Travelling to Iraq in February 22 - are you crazy? Although I was not expressively asked, I could read that question in the faces of friends and family members. No, I am not tired of living. And I was not alone, my wife joined me (cudos!), and it was a group tour of like minded travelers. Traveling to Iraq has been made easy for many passport holders, as a prior visa application was no longer necessary - we could get the visa on arrival, after paying 77 USD per person, a straight forward process, and you are in. Make sure that you will be picked up - after leaving the arrival hall - there you will meet your prearranged driver that takes you to your hotel. And right away you are confronted with the many checkpoints which ensure that your trip is safe. So keep your passport ready.
Iraq is not yet a country for individual travellers, or backpackers, it is not yet easy traveling. Many checkpoints will challenge your patience, and you have to settle everything in Arabic language. The local guide of our tour operator always had a permit prepared, and then the only thing you need is patience. To get your passport back. Eventually the security personnel will let you continue.
Why do I consider Iraq two faced? Because I also travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan, and there the situation is pretty different, more relaxed, more advanced. But let me start with Baghdad.
My favourite place was the Martyr Cafe, a very traditional tea house that earned its name because in 2007 a car bomb exploded there, killing all the 5 sons of the owner. The area is now safe, it is in a pedestrian zone, no car can pass any longer. Soon we were asked to get photographed, a selfie spree developed, which continued over the next 2 weeks. All Iraqis that we met are incredibly friendly and eagerly want to be photographed with you.
In Bagdad it is still possible to find alcohol - in special shops - further South, where religion has an ever stronger influence, no more. So I tried the Farida beer, made in Iraq, quite ok.
After visiting Baghdad, we went to Samarra, then heading South. Babylon, Uruk, Ur, the cradle of civilisation. Uruk is said to have been the biggest city in the world, some 5,000 years ago, where the wheel is said to have been invented, and the writing. You walk over a yet unearthed site, a history of up to 7,000 years below your feet. This is the special, this feeling to visit the place where civilization began. In Samarra, Babylon and Ur - just to name a few sites - Saddam Hussein spent a lot of effort (and money) to revive the greatness of Mesopotamia, and he was keen to add his own importance to the former glory. For example, when many bricks in the original Babylon temple were marked with the sign of Hammurabi in cuneiform („ I built this temple“), now the reconstructed temple displaces bricks with the Arabic writing that „I Saddam Hussein rebuilt this temple“.
What remains of Saddam in Babylon is his dysfunctional palace overlooking the antique site.
In Kerbela and in Najaf, the holy cities of the Shiites, we visited the Shrines and Mosques of their Imams, Hussein, Abbas, and Ali. You can enter only after lots of security, no cars allowed, and strict security measures of the kind you know from airports. And more than that, strict separation of men and women. Our group consisted of more women than men, and our girls had to ensure to be correctly veiled, not a trace of hair was allowed to protrude. Also there are separate areas in the Mosque, such that a pious Muslim - or Muslima - is not confused by the view of a person of the opposite sex, when inside the Mosque.
Seeing all these pilgrims striving to touch or even kiss the shrine, mourning, praying, some even weeping, gave me as a „non-believer“ a special feeling. Once more I sensed that the world in which I live in is just one possible mode of living, or seeing the world, and the pious Shiites have a totally different approach. Less doubt included. A reminder that what you think is just one of endless possibilities…and certainly not made for standardization.
Basra was the Southern end of our journey. It is not a beautiful city to visit, rather run down in parts, plastic garbage everywhere. But you can feel the will of the Iraqis to carry on, no matter what happens, no matter what circumstances to live in. One of the places I would propose visiting to everybody who adheres to whatever conspiracy theory. Perhaps you find back your coordinates.
Kurdistan - the other face of Iraq. And in a sense not the "true" Iraq, that is, the Iraq of my prejudice. Erbil, the capital, was the opposite of Basra. Modern, clean, almost no garbage lying around, Kurds are more open minded (I felt so at least), many women without headscarf. Liquor shops in a quantity that the whole of Kurdistan - if not Iraq - could get drunk every day. When you fly in from Baghdad, you will pass immigration - although it is a local flight. But Kurds insist of their achieved autonomy and demonstrate this at every occasion given. And I am sure, if Iraq would let them go, without hesitation they would create their own country. Or, to be more exact, they need not even create it, it is already created.
When you travel in Kurdistan, you will be confronted with the struggle of the Kurds for survival, their desire of independence which they cannot achieve, with the cruelties of Saddam they had to endure, as well as their fight against ISIS. And, in the same time, you will be surprised by their tolerance towards other religions which seem to live peacefully side by side. I visited monasteries, churches, the temple of the Yezidis, and to my impression the Muslim religion is not lived that expressively that you are confronted with in Shiite Iraq. Traveling to Iraq is visiting 2 extremes - if for example you compare Kerbala with Erbil.
The former headquarters of Saddam Husseins Secret Service is one of those places that you are glad when you can leave again.
But the Genozide Museum in Halabja, where on 16 March 1988 Saddam poison gassed about 7,000 Kurds, will also leave you shocked. Among the scenes of poison gassed Kurds, also displayed is the rope with which Saddam was hanged.
Back in Erbil, we were glad to have left behinds the scenes of horror in the Museums of Suleimaniyah and Halabja, and could enjoy a few hours strolling through a peaceful Erbil, before finally we made our journey back home.