Always wanted to visit the ancient city of Babylon or the legendary Assyrian city Nimrud? Fancy a tour through one of Saddam’s old palaces in Bagdad or Tikrit? That’s all possible these days. Well, sort of… You can book either a 9- or 16-day trip with the British Hinterland Travel agency through Iraq. And if the security situation allows it, the tour will take you to these places. Even though the British ministry of foreign affairs, and any other ministry of foreign affairs in the world for that matter, strongly discourages travelling to Iraq and it is at this moment impossible to find a company that will insure tourists to Iraq, Geoff Hann is organizing “adventure travels” to this still extremely dangerous country. Journalist Paula Froelich joined one of these tours and has written a pretty hilarious travel report:
Shortly after the Iraq civil war ended, in 2008, while the stink of improvised explosive devices still smoldered and the Iraqi economy wheezed, NGO wonks, USAID, special interest groups and the Iraqi government concocted a brilliant idea: Spur private-sector growth and employment by making the country a tourist destination. After all, driving through Iraq is like taking a tour of the Old Testament. It’s home to Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, the Ziggurat of Ur, Nimrud’s famed acropolis and the 5,000-year-old Assyrian capital of Ashur. It’s where the Code of Hammurabi was written. Its geography marks the heart of the Fertile Crescent, the most ancient of all human civilizations.
The group of optimistic visionaries came up with a PR slogan for the country: “Explore Civilization of Life.” And as nothing beckons tourists like a Ferris wheel, it was announced with fanfare to the international press that the city would build a wheel, dubbed the Baghdad Eye, that would be taller than the London Eye. It would have a view of the entire city. There would even be an amusement park and a zoo built around the Eye, named Sinbad Land. All would be happily housed in West Baghdad’s Zawra Park, conveniently situated next door to the Green Zone.
The Ministry of Tourism dropped $500 million on the project. Despite some concerns over whether it was prudent to build a Ferris wheel within sniper-shot range of the American embassy, ground was broken.
And thus Baghdad came under siege from a new and uniquely sinister lot: tourists.
There are certain rules to abide by when traveling in the Middle East, where a woman’s worth is counted in cattle and she is considered either a virgin, married or a slut. Chief among these rules: Cover your arms, cover your legs and cover your hair. In fact, just to be safe, cover everything. A glimpse of thigh is a money shot over there. Cleavage is practically pay-per-view.
Other, non-gender-specific rules when traveling in a “troubled” area include: Don’t make a scene. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Remember to be respectful of religion. Don’t wander off alone, due to high kidnapping rates. Do not pilfer from archeological sites. And never use your hotel prayer mat, found in most rooms, as a rag to mop up a leaking toilet.
All these rules were about to be broken as our group headed heart-of-darkness-like into the desert and its cruel sun.
Nowhere in Iraq can you get a better sense of Saddam-era design than in his hometown of Tikrit or his palace at Babylon. Lining the roads in between date palms and goatherd shacks are mansions combining four or five architectural styles (Mediterranean! Chinese pagoda! Concrete phantasma!), all dipped in the baroque splendor of marble and gilt. Most of it has been stripped by looters, but in Saddam’s Babylonian residence you can still get the gist of his vision—even with graffiti lining the walls: DOUN [sic] USA! and IRAQ NOT LIV [sic] USA! Meanwhile, from the 100-degree heat and the insufficient air-conditioning system, the bus was starting to smell like a gym locker, and food was scarce. On the seven-hour drive back to Baghdad, Tobias lost it and started fuming, “Where is my lunch? Where is my dinner?
In Karbala, one of the holiest cities in the Shia religion (along with Najaf), Tina refused to wear a burka. At the barricaded entrance to the old city, as we were surrounded by 25 policemen demanding that the women burka up, Tina screeched, “How dare you! This is even more Shia than Iran. Get away from me, fascists! They always pick on me. I’m sick of it.” She stormed off into the inner city, with several policemen and Geoff trailing helplessly in her wake.
“She’s nuts,” someone said.
Crowds of angry men started following us.
“Maybe she doesn’t realize there were several kidnappings and assassinations here recently,” someone else said.
Tina eventually capitulated, but she shook with rage as she entered the shrine of Imam Husayn—the second-most-holy site for Shias. Moments later Justine, whose burka had started to slip, announced, “I was being followed by a nuttah, so I just walked right up to him and said, ‘Hey, you, nuttah! Get away from me!’ ”
“Way to keep a low profile,” someone muttered.
“I’m out of here,” my Kurdish photographer said.
Unfortunately Geoff had forgotten to tell us we weren’t allowed in the inner sanctum of the shrine. So, further incensing the inhabitants, several women wandered in. Some took pictures, and just as a revolt was brewing, several men from the mosque whisked us into a room and locked the door behind them.
Although her fellow travellers were a weird, ignorant and dumb bunch of people, she is overall pretty positive about the trip. Here is a video interview with Paula. The next “adventure travel” to Iraq leaves on September 8. Hinterland Travel also organizes tours through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Burma. Not for the faint-hearted, but pretty cool if you have the balls.