Checkpoints and Chai in Iraq

by Danika Smith

A female expat living in Erbil, Iraq, is shuttled through a series of checkpoints in an attempt to explore cities in the south of the country. This story was selected as a finalist in the Crossings travel writing competition.

Car tires splash through muddy water, and gray, low-lying clouds weigh down the morning air—evidence of last night’s showers. The sidewalks of Baghdad are empty and ghostly during daylight hours throughout the holy month of Ramadan. “In sha’ Allah,” God willing, the gloomy weather isn’t a sinister forecast of our passage into bordering provinces.

“The Green Zone is on the other side,” Yusuf points out the SUV window across the murky, brown Tigris River that cuts the city in two. Once fortified and secured with high concrete walls, barbed wire, and soldiers, the headquarters for Iraqi regimes, and later deemed the only safe area for foreigners after the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Green Zone is now open to the public.

Wars and more recent protests cast a grim light on Iraq in the media. According to foreign travel advisories, one should “avoid travel to all provinces of Iraq.” Though occasional rocket and drone attacks do occur in Kurdistan, the northern part of Iraq where I’ve lived for nearly three years now, the armed conflict, civil unrest, and kidnappings that are a greater threat arise mostly in the south.

Since moving from Toronto to Erbil, I’ve dreamed of traveling to Southern Iraq and setting foot in the ancient city of Babylon and the glittering mosques in Karbala. Still, I remained too nervous to travel there myself. During Yusuf’s previous visit to meet mutual friends in Erbil, he promised to help me coordinate a trip to the south.

“North American tourists travel there all the time now. It’s very safe.”

Regardless of his previous encouragement, I’m jittery once we’re on our way out of Baghdad.

Yusuf swivels to face me in the back seat: “You have your passport, right?”

“Of course!” I rifle through my purse for the fifth time this morning to check that it’s there. My shoulders drop from my ears once my fingers feel the outline of my passport in my wallet.

Conversation in the car quiets as we approach the gray cement-walled gate to enter the Babil province. Ahmad slows the car, lowers the music volume, and rolls down his window. The guard manning our lane boasts a thick mustache similar to Ahmad’s. However, instead of a hoodie and jeans like Ahmad, the guard is wearing a green camo suit with a rifle slung over his shoulder.

Obscure, erratic rules and the whims of the armed guards dictate who is allowed to pass through checkpoints in Iraq. Hopefully, being a foreigner among a group of locals doesn’t raise any suspicions.

Ahmad gestures with a tilt of his head to Yusuf in the front seat, to Zaynah, his wife next to me in the back, and then to me.

I understand little Arabic but can make out what Ahmad says to the rifle-clad man: “This is my friend, my wife, and another friend. We’re coming from Baghdad and going to visit Babylon.” 

My hands tighten around my purse, and my jaw clenches shut.

The guard peers through the window and takes a second to look Zaynah and me over. He waves his hand for Ahmad to drive on. No questions. No scrutinizing of passports. Perhaps dark clouds aren’t a bad omen after all.

Today’s first stop: Babylon. Brilliant royal-blue bricks of the Ishtar Gate adorn the ancient civilization’s entrance, but it’s only an imitation. The replica here is based on the original remains kept in Berlin since the Germans excavated Babylon in 1899. The Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin receives over a million visitors every year. On the ground where Iraq’s ancestors created the elaborate artwork, only a couple thousand people pay homage to Iraq’s colorful history each year. We’re the only visitors at 9 a.m. on a cloudy day during Ramadan.

Regal fortress walls of Babylon tower fifty feet into the air. Palm leaves rustle in the gusty wind—the only sound besides gravel crunching under my feet. The Euphrates River surrounds the area, seen from above on the hill adjacent to the ruins of Babylon, a flowing blue lifeline to the people in this region for thousands of years.

Shadowed light through the clouds cast on the yellow brick emanates the mystical energy of Babylon’s previous civilizations and empires. Iraq may only have a replica, but no preserved glazed brick in a museum equates to this sensory experience of stepping into the place that saw the dawn of civilization.

Back in the car as we head to our next stop, a blazing sun breaks through the overcast sky. The changing weather generates fresh nerves for the next checkpoint. Zaynah reaches into her bag for a polyester, black scarf to cover her short curly bob.

