A Friday in Baghdad
20 March 2022
19°50′34.83′′ N 45°10′04.47′′ E
Northwest corner of the Empty Quarter
A tree in the middle of the sand
Baghdad. I made it to Baghdad. In a sense, I could not believe it. I had joked in a previous story that I would enter Baghdad into the GPS although at that time it was merely an amusing thought with no will at all to make it come true. I thought Baghdad was a dangerous place and even despised people who tried to visit it or, more so, encourage others to do the same. And there I was, driving around Baghdad, trying to get a feel of the health of my injector. I just had it repaired at a hole-in-the-wall mechanic where the owner had gotten some Renault training and possessed the computer to read the faults (see note). As crazy as it sounds, at first, there was nothing breathtaking about Baghdad. I was surprised to see that I could drive around, the traffic jams being occasional and not in all directions. To my utmost pleasure, the checkpoints inside the city did not seem to care about me. It looked like any other Iraqi city I had seen so far with a few additional features of the modern world like comfortable coffee shops. In short Baghdad did not live up to the mystical idea I had made of it in my mind. That is until a Friday morning when by chance I got to the right place at the right time.
I was on my way to Al-Mutanabbi Street with no other plan than to find a couple of good old postcards to keep as a memory when suddenly I got caught up in a lively street full of people which felt like I just had entered a swarm of fishes. I could not turn back as there was no space to go anywhere and cars were already behind me. It took me a whole thirty minutes to drive through the crowd and finally find a spot to park my car. I immediately decided that it would be a good idea to walk back and take the time to let the atmosphere soak in. Men were selling dates, strawberries, pomegranates and other fruits on wooden carts while other were eating kebab sitting on plastic chairs or drinking chai and smoking shisha. A young woman in hijab was buying pistachios while others were looking at clothes by the side of the street. Young tuk tuk drivers all begged me to take their portrait grabbing me by the elbow and not letting me go until they all got their due. As I walked on, cages appeared with their bird-selling owners and the occasional customer holding a smaller cage with bright yellow birds trapped in. A goat was tied to a pole and I started taking pictures of it all, feeling some kind of unexplainable adrenaline rush. I like to feel out of time, out of the ordinary, dream inviting itself in reality. As I took one more photograph of a bird-selling man, he stood up angrily and strongly caught me by the elbow (why Iraqi do this is beyond my understanding but I do not like it and find it extremely rude). Holding me and shooting loud Arabic words at me, I tried to explain that I did not even take the picture while showing him the last picture I took was of someone else. He started to grab my camera off me using force and telling me he would call the police. Fortunately another local came by to help with translation. The situation calmed down and I was explained that this man was a teacher and was not allowed to sell birds on the side. I apologised for not asking permission for taking the picture beforehand while knowing full well that if I had to ask everyone for a picture before taking it, I would only have pictures of people showing their thumbs up or doing some stupid pose which is not the kind of photography I am looking for. I was on Kifah Street on a busy Friday morning.
Going solo is much different than traveling in a group of two or three. When you are alone and an incident arise, you feel the fear in a direct way followed by the sudden realisation of the vulnerability of your helpless being. I always try to appear as calm and confident as I can no matter how much fear I feel inside. While traveling around the world, I learnt that often the person in front of me is as scared of me as I am of him. We are all humans after all. With the same emotional mechanisms. Keeping calm and trying to de-escalate the situation is the best approach. When this happens in Iraq where I know that there is a high chance that the people will be benevolent, all ends up well. However, I could not refrain myself of thinking about what would happen when I am in a lawless place facing angry mens knowing full well there is nothing to stop them. Being in a group gives you a fake illusion of confidence. Being solo turns you into a defiant person constantly pondering when to trust and when not, when to be firm and when it is okay to be relaxed. It is hard to correctly assess the risk of an area and official sources are often useless in that matter as they tend to keep on the safe side and thus would designate the whole territory of Iraq as a red - do not travel - zone. This does not help to differentiate between real red zones. Websites from experienced solo traveler, like Rick Hemi’s page for example, are a much better source of information in my opinion.
In the end, Baghdad and the south of Iraq, my first real immersion into the Arabic world, left a lasting impression. From the Arabic culture one can learn that conversation is key as everything goes through it. Arabs will respect you for your wit and listen to your tales if you appear to them as brave and confident. Iraq will always stay as a somehow special memory in my mind due to a few of its unexpected features: constant checkpoints with no officer able to communicate in basic English, the paranoia of police regarding what I do which led me to avoid camping and stay mostly with locals, the intensity and rhythm that ensued from having to find someone to host me every night and lastly, my favorite of all, a country that is still in a pre-tourism era.
“ Each family member, even children upon meeting each other for that new day’s first time, greeted softly and pleasantly, As-Salaam-Alaikum (the Arabic for peace be unto you). Wa-Alaikum-Salaam (and unto you be peace) was the other’s reply. Over and over again, the Muslim said in his own mind, Allahu-Akbar, Allahu-Akbar (Allah is the greatest).”
– The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley
note: A heartfelt thank you to Wisam for the help, translation and refusing to let me pay for the injector repair as well as to the mechanics who did not charge for their time