Ed. Note: This is an occasional column by a native New Orleanian on military duty in Iraq. Because of military regulations, he is not able to use his real name. We can tell you that he is a decorated Navy pilot from a prominent New Orleans family.
In just slightly broken English, my Iraqi host at the airport business center asked me a shocking question.
“Will you come back?” he asked.
At first I assumed he was talking about the airport business center. “No, come back to Iraq,” he clarified.
Still failing to grasp the question, I assumed he was asking if another deployment was in my future.
“No, to visit,” he really was quite clear.
Something in this Iraqi’s body language or tone also gave me the distinct impression that he thought I should consider making my visit sometime in the not-too-distant future. You know, go home after my yearlong deployment, pack up the wife and kids, exchange some dollars for dinars and return for a couple of weeks to see the sights.
As crazy as it sounds, I didn’t dismiss his question totally out of hand. We were standing in the business center on the grounds of the Baghdad International Airport, (BIAP for short) where a small group of coalition, airport and government officials were meeting to discuss the airport’s future. It wasn’t too hard to imagine we were seeing a very small glimpse of what was possible.
BIAP is an Iraq-run operation that encompasses airport passenger terminals, office buildings, a sprawling convention center, a hotel and, of course, the very business center where I was standing. Housed in a recently refurbished building, complete with newly appointed conference rooms and Internet access, it sits next to the yet-to-be-completed airport convention center. That center’s cavernous halls were also buzzing with the busy hum of laborers at work. Down the street was an airport hotel, also under construction.
Our three hosts appeared to be between the ages of 25 and 30 and were dressed in slacks and button-down shirts. They brought water to us on silver trays and offered cups of hot chai and coffee. They spoke English well, certainly better than I could ever hope to speak Arabic, and they were very excited to have us sign their visitors’ register. I must admit their enthusiasm was infectious.
To these men BIAP must have seemed a gateway through which business would soon pass into Baghdad and greater Iraq. Right now, oil is the most valuable part of Iraq’s future but it appeared these Iraqis had tourism on their minds.
Believe it or not, tourism is something of a cottage industry here. Today, tourists in Iraq are comprised almost exclusively of Shi’a pilgrims and their numbers grow daily. The government of Iraq reported this year that nearly 10 million of the faithful passed through the Shi’a holy cities of Najaf and Karbala during the 40-day period that follows the Islamic celebration of Ashura (the real figure is probably half as much). These pilgrims were obviously a hearty lot and their visit was fraught with real, and realized, danger. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of people visited Iraq for the first time in their lives and they saw places about which they had only heard or read.
Expanding Iraq’s tourism to other Shi’a holy sites and then beyond seems possible as well. In fact, it’s hard to travel more than 50 kilometers in Iraq without running across some reminder of mankind’s earliest history. It’s the kind of stuff anyone should find interesting. After all, this is the land of Mesopotamia, Babylon and Ninewah.
This home to ancient human history is also a land of surprising natural beauty. Although synonymous with featureless deserts, Iraq is home to snow-covered mountains, massive lakes and lush date-palm groves.
But all these things are a very tiny light at the end of a very long tunnel. The fact is that the Iraqis sometimes try to run before they can crawl.
Again, BIAP is instructive because while some officials envision the airport as a sort of “Dubai-north,” the facts on the ground suggest there’s a long way to go.
Although the airport belongs to and is run by the government of Iraq, and although it is a relatively safe place that sees a modicum of commercial and charter flights, there’s no doubt who ultimately guarantees security at the airport. Even then, coalition backing doesn’t inoculate it from threat – in February, the airport was either the target or innocent victim of rocket attacks launched from a nearby Baghdad suburb.
In addition to the damage from real weapons is the self-inflicted damage from metaphorical ones. When Iraq’s officials manage to avoid shooting one foot with their bureaucracy, they often shoot the other with their corruption.
Back at the business center I reconsidered my host’s disarming question. The possibility of a visit still seemed hopelessly remote but not impossibly so. Maybe it could happen in five or 10 years, I thought.
So when he again asked if I would come back for a visit, I gave him one of those open-ended answers we tend to give a lot around here.