Travel Update: Inside the Lion's Den ; Iraq Is Viewed by the West as a Dangerous Country, Even a Threat to World Peace. but a New Guidebook Ventures into the Ancient and Beautiful Lands of Mesopotamia to Challenge People's Perceptions
Calder, Simon, The Independent (London, England)
Could this be the new backpacker destination for the 21st century? Three-star hotels for a dollar a night. The same sum lets you "eat like a king". For sightseeing, how about "the remains of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the wonders of the ancient world", or "Eve's tree of the knowledge of good and evil", which is said to stand in the grounds of a restored hotel. The people are fascinating, including a sect with religious taboos that forbid the wearing of blue and the eating of lettuce. Even getting around is a breeze: "Domestic flights leave daily... at US$25 (pounds 16) each way you couldn't get a better deal."
But Jack Straw doesn't want you to go.
The Foreign Secretary cannot stop you (unless, bizarrely, you are a suspected soccer hooligan). Unlike the US, the UK has no tradition of banning its citizens from travelling to places that its government abhors. So even though the latest Foreign Office advice urges: "British nationals should not attempt to visit Iraq", there is nothing to stop a British publisher bringing out a guidebook to the country ruled by the West's arch-enemy. And a week from today, Iraq: The Bradt Travel Guide by Karen Dabrowska goes on sale, price pounds 13.95.
"Forty years ago," says the publisher, Hilary Bradt, "I wrote a postcard from Amman to my parents: `We're off to Baghdad tomorrow with the Iraqi army.' The army, however, left without us."
Since then, Ms Bradt has travelled and written widely, and has established a flourishing publishing company covering a range of places you quite possibly did not know you wanted to visit, such as Antarctica and Kaliningrad. The list also includes the contentious Middle Eastern destinations of Iran and Palestine. But none is likely to cause as much controversy as the book on Iraq - a place where, warns the US State Department, "Foreigners have in the past been used as `human shields' by the regime... the United Nations has withdrawn all American and British UN humanitarian workers from Iraq."
Even among the "been there, done that, got the T-shirt" contingent, there is unlikely to be a rush of travellers to the land between the rivers. Yet the book has already generated fierce interest. The manuscript arrived on Hilary Bradt's desk in early September, just before the terrorist attacks on America. When the hijackers struck, she says, "We put it on hold". But a month later, it was brought back to life because of an unexpected twist. "At the Frankfurt Book Fair, we put up a publicity poster that had been printed before 11 September and included the guide," says Ms Bradt. "The enthusiasm we received from the book trade made me decide to go ahead after all."
The enthusiasm among travellers for exploring the immense cultural wealth of ancient Mesopotamia may be tempered by the rigours of getting into Iraq. The oppressive regime, and the privations caused by war and sanctions, means that, "This is not a country for you if you want everything to run according to plan."
If you are undeterred by this, and by the State Department's warning of "the potential for retaliatory action by the government of Iraq" against American and British citizens, the evidence in the book suggests you will find a country like none other: the oldest civilisation on earth brought to its knees by a combination of despotic leadership and foreign intervention.
First, though, you have to defy the government's advice and hand over cash to someone prepared to take you. "The only way for tourists to visit the country is with a tour and this involves travelling on a group visa," says the guide. "In the UK, contact Hinterland Travel (01883 743584)." This company is run by Geoff Hann, who contributed to the guide and is currently in Iraq. In what must now be regarded as the good old days of hippiedom, Mr Hann led overland trips through Iraq and Afghanistan. The basic tour he now offers costs around pounds 1,570 including flights to the Syrian capital, Damascus, but you must set aside another pounds 35 for a compulsory Aids test at the border: "This involves a blood sample and although sealed syringes are used it may be advisable to bring your own. …