Photo: Al Orfali/Shutterstock

In 1977 My Dad Left to Work as a Locksmith in Iraq, Here's What His Journey Has Taught Me

Iraq Travel
by Sandra Guedes Nov 18, 2015

1. Don’t let a crisis phase you.

When my father turned 15, he decided he wanted three things from life: to travel, to learn a skill and to get married. The first turned out to be the easiest, he bought a bicycle. If traveling was just about getting from point A to point B and meeting some new people along the way, a bicycle would suffice — travel didn’t just have to be for the rich. But getting out of Portugal didn’t happen until he was 22, and boarded a plane for the first time.

It was 1977 and Portugal was suffering hard from a post-revolution economic crisis. Unemployment rates were high and many Portuguese citizens took any opportunity they could to migrate. My father ended up leaving my mother and his first born son at home, and setting off to work as a locksmith in an Iraqi steel mill.

There were no hotels and fancy cars waiting for him in Iraq, only the heat and sand of the Syrian Desert. It was an adventure that would pay the bills.

2. Face things naturally.

From day one of that journey, the experience was stranger than my father had expected. When the SAS Scandinavian airplane landed in Cairo around 1 a.m., he followed the dozens of other passengers who were told to head to the middle of the track to pick up their luggage. The 7 a.m. Iraq Airways airplane was delayed and without the local currency and unable to speak the local language, my father spent hours going hungry and watching people walk past in clothing that he had never imagined before.

3. Do not expect things to be as they are at home.

When he landed in Iraq, the air hostess said some strange words and placed a warm cloth over my father’s face. He looked around as she repeated the same gesture to the other passengers. As he walked out the plane’s door, hundreds of grains of sand hit his face hard and violently. Within minutes he was rushed into a blue Mercedes van with seven other people and a Kurdish driver who drove them for over two hours, taking them to their destination 39 kilometers away. They were in the middle of a sandstorm and he was a long way from Portugal.

4. See people as they are, not as you imagine them.

Or as you are told they are. Back in my father’s time, most people thought of Arabs and other ethnicities as bichos de sete cabeças. While the media reported horror and spread the fear of the unknown in the West, in a small town near Basrah, my father worked beside 22 Pakistanis. He found they were friendly and welcoming, and were always ready to help each other and to help him. When he finally left, he gave one of them one of his favourite Portuguese shirts, after all they were malta porreira.

5. If you are an expat or a migrant, be a weekend explorer.

Whenever he was not with his fellow workers, my father found other curious international foreigners who were just as eager as him to set off on weekend expeditions to Samarra, Babylon, Basrah, Bagdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, and even to Kuwait — if only the border patrol would let them in. He was pushing the borders of his geographical knowledge, and realizing everyday that there was something strange going on — unless all the terrible things that the media said only happened during work hours, he had been sold stories of an Iraq that he never found.

6. A trip is what it wants to be, not what you expect from it.

When a Ribatejano, a Portuense (my father), and two Italians decided to hunt dinner in Iraq, they thought they would just set up some traps and find a wild boar. What they didn’t expect to find were two piglets, which they stole and took back to the warehouse, cooking them for more than 30 fellow workers. It was the sort of step-by-step spontaneous mistake that they thought they would never get away with. But instead of grief, they received praise.

7. Learn to accept the beliefs of others.

Even though my father had indeed escorted my mother, her siblings and her parents to the Catholic Church when he was trying to convince them he was worthy of his bride, my father had never been particularly religious. As he continued to travel and work outside of Portugal, he met Muslims and Orthodox Christians. He heard their views, lived beside them, accepted them and decided — instead of picking just one — that he would make whatever he was doing next his religion. If he was going to have lunch, then a table would be his religious shrine and the act of having lunch would be sacred.

8. Never regret what you’ve chosen to do.

Not everything turned out the way my father had hoped for. The money he earned abroad was spent, his entrepreneurial projects all failed, children kept being born, and his colleagues are now all retired after working for decades at the same job. For nearly 30 years, if his job took him beyond Ribatejo, it would keep him within the limits of Algarve and Minho. But when someone asks him “do you regret it at all?” his light blue eyes shine, and his smile broadens, “Never!”

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