Experiential and Immersive Spirituality: A Southern Iraq Travel Diary
Updated: Feb 17, 2020
So, whenever I write about my travels I need to caveat that I am not trying to make this into a travel blog. For me, this is about being continuously unhappy for the past few years, and finding a different way to look at things from a lens or angle I just have not been able to find at home. That being said, as part of the story, I am always going to say where I have gone, the places I have been to, and the connective aspects – from a cultural and individual lens - that have made my experiences stand out, and make me look at things differently. I will mention names and places if I think it is okay to share; and my pictures are posted somewhat on social media. Otherwise, a lot of what I write is opinions that have stood out to me, words that resonate with me, or just cultural perceptions. I am always happy to share tips and ideas; you just have to write to me, and I will connect you with the people who have made my journey what it is.
Sometimes when I think about Iraq, I find myself at a loss of words because of how breathtaking the country is culturally and spiritually. There is a lot of focus elsewhere in the Middle East when it comes to travel – especially on places like Iran. And, while Iran is stunning from a geo-physical perspective, and the people are incredibly kind, I think sometimes Iraq is left in the shadows even though there is so much inter-connection between countries in terms of history and familial solidarity. Iraq of course, is misunderstood and associated all too much with just the idea of terrorism after first the period with Saddam, and then subsequently the past and present with ISIS. Parts of the country have indeed suffered unfairly, and in many ways, after talking with lots of people, are still undergoing various hardships. But, beyond what media outlets will not focus too much upon – the unending list of positives - Iraq remains this mysterious country that nobody knows too much about.
In fact though, it is rife with so much history and beauty in all the off-the-beaten paths and pockets. Standing by the Euphrates river with what feels like rows and rows of palm trees - it feels downright biblical. And whatever religion you practice, you feel spiritual every place you travel from Baghdad to the holy cities - Karbala, Najaf - all the way down to Basra. Iraq to me is like that really special place you love at home that you do not actually want the world to know about because then it would become saturated and de-humanized. I mean, right now, the culture and people - it is authenticity to its core. But, at the same time, it deserves all the spotlight in the world because of how special it is – largely in part due to its people. That, and Iraq is safe. I never once felt unsafe. I mean, I had some amazing individuals taking care of me as a solo female traveller, but generally, Iraq is safe except right near the border to Syria, which I never ventured near; and well, I am going to Syria next.
Mind you, I was not allowed to walk outside by myself and my footprint was reported to the government, so there was a similar vibe to travelling in Iran. There were also some checkpoints where I had to really cover up in my hijab and sunglasses. However, for some reason, I felt more 'at home' maybe because I just really grew attached to this gracious man Mousa, his son Muhanad and their family. Talking to Muhanad sometimes felt like talking to an old friend – maybe like my brotherly friends - back at home. Mousa was just the kindest man, with this smile that makes you want to giggle because his whole face lights up in his grin and in his eyes. This kind of translated to Muhanad as well. With Mousa, I felt mesmerized by these prayer beads he constantly rotated in his hands. I asked Muhanad what the beads represented, and he explained them to the effect that they kept his father connected to religion and spirituality even amongst the drill of daily life. From there, I would see prayer beads rotated around a lot of peoples’ hands as we travelled across the country.
When and if you get in, because the visa process is admittedly costly and timely, you will find yourself in the warmest place. And no, I am not talking about the current summer weather, I am talking about the kindest of the people. I feel, respectively, that I have travelled to a number of areas around the world now. I have met some immensely kind people - top of mind - the Burmese, Peruvians, Himalayan Indians. And, I have been to all the continents, yet I do not think I have experienced as much sincere kindness quite exactly like that of the Iraqis on this first leg of my journey - a first leg where I was feeling completely scared and anxious going in.
They are really a country comprised of selfless individuals who will go out of the way for you, and not expect anything in return. No matter what situation they come from -middle class-city, lower-class village, etc, etc, they want to share their world with you – physically and figuratively - and make you feel part of the family even if the only Arabic words you know are hello, good morning and chicken. They want to make sure you are well fed, and that you are happy. They exude happiness from just the simplest things, and they want to share that joy with you.
And, on the flipside they want to get to know you, despite any language barrier. I find sometimes even when I travel that I ask a million questions about the other person(s), and not receive one question back (this was distinctive for me because I can be well-fed but still have one-sided conversations). And then, I just think about all my disconnected relationships back at home and just want to revert into a shell. But not here – if no one knows English, and I do not know Arabic – in some instances, we just show each other pictures, and somehow discover what our childhoods look like. We understand what our family genealogy looks like through hand gestures and giggles. We laugh, and it feels genuine.
