Passport control when flying into Baghdad

A year or two ago, Iraq changed its rules so that citizens of many countries can get a visa-on-arrival at the airport. This is always the easiest procedure. One time, I went to Syria. This was before the war. We could not get visas on arrival at the airport in Damascus. We had to be very responsible and do things ahead of time: get instructions on what to do, fill out an application, plus go to CVS and take pictures, and then send everything to the Syrian Embassy in Washington D.C. and hope the post office didn’t lose the envelope, and then hope the Syrian Embassy had its act together and processed the paperwork before our departure date.

I can report that the post office upheld its end; but the Embassy did not. My application ended up lost behind someone’s desk, and they didn’t find it till much later. And did I mention, when you send in your application, you have to send them your passport, too, so they can put the visa stamp in it. So my actual passport — probably the most important document any of us possess — the very basis for being able to live the rest of your life — was lost behind someone’s desk at the Syrian Embassy.

Any case, you don’t have to do all that when you want to go to Baghdad (as long as the visa-on-arrival scheme applies to your country, and quite a long list of countries qualify, and I don’t think that it was all purely western countries, either). You just show up to the airport and then let events take their course.

Baghdad’s airport

You deboard the plane, and you can get a bit of glimpse of the airport through the windows. It’s not bad looking.

Then, you sort of walk through some corridors, as you always do when you arrive at an airport, and you end up in the passport control hall.

The passport control hall is not exactly the airport putting its best foot forward. Later, when I saw the rest of the airport, I realized that much of it is actually nice and new, but the passport control must be from an old wing that’s never been renovated. There’s an alcove that has rows of plastic seats where you can sit. And you will probably have to do a lot of sitting.

When you first get there, you might be tempted to get in line where the officers are standing. That’s what we did, because we didn’t know what else to do. Also, when you for example fly into Jordan, you do indeed go stand in the lines and speak to an officer, and they stamp your passport right then and there in front of you, after you fork over like $40 or something.

But that’s not how it works in Baghdad, as we soon discovered. Instead, when we got to the front of the line, the officer told us, no, no, we first need to go stand in that line over there to get our visa, then we come stand in this line and are allowed entry into the country. We looked over there to see a line, but there was no line, there was just a crowd of people.

Just look for the officer, he told us.

Well, we couldn’t see any officer, but what could we do? We did as we were told, and walked haltingly over to the crowd of people, and finally, as we pushed our way to the front, we noticed there was a low podium, and beneath it was written in Arabic, “visas here”, or something like that. Also, the “officer” who was in charge in this section was not wearing an airport uniform, or police uniform, no, he was dressed in jeans and a sweater or something, and no badge or name-tag, plus he kept disappearing as he ferried passports back and forth, so he wasn’t super obvious at first.

So just keep in mind, there’s no big sign hanging from the ceiling to tell you, “Come here to get your visa!” There’s just a small low sign at hip level hidden by the crowd of people.

Can I just add, this sign is not a sturdy placard. It is a printed sheet of paper that’s been taped to the front of the podium! I guess, at it’s printed and not sloppy hand-writing.

So you fight your way through the crowd of people, and from the stack on the podium, you retrieve a one-page, front-side-only visa form from the “officer”, and you have to fill this out first. It’s pretty basic, and it’s in both Arabic and English. It just asks for name, country of origin, what are you doing in the country, age. It asks for your marital status. After you’ve filled it out, you fight your way back to the guy in jeans, and you give him both the form and your passport. Too late, I felt some misgivings as I watched my passport disappear, in a stack with about twenty others, in his hands into some back room where they do all the processing. What if I never see it again???!!! What proof will I ever have that I am me??!!! What if I’m stuck here forever??!!

You might indeed be stuck there forever, because the US government has a Travel 4 advisory against visiting Iraq, in other words, Do Not Go. If anything happens to you, “we’re not coming in to get you.”

