"We shall never cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time." - TS Eliot
Sometimes returning to our roots inspires us to revisit ourselves within the concentric circles of shared destiny. In search of my own heritage I journeyed to Iraq after the first Gulf War.
The lessons learned by traveling solo often begin when we are no longer alone but are instead in the company of newfound strangers - who can be either friendly or hostile.
I met Ashley, a native Iraqi living in Michigan, during our grueling 22-hour flight to Amman, Jordan. She was returning to Iraq to reconnect with her place of birth, and I was going there for my first time to visit the homeland of my father - who was born in Baghdad.
Direct flights into Iraq had been prohibited due to United Nations sanctions. So after enduring the first leg of our trip we braced ourselves for an even more arduous 18-hour bus ride from Amman to Baghdad. The closer we got to our destination, the greater the difficulty. That trend hinted at more difficult experiences that waited for us further down the road, as we made our way into the heart of a nation tormented by dictatorship and ruined by war.
Arabic music played nonstop on the bus. Mile after mile of blinding heat and arid grasslands, bleached by the sun's furnace, unrolled beneath us as we rode across a seemingly endless desert.
Finally we disembarked for a short rest stop, and seeing couple of young Iraqi boys playing I asked their names as my video camera captured their giggly shyness. Children everywhere believe they have been discovered by Hollywood whenever someone points a camera at them, and these kids - who told us they were named Abdul and Ahlem - were no exception.
"Have you ever met an American before?" I asked.
Their eyes widened. "No way. Really? Americans?"
Then their protective mother stormed towards them and shooed us away with a look of disdain. Maybe her sons had never encountered an American before, but apparently their mother had. Judging from her reaction it had not gone well.
VIP Treatment, Iraqi Style
Being noticed and known by others can be comforting - or downright creepy.
When we finally crossed the border and arrived at the Iraqi embassy to check in, we were directed to the VIP section because we were traveling with a group of expatriates. We got the red carpet treatment, but a fellow traveler who had done it all before whispered ominously to me as we shuffled through the queue.
"Hide your video camera or they might confiscate it."
Iraq, I quickly figured out, was a world of constant contradictions were what was offered with one hand might soon be snatched away by the other.
Soon we were introduced to our local guide, who would serve as our translator and driver. He immediately began to recite a litany of personal data about my family and me. He knew where my dad was born and raised and which schools he had attended in Baghdad. Then he rattled off similar information about Ashley and her family. The background research they had done on us was both impressive and scary for two foreigners entering a land where hostility against the USA was literally incorporated into the city's art and architecture.
Iraqi white glove treatment was tempered by outstretched hands and 5-finger discounts. But when one person is needy, it diminishes the well being and wealth of all humankind.
We stayed at Baghdad's famous Al Rashid Hotel, advertised as "The finest hotel in the world." In order to enter we had to walk over an embedded mosaic of George Bush Sr. snarling like a monster. It covered the entire entryway like a doormat. Beneath the picture was an inscription: Bush is Criminal.
Many hotel guests stomped their way through the doorway, smashing his face with their shoes as emphatically as possible. Some walked through, ignoring it with an air of indifference. Still others, like me, tried to politely jump over it.
Once in our room, Ashley and I poured out our Iraqi dinars onto the bed and it looked as if we had robbed a bank. In Iraq in those days a full tank of gas cost less than a U.S. penny, and the educated upper class earned about US $35 a year.
Al Rashid Hotel was where dignitaries and wealthy people stayed. The air conditioner didn't work. The television got only one station, with fuzzy reception. The radio was broken. There was no hairdryer so I requested one from room service. They brought an old, rusty one up and asked me to please hurry, emphasizing that "Every resident of the hotel must share this hairdryer."
Iraqis did not have much anymore, but they did not want sympathy. Still, the hands constantly reaching out for tips and the pleading eyes spoke of silent desperation.
I heard a knock on the door. We weren't expecting anybody and were told not to answer the door to strangers because so many people got robbed in their rooms. I spied through the peephole. Our bellhop was there. He asked us for pills, any kind of pills.
"Please. My wife gets headaches."
