Baghdad Walkabout: Touring the Tigris — and the Streets

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ALI AL-SAADI / AFP / Getty Images

An Iraqi man jumps into the Tigris River to join other swimmers in Baghdad

This Part 11 of the Return to Baghdad series.

Friday has traditionally been a good day to roam in Baghdad. It's the start of the weekend — the equivalent of Saturday in the U.S. — and locals usually stay home in the morning, resting from the stresses of the work week. The streets are emptiest around midday, when people go to their mosques for the most important prayers of the Muslim week.

With fewer people out and about, the policemen and soldiers at checkpoints are usually in a more relaxed mood. Even during Baghdad's bloodiest years — 2006 and '07 — my colleague Ali al-Shaheen and I would sometimes venture through the city on a Friday. We looked like a couple of Iraqis taking advantage of the reduced traffic. As I've said before, I'd never have tried that if I'd looked more like a foreigner — like my current traveling companion Nate Rawlings.

As we've learned this past week, Baghdad is now safe enough for foreigners who exercise appropriate caution. But even so, I could not have predicted the degree of freedom Nate and I enjoyed today when we went on a walkabout through some of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

We started with a boat ride across the Tigris, a pleasure many Iraqis have long forgotten and few foreigners have enjoyed since 2003. On previous such excursions, I experienced a great deal of resistance from policemen guarding the landing points on either bank; today they just waved us on. We were the only people on the river, and the boatman was glad for our business. Too many people, he said, no longer knew how the city looked from the water. (In truth, it doesn't look great, mainly because the banks are lined with garbage, rusting old barges and bulrushes.)

We then went to Mutanabbi Street, famous across Iraq for its bookstores. I had gone there often before the war to meet with Baghdadi intellectuals at the Shabender Tea House, where we drank endless cups of hammuth (tea made from sun-dried limes) and discussed politics. Afterward, we'd go across the lane to Kubba Saray, renowned for its boiled ground meatballs.

When the Shi'ite militia known as the Mahdi Army took over the neighborhood, it forced many booksellers to flee. Some were abducted and never heard from again. Then in 2007, much of Mutanabbi Street was destroyed by a massive truck bomb; Shabender and Kubba Saray were both leveled.

I was delighted to see both now restored and shared their pleasures with Nate. On Shabender's walls, old black-and-white images stretching back to the earliest days of photography tell the history of Iraq. There are new, more tragic images too: portraits of the owner's three sons, a brother and a nephew, who were all killed in the blast. But the teahouse and Kubba Saray were doing brisk business. The booksellers are happy too: with the Mahdi Army gone, they are no longer obliged to sell only religious tomes published in Iran. On the pavements, they now display a wide variety of secondhand books — mostly technical manuals and science textbooks, but also President Obama's autobiography.

We then walked to the nearby bird market, the Souk al-Gazal, whose proprietors sell pigeons (for hobbyists) and chickens (for dinner) brought from all over the Arab world. To Nate's delight, the soldiers guarding this stretch of road were from a unit he trained. The reunion was emotional and loud, with much hugging, kissing of the cheeks and recounting of hijinks past. (To preserve Nate's dignity, I'll keep some of them to myself.)

Then we did something I hadn't dared do since the end of 2003: we took a taxi home. I held my breath the entire time, but the driver was utterly unfazed by the prospect of carrying a couple of foreigners. Unusual for a cabbie, he said not a word, probably because he spoke no English. For entirely different reasons, I too was speechless.