A tank is parked right in the hotel driveway and three officers hold watch around the clock.  These are the reminders that not all is normal here.  We share the hotel with two big bus loads of Shiah pilgrims from Iran.  For a moment I was wondering if we are not a security risk to each other?  But then I realized that pilgrims are usually attacked at the pilgrimage site and not in the hotels on their way…  To have to have that thought brought home to me that indeed not all is well in this country.  But we are safe.

Most of us had been up and on the road for 40 hours before night fell.  Dinner came 15 hours after the meal we had at 4 AM on the airplane…  Let’s say, it was a bit of a rough day.

But I am in Iraq!  Wow.

Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. I’ll be anxiously awaiting to read how tomorrow goes for you. In the meantime, treat yourself to a well deserved, good night’s rest.

  2. Wow, from me too! Have a safe trip and may your excellent memory remain sharp on the limited days you may have available to write.