Flying out of Baghdad

So it’s time to leave Iraq and you’re flying back to wherever. You’re going to need to get from the city to the airport, and there are about 7 security checkpoints you have to clear. So buckle up, here we go:

First, I believe that no passenger is able to drive to the airport for security reasons. Instead, you must take a taxi.

Second, there is only one road through which all these taxis may pass to get to the airport, also for security reasons — so there is only one road to the airport, and all the vehicles on it are certified, and that’s it.

This solitary road stretching straight to the airport starts at a square called Abbas ibn Firnas. I just searched for Abbas ibn Firnas for fun, and he’s a very interesting man who lived over 1000 years ago.

At that square, there is a big traffic circle with lots of palm trees. It’s very pretty. Your taxi curves its way through the circle, and soon enough you’re on the airport road.

The square of Abbas ibn Firnas, where the road to Baghdad airport starts

But you’re not going to speed down that road, because it’s full of checkpoints. They took me by surprise.

First, as we were driving along, the taxi driver asked for our passports and tickets. I got a little nervous because I didn’t have a printed ticket, I had it on my phone. So I had to pass my phone over. And even on my phone, I didn’t have an actual ticket; I just had an email with the flight listing. But, when we got to the first checkpoint, and the armored officers checked over our papers through the driver’s window, there was no problem. They didn’t even check carefully, just sort of glanced.

So the driver stepped on the gas again, until we got to the second checkpoint. At this one, we had to take all of our big bags out of the taxi and line them up on the side of the road. And we also had to line up, driver and passengers. But, we had to leave our purses (!) with all our valuables in the car when we got out, we couldn’t take anything with us. That made me nervous, too. It’s not just us, either, there were maybe 7 taxis that all arrived at the same time so we were a little group. We all lined up and everyone gets a pat-down. The women all do it in a small building the size of a parking ticket booth. We go into the room one at a time. It’s a very gentle patting, coats still on, and the women doing the body-pat say a prayer as they do it, it’s like a benediction. It’s like when Hermione would cast protective spells on Harry.

In fact, the whole checkpoint process really turned more into a prayer that all travelers would arrive safely to their destinations.

After we were all pat down, we proceeded to line up again on the side of the road while a trained dog with an officer walked past all the bags and cars and open car trunks.

After that, we all bundled back in, and this time, drove right up to the airport.

We couldn’t just walk in, though. First, we took all our bags out again and lined them up. We again had to leave purses behind. It was crazy. All our luggage was in a row with all the other passengers, with purses balanced on top, and you have to leave it all behind — you walk a bit of a distance away for another pat-down. The ladies were again searched in a hut, one at a time. This search was just, she touches your stomach for a second, says a prayer, and out you go. But of course, while you’re in the hut, your passport, money, and cell phone are just lined up on the sidewalk. I didn’t catch exactly how they searched all the baggage — was it a dog again? cause they don’t open anything up — but we had to stand off to the side until things were cleared.

And though I was anxious, all our stuff was still there intact when we were allowed to claim our possessions.

Now we can walk through the airport doors. Right inside the door is a tube through which we put all our bags for a scan. However, the machines looked really old and I don’t know if they do much good, given people apparently can get all sorts of things past TSA in the US. I don’t remember if we, the passengers, also had to walk through a scanner, but if we did, we didn’t have to take off coats or shoes.

So now you’re in the airport lobby. It’s actually very nice. There was free WiFi that you could access for one hour. There were also cafes and snack stands and a souvenir kiosk selling what looked like Aladdin’s lamps.

Lobby of Baghdad airport

You can’t get to the check-in counters just yet, however, because you have to go through another security screening to get to them. That’s different from the American airports. In the US, you can get to the check-in counters as soon as you get to the airport. But in Baghdad, you go through security at the airport doors, and then again between the lobby and the check-in counters.

The check-in counters will open up three hours before each flight. I had come I think 4 or 5 hours before my flight, so I had about two hours of just sitting there in the lobby.

There were not many other solo woman travelers sitting by themselves, but no one bothered me at all.

Then when the check-in counter for my flight did open up, they announced it over the intercom. They announce everything in both Arabic and English. They announce all the flights that are departing, or if a gate is opening, and reminders about not smoking.

There are, just as an aside, not an inordinate amount of flights. You can see all the flights listed the same night I traveled. I guess it adds up to a couple hundred passengers at a time. It’s nice — calm and quiet and you can find places to sit all by yourself. No need to jostle.

Flight departures on a Wednesday night in Baghdad airport

So I now went through the security between the lobby and the check-in counters. Again, your bags go on a conveyor belt passing through an x-ray. I don’t remember if I also went through a scanner, but if I did, I didn’t have to take off coats or shoes.

