It’s November 2020, and I am touring my friend Noor’s village, in northern Iraq. But rather than walking the streets of Bartella, a predominantly Orthodox Christian town with ancient Assyrian roots, whose population is slowly returning to rebuild their homes after fleeing ISIS in 2014, I am visiting via Zoom. It’s an interesting experiment in digital tourism, but the 11-hour time difference with Vancouver means we’re both a bit sleepy. Still, it allows us to bypass the ever-present Iranian-backed militias at the checkpoint, not to mention coronavirus microbes. And the Zoom videography offers a certain focus, eliminating some of the visual distractions that would have been present on the ground.
Noor uses his iPhone to tour me around his house and garden, and then ‘drives’ me around the village in his father’s car, with the phone on his dashboard. We visit the local bakery, where early morning clients buy freshly made bread. Next, we drive past the old city, where some houses still lie in post-ISIS ruin. ‘My uncle’s house used to be there,’ Noor tells me wistfully; and then past some churches that have been restored after being burned and looted. We pass a building in mid-construction. ‘There will be a new swimming pool here,’ he tells me hopefully.
If I want to return to a detail, like a street shrine to the Virgin, or the face of a curious child walking by, it is all recorded on video for later review. There are no airports to traverse, no visas to acquire, and afterwards I can crawl back into my own welcoming bed.
Still, I feel more like a voyeur than a voyageur. It is the digital equivalent of travel writer Pico Iyer’s dreamed-up ‘journey’ to Isfahan in his story, A Place I’ve Never Been, in which he writes: ‘These places have the parallel reality of longed-for sites that I have seen with every sense except my eyes.’ While Iyer’s evocative writing was honed by years of research, he had not actually ‘seen’ Isphahan. I was now ‘seeing’ Bartella for the first time (ironically, I’d never managed to get permission to pass the checkpoints during my actual time in the region), but the experience lacked the tactile and, one of the most important senses for nostalgia and travel writing – which are often the same thing in the end – the olfactory. I longed to smell the freshly baked bread and spring flowers, Noor’s oud-tinged cologne, the scent of the morning air. If I stared hard enough at the pixelated screen, I wondered, would these aromas magically break through like some virtual fourth wall?
I had so wanted to be there in person, but halfway through writing my travelogue of sacred sites in Iraq, the pandemic bisected my narrative and I returned home to Vancouver. Lord knows I’ve gone over that last night in Erbil a thousand times in the last year, wondering what would have happened if I’d chanced it and overstayed my ticket, my visa, my cheap hotel room reservation, dissolving all my neatly made plans in an instant. Sheikh Edo, the brother of the Yezidi religious leader Baba Sheikh, had invited me on a tour of Lalish, the temple where hundreds had sought refuge from ISIS. A friend had promised to take me to a Zoroastrian shrine and another to an ancient monastery. But I’d been on the road for months, and my own bed was calling me, as were a dozen deadlines, a family Christmas party (although that was sort of on the con side) and the fact that my contract with the NGO that had facilitated the necessary security and transportation for my journey was now over. There was also that most compelling of reasons to return home: looming dental surgery.
As my friend Noor miraculously managed to stuff my bags with all the Kurdish chachkas I’d picked up during my stay, plus the old tourist guide from pre-war Iraq that I carried with me like a relic, and a mug imprinted with images of Lalish given to me as a gift by Sheikh Edo – all without breaking the zippers – I remember looking out at the giant statue of the Virgin Mary across the street. Her arms were outstretched in an embrace, or was it a warning? Should I stay, or should I go, I wondered.
In the end, sheer inertia won the day, and I was on the next plane to Amman and then to London and eventually all the way back home to Vancouver. It was the same journey from the Middle East to the Pacific Northwest that my Syrian Orthodox Christian great-grandparents took in 1906, when they fled Ottoman oppression for a fishing village near the border of Alaska. It had taken them months. It took me two days.
