Every evening at 5 p.m., Baghdad Central Station fills with travelers. Excited chitter-chatter echoes off the old stone walls as passengers rush to buy last-minute snacks before the long journey ahead. But as soon as the engine fades away, it all goes quiet again. The 5 p.m. to Basra is the only train that leaves from this grand station.
Ali Al-Karkhi, a conductor based at the station for the last 37 years, remembers busier days. “Even Agatha Christie wrote about Baghdad’s station,” he tells me, referring to the 1951 novel They Came to Baghdad. He is dressed in a steam-pressed, pristine driver’s uniform, an act of defiance in the baking summer heat. “When I die, I want people to remember how I never faltered in any of my work at the station. I want them to remember how much history I studied about Iraq’s trains.”
When he was four years old, Al-Karkhi watched the trains pass his home in Baghdad. To this day, he rushes to his balcony when he hears the train’s horn to see it entering the station.
Built by the British in 1954, Baghdad Central Station recalls the majestic designs of New York’s Grand Central Terminal and London’s King’s Cross Station. A grandiose dome overarches the welcome hall, bolstered by large columns. An impressive crystal chandelier hangs in the station’s center and a statue of the elegant Assyrian goddess Shahiro welcomes passengers to the platforms.
Throughout the years, Al-Karkhi witnessed first-hand Baghdad’s transformation into a bustling Middle Eastern transport hub. In 1989, he was selected to drive then-President Saddam Hussein’s personal train, but the offer was withdrawn after it was discovered his mother was of Kurdish and Iranian heritage, two populations against whom Hussein waged prolonged wars.
After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the collapse of the Iraqi state, coupled with a lack of security reforms, resulted in widespread looting across Iraq. Trains were no exception. “I was there the day they started looting the trains,” Al-Karkhi says, standing in a pillaged train carriage with a look of grief in his eyes. “I felt like parts of my body were being cut off and taken away.”
Everything was stolen: the seats, the wall’s linings, the wiring and fuses. All that is left today are empty shells and shattered glass carpeting the floor that glorious rugs once covered.
“These carriages are a reflection of the state of Iraq today,” says Al-Karkhi, trying to make them look more presentable for our photographs.
Despite the sorrows he has witnessed, Al-Karkhi says it’s his job that keeps him optimistic about the future. “Not once have I been bored at work. Each journey is unique and the scenery is constantly changing. You see all that Iraq has to offer in one journey.”
In 2005, he was the first person to drive a train from Baghdad to Istanbul through Mosul after the fall of Hussein. But the route has now been abandoned following the city’s fall to ISIS.
“I see the whole of life when I drive the train. The city. Countryside. Factories. All types of Iraqis,” says Al-Karkhi, who now drives the train to Basra roughly twice a week. The journey, which crosses regions settled by Shias, Sunnis, Turkmens, Kurds, Bedouins, and Marsh Arabs, has taken on a new meaning with the recently formed sectarian and ethnic divides of Iraq. Al-Karkhi hopes that one day, the divides will be bridged by more than his train.