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An Iraqi woman visits a relative’s grave in Wadi-Al Salaam, which is said to contain over 5 million bodies.

TRAVEL: BEYOND THE EYES OF A PILGRIM

A Pakistani photographer shares his experience as a pilgrim-turned-tourist in Iraq
Updated Oct 04, 2017 09:42pm

While it isn’t uncommon to find people in Pakistan who have been to Iraq for religious reasons, the idea to explore a country in turmoil as a tourist seems for most an alien idea.

With the intention to convince people to explore the region beyond the eyes of a pilgrim, Mehlum Sadriwala spent 40 days in cities — mainly Najaf — across southern Iraq, documenting his travels through photographs.

“I have been to Iraq a couple of times for ziarat [pilgrimage]. I feel we connect with this place particularly because of religious devotion. But Iraq is worth a lot more. It’s a story untold,” Sadriwala tells me in a persuasive tone.

A makeshift bookstore on the streets of Karbala — Arabic literature has inspired many plays performed in the region
A makeshift bookstore on the streets of Karbala — Arabic literature has inspired many plays performed in the region

Najaf, he shares, is not your conventional tourist place. It does not invite you to luxurious five-star hotels or multi-storey malls but instead offers a rich history, culture and Iranian- and Turkish-infused architecture — a kaleidoscope into Iraq’s glory and downfall.

According to Sadriwala, walking through the rustic lanes of Najaf is a unique experience and just when the rugged feel of the city becomes comfortable to the eye, loud chuckles from a nearby kebab shop will draw you into the central city’s undying cafe culture.

A boy strikes a pose in Najaf.
A boy strikes a pose in Najaf.

“There is uniqueness to everything about the place,” says Sadriwala. “There may not be many proper restaurants but the experience of dining over small wooden tables while Arabic music plays in the background makes one celebrate Najaf’s simplicity.”

But a distinct aspect of street culture in Najaf — as well as Karbala and Baghdad — is the abundance of political posters on pillars, the photographer observes.

A wide collection of religion-inspired artefacts and collectables are found in local bazaars.
A wide collection of religion-inspired artefacts and collectables are found in local bazaars.

“The people are very politically sentimental. Posters have pictures of martyrs which serve as a constant reminder of the country’s conflicts and war.”

Najaf, he shares, is not your conventional tourist place. It does not invite you to luxurious five-star hotels or multi-storey malls but instead offers a rich history, culture and Iranian- and Turkish-infused architecture — a kaleidoscope into Iraq’s glory and downfall.

A local carries freshly baked sweet sesame buns in a local bazaar in Najaf.
A local carries freshly baked sweet sesame buns in a local bazaar in Najaf.

It is, quips Sadriwala, a photographer’s paradise. “Pakistan and Iraq have a lot in common,” he casually draws the parallels when I question him about security concerns.

“I remember I was in Karbala when news broke of an attack somewhere near the city. But staying there myself, I had heard or felt nothing of it. When my family called to know if I was safe, I realised how it was not any different from when an attack took place back home [in Pakistan]. It’s all about the media’s portrayal of the situation.”

Sadriwala’s top pick

Of the many things a pilgrim-turned-tourist must explore in the city, I ask Sadriwala to name his top pick(s).

Sheesha joints are very common across cities in Southern Iraq.
Sheesha joints are very common across cities in Southern Iraq.

“Hands down: the kahva [coffee]. It’s not just your average beverage, it’s actually an excuse to take a break, sit and have a conversation. I did not find a single street without a kahva joint, where people of all age groups gather to sip on a hot cup of honey and Iranian dry fruits-mixed kahva, served with white sugar cubes,” he instantly answers.

An array of small glass containers are set to serve hot Kahva.
An array of small glass containers are set to serve hot Kahva.

Sadriwala also strongly recommends the pomegranate juice from fresh fruit street stalls which, he says, is the best he has ever had.

Also worth mentioning: Najaf has a fast mobile internet.

World’s largest graveyard

An Iraqi woman visits a relative’s grave in Wadi-Al Salaam, which is said to contain over 5 million bodies.
An Iraqi woman visits a relative’s grave in Wadi-Al Salaam, which is said to contain over 5 million bodies.

“One of the most moving experiences was the sight of the Wadi-Al Salaam cemetery. I stood there for a couple of minutes in amazement trying to figure how far it stretches. It’s never-ending!” Sadriwala says in awe.

When you travel from Karbala to Najaf, you see it — the world’s largest graveyard — along the highway. It’s vast beyond imagination, he stresses.

“But, the graves are a sight in themselves. Adorned with tombstones with carved Arabic calligraphy and symbols distinct to each, every grave narrates a story. The graves of the martyrs of wars stand distinguished among the many as they are also decorated with posters, rose petals and state symbols.”

What’s for takeaway?

Nothing beats Arabic calligraphy, Sadriwala avers.

“Seeing how calligraphy was a prominent element of Iraqi architecture, I was desperate to find a calligrapher myself. It was one such day right before sunset when I randomly discovered a small space splattered with paint-drops, where a middle-aged man was writing something on paper. There is not a finer piece of Arabic art that I can find elsewhere.”

Tile work inspired by Iranian and Turkish architecture outside a mosque.
Tile work inspired by Iranian and Turkish architecture outside a mosque.

If you are a fan of Arabic-inspired fashion ornaments, however, Sadriwala suggests spending some time shopping in Najaf — and even Karbala. Both cities have a good variety of scarves, accessories, prayer-mats and cutlery to offer.

“Iraqis always end a conversation with a prayer. So if nothing else, one will always return with a bunch of prayers,” he smiles.

The Islamic love of floral design, rendered in tiles is beautifully evident in local mosques and Iraqi architecture.
The Islamic love of floral design, rendered in tiles is beautifully evident in local mosques and Iraqi architecture.


Quick tips

Visa: apply for group visa, it’s easier.

Accommodation: easy because people frequent the place a lot for pilgrimages, so there are many guest houses. A decent room during high season (such as Muharram) would cost around 40-60 dollars.

Mode: PIA recently started direct flights from Karachi to Najaf three days a week.


The writer is a member of staff

By Ramsha Jahangir | Photos by Mehlum Sadriwala

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2017