I mean, it almost makes me re-think and structure how I could do things back at home. I barely know what any of my friends’ childhoods looked like because I had never asked, and vice versa. We just kind of picked up from when we met. And maybe that’s it. Maybe I felt disconnected with the world because I was experiencing nothing but surface level conversations about gossip and work, and I never actually knew who any one really was and is deep down - what makes their "core" - and vice versa. But yes, back to Iraq.
Everywhere I went, even if I was told someone had lost their son or brother to Saddam or ISIS (and as you are travelling across the country, you see memorials to fallen soldiers all along the streets and highways), they exuded happiness. I asked where that resilience came from, and they all seemed to resonate together in saying that the "strength to carry on" was through spirituality and relationships. Not that I one hundred percent agree with repression, but this repression worked because everyone seemed to move together in a spiritual unit to rise out of any trauma that you would want to repress in the first place. The people experienced trauma together, and that is why they were and are able to support and relate to each other. Back at home, if someone has some completely normal life where the only trauma they experience is high cholesterol, then yes, they are not going to have the same type of empathy for others who have experienced abuse, addiction, in my case - mental illnesses, etc.
Anyways, I went to a number of mosques in the Holy cities. Stepping into the holy shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Ali really hit the senses. Without even being Muslim, I felt this immense spirituality just by watching these groups of individuals praying in sync; hearing these mesmerizing prayers sung out loud, all amidst watching families walk through the mosque arms linked and hands held. These were basically the most spiritual places I have stepped into in my life. These families connect with each other here in prayer; and where there is a missing piece in their life, they fill the gap with this spirituality, and with each other. The support structures are so strong; and, the families are just so close. I observed a lot, and I just felt like everyone spoke with each other so vividly and full of life. There was a lot of laughing. At times, I laughed with them too. I went into this trip very emotional, having left my support structure - my person back at home. I spent most of the first evenings crying myself to sleep, and trying to hold back tears behind my sunglasses whenever I wished I had someone from back home by my side. So, at the end of the day, I was grateful that this first leg of the trip showed me the good side of humanity, even though I heard stories of the bad. I mean, pretty much every family I met had someone die due to the war. And, it made me think that maybe if I was a bit more connected to religion and spirituality again, I would be able to let go of things more easily. But, there are still a few more months before I want to make that conclusion.
Now, with the more emotional stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the details of Iraq, and why everyone should really go there (even if the visa is a mother of a process). I am not really going to diarize it, but just note some of the places I loved / visited, once again – words that resonated, and some general observations.
I started talking with Adam (brother to aforementioned - Mousa) from Alwaseilah Tours back in May; he was really responsive and easy to talk to. I only talked to one other company, and I just got a better gut feel from Adam, so the idea of Iraq started to materialize from there. He’s based out of UK, and while he runs some of the tours himself, his brother Mousa is actually based in Najaf, and coordinates all of the on-ground logistics. Mousa’s son Muhanad runs with the English translation and is the person who actually walks you through cultural and historical questions. As noted, Muhanad is really fun to talk to. He’s of a younger generation so he’s seeing and presenting Iraq from a different lens of course than his father or Adam, which I think is smart since a lot of the more off-the-beaten-track travellers nowadays are from the millennial and Gen-X generation. If he did not know the answer, of course, his dad would jump in. I think it would have been interesting to ask similar questions to the both of them for generational perspectives, but most of the time for ease of purpose, I just asked all my questions to Muhanad, unless I really wanted to get a specific targeted view. Also, I held back a slight bit around questions related to war unless it slipped its way in because I did not want to appear insensitive. He did note to me that some of his friends defected to Europe a few years back; and at that time, it was a bit easier just to say that one is "affected by ISIS" to get out. He also was quick to note that Aljazeera is not so reliable, and I should maybe consider reading Alarabiya instead.
There were some instances where there were specific historians for particular areas like Babylon and the ancient cities – Ur and Uruk, and then I was able to insert some more questions about life in Iraq. The consensus was largely the same (and mind you I am not speaking for the whole country; just jotting down notes from a few people I spoke to). It's complicated (but not impossible) to get out of Iraq as an Iraqi unless you have some extraordinary circumstance (i.e. a scholarship for school, or you actually go through an immigration process, etc) or the funds. Where Iraq is an oil, resource-rich country, its people unfortunately experience immense income disparity. Professional employment does not come easy. The most common 'commoner' jobs are in restaurants, barber shops or clothing stories. I also felt like I saw a lot of phone shops, especially in Basra given it is a port city and a lot of business is conducted there.
