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Michael Palin heads to Iraq for Channel 5


Michael Palin heads to Iraq for Channel 5

Best on the Box highlight for September 20th.

Michael Palin embarks on a 1,000-mile adventure into Iraq, a country he has never visited before.

He boards a train in the spectacular, snow-capped mountains of Lake Hazar in eastern Turkey, the source of the river Tigris, which Michael will follow until he reaches the Persian Gulf on the southern coast of Iraq. In the bustling Turkish city of Diyarbakir, Michael meets a local Kurdish woman, Dilan, for a delicious local feast and a window into the Kurds’ troubled relationship with federal Iraq.

Further into his chaotic journey to the border, Michael’s next stop is Mardin, an ancient town built into the side of a mountain on the steppe of Iraq, where pigeon trainers make their birds ‘flip’ mid-air, and Michael’s remote hotel is hidden deep in the mountains. The next morning, Michael arrives at the official border, but it’s a day-long, chaotic challenge to cross. It’s nightfall before he finally makes it into Federal Iraq. His first stop is Mosul, a city on the banks of the Tigris that was almost destroyed after the Islamic extremist group ISIS invaded in 2014.

Walking alone in the ruins, Michael finds the local children who endured the ISIS regime.

They still seem traumatised, but once Michael starts chatting and firing catapults with them, they’re like any teenagers. Michael is visibly disturbed by their lives and the uncertain future before them. Driving 50 miles east, a very different Iraq suddenly emerges, in the form of a glittering five-star hotel in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. This is one of the richest parts of Iraq, almost like Dubai. The next day, he has an appointment with ‘Mr Erbil’, a fashionable tailor who measures him for a suit which he’ll pick up on his return, before exploring the ancient citadel. He also meets Huda, an Iraqi Kurd, and they discuss how Kurds in Iraq feel more at home than in Turkey.

The next day is Nou Roz, the Kurdish celebration of spring and Michael arrives in the remote town of Akre for the festival. Chaotic, buzzing and crowded, there are rumours of a spectacular festival of fire that night, as tens of thousands of people suddenly descend on the mountainous town. As dusk arrives, the throng grab flaming torches to ascend tiny, dangerous steps and paths. Michael joins the crowds as the firelit march climbs to the summit.

It’s both a celebration and a party, with thousands holding burning torches all the way; no health and safety here! But at the top, the view and atmosphere is incredible, representing one of the most joyous and moving experiences on any of Michael’s travels.

Michael Palin: Into Iraq, 9 pm, Channel 5

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