Day 1,688 since October 10th 2013: 147 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
Some countries are harder to leave than others
Can you imagine the pressure of wanting to write a good blog about Iraq? Especially when you know that all isn’t well however the people deserve better? Well, here we go...
It all began when I reached Jordan. I had been working on getting the Saudi visa for months and it wasn’t looking much better from Amman. Saudi Arabia is a massive country and in a flightless project it blocks the access to a great number of countries. I had a look at the map and wondered if I could bypass Saudi Arabia by heading north through Iraq and reaching Kuwait on the other side? Would I even dare to try? When had I ever heard anything good about Iraq? I’m 39 years old and Iraq has had a hard time throughout my entire life. But it wasn’t always so... The Danish Honorary Consul
in Jordan wanted to help me with my Saudi visa. As it turned out they have a really good relationship with the Iraqi Ambassador who happens to be a woman. So as the Saudi progress was slow the Danish Honorary Consulate suggested that they would assist with the Iraqi visa.
My Iraqi visa.
The Iraqi visa is known to be both complicated and time consuming to get. The northern part of Iraq is relatively safe to visit and that is where most world travelers go. Basra in the south, near Kuwait, is likewise deemed safe to visit. As for certain other areas it is more complicated. I turned up at the Iraqi embassy with a recommendation from the Honorary Consul and was invited inside. They requested my passport and told me to come back later. It just happened to be the same day as I had to visit the police station and have my Jordanian visa extended so I requested if I could return with my passport later? The response was simply: “just wait 10 minutes...we will give you the visa right now”. And $40 USD and a half hour later I was back on the street with an Iraqi visa in my passport. Now what? Well...I was still hoping to get my Saudi visa, reach Kuwait and enter Iraq from there. So I waited a bit longer in Jordan while I networked, researched and prepared. I happen to have a friend who is well informed on the regional security situation and as such I have received lots of accurate and good information. The Ramadan approached and the forecast of receiving the Saudi visa didn’t look any brighter - I began to look towards crossing Iraq. It certainly seemed a lot easier than returning to Aqaba in an attempt to sail all the way around the Arabian Peninsula. I found out that JETT bus
operates between Amman and Baghdad leaving on Sunday mornings at 07:00 am. I went to the office on a Thursday and discovered that the bus leaves every Friday during the Ramadan! Not Sunday. So suddenly I had to make a decision if I wanted to travel to Iraq the following day or postpone my departure another eight days? I bought the ticket and made my preparations. There were a few more things I wanted to do in Jordan but now I was out of time. I wanted to make a video in which I would challenge myself to spot 10 hybrid or fully electrical cars in 60 seconds or less. I think I could have done it. There are so many of them in Jordan. I also wanted to make a video portraying how all the shops are on street level in downtown Amman while most restaurants and cafés are on the level above. It was something which confused me when I first arrived as I couldn’t find a single café to begin with. Only when I learned to look up I saw that they where everywhere.
My last night with Tarek who turns out to be a great chef!
That Friday I got up early. I had already packed the night before and on my last evening at the hostel I had a delicious home cooked meal with Tarek from the reception. The ticket read 06:15am but I figured that it was a precaution and that I could show up a little later. The taxi reached the JETT bus terminal at 06:30 and I casually walked towards the counter. The woman behind the counter looked at me and said: “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? THE BUS ALREADY LEFT!” As it turned out the bus didn’t leave at 07:00am as I was told on the phone. Due to the Ramadan it left at 06:15am as it said on the ticket!! Aaaarrggghh....another week in Jordan?!? Nope!! Because I persuaded the lady to call the bus and see how far they had gone? Then I jumped into a taxi and raced ahead like a bat out of hell. We caught up with the bus which was large enough to have 60 seats. It was parked on the side of the road waiting for me. As if I don’t draw enough attention to myself just not looking Arab. Inside the bus there were about seven passengers and all was forgiven as soon as I said Salaam Alaikum (peace be upon you). Besides, I think they were somewhat surprised to see a non Arab on the bus to Baghdad.