On even just a day-to-day survival basis, cities and villages experience things like daily electricity black-outs (they last 10-30 seconds; and occur quite a bit over a day I found) and sometimes, internet blockages. There is no investment into cleaning up garbage; basically, everywhere you go, the beauty of a particular city or even the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are slightly tainted by mounds of accumulated garbage. To be quite honest, Iraq is not the prettiest country (at least the southern parts) from a geo-physical perspective, but you kind of have to look hard past the barren desert lands, and well, the trash and dustiness, to see the sparkling rivers, and once again, those gorgeous rows and rows of palm trees. And, of course, the Marshlands and villages are just sublimely beautiful even if the reed houses are falling apart from creeping down water levels.
Civil liberties have improved since the days of Saddam Hussein; people can say and publish what they want (within reason), so that is definitely a step in the right direction. People still however do not resonate with the government. A small statistic will vote because they are of the belief that their vote will not matter. Tougher for tourism, those brave enough like Adam and Mousa to show the diverse culture and history of their country, find their voices disregarded because the higher powers are just not really interested in implementing ideas that would help benefit the infrastructure. In a way, the government wants to keep Iraq a secret from the rest of the world. I mean, once again, from my perspective, it took several months to get a tourist visa. And, I was calling that Ottawa Embassy almost every day at one point, memorizing their voice mail message because no one would pick up. Having said that, I think for all these reasons, the outside world needs to go into Iraq. It's not dangerous for one, and secondly, they need a fair voice. Most importantly, it is beautiful humanity-driven country.
I think I lucked out because I was a solo female traveller because especially where visiting Najaf was concerned, it was a family affair. And in some ways, I almost felt like an exchange student, or in some ways, the adopted Chinese daughter (though all across the country, I got "are you Korean, Japanese, Iranian...Pakistani" - the last one made me laugh). I got to spend a lot of time with Mousa’s wife and daughters as well, and it was just a joy. They are such a nice family, and I feel so incredibly lucky to have met them and received all their kindness. I kind of felt like a kid again – even if it was just walking in the park or the mall with them in the evenings, linking arms with the daughters or wife, or being part of all their family dinners. I loved learning a new Arabic word each night from one of the daughters.
Admittedly, I once again have a love-and-hate relationship with my position as a woman in the Middle East. I understand safety issues, keeping a low-down, and also, respecting culturing practices - i.e wearing a hijab out of respect for religious practices. But sometimes still, especially in the heat, I really would just think about home a lot, and my freedoms of wearing whatever I want, and wandering the street whenever I want. So, maybe that's a good thing, that already so short into the journey, I am feeling homesick to a place that I have direly wanted to run away from.
Once again, because I do not intend to diarize each day, I thought I would just share some observations.
The visa part is the most complicated aspect of the process, but Adam hand-holds you through everything. You submit a copy of your passport, fill out an application, and he facilitates the LOA from the Iraqi government. Then, once the LOA is filed, you submit that to your own embassy. Hopefully, your embassy is more efficient than mine.
Getting through the Baghdad airport is easy. It is clean, bright but not modern still. The visa line is straight-forward. You get a stamp without much questions asked, and then you are off to get your bags. Baghdad is a dusty hustling and bustling middle-eastern city. I would say it is fairly modernized, but I spent a very short period there, so I would not have the most informed opinion because I did not get to explore all that much. In many ways, it reminded me of bits and pieces of Tehran, Cairo, Kabul, and Dushanbe.
For me, it did not feel as intense actually as Kabul for example on that very first day. You see barbed wires and military personnel with rifles, but I am almost of the view that when you experience seeing those things for the first time, any time thereafter feels very normal. I mean, right now, I no longer feel phased by check-points and pat-downs. I just lift my arms up, and prepare for my camera to be confiscated. The new surprise actually this time was at the Imam Ali shrine, where they told me to remove my makeup. The second surprise was that there are pat-downs to enter malls, and on several occasions I had to fork up my camera. I, at one point just stopped bringing my camera at night when we went out.
In Baghdad, I stayed in the Karada neighbourhood. It is pretty modern and liberal. Women walk about wearing conservative enough clothing, yet do not wear hijabs. In Baghdad, I found the women wore a lot of make-up, and the fashion reminded me a bit of Iran. Here and there, you would see sprinkles of women wearing chadors, but nothing like in Karbala and Najaf.
