Day 13 El Khifal & Kufa
Bad news from K this morning started a fearful row between G and K. We’ve now been told that we can’t have an exit visa from Iraq and will have to travel back via Erbil and catch a plane to Istanbul 2 days earlier than planned. This is totally contrary to the assurances previous given by the Ministry and G threatened to stop the trip and fly us home immediately, telling K that the Ministry will then have to refund our money. G spent most of the morning on the coach making phones calls trying to sort out what our options were. By 2pm it was decided that our passports would be taken back to Baghdad to get individual visas for us.
A 5 man police escort picked us up outside the hotel and we drove to El Khifal, the site of Ezekiel’s tomb. They were extremely jumpy, especially in the narrow streets surrounding the shrine and the souk. K said that this was because the townsfolk are Jain followers who hate Westerners but we’re all skeptical of this explanation. The shrine is being restored by UNESCO and we were denied access even though the shrine visit is listed on our visa permissions. We then sat in the director’s office for another long wait while G tried to reason with him by phone but they refused to budge, claiming that they hadn’t been given any formal notification.
We got a glimpse of the original 6th century (?) minaret, surrounded by scaffolding, and also the work on a new one being plastered but were aggressively told that we were not allowed to take any photos. At this point a member of staff started taking our photos and the hypocrisy got to B and he lost it completely, waving his arms in the man’s face and parroting “no photos – delete them” at him, until a soldier intervened and made the man delete the images.
The 14th century (?) souk is small, vaulted and in quite good condition. It’s also possibly the only one of this age left in Iraq. The soldiers flanked us in front and behind as we walked through and then stood guard as we had chai in a souk café. Some locals were friendly and wanted to talk to us but others didn’t seem so enamored and couldn’t wait for us to leave (for obvious reasons). Our guards then surrounded our bus as we boarded to ensure that no one could come up behind us. These men are extremely well trained and professional.
When we got to the perimeter fence of the shrine of Ali at Kufa we caused a major traffic jam because they initially refused to open the main gate for us, so the soldiers had to stand in the road stopping all the traffic from going near our bus. Eventually the gatekeeper got permission to let us in and we drove to the Director’s office for the now inevitable discussion about what we were allowed to see or not see. We were barred from the actual shrine (638 AD) because it is the 3rd holiest Islamic site and we’re non-believers. But we were given apologies (not required – we understood why – but appreciated it after some of the previous encounters along the way) and water, before being shown round the lovely calligraphy studio. D and I were given our names (interlinked with our father’s names) in calligraphic script, as a gesture of friendship.
The shrine environment is very interesting and we were kindly allowed to stand at the main gate to take a few hasty snapshots (too many pilgrims around to take decent photos without causing offense). The Flood supposedly started here and later Noah’s Ark came to rest. Adam, Abraham and Gabriel’s shrines are also here.
Though I was very respectfully dressed, including a large headscarf, I attracted a lot of attention, as I was the only female not wearing a full burkha (D had decided to cover up completely for this leg of our journey). It’s made me extra cautious of using my camera (not a bad thing, per se) but I envy the freedom my male companions have. Intellectually, I find this very difficult to deal with.