Ash gave him a couple of Tylenol tablets and a few Midols. He was appreciative but wanted more. We experienced the same ritual with several other hotel employees. Then one day Ash got a headache, but when she reached for her Tylenol bottle she found it empty. We checked all our other bottles of various personal medications, and they were all empty. Each day the chambermaids had siphoned off a few pills, thinking we wouldn't notice. After a couple of weeks all our medicine was gone.
The Walls Have Ears; the People Have Fears
Leave everyone you encounter with a gift - or at least some words of insight and wisdom.
Ashley and I traveled to Mosul. We knocked on a stranger's door, saying that we were from the United States, and asked if we might interview them. They only consented, they said, because they wanted Americans to know how much they hated us and how much they loved Saddam. Despite their expressed animosity - and even though they only had a few possessions - they bestowed on us a set of worry beads, saying, "Nobody leaves our home without a gift."
I entered a church and asked a priest how he felt about Saddam Hussein. He put his fingers to his lips and led me outside into the middle of the street.
"Don't ever talk in a building. The walls have ears. Please be careful what you say, even in your hotel room. Otherwise an accident might happen."
Saddam Hussein Hospital
We have to be strong enough to reciprocate love with others, even in the midst of hatred, hopelessness, and all-consuming grief. That strength comes from the very act of doing it.
Before leaving Iraq we visited the dismal corridors of the Saddam Hussein Hospital in central Baghdad. Ashley remained with me, steadfast, as we passed from room to room listening to the sounds of women crying in the hallways. A surgeon offered to give us a tour if we would promise to spread the word about the terrible conditions and encourage our government to lift the embargo.
The equipment was broken down. Hospital employees were dressed in smelly, torn, uniforms. A cute little girl about six years old - with unkempt hair and a ratty dress that looked like it had been her only clothing for years - was spying on us curiously. I asked the doctor about her.
"She's the daughter of one of our nurses."
A crying mother sat beside a 10-year old girl in a rusty, creaky bed. The girl had bedsores, bug bites, and flies on her face. We flinched at the filthy floors and the stench of death. The doctor said that the tattered bedding had not been washed for more than two weeks and that another girl had died on those same sheets a week before.
Before we left the nurse's child appeared again and I gave her a souvenir tee shirt from Hollywood. Her eyes gleamed. She gave me a warm hug, and tears streamed down her cheeks.
Before the current Bush Administration war began Iraqis were suffering, hungry, and poor. But at least they had each other and a homeland, and today they have neither - but are still suffering, hungry, and poor. Entire generations of Iraqis have known nothing but war and famine.
The power and courage to remain at peace with oneself and others - and to feel a sense of gratitude despite life's cruelty - requires real heroism. In war, the real victims and heroes are the common people - and the majority of common citizens of the world are children.
A Java Jolt from a Cupful of Truth
In this complicated world, both individually and collectively, we need to try to be unafraid to do what is needed to leave others with a good memory of who we are.
While in Iraq I was invited to the home of Sudi, the 63-year old aunt of a friend of mine, where we sipped strong Turkish coffee.
"Now turn your empty cup upside down and make a wish," asked Sudi. She tilted it, showing me how the coffee grounds had formed shapes.
"What does the cup say?" I asked.
She looked at me with a piercing gaze. "Yourself, you lie to. You enjoying freedom and create, but work no good. Doesn't satisfy. You know this, yes?"
I started to defend myself, but she silenced me with a loud, "Shhh."
She uttered something in Arabic, and then continued, "Not all bad. Watching over you, someone. Person love you, know real you. Bah, no good, everyone else. Get rid of them. Attention, pay to you."
Who would have thought that there, in that corner of ancient Iraq, I would have gotten a psychic reading that could potentially change my life?
"I wish you Baghdad, happy time," Sudi added.
Her wisdom still resonates in my mind and heart as I try to reconcile my Iraqi experiences and my identity as a faithful American who has witnessed her father's Iraqi homeland devastated beyond belief. I think the answer - if there is one - lies somewhere within the last thing she said to me:
"Iraq, beautiful history. Also, remember having Iraqi people know you. Don't just collecting memory from them, give them memory of you. They need good American memory. Don't be afraid."