A cloudless sky overlaps the receding morning grey. On the streets of Rutbah, the potholes are puddles and asphalt glossy as I stroll in a dream state: absorbing the first impressions of my first day in Iraq: little did I know what I was in for.
I, am, away with it. Still tired. And I don’t even notice the Nissan pick-up slow up beside me.
But I soon accept a lift; he speaks no English but lets me out 400 meters later – in the slow center of town.
I sip sweet black tea outside a basic café and dwell: So this is Iraq. It’s okay – quiet, people seem friendly, super-curious for sure.
Across from me rows of flat-roofed, sun-bleached, bland concrete buildings border the dusty asphalt main-street.
Many have a half-completed look, with bricks and rusting steel exposed, awaiting an optimistic additional storey.
A few people are out and about but it’s not busy. Shops display modern clothing, Adidas bags and other goods hanging from pinned-back steel doors, where wooden crates and heaped sacks clutter their entrances.
Basically a scene not worth writing about but to bring it alive suddenly – a man balancing a tray of tiny glasses on his fingertips says:
“You are welcome to Iraq. Most welcome!” “Thank you. It’s good to be here.”
And I ask him how much I owe him. “No. This okay, no money.” “No money? Free?” “Yes free for you. You like more?”
He replaces my empty glass with another fresh glass of tea then darts between tables, serving others while still shouting out questions at me:
Which country you from?
Your name is?
You are tourist, yes?
Where you go after here?
How long you stay Iraq, friend?
During this tea talk a hell-of-a-noise emerges from down the mainstreet to be loads of schoolchildren marching and chanting.
Three boys lead the crowd holding Saddam portraits.
Followed by two lads with a large-scripted Arabic banner. Two girls in camouflage frocks carrying colorful bouquets. Two boys troop flags. The Iraqi national flag flutters limply in the light breeze as columns of school boys – flanked by unsmiling teachers – follow on mass.
I see two lads giggle and jostle – to get scolded by a serious man.
I ask the guy standing beside me “What’s this for?”
Another man replies “Holy-day” Well, it wasn’t Ramadan (the Muslim holy month), that I did know. I asked him again “A holiday for what?” “Our president, Saddam.” Really? Weird way to spend a holiday.
But I’m intrigued so I follow the parade – since I’m heading out of town to hitch, anyway.
On traffic island a huge mural of Saddam’s head and shoulders – in military uniform and shades – dominates the passing kids. Several children call to me and I take their photo.
Soon the parade merges with adults gathered in a parched park shaded by Eucalyptus trees.
There on a stage are wreaths of color, more presidential portraits, more Iraqi flags.
In fact the entire stage is a parcel of Iraqi tri-colors – of red, white with green stars and black ribbons wrapping everything and everybody, adding an authoritative splash of official color to the drab-suited dignitaries seated by the speaker’s podium.
Raspy, amplified Arabic shrieks over the crowd to reach across the street to where I stand watching; not wanting to be intrusive I purposely keep a distance because already I’ve been the reason for too many bewildered stares.
I’m crouched down rewinding my film, about to put a new one in the camera when I gaze up to see many faces staring and pointing over at me? At me !!!
A wildfire ignites before my eyes as Arabs whisper to one another as the murmuring spreads to crackling as more faces turn to stare at me.
The speaker is losing his audience – his words no longer of interest as 100s of eyes now stare at me.
Fuck. Shit. Feeling uncomfortable I leave but before a half-meter a guy in suit-and-tie is beside me, identifying himself as “Security.”
I forget about the million stares on me as he glares down and barks “You have no right to be here! No photos allowed! Why are you here?”
“I’m a tourist.”
“You have visa?”
“You have permission for camera?”
“You must have a letter from from the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad”
“But I haven’t reached Baghdad yet!”
He thrust his hand forward – “Give your film to me!”
“No! I’m not losing my photos of Jordan.”
And shoving my camera into my bag I walk away raving madly. “I’m a tourist! I’m a tourist! Tourists carry cameras!” To my surprise he leaves me alone.
The incident makes me uneasy. Time to leave town – quick.
I decide against hitch-hiking (I’d hitched the desert from Amman in Jordan, the day before) any further and instead backtrack to the bus station where I join three Iraqis in a shared taxi to Ramadi …