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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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