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I. Iraq before the invasion in 2003
As I mentioned above, I never thought I would one day start recounting my travels around the world by talking about Iraq first. |
That would be tantamount to describing what I ate at my sister's wedding by relating how I munched on an egg roll in the middle of an eight-course banquet.
At the time I went there, nothing much was happening in that corner of the world. Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in the ill-fated Columbia shuttle tragedy, had not yet gone on his 1981 mission to take out the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. Shah Pahlavi of Iran was still in power and Ayatollah Komeni was still in exile. The Soviets were nowhere to be seen and Afghan children spoke not a word of Russian.
The war between Iran and Iraq had not even begun -- in fact, as a foreigner carrying a Hongkong passport, I could hardly discern anything approaching the word "hostility" between the two countries which shared three letters out of their four-letter appellations.
Needless to say, as a Chinese youth carrying a passport from Hongkong, I became an instantaneous object of curiosity to the people I met, and vice versa. They had seldom seen a Chinese except through the news media, and they certainly did not equate a Hongkonger with a Chinese national because my passport carried the emblem of the imperturbable Queen of England. Along the way of my travels, I had seen many Japanese youths, but tourists from China were almost unheard of at that time.
To put this account in perspective, let me tell you that I had started this leg of my journey on a Russian ship owned by a Black Sea Shipping company. I had boarded another ship at Brindisi in eastern Italy to go to Piraeus in Greece, came back to the Mediterranean and then continued the trip on the Russian ship. This took me to Nicosia and Famagusta on Cyprus Island, then off to Latakia, a major sea port of Syria. Then the ship anchored off the great city of Alexandria of Egypt before it steamed back to Beirut.
From Beirut I took a 'jitney' bus overland to Damascus through the Golan Heights and then onto Baghdad, which at that time was comparatively modern in the Arab world. I have since heard that parts of Saudi Arabia and Qatar were also quite modern -- with impeccably ornated, glisteningly glazed mansions and hotels, etc. -- but I hadn't gone to those two countries so I cannot compare. But the huge infrastructure of Baghdad was there for all to see, and that's why Bush is sending 200,000 combatants and not 20,000 for the U.S. attack on Iraq.
My endeavor to recount this journey is not to add another boring account of the amenities of the four-star hotels I had visited -- in fact, I usually ended up living in either a youth hostel or a run-down hotel where the commonest of the local folks congregated, because I was eternally interested in talking to the locals. I wanted to have a first hand knowledge of the peoples of the world.
Quite apart from financial considerations, I surmised that I could never have truly learned the regional peculiarities from living in four-star hotels. In the Arab world, there were no youth hostels as they did in Europe, so I ended up usually catnapping on buses bumping up and down unpaved roads in the numbing darkness of biblical lands or in run-down lodgings when the walking and bus rides came to an abrupt end.
Somehow, traveling in so-called 'undeveloped' countries, I never experienced the fear of being mugged that I have always had when traveling in certain more 'developed' parts of East Asia, North America and Western Europe. In a village called Maloula -- where it was said that the dialect used by Jesus the Nazarene preacher is still used today -- I missed the last bus out of the place and ended up sleeping that night in a shepherd's house. This anecdote proves that I did not fear co-mingling with the native peoples, and I did learn a lot from talking to people from all walks of life in as many countries this way.
In the case of Maloula that day, as darkness set in quickly and I was desperately looking for lodging and failed to find one, I banged on the door of a house not far from the bus stop. The shepherd who answered the door seemed to understand my predicaments and ended up letting me -- a total stranger to him -- sleep on his daughter's bed on the second floor of his house, and his daughter had to sleep on the straw-matted floor in his room.
The first floor of the house was actually a kind of sheep barn (for lack of a better word to describe it). Toilet facilities was nowhere to be found and the room reeked with the smell of the countryside. It was early springtime and the weather was inclement, and I wouldn't have minded if the ramshackle place had a window that could be closed. Still, the man's kindness was what stood out under the circumstances and overshadowed everything.
No comfort hitherto or since could be compared to the immortal peace of that night when I rested in that warm-hearted shepherd's house in Maloula, Syria. He did not ask for any money and I did not push the topic in order not to hurt his feelings. Before I left, though, naturally I put an ample amount under the pillow as a token of my appreciation.
Since then I have noticed that this kind of nascent hospitality is commonly found in peoples with ancient cultures, that in a way the simplicity and honesty of these people stand in stark contrast to the treachery and duplicity found in many so-called developed societies. Maybe in the process of modernizing many societies have become too suave and 'sophisticated' in the more perfidious ways of human behavior.
When I finally arrived at Baghdad traveling overland from Damascus, I immediately went to the bank to procure some local currency. The indelible impression the city made on me was that it was rather clean and more modernized in comparison to Damascus. The bank clerks that I met spoke good English, and the men all looked like Omar Sharif. German philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, and French existentialists like Sartre were in vogue amongst the intelligentsia in the middle class in both Iraq and Iran at that time and no gun-tooting rebels were to be found anywhere.
Those were the days before Islamic fundamentalism became synonymous with militancy. In fact, in the entire Fertile Crescent all the way to Pakistan, I did not see one single 'militant'-looking ragheaded man tooting an AK-47 and yelling Allah at the top of his voice. To be sure, the border areas separating the nations were filled with armed soldiers, but this was entirely predictable.
Only after my travels -- when the Soviets occupied large parts of Afghanistan -- did the West use 'whatever it took' to expel the Soviets from the occupied territories. The Islamic youth became militant because the West wanted them to become militants -- but only against the Soviets. But after the Russians withdrew, the militant genie could not be put back into the bottle, and you have 'militants' working against Western interests because they felt they were used and then abandoned by their itinerant fathers.
On the streets of Damascus I had seen Palestinian guerrillas and in Beirut, Lebanon I had a photo-op with a taxi driver who was wearing a headdress just like those worn by the Bedouin Arabs depicted in the film "Lawrence of Arabia" starring Peter O'Toole. It was patterned with red-lined squares. Here in Baghdad though, the men were wearing Western suits and certain fashionable robes -- not at all like their Saudi neighbors to their south.
Today, when I look at these pictures - which have color negatives but printed in black and white -- I couldn't help but reminisce about what had happened during those intervening years and how I hope sustainable peace will return to the Middle East and the people of that region will get to enjoy the fruits of modernity just like the rest of us. To an outsider they are all fruits from the same tree.