June 25th, 2019
Managed to get to Mosul - "real" Iraq using a fixer with connections to a general of the combined joint forces who snuck me, visa free, through five checkpoints. ISIS took over this city in 2014 and used it as the capital of their "caliphate". It was finally liberated by the Iraqi special forces in 2017 along with US air support, one neighborhood at a time. The old city west of the Tigris river got super destroyed, and ISIS may still be hiding in some places. Its a pretty strange feeling having falafel and tea across the street from a building in rubble where ISIS threw homosexuals from the roof. I drove past a base with US forces which just a few days ago was hit by a short-range Katyusha missile. Even my fixer doesn't tell his parents he's going to Mosul because they fear it's too unsafe. Even his friend from a nearby city refused to go with him. I read between the lines, got a few first hand reports of the safety situation, and decided as long as I didn't do anything stupid, things would be fine. Fortunately I grew my beard and had a bit of a tan from a beach holiday in Israel, so could pass as a local if I kept my mouth shut, ditched my sunglasses, and didn't wear a seatbelt - all dead giveaways. I made sure my shoes and clothes were nice and dirty. I walked through the huge bazaar for 20 minutes hunting for an Iraqi football jersey, but came out empty handed. Where's the national pride? I tried my best to look as Arab as possible and no one seemed to bat an eye.
Holes in wall cut by ISIS so they can quickly move from building to building in old town
It's a strange world indeed. Was surreal walking around. Like a different planet. We parked in the center of the old town next to a small hardware shop selling paint. Outside, the proprietor sat on a bucket eating his lunch. No one else was around - it was a ghost town. As soon as I stepped out, he insisted I take half of his food. I politely declined and proceeded to explore some of the ruins. It's hard to imagine just a few years ago ISIS burnt people alive in cages here. There was an indiscernible pile of rusted and wrangled metal which probably used to be 30 cars. We explored narrow streets on foot and climbed a roof for a birds eye view.
We drove past the 840 year old al-Nuri mosque where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS gave a rare public speech in 2014. It was sadly destroyed during the liberation battle in 2017 with Iraqi special forces. UAE has pledged $50 million to restore it.
Until about 10 years ago it was perfectly legal to kill your wife if she cheated. It was called "ownership killing". My Kurdish guide told a story of a neighbor who killed his wife just for speaking to another man in front of their house. Quite a contrast to the West, where at least according to Beyoncé, girls call the shots.
And another story: His father tried to bring medicine into Kurdistan but was caught during an embargo and jailed for over 400 days. The family had to bribe the judge to get him released at trial. Later, a higher judge found out of the bribe. So the family had to run away from Baghdad to Erbil and live with their uncle who already had 3 wives and 22 kids in one house.
I would say I didn't feel much threat actually. Maybe it's naive, but I think the worst would have been an "administrative" issue that could require a visit to the top general because I wasn't supposed to be there (no visa). My fixer snuck me in, "social engineering" through the checkpoints. Working on my breath-work in yoga class certainly paid off here. Returning to my breath, naturally, I stayed calm at each checkpoint. Worst case if someone caught us at the checkpoint or in town (I had to keep a low profile), I could have an issue. But not physical harm... unless we got unlucky and were in the wrong place at the wrong time with a car bomb or something. There's lots of armed police and armed militias around the city, and they unfortunately don't have a cohesive plan. Some tanks here and there, plus bulletproof UN convoys. I brought a few grand in USD scattered around my body just in case, to get me out of a sticky situation, inshallah.
For a bit of contrast, I now go to unwind at the most beautiful hotel on the planet, on the gentle shores of Lake Lucerne, near Zürich.