When I was cleared, I could scoot on over to my check-in counter. They were very nice and said Inshallah bil-salama, which just means, may God get you there safely, pretty much. When someone tells you that, you tell them back, Allah ye-salmak, and that means, may God keep you safe. So it’s all very nice. They were able to look up my entire flight itinerary on their computers, and my flights passed through 4 airports (counting Baghdad’s), and they knew my final stop, so that made me feel confident that everything was going to go smoothly — they were clued in, they knew what they were doing, when they put the baggage tag on my check-in luggage, it was going to come the whole way with me (and indeed it did).

I was past the check-in counters, but my gate wasn’t going to open up for I think another two hours. But they have another seating area — big plush blue seats — and they even have a duty-free shop with all the fancy perfume and make-up. They also were playing music over the loudspeaker. It was soulful piano music, and they played the same five songs over and over, including “My heart will go on” from Titanic and that song by the scratchy-voiced guy who keeps saying “Wherever you are, wherever you go, I will be right here …” I think that was the one. I mentioned it was five songs they repeated again and again, so it did get a little old after the fifth cycle.

Baghdad airport’s duty-free shop

Finally, they called my flight — the gate was opening, and they were going to start boarding. It’s at this point that you go through passport control. This is where the major wrinkle happened, and I discovered something I’m disappointed that Iraq would have done. I was standing there across from the officer who was looking through my passport. He was taking his time, I’m not sure why. Right next to me, across from another officer, another lady was crying hysterically while her toddler son made everything more complicated by being completely oblivious and wandering off here and there.

She was crying because her plan was about to leave; because her toddler was running around; and because they wouldn’t let her through passport control. She had an Iraqi passport, and normally, you think that if you have the passport belonging to the country you’re in, that will make it easier, but in this case, it was a definite disadvantage.

The officer was telling her, you need an authorization from your husband or father in order to leave the country! Because she had an Iraqi passport. If you have a foreign passport, they don’t care, but if you’re an Iraqi woman with an Iraqi passport, this apparently applies to you. Seriously! I didn’t quite get, though, if the rule applies to her herself, or was it because she was with her son, and she’s not allowed to take her son from the country without written permission from the dad? I didn’t get it (and if it’s the latter, I’ll bet the dad can remove the son from the country without written permission of the mom, LOL.)

Any case, the lady did know about that authorization, or maybe she’d forgotten, or ignored it, I don’t know, but now she was crying and begging them to let her through and her flight was about to leave. She asked if she could at least call her husband and get verbal permission, the officer said yes. I think the officer was in that stage where a man sees a woman in distress, and they love lording it over her, and at the same time, they’re just itching to also be the hero in the situation. He says, “we’re not trying to hold you up, we just have to follow the rules.”

But I talked to quite a few people in Iraq while I was there, and they were telling me about all the corruption in the country, so they don’t, in fact, follow the rules in all cases.

It took the crying lady’s husband a while to pick up. In fact, I think she had to call a couple of times and leave a message, and call different numbers, crying all the time. I was getting worried for my own sake during all this time, because the officer holding my passport didn’t seem in a hurry to let me pass. He was just fiddling around with it, and I thought, are they going to find a reason to pick at me?

The crying lady’s husband finally answers and she gives the phone to the officer. Her plane is imminently departing, but the officer is in no rush.

“Alaykum al salaam.” (Formal greeting)

“Allah ye-saa3dek.” (May God help you — eh, don’t you think it’s the wife that needs help??)

“Kayf al haal?” (How are you doing?)

They carried on for a bit with all the tender niceties, then finally got to the pressing matter at hand. The husband had to provide some kind of number, I think it might have been an identification number for the kid, like his social security number. Once that was relayed, things were taken care off, and the woman and her toddler were allowed passage. Off they trotted.

I was still standing there, though. And in fact, my officer, still holding my passport hostage, also suddenly got on the phone and was exchanging tender niceties with someone. Then, he actually just walked off from his post!

What about my passport? I wailed.

Yes, yes, he says, while continuing on his way. But he did indeed come back momentarily, gave me my passport, and allow me to depart from the country. I have no idea what he was doing.

So now I had made it through all the security screenings en route to the airport; I’d check-in and checked my bag; and I’d been blessed by passport control. Now the last thing was getting into the gate. There was another security screening there. Bags went through another conveyor belt + x-ray, and I don’t remember exactly, but I think all us passengers also went through a scanner. And, did we this time take off our coats and shoes? I think we might have. What definitely happened was that I got one last pat-down. Again, in a little curtained area. And that was it. Finally cleared for take-off.

This is what it looks like from the sky as you fly away:

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