My 48 hour journey through Najaf, Iraq where the warmth and generosity of the people left me with memories I will always remember.
The journey that almost didn’t happen
“Greetings my friend. I hope you are well. Can you check your flight status – whether it’s cancelled or not? Because protests have broken out in Baghdad and some other cities. I don’t know if the airports are still open. The political situation is unstable at the moment, and things might get worse quickly. We cannot predict anything. I say this with a broken heart.” I remember reading this whatsapp message from Hussein – the hotel owner’s son in Najaf, Iraq, with my heart sinking. I was so looking forward to going to Najaf, and couldn’t believe I was so close – my flight was due to depart from Beirut in less than 24 hours. And then this unexpected turn of events at the last minute.
I quickly scanned some of the main English news channels covering the developing situation. CNN led with “Several killed in clashes in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone after powerful cleric announces withdrawal from politics”. Another read “Iraq announces curfew across all provinces”. A national curfew was imposed after followers of Shiite cleric Al-Sadr stormed government buildings in different provinces.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Things might stabilise in the next 24 hours. Or they could easily escalate into something worse. Dutifully, I rang the airline in the morning. My flight wasn’t cancelled. The Iraqi Embassy said they had no official communication to tell people to cancel their travel (and if they were surprised at some random solo traveller wanting to visit Iraq at this potentially critical moment, they certainly didn’t show it).
It was 3pm now – the time I was supposed to be leaving for the airport to catch my flight to Iraq. Should I go? Or cancel? I had to decide in the next 5 minutes. Basma, who worked at the reception in my Beirut hotel, thought I was mad to go there. “What happens if the borders suddenly close? Or the airports are shut down?” But Ramzi, the hotel manager and Faisal (his assistant) were following the news and said they had just heard Al Sadr (the Shiite cleric who resigned) telling the milita (loyal to him) that spilling even one drop of Iraqi blood was forbidden, and that the national curfew was lifted soon after – a fact quickly confirmed by Hussein via whatsapp. That was good enough for me. I ordered a taxi. I was Iraq-bound.
Three facts about Iraq
I clearly wasn’t paying attention in history class in school because the facts I learned humbled me.
- The ancient Mesopotamian civilisation (between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq) is considered to be one of the oldest civilisations in the world
- The wheel was invented in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq)
- The earliest system of writing in the world, called the cuneiform script, (wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets) started here around 3400-3300 BC (which was slightly ahead of Egyptian hieroglyphics)
“Ahlan Wahslan, habibi. You are most welcome to Iraq”. #IraqiHospitality
I’ve heard that after a while, what you remember of a place is not so much the buildings or the food or the sights, but rather how the place made you feel. I was blown away by how friendly Iraqi people were towards me – a random stranger they’d never met, and probably may never see again. Despite my virtually nonexistent Arabic (the few words/phrases I learnt did go a long way to melting hearts) and their very limited English, we managed to converse with the help of Google translate and sign language. I always felt incredible kindness, generosity and hospitality everywhere I went. It probably was the warmest welcome I’ve received in any country.
Some memories that I will always remember:
> While on the plane, I was a bit uncertain as to how things would be when I landed. The two Iraqi gentlemen sitting next to me were the first to check I had a place to stay in Najaf. They gave me their phone number and said if I was ever to visit their hometown (Karbala) to call and they would definitely help and welcome me there. How often does that happen on a plane?
> The first night I landed, I went out to the bazaar to look for food. I saw a friendly-looking kebab restaurant that was still open at 11.30pm, so I went inside.
Chef: We only have lamb kebab
Me: I don’t eat meat. I’m happy with just grilled tomato and pita
Chef: <look of shock>. I won’t have a job if I serve you that.
The guys in that place refused to accept any money for the food I ate. They told me to consider it as a gift from them, welcoming me to Iraq. And insisted I ask them anytime I needed help.
> At midnight, I was looking for something to drink. I found a street vendor serving strong black tea (similar to Turkish or Iranian tea) laden with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Again the gentleman refused to accept any form of payment saying this was his way of welcoming me to Iraq.
> While sitting at a juice stand one morning – the vendor, a grandma and a young boy grouped together to try and communicate with me via the Google Translate app on my phone. They were most intrigued that I knew no one and wasn’t here on business. When I told them I was just coming to visit their city, they beamed. “Welcome, welcome. You are most welcome in Iraq.” Again, the vendor flatly refused any money for the juice, and instead gave me another glass of pomegranate juice, insisting I try that too.
> Hussein was the son of the owner of the hotel I stayed in – a gem of a guy. He responded patiently, clarifying the million questions I had before I landed in Iraq, and kept me posted on all the protests/developments as it unfolded the day before I landed. He checked up on me regularly during my stay to make sure everything was okay. And insisted on paying for dinner and coffee on my last evening when he took me to the modern side of Najaf with malls, restaurants and cafes.