Once back home and in a kind of traveller’s stupor, assisted by lots of fruitcake and after what felt like a whole year of sleep, I awoke to the news of an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan. But this was soon usurped on January 3rd by news that Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani had been assassinated at the Baghdad airport. A few days later, I awoke to news that Iranian rockets had rained down on Erbil airport, not far from my old hotel room. My friend Noor was messaging via WhatsApp at 5am, his post-ISIS PTSD kicking in. Perhaps I had chosen my departure at an auspicious moment after all, I thought. I could always go back when the Iranian militias were less interested in kidnapping Westerners at checkpoints.
But soon of course, the whole Iranian/American drama being played out in Iraq was upstaged by the increasingly macabre theatre of the global pandemic. In between dental surgeries, I watched it all unfold on my television screen from my living room, popping painkillers and messaging Noor in sleepy midnight moments. It would all blow over we said and soon I’d be back, and we could visit that ancient monastery of Mar Mattai.
I spent the summer rewriting chapters of my travelogue and swimming in cold Pacific waters. Once my chapters were approved at the end of September, I contemplated augmenting my virtual world with on-the-ground experience. A few day’s later however I was knocked to the ground by a wayward double-parked Amazon delivery man in a hurry to drop off his package before he got a ticket. I suffered a concussion and chipped two teeth – on the opposite side to the ones I’d had surgery on – so that my pain was now symmetrical. Even as I learned that the worst accidents actually do happen at home, I longed to head back to Iraq. Noor’s sister was getting married, and Christmas was beckoning from a biblical landscape. Then Noor got Covid, and it all came tumbling down.
Undaunted, I contacted my friend Sheikh Edo, who had returned to Iraq from Germany for his brother’s funeral. In spite of his insistence that I had nothing to worry about and should fly the 40 hours back to Erbil, I doggedly pursued the safer digital route. Sheikh Edo introduced me to a man named Luqman Suleiman who was ostensibly the keeper of the Lalish shrine. I texted him on WhatsApp and within minutes he called me on video and gave me a tour of his home in Shekhan, the town nearest to Lalish. As the morning sun shone on my balcony in Vancouver, Luqman introduced me to his wife and children, enjoying a late supper, as well as to his pet hawk, named ‘Lars’ after a Swedish journalist friend. He soon invited me to come and stay. ‘It’s safe here,’ he told me, ‘don’t worry.’ But with Covid cases rising and Iraq’s health care system decimated by years of war and sanctions, I suggested a Zoom tour of Lalish.
Luqman agreed at once and we arranged to ‘meet up’ digitally at 5am my time the following Friday – 4pm Iraqi time – to catch the hour before sunset when hundreds of candles would be lit at the shrine. Unfortunately, as I discovered in the inky pre-dawn light at the appointed time, the internet was a bit dodgy in the mountains, so it was not to be. I called Sheikh Edo to see if he had any other bright ideas. Oddly, he never returned my calls, even though the last WhatsApp message I’d received from him said ‘I will be in Iraq for a very long time’.
I later learned that Sheikh Edo, aged 65, had died of Covid-19 at the end of November. I called Luqman, whose tone had changed considerably. ‘It’s too dangerous now. Don’t travel here.’ Meanwhile Noor, who had survived his illness but with lingering symptoms, gave the same advice.
After learning that a friend had shot an entire documentary for PBS via Zoom, I contemplated my virtual travel options. I kept up with my Zoom tours, which allowed me to record video as a note taking device and, oddly, to ‘pin’ my image to the frame so I could actually interview and interact with people on the ground, like a kind of digital genie.
In February, when the Pope confirmed that he would be completing an historic trip to Iraq despite the pandemic and security concerns, I felt that familiar struggle between dangerous travel pangs and sober digital distance. The first ever papal visit to Iraq, it was to be full of historic moments, including a meeting with the Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shia Muslim cleric. But now there was an additional CAN$2,000 quarantine fee to add insult to potential injury for returning Canadians, and a whole new round of scary virus variants out there. If I’d actually spent the thousands of dollars, I would have been able to smell the incense in the churches, but a lockdown would have meant access to only one event – a potentially super-spreading mass in an Erbil sports stadium. And so, like most Iraqis, I watched it all unfold on television and livestream on the internet. This allowed me to virtually ‘attend’ all of the Pope’s events.