Apparently I may be the first “outsider” to take that route in a very long time. Everyone flies. Several people have told me that. Our route in Iraq would take us through an area which had been liberated less than six months ago. The bus route had only started to operate again within the past two months. Was I nervous? Not really. At least I was calm on the outside but I must admit that my stomach was acting up ever since I bought the ticket. That could however also have been as a result of eating an egg that morning which I didn’t quite trust? Anyway, the bus continued out of Amman and into the desert. I saw a large well organized tent camp on the right side of the road. Most definitely a refugee camp. Meanwhile on the left side of the road we passed a large billboard advertising for visiting Petra. The contrast of having a refugee camp on one side of the road and a billboard promoting tourism on the other side kind of sums up Jordan quite well. Further into the desert I observed a few fighter aircrafts racing across the blue sky. Once in a while we would pass green highway signs reading out the distance to Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Then we reached the border. It took a while to check me out of Jordan. For my personal safety the immigration officer had to have it cleared with his superior officer. However after a few handshakes and the 10 JD ($14) exit fee, I was stamped out and permitted to climb back onboard the bus. Then we drove across some no mans land until we reached the Iraqi border. I also had to deal with immigration there. The other passengers had it easy and it seemed like they had done it many times before. Some even knew the immigration officers. It took substantially more time to process my entry as they were clearly perplexed about my presence. However everyone was outmost polite. After about 20 minutes a colonel came to see the non Arab traveling by bus to Baghdad. We chatted for a while as he wanted to know what my purpose was? Sometimes it’s good to say that you’re traveling to every country without flying, while sometimes it isn’t. You just kind of need to know when and when not. I decided to say nothing more than that I was a tourist. I confirmed that I wasn’t a journalist and when asked again why I wanted to visit Iraq I replied: “I want to see something else then the agenda from the news. I want to see Iraqis taking selfies, updating Instagram, watching Game of Thrones and playing football”. The colonel finally gave me the green lights to proceed. Then he asked if I wanted to stay for dinner but the bus driver, who had now arrived to see my progress with immigration, backed me in saying that I needed to get back on the bus.
Cars at the border being imported to Iraq.
As we rolled into Iraq I observed a dog sleeping in the shade and two workers assembling an arch across the road. Inside Iraq it was more desert. Every once in a while a small building would appear which could have been a small shop or similar. Those buildings were either brand new or severely damaged. Often I would see burnt out, rusty vehicles on the roadside which had been looted for anything worth keeping. There where plenty of checkpoints but for the most part we didn’t need to stop the bus. I had been told that I might see many different flags but I only ever saw Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi police and Iraqi flags. As the sun began to set I observed a few destroyed tanks and other armored vehicles on the roadside. Then we reached Ramadi near Habbaniyah Lake. Never have I ever seen such destruction on a town! Had it been a dog then you would have put it down. Had it been a car then you would have bought a new one. But this was the home of thousands and the only way forward must be to rebuild. However I cannot phantom how long that would possibly take?!? The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York took place in 2001. I visited New York in 2004 and they were STILL cleaning up the debris. The construction of the new tower hadn’t even begun!! With that in mind - how much time is Iraq looking at to recover? I’ve been told over and over again that Iraq was amazing in the 60s and 70s. The recent decades have been rough on the country. Will it rise again? As the sun set the lights came on. To my amazement the heavily damaged urban landscape was dotted with light all over. I could see that the roads had been cleared and that vehicles were parked in front of those buildings which were still inhabited. Human resilience is a superpower of its own.
You may not see the destruction in this photo. But you'll recognize that powerlines are not suposed to hang like that.
The bus passed through Al-Falluja and eventually reached Abu Graib, where we had to stop for inspection. A strong bold man came almost straight for me and began to question me. “I am Captain Hussein” he said. He was polite and spoke English well. However he had a hard time believing my purpose was tourism? “There is nothing here! No culture. No civilization. Why are you here? This is a bad idea!!” he said. I argued my case as well as possible and then he interrupted me to suggest that I could stay in Iraq and that he could go to Denmark :) The bus finally continued and a few hours later we reached Baghdad. At the terminal I was greeted by Ali. Ali is a contact I got through Karin who’s been following the Saga for a while. Ali works for the Danish Refugee Council and we had been communicating on WhatsApp prior to my departure from Jordan. Max is another follower who hooked me up with Adham, also in Baghdad. But Adham and I never got to meet. In fact a lot of people had reached out to me and connected me with friends, colleagues, family etc. I love the network we have built through Once Upon A Saga. Well, there I was at the bus terminal. Ali had a big smile on his face and wanted to help me carry my bags. We found a taxi and headed straight for his motel where he had arranged for my accommodation. Ali ensured me that it was safe and that it was the reason why he had picked it for himself. He’s such a cool guy and quickly became a good friend. There are just some people in this world which possess a certain karma. Ali is simply one of them.
