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Transnational Thursday for January 11, 2024

Transnational Thursday is a thread for people to discuss international news, foreign policy or international relations history. Feel free as well to drop in with coverage of countries you’re interested in, talk about ongoing dynamics like the wars in Israel or Ukraine, or even just whatever you’re reading.

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I just got back from visiting Iraq, and thought I'd share my thoughts. My wife is Iraqi, so visiting family was our main reason for going.

  • My wife's sister had visited us the week before in Switzerland with her boss (let's call him "Haji") and his daughter. Haji is a real estate mogul in Baghdad. He sent one of his henchmen to meet us at the gate in Baghdad airport (yes, he went backwards through luggage claim and passport control), so that the border police wouldn't ask annoying questions about my wife being married to a potential non-muslim. We cut through the queue, he rang some higher-up, all was well. He dropped us off at the airport later as well. Again, jumping to the front of queues, talking to the guy there, talking on the phone, no problems. It was quite embarrassing.

Government and Politics:

  • When my wife was around 10 years old, her family home was appropriated by Saddam Hussein's cousin. After the fall of Saddam, some newly-rich Shia groups moved in. We tried to go see her childhood home, but the neighbourhood entrances were guarded by guys with guns. Apparently you need to live there or be visiting someone in order to be allowed in. Bear in mind this blocking of streets by armed thugs is not government-sanctioned. This district is now just a Shia faction stronghold and they'll do what they like.

  • There were other differences between this district and others. A lot of billboards had a picture of Soleimani, usually with the words "We will not forget the blood of our martyrs". There are a lot of posters of Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei. I knew that the Iranian influence here was strong, but for it to be that brazen was surprising to me. There were also many pictures of Muqtada Al-Sadr, with him looking angry in each one. He's an interesting character. Another place where the Shia/Iran influence is noticeably strong is in Karbala, a holy Shia city Southwest of Baghdad.

  • There were some pretty big protests a couple of years ago, and people seem to think that this scared the government enough to start investing in infrastructure and allowing some liberalisation.

  • The day before we flew out, the Americans carried out another drone strike on a militia leader. My wife heard the explosion from the vehicle she was in, but was still fairly far away. We were mildly worried about my European-looking face as we went to the airport, but all good.

Baghdad City:

  • Traffic lights mostly don't exist, or if they do, they usually don't work, and if they do work, they are generally ignored. At some busy intersections,a traffic cop stands and directs traffic, and his directions are mostly heeded.

  • Cutting into and across traffic is generally necessary, and the drivers trust each other to be aware enough. Compared to when I was in India, cars tend to not be covered in dents. People are generally not overly selfish.

  • Cars are modded in myriad ways. One taxi I saw had a countdown timer on either side at the back, which would emit a bright series of flashes upon reaching 0. A scooter had flashing blue and red lights, surely outlawed in most developed countries.

  • Armed men in uniform are all over the city. On many intersections, there is a pick-up with a machine gun mounted on top, and usually a guy standing behind it, with a bunch of other guys with big guns and big moustaches in uniform loitering around.

  • Baghdad has footpaths, but they're not really usable. They're occupied by generators or vehicles. This means one generally has to walk on the street.

  • Parking lots highlight how cheap labour is. One evening we drove the car to a parking lot which would normally accommodate around 30 cars. There were 2 employees working there. We received a piece of paper from them, and they parked the car in such a way that other cars were blocked in. By parking in this way, they could accommodate about 8 more cars. It all seemed very inefficient to me, but I guess they're cheap.

Food and Stores:

  • We found a store in the mall called "Swiss Market". Given that I live in Switzerland, I thought I'd test its authenticity. They had all sorts of (non-alcoholic) German beers, standard softdrinks, but no Rivella. The only Swiss thing I found was Lindt. The store "American Candy" appeared to my untrained eye to fit the bill. "German Bazaar" seemed to mostly be Italian and Chinese brands. We didn't even bother with "Swedish Pharmacy". "English Home" didn't sound particularly appealing, but still more so than "Wankids". "Shopping Shop" I took at its word.

  • Restaurants generally give enough free appetisers to fill one's stomach by themselves. We were already overfed and generally not hungry by the time we got to restaurants, so after we ordered a main, we ended up eating about a third of all the food that had been brought out.

