1989:Entering a small town in Saddam’s Iraq seemed a quiet and friendly experience – until a children’s parade proceeded down the main street.
The pot-holed road is full of puddles and wet.
A cloudless sky overlaps the receding morning grey, but I didn’t hear the rain last night.
Then a Nissan pick-up stops alongside me, and I accept a ride.
He speaks no English. But lets me out in the center of town.
There at a simple cafe, I sip sweet black tea at an outside table.
So this is Iraq. Quiet place. People seem friendly. Curious, for sure.
Across the road, flat-roofed, sun-bleached, concrete buildings have that half-completed look. The street-level stores display modern clothing and sports bags. Other goods hang from opened doors, wooden crates and sacks clutter entrances. A few people are out but it’s not busy.
It’s not a scene not worth describing …Until a man – carrying a tray of tea glasses on his fingertips – says “You are welcome to Iraq. Most welcome!”
“Thank you I reply. “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. Darting between tables, serving others while still shouting 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 talk, a noise grows from the mainstreet.
Three boys lead, holding Saddam portraits
School children down the street – marching and chanting.
Followed by two lads with a large Arabic banner.
Two girls in camouflage frocks carrying colorful bouquets.
Two boys troop the Iraqi flag – fluttering in the breeze. Columns of school boys pass, flanked by unsmiling teachers.
Two lads giggle and jostle – and 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.”
I’m intrigued, so I follow the parade – since I’m heading out of town (to hitchhike to Baghdad).
On a traffic island stands a mural of Saddam’s head and shoulders, in military uniform and shades.
He dominates the passing kids.
Several children call to me.
I take their photo.
The parade soon merges with adults gathered in a park, shaded by Eucalyptus trees.
On a stage are presidential portraits and Iraqi flags. Drab-suited dignitaries sit by the podium.
Amplified Arabic shrieks over the crowd, reaching across the street where I stand.
Not wanting to be intrusive, I keep my distance.
Already, I’ve been the cause for bewildered stares.
Now, I’m crouched rewinding my film, about to put a new one into the camera. When I gaze up again, there’s faces staring and pointing at me !
A wildfire of faces ignites.
Iraqis whisper to one another and the murmuring spreads as more faces turn and STARE AT ME.
The speaker is losing his audience.
His words no longer of interest as 100s of people stare at me.
Uncomfortable, I leave.
But before a half-metre there’s a guy in suit-and-tie beside me.
He identifies himself as “Security.”
I forget about the million stares as he glares 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 ranting. “I’m a tourist! I’m a tourist! Tourists carry cameras!”