The next day we headed out to take a look at Baghdad. Baghdad has a “green zone” in which you’ll find most officials, diplomats, expats etc. As such many expats are restricted to remain within the zone. Ironically I couldn’t get inside the “green zone” as I didn’t have any business there or an invitation. So I spent my entire time outside of the zone. And it was fine. There might have been some danger in one form of the other but I definitely didn’t spot it? I’d argue that I have been to much more intimidating cities than Baghdad? In fact everyone I met was kind, polite and showed an enormous amount of respect for me. It was a general theme throughout my entire visit to Iraq: they simply wanted the best for me. Some cities boast statues of generals. Others have politicians. Baghdad had a a great deal of art from Arabic fairytales throughout the city: 1001 nights, Aladdin, Ali Baba and the 40 thieves...it was magical! A great deal of Baghdad’s statues were created by Mohammad Ghani Hikmat
and I must say I really like his work. The famous Tigris river runs through Baghdad and Ali and I went for a boat ride. Apparently the Vikings made it as far as Baghdad long ago. Onboard the small wooden boat I made a video to demonstrate the scavenger feature on my new LifeSaver water bottle. As a part of the video I drink from the Tigris. The boatman was astonished and we all had a big laugh when Ali and I discovered that he thought I was some strange pilgrim who had traveled far, thinking that the water was holy :)
What does the name “Iraq” make you think of? I bet it doesn’t make you think of poetry and literature - but it should!! Because although a few decades have ruined Iraq’s good name it once was an intellectual capital. In many cases school books in the neighboring countries used to come from Iraq. In fact Iraq is often credited as the birthplace of civilization some 12,000 years ago. I find that if you are scared by a foreign word then it sometimes helps to learn its meaning. Much like the name for the militant jihadist fundamentalist group in East Africa known as “Al Shabaab”. “Al Shabaab” used to sound so terrifying to me until I learned that it is Arabic and means: “the youth”. Not drawing any parallels to Iraq...I simply want to say that Iraq means ‘deeply rooted, well watered or fertile’. Doesn’t that make Iraq sound like a nice place? A country which name literally means fertile! And Iraq is a very fertile country depending on where you go. Iraq also lays claim to being home of the worlds first writing system. Lebanon also claims that and Syria is another “cradle of civilization”. Generally I think we can just thank most of the Levant for laying down the foundation for our current civilization.
: "I am the one whose literature can be seen by even the blind and whose words are heard by the deaf" I like this guy! :) He is hailed as the "father of Arab philosophy". He was born in Basra and died in Baghdad around 1200 years ago.
The one who thought of this is a genius!!! They are all over Iraq and the policemen are helpful and friendly.
It’s interesting when you think about it. We didn’t really start farming until about 12,000 years ago. Before then we hunted animals and gathered fruits, vegetables, berries etc. So one theory is that there wasn’t really anything to protect before we began farming because everything was kind on a day to day basis. Once we began farming we also stored our crops at which point it became lucrative for some people to raid the storages. Then you obviously needed a defense. Walls came up, soldiering became a profession and city states were formed. Now that not everyone needed to hunt and gather for survival, some could specialize in other trades. You also needed to know your accumulated wealth so counting and writing became important. A city state would take over another one, and another one and finally you’d have a kingdom. Soon empires would form. I hope you can follow the logic of how farming changed the world? Well, Iraq is home to several indigenous and astonishing empires such as the Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian. In more recent times, during the Islamic Golden Age, Baghdad served as the center of learning and was also the largest multicultural city of the Middle Ages. All that and more has been reduced to a 24 hour news cycle craving more and more terrifying and horrific images to feed its audience. Do you ever wonder why you hardly ever hear about Iraq in the news anymore? Perhaps that is the clearest sign that things are slowly getting better?
This unbelievably large mosque in Baghdad was commissioned by Saddam Hussein. Now the project has been abandoned and no one will go near it.
