My Unique Experiences in the Middle East: From Iraq to Syria

January 2022

Due to the emerging Omicron variant and everchanging coronavirus situation, I had my reservations in making the decision to venture overseas again. But I had already left Sydney for London in August 2021 due to employment reasons, to which I had to apply for a travel exemption to exit Australia and accept that I would be stuck overseas, and so this should have been an easier decision to make. Moreover, I felt like this was one of the only periods of my life where I could travel freely for months at a time (or so I thought) and I needed to take advantage of that…and thus I began my travels in the Middle East in December 2021.

Here, in this reflection, I will document some unique experiences that I had in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Syria.

Luggage: Patagonia Backpack and Country Road Tote

Iraq

I rushed to the airport to take my flight from Sydney to Istanbul via Singapore because I was pushed to an earlier flight, due to flight connection delays that I only found out just after midnight. At this point in time, while I was excited to begin my travels in the Middle East, I only had a rough idea of where I was heading which was Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Syria. [In fact, I had nothing planned for this trip. I decided to ‘go with the flow’ this time, which turned out not to be such of a great idea when travelling between economically sanctioned countries.] I booked my flight to Baghdad when I arrived in Istanbul in the morning, soon realising that most flights to Iraq arrived around or after midnight. This meant that I had another 18 hours till I arrived in Iraq, and there’s only so much you could do at an airport!

As it was nearly time to board my next flight, I began to doubt whether I made the right decision to travel to Iraq. I was asked three times on separate occasions at the airport about why I was travelling to Iraq, a war-torn country ridden with political uncertainty and armed conflict, and all I could conjure was the fact that I wanted to see things with my own eyes. But even I felt like I was not satisfied with my own answer. Why was I risking my own life to travel to such places ‘to see things with my own eyes’? Would I be killed by a random IED on the side of the road when travelling through Iraq that was only recently occupied by Daesh in 2017? I had so many questions that I had no answers to.

But I was thankful that I made the trip to Iraq. The Visa on Arrival process at the airport was fairly simple, though slightly chaotic with the crowds of people waiting to receive their visa. Paying US$77 and around two hours later, I received my precious Iraqi visa as I was welcomed into the country where I began to develop a lifetime of memories in the Middle East.

Iraqi Visa

It was my first time experiencing land checkpoints when travelling between cities and it seemed quite intimidating initially. In fact, there were so many checkpoints that I decided to hold my passport during the car rides because I would have to produce my passport on so many occasions. Upon research, I had read many instances of tourists being held up for many hours at these checkpoints, sometimes inviting them inside for tea, but with the assistance of my local fixer I was stopped for at most a few minutes each time (except when travelling to Iraqi Kurdistan). Towards the end of my trip in Iraq, I began to appreciate the numerous land checkpoints that served its purpose to keep the people of Iraq and I safe.

Baghdad, Iraq

Iraqi Kurdistan

I crossed the land border from Baghdad to Erbil which was once considered to be extremely dangerous, without a doubt, passing through Daesh-ridden areas of Kirkuk and Mosul. As the lifeline of trade between Iraq to Iraqi Kurdistan, workers would find alternative routes (i.e. detours) to transport goods across the cities taking more than half a day for a journey that would normally take 4 hours, let alone fearing for their lives that they might end up as the many victims of terrorism as a result of the random bombings and killings of drivers and passengers. Nowadays, the road is considered to be much more safer with Daesh pushed out to the distant mountainous regions though one must remain vigilant to the everchanging geopolitical situation especially when travelling during the night as I was.

To provide you with a bit of context, an Iraqi visa allows you to enter Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Since I did not want to fly to Erbil because the security process to enter Baghdad Airport would have been quite tedious, I decided to travel overland via a shared taxi from Baghdad to Erbil. In fact, I was probably one of the first few Visa on Arrival tourists to make this overland journey given the recent opening of the country and the apparent lack of information surrounding Iraqi visa policies at the time.

I was travelling with two families on my journey, to which I believe were from Lebanon and Iraq. The driver was Kurdish. The first part of the trip was quite uneventful mainly due to a lack of possible communication between everyone but once we stopped at a restaurant for a short break, I developed a bond with the driver by sharing food and (barely) attempting to speak each other’s languages. Later, it turned out the two families were able to speak English and so we had our general conversations of what brought me to Iraq and my experiences travelling here so far. One of the Lebanese women had a sister living in Sydney and so I was able to share my experiences of living in Sydney.

The second part of the trip became much more interesting. I was stopped at literally every checkpoint which I should have expected as a foreigner travelling overland between Baghdad and Erbil which would have been a foreign concept to them. As such, each checkpoint would take time with continuous checks of my passport to ensure that I was able to continue on my journey, and it seemed like the closer I was to Erbil the longer the process took. The strenuous checks did not affect me at all, but then I started to feel guilty that I was delaying the trip for the families and driver who did not choose to travel with a foreigner especially as it was getting dark passing through Kirkuk. But as we headed closer towards Erbil, everyone onboard decided that they had enough and decided to talk for me because it became ridiculous to get checked at literally every checkpoint which was sometimes a minute away from the next.* The checkpoint process became much smoother from then, and eventually the driver took me to my accommodation at which I gave a generous tip because of his hospitality and the fact that he played some bangers throughout the journey. Despite having only met each other that day for the first time, everyone onboard was extremely considerate of each other and always making sure that I was being taken cared of, to which I am humbled and appreciative of that.

Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan

*My reasoning behind why this happened was that it may have been their first time meeting a tourist and so they just wanted to have a conversation with me, which was often the case.

