A final day in transit to what we called “Disneyland” in Iraq (since you can not pronounce Israel without causing a stir) will allow me the opportunity to introduce our four musketeers, the Iraqi crew that stayed with us during our trip.

Four guys and a canary – I should have long introduced these four trusted musketeers who spent 24/7 with us on this trip and without whom we could not have made it.  But better late than never:

Without doubt, Mohammed was the core of the crew, organizing things, directing, caring.  He had the paperwork which opened doors for us.  He had the direct line to the minister of culture should there be problems.  He called us “my big family” and indeed he had the nature of a great daddy.  He is in his fifties and his first round of kids are grown by now.   But he also has a ten year old who called him daily and who obviously suffered greatly under his father’s absence and vice versa.  Daddy Mohammed was very professional with us and with all the soldiers and check point officials he had to deal with.  He bent over backwards to please us with little things like ice cream, bananas, snacks, or special little shopping trips.  We knew him only as a friendly and sincere guy.  However, at least once a day on the bus, we saw a different side of him:  He would start to joke, gesture, and talk in Arabic and would get the entire crew at the front of the bus rolling in laughter for minutes on end;  Not just giggling, but holding their bellies in uncontrollable laughter!  Mohammed must have a gift which he did not transfer into English.  But all of us in the back of the bus, even though we did not understand a word – when this started, and it happened at least once a day –  were infected by this scene and had to laugh with all of them.  This was just too funny.  Thanks, Mohammed for being a great dad to your big family.   We much appreciate it!

The most important person next to Mohammed was driver Imad , a good looking, and unmarried guy in his forties.  With all of us he was nothing but professional, but rumors had it that through his travels around the country he had established relationships with about eight women, four of whom were married.  After I heard these rumors, I started to call him Casanova Imad; but I don’t think he knew what it meant.  The crew teased him about his women in partial envy but Imad was visibly proud of his reputation.  He was an excellent driver even though often on the phone reportedly with one of his women.   How he managed to follow some of these mad police convoys without an accident is beyond us.   The roads in Iraq are full of obstacles and pot holes; unexpected and sudden breaks are common, but he managed to drive us comfortably and safely even into the middle of the desert where once we got stuck in the sand.  He often was on shift from 6 AM to 9 PM.  Excellent job, Imad!

The most bland character of the bunch was Captain Kasim, one of the armed escorts.  His English was limited and even among his Arab colleagues, he was the most quiet.  But he pulled rank when necessary at the check points.  Other than that, he sat in the front of the bus reportedly “looking”.  He loved to be photographed and got a real kick out of it when once I lent him my big SLR camera to take pictures.  First, he had no clue what to do and then, like a little boy, he started to sneak behind people and to take their pictures (they all turned out blurry).  His most memorable contribution to the trip was to buy a canary just after we had started our loop South.  I thought it was a joke when he showed up from one of the excursions to the souq with a bird cage.  But no, the canary was coming with us from here on out – riding on the front seat next to the driver; a seat which we otherwise kept empty since it was a very crammed space.   Occasionally, the bird burst into song, especially at check points when the bus and the noise had stopped. It was hilarious!

The most engaging for us was Omar, the other armed escort and the youngest of the bunch.  He sat closest to us towards the middle part of the bus.  His English was basic, but good enough for simple jokes and repeated commands like:  “Check point!  No photo!”.   His job was also “looking”.  In the markets or wherever we went, both Kasim and Omar would keep us together ready to defend us, I guess, at any time of danger.  Omar was  a slightly chubby man, very personable with a twinkle in his eyes and interested in talking, mainly about Michael Jackson.  He was obsessed with Michael Jackson.  His cell phone was full of pictures of MJ, he knew all the songs, had downloaded all of his videos, and he was deeply in mourning over his death.  We teased him with that nonstop and finally called him Omar Jackson.  When Roberto was sick one day, Omar turned into Doctor Omar, caringly changing a wet cloth on his forehead, inquiring about his health.  He got involved in our woes and got to know us pretty well.  “The Chinese”, as he called Rosalie, was his special project as she constantly got into trouble or fell behind the group because of her excessive photography.  Omer rolled his eyes, collected her, and scolded her gently.  Closest to the trash box of the bus, he became Trashman Omar.   Whatever needed to be done, he did it.  This kind of job must be a lot more fun for him compared to some alternatives with his qualifications.  He is unmarried and we joked about the fact that we, the women in the group, were all too old for him.  He assured us that on his trips he never gets involved with any of the women because “I am as looking.  That is my job!”.  Thanks, Omar Jackson for making this trip safe and fun.

Finally and thankfully only twice, there was Pompous Talal.  He filled in for Mohammed on the first day and if he had traveled with us, we would have been in trouble.  Disorganized, self-important, and with English skills that led to too many misunderstandings we were just as glad to see him go.  “Wacher” was a word, Omar taught us:  “Get lost”.  It came in handy.  He showed up one more time at the end of the trip for reasons unknown to us.  Perhaps, he wanted a tip?  Well, he did not get one.

We felt perfectly fine with our crew and did not quite see the point of the constantly changing police escorts we were given from check-point to check point and from province to province.  Iraq is a lot safer now than only a couple of years ago.  And pretty soon, the police escorts will hopefully become unnecessary.  It would help with the cost of a trip like this which currently is formidable!

Parting from our crew was sad and involved a lot of hugs and heartfelt handshakes.  It is surprising how you get used to and attached to these guys in such a short time.  I think I will miss even the canary!

Good night.

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  1. No picture of the canary? Such a personality should have a picture. It is lovely that you give such a warm description of these men, who clearly give themselves to their job in a big way.