Gilded Serpent presents...

Have I Left Yet?

Queen of Denial, Chapter 12

Baghdad Airport Collage

by Rebaba
posted January 29, 2013

I thought I was home free after my luggage was searched and I was waved past the rows of tables, soldiers and travelers.  As the fear began to lift from my body I felt like I was floating and glided above ground through the neon lit archway leading towards airline gates.  As I slowly relaxed into my skin again, I consciously inhaled for the first time since my arrival at the airport.  Just as I started breathing normally again, I looked ahead and saw that I was not quite finished with Iraqi customs agents.  I now approached a row of curtained cubicles with lady agents lined up on one side and male agents on the other.  They watched us hopeful passengers come through the archway and randomly selected whomever they felt warranted a full body search.  Of course they chose me, I was their perfect candidate.  Such an obviously western woman walking alone couldn’t possibly be ignored. 

As I approached these women with all eyes on me, carrying my brown paper bag filled with money and my gold vanity case, I had to contain myself from smiling at the thought of how I must look to these lady agents.

My thoughts were confirmed when the closest lady agent looked me up and down and motioned me into a cubicle.  The female agent who ushered me in was much younger than I, barely twenty years old from the looks of her.  She scrutinized me in a way that was intended to intimidate me before she got started with the search.  After coming this far, and now that my illegal booty was well on its way to the belly of the plane[1], I was feeling pretty fearless.  I wasn’t about to allow this young woman to scare me, and I had no intentions of being strip searched. 

After living in Middle Eastern countries for almost two years, and especially after the past three months shopping in war torn Baghdad, I knew how to use a bribe to my advantage.  The young agent began by looking into my paper bag full of travelers’ checks.  I knew as tempting as the checks may have appeared to this young woman, they were actually worthless in her own country and illegal barter.  My employer had explained that at that time only Iraqi money was legal in Iraq.  In fact, transactions with any other currency than Iraqi dinars were a crime; and considered on a par with treason should the person apprehended be an Iraqi national.  My young female agent made a big show of studying my government and bank documents that allowed me to take my earnings in US travelers’ checks out of Iraq.  She made tongue clicking noises and even shook her head a couple times just to make me nervous I’m sure.  Evidently she couldn’t find anything amiss and handed me back the bag with a look like she just did me a favor –instead of doing her job.  Then she glanced down at my vanity case with eyebrows raised, and I saw an opportunity to avoid further harassment and finally be on my way to the plane.  I opened the locked case and she picked up my perfume bottle and her eyes misted over with joy as she gave me a big toothy smile looking from my Miss Dior directly into my eyes.  Well, this little lady wasn’t going to get my favorite perfume without giving me something in exchange! At this point, we started the time honored tradition of bartering for my release sans strip search.  In the end, getting out of that cubicle without having to shed my clothing cost me one bottle of partially used French perfume, my hair brush, and my blusher. 

As I walked away from the curtained cubicle, my happy lady agent waved an animated goodbye to me as if we were best friends.  I waved back while my mind wandered many miles away envisioning the past month before my June 1st departure date.  My agent arrived in Baghdad on business that included purchasing my (departing) plane ticket.  He came to the villa to visit and while there he asked me what city I wanted to fly into when my contract was up.  Originally, I had planned to go to Beirut to visit my friends and sell my Iraqi dinars on the currency Black Market (as the price per dinar was the highest outside of Iraq).  However, by the time the question of destination was seriously  posed, my situation had become very different, and money in any amount was far less important to me.  I was extremely homesick and longed for the peace and freedoms I had grown up with in San Francisco.  So I changed my mind about going to Lebanon and requested a ticket to Paris, France, where I lived and worked between contracts.  All I could think about was the joy of seeing my friends again in Paris and finally calling home and talking to my family, friends and most of all, my mom.  I had had no communication with the outside world since my arrival in Baghdad.  I knew my parents must be extremely worried about me.  In the past, I had given them cause for concern when I travelled to Harare, Zimbabwe immediately after the self-rule rebellion and bloodshed.  Then I travelled to Syria and Lebanon where there were constant coups, border fights and terrorism making the US headlines.  However, as scary as these countries may have been depicted in our news, I was always able to contact home. 

Baghdad was the first place I had worked in where a complete communication blackout was ordered (no post, no newspapers, no telegrams, and no telephone access to the general public), and  a mere two weeks after my arrival.  For the very first time since I started traveling and dancing abroad, I was unable to call my parents (and vice versa) to assure them that I was fine regardless of what they were reading in the local newspapers. 

