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A Solo Stroll Through Baghdad
I am alone in Baghdad. After a farewell dinner and a visit to an Iraqi amusement park my travel companions have left for the airport. Our guards from the Interior Ministry have gone off to other duties and I'm staying unguarded in my hotel. I don't fly out until tomorrow.
I'm not supposed to leave the hotel. Guards are supposed to be with me at all times. While I understand why the government insists on this rule, I've found the guards annoying. They've often made me move on when I've wanted to linger at a place or continue a conversation, and I get the feeling some people didn't approach me because of their presence.
Now I finally have a chance to see Iraq without them. I'm not nervous about this. Well, not too nervous. My hotel is in a good neighborhood and I walked in Basra without a guard and had no trouble. Besides, the biggest risk here is from car bombs and I don't really see what a guard can do about that.
I don't have much of an area to explore. I can't go through a checkpoint alone. The best result I could get from that stunt would be a stern lecture and a police escort back to my hotel. The worst result is something better left unexplored. So my Baghdad tour is limited to one neighborhood circumscribed by police barricades.
The neighborhood is a good one by Baghdad standards, shops and apartment blocks and a few official buildings. The main landmark is the National Theater and a couple of swank hotels. It's considered an up-and-coming and reasonably safe area.
The only problem is that it's the last day of Eid al-Adha, a celebration of Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, known in Christianity and Judaism as the story of Abraham and Isaac. It's one of the biggest holidays in the Muslim calendar and most places are closed.
I pound the pavement past rows of steel shutters. It looks like most people are taking the day off. A middle-aged man and his son come up and say hello. Their English is almost as bad as my Arabic and the conversation soon falters. What I want is to find a like mind, someone with open eyes, a good education, and good English who can explain his country to me. The National Theater seems a likely place. I head over there. Closed.
I continue on my quest. I have a few more "Welcome to Iraq" conversations, each time cut short due to language. I curse myself for not studying more Arabic. One young guy says he'd love to smoke some hash with me but he's all out. Yeah, pot paranoia on the streets of Baghdad. That would have made an interesting article.
They invite me behind the counter and give me a glass of whiskey and some string cheese. String cheese. I kid you not. I didn't know they had string cheese. Yet another insight into Iraqi culture.
My two companions really, really want to leave Iraq.
"But business is good here," I say, eying the wad of bills in the cash drawer.
"Yes, but too many troubles," they say. "Sometimes Muslim militia come here, take bottles, and no pay."
I shake my head. A lot of the so-called Islamists are actually simple criminals grabbing an opportunity.
They ply me with questions about how to move to Canada, my home country. They're disappointed to hear that Canada wants people with money who can speak English but seem hopeful about the refugee angle. They're from one of Iraq's many persecuted minorities.
As we talk a steady stream of customers come through. None look at me. Muslims always have this guilty look on their faces when they buy booze. It's the same look Western guys get in porn shops. As a joke I start serving customers. My two buddies think this is hilarious. None of the customers bat an eye. Iraqis act nonchalant when stuck in a strange situation they're trying to size up. It's a survival technique. To show that you notice is to become part of the scene, and that's not always healthy.
One of the liquor store owners runs over to a nearby bakery and brings back some fresh, hot pita. Ah, Arab hospitality! This is followed by a second (third?) round of whiskey, another form of hospitality that isn't as rare in the Middle East as you might think. As they break out more string cheese I notice it's getting dark outside. My day of independence is ending. My one real chance to have an immersive experience in Iraqi culture ends with string cheese and an alcohol buzz in a liquor store.
It would have to be good enough. When I told a friend back in Spain that most of my interactions in Iraq were friendly but all too brief and superficial, he replied that Westerners and Iraqis need to have more friendly, superficial meetings. At least it's a start, he said.
Good point, but I wanted more.
Guarded group travel has insurmountable limitations that one day of partial freedom can't break. Those serendipitous experiences don't come on demand. You need time and luck. For me they came a few times on this trip – with pilgrims at the Shia holy shrines, with a child refugee in my hotel lobby, and with an artist on the tough streets of Nasiriyah. Each time these experiences could have – should have – turned into daylong interactions. Each time, though, the group agenda and my guards' concerns meant we had to move on.
Luckily the security situation is slowly improving and there's talk of individual travel opening up throughout Iraq like it already is in Kurdistan. Perhaps in a few years I'll be able to come back and explore Iraq the way adventure travel is supposed to be done – slowly, with no itinerary, and alone.
Don't miss the rest of my series, "Destination: Iraq," chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.
Coming up next: "Ten Random Observations About Iraq!"
[Photo by Sean McLachlan]