I missed out on several important sites to see in Baghdad at the beginning of the tour because J and I arrived late following our son’s high school graduation, but I loved, loved, LOVED what we did see and do on this our final day in Iraq. The official group tour was finished but several of us asked our guide, Osama, if he would show us some of his favorite places in the city. He did not disappoint!
We did not visit any important sites or shrines, BUT we did walk around old Baghdad, including Mutanabbi Street, named after a classical Iraqi poet from the 10th century. This bustling pedestrian road filled with bookshops, book stalls, and cafes is considered the center of intellectual life in Baghdad.
We visited the Baghdad Cultural Center which includes stalls filled with works by local artists, a library, and a lovely balcony overlooking the gardens below, the Tigris, and the statue of Mutanabbi. Osama was well known here and he has a stall where he helps sponsor artist friends.
Osama took us the Haj Zballa Juice cafe, where every Iraqi president and many world leaders have stopped in to enjoy the fresh grape juice. The walls in here are covered with photographs of the leaders and the famous street where the juice shop resides, Rasheed. We met the lovely 3rd generational owner, Hadi Abu Ahmed, who kindly agreed to a photo by me, and then playfully placed his hat on my head for my own photo.
I wanted to bring back spices as I love to cook, so Osama then brought us to an indoor market — most of the stalls were closed but there was one spice vendor whom he could recommend. I bought cumin, cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, basra noomi (a dried black lemon which makes a lovely tea), amba (a spice mixture with pickled mango), and baharat (a middle eastern spice mixture which can be made mild or spicy.)
Walking back towards Mutanabbi Street, we passed stalls selling items — I couldn’t resist purchasing a couple small rugs which would fit into my carry-on. We walked through a beautiful building into a equally lovely courtyard — this was the original building for Al-Mustansiriya University, one of the oldest in the world established in the 13th century. In here we came across a photoshoot with men dressed in traditional Turkish costumes.
We concluded our walking tour at Shandabar Cafe, a famous tea salon on Mutanabbi Street. Every table and bench was filled, the occupants all in conversation or smoking a hookah, each wall covered with old framed photographs, and from the ceiling hung bird cages and ceiling fans. We met the owner, Mohammed Al-Khashali, a distinguished-looking man with kind eyes. We asked him about the large photographs of the men on the wall next to us, and through Osama’s translation we learned these were his four sons and a nephew who were killed here during a car bombing in 2007. His wife died soon after from grief. It is incredibly difficult to respond to such a tragic story; we all did our best to convey condolences, as well as to thank him for his hospitality and kindness to our group. This was one of those moments in life where one takes stock and realize all the things taken for granted.
Here is a short-ish video from our walk around Baghdad center.
We said our good-byes to Osama back at Hotel Baghdad. I feel lucky to have met him. Good-byes were also said to Bjorn and other members of the BIL Weekend tour group. This was my first time doing a group tour — it sometimes presented challenges but I still feel so grateful to have participated AND to have met so many amazing individuals.
Jamie and I headed back to the airport in the early evening — we paid extra for a car service which helped us expedite the police checkpoint. Security at the airport was not difficult, the main issue showing proof of a negative COVID-19 test. I searched the only shop in hopes of picking up t-shirts for the boys… there was not much in the way of souvenirs but there were a few items. Flights back to NY included Qatar to Doha, Qatar to London, and American to JFK.