> I met two professional photographers outside the Imam Ali Shrine (people pay to have their photo taken outside with the shrine in the background). With the help of Google translate we managed to have a chat. They were curious about my camera and asked if I wanted to join them for dinner. They insisted I take their number and if I needed anything to give them a ring.
> I was walking through the Al-Huwaish book market and got lost after taking some side streets to explore. Very soon, a group of local residents were there, all trying to help and up for a friendly chat. Again I was met with beaming smiles, several “ahlan wahsahlan, habibi”s (welcome to Iraq my friend) and they even told me to wait while they brought me some orange juice from a shop as a welcome present. All for a stranger they saw for 10 minutes, and probably would never see again.
> I went out venturing in the 45C midday heat but it got to me quickly and I started wilting. I went in to visit the Kumail ibn Ziad shrine and felt the beginning of a migraine coming on. Most mosques and shrines here have carpeted (and in this case air-conditioned) ‘resting areas’ where anyone can come and reflect, rest, and sleep on the carpet if they like. I lay horizontal in the cool air conditioned environment and before I knew it an hour had passed. Depending on the time of day you can find lots of people coming in to rest, some even overnight.
> When people see you here with a camera, they love to have their photo taken (and shared via whatsapp later of course ;)). I was stopped many times – outside mosques, in the bazaar, while wandering through a series of tailors’ shops – by people staring at my camera and asking if I could take their photo.
Shrine of Imam Ali
Najaf is one of two of the most holy cities for Shi’i Islam in Iraq (the other being Karbala). It has always been a centre of learning with many madrasas (religious schools) and is the resting place of Ali ibn Ali Talib (Imam Ali) – one of Shi’i Islam’s most revered figures. He was the cousin of Prophet Mohammed. Shi’a Muslims consider Ali as their first Imam. Each year millions of pilgrims visit Imam Ali’s Shrine to pay tribute. It’s estimated that the volume of Islamic pilgrims that Najaf receives is third only to Mecca and Medina. During stable times, the number of people visiting the city can sometimes outstrip the local population. There are only good vibrations here – for the mind, body and soul. Even though I’m not particularly religious, it definitely touched me. I felt nothing but gratitude at being able to make it here and go inside.
The shrine’s dome is gold plated and inside the walls and roof are covered with glass, coloured tile and silver. Imam Ali’s resting place is represented by a silver tomb and windows with silver bars. This shrine has been damaged a few times across the years during periods of conflict but has been rebuilt and renovated subsequently.
Security is pretty strict to get in. Baggage screening, frisking once to enter the area close to the shrine (holy zone) and another time to enter the shrine itself. All of the security were firm but extremely friendly, especially when they know you are a foreigner from afar. One thing they didn’t allow inside was padlocks (on my backpack).
Other sights in Najaf
The Bazaar outside Imam Ali Shrine
Sweets, candy and toys are in plentiful supply in the bazaar near the shrine. This bazaar is probably at its busiest at night when Najaf town truly comes alive – thanks to the cooler temperatures (30C) compared to the day (45C).
While walking, I passed a local barbershop and thought why not? Let’s be spontaneous and try the Iraqi barber experience. Verdict: Saleem did a mean haircut for 8000 IQD (~$5.5).
The bazaar is also a great place to try Daheen – a traditional Iraqi sweet coming from Najaf. It’s usually sold at street markets; you can find plates and plates of it in the bazaar just outside the Imam Ali shrine. Very rich but delicious. To me it tasted like a cross between cake and fudge, consisting of flour, milk, sugar, clarified butter, and date syrup or honey. Visitors from outside Najaf are expected to bring back boxes of it for friends and family 🙂
Great Mosque of Kufa
One of the earliest surviving mosques in the Islamic world. It has two shrines inside of Muslim ibn Aqeel and Hani ibn Urwa. According to Shi’ite belief, this is the place where Noah built his Ark.
Wadi Al-Salaam Cemetery
Valley of Peace – one of the largest cemeteries in the world. At over 900 hectares it stretches for miles and miles with great fields of graves. It is 13% of the city’s area with millions being buried here. Some followers believe that if they are buried here, they will be raised from the dead on judgment day with their spiritual leader.
Al Huwaish Book Market
A charming covered old-world market selling religious and other Arabic books. Books in this market remain in the open on the streets even at night. There is an Iraqi saying that these booksellers believe, “the reader does not steal and the thief does not read.”
This is actually a lake near Najaf, confusingly called a sea (~30-45 minute drive from Najaf town). We couldn’t go all the way though because the road was closed by a police barrier (not sure why). I started walking after that road block and then immediately was shouted at by the police! Regardless, even from the parts we were able to see, there were some beautiful sunset views over the lake and the palm groves nearby were an unexpected but pleasant surprise.