A trip to Baghdad in '78

Baghdad – the name arouses childhood memories of Harun al-Rashid, dreams of 1001 nights, Ali Baba and the forty thieves. Even though we were aware that many centuries had passed since the city’s heyday, me and my friends Uwe and Marianne decided to have a look. As all of us had been to Turkey several times, we gave it a miss on our overland trip to India. Having been in the Middle East before during the summer without struggling with the heat too much we had planned the following route (in July!): flight from East Berlin to Baghdad, then continue to Basra by train, cross the Shatt al Arab into Iran and overland to Shiraz (City of Roses!) and Persepolis. Then to Isfahan and – maybe a short stopover in Ghom, as Khomeini had aroused our curiosity – finally to Teheran to get a visa for Afghanistan and on to India.

Those days we lived in West-Berlin and the easiest connection to Baghdad was via East Berlin. So we booked a one way ticket with INTERFLUG, the East German airline.  When we arrived in Baghdad in the early morning, the thermometer showed 33 degree centigrade! At 5 a.m.! Marianne was totally smitten by the guys in white nightgowns with ‘Palestinian’ headscarves who populated the airport – totally exotic! She’d never had such a sight in her life. We took a taxi to the old town and looked for a guest house. And found a completely overpriced shack in the bazaar and took a nap. By midday it had become unbearably hot: the temperature had climbed to 51 centigrade in the shade – which didn’t exist! Sheer madness! In the afternoon we went for a coffee in the Sadoun Palace Hotel – supposedly the best hotel in town. We felt like we were on cloud nine in its air-con-comfort.

Sunrise over Baghdad
Our guesthouse
Baghdad bazaar street
Fried fish - out of the Tigris River onto your plate!

So, what do you want to see when you’re in Mesopotamia? Babylon, of course! The next morning we took the public bus to the famous metropolis of yesteryear shortly before sunrise (around five o’clock). And it didn’t take long until we arrived at the ‘Rivers of Babylon’. Those days they were in everyone’s lips – because of Boney M.’s plastic pop version. To be frank, it was a bit disappointing – to put it mildly: a few heaps of earth and a crappy plywood copy of the Ishtar Gate – which we knew from Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. Gimme a break: that was supposed to be Babylon? Where was the Tower of Babel? The Hanging Gardens? No such luck!

Even with a lot of fantasy one could not imagine anything. Let’s beat it! We walked back to the highway, hoping to hitch a ride back to Baghdad. But that didn’t work. All buses drove in the opposite direction, to the city of Hilla. Those days, Al-Bakr of the Ba’ath Party was the country’s leader. But his comrade-in-arms and successor, Saddam Hussein, was already on the rise. In Hilla we sat completely exhausted at the bus station and waited for the bus. As if through a mist, I heard a barking voice that reminded me strongly of Hitler’s speeches. “Who is that talking?” I asked an officer. “Our future President, Saddam Hussein!”, he said proudly. A horrible bark – and they even seemed to like it!

Babylon by bus!
Inside the ruins of Babylon
Plywood Ishtar gate
By the rivers of Babylon

Finally we reached Baghdad. At the bus station, I saw a woman collapse right next to me: dizzy spell – or worse! It suddenly became clear to me that I would be sharing her fate in a few minutes – if I didn’t do something now. So I bought an entire bucket of ice cold water from a water vendor and threw it over my head in front of my astonished companions and the surrounding Iraqis. That got me back on track. But what to do now? We had to get out of this heat! Marianne came up with the answer: National Museum, fully air-conditioned! And we’d even improve our knowledge of the country. We spent the rest of the day there, recovering.

Among other things, we saw the copy of the law code stele of Hammurabi – an eye for an eye! In the evening we took stock of our second day in Baghdad. We came to the conclusion that Uwe and I had drunk no less than twenty-seven bottles of ‘Traubi’. Yes, ‘Traubi’ from Austria or wherever that came from! Twenty-seven! A whopping eight litres! Plus buckets of water! A real blow to our travel funds. If we’d go on like this we’d be bankrupt in a few weeks and never make it to India. In the evening we had fish with hummus in a garden restaurant on the bank of the Tigris. Not really cheap as well …

Traubi - famous in the Orient
The stele of Hammurabi
A cooool place!
Wine in Baghdad

On the third day we went to the railway station to buy tickets for Basra. By pure coincidence we saw a weather forecast at the station. Which said that it was 54 degrees in Basra. Too much! We decided to change our itinerary and returned to our flophouse. There we decided to go directly to Iran. At the higher altitude of the neighbouring country it was ‘only’ 43 degrees. Quite a relief … So we had to get bus tickets. As Uwe was completely groggy from the heat, he stayed at the hostel. Marianne and I took a taxi to the bus station and bought tickets to Chanaqin near the Iranian border for the next day. On the way back we had a glass of orange juice at a fruit stall – we were constantly thirsty. Suddenly we noticed a commotion next door. A middle-aged moustached man in a white shirt ran out of a store, gesticulating wildly and

screaming. Followed by two police officers right on his tail. They tried to arrest the man. But the guy fought back and couldn’t be restrained. Then one of the cops actually drew his gun and shot the unruly man. In the middle of the road! The man gaped in disbelief and a bloodstain spread across his white shirt. He tumbled down and fell flat on his face. The cops held the crowd at bay with their guns. And suddenly everyone started running – including us. So far I had only seen such scenes in movies – the reality was much more dramatic… After this scene we congratulated each other on our decision to leave the country as soon as possible. In the evening we celebrated our decision with a bottle of wine that we had brought along from Germany for special occasions. After all, we would survive without having seen Basra …