Iraqis

Ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia) and the surrounding areas are known as the Cradle of Civilization. My 2-week enlightening experience of present day Iraq proves what an amazing civilization it would have been and how resilient her people are even now.

People and Atmosphere

I had pre-conceived notions of what Iraq would be like- a war ravaged country with bomb blasts almost every week in their cities. I thought I would see burnt car tyres and road blocks, gun-toting Army men, armoured vehicles on their highways and old cars on their roads. I expected to see bumpy and broken down roads and run-down houses. (All images fuelled by those seen on TV and in newspapers).

But boy! Was I wrong. The places we visited were nothing like I imagined them to be. Right from our air-conditioned Mercedes buses to the many luxury SUVs I noticed on the roads…to the well-maintained buildings we passed by and the hotels we stayed at, everything was near perfect. Their highways were 4-laned, clean and in good condition. Even the narrow lanes, by-lanes and roads in the cities were clean-in fact even their garbage pick-ups were mechanized (very unlike in India).

Our hotels had well-appointed rooms and bathrooms with latest fixtures and fittings. Even our towels were freshly laundered and sealed in individual wrappings when we checked-into our hotel rooms (I have not seen this even in 5-star hotels). The hotel staff was attentive and most understood Hindi or English.

I imagined there would be many destitute on the streets especially close to the shrines- but there were hardly any and the rare ones we saw, sat quietly by the side of the road not pestering anyone. (Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural) I also thought the locals would be wary of foreigners, but this was furthest from the truth. They were welcoming, polite, friendly and loved India, Indians and of course Hindi movies 🙂

There were numerous foods stalls and restaurants-small and big, and they were super hygienic. The aromatic smell of freshly baked breads (multiple types of these), kebabs and shawarmas filled the streets we walked on every day. Iraqis love their tea and numerous vendors sold flavourful Iraqi chai (they would clean each glass with hot water before serving). The buffet at our hotels was unbelievable, especially considering that we were in a country with poor economy. Table full of baklavas and puddings, cheese, salads and mains were served for every meal.

The one other thing that impressed me was the excellent internet bandwidths. The Wi-Fi never failed and there was never a drop in the download speeds. Their economy might be down, but their bandwidths are certainly not.

Masjids

Thousands of people daily visit the shrines of Moulana Ali’s at Najaf and Moulana Hussain’s and Moulana Abbas Alamdar’s at Karbala, and even then they were well- maintained with constant vacuuming, cleaning and renovations. The very many other masjids and historical places that we visited during our trip were also clean with constant maintenance- this despite the fact that this region has been affected with violence and destruction. (Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural)

Bazaars

The most colourful and full-of-life souks I have even seen. From knick-knacks to prayer items to yards of material, household items, to gold and silver, and meat, food and bread-everything was sold in narrow,scrupulously clean but interconnected by-lanes. A truly Arabian atmosphere was seen here. Hundreds of people would walk these lanes picking up bargains and in the evenings, supper for their homes.

Almost everyone in my travelling group picked up finger-rings and pendants with semi-precious stones (akik, topaz, sapphire, opals, etc.), colourful head scarves, tasbih (prayer beads), masallahs (prayer mats) and many other souvenirs. The shop-keepers would cheerfully strike bargains, offer free samples of dry-fruits and try to please all customers.

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A vendor selling jewellery

It was lovely walking down their curving streets (even though they were chock-a-block with people), watching the many artefacts on display and taking in the different aromas of food, trays of their local sweets, spices and the crackle of the falafels frying in hot oil.

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An Iraqi man selling bread rolls

Safety

I was never really concerned for my safety though my friends back home were worried. There was frisking at regular intervals and though a tad inconvenient, it kept us all safe. Even we women would walk in the streets throughout the night and no one would bother us. It was in fact ultra safe even for women.

Iraq has natural beauty and a lot of history and I would love to come back to explore. Iraqis are proud of their culture and history. The people of this Cradle of Civilization are welcoming and full of hope despite their many problems. I pray that this land of the Euphrates River eventually attains their lost peace and prosperity.

Travel:

We flew into Najaf, about 100 km from the capital Baghdad. The shrine of Moulana Ali is located here and this city is considered one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam.

We travelled by bus from Najaf to Karbala-a distance of 80 km. Karbala is another very important centre for Islam.

-Tamanna S. Mehdi

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Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural

I have never before been on a journey with so much hope, as on the one I went on last month. This pilgrimage with my family, friends, relatives and acquaintances was about just that- HOPE. Hope for better spirituality, hope of a better understanding of our roots and hope for a better life.

