Initially I worked on jobs in and around London and once in Brecon, Wales, but then one day I was asked if I was interested in working on an upcoming project that was due to start in Iraq. Some months previously It had been mentioned that I might be sent to work on a new contract in Hong Kong, but in the end a friend of mine at the office went instead as the job I was working on in Britain hadn’t been completed.
A few weeks later I was on my way to Baghdad with three colleagues. These were exciting times for me, the chance of getting to know Baghdad, a city steeped in history, while at the same time earning a salary, was like winning the jackpot in a lottery. In fact the company paid 90% extra salary for working abroad, plus a £2 daily allowance for refreshments, which was never spent as the firm also paid all expenses, such as accommodation and food and so the drinks were included here.
I remember that first trip by taxi from the airport in Baghdad to our hotel in the city quite well considering it was so many years ago. The heat, the statues of Saddam Hussein, the date palms, everything was new and exciting. We stayed at the Abu Nawas (Nuwas) hotel, which was not far from the banks of the river Tigris which flows through Baghdad, its banks as I remember being lined in parts by restaurants specialising in fish caught from the river.
That first trip was only for five weeks, working on the survey for a new bridge across the Tigris in a part of the city known as Adhamiyah. It was a great introduction to Iraq and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The hotel was of a high standard with an excellent international menu and quality service. In the evenings we would walk down to the river and stroll along the promenade in the cooler evening temperatures, soaking up the atmosphere which for me was so new and fascinating.
I remember one morning during that first trip, having a break playing football with a group of kids on a piece of dry, dusty wasteland which served as their playing field. Football is the same in all languages and on this occasion served as the perfect ice-breaker, bringing us together in a special moment of friendship even though we couldn’t understand many words of each other’s language.
I remember some mornings we would buy some of the typical Arabic cloth bread, which tasted absolutely delicious having been freshly baked in clay ovens. I can still remember the smell of that fresh, slightly burnt bread. Sometimes we would buy it with a filling of meat rolled up inside or we would go to a local café where they sold three choices of breakfast consisting of bowls of steaming hot beans or lentils and the typical cloth bread. I used to love those breakfasts. I have tried to replicate them at home, but the taste is never the same as it was in that cafe in Samarra.
Samarra is famous for the remains of a ninth century mosque known as the Great Mosque of Samarra, which was once the largest mosque in the world. Many times in the evenings after a hard day’s work in the baking hot desert sun we would have a shower at the hotel and then walk out to the Mosque and climb the beautifully constructed minaret which provided spectacular views across the town and the surrounding desert from the top.
Occasionally while working in Samarra we were invited into people’s houses for lunch. It was a special ceremony as we squatted on the floor in a cool interior room where only the men were allowed. We could hear the women chatting in the kitchen as they prepared the food for us, but we never saw them.
The youngest male in the family would enter the room, where we struggled to hold a conversation with our hosts in a mixture of Arabic and sign language, carrying a bowl of water and a small hand towel so we could wash our hands. Next he would bring the different plates of food and place them on the colourful cloth laid on the floor. As guests we would be invited to eat first, using only our right hand, our hosts eating whatever we left. Once we had all eaten our fill, the boy would return with the bowl of water and towel so we could once again wash our hands.
Once, near Samarra I was trying to take a few more readings before packing up for the day, when through the theodolite I saw my assistant waving his arms crazily in the air and pointing behind me. I turned around and saw what resembled a black curtain and I suddenly realised it signified an approaching storm was racing towards us. We stopped immediately and packed everything into the car, but before we could finish, the storm hit with what was initially a sand storm.
The sand was painful hitting against our faces as we desperately tried to get everything, including ourselves into the car. The sand storm was over as quickly as it had started, but was followed by torrential rain and it took us about three hours longer than usual to drive to Baghdad and the safety of our hotel. That is the only time I have experienced a sand storm.
We thought they were going to check our papers, but instead they opened the boot and proceeded to take out various machine guns, grenades and other high powered arms before reaching two saucepans hidden underneath. One saucepan contained rice and the other a stew and they placed them on the bonnet of the car and invited us to join them for lunch.
A few weeks later I was out in the desert surrounding the airport when the same policemen appeared on the horizon, speeding towards me in their patrol car, shouting frantically and blowing the horn incessantly. They skidded to a halt and pulled me and the target I was holding, into the back of the car and we sped off. It turned out that the army were about to start shooting practice in the area and I was in danger of becoming the target and being hit if I stayed there. Those were exciting times.
In Basra we also worked on a survey for a new international airport and I recall that it was so hot that we started setting up our equipment before dawn and then worked flat out until about 11 a.m. at which time it was somewhere between 45 and 50 degrees centigrade. At these temperatures neither the people nor the instruments could function properly so we went back to our hotel, a beautiful, colonial hotel with huge fans hanging precariously from the high ceilings swirling round and providing a welcome, cooling breeze.
Alcohol was legal in Iraq and they had two local brands of beer, or lager as we call it in Britain, and also a drink called Arak, which was made with dates and flavoured with anise. On returning from our work we would drink a cool beer and would feel slightly drunk very quickly, however, as we would sweat profusely, we would also sober up very quickly, so after a light lunch we spent the afternoon just sitting around drinking those delicious, cool Iraqi beers.
The other town where I worked for some time was Ramadi, however, I don’t remember much about that town as we were working on an expressway that was planned through the desert between cities and so spent most of our time out in the middle of the desert, returning to our hotel just to eat and sleep. On that project we worked with two Egyptian labourers who spoke no English and so my colleague and I, out of necessity, learned as much basic Arabic as we could in an effort to get them to do what we wanted and to have some friendly conversations with them.
We returned to our hotel at night, but they slept in a tent which they moved each day as we progressed along the route of the survey, cooking each day on a small paraffin stove. On the last night they invited us to have dinner with them, sitting in their tent in the desert. They bought a sheep from a Bedouin tribe and cooked it on their stove. As a sign of respect they kept the heart and lung for my partner and I, and towards the end of the meal offered these delicacies to us.
It was hard to see what they were offering us as the light was dim inside the tent, however, my workmate realised what he was being offered and knew that he wouldn’t enjoy eating it, but that it would be rude to refuse, so he had one mouthful and then got up and left the tent saying he had to get something from the Land Rover parked outside. Once outside he threw the remains of the heart as far as he could into the vast, starlit desert and this was followed by the sound of dogs barking and yelping as they fought for the surprise offering. I unfortunately didn’t react quickly enough and had to stay in the tent eating the lung, which tasted absolutely disgusting. Thankfully I am now vegetarian.
Sometimes I wonder what could have happened to the people I met during my visits to Iraq. Who knows how many of them are still alive and whether those who have survived the conflicts so far are still living there or have fled to other countries seeking sanctuary from the fighting?
I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit Iraq before all the troubles started and get to know the people, their culture and some of the historic sites. They were exciting and interesting times which I will never forget.
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