NAJAF, Iraq — Over 3 million passengers this year and 400,000 in the past 10 days alone have entered Iraq through the humble Al-Najaf Al-Ashraf International Airport.
“You and your team have been here all day filming, taking pictures, and interviewing a bunch of people. But you haven’t bothered to take a picture of the most important person here,” an aviation security officer said to me in a serious tone.
“I’m at your service. Who would that be?” I asked.
“You’re looking at him!”
We both laughed and had a pleasant exchange.
He then humbly refused to allow his image to be captured.
“So what are you guys filming for exactly?” a senior officer asked us as he passed by our setup area with a thick manila folder on his right arm.
“We’re coming from the U.S. and the U.K. to cover the walk of the Arba’een. We want to show our people back home why millions come to Iraq every year. Hopefully through what we capture we can reflect the true positive image of this pilgrimage and the inspiration it provides so many,” my colleague Abathar briefly explained to the officer in his native Iraqi dialect.
“So are you going to be showing them our horses and camels?”
Abathar and I both paused cautiously, waiting to see what would follow from that question. He smiled. We smiled. He continued…
“Show them the principles and values we stand for. Show them that millions come to pay allegiance to principled living. Show them in a way that they will understand because we, frankly, are quite misunderstood and over-generalized.
Foreigners haven’t taken the time to understand us; still, our doors are always open. Show them our deserts have much more than horses and camels.”
In just a few days in Iraq I have seen first-hand the profound depth of the Iraqi people. The same nation that endured the oppressive Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein for over 30 years is now fighting the most brutal terrorist group modern history has ever seen – ISIS.
Even with all the challenges they face, they are still generally optimistic and especially welcoming to visitors to their country. “Welcome visitors of Hussain!” is what you hear at every stop on the way to Karbala.
The locals are eager to greet you with their readily available traditional Iraqi food, cases of water, kettles of tea and homemade sweets. Even at the airport, there were pallets of water bottles sitting outside the arrival gate for the visitors.
The water is more than a symbolic gesture of hospitality. They serve water in the love of Hussain because water itself was such a profound element in the tragedy of Karbala.
Hussain and his family were deprived of water for three consecutive days by the Umayyad army of 30,000 that besieged the small caravan in Karbala. Shia Muslims are taught to emulate the example of Hussain, who would not deprive his enemies of water even though they would deprive him.
In Najaf alone, the welcoming character of the people is heartwarming and humbling. There is definitely much more than horses and camels here.