For the last few weeks I have been traveling through Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan with my dad. The purpose of the trip was to visit and learn in greater depth about these countries.
We ventured to Iraq by way of Dubai. Dubai is a bustling megalopolis erected in the middle of a lifeless desert. Despite lavish extravagance and super modernness, Dubai is fake and uninteresting. Dubai is a hodgepodge of Las Vegas and Disney World, a Mecca of PG-13 entertainment in the center of the middle-east. Attractions in Dubai all seem artificially created to impress tourists while having nothing to do with the country itself.
Despite having a visa to enter Iraq, the immigration process was extremely chaotic. Passport control would reject everyone and make them go get a “visa check” for no reason and this took over an hour and a half. Iraq is not an easy country to come to nor leave.
Starting in Basara we worked our way north toward Baghdad. Nasiriya is home to Ur, the first known capital of a civilized state, the Shumers. A pyramid like structure with multiple levels called a Zikkurat was an ancient place of moon worship. Nearby, the ancient ruins of a once bustling city where it is believed that Abraham once lived.
Much of the violence in Iraq is between Shiites and Sunnis. The dividing difference is pretty much that Shiites believe Ali and his descendents have a direct bloodline to the prophet Mohammed while Sunnis dismiss this. An untold number of deaths have been instilled over this division. The city of Najaf is where Ali is thought to have been murdered and buried. A very holy shrine with Ali's tomb is the landmark Shiite pilgrims from all over Iraq and Iran come to visit. Caskets are carried through about every three minutes. This is not surprising because the worlds largest cemetery is located across the street. Shiite Muslims are honored to be buried near their favorite Saint.
Iraq is a very historic country with fascinating history both old and new. The very first agrarian human civilization formed in the golden crescent of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates. This is now Iraq! On top of ancient history, a lot of Islamic history took place in Iraq millenia later.
The world famous ruins of ancient Babylon are located in the center of Iraq. The original gates of Babylon were removed for exhibit in Germany but a replica arch towered marking the entrance. Unfortunately during the reign of Saddam Hussein, he envisioned to turn Babylon into a personal amusement park, the precious archaeological ruins were recklessly restored. The real ancient ruins were buried in concrete and modern construction above. However, not the entire site is restored in this way and it is possible to see what the actual well-preserved ruins look like.
A palace of the ousted fascist dictator sits on a hill overlooking Babylon. We were free to walk Babylon and Saddam's palace. There are no restrictions of where you can walk, what you can touch, or for that matter take. This is one of the most massive tourist attractions in the world that is entirely void of tourists.
The lack of tourists in Iraq does not come as a surprise. The country is havoced by security concerns and plagues by terrorist bombings. Security check points are very frequent. Hours are lost to prove innocence at these points while bombings seem to persist regardless. To enter the holy shrines in Karbala, you have to go through more security checks and gropings than you do to board an airplane in other parts of the world.
In the capital city of Baghdad, it is nearly impossible to see anything. Buildings of any importance are hidden away behind cement barricades and endless checkpoints. In an empty square in the middle of Baghdad stands a pillar where the famous toppling of Saddam's statue – and for that matter reign – was toppled by the people of Iraq with the help of the US military.
The Friday morning bird market in Baghdad may be the world's biggest bird mart. I have never encountered the sale of so many birds in the same location anywhere else in the world. After a frisk search by ak47 armed policemen, we entered the blocked off street with the bustle of the New York Stock Exchange and the shrill calls of feathered commodities. While pigeons, mynahs, finches, and fowl dominated the scene, it was impossible to deny the presence of countless psittacines.
An African Grey Parrot growled a death shriek as a seller yanked it out of the cage to show prospective customers. For about $400 an African Grey can be purchased along with a budgie cage that it will most likely be kept in till it succumbs. Ring-necked parakeets, cockatiels, and a handful of Amazons were also available. Most surprised I was to come across several pairs of Jardine's Parrots for sale. I asked the seller what kind they were to which he said “brown-headed Amazon parrot” although I could not mistake Poicephalus. The Jardine's parrots appeared most sickly of all birds sold at the market, laying on the bottoms of feces laiden cages.
Budgerigars were abundant in cages by the hundred. Seed is sold out in the open. The push and shove of the market marks an unbelievable demand for birds in a country that was until recently war torn. I am glad that people are turning to peaceful past times but the conditions are deplorable. I hope that better care of companion parrots can be learned by Iraqi people so that they may enjoy the thrill of parrot ownership without the animal needing to suffer.
We also visited the Baghdad zoo. This was a place suited as much for people watching as for animals. It turned out that the zoo and surrounding amusement park is the go-to place for Iraqis on a Friday afternoon. One aviary houses a hodge podge of small parrot species from Cockatiel to Senegal Parrots. Another aviary mixed Blue and Gold Macaws with Green-Winged Macaws. The red macaws got in a fight with the blue ones. When I was asked why they were fighting, I replied "for the same reasons that Sunnis and Shiites fight."
Around Iraq it was very difficult to take photos of virtually anything. Photography of security checkpoints or soldiers is very strictly prohibited and just about any direction you look there is some kind of security. To get onto the plane in Baghdad, a total of eleven security checks was required. Cars are not even allowed within miles of the airport. You are required to transfer and pay for an airport approved car which is then checked three times before entering the airport grounds. At each checkpoint everyone must disembark while bomb sniffing dogs patrol and hoods are opened. Security at Kennedy airport is a breeze by comparison.
Erbil is the capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. The Kurds are not Arabs and speak their own Kurdish language. They were persecuted by Saddam Hussein and remain skeptical of the new Iraqi government. Yet, Erbil is one of the richest and safest cities of Iraq because of Kurdish trade with Turkey.
In Kirkuk we encountered another small bird market consisting of small shops. I was surprised to see crammed cages full of Starlings. I have no idea what they could be used for and if anyone has a clue, let me know. Again some parakeets and budgerigars were being sold. This was a tiny bird market compared to the one in Baghdad but it still shows how popular birds are throughout the country.
We made an overland crossing from Iraq to Iran which took many hours. The complexity of crossing this border was only comparable to some of the most troublesome of African countries. The border agents had never encountered foreign travelers making their way through these parts and simply did not know what to do. They copied everything from passports and questioned us about everything just to be sure they were doing things correctly. The adventure continues in Iran.