By TIM APPLEBY
Globe and Mail Update
Friday, November 1, 2002
So you want to visit sunny Iraq, never an easy experience but invariably a memorable one. Here's a primer.
Before you go
Chances are, you're not a tourist. You might be a brave entrepreneur. Or you could be one of the solidarity types who regularly drop in. But most likely you're a journalist who has spent weeks or months negotiating for a visa. There was no Israeli stamp in your passport so finally you have that much-prized document, valid for 10 short days. And you've got lots of U.S. cash, the only kind that counts.
For years the only way to enter Iraq was via the land route from Jordan, a 918-kilometre desert trip enlivened on the Jordanian side by the road-hogging Iraqi oil trucks barrelling through. (Inside Iraq,
the truck traffic has its own highway.)
But these days you can fly in to Baghdad on a regularly scheduled flight from Amman or Damascus. In theory such flights violate the international embargo against Iraq but they go ahead anyway and the planes are always full.
Disembark at Saddam International Airport, pass along the gangway and its "Down with USA" slogans, and the first thing you'll see is a long table of unsmiling men in white coats. This is the AIDS-prevention reception committee; you may or may not be able to sidestep their demand that you undergo a blood test ($50, please).
From there it's on to immigration, customs, currency declaration and registration of your assorted equipment, with mobile phones (illegal for most Iraqis) stirring particular suspicion. Do NOT lose any of the resultant documents or your visit may be longer than planned. Ignore the airport officials' requests for "tips."
Where do I stay?
The choice is yours, but you might want to skip Baghdad's legendary government-owned al-Rashid hotel and its famous mosaic of former president George Bush's face on the floor of the entrance. Not only is the scrutiny of visitors particularly acute at the al-Rashid (Motto: It Is Much More Than a Hotel) but the cost can be exorbitant.
"High season," explained a staff member brightly, asked why the nightly rate had doubled to $150 as foreign journalists flooded in to cover the recent referendum.
You are ready to gather the news. And here begins the hard part, because in a country where the media's sole function is to glorify President Saddam Hussein and bang the Baath Party drum, there isn't much news.
Instead, you will find yourself in the constant company of government minders ("guides" is the preferred term) who escort all reporters on their rounds. For the most part, the minders are a friendly
lot, long-used to dealing with irascible, frustrated foreign journalists.
None of this comes free, of course. "Fees" to the Ministry of Information and the minders and drivers (along with all their expenses if you are allowed to leave town) will run you at least $150 (U.S.) a day. Nobody wants payment in the near-worthless Iraqi dinar, toted around in brick-size wads.
Providing you want to write stories deemed friendly to the regime there is some room to move, though you may soon tire of the "Up with Saddam, down with Bush" party line. Also helpful is the fact that many
Iraqis speak English, a relic from their colonial past.
Real reporting, in a scary police state where dissent invites instant retribution, is more hazardous. Unauthorized contact with Iraqis willing to speak frankly must be undertaken with enormous caution because government informants are everywhere and all telephone lines are assumed to be tapped.
So too with the nascent Internet. Routine messages and a "positive" story about Iraq bracing for war were sent to The Globe and Mail by e-mail and arrived. Two somewhat cynical dispatches about the
referendum, however, mysteriously vanished into the ether. That meant dictating shouted stories over a crackling telephone line that repeatedly went dead.
Keeping you sane in all this is the great warmth and humour of Iraq's hard-pressed ordinary people. Despite years of international sanctions and isolation, foreign visitors are almost invariably made welcome,
Americans included, and there is nothing phony about the hospitality.
But don't criticize the leadership, even implicitly. It creates nothing but problems. One conversation with a government official went along these lines.
"You know, Mohammed, one difference between your country and mine is that we can say anything we want about our government. My newspaper, for example, thinks our Prime Minister is an idiot who should have
resigned long ago."
"Yes, we don't think much of him at all. What would happen to an Iraqi who said such a thing?"
"Have you seen our National Football Stadium?"
Photography can also be tricky. You are most welcome to shoot street scenes, mosques or statues of Mr. Hussein (no shortage of the latter). But anything of a remotely military nature is seriously off-limits.
Another tip: Steer well clear of those splendid Presidential Palaces, or you may quickly be having a chat with men in black leather jackets - a heart-stopping encounter should you suddenly remember that your shoulder pack contains not only a camera but a map locating downtown military intelligence buildings, prisons and such other unmarked points of interest as The Palace of the End.
All too soon your adventure is over and it's time to head back to the airport. (You didn't lose your paperwork, did you?) Ever security-conscious, authorities will ask you to identify your luggage out on the tarmac and go on the plane with it. Weather permitting, that is. If there's a dust storm, your departure may be delayed. But what's 16 hours in Saddam International Airport? You'll have lots of company and there's a great duty-free.