Michael Palin on Iraq: "If you have a curiosity to see the world, it just keeps you going"

The former Python hits the road once more for a new book and TV series. He talks to Lyn Hughes about why it had to be Iraq this time, conquering his fears and why the Garden of Eden was a letdown...

5 mins

So, Iraq! You say in the book: “It’s a country few people would choose to visit, but for me that’s one of the best reasons to go there.”

Well, you know what it’s like: you always want to go to the places other people haven’t been, don’t you? It’s curiosity, and I think that, from a distance, Iraq is one of the most curious places. What did I know about it other than what I’d seen [on the news]? The horrors of the occupation, the civil war, Saddam Hussein – all these things seem to have battered this country. That’s what I knew already, so I thought, let’s go see it and find out more.


A lot of people are confused about the situation in Iraq and its history; they can’t get their heads around it.

Yeah, it’s a confusing place. The British put it together to safeguard their oil deposits, which were the biggest in the world at the time. They merged together various tribes and religious groups. They’re all there in Iraq; it’s no wonder that they’re confused! We decided to follow the Tigris River because it has all these rather wonderful historical connotations, and because it kind of united all these various peoples that were brought together as Iraq in 1932. It just gave us a nice and interesting conduit into and through the country.


How much research did you do before you went?

I generally prefer to do the research after I’ve come back; only because I want my view to be my view, and also because I know I can’t compete with the great scholars. But I did read the Bradt guidebook so I’d know where I was going and could grasp the geography of the place. Now I'm reading a wonderful book by Rory Stewart [Occupational Hazards] - it’s wonderfully written with lots of insights. He has a dry sense of humour too like many of the best travel writers. 


You started off in Turkey at the source of the Tigris…

We decided we had to start at Lake Hazar, as that’s where the waters of the Tigris come from – and those waters keep a lot of Iraq alive. We found that was a theme that just came up when people were talking, whether down in the marshes – with all the problems there regarding the survival of the Marsh Arabs – or speaking with farmers who’d had no harvest for two years. Water, or the lack of it, is a big issue in Iraq. In fact, one farmer said: “They’ve got it all wrong; instead of doing oil and food deals with Iran, they should be doing water deals with Turkey, to get more water.”


It’s been 42 years since Michael Palin’s first travel documentary hit the screens (ITN Productions/Jamie Gramston/Channel 5 Television)

It’s been 42 years since Michael Palin’s first travel documentary hit the screens (ITN Productions/Jamie Gramston/Channel 5 Television)

After all your travels, do you still get that same thrill of arriving somewhere new?

Absolutely. Once I’ve got past the airport – because airports generally try to make the world the same – it’s fantastic. Going to central Turkey, to a place I haven’t been before, I felt all the energy that travel gives me come back. I’m a lot older now; when I started travelling I was 45, now I’m 79, and I've had a heart operation So there was a feeling in the back of my mind of would I be able to physically hack this?. A series where we’re filming almost every day, through a country that has been through as many problems as Iraq. And to find that yes, I still felt the same sort of physical kick really, was great.

Once we got going, we were on a train and met this lovely group of ladies who shared their breakfast with us. I thought: this is it! So yes, the travel appetite came back quite quickly. I was shattered by the end of each day, as we did very long days. But if you have a curiosity to see the world, it just keeps you going.


Did you feel intimidated crossing the border into Iraq?

I have a sort of optimism when I travel; a belief that things are going to be OK if you have the right people with you. We were very lucky to have with us James Willcox of tour operator Untamed Borders. There was also a guy who was there to look after our security, and who knew Iraq. So, I felt we were with the right people and we’d be OK.

But I did feel the restrictions, which I wouldn’t have had in any other country, such as being told not to go walking at night. There were particular Iraqi disciplines that we had to adopt, but sometimes you want to go walking around and take in the atmosphere of the streets. And we'd go out early so that we could get back before dark because it wasn't safe to drive at night. 


Did that also apply to Erbil and the rest of Kurdistan?

Erbil felt much less threatening than the rest. I had a jacket made there and its a more westernised place in a way. There is a big difference between Kurdistan, which is pretty much an autonomous region, and federal Iraq, where there is more of a feeling of threat. But I never feared for my life or anything like that.


Ishtar Gate in Babylon (Shutterstock)

Ishtar Gate in Babylon (Shutterstock)

Iraq is filled with Bibilical names – did they live up to their promise?

As I wrote in my diary: ‘Today I’m going to Babylon.’ I’d never believed I could ever write something like that. But it was a bit of a disappointment, really. You drive out there, into the desert, and there is a wonderful place called the Ishtar gate, which is blue, with mythological animals on it. But then they tell you that this isn’t the real Ishtar gate; that’s in a museum in Germany!

Then you go inside and there is a palace area with quite high walls; and again, they tell you that most of these walls were rebuilt under Saddam Hussain. He felt that he was the successor to King Nebuchadnezzar, who built Babylon, and so he forced a lot of people to work on these things.

But the first metre of these walls were the originals. I could touch them, and that was rather wonderful. There was one whole wall where they had mythical creatures carved in a relief that was from Nebuchadnezzar’s time. That made up for the slight disappointment that there wasn’t more to it.

A lot more of the site needs excavating, but they need stability to do that, and there hasn’t been any for so long. There must still be a huge amount they can discover.

Someone made an interesting point, explaining that they had excavated around the impressive ziggurat at the city of Ur and they found that the people who lived there, and presumably built it, didn’t live in elaborate brick buildings or anything like that; they were just in mud huts. And yet they built this extraordinary edifice.

