Faces Of Iraq, Breaking Stereotypes. Iraq has been in the news for all of the wrong reasons for as long as I can remember. There was the brutal war between Iran and Iraq which took the lives of over 1,000,000 souls. Iraq invaded and occupied its diminutive neighbor, Kuwait. Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein, were brushed back by US and allied forces; embarrassed and punished by crippling sanctions. This was followed by another invasion of Iraq with disastrous consequences. Civil war followed for years, ISIS terrorized many in the region, and ordinary people suffered greatly. Add in the persecution and killings of the Kurds, the genocide of the Yazidis, beheadings and car bombings, and it can all be overwhelming.
With all of this in mind, it would not be surprising if someone had a negative opinion of this Middle Eastern country. But it is unfair to label Iraq by simply judging the last two generations of history. Iraq is known as the “cradle of civilization” as it hosted the earliest known civilization dating back 7,500 years. Two major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, created fertile grounds and birthed this civilization. There is a plethora of history and culture to be appreciated here.
I was fortunate to visit Iraq in 2016 for my 100th country. This was a visit to Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region of Iraq. The UN views this region as part of sovereign Iraq, but I always wanted to visit Baghdad, which I somewhat considered the “real” Iraq. Over the last several years the visa process became quite straight forward with a VOA, and the security situation has improved. The situation is better but not quite “Scandinavian” safe. The US State Department labels Iraq as Level 4, do not travel. My stay was not without a bit of drama, including an assassination attempt of the Prime Minister. A pair of drones ladled with explosives were directed to the PM’s residence in a failed assassination attempt. I awoke several miles away, safe and sound, and none the wiser, until I read the news.
During my second stay in Iraq, as I traveled from Baghdad to Basra, many stereotypes and generalizations were hastily swept away with my scores of daily interactions with the locals I encountered.
I met the following series of people at the Martyr Monument in Baghdad, an impressive azure structure. Dozens of young people milled around the monument, smiling and of course taking photos. This mixed gender group were celebrating their graduation from university. They were biology graduates.
One of things that impressed me in Iraq, was the men’s hair. Check out these two guys.
And this guys was pretty spiffy as well.
You will note in this post, there are very few women. The men in general were all very happy with taking a photo. In most situations, the conservative society prevented me from taking photos of women. These three young women, who were also graduates, were happy to smile for the camera.
I took this photo of these other graduates as they walked for the camera to the monument. One of their mother’s did admonish me to stop taking photos of them.
Iraq is heavily militarized with the police and military throughout the nation. There was a cornucopia of police checkpoints through the country and armed men everywhere. I was happy to see these soldiers, for me they were offering security and providing safety. Thanks guys!
Typically, these men were a bit camera shy from a security standpoint, but every now and then, they beamed for the camera.
This next photo takes place in the Al-Mutanabi area. It is considered the oldest cultural section of Baghdad. Iraq is a continual social hour. Meaning there are so few tourists in the country, that any foreigner walking around is a novelty. It is easy to start a conversation with nearly anyone in the capital.
This was my first stop in Baghdad. I asked my driver to pull over when I noted this pet market from the road. I usually find these markets to be an interesting place and a good opportunity to meet people. This was no exception. I spied this man doting on his birds and I approached with interest. He was lovingly feeding his birds tea. If you have been to the Middle East, you know society revolves around a cup of tea. This man was initially shy, but after spending 15 minutes with him, he hammed it up for the camera. And before we left … we drank some sweet chai with him.
This is Mustafa. It is a very strong name. He worked at the front desk at my hotel in Baghdad. I always enjoyed seeing him and his easy-going smile. And I always saw him, meaning he seemed to work 24 hrs a day, but was always in good spirits.
This is my friend Kadum. A fair number of the conversations I had were a bit more on the superficial side, but always fun. No fault to the Iraqis, I don’t speak Arabic, and English is a 2nd or 3rd language for them. I saw Kadum stroll by, and noted his awesome lettuce and called over to him. He was a bit surprised and asked if I was Chinese. This is becoming somewhat of a trend, as some nations are inundated with Chinese workers from the Belt and Road initiative. Locals are sliding into the mindset that all foreigners are Chinese. I yelled out a couple of “ni haos” to Kadum and teased him a bit. He shared with me he was a newly appointed English professor and he was a bit shocked since I was the first native English speaker he had ever encountered. We friended each other on FB and parted ways.
These two young guys were chilling in a market, selling some tasty desserts. And you have to appreciate the guy wearing the Chanel shirt.
Meet Mohammed. He works at a gas station in southern Iraq. I once drove an auto-rickshaw for 2000 km across India. I spent a lot of time at gas stations and ended up meeting a ton of great people. The same is true in Iraq. While the car was being filled up, I jumped out and started talking to Mohammed, who spoke a spattering of English, and then met half-dozen of his co-workers. Hard to beat his smile.
I was walking in a historic neighborhood of Basra, when a father stopped me to say hi. He then abruptly (and lovingly) placed his daughter in front of my camera lens.
As I mentioned, they love tea! Meeting some guys in the market selling that sweet, addicting tea.
Some guys serving up some tasty falafel.
I am standing at the gates of Babylon. That is 4,000 year old Babylon. This young woman was posing for the camera celebrating her graduation with her family. Mabrook!
I met this man at a shrine in Baghdad. He was a sheik, a leader in the community.
Some cool dudes. These guys were happy to pose for the camera at one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces next to Babylon. Got to love those sunglasses.
In the south, there is a giant marshland. I met this boy, who lived in the marshes, in a house of reeds.
While there are only a handful of tourists in Iraq, that doesn’t meet Iraqis do not enjoy visiting their own sites. I met this awesome extended family at the Al Burqa Palace. I had a ton of fun talking, fist bumping and taking photos with them.
I love capturing people with my camera, but sometimes video is effective in telling a story. This video shares the simple happiness of family and friends with a dollop of meeting a stranger.
Notice something awesome about this kid? Check out his t-shirt!
Shaking hands is so passe. How about the universal fist bump?
I checked into my hotel and was dying for a cold Coke. I meandered into the restaurant and asked for a drink. The man in the jacket smiled, handed me my coke, and stated “hospitality”. He refused my money. This was not my first time receiving free food or drinks. Expect a lot of hospitality and generosity in Iraq. I then complimented their hair and asked for this selfie.
Face Of Iraq.
Check out my continuing series of Faces from around the world.