Iraq is an archaeologists dream with nearly unlimited artifacts to be discovered from the past 12,000 years.
All is however not well. It never really is and I have yet to come across a country which doesn’t have any problems. Ali joined me as I visited the Iraqi Red Crescent Society
(IRCS) which came into existence back in 1932. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that those who work under hard conditions become exceptionally good at what they do. As such both staffers and volunteers within the IRCS have much to be proud of as they have been toe to toe with recent violent conflicts and continue to serve the most vulnerable people in society. Fortunately the amount of internally displaced persons (IDP) in Iraq have dropped dramatically as many have been able to return home. However as per the images I described from Ramadi, not everyone has something to return to. It’s when I shake hands with such humanitarians as I did in Baghdad, that I feel very proud of representing the movement.
Life is truly moving on in Iraq for many. It may be like walking in water but culture, music and art is quickly returning. Ali invited me to join him at a cool café/restaurant where various collections were on display to show Iraq’s past but also to inspire others. As such a signed copy of George R.R. Martins “a song of ice and fire” was on display. Game of Thrones is just as much a hit in Iraq as anywhere else. Ali had his own version of the sitcoms popular catchphrase as he said: “Summer is Coming”. Indeed it is. Temperatures in Baghdad had reached 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) and Ali noted that it was nice still to be able to have a relatively cold shower before all water turns warm. Ali said something else which I really think captures Iraq: “we are here - we are living”. Yes! This truly remarkable country is on its knees. However it may rise again! We live in a world where it’s becoming harder and harder to remember last weeks news. One presidents tweet is overshadowed by the next and I doubt most people know how prosperous Iraq was just 40-50 years ago. A fertile land just needs the right seeds...
Ihab in blue and Zeyad in green.
After a few nights in Baghdad I boarded the train to Basra. I hardly had the chance to pay for anything due to the hospitality of Ali. He even insisted on paying for my motel room. Onboard the train I found my cabin and met Ihab and Zeyad. The three of us would share a four bed cabin for the overnight journey to Basra. Ihab works as a planner in relation to the oil wells. Zeyad is a newly educated pharmacist who was being stationed in Basra for a while. We got along well. Neither Zeyad nor I were fasting but out of respect you try not to drink or eat in front of anyone who is. Ihab was fasting. Once the sun had set Ihab invited me to share his Iftar meal with me. His wife had been cooking. It was a modern train which was no more than three years old. Apparently the line had continued to operate throughout some of the most recent wars: Iran-Iraqi War (1980-88), Gulf War (1990-91), Iraq War (2003-11), Iraqi Civil War (2014-). That’s sort of my point here. Life continues no matter the conditions. And I’ve heard it over and over again throughout conflicted countries: “we are tired”. And I fully understand why. In spite of what most think there are fewer wars on the planet today than ever before. Armed conflicts are however plentiful. An armed conflict is far from as destructive as a war. I’m not belittling an armed conflict. You however need to realize that in a war an entire countries resources can and will be utilized. In an armed conflict there are many limitations to resources and the amount of casualties are much lower. It also means that you can live a full life in a country with armed conflict without being heavily affected. However your government will definitely be affected and in the long run that affects you too. Tired is an understatement.
The train reached Basra at 04:40am and Ali had arranged for his friend Alaa to pick me up and take care of me. During the Ramadan many people stay up all night anyway and get that last meal before the sun rises. Alaa is another great guy. He introduced me to Mr Hayder and we went straight to his house in Safwan (not far from Basra). I’ve never seen an oil well before but Basra is surrounded by them! An enormous gas flare burns off the excess gas at each site and makes for an impressive sight as if a part of the sky was on fire. It’s followed by a long black cloud and I can’t imagine it’s great for the environment. There must be thousands of them surrounding Basra.
You can't get much closer to the oil fields than this without an invitation.
At Mr Hayder’s home we entered the guest lounge. It’s a common feature for many Arabic homes and consists of a room with carpets and pillows along its side. Mr Hayder’s lounge also had a flatscreen tv and a huge air conditioner. That room became my home for the next few days. We had breakfast and then Alaa, Mr Hayder and I all went to sleep until early afternoon. We were waiting for the heat to drop as temperatures in and around Basra were at 43 degrees Celsius (109.4 Fahrenheit).
