Thursday 25 October 2012

Travelling from the UK to Iraq

Now that I've arrived safely back in Cambridge I thought it might be helpful to say a few words here about the mechanics of travelling to Iraq from the UK. First, and most importantly, don't just turn up uninvited. In case it wasn't obvious, I should spell out that my trip was made viable thanks to considerable, unobtrusive, support from the Iraqi Prime Minister's Office, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and the Shrines Authority in Kerbala. It's perfectly safe to travel speculatively to Kurdistan now—so I'll say a little bit about that below—but in southern Iraq you really do need trustworthy people who are looking after for you all the time, as significant (but decreasing) parts of the country aren't safe, and some times of the year are more dangerous than others. Make sure you're completely comfortable with the proposed security arrangements before you agree to go. It's also essential to read and take seriously the FCO's travel advice on Iraq.

Flying into Baghdad

  • The first thing to do is to get an invitation (in Arabic or in Engish) from an Iraqi host institution such as a government ministry, a museum or a university. They'll be able to email this to you; don't worry if the scan looks terrible; Iraqi visa officials are used to this.
  • Don't plan for a visit of longer than ten days, unless you have to. After the tenth day you have to report to the residency police and take a blood test. It's not worth the bother.
  • Then buy your plane ticket. I booked with the British-Iraqi company IKB Travel, based in London. Although they're a major sponsor of BISI, that's not why I used them (though I wouldn't have known of their existence otherwise). IKB are Middle East travel specialists, not just to Iraq, and have a very user-friendly website. Shopping around, I found their prices were as good as, or better than, the usual suspects and they had a lot more flights and options on offer. Unlike Royal Jordanian, their site doesn't collapse when you try to pay, and their phone service is excellent too.
  • There are no direct flights yet from Heathrow to Baghdad. You can change at various Middle Eastern airports from Istanbul to Amman to Dubai. I chose to fly with Austrian Airlines, changing at Vienna because they uniquely have a minimal stop-over time there. It turns out that this is because it's the same plane that continues to Baghdad: you just get out of the plane for security checks from Iraqi immigration officials while the plane is prepared for the next leg, and then you reboard. So although we were late leaving Heathrow I knew we'd make the connection, and that my bags would arrive with me in Baghdad. They have good vegetarian food too. (They are in the Star Alliance frequent flyer scheme.)
  • Once armed with invitation, return flight booking, passport and two passport photos you can download an Iraqi visa application form and take all this to the Iraqi Embassy at 21 Queen's Gate, London SW7 5PH. The visa section is open 10-1 on weekdays. That's it; you're done.
  • If you can't go to London, arrange with your hosts that you will collect the visa at Baghdad airport. You will still need the formal invitation—and $82 cash. The visa office—not signed in English!—is immediately to the left of the immigration booths and is identifiable by the swarm of Turkish workers waiting to get their passports back. You complete a simple one-page form (instructions are in English as well as in Arabic) and wait—for some time!—while they prepare the visa.
  • Leaving the airport: do try to have someone to meet you if you can; otherwise I assume that getting out is somewhat the reverse of getting in to the airport, as described in my last blog post: i.e., you'll need to hire a shared taxi to get as far as the public car park.

Leaving from Baghdad Airport

  • Returning to Baghdad Airport to go home, you'll need to have a printed ticket or schedule to hand, as well as your passport, as soon as you leave the public carpark. You won't get anywhere without it, even if you have a mobile boarding pass on your phone. If you're at all doubtful of printer/internet access while in Iraq, print a copy of your return flight schedule before you leave the UK.
  • Get to the public carpark to pick up your shared taxi at least 3 hours before your flight. I had a very quick and easy experience, but I can easily imagine that queues are long and tensions high on busy or high-security days. If you arrive early, then at least there's good free internet to keep you amused in the departures lounge.
  • I recommend that you don't rely on the airport cafe, unless you particularly like reheated kebabs, strange-flavoured crisps and international chocolate. You can bring food and even water into the airport.
  • Nor do the security staff worry whether you have your cosmetics in appropriate quantities in a clear plastic bag—but their counterparts in Vienna and other airports do, so be prepared for this when you change planes.
  • The duty-free shop is pretty desperate, but I did pick up some big tins of Iraqi baklava for distribution to colleagues, students and friends which haven't killed them yet....
  • I didn't need to pay for an exit visa, but I've heard that this is necessary after longer stays and/or at the end of commercial business trips. I'm afraid I don't know how much it might cost; ask your hosts or the Iraqi Embassy in London before you leave the UK.

To and from Kurdistan

This is much easier: you don't need a visa but just get your passport stamped on arrival. Most flights arrive and depart in the middle of the night, though, with long stop-overs in transit airports. Coming back from Sulaimaniyah last May, I took my sleeping bag in my carry-on and slept for several hours in Amman Airport. Make sure you have suitable currency for the transit airport in case you need food/drink/duty-free. Leaving Kurdistan, the security is also pretty heavy: expect full-body searches and zealous, if unsystematic, inspections of your luggage (with potential for random confiscations of innocuous items such as batteries; geological hammers are apparently OK but pink Filofaxes extremely suspect).

Insurance, security, etc.

I don't bother with insurance for short stays; I imagine it is prohibitively expensive. But I do make sure that as many people know where I am at all times. Take a cheap, unlocked phone with you (an old one, or buy one on Amazon) and get an Iraqi SIM card as soon as you can. I'm happy to lend mine to UK colleagues, as it's got lots of useful numbers in and regular use keeps the account active. Distribute your phone number to all and sundry, at home and in Iraq, and call or text regularly so that the people who care about you know you're still safe.

It's also a good idea to let the British Embassy know before you leave when you'll be in-country and to give them your contact details too. You can find the relevant email addresses on the FCO website. It's also very sensible to register with the LOCATE database. Keep a scan or photocopy of your passport in a safe place. Carry your actual passport with you at all times, as you're very likely to need it at checkpoints.

For women, long loose-fitting clothes are strongly recommended, for sun and heat protection as well as for social comfort. I always wear a wedding ring; expect to be asked about husband and children; invent them (consistently) if necessary. In many places outside Baghdad and the other big cities you will feel less conspicuous in hijab, and this will also reduce the likelihood of you being stopped at checkpoints. Other than in Kerbala and Najaf, abayas are only necessary inside mosques, and the doorkeepers will always lend you one at the entrance, when you take off your shoes—for propriety's sake, make sure you have tights or socks on. Outside the Kurdish city centres, don't wander around unaccompanied, even in super-safe areas, unless you are prepared to fend off constant expressions of concern for your safety and reputation from concerned passers-by.

Home again

You've got to love Heathrow when everything runs as it should do. Through e-passport control in no time; suitcase waiting for me on the baggage carousel; lost parking ticket unproblematic as I'd booked it online.

South Mimms Service Station garage, not so much... In the middle of the night it rivals Baghdad Airport cafe in the type and inedibility of the food on offer. The fact that there is ten times as much choice of unappetising comestibles is no compensation. Still, a stale pain au chocolate and some lukewarm tea see me home by 1 am.

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