Due to its troubled past, Iraq has developed a rather notorious reputation and many still consider it to be a no-go zone. But active fighting and terrorist attacks are a thing of the past and Iraq is open to international visitors. Katarzyna Rybarczyk shares her recent travel experience in Iraq.
Iraq, characterised by rich culture and history, has become a growing tourism destination in the Middle East and those who visit will realise that, at this point, the country is anything but dangerous.
In April this year, I spent two weeks exploring Iraq and I was surprised by how welcoming and friendly the Iraqi people were.
I started my journey in Baghdad, the country’s capital city which is home to almost eight million people.
Baghdad, a vibrant hub of Arab culture and architecture, can seem chaotic with streets full of cars and thousands of people spending time at local markets. But walking around the city gives visitors a better understanding of what daily life in the Middle East looks like.
One of my favourite things to do in Baghdad was sitting in traditional cafes enjoying Iraqi tea and watching people passing by. Probably the most famous tea place in Baghdad is the Shabandar cafe which has been operating for more than a century. It is not a regular cafe, however, it is an intellectual hub where everyone, locals and foreigners alike, is welcomed.
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A great way to find out more about the history of Iraq is by visiting the Martyr’s Monument, which commemorates soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980 and lasted eight years. Under the turquoise domes, there is an underground museum providing visitors with background information about the conflict.
Iraq, the place where the world’s first writing, urban centres, and agriculture were developed, is often called the cradle of civilisation. The remains of the largest city of the ancient world, Babylon are well kept despite decades of armed conflict. To get to Babylon, one can take a shared taxi from central Baghdad. In the ancient city of Babylon, there is also Saddam Hussein’s palace that is open to curious visitors.
Another city worth visiting in Iraq is Mosul. Many get stressed when they hear the name as, for years, Mosul has been associated with the Islamic State (ISIS), the terrorist organisation that seized control over parts of Iraqi territory in 2014. In fact, Mosul was ISIS’s main bastion in the country. The city was liberated from extremists in 2017, and its residents have since been focusing on trying to restore its glory.
The majority of Mosul’s Old City is destroyed, but, although those who visit should exercise caution, Mosul is home to generous and warm people who are struggling to erase the city’s bad reputation.
During my time in Mosul, people would invite me to their homes, cook for me, and share their stories with me. Visiting Mosul was an incredible experience and not once did I worry about my safety.
Whenever someone asks me about my impressions of Iraq, I say that it is a beautiful place entirely different to how it is presented in the mainstream media. People are always excited to see foreigners and they go out of their way to help them explore their country.
I would recommend visiting Iraq to anyone, not only experienced travellers. Those who visit have to be responsible, but this is the case with any off-the-beaten-path destination.
*The writer, Katarzyna Rybarczyk, is a political correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, an immigration law firm offering assistance to forcibly displaced individuals. She covers the Middle East and Africa and writes articles about the challenges communities living in the region face. Her main focus is humanitarian issues and post-conflict recovery. In addition to writing, she often works on photo reports and wants to raise awareness about topics that do not get enough media attention.
**Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NHA – News Hub Asia.