At Mr. Hayder's home I never needed to ask for anything. First class hospitality 24/7.
My Iraqi family: in the middle: Alaa. to the far right: Mr Hayder. In the back: Doaa :)
The Old Mosque of Basra
is among the oldest mosques in the history of Islam and was founded around 635 CE. The white mosque behind it was built under Saddam Hussein.
Basra Time Square.
And of course the Iraqi get the same block busters as the rest of the world.
In the afternoon we went sightseeing in Basra and were joined by Doaa. The four of us saw the remnants of the first mosque built outside of the Arabic peninsula, we saw Sports City, Basra Time Square Mall, the Shatt Al Arab river and the new bridge which hangs above it. Basra is Iraq’s financial capital and rightfully so with plenty of oil, lots of farmland and a river, which connects to the Persian Gulf. I thoroughly enjoyed my day with Alaa, Mr Hayder and Doaa. In the evening they brought me to a sort of mosque where they wanted me to meet with the Imam and ask him questions. I didn’t really know that until we arrived. Because of the language barrier, as I lack proficient Arabic, we sometimes misunderstood each other. As such, a google translated message read: meet clergyman for interview. It was a Shia Muslim event and some guy who spoke English well came to great me and talked a lot about how Islam is being harmed by extremists such as Daesh (ISIL). Then he brought me inside the building which wasn’t quite a mosque. It was more like a center for learning. Inside the lights had been turned down and red lights were filling up the room. Perhaps a hundred men were seated on the floor...weeping? The man brought me across the room and all the way in front of all of them! “Take pictures. It’s okay. You can take pictures!” I replied that it was okay and I wasn’t going to take any pictures. He then said: “I can take pictures of you and send to you!”
Trying to speak with the Imam.
After the weeping, the lights were turned back on. I later learned that they were weeping for Imam Husayn ibn Ali who was martyred on October 10th 680. He was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Then I was introduced to the Imam and told to ask him a question. I didn’t have a question so thinking on my feet I asked to hear about Basra’s significance in the role of Islam? It turned out the Imam wasn’t very strong in English and we just ended up eating sweets and drinking tea.
Captain Munthir to the left and Mostafa on the right. That's the entire Maersk team in Iraq :)
Captain Munthir has a great sense of humor. He built up suspense by talking about a special Spanish red wine. Then he served me juice from a fancy bottle. It was produced in Spain though :)
The following day I was picked up by Captain Munthir of Maersk
in Iraq. We spent the day together and spoke about the ins and outs of more things than I can remember. He’s a great guy and around lunchtime he ordered me a full meal which I enjoyed in his office. It never seizes to amaze me how Iraqis arrange for meals for me while they fast. Can you imagine being hungry yet cooking a meal for someone? Or being weak and tired while providing a meal for someone? Indeed the Ramadan teaches discipline. Towards the evening Captain Munthir dropped me off at Mr Hayder’s home.
Doaa in action.
Alaa in action.
Later that night I was invited to join a first aid demonstration at a nearby mosque. Alaa, Mr Hayden and Doaa are all IRCS
staff and together the four of us headed off into the night. We picked up a few other guys on the way. It’s funny when you know people in a certain way and then get to see them in a different role. Doaa kind of seemed goofy to me but he was brilliant and authoritarian when he demonstrated first aid. Alaa had everyone’s attention while he did his bit. Mr Hayden was observing from behind. We can only imagine what these men have seen and experienced over the years.
Doaa and his cute little daughter :)
We ended that night at a café with nargila (water pipe) and tea. It was my last night in Iraq. After we left the café and returned to Mr Hayder’s home it was time to say goodbye and it all got a little emotional. I packed my bags and watched ‘Gladiator’ with Mr Hayder’s sons. Then I spent my final night on the floor.
Creative usage of old tires. I haven't seen this since Nicaragua in 2014.
The next day Mr Hayder drove me to the border and we said farewell. I walked across the dusty border and into Kuwait. I think I might have been cursed by an angry taxi driver on my arrival to Kuwait? But that’s another story. Iraq stole another piece of my heart and if it continues like this then it will one day be shattered all over the world. Some countries are certainly harder to leave than others...
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - why am I so tired!
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga