Interview with Michael Palin: Why Iraq is the most curious place in the world

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Your diary is very poignant in places, such as when you describe some of the destruction…

Yes, I saw a lot of pretty depressing things. Not surprising given what the country has been through in the past 30 years and neighbors being dragged out of homes and taken away to be tortured. Brutality in all its forms, including bombs and missiles. Quite extraordinary. The country could be quite wealthy, and there are a lot of quite bright and intelligent middle-class people there. There is always a plus and a minus, the plus being talking to very eloquent guys like a student in Mosul and his friend but certainly finding in their case that they just wanted out of Iraq. What they wanted to study, what they wanted to know, simply could not be found in their own country. I thought that was very sad.

The south is very difficult for us to accept. It’s run by Shia militias and for them religious discipline is the main thing that’s what’s important to them so you just see places like beautiful old houses in Basra that are rotting because no one really knows why they would bother to keep them. They get in the way, it’s old stuff, let’s go. But Baghdad in particular has quite a Renaissance culture, with buildings generally well maintained by people who care.

Then, very close to the end of your journey, you come across the Garden of Eden… or is it?

Yes, I never quite believed that story, and I don’t believe it at all now! The thing about the Garden of Eden area is that it’s where the two rivers meet, so that was pretty important to us. But there’s this little area where the tree of knowledge sits in the middle of a concrete block. There was a small gift shop that, oddly enough, had Santa Clauses on its shelves. It wasn’t spectacular at all, but imagine what it would be like if someone in the West had the Garden of Eden franchise! Fortunately, there were no figures in the fig leaves.

Looking back, what was the biggest surprise for you?

How the country continues to function after all that has happened to it for so long, and to do so despite the chaos. In Baghdad, where there are no markings on the roads, it’s total chaos and yet no one hits anyone. The cities are buzzing with huge numbers of people, but I haven’t seen any aggression on the streets. So I think my biggest surprise was that Iraq can and should be a nice place to live.

The other surprise was overcoming my vertigo on the minaret of Samarra, and even reaching the top. It’s bad enough getting up there, because you’re going around the building on the outside and the handrail is on the inside. Getting to the top – which is unprotected and about 200ft (60m) above the ground – and expecting to make a coin on camera from there was terrifying.

I was able to get through the first track and then I suddenly felt comfortable. I thought: what a wonderful place to be, overlooking the heart of biblical Iraq, with Abraham and all these characters born in this region. People have been walking on this minaret for over 1,000 years; and from there I could see the Tigris below and how much Iraq depended on this great river. Not feeling like I was going to fall any moment: it was a great feeling.

You say in a postscript that you would return to see some of the locals you met. After all that you have seen, are these the people who have marked you the most?

It’s always like that. There are those who smile at you professionally, because they have to. And then there are the people we are lucky enough to meet and who live their lives; they have families or study, and hearing their stories is very important. The only caveat being that women are virtually invisible in Iraq; I can’t begin to understand this in any form.

I would love to go back to see what its people will do with it in five years. If they can form a government that can represent the majority of the people and invest the money properly and wisely, then I think Iraq has a great future. But it can go both ways.

Please note: The FCDO advises against all travel to Iraq.

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