In the Holy (I am going to say - hardliner) cities - Karbala and Najaf, all the women are in chadors and fairly conservative. Right now, the country is amping up for a period of mourning related to the prophet Imam Ali's death (Muharram), so all the women are dressed in black chadors. Mousa and Muhanad said it was okay for me to wear regular clothes at non-religious sites (I had a white chador otherwise), but it felt a bit weird. I felt a bit naked, and I told them this for reference for the next solo female traveller that comes through. I would very much have preferred to buy and wear a black chador just to fit in. This was a point of improvement for myself to speak up and say I felt uncomfortable earlier onwards. Unlike Iran, if you do not wear a hijab, you only receive a warning as a citizen. You are not arrested.
I found it interesting that you can buy internet for a week and it is unlimited. At exactly the one week point, you have to top up the data. In Baghdad and Najaf, the internet was okay. It got spottier and spottier as you get deeper into the south until you reach the bigger city - Basra. I also had to give a fingerprint and they took a copy of my passport. I just bought my sim card in the neighbourhood with Muhanad's help.
Iraqis like to eat "traditional" food like rice, stew, kebabi and meat dishes for lunch. For dinner, fast food is the thing - so shawarma, falafel, hamburgers, pizza. With most meals, the restaurants provide these tapas-like appetizers - with hummus, mixed vegetables, and things like chickpea salads. Yogurt, juices, pop and water are the popular drinks. Chai is obligatory after dinner, but Iraqis take it really sweet. Think, three teaspoons of sugar in a small cup.
I was so lucky that I was invited to Mousa's house for lunch one day, and his talented wife cooked this bountiful, delicious meal. There was dolma (stuffed grape leaves), tepsi (an eggplant, tomato, potato dish), and dijaj- roast chicken with dill rice and bread. It was one of my favourite meals. And it was just so nice to sit around the floor with everyone eating her delicious food.
Iraqis love dates, and dates are usually the 'dessert' unless you are out, and then sometimes ice cream (mohr dukh) or fresh fruit juices come into play. I tried Masqouf– open fire grilled fish – in the Marshlands, and it was really soft, flakey and smokey-flavoured. There was also this stewed bean dish, and bamia – an okra dish. In Najaf, they really like the Yemeni meat and rice dish – mandi.
It is a bit hard to walk a lot in the country right now because of the heat, even though I love walking and exploring. You walk for a few minutes and your clothes are completely drenched, especially if you are in layers under a chador, or wearing a hijab. Not surprisingly enough, I still saw guys running and biking. Anyhow, the best places for walking of course are the shaded areas of the historical sites, malls, or just walking in the parks at night. This kind of formed the day-to-day. We would see one or two historical sites or mosques during the day, rest and then visit parks, amusement parks (yes - we rode the ferris wheel as 'viewpoints') and more modern areas of cities in the evening.
Because it was off-season, and I tend to believe that Iraq still only sees an unfair amount of tourists versus the rest of the world, I had most of the sites completely to myself. Even to the end of the trip, I never saw another tourist except for maybe the one odd Chinese businessman in a hotel. While this was a bit sad, it was also really fun when it came to the historical sites. You could take a really long time to explore and just take all the details in without 500 tourists in your way. My favourite places were:
The Martyr's Monument (in Baghdad) - it was so solemn and immense. The blue really sparkled against the sky, and as you walk below the monument, there are hundreds and hundreds of photos of those fallen to the Saddam period.
Babylon is a stunning historic site. You feel chills walking through the site especially by yourself and just the guide. You see slanted corridors and you can imagine soldiers positioning themselves for the enemy. You imagine celebrations down the procession streets. You imagine opulence in the courtyard with all the echos. After that, it is a bit fun to walk through Saddam's summer home and see how trashed it has become.
The Al Ukhaidir Fortress- this site was so much fun to explore. It had vast hallways, this expansive courtyard, and a rooftop to capture everything all in. Same thing with Khan Al Nukhailah- this caravanserai.
Nasiriya and Basra were only okay for me versus Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. The former is a small town used as a jumping off point to the marshes. Basra is a big city like Baghdad, but it did not have much to it. Once again, it is also quite close to the Marshes. And, it was also interesting to see the variance in how people look since you are close to the borders of Iran and Kuwait.
The Marshlands and the surrounding Marsh Arab villages - I mean, I wrote about this previously before. It was a dream to see the mudhif reed houses and meet some Marsh Arabs. They are an extremely resilient people – Saddam Hussein drained their lands because guerrilla soldiers were hiding there. As more punishment for harbouring the rebels, their villages were also burned and ransacked, so they had to defect. After being displaced, some stayed in refugee camps, others moved to the city where they could and then the remaining returned and re-built their homes and livelihoods.