When my mind came back to the here and now, I smiled to myself as I realized I was actually on my way to the airline gates.  I had spent approximately six hours in the airport and six hours of keeping all my fears at bay.  Earlier that day when I joined the moving horde that took me towards the customs agents, I automatically began to detach my conscious self from my physical self.  In this way I could deal with and hopefully contain my mounting terror.  I felt like I was moving along side myself and watching from a safe distance while the active me maintained the role of an “irresistible American Belly Dancer that no one would dare throw in jail”!

When I finally sat back in my airplane seat realizing I was actually leaving Iraq,  I began to allow my feet to touch the floor again.  As the muscles in my face, neck and back started to unclench and the adrenaline began to seep out of my brain, I noticed a steward walking down the aisle shutting all the window shades.  His actions didn’t immediately register concern in my mind until we started taxiing to the runway and the captain’s voice came over the intercom.  He spoke first in Arabic then repeated his speech in French, which I thought I understood.  Finally my French comprehension was confirmed when the pilot repeated his message in English.

The captain had announced in all three languages that we were flying out of Iraq in total blackout!  This meant no lights inside or outside the plane until we crossed over into Jordan and left Iraqi airspace.

He went on to say that this was now a routine precaution during the war to ensure passenger safety.  What he wasn’t saying was that Iranian missiles had been targeting  commercial airplanes flying out of Baghdad.  I learned this fact from a businessman sitting across the aisle from me who had leaned over and whispered that it happened all the time and was kept from the public along with everything else about the war.  Silly me, I thought boarding the plane meant I was finally leaving the dangers that had plagued me for the past three months.  For many people flying is scary enough-but it wasn’t scary enough for me, oh no…Not only was I flying, but, I was flying in a commercial airplane over an active war zone in the dark.  Thank goodness that my desire to be out of Iraq outweighed my fear of being shot down, or I might have been in much worse shape during that flight.  Nonetheless, it was the quietest airplane cabin I had ever been inside.  I don’t think any of the passengers, including me, moved an inch in our seats until the pilot announced we were out of Iraqi airspace.  At that point, the entire cabin exploded with nervous laughter and then hearty applause for our pilot, our captain, our hero who had safely flown us away from the awful war! 

You may wonder why I accepted the offer to work in Baghdad in spite of the war I knew they were fighting, especially after some of the close calls I had so recently experienced during my time in Syria[2].  I can tell you it wasn’t the money that attracted me although the contract was my most lucrative offer to date.  I grew up in San Francisco where I heard my birthplace referred to as “Baghdad by the Bay.”  Before I ever took my first belly dance class, I had been mesmerized by the tales of 1001 Nights in the ancient city of Baghdad, home of Sinbad and his 40 thieves.  So when the opportunity was presented to me, I decided to accept the offer of working in the city of some of my earliest childhood Middle Eastern fantasies.  Would I take the same risks now I so blindly took in my youth?  Without hesitation, yes, I would do it all over again regardless of the potential dangers to my safety.  The lessons I learned about life, the wonderful people I met, lived and worked with as I travelled to these incredibly diverse countries were worth any risk that I might impose upon myself.  I acquired a keen understanding of the hardships war brings upon innocent populations simply trying to live their lives amidst the constant threat of violence.  Living in Iraq, more than any other country I had worked in previously, taught me gratitude for the freedoms I took for granted growing up in San Francisco.  I returned home humbled by these resilient, hard working people who continued to thrive despite living under siege for so many years.

Rebaba makes it our of Iraq!

Next Stop:

Hollywood, California and the story of the eventual end of the era of the Middle Eastern Supperclub… I moved from club to club beginning in 1983 through 1986, working until the final night and then moving on to the next one.  My musician friends started calling me the “jinx” as a joke of course, but, it was true that everywhere I worked eventually closed their doors for good.

Footnotes & Resources

[1] See Chapter 11 – My Perfect Hiding Place
[2] See Chapter 6 & 7 re: my time in Syria
Author’s bio page

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   |       |    3 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Jan 30, 2013 - 07:01:44

    Just…fabulous!

  2. No Gravatar
    Rita Alderucci

    Feb 4, 2013 - 04:02:59

    thank you Barbara! R

  3. No Gravatar
    Morocco

    Feb 24, 2013 - 02:02:13

    LOVED the whole series!!! You are a delight! Thank you.
    In comparison, my times in Beirut & Teheran were a walk in the park … though a friend’s experience as a dancer in Baghdad in the mid 1960s was horrendous.
    Big hugs, Morocco

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