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Hayder is a Researcher at the Centre for Academic Shi’a Studies. He is also a postgraduate student at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS. You can follow him on Twitter @Hayder_alKhoei

The Real Iraq

The Ministry of Youth & Sport in Baghdad organised three, all-expenses paid, programmes this month in which scores of young Arabs and Iraqi expatriates participated in. One programme was for non-Iraqi Arab youth from across the Middle East & North Africa, the other for budding Iraqi footballers, and the third – the subject of this post – a weeklong trip for Iraqi expatriates.

The set agenda only gave us a vague idea of where we would go as the actual plans changed every few hours. Several items were added on at the very last minute and others were cancelled altogether. I don’t know if this was for security reasons or simply down to mismanagement – but probably both. The lesson I learned was to never plan anything individually when the Iraqi government is involved in planning.

From the onset, it wasn’t very clear what the purpose of this trip was besides an opportunity to network with fellow Iraqis. The agenda was sent just hours before our flight and I couldn’t help but notice a sectarian twist to the entire programme. My disappointment sank in further at the airport when it dawned on me that the group from the UK, with no exceptions, were all Shia.

In some respects, it’s nice that one can talk about sectarianism in Iraq without mentioning any casualties or explosions but it is still a shame that we still can’t seem to go beyond sectarianism in many respects. It made me wonder whether a similar trip organised by a Sunni-led ministry would have invited only Sunnis too.

There could be a less sinister explanation for the sectarian make-up of the UK youth. It wasn’t clear how and why people were invited. The invites seem to have been based on the recommendations of a small group so the end result probably has more to do with wasta than sectarianism – but even if it was based on connections the fact that we ended up with who we did may itself have subtle sectarian undertones. Back to square one?

As for the agenda: Kadhimiya, Najaf, two nights in Kerbala, PM Maliki, Youth & Sport Minister Jasim Jafar, parliamentarian Walid al-Hilli, Communications Minister Mohammed Allawi, Sistani’s representative Abdul Mehdi al-Kerbalai, Babil Governor Mohammed al-Masoudi, a village Imam Ali visited somewhere in the desert… you get the picture.

That’s not to say we didn’t go to ‘neutral’ places. There were plenty of exciting outings that included a theatrical play, a musical, Baghdad University, the National Museum, a performance by the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, the ancient city of Babylon, Saddam’s Palace & Ukhaidhir Fort.

Essentially, the ministry planned a $400,000 public relations stunt. It wasn’t about trying to encourage Iraqi youth to return to their homeland to help rebuild the country. It was about improving the image of Iraq outside the country and showing that the Ministry of Youth & Sport was actually doing some work.

At the ‘icebreaker’ (and I use this term loosely) session, an official said that the reality on the ground was not being reflected in media coverage of Iraq and that he hoped this could be changed. We would change that.

It soon became obvious that the ambitions of some of those participating clashed with the ambitions of those organising. We sort of just learnt to coexist and make the best of a rare opportunity to visit places and people we wouldn’t normally get a chance to see and meet.

I say ‘coexist’ but there were at least two occasions when a polite exchange turned into a not-so-polite argument about why we were being herded like sheep under very strict security conditions. Needless to say, our safety was their most important concern considering that any little mishap would badly affect the PR side of things.

Unfortunately keeping quiet, calm and collected is a sign of weakness in Iraq. The minute you raise your voice or display some sort of aggression you start earning respect.

The security lockdown didn’t stop some from seeing the real Iraq – away from the guns and without the police sirens. For me at least, this was perhaps one of the strangest aspects of the entire trip. The government put us in a security bubble and took us to fascinating places to see – and report – that Iraq was normal. But some of us went out to Baghdad proper, stayed out past midnight in coffee shops in Karada or had breakfast in Shorja, and saw for ourselves that things had in fact improved.

The first night out in Baghdad we were slightly nervous. After a while, however, we got used to it and no longer tried to hide the fact that we live outside the country – ransom money increases exponentially as distance from Iraq increases. We had come to accept the fact that we may as well have had signs posted on our foreheads saying we are from outside. The way we talk, the way we dress, even the way we walk… it was hopeless.

All in all, everyone got something out of this trip. The organisers got the sound bites, photo ops and panning shots they were looking for. The participants got to meet each other. Throw in free food and a stay in one of Baghdad’s best hotels, and everyone wins.


