Michael Palin interview: Why Iraq is the most curious place in the world

Your diary is very poignant in places, for example when you describe parts of the destruction…

Yes, I’ve seen a lot that was pretty depressing. No wonder, considering what the country has been through over the past 30 years, with neighbors being dragged from their homes and taken to torture. Brutality in every shape and form, including bombs and missiles. Quite extraordinary. The country could be pretty rich, and there are a lot of pretty smart, intelligent, middle-class people out there. There’s always a plus and a minus, the plus being being able to talk to very articulate guys like a student in Mosul and his friend, but in their case certainly noting that they just wanted out of Iraq. What they wanted to study, what they wanted to know, simply couldn’t be found in their own country. I found that very sad.

The south is very difficult for us to deal with. It’s run by Shia militias and for them religious discipline is the main thing, that’s important to them. So you see places like nice old houses in Basra just rotting away because no one really knows why they bother to keep them up. They’re in the way, they’re old stuff, let’s move on. But Baghdad in particular is enjoying a fairly small renaissance culturally, with buildings generally tended to by people who care for them.

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Then, very close to the end of your journey, you come across the Garden of Eden…or not?

Yes, I never fully believed that story, and I definitely don’t now! The thing about the Garden of Eden area is that’s where the two rivers meet, so it was pretty important to us. But there’s this little area where the Tree of Knowledge sits in the middle of a concrete block. It had a small gift shop that oddly had Santa Clauses on its shelves. It was completely unspectacular, but imagine what it would be like if someone in the west had the right to the Garden of Eden! Luckily there were no figures in fig leaves.

Looking back, what was the biggest surprise for you?

How the country continues to function after everything that has happened to it for so long, despite the chaos. In Baghdad, where there are no markings on the roads, it’s total chaos, but nobody crashes into anyone. The cities are packed with crowds, but I didn’t see any aggression on the streets. I think my biggest surprise was that Iraq could and should be a nice place to live.

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The other surprise was overcoming my vertigo on the minaret in Samarra and even reaching the top. It’s bad enough going up there because you walk around the outside of the building and the handrail is on the inside. Getting to the top – which is unprotected and about 60 meters above the ground – and being expected to do a bit for the camera was terrifying.

I was able to get through the first piece and then I suddenly felt good. I thought what a wonderful place when you look across the heart of biblical Iraq with Abraham and all these figures that were born in this area. People have been walking up this minaret for over 1,000 years; and from there I could see the Tigris below and how dependent Iraq is on this great river. Not having the feeling of falling down at any moment: that was a great feeling.

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You say in an afterthought that you would return to see some of the locals you met. After everything you’ve seen, were they the people who impressed you the most?

Its ever. There are those who smile at you professionally because they have to. And then there are the people we are lucky enough to meet who are just living their lives; they have families or are studying and it is very important to hear their stories. The only caveat is that women in Iraq are virtually invisible; I can’t begin to understand it in any shape or form.

I would like to come back in five years to see what people make of it. If they can form a government that can represent the majority of the people and invest the money well and wisely, then I think Iraq has a great future. But it could go either way.

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