Episode two sees journalist and former British soldier Adnan travelling in a pilgrim minibus to Iraq’s number one tourist attraction – the Holy Shrines of Kerbala.
Around 14 million visitors from 60 different countries came here in 2017 for the Shia pilgrimage Arbaeen – five times as many as attend the Hajj in Mecca, making it one of the largest gatherings anywhere on earth.
Adnan joins 8,000 pilgrims at the Mosque of Imam Husayan, Shia’s holiest shrine, and something new to him, as he was brought up a Sunni Muslim. Near to the shrine, Adnan visits Madinat Al Sayed Al Awsiya, one of three ‘visitor cities’ built to house the pilgrims – 11 more are under construction. It’s a $70m complex of restaurants, sleeping halls, and apartments offering free food and accommodation for less well-off visitors, as well as more lavish spaces to satisfy wealthier pilgrims.
Next Adnan heads to the Sunni city of Fallujah, which was a stronghold for Al Qaeda and then ISIS before they were bombed out by government forces. The government has provided very little money for rebuilding and security and it still feels like a ghost town. Adnan is here to meet Sharif – who’s deaf – and his wife Intisar. They run a school for around 60 children with hearing and speech disabilities. Visiting the school, Adnan learns that while some of the pupils were born deaf, others lost their speech or hearing through physical or severe psychological trauma when the city was under ISIS control. Sharif and Intisar run the school off the little money they can get from humanitarian organisations and donors.
Heading back to Baghdad, Adnan joins the production team behind one of Iraq’s most popular TV programmes, In The Grip Of The Law, made by Iraqi state TV in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice and Anti-Terror services.
Moving on, Adnan joins Dr Sabah Tamimi, a former children’s TV presenter and professor of economics and now an MP, on the campaign trail for the upcoming elections. This is the first election in which women must place their own votes themselves, rather than Iraqi men being able to vote on behalf of their own relatives.
Adnan drives on to Najaf, another Holy City, where the mosque holding the tomb of Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law, is situated. Shia believe that to be buried in Najaf guarantees a place in heaven and the city is home to the biggest cemetery in the world, with over five million graves and a celebrity gravedigger – Ali al Amaya – who’s a big star on social media with more than 200,000 likes on Facebook.
Leaving Najaf, Adnan arrives at Babylon, the oldest surviving city in the world. He’s there to meet 16-year-old Rawan Salem (pictured) who he’s found through her YouTube videos. Rawan has been a political activist since she was seven, when she began by uploading videos of herself criticising local politicians. She’s also organised youth arts festivals to try to make Babylon a cultural centre again and she takes Adnan to the site of the ancient city of Babylon to see it’s world-renowned archaeological treasures.
After the natural wonders of the Marshes, Adnan’s final destination is Basra, where he served as a soldier during the war. As well as re-visiting the city, he’s there to meet a senior lieutenant of the Mahdi Army – the brutal militia led by Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr – whose victory in the recent General Election shocked the West.