Tuesday 10 July 2012

Opening the Embassy

The Iraqi Embassy at 21, Queen's Gate, London used to be a decidedly sinister place, despite its chichi Kensington address. I can remember visiting the visa section at the back in early 2001, preparatory to a trip to a conference in Baghdad, and being very unnerved by the heavy security and hostile atmosphere. (In fact, it turned out to be good training for our less-than-friendly reception at the Iraqi-Jordanian border a few weeks later, despite our status as official guests.)

Indeed, when the new Iraqi government re-opened the embassy after the war, they were shocked to discover illegal arms and spying equipment hidden in the now badly decaying building. The then ambassador, Dr Salah al-Shaikhly—a former Manchester University student and anti-Baathist dissident— decided there was nothing for it but to strip it out and refurbish it completely.

At yesterday's official re-opening ceremony no traces remained of the Embassy's unsavoury past, except in the minds and memories of many Iraqis present. In the elegantly refurbished upstairs reception room, Iraq's long-serving Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari reminisced about his own time as a London student, demonstrating against the regime, and spoke optimistically about the new diplomatic ties between Britain and Iraq. UK Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt gave an equally gracious speech in reply. ChargĂ© d'Affaires Dr Muhieddin Abdullah was as charming and welcoming a host as he had been on our last visit. Unfortunately I couldn't stay for the slap-up lunch afterwards (had an essential meeting to go to—a miraculously unrainy walk on Hampstead Heath with my former PhD student Tash, her husband Sam and brand-new baby Juliet) but it smelled fantastic. And I never did solve the mystery of the Ferrero Rocher. Another time...

In this official Iraqi government photo, BISI appears central to the action but this is just dumb luck; we happened to be standing in the right place at the right time. The Embassy was in fact packed to the rafters with diplomats, politicians and other well-connected and important people. Here you see (l-r) Baroness Emma Nicholson; BISI Council member and former UK ambassador to Iraq, the very tall Edward Chaplin; Alistair Burt; the shoulder of BISI President Dr John Curtis; an unknown man in beige; BISI Assistant Administrator Lauren Mulvee (who seems very far away but can't have been really); and Hoshyar Zebari in the act of unfurling the Iraqi flag above the front door. Our Administrator Joan MacIver is somewhere between John and Edward, and I am lurking behind the policeman.

1 comment:

  1. This happy event reminds me of the old book I read entitled 'New Babylon' A portrait of Iraq by Desmond Stewart and John Haylock published in 1956. The book is about the recollection of two British teachers on their life, visits and work in Iraq in the 1950s'.
    From the first chapter;
    'Interviewed in the Royal Iraqi Embassy in Queen's Gate, Desmond Stewart had nothing to offer but an Oxford Degree, youth and enthusiasm. The two gentlemen who interviewed him, Hikmat Abdul Mejid and Dr. Matta Akrawi, had what sounded much more, through they were different about it, the kindest, gentlest interviewers imaginable'

    These were the days and I hope it will be back again