9 Comments on “The Real Iraq”

  1. Shkara October 30, 2011 at 9:34 am #

    Aside form this trip being a PR initiaitive (which does have some value nonetheless), for me the most valuable part of your experience was when you got to see the ‘real’ Iraq, by going out at night and mixing with the people, outside the routine set for you guys. And it’s also encouraging to know that in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Baghdad it was clear to your group things have improved.

    Good to know the trip was a success and you came back safe and sound!

  2. Ibn Danyal October 30, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    So do you think it is safe for expats now in Baghdad?

    I was in Kirkuk this summer and I was told that security is still a major concern… we avoided certain neighborhoods altogether, rarely stayed out past dark, didn’t linger when out shopping.

    Everyone knows who is not from the area, as you say… I was told that I came across not like a Westerner, but a well off Turk… which was still more than enough to make me a kidnapping target.

    Is Baghdad better than Kirkuk today? I am wondering, but wouldn’t be surprised.

  3. Corey Hunt October 30, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

    Hey Hayder,

    I’m glad you had a safe visit to Iraq. Let me ask you something though. Any way you can convince them to invite a non-Iraqi, non-Arab visitor on the next all-expenses paid trip? 😉

  4. Abufellah October 31, 2011 at 1:37 am #

    Or how about the non-British Iraqis? I guess the invites never got to Canada.

    All joking aside, I’m glad you guys had an informative and enjoyable trip.

  5. Sara October 31, 2011 at 10:43 pm #

    The Ministry of Youth & Sport organised a trip? Is that what they can do?

    I think the Ministry of Youth & Sport has to conceive that they have been rejected to continue in hosting the21th edition of Gulf Cup in 2013 in Basra, as Bahrain has been chosen now. This is a major failure for the whole ministry and the country’s reputation, its best to resign. This is the result of their mismanagement and economic corruption ( as usual). I presume that this decision that was taken by the Gulf FA Chiefs was just the right action to take, because the Iraqi Government doesn’t seem to be taking this matter into consideration and appreciating its value. The whole ministry consists of unstable polices and mismanagement, so how on earth can they lead such crucial event, as its the first after invasion of 2003? How can they prove that Iraq is safe and independent?

    Instead, Iraq will be hosting in the 22th edition and until then they would stop further construction of the project and continue in the last minute. It favors all those in the ministry, so they can attain more corruption.

    Sectarianism exits within Iraqi society, and in its depths, in Government, education, sports, economy, neighbors, friends…Where else? ( Its a long term issue). There’s no point of even discussing it.

    I previously visited Baghdad in August and to be very honest security is not very alarming, even though I witnessed several numbers of explosions and deaths. At least its not comparable to what the scenario was like in 2005-2009. However, Iraq is a unstable country, its varies everyday, month and year, so therefore it can dramatically change and lead to more devastation, or relieving.

  6. Hayder al-Khoei November 1, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    Shkara, it was a success in many respects but it mainly depends on how you define “success”.

    Ibn Danyal, as Sara mentioned in her comment things change by the day as I’m sure you know but if you’re asking about today, I think Baghdad is still more dangerous than Kirkuk.

    Abufellah, yeah I realised on the first day there was no one from that side of the Atlantic… I think they are planning a similar trip next year in which case I hope there will be at least some sort of advertisement well in advance so the selection process is more proper.

    Corey, wait a few more years and I will take you there myself – just not all-expenses paid so start saving from now 😉

  7. John J.Doyle Sr. November 1, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    Dear Hayder,Salam glad to hear you had a enjoyable,safe trip back to your fatherland!I’m a little surprised you didn’t mention anything regarding the murder of(POW)Muammar al Gaddaffi former leader of Libyia,in your blog!The so-called rebels are already flying the Al-Qaida flag above the Benghazi court house,seen it on you tube!He had to die because he wanted to produce a common African currency based on the gold backed Libyian dinar!Among other progressive improvements in his continent!God bless,keep up the good informative blog!

  8. Sara November 1, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    Its said to be that Baghdad is just as dangerous as Kirkuk because they are both very significant and useful targets to the region.



  1. Iraqi sectarianism needs reporting, but not like Associated Press did – by Hayder al-Khoei « World Shia Forum - April 10, 2012

    […] is certainly a need for sectarianism in Iraq to be reported and investigated – and I have written about it myself in the past. But it doesn’t help anyone’s understanding of the situation when western […]

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