But honestly, I think they would probably try to get you anyways. Also, I think the airport workers in Baghdad would try to help you out if your passport went missing, I don’t think they’re trying any shenanigans to kidnap people into staying. Also, I’d say the Travel 4 advisory is a little overblown. I didn’t ever feel unsafe. Just my unofficial opinion. I would not be surprised, by the way, if the murder rate in the US with all our gun violence is higher than it is in Iraq right now.

Tip: take a picture of your passport — front cover, and the page with your photo — before handing it over. And might as well do this well in advance, like the night before you leave for your trip, so you can do it in the privacy of your home without a bunch of people watching you.

Once your passport and the visa form has disappeared into the back room, then you’ve got to wait. You can sit on the plastic chairs. These don’t have any handrests, which means you can stretch out and sleep if you like. In fact, one man was doing just that.

Or, you can play musical chairs as you try to escape the smell of cigarette smoke. Every so often, a new smoker appeared in a new spot, so you skip from the seats, to standing with your bags at a distance, to shifting this way and that.

Or you can people-watch. There was lots of interest to see, even through my thirty-hours-of-travel stupor. I was surprised by all the people in that room, trying to get to Iraq. I was there for an urgent reason. Otherwise, I would never have gone. But other people were clearly there for pure tourism. Our plane from Qatar to Baghdad was full, at least 100 people. I had looked around in wonderment. All these people actually willingly were flying to Iraq? And no one even looked stressed or worried. I was half certain that we were all going to be killed or exploded, but apparently, those days are over. No one else seemed to be at all troubled at the enormity of actually flying into Baghdad.

So who were they? There was a group of maybe Indonesians all dressed in blue robes. They looked like they were there for a religious pilgrimage. There’s lots of Muslim shrines in Iraq. When their passports came back, all processed and approved, the passport covers even matched their robes, bright blue. So cool. I’ve only ever usually seen passports in dark navy or maroon.

So that was nice, except it was some of the old, wilted men amongst this group who were smoking and cramping my travel style.

There was one guy who had shown up — he was a westerner — with a backpack that had a big Friends of Ukraine emblem sown onto it. I guess he got on the wrong plane?

There was a red-haired lady who was American, and you know how wherever Americans go, they always talk loudly so everyone knows that they are American and can be impressed? That’s how I knew Iraq must be safe, because this lady had no scruples about doing that even in Baghdad airport, in the passport waiting room mostly full of Arab men. I soon knew her whole life story: she’s teaching at a school in Baghdad … an international school … she’s taught at several schools, in fact, she just started a new position at a third one … the money was better when she was teaching in Uzbekistan.

So you can do all these things, but one thing you might not be able to do is go scrolling on the Internet from your phone. As far as I could tell, Baghdad airport does not have any WiFi in the passport control room. At least, I couldn’t get connected.

When I was on my way back home, however, and I was waiting for my flight in a different part of the airport, I was able to connect to an internet signal there. But they only allow you one hour in a day!

Although I didn’t have internet on that first night, you might. You know how there’s some phone plans that give you international internet access? Like, I used to have a phone, and every time I went to a new country, my phone would tell me, “Welcome to Sweden! You have access to Internet here!” or “Welcome to Jordan! Your phone has access to internet here!” So we had read ahead of time that one of our phones had an arrangement like that with Iraq. I thought, no way in hell is that actually going to work, how is any company able to make any sort of arrangement with Iraq — credit cards don’t even work in Iraq! In the whole country, you cannot use a credit or debit card. You have to withdraw money from your bank before leaving and then get currency exchanged once you’re in Baghdad.

But lo and behold, the phone that had promised wireless in Baghdad followed through — through a provider called “Mint”.

