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The Sounds Of The Baghdad Night Train

© Emily Garthwaite

Standing on the rough, bare concrete of Platform number 2 at Baghdad Station, Jabar Musa looks around. The tracks alongside are empty save for a few rusting husks of old trains. To his right is what was once Saddam Hussein’s personal carriage – now looted and stripped bare – and further along, another that carried a King. Aside from these ghosts we are alone. “30, 40 years ago, there was always a party here,” Jabar says. “I can still remember how you could hear music from far away. It was so good that some people didn’t even use the train. They would come just to dance.”

Jabar is waiting for the night train and, under an unforgiving afternoon sun that emphasises what is no longer there, he conjures something I cannot, something only present for one who was here before. “In the summer there’d be honeymooners going north to Mosul, and in the winter people heading for holidays in Basra.” He smiles at the memory. “So much happiness. You should have heard it.”

The night train from Baghdad to Basra is all that remains of a one-time rich heritage of rail travel in Iraq. An early tram system was replaced in 1914 by an Ottoman track running north from Baghdad, and eight years later the invading British constructed a narrow-gauge line to connect the southern port city of Basra. 1940 saw the first continuous journey from Istanbul to Baghdad. The trip took three days and was the culmination of thirty years of imperial attempts to connect Europe to Iraq via the Turkish capital.

In 1953 the vast, colonial Baghdad Station opened as the masterwork of British architect J. M. Wilson, and became the grand starting point for those striking out across the country. Jabar and I walk inside to where an ornate chandelier hangs low from a domed roof in the columned central chamber, and recesses house dilapidated booths that once sold tickets to Turkey and Syria. In a place designed for crowds, empty space is now the most noticeable feature of all.

In the era that Jabar recalls there were three or more trains a day leaving Baghdad. Today, after decades of conflict, sanctions and occupation, most of the railways in the country lie lifeless and skeletal, buried under sand, mud or water. The remaining operational trains are a fleet of Chinese models, bought in 2014 by the Iraqi government. Night travel is the now the only option, in part because the tracks are unprotected and darkness means less chance of people, cars and animals getting in the way. But even with less to see, there’s plenty still to hear. I am reminded that my dad, a musician, has always noted how rarely writers listen as acutely as they observe.

When the last light of a winter sky has faded into the glow of Baghdad we are called to the sleeper train with around 150 other passengers. Jabar sets off, jostling between families entangled in complications of plastic bags and soldiers with casually shouldered rucksacks. I lose him in the crowd. No mercy is shown in the rush to board first.

We are three, two foreigners and an Iraqi, and within moments of being installed in a compartment – four beds, a small table and a series of light-switches that do nothing to affect the dazzling cabin bulbs – we are encouraged by our neighbours to visit. A theme quickly becomes apparent. “We travel by train because the highway is a death trap,” says one man, an officer in the Iraqi army. Another says he hears about crashes almost every night. Abbas Tamimi, one of four armed guards on the train, points out the obvious. “Some people would be worried about security in southern Iraq, but that’s not the issue at all. It’s bad drivers.”

Outside, the city slips away. We move behind gardens and past open windows and it feels like a view of the city that it hasn’t prepared for. A girl brushes her teeth and a man smokes on his balcony. A young couple sit on their rooftop beside a palm tree wrapped in fairy lights. Highways come to a halt as we pass and then we are out, beyond the Tigris and into the black. I had hoped to see the palm groves, the Euphrates, the marshlands, but everyone assures me it’s better to be spirited through at night; faster, simpler.

Abbas takes me to meet his sister, Hana, who is travelling with her young son. They all have the same smile. She asks if I’ve heard Muthaffar al-Nawab’s poem, ‘Rail and Hamed,’ most famously put to song by Iraqi icon Yas Kheder. “Everyone knows it,” says Hana, and she translates for me. It tells the story of a young woman who is forbidden to marry the man she loves and so flees to exile in Baghdad. On a southbound train to Basra, however, they rattle through his village and she is faced with the loss. ‘We passed near to you Hamad,’ the woman says, ‘and we are on the night train.’ She feels the train itself reflect her grief, and even compels it. ‘Oh rails, scream with sadness,” she urges. An elderly man travelling alone says he often thinks of this when he hears the screeching iron outside. Surely he is not the only one.

There is a small, sparse dining car but no-one is buying the food. Some passengers in the seated carriages play backgammon across headrests while others lean in to listen or be heard. The rest doze in awkward positions. There is a familiar cadence, I think, to long-distance rail travel, no matter where in the world the train and traveller. This is almost certainly part of the appeal; strangers thrust together in a confined space with shared destinations and limited distractions. Conversations take on the rhythm of the journey, and there are no awkward silences – the cacophony of movement sees to that.

Many on board are young men going back to work after time off in Baghdad. Some are travelling to do paperwork. An elderly woman, Zeinab, takes the train every two weeks to visit her sister. Mohamed is going to pick up a new SUV from the port. Four teenagers somehow snuck on without a ticket. “Iraq is complicated,” says an engineer called Ali. He has broad shoulders and a weathered face and implores me: “you must understand. It’s been broken up into these different parts.” The night train between cities makes the country feel more connected, he says. “I hope they rebuild the track to Mosul soon,” echoes a teacher, Fatima. “The train should take people to all parts of Iraq, to Sunni and Shia areas, without checkpoints.”

Although the temptation is to look at what’s been lost, perhaps it is more productive to focus on what’s still there. A soldier, on his way back from deployment in Anbar, says that everything that remains in Iraq has been hard won, against adversaries hellbent on destruction. That the train line still connects Baghdad to the south is a success; more will follow.

Later a guard spots us wandering through the train and invites us to meet the driver. In the cab we find Haider Naeem sat happily at the controls while a co-driver tends to a boiling kettle and another heaps pyramids of sugar into squat paper cups. Tinny Bluetooth speakers play mournful songs by Iraqi crooners from the 70s. Ahead a narrow ribbon of track clacks and clicks as it is swallowed underneath us. Haider encourages us to settle in and keep watch for water buffalo crossing the line. “Look for the glint of their eyes,” he advises. He believes his job is an act of service, to passengers and to Iraq. “The train is one way of bringing us all together,” he says. With that he flashes the lights and sounds the horn. “No buffalo tonight,” he concludes.

We return to the cabin to sleep, but before my eyes close I begin to hear another song. I follow the sound to the wall, wondering if it is a distortion of the racket below. In the next cabin a man is singing with long, slow reaching notes. I knock on his door and he grins apologetically. The music is mawwal, he says; a genre dedicated to lamentations. What has he lost? I ask. “Nothing in particular. I just like the sound.” He promises to keep it down and I return to sleep. When I next wake it will be in Basra, and the sights and sounds of a new day.

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Words: © Leon McCarron
Pictures: © Emily Garthwaite

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