Travelling to Iraq for the first time is both a thrilling and daunting experience even considered unfathomable and stupid. Why? Because many of us, especially in the West, have been bombarded by a narrative of fear, even going as far as making the nation a synonym for evil. That is not an exaggeration, coined (alongside Iran and North Korea) by who else – George W. Bush.
Enroute to Iraq for the very first time
As fearless as I wanted to be, I wasn’t; it may have been my job, but I felt no better having spent the eight weeks prior trying to further grasp the country’s deep divides ranging from religion to geopolitics. The more I read, the less I knew and the more nervous I was.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have started our final descent into Baghdad”, a crew member announced through the cabin. My mind and body felt detached; my mind said, “Go”, and my legs said, “Don’t go further”. Yet, mentally I was stronger, this misunderstood place was my dream, and I reflected on all the moments that led to this. Would I have laughed at myself a year ago if I had known the trajectory of my life and I would be here, officially now, in Baghdad?
After deep pondering, I realised the answer was yes; I would laugh. Most of us of age, even myself as a 5-year-old, will never forget late in the evening in Sydney on September 11th, 2001, watching in horror as the second plane struck the south tower. This event would put the middle east at the forefront of my world politics. Right there, my life would change forever, an obsession with President Bush, later Obama ensured, and I would become engrossed in the Iraq invasion and later the rise of ISIS. All considered, I felt like I was walking into a war zone; adding to my fears were people’s reactions “Blonde girl, blue eyes”, etc, etc.
Touch down, Welcome to Iraq
I hand my passport over with no words, pay the fee, and before I can consider what the stamp looks like, my passport now has a whole page Iraqi visa, no discretion there. I collect my bag and negotiate a taxi and am brought to what a fellow Aussie would consider “the dodgiest looking car. Ever.”. I can’t help but play scenarios in my head, but I quickly shut them down to not spoil the moment “you’re here, this is it, the moment you have always wanted” I repeat to myself. It is way past midnight, and I catch my first glimpse of the famous Tigris River; I see hundreds of young men no older than I with shishas playing obnoxiously loud music. Something about it felt so comforting: a mix of fun, rebellion, and thirst for life. A place you would escape to whilst your parent thinks you’re at a friendly sleepover, it pleased me.
As the weeks went on in Iraq
Like anything or anywhere, the longer you spend doing it, the more you become used to it. The first few armed guards, militia groups, concrete walls, checkpoints I would use the word confronting. But as you learn, you adapt, and eventually it becomes customary. I wouldn’t consider it as losing your guard because one should never, but you do start to realise that this is just a different way of life, this for most of the world is normal. Slowly this reality sinks in, your privileges such as never seeing a gun shot or the catastrophic aftermath of an airstrike hits hard. The way you see the world changes.
Reflecting now on the first-time visiting Iraq
It is a rather odd feeling now thinking I was nervous because I truly, hand on heart consider Iraq as my favourite country in the world. In stepping outside of my comfort zone, I got to stand in one of the most ancient civilisations, swim in the Mesopotamia marshes, understand the gravity of war and its impacts so soon after the fact. In connecting the dots, in opening myself up to everyday Iraqis, who I regard as some of the most generous and hospitable people in the world I came to love a country I once feared in a way I never thought possible.
Are you ready? Enquire now or better yet join us on our next Whole Iraq Tour.