Now, we had waited in passport control, with our passports gobbled into the back door, for about 45 minutes, and I don’t know how much longer we would have ended up waiting. We had seen the stack of Malaysian passports come back approved, we had seen a giant stack of Turkish passports come back approved (the Turks had been there before us). We told the guy in jeans and a sweater, who was actually very nice and affable, that we were in a situation where every second might count. He said, very cheerfully, “listen, I understand, but you can see yourself looking around, this place is chaos.” But he said he’d go into the back room and see if he couldn’t get things sped up for us. Indeed, he disappeared shortly after this. After a while, he came back fistful with passports shining in navy. Just at that moment, as he was about to call out the names they belonged to, a plane from Egypt delivered its passengers. It felt like 200 people were streaming into the hall, all men, and they all went straight for the visa counter and swarmed the guy in jeans.

Everyone, please sit down! He called out.

The Egyptians remained standing and swarming and battling to get their visa forms.

Sit down, please!! the man in jeans ordered them again.

No response, just more jostling.

My friends, are you going to sit or no?

He wasn’t able to get them seated, but he nevertheless started calling out names and passing out passports, and indeed, ours were among them.

So now, we had to pay. I think it was something like $75 per person that they wanted. That’s not bad. I had hundred dollar bills with me, however, there was an issue that arose. Something like, there’s some hundred dollar bills that look different than others — some have a certain stamp on them that’s more high-security or something? — and Iraq will only accept the high-security ones. So he kept returning my hundred dollar bill to me, but I wasn’t fully understanding what he was staying, but the upshot is, apparently not all hundred dollar bills are the same.

But we got ourselves paid in the end, and we got change (also in dollars) and then it was easy.

We went back to the original line we’d stood in when we first got to the passport waiting room. We were stamped through, no problem.

Then we got to the area with the baggage pick-up. I’d like to here announce that Baghdad airport did not lose a single one of our bags.

Then, we needed a taxi to go straight to the hospital. What we were looking for was a taxi stand called “Mumayiz Taxi”, that means sort of like “Distinguished Taxi”.

We told an airport worker what we were looking for, and he pointed us the way (all the airport workers were very nice and courteous), but he also told us that a man called Farook who worked in the airport and did odd jobs or something would be able to drive us to the hospital. In fact, at that very moment, Farook came walking up with floppy hair (his name wasn’t really Farook, I don’t remember what it was.) Farook offered to drive us directly to the hospital. And he’s actually perfectly safe, because some relatives of mine had arrived in Baghdad the day before, also at night, also to go to the hospital, and Farook had propositioned them and they had accepted the drive (it wasn’t free, of course, still for money) and they’d gotten to the hospital alright. But we didn’t know that at the time, and we didn’t know anything about Farook, and we decided to stick to the plan we already had.

So they said, no problem, Mumayiz Taxi is just out the door.

So out the door we went.

And there we were, in Iraq.

It was a damp, cool night, the white streetlights were glowing in the mist, and the silhouettes of palm trees stood out against the dark sky.

It’s a funny thing about palm trees. The ones in Los Angeles look bedraggled, unkempt, and cluttered — even a little sinister. The ones in Baghdad were very beautiful. Apparently, there’s 500 types of palm trees in the world, or some very high number, so I guess you can get a variety.

Palm trees in Baghdad at sunset

We got in the Mumayiz Taxi. The driver was very nice. I should mention, we were just two women doing all this traveling by ourselves and we had no problem, not even a threat or a feeling of a problem. The taxi had wireless internet that I was able to connect to, for free, the driver just had to give me the password, and I used it all the way on the drive to the airport to send emails back home — that we’d arrived, that everything was fine. I let them know that “this place is the bomb.” Too soon?

There’s no seat belts in the back seat of the taxi. The driver knew where the hospital we wanted was, so we didn’t have to provide directions (which we didn’t know anyways). We were able to pay with dollars, and you pay before you leave. It was $29. They told us it would be cheaper if we could pay with Iraqi dinars, but we still didn’t have any. Are you sure, they asked? They seemed kind of sad about making us pay more than we’d otherwise have to pay.

I really, really liked Iraq.

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