Maaha Zainab, Alihussein, Tasneem and I are blessed with a visit to Iraq immediately after this past Aashoora in Dubai. Tasneem and I have been to Iraq earlier, under Goddamn, sorry Saddam Hussein in 1998, sailing from Dubai to Basra and overland to Najaf, Karbala, Bagdad, Samara and Kadhemain. It was a memorial trip, leisure one, even if tainted with fear of Saddam’s goons stalking us most places we went.
The flight from Dubai to Najaf via Bahrain is delayed by over an hour, but we make up by a shorter break in Bahrain. Najaf airport, a modern warehouse really, is deserted when we land; the immigration / customs process is painless. The officers and security men all smoke, in open defiance of signs to the contrary; this is the norm all over Iraq, men (and a couple of women I saw) smoke and smoke – a lot. We are met and assisted by our agent, Ali Shamsi, a smooth talking Iraqi who has plenty of right connections in Iraq; it is obvious from his employee’s subsequent behavior Ali is a man not to be messed around with.
The drive to Karbala is uneventful, the landscape not very much different from Afghanistan, a country I often visit. Private cars are not permitted within 3 miles of the twin shrines of Imam Hussein (A) and his brother Abbas (A) so we change from our vehicle to a taxi and then, the final mile, walking, our luggage on a hand propelled taxi cart. At the final security stop, we run into turbulence. A cagey cop, young and brash, pockets our passports once he sees we are ‘Amriki’. The guide who Ali Shamsi has assigned us protests, the cop is unmoved. Our luggage is thoroughly checked, passerby’s into the shrine vicinity that go through a routine, bored check glance at us curiously, then hurry along. We are made to walk about half a mile to security headquarters for further scrutiny before another young cop, after profuse yakking over his walkie-talkie, apologizes and lets us go. I guess us Americans are not very popular, even in countries we supposedly liberate.
Our hotel, Bab ur Rehma, a stone throw away from Haram of Imam Hussein (A) is small and cramped but modern enough, rather ornate. There are however, no towels and our room is not cleaned the entire 3 days we stay there. ‘Insha’Allah soon’ and in ‘5 – 10 minutes’ is the standard response I get whenever I ask. When I protest firmly, loudly, we are unceremoniously given a few damp, smelly towels, obviously used; I give up.
We visit the twin shrines that evening; a blessing obviously, but also a delight and wonder and amazement at Allah’s compensation to His servants who fell on these holy grounds over 14 centuries ago but now stand high and proud; a beacon for all humanity against all injustice and oppression. The experience, again, is unreal. Much has changed from last time; the shrines have become more comfortable with plenty of lush Iranian carpets to cushion long stays or cold marble floors. The crowds are orderly, perhaps 90% from Iran, until I get closer to the actual place of burials when they become almost unruly, an elbow to my rib and head and Zainab squeezed so hard she bursts into tears. I see Iranians, Turks, Indians, Pakistanis, Nigerians…all lost in awe and pleading with the holy personalities there. Some are so caught up in emotions, they weep and wail openly, some repeatedly kiss the gold and silver, some rub their bodies, jerking around as if suffering from epilepsy against the doors, the floor, the shrine itself, oblivious to the cries of guards to let go, give others a chance…
The municipal authorities in Karbala are super efficient (listen up Mumbai!). With crowds that visit the city, peaking at almost 14 million during Arbaeen, it is a miracle indeed city services survive at all! I am told everybody visiting can be fed free here every day, even at peak periods. Indeed, I see lines and lines of people waiting patiently for a hot meal. These same poor people sleep under the sky at night below heavy, warm blankets made available by the city. The streets next morning are clean and a pleasure to walk through. We have a grand tour of Karbala - Til e Zainabia, the various shrines, sons, friends and companions of Imam Hussein (A), Khaimegah, river Furaat, home of Imam Saddiq (A) and of Imam Mahdi (A).
We leave very early, at 5AM, for Samarra next day. It is super cold, maybe just at freezing as I notice frost on our vehicle. Both the driver and guide smoke inside the car. When I protest, the driver gives me an option – Either I smoke, or fall asleep; so I shut up. After quick Fajr salaat stop at Aun / Mohammed, the gallant sons of Zainab (A), we drive the 120 kilometers to Samarra. There are so many security checks along the way, I lose track after counting 25. Just a quick look inside by a bored policeman who then wave us through. Very heavy, unruly traffic slow us down as we approach the outskirts of Bagdad (déjà vu – Mumbai?). The security is more thorough as we near Samarra, with our passport checked and bomb detectors on overtime. At the shrine of Imams Naqi (A) and Asghari (A), where there are numerous checks and re-checks, our guide urges us to hurry up; he seems nervous. The work on destroyed tombs of the Imams (A) is in full swing, with construction works curtailing a complete, satisfying ziyaarah. A fully armed security guard overhears us discussing the number of security stops along the way and tells me there are 120 between Samarra and Karbala, one after every kilometer. Our return to Karbala via Kadhemein is at 8PM. Exhausted, we eat dinner and crash for our drive to Najaf tomorrow.
Thankfully, the drive to Najaf has only 2 checkpoints, sign of less insurgency. We see the majestic dome of Imam Ali’s (A) shrine; an emotional visit for Zohr prayers follow, then time spent at the courtyard in contemplation and meditation with this great noble and holy personality – a very lucky treat indeed. The hotel is great, even more ornate but with excellent buffet meals; the choice of salads are amazing. Popular as well; there are people staying here I know from elsewhere who I meet. After Fajr prayers at the Haram under numbing cold and breakfast next morning, we tour Masjid Sehla, Masjid Koofa, Masjid Hanana, Masjid Koomail and the shrine of Abudhar. Our last night in Iraq, we say Magreeb at the Haram and then shop for gifts before packing up and readying for our uneventful flight back to Dubai via Bahrain the next day.
Iraq seems on the mend actually. The grinding poverty I saw in 1998 is not evident and people seem well fed, decently clothed and obviously have disposable funds, because they overwhelmingly smoke. Business booms, mainly form zawaar trade and the construction industry is thriving, with hotels and homes coming up all around. I am disappointed not meeting Aagha Seestani; his office informs me they need 5 - 7 days prior appointments now. I am met byAli Shamsi at the airport who gives me my bill which is US$700 more than earlier agreed. Stunned, I argue but it’s no use, he insists it is a misunderstanding; I pay up. Not a big price to pay for the opportunity to be with my Imams (A) but the episode does leave a bitter after-taste in my mouth in otherwise 5 delightful days in Iraq.