I rarely have difficulty writing a travelogue, but I am at a loss to describe this tour. This travel also had pretty sights- the meandering Euphrates and Nile Rivers, the hustle-bustle of the colourful Arabian souks, beautiful masjids, towering pyramids and magical and mythical stories. But this tour was about more than that- it was a trip back in Islamic history from about 570 to 680 AD. It consisted of a personal dialogue with God involving feelings that are extremely heart felt but difficult to express in words.

We took the almost month long trip of Umrah to Saudi Arabia, ziyarats (pilgrimages) to Moulana Ali’s Holy shrine in Najaf, and Moulana Hussain’s  and Moulana Abbas Alamdar’s shrines in Karbala in Iraq, (Iraqis) and Cairo, Egypt. For me this past month has been about bonding- bonding with God, bonding with our own selves and bonding with our fellow companions while learning about our spiritual roots.

I feel so privileged to have had a chance to take this trip along with our spiritual head, His Holiness Moulana Amiruddin Malak saheb and his family. The pilgrimage was made easy and more informative due to His knowledge, guidance and His blessed presence with us through out.

Spiritual Bonding-

It is most difficult to describe this. The awe, joy and privilege one feels standing at these Holy places- it is impossible to illustrate. All we could do was bow our heads at Prophet Mohammed’s (SAW) shrine in Masjid-un-Nabawi, Madinah or stare at in awe and respect at the magnificent Kaabah in Mecca. Performing Umrah, praying and meditating in front of this House of God was an exhilarating as well as an over-whelming experience. The abject feeling of sadness while leaving these two cities is perhaps symbolic of how deeply they moved us while we were there.

Travelling to Najaf and Karbala was no less moving. I felt a sense of peace at these places and also felt somewhat unworthy of visiting the final resting places of these great Spiritual heads of Islam. Moulana Ali’s shrine is located in a busy market place, but once you enter the compound, there is so much peace and not a sound from the outside world disturbs the mind- one can sit here meditating for hours without being disturbed. The same is true of the masjids of Moulana Hussain and Moulana Abbas Alamdar at Karbala. (Iraqis)

Social Bonding-

We were a group of about 200 plus people travelling together. Praying together, walking together, eating together with them has been a most pleasurable experience of my life. Many of those travelling along, I only knew by name and if it had not been for this trip, I would have never mingled with them and connected with them at such a close level. As I was also a group coordinator (in-charge of 20 people), I had even better interactions with many of them.

Mingling with people from around the world at Mecca and Madinah, and the locals at Najaf, Karbala (Iraq) and Cairo, whether at the masjids or walking about in their market places, hearing their languages, observing their body language, smelling the different aromas of bread baking and spices, all added to this holy travel opportunity. (Iraqis) Infact, Cairo felt like any Indian city- the warmth of the people towards Indians and the Suzuki Maruti cars reminded us of home every day. We just had to mention that we were Indians, and thanks to the Hindi movies, the people would start chanting ‘Shah Rukh Khan, Shah Rukh Khan…’ and offer us tea and good deals.

Cultural Bonding-

Tracing back our roots and feeling proud of the lineage we come from has to be felt to be believed. Especially in Iraq where the Battle of Karbala took place in the month of Moharram and the month is observed every year throughout the world. Standing on the same grounds that are steeped in history that we had only read about in books was a very emotional and moving experience.

From here, the other history of the Pharaohs and their towering wonders- the Pyramids in Egypt, though in stark contrast, were also an enjoyable eye-opener. Dining on the Nile cruises in chilly winds was another unforgettable experience.

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At the Giza Pyramids, Egypt

As they say, hidden connections are stronger than the obvious ones. Living this array of varied emotions and being a part of this trip is indeed a great honour for me as it must be for all those who took this trip. I thank God and His Holiness Moulana Amiruddin Saheb for making this trip of a lifetime possible for all of us.

Hope anchors the soul.

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All of us at Masjid Kumail, Najaf

Weather:

Madinah and Mecca were getting warmer, but were comfortable in March.

Najaf and Karbala were warm during the day, but evenings and early mornings were cool in March.

Cairo was chilly and windy in March.

Hotels:

Gulnar Taibah, Madinah

Anjum, Mecca

Qasr Aldur, Najaf

Alfajr Albadeea, Karbala

Kempinski Nile, Cairo

Travel Agent:

Ideal Tours and Travels, Nagpur. Phone- 98230 53931

-Tamanna S. Mehdi