Babylon was a disappointment because there wasn’t enough there to create the legend in my eye. It was all in my mind. But it was absolutely fascinating being in the area of the two great rivers – the Mesopotamia and Tigris – and to know about the history that had taken place. Yet it was just so sad to see that so much of it is now run down and that its glories had disappeared.


We tend to forget that Iraq makes a lot of money from oil. Could you see where that money was going?

It’s very easy to underestimate how much they make in oil revenues, because there’s very little evidence of it being spent. In Baghdad we saw some quite new and modern housing developments, but in most of the other cities there wasn’t much evidence of the oil boom. I just don’t know where it goes. That was a common theme among the people we spoke to in Iraq. Now, of course, in the last few months, the oil price has shot up, so each month they make $20billion more, or something like that. But, to go to the country, you just wouldn’t think that there’s money there. 



I think that my biggest surprise was that Iraq could and should be a pleasant place to live



You went to the home to the Marsh Arabs, made famous in the West through the books of Gavin Maxwell and Wilfred Thesiger. Was it how you expected it to be?

Yes, I think it was. To be honest, we weren’t there for very long. But because Thesiger and Maxwell had written very well about the Marsh Arabs, we knew they lived in reed huts on floating islands. The issue was how much of the marshes had been drained by Saddam Hussein, as he didn’t like the Marsh Arabs or what they represented. So, I was quite surprised to see so many of the waterways still in existence and lots of wildlife. Then, on these floating islands, we saw extraordinarily tight little groups of people living there – families and their animals. They’ve got these water buffalo, which are highly prized. They’re in the main room, just up one end. It’s a case of: “Oh, have you met the buffalo?” I experienced the basics of how they lived for a few hours; sadly, we couldn’t stay any longer than that.


With the right sort of visitors, do you think there could be a bright future here, tourism-wise?

Someone we talked to said people do come, and he thought that was the most encouraging aspect of all for the future. The idea that he’d get more and more interest from tourists, who would live on the islands, stay in these extraordinary, characterful buildings and have a real experience, was exciting. It isn’t some sort of theme park; it’s the real thing.

The Great Mosque of Samarra (Shutterstock)

The Great Mosque of Samarra (Shutterstock)

Meeting Iraq’s people made the biggest impression of all on Palin (ITN Productions/Jamie Gramston/Channel 5 Television)

Meeting Iraq’s people made the biggest impression of all on Palin (ITN Productions/Jamie Gramston/Channel 5 Television)

Your diary is very poignant in some places such as when you're describing some of the destruction... 

Yes, I saw a lot that was quite depressing. Not surprising given what the country’s been through over the past 30 years and neighbours being dragged out of houses and taken off to be tortured. Brutality in every shape and form including bombs and missiles. Quite extraordinary. The country could be quite rich, and there’s lots of quite bright, intelligent middle class people there. There’s always a plus and a minus, the plus being talking to very articulate guys like a student in Mosul and his friend but finding certainly in their case they just wanted to get out of Iraq. What they wanted to study, what they wanted to know about, just couldn’t be found in their own country. I thought that was very sad.

The south is very difficult for us to come to terms with. It's run by Shia militias and for them the religious discipline is the main thing, that’s what’s important to them, So you just see places like lovely old houses in Basra just rotting away because no one really knows why they’d bother to keep those up. They’re getting in the way, they’re old stuff, lets get on. But  Baghdad in particular is having quite a little Renaissance culturally with buildings being generally well looked after by people who care.


Then, very close to the end of your trip, you come across the Garden of Eden… or is it?

Yes, I never quite believed in that story, and I definitely don’t now! The thing about the Garden of Eden area is that it’s where the two rivers meet, so it was quite significant for us. But there’s this little area where the Tree of Knowledge sits in the middle of a concrete block. It had a little gift shop that, quite bizarrely, had Father Christmases on its shelves. It was utterly unspectacular, but imagine what it would look like if someone in the West had the franchise to the Garden of Eden! Fortunately, there were no figures in fig leaves.


Looking back, what was the biggest surprise to you?

How the country continues to function after everything that’s happened to it for so long, and to do so despite the chaos. In Baghdad, where there are no markings on the roads, it’s complete mayhem yet no one crashes into anyone. The cities buzz with enormous numbers of people, but I didn’t see any aggression out on the streets. So, I think that my biggest surprise was that Iraq could and should be a pleasant place to live.

The other surprise was conquering my vertigo on the minaret in Samarra, and even getting to the top. It’s bad enough going up there, because you’re going round the outside of the building and the handrail is on the inside. To get to the very top – which is unprotected and some 200 feet (60m) above the ground – and be expected to do a piece to camera from there was terrifying.

I was able to get through the first bit and then I suddenly felt comfortable. I thought: what a wonderful place to be, looking out over the heart of Biblical Iraq, with Abraham and all these figures having been born in this area. People have been walking up this minaret for over 1,000 years; and from it I could see the Tigris below and how dependent Iraq is on this great river. To not feel like I was going to fall off at any moment: that was a great feeling.


You say in a postscript that you would go back to see some of the locals you met. After all you saw, was it the people who made the biggest impression on you?

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

I’d love to go back to see what its people make of it in five years’ time. 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.


Please note: The FCDO advises against all travel to Iraq. 

Into Iraq by Michael Palin

Into Iraq by Michael Palin is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£16.99).

The three-part TV series begins on 20 September 2022 at 9pm on Channel 5 or My5.

Buy the book

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