Day 9 Baghdad Streets
I didn’t write much yesterday because I was so tired and the drive into the city was a bit of a shocker. We saw our first shanty town and it was the poorest settlement yet, which speaks volumes. As we arrived after sunset, all of the shops were securely closed and bolted and we were unable to tell if the flats above were occupied because most were in darkness (power cut?). Nearer the centre, the more affluent shops selling electronics, new tech, kitchens and cars were brightly lit but I spotted only a handful of women on the streets.
Today it’s clear that the City has not recovered from the war. Buildings are pocked with bullet holes, smashed windows and some are even falling down completely. These are interspersed with new, brash, often ugly high-rise apartments and offices. The traffic is appalling.
We immediately got into deep trouble because M leant out of his window with his phone to take pictures of a mosque and failed to spot the army checkpoint beside it. Our coach was suddenly surrounded by armed soldiers and it took 20 minutes for G and our minder (K) to talk our way out of it but only after M’s phone was taken away from him and the photo deleted.
It’s no exaggeration to say that heavily armed military and police are everywhere. Each major junction and street corner has a checkpoint. There are also foot patrols and armoured vehicles, so it is impossible to take a semi decent photo of anything without accidentally snapping security.
We then travelled up the street, searching for a bit of normality, and found a chai vendor. We’d only stopped on the pavement for a few minutes with our glasses of tea before the Military arrived. K explained that we were allowed to be in the City but they were too anxious to have us on their patch and they moved us on.
It then dawned on us that it was the anniversary 9/11, so we really should have realised that everyone would be extra vigilant. We’ve been so disorientated on the road; we just forgot to keep tabs on the dates.
We next visited the Mustansiriyah School, the oldest Muslim university in existence, built in 1234. Beautiful brickwork.
Then we walked through the souk , which is mainly copper merchants, carpets and antique traders. It is very dilapidated and the modern roof is collapsing. We managed to get to the end of the market before G was stopped by secret plainclothes police (he’d predicted that it would happen and we were taking bets on how long it would take to get picked up) and they demanded his passport. G refused to hand it over and walked on, so we all had to follow suit and ignore them (which apparently is the sensible thing to do because if they take your passport you’re really in trouble). Poor K had to stay behind to explain again that we had permission to be there.
At the Marjon Mosque we were greeted by the custodian and reluctantly allowed inside. The “renovation” taking place turn out to be really shops being built inside the mosque grounds and it’s a sensitive subject. The custodian’s mum then invited D and I into her courtyard and we chatted in broken English and universal signs for a while and the men all had to wait outside for us. She was warm and friendly and we were delighted to get chance to interact with someone who was glad to see us.
Following the now standard pattern, we had to argue our way into the nearby Khan Mirjan Caravanserai (1230). G had once attended a gourmet banquet held there when it had been turned into a high class restaurant but it is now semi derelict and partially flooded with some particularly noxious water. The custodians showed us some 1970’s photos taken at various official dinners, showing belly dancers and expensive décor. It’s so sad now.
After a ferry boat ride back to the coach, we had a short stop at the square famous for the toppling of Saddam’s statue. A & B went into the square in an attempt to get a photo and were immediately pounced on by the military who then tried to take them back to their command post. Sensibly A talked them into coming back to the coach and we then all sat there for 30 minutes while K argued with the commanding officer who tried to maintain that our tourist permit forbade any photos anywhere in Baghdad. In the end, a higher ranking officer ordered him to let us go and we quickly returned to our hotel before anything could happen.