The virtual visit to familiar stomping grounds proved surreal, often dizzying and yet profoundly moving. Being suspended in digital reality allowed me to take in tiny details I might have missed as a face in the crowd: the marching band that played Ode to Joy just slightly off key as the Pope stepped onto the tarmac and into the airport; a bird’s-eye view of his interfaith meeting with Sabeans, Yezidis, Muslims and others in Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, a place I’d last visited in 2000 when the adjoining town of Nasiriyah boasted a replica ziggurat with a uniformed Saddam at the top; the way the dove paused before being released by the Pontiff amid the same ruined churches in Mosul I’d wandered through in December 2019; and the group of women in traditional dress, who kept on dancing and ululating even after the important officials had vanished. As I watched the unmasked crowds pack sidewalks under the shadow of a giant cross and an even larger TV screen, I noticed that the streets looked cleaner and better paved than on my last visit. A bored looking soldier smoked a cigarette as the Pope’s helicopter flew to the stadium mass in Erbil. For a moment, I thought I saw, in a split-second flash of smile and hair and outstretched arms, a glimpse of Noor on the sidelines. Conveniently, if I felt overwhelmed by it all, I could simply hit pause and then replay.
Soon I discovered a brave new world of virtual tours, almost as addictive for locked-down voyageurs as travel itself. All the places I had lived in, whose memories flooded my consciousness in the odd space capsule that my tiny apartment by the sea had become, were now available to me with a click of the mouse. If tours were well organised in advance, I could even enjoy fellow ‘travellers’ with whom I could exchange text messages as we journeyed into the great digital unknown.
I travelled this way to Paris, where I’d spent several years living in a tiny chambre de bonne, taking in tours of the Opera Garnier and Sacre Coeur. Sometimes I’d WhatsApp old friends in Paris, also locked down in their even tinier apartments, as I revisited old haunts, now off limits. I Google-Earthed an empty Le Marais, where I’d once sung Leonard Cohen songs on weekends for tourist francs under its still-elegant stone archways.
I even made it back virtually to Jerusalem, where I’d once worked as a writer for the first post-Oslo Accord joint Israeli-Palestinian monthly magazine, called optimistically, The New Middle East, a year before a year before Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist and before half of the West Bank filled up with illegal settlements.
In 1994, I lived in a Greek Orthodox convent in a little limestone house close to the wall – the Old City one, that is, not the ‘separation barrier’ that came later. The tour, organised by an Israeli NGO called Emek Shaveh, was billed as an alternate tour of East Jerusalem, led by two Palestinian residents. Its aim was to bring together divided communities, isolated from one another even more by the pandemic restrictions, as well as the larger diaspora.
As I ‘walked’ down familiar alleys accompanied on screen by Jewish friends in London, Israelis and Palestinians, I recognised the Via Dolorosa, and the convent that was once my home. I thought again of that little limestone house, remembering the scent of the jasmine at night, and the huge poster of the Virgin Mary my landlord had placed over my single bed. Her arms were outstretched in a familiar gesture, but was it an embrace? Or a warning?
It was hard to tell if the virtual tour was the hopeful way of the future, a novel method of uniting people and distant landscapes, or a harmful hologram of a reality, devoid of smell and touch; a tourism for the psychically displaced, one that longed for human contact, evoking both absence and presence simultaneously. As I watched it all unfold on my screen, I made the sign of the cross and, clutching my Lalish mug like a chalice and the old tourist guide of Iraq, I remembered the Pico Iyer story. Thank God, I thought, that the acts of writing and reading are their own forms of travel, even more real than the virtual.