Rain and Euphrates river resources have helped to restore the Marshlands to some extent, but it is not the way it used to be. With the summer heat, there is a bit of drought so the water levels are not as high. I noted to some of the families pictures where I saw Mudhifs set up like neighbourhoods. Now, the Mudhifs are spread apart. Some have fallen over because the families have left permanently. Some families just leave in the summer because of the heat, and go to cement houses closer to the road where they can have greater access to resources from the neighbouring towns. A large mudhif takes 12 men and 20 days to build. The women are largely responsible for collecting the reeds, and bundling them for drying before the men use them to build the houses.
Within the Marshes there was a silver mosque; this was a mosque built as tribute to those who died under the Saddam period, and subsequently ISIS.
In the south, families are huge because they want help with farming, day-to-day duties, and house production. I met a few village families. One had five kids with 26 grandchildren. Another had ten kids; not really sure how many grandchildren there are. In those numbers, some of them died in the Saddam era or to ISIS.
Closer to Najaf, in the villages, I met families where I was able to sit with the women and hear about their daily lives – struggles with losing children, fighting diabetes, corruption in school systems (though to note, it seems like access to education is not the hugest problem in Iraq - even villagers go up to high school). The women were very friendly – and I noted they like to kiss three times on the left cheek as a greeting.
In the Marshlands, the women were very timid. I barely saw them at all, and it was a little bit strange for me to sit on the outside of a group of eight or so men. I felt strange to even take out my camera at points because I wanted to concentrate on hearing what they had to say or what they were pointing at. A number of the village fathers actually knew English, largely because they picked up on words and phrases through their children who took up the language at school.
And then, there were a lot of beautiful mosques and shrines. While I visited a lot of places, these were the sites that stuck to me because of the spirituality factor I already described above. One of my old MBA colleagues described to me that visiting the shrine of Imam Ali for example is just an experience out of a heaven for a Shia Muslim. As an outside observer, I could see that, and the gratefulness that people had in their eyes to just be there. When I visited Afghanistan, the mosques were always kind of empty because we did not go during prayer times. These particular mosques however in the holy cities, I am told, are always full. We just happened to also be there during the weekend - Friday, Saturday - so it was like a major stadium event. The mosques were breaming with people, and there were massive lineups at the checkpoints and pat-downs. You had to be a bit aggressive, but Mousa's family watched out for me the entire way. The security guards were also really nice at all of the sites. I still find it funny that I have been mistaken now for Iranian and Pakistani.
I witnessed tons of weddings in Najaf because everyone tries to get married before the period of Muharram. Pretty much every night, I heard drums and cheers. Muhanad said that weddings can be pretty expensive in the city. The girls can have up to seven dresses - and they do not have to be conservative. One time we passed by a shop, and there was a dress with the mid-drift showing, and apparently for a wedding, that would be okay.
Another example of the fact that country is so giving is that people will walk from Basra to Karbala as a pilgrimage to Imam Hussein's death, and citizens in the surrounding areas will provide them with free food and drink. The journey takes 13 days, and there are kilometres of shelter houses set up along the way to help with the travels. Even as I was walking through the mosque, they were giving out free tea to everyone. The citizens of the country are just so giving and generous.
Finally, surprise surprise, mental health is not a thing in Iraq. And you know what, that's fine. I knew this going in. Mental health is not really a thing except in the developed world. Should I have said something for education, I am not really sure. I think, at the end of the day, people will deal with negative situations in their own way, just like one day I will learn to deal with mine. Here, in Iraq, people find resilience through prayer, religion and the support structure of their close, neighbouring families. Medicine and therapy is not a thing. In Iraq, people go to hospitals first, before they are referred to a doctor versus the other way around. I think, in my view, something holistic like medicine, therapy, and an intensely strong support structure is what can get someone out of trauma. What I saw in Iraq I do not think exists for me at home. But, what I do have at home, does not exist here. So maybe, a person just cannot have it all, and has to learn how to fill in the gaps on their own. Maybe this is all part of "letting go".
What a whirlwind these first few weeks have been. I feel like I have learned so much already, but I am not so sure I have found my answers yet. The journey continues, and there’s still a lot to see, do, and experience. But, I will always have a soft spot for Iraq - it is one of my favourite countries visited now - and I would love to visit the north. So, for now, I leave my heart in Iraq a bit, and venture off on the next leg of the journey.