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"To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive..." Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894) – El Dorado

72 hours worth of 30 minute delays - no suitcases, no briefcase and no briefcase contents - no addresses, no telephone numbers and no contact names at the other end....

Past Master Bob Garratt’s reflections on The Joys of International Consulting put me in mind of one of my own Middle Eastern adventures. The client made money, quite literally, being a key instrument of the Ba’ath government and closely overseen by the Hussein dynasty, of particular interest to Uday, son of Saddam, then still our very good friend in the Mesopotamian plain. So to Iraq, land of ancient Babylon, location of one of the sacred shrines of Islam, Mecca of the Shi’ites, the tombs of Hassan and Hussein, sons of Ali, Mohammed’s nephew. But it isn’t the client, or the assignment, or even the ancient lands that is of interest, but the logistics of travel and arrival.  Certainly they proved an eye opener in this one of my first overseas assignments.

London

As can happen when one is young and enthusiastic, committed to your client and wanting the job to go ‘just so’, preparations expanded to fill all available time. Not aided by a certain flexibility of assignment brief that, on reflection, could have been summed up as “make it all work, please”. Apparently the clients had a reputation for being somewhat excitable and demanding. How many contingencies can one cater for when one is to be very far from home and the internet unborn?

My departure was foreshadowed by a rushed arrival at Heathrow for an evening flight to Baghdad and came at the end of a long Friday. Preceded by a long Thursday. Preceded by several other long days. A little late and unduly rushed, I was a relieved to be told of a 30 minutes delay to the flight. Good, a chance to check in my 11 suitcases – contingencies, you understand – and briefcase. Retaining a paper-back book, wallet and passport;  for security reasons the only cabin luggage allowed.

Settling into a seat at the terminal gate, the announcement of a second 30 minute delay was accepted with equanimity. News of a further 30 minute delay was less indulgently received; what was Iraqi Airways punctuality record anyway? Without expansion or explanation, and at seemingly random intervals, further 30 minute delays were announced, very many of them. Try as I might kismet and inshallah fatalism, the notion of divine intervention by Allah’s will, proved less than soothing to my young western sensibilities.

A succession of 30 minutes later, some seventy-two (72) hours in all, yes three days, a hubbub of commotion, much milling around and boarding is announced and I’m back of the throng for boarding. But hang-on, where have all of my fellow passengers come from? More to the point, how come they are all so fresh, clean and awake?

Baghdad

Saddam International Airport was brand new, expansive halls with vast roofs of concrete Bedouin arches. Not yet fully opened, delayed, as I was to find out later, in part due to a little trouble in the Al Faw peninsular to the south and something not quite right in Nineveh to the north. Not that such things were spoken of, indeed I was to receive regular invitations to weekend tours to one region or the other, though the trips never materialised and my aversion to Iranian or Kurdish military aggression never tested.

So I have arrived. Passport and visa are accepted and the baggage reclaim awaits. Obediently I watch and wait as numberless suitcases and packages come, circulate and go, retrieved by grateful travellers who pass on, out of sight. And still I watch and wait. The luggage conveyor has stopped, four hours and more have passed and no suitcases. And no briefcase. And no briefcase contents; no addresses, no telephone numbers and no contact names. And no return ticket. Oh why am I here? A bit of divine intervention to swallow me up might just be welcome. And why is that heavily armed security guard staring at this particular stubbly, dishevelled, blonde, pale westerner who’s been loitering for so many hours? Time to move on.

My host is, unsurprisingly, not awaiting me in the Arrivals hall, a vast space I share with no one much but a few armed guards and a Bureau de Change. What luck! Or maybe not, as USD100 travellers’ cheque exchanges to IQD20. Official rates you understand, though bought for USD1.20 elsewhere if you dare.   

The taxi is driven by a war veteran. It’s not clear which war, but I learn that the white and orange VW Passat, the remains of which we are careering toward Baghdad central in, is the result of his military service. New VW Passat: USD1 to veterans. He doesn’t seem old enough to have had the car decompose around him to such an extent, but then maybe not all Iraqi roads have tarmac between the potholes.

I have remembered scraps of details: I’m looking for a hotel; westerners stay there; it’s by the river Tigris. Not much to go on, I know. No not the 18-story Al Rashid where all the westerners go, but a family run hotel. Not this hotel either, let’s try another. Could we try just one more? You can’t go any further for IQD20, but please just the one more?

At the fourth hotel. Result, I’m expected, but the room isn’t ready. And no I don’t have any luggage. I’ll wait in the bar. After five days of little sleep, I’m here and I’ve earned a drink. I sit. The TV is on, news in Arabic. It’s Tuesday January 28th 1986, on the screen a cold day in Cape Canaveral, Florida, space shuttle Challenger lifts off into a clear blue sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liveryman Paul Squire
07818 411977
paul.d.f.squire@gmail.com
https://uk.linkedin.com/in/paulsquire