“We’re coming close to the checkpoint into Karbala.” Yusuf pushes his glasses higher on his nose toward his dark eyebrows. “You’ll have to put on a hijab now, Danika, but you can wait to put on the abaya until we’re out of the car.”

Zaynah notices my struggle to fit the olive-hued scarf around my head. She hands me a safety pin and shows me how to secure it under my chin.

Another mustached Iraqi man in military uniform only glances in the backseat at Zaynah and me before waving us through. We’ve passed another checkpoint without drama.

My arms slide through the broad sleeves of the heavy black fabric, and I hobble out of the car. The hood folds over my head, and the abaya billows in the breeze, transforming me into a silhouette resembling a clumsy black ghost. Though the clothes camouflage me among the women draped in black, I’ve never felt so out of place.

At the female inspection point for the Imam Hossain and Al Abbas shrines, Zaynah and I peel the dusty brown floral curtains to one side and follow the queue. Metal gates divide visitors into four lines that lead to the staff responsible for patting down visitors.

I trip on the bottom of the abaya dragging along the floor, then swiftly grab the metal bars to save myself from face-planting. The woman in charge of frisking us spits something in Arabic, but I don’t catch it. She squints at me like a mother reprimanding a child playing during a sermon.

Zaynah is handed a baby wipe and ordered to clean the blush from her cheeks. Makeup, along with visible hair, is against the rules.

“The women at these places are brutal,” Zaynah says, pressing her lips together.

Wooden cubbies outside the mosque are stuffed full of sneakers and sandals of people already inside. We shake off our embarrassing admittance to the holy site and walk to the female entrance. Yusuf and Ahmad enter through a separate gate designated for male visitors.

In the central praying area, an amalgamation of turquoise, royal blue, yellow, and white minuscule tiles squeeze against each other. The intricate mosaic resembles a painted mural from a distance. The gold turreted lid of Hossain’s burial shrine glows under the fluorescent light. 

Like Mecca and Medina, this mosque is visited by Shia Muslim pilgrims from all over the world. Women in identical black cloaks like mine grasp onto the metal grate covering the shrine as tears well in their eyes. Despite wanting to stare out of curiosity, I turn my attention upward. The ceiling is an explosion of mirrors and crystals lit by golden chandeliers. It’s as if we’ve stepped inside a giant diamond. 

Once back in Baghdad, heavy droplets fall from the sky. Yusuf and I rush from the car into the low-rise apartment building where he, his sister, and his nephew live.

As we enter, 6-year-old Wafiq performs a Spiderman-style leap from the doorway. Yusuf chuckles and pats him on the back. I give Wafiq a thumbs-up to approve his superhero impersonation. “Welcome back!” Afra leans back from the stove, the table a foot behind her. The front door opens directly to the kitchen and dining area. The room is so small that the fridge is in Afra’s and Wafiq’s bedroom.

Afra’s face glows as she pulls her thick black curls into a loose bun at the top of her head. “Please come sit down. Eat, eat.” She serves plates of rice, salad, and “bahmia,” stewed okra in tomato sauce. After convincing Afra to let me help her wash the dishes, Wafiq pleads for us to play UNO.

We take turns throwing cards on the table while we sip black tea from short, clear glasses. Afra smooths down cowlicks in Wafiq’s brown hair as he picks out cashews and dried figs from a bowl of mixed nuts. We were strangers when we first met two nights ago for our first cup of chai. Tonight, we’re like family.

Thanks to smooth-sailing checkpoints through Babylon and Karbala, and the loving welcome from Yusuf’s family, I’m confident enough to travel alone to Nasiriyah and Basra, and the Marshlands of South Iraq.

Before dawn, Yusuf drops me at the shared taxi station in Baghdad to catch a ride south. Yusuf hugs me and opens the taxi door for me as we say goodbye. We snake southbound along the highway through desert plains and scrawny shrubbery. The taxi driver eases onto the brakes. He steps out to buy chai in a paper cup from a roadside vendor and offers me one.

A familiar orange glow of a new day emerges in the east. The driver slows the car again, grabs a towel from the glove compartment, and tilts through his door to wipe the back seat window facing the sun. “So you can see the sunrise, Miss.” A goofy, toothy grin creases his sun-leathered skin. After sunlight sparks across the land, the driver points to the west side of the road. “Camels!” he smiles again.

Brown and beige knobby-kneed creatures stride across the sandy terrain. They walk calmly without fear of predators in the desert. I shouldn’t fear being preyed upon either.

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