  • Fancy restaurants generally play Western music. One particularly expensive restaurant was playing a string version of Despacito when we arrived, and 10 minutes later I realised that once again Despacito was playing, this time with the oboe playing the melody. Classy stuff.

  • The food is delicious, albeit a bit fatty.


  • For a population I assumed to be traumatised from the last decades of conflict, 3 things surprised me:

    • A lot of fake gun toys for kids
    • Valorisation of military
    • Amount of fireworks on NYE
  • People speaking English was rare. No taxi drivers we met could speak more than a few words, as far as we could tell.

  • Botox seemed to be very common among mid-upper class women. Exaggerated fat lips and high cheekbones, which would not be popular in the West.

  • My wife explained that most Iraqis do not have hobbies to the same extent as people in Europe. Going out and meeting for food is something they like to do.


  • The 'Adan' (call to prayer) is less grating than the church bells of Europe.

  • Leaving clear plastic wrapping on things is really common. Oftentimes the entire interior of a car will be plastic-wrapped like it came from the factory. Displays with bubbles all over the protective film. My sister-in-law's dental clinic had plastic all over the instruments. Here that would be considered tacky.

The 'Adan' (call to prayer) is less grating than the church bells of Europe.

That's the most surprising part for me.

I grew up in a 33-33-33 Hindu-muslim-Catholic neighborhood, so both the Church bells and Adan are familiar sounds. Adans are sung. So they've always sounded more intrusive and distracting to me. The church bells last less than 30 seconds, have no words and ring out with a pleasant decay. The sounds have a generally warm timbre. (for the lack of a better phrase). On the other hand, the throaty and nasal composition of the adan feels sharp.

I wonder if the adan in Iraq is qualitatively different, or I'm just observing some level of internalized bigotry.

In small Swiss towns church bells are very loud and (obviously) very regular. Bells don’t ring every hour but every 15 minutes, all day.

So I can completely see how the Adan might seem less intrusive compared to Swiss church bells (where the person visiting Iraq lived), given it’s only a few times a day.

That makes a lot of sense. Where I lived, the church bells only rang twice a day.

Is the call to prayer broadcasted via speakers?

Yes. It can be a bit of a cacophony if you're equidistant from 3 mosques.

I have nothing very interesting to add but just wanted to say this was a very interesting post. That's interesting that posters of Al-Sadr are still common. Did you have any impression of how people felt about him or Al-Sudani?

Al-Sudani, no idea really, I think the common people basically think that non-corrupt people are driven out of politics pretty quickly, so if you're high up in politics, you're very corrupt.

Al-Sadr, I didn't really talk to anybody about him except for my wife. She's mostly negative, but also has mixed feelings, especially because he urged his supporters to join the protests a few years ago. It's not just posters though. You can see pictures of Al-Sadr on the back of taxis or tuk-tuks. It's clear he still has a lot of popular support.

Actually, a note I forgot to add about corruption:

  • My wife's sister's husband works in the foreign ministry, and until recently he had some money-controlling responsibilities. He gave those up because he was being threatened due to not accepting some bribes.
  • My MIL and SIL have a dental clinic together, and occasionally customers refuse to pay as they're members of some militia or organised crime syndicate. There's not much that can be done about that.

They had all sorts of (non-alcoholic) German beers, standard softdrinks, but no Rivella.

Finding Rivella outside of Switzerland (and Germany/Austria where some stores carry it) is hellish, the main UK importer shut down a few years ago, shipping costs are insane and the one time I tried it arrived and the carbonation had gone and the bottles were very close to the expiry date. I haven’t tried in the US but it seems to be similarly difficult.

The 'Adan' (call to prayer) is less grating than the church bells of Europe.

I am offended. Do you really not like church bells?

We live up the hill from the church in our village, putting its bell tower at window level for us, and are regularly woken up by its pealing. It goes on for too long at (seemingly) random times. Hourly chiming in a mountain village is fine, but daily life with loud bells isn't all that fun.

We had terrible sleeping habits in Baghdad, but the Adhan didn't wake us up. I'm not sure how I'd feel about it long-term.