Baghdad – Just Another Destination
It’s easy to fly to Iraq. There are three flights a day from Amman, Jordan on the country’s national carrier, Royal Jordanian Airlines; it’s about a 90 minute trip, soaring over the saffron sands of Anbar province en route to Baghdad.
Incredibly, up until a few months ago you didn’t even need to secure an Iraqi visa first: it was possible, if you knew what you were doing, to simply show up and get an “emergency visa” in a small office in Baghdad airport, filling out a form while surrounded by dozens of diminutive Sri Lankan manual laborers flown in by Halliburton and other US government contractors. I’d been doing that for a few years; but for my latest trip the government of Iraq (such as it is) has started to crack down, necessitating a trip to an Iraqi embassy in another country first to pick up a visa before arriving. There’s an Iraqi embassy in Amman, so I spent an extra day there to get the visa.
I walked down from my hotel to the embassy Sunday morning to get it (Sunday, of course, being a regular workday in a Muslim country).
The embassy, a single floor building with several rooms and offices, was packed. Mostly it seemed to be Iraqis getting various paperwork related to their stays in Jordan. Though it’s hard to say; Jordanians and Iraqis don’t look or act much different, at least from a foreigner’s perspective. It wasn’t that long ago that they were all one land, of course: both part of the Ottoman Empire. Only in the 1920s, picking through the remains of the once-mighty caliphate that dissolved after WWI, did the British famously (and arbitrarily) draw borders and create all these new countries. Iraq was specifically formed to encompass the northern and southern petroleum fields; in a way, Iraq has been about oil from the very beginning.
Several attractive Iraqi women in Western dress were working behind the glass in the visa section of the embassy, set up almost like tellers in a bank. One, a dyed blonde with features like the actress Cameron Diaz, told me that they normally stop handing out visas at 11 am; I was half an hour late.
“Please?” I asked, waving my passport around. “I have to fly out tomorrow morning.”
“Well, leave it here, and we’ll see what we can do. Come back in an hour.”
I went across the street, found a coffee kiosk and ordered a strong Turkish coffee, boiled by hand in a small steel decanter by a Jordanian teenager with a hip haircut and skinny jeans. An hour later, back at the embassy, Cameron Diaz smilingly handed over my passport, the ink still drying on the visa. I thanked her and headed out.
I tried to hail a cab but they were all full, so I walked up the hill, back to my hotel, not terribly far away.
As I walked, I thought about how easy it is for a society to come unglued. Amman and Baghdad, very similar cities, in a lot of ways, populated by the same kind of people. And there I was, casually doing things in Amman that would get me killed in an instant in today’s Baghdad – walking the streets alone, speaking in English, waving an American passport around. Twenty years ago, Baghdad was the cosmopolitan capital where you went to get a whiskey and do business; Amman was the backwater. Four years of a power vacuum has utterly transformed Baghdad, once one of the Middle East’s safest cities, into a nightmare of blast walls, bombings, organized crime and deadly insurgent checkpoints.