Source: Brian C. Joondeph

Many of our impressions of foreign countries are based on how the media portrays them, whether describing them as paradise or dangerous s***holes. Unless we happen to know someone personally who lives in or travels to these countries, our opinions are based on what we read in the newspapers, on the internet, or see on television.

Iraq is one of these countries, described as “The world’s most dangerous place” by the HowStuffWorks website.

The Australian government is even more emphatic, “Do not travel to Iraq, including the Kurdistan region of Iraq, due to the volatile security situation and very high risk of violence, armed conflict, kidnapping and terrorist attack.”

I am writing this from Erbil, in the center of Kurdistan, after a day of exploring the city, feeling quite safe. I saw no violence or explosions and was not kidnapped.

The U.S. State Department provides similar warnings: “Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict, civil unrest, COVID-19, and Mission Iraq’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens.”

They take it even further, predicting death for the poor saps who dare visit Iraq:

  • Draft a will and designate appropriate insurance beneficiaries and/or power of attorney.
  • Discuss a plan with loved ones regarding care/custody of children, pets, property, belongings, non-liquid assets (collections, artwork, etc.), funeral wishes, etc.
  • Share important documents, login information, and points of contact with loved ones so that they can manage your affairs if you are unable to return as planned to the United States. 

Aside from COVID warnings and recommendations to get your affairs in order, the U.S. government tells Americans to stay far away:

U.S. citizens in Iraq are at high risk for violence and kidnapping. Terrorist and insurgent groups regularly attack both Iraqi security forces and civilians. Anti-U.S. sectarian militias threaten U.S. citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq. Attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) occur in many areas of the country, including Baghdad.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Iraq at the urging of and with the accompaniment of my son who works in the airline industry. He is a seasoned traveler and wanted his dad to join him on an adventure trip to country number 145 on his country list, which was Iraq.

I selectively told friends and family where I was headed with the almost universal reaction that I was crazy, that I would die, be blown up, or otherwise fulfill the prophecies of the U.S. State Department. Reality could not have been more different.

Photo of the author in front of the Martyr Monument in Baghdad

Beginning in Baghdad, then heading south to Nasiriyah and Basrah, returning north to Najaf and Karbala, finally further north to Hatra, Mosul, and Erbil, we used a personally recommended guide with car and driver to make the most efficient use of our limited time and desire to see as much as possible.

We never felt unsafe, although common sense rules the day of not seeking out the worst parts of town and maintaining situational awareness, practices one would apply in Chicago or New York City.

Everyone we met was friendly and welcoming, living their lives with big smiles, appreciative of the peace that has eluded Iraq for decades.

Countless times we were easily identified as “A-mahr-e-kaan” and asked to pose for photos with strangers asking where in America we were from and what we thought of Iraq. We turned down endless invitations for tea, locally called chai, although it was simply tea with sugar served in a small glass.

Iraq is often called “the cradle of civilization” with numerous historic sites dating back to when years were followed by B.C. Mosques were plentiful and beautiful, and the food was delicious. Life was vibrant, in constant motion, and most people seemed happy as they bustled along.

There were certainly reminders of the decades of war including concrete blast barriers and frequent checkpoints. My passport must have been checked and photographed at least a half dozen times each day. So much for staying off the grid with dozens of photos of my passport on some Iraqi bureaucratic hard drive.

Russian activity in Ukraine during the week was met with a yawn by a country that has seen more than its share of war and violence.

Now for some specific observations:

Religion in Iraq is not simply a Sunday get-out-of-the-house social activity. Islam calls for prayer five times a day, the faithful called to the mosque by a broadcast call to prayer. President Obama’s comments notwithstanding, the call to prayer is eerily enchanting. Muslims visit their mosque multiple times per day for prayer and take it seriously, not listening to syrupy sermons but instead on the ground, heads bowed in prayer.

The young and old attend mosque, not just folks my age who seem to predominate at American houses of worship. From millennials to Gen Z, the mosques are filled with young men, fortunately for almost all, the tenets of Islam, similar in many ways to those of Christianity and Judaism, are practiced for the good.

But imagine the base of support in Muslim countries when religion is used by zealots for evil purposes. We have lived through the consequences of such religious extremism. In America, there would likely not be the base of support for Jihad under the flag of Christianity given more attractive church alternatives like Sunday brunch or Netflix. Fortunately, the desire to live one’s life in peace is the prevailing attitude in Iraq.

As for safety, the checkpoints are daunting, with military and police toughs, most with Saddam mustaches, asking for passports. But such security also made me feel safe as troublemakers are hopefully being weeded out. An airline terminal is one of the safer spots due to all the security, acknowledging that a balance needs to be struck between liberty and security based on conditions and threats, but that is another discussion.

Saddam Hussein has few fans, most calling him stupid and happy that he is now pushing up daisies. He ruled with an iron fist but in Mussolini fashion kept the trains running on time. But say a negative word about him back when he was in power, and some snitch will make sure you end up in one of his torture chambers or prisons.

He is blamed for Iraq’s woes, once a prosperous country, now poor by world standards after what locals describe as “stupid wars.” 

America has similar problems by the way, with only one president in my lifetime not dragging America into an often unnecessary war.

Saddam attacked Iran, then Kuwait, then taunted the U.S. over claims of having WMDs, all leading to him hanging at the end of a rope, leaving his country a mess. They say here that it wasn’t about oil or religion, but just his arrogance, his ego dragging his country down.

Interestingly photos of Iranian Commander Qasem Soleimani adorn the Iraqi countryside as if he were a modern-day Mother Teresa. How ironic that an Iranian thug is celebrated in Iraq. But then again, many half-witted Americans revere Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

In northern Iraq, particularly Mosul and Hatra, are the remnants of ISIS and four years of carnage, destroying large swaths of real estate but in Mussolini style, making the trains run on time by fixing what the Iraqi bureaucracy was unable or unwilling to repair in terms of roads and infrastructure. Beware thugs bearing gifts and promises to make life better as the price tag may be astronomical.

Finally, the security warnings require perspective. Foreign countries, particularly large cities, can be dangerous. Just ask residents of Chicago or Baltimore. While I was in the danger zone of Iraq, I heard of no murder or mayhem, but glancing at the news I noticed according to CNN, during my time in Iraq, “At least 6 NYC subway stabbings reported since the mayor unveiled new safety plan Friday.” Where are the world’s real danger zones?

A travel quote I saw on Facebook summed up my trip, “Travel makes you realize that no matter how much you know, there’s always more to learn.”

And take what you hear from the media and popular culture with healthy skepticism, as many of us learned from COVID news.

Being able to travel is a gift, particularly when the destination is off the beaten path. A Caribbean cruise or a Mexican all-inclusive resort is fun and relaxing, but it’s also not the real world, some places requiring chutzpah to undertake a visit.