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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Walking across Iraq taught me the value of unfettered hospitality

I was squatting on the kerb beside al-Anbar restaurant in an alley off Abu Nuwas in central Baghdad. Half a rotisserie chicken, one khubz flatbread, a handful of rice, six spoonfuls of aubergine stew, two fresh dates, a cup of sour yogurt and several torshi pickles filled my belly.

The condensation on my water bottle wet my hands. Ten seconds later, they were dry again. The weather app on my phone read 48C.

A dark, dust-coated estate car pulled up in front of me and an adolescent boy with a pencil moustache rolled down the passenger window. Behind him sat a great man with so great a belly that it held the steering wheel which his two great hands were clutching – and he was sweating.

I stared inside. They stared back.

“A’salaam alaikum,” I said.

“W’alaikum a’salaam,” they said in unison.

“Where are you going?” the great one said in English.

“I am walking to Sa’adoon.”

“Do you need help?”

“Thank you, but I am fine.”

“Do you need food?”

I clutched my full belly. “Sadiqi, I have already eaten. Thank you.” 

Both rested their eyes on me. Then, without hesitation, the driver reached down beside his seat, fumbled around, and pulled out a tattered black leather wallet. He removed three crisp red notes and thrust them towards me.

Here before me was a day’s wages, held out to me by a stranger who a moment later would turn right on to Abu Nuwas; who would a moment later never see me again; whose wallet could a moment later be 75,000 dinars (£38) lighter.

After a week in Baghdad, I rode the night train down to Basra – Iraq’s southernmost city. This would be my starting point for a walk of more than 280 miles north to the shrine of Mohammed’s grandson Husayn in Karbala.

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