Lebanon

I flew to Beirut from Erbil where I had exactly US$100 cash with me, and I had not known at the time that you could not withdraw USD from the ATM during the current liquidity crisis. I also had no other opportunities to withdraw cash later to continue funding my trip to Iran and Syria because I was travelling between economically sanctioned countries. Even though Lebanon had not been economically sanctioned, if I used my bank card in Lebanon, I would have paid the official exchange rate which was approximately 1,500% higher than the black market rate due to the hyperinflation of the Lebanese lira…ouch :[

Dumb mistake, I know.

And so I had to explore all my options on the first day. Everyone in Lebanon had told me that the only way to receive USD was to transfer myself cash through Western Union…except that the registration and approval process would have taken too long for me. Another option was to fly out of Lebanon, withdraw USD, and fly back in…last resort I guess?

But a maxim that I live by is that “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. Surely there had to be a way for those in the same position as I am to withdraw cash and fortunately, that was the case upon doing some research. There were specific Bank Audi ATMs that allowed foreign bank card holders* to withdraw USD and so on my second day, I happily went my way to withdraw USD which later funded my trip in the Middle East.

*Unfortunately, this meant that there was a clear social class divide in Lebanon between those that could receive USD from the outside and those that could not.

What surprised me the most about Lebanon was how geographically diverse the country is given that I had visualised the whole of the Middle East as barren desert with harsh landscapes. I could be exploring underground caves in Jeita Grotto, visiting Roman ruins in Baalbek, climbing Mount Lebanon, or watching picturesque sunsets over water in Raouché or Byblos. The bonus was that the one-month Visa on Arrival offered to Australian citizens was free!

Temple of Bacchus, Lebanon

Iran

I flew to Tehran from Beirut in the early morning, carrying a copy of my €150 e-visa as permission to enter the country. As eager as I was to receive a passport stamp from border control, my request was to no avail. Nevertheless, everyone (especially the cats) in Iran had been extremely hospitable and kind to me. For example, I had decided to test my luck and hitchhike my way from the airport to the city centre. Relying on my GPS and offline maps, I walked across the busy highway as I accepted that it would be a long 30 kilometre walk if no one was willing to assist me on this absurd adventure of mine. But within an hour of waving and smiling at the people in their cars zooming by, I was already making my way to the city centre thanks to a lovely gentleman who took curiosity to why I was walking along a highway, and little did I know at the time that it would complement a traditional Persian breakfast with tea.

And a few days later, yet again, a famous champion kickboxer decided to take me around Tehran and the mountains nearby as I witnessed the elated expressions of those that knew (and loved) him, who were surprised about his return to Iran after having lived abroad for a long time. My first experience with fame! One of the things he taught me was the importance of having inner hope, and to not worry about the distant future because of our internal strength to overcome any difficulties that will follow our way. I extend my thanks to him.

Tehran, Iran

Syria

I flew back to Beirut from Tehran and travelled by car to the Lebanese-Syrian border, where I met my local fixer as he handled the visa paperwork for me at the border control. As my visa had already been pre-approved, the process was fairly quick. Paying US$130 and around 30 minutes later, I received my rare Syrian visa and began the final leg of my trip in the Middle East.

Syrian Visa

Syria seemed to be the place that tied up all of my cultural experiences in the Middle East. In Damascus, I remember walking around the busy vibrant streets of the Ancient City and Al-Hamidiyah Souq at night, where friends and families would spend their time together shopping for clothes, drinking chai, and eating Syrian ice cream. It was eye-opening to witness the everyday life of people living in a country where war is still considered to be ongoing, though I would say from my experience that the major cities were relatively safe from extremist events.

But at times, during the drive from Damascus to Aleppo and back, I could observe tall walls that acted as barricades to prevent external threats from interfering with the highway. This was when my local fixer told me that there were terrorists in Idlib, only a few kilometres away from where we were and you could spot them if you looked closely enough. I was humbled by this experience, which was cemented upon seeing the devastation of Aleppo as a result of its past occupation by terrorists. It was a sombre experience but with a tinge of optimism as I was proud of the rebuilding efforts of Al-Madina Souq in Aleppo to bring the city back to its former cultural self.

Aleppo, Syria

I think it is fair to say that we all have our misconceptions of the Middle East. It holds true that the places I’ve travelled to in the Middle East are going through economically dire times which often coincide with tense political situations. But often times, singular events that occur in one country are conflated with the entirety of the Middle East such that these misconceptions start to form, for the worse, to present a negative image of the people that live in the Middle East simply due to the fact that they were born in that region. I am proud to admit that my views of the Middle East has changed, and more proud to say that this will not be my last trip to the Middle East. Inshallah.

When I returned back to Australia from the Middle East, I felt detached from society because no one around me was able to understand or relate to the experiences that I’ve just been through. I felt a sense of guilt and helplessness that I was able to live my life with the choices I make that other people might not have the same opportunity to do so. I witnessed a lot of poverty as a result of worsening inflation and ongoing conflict in the region; it was disheartening to see how many women, children, and families could not afford basic supplies of water, food, and medicine, coupled with a lack of such supplies for everyone, suffering because of circumstances outside their control. In Afghanistan currently, men are left with no option but to sell their kidneys to provide basic needs for their families. I had always felt like my travels were missing an element of meaning, and perhaps this was the answer — “to challenge yourself beyond what is greater than you” as said by my close friend in Syria.

Devastation in Aleppo, Syria

Each country presents itself with unique circumstances, finding their own way to deal with the aftermath of what had happened to them historically. I hope that there continues to be economic improvements and political stability within the region to better the wellbeing of future generations to come. Whether you donate your money or time to assist those in need, spread awareness about current events around the world, or provide aid in the frontline of conflict zones, all are contributions that come out of goodwill to hopefully make the world a better place.

And wait, did I forget to tell you that Syrian ice cream is amazing?

Syrian ice cream <3

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