Balloons Over Babylon: A Quest to Bring Peace to Iraq

The story of one man’s mission to promote peace by flying hot air balloons over his war-torn homeland.

Murtada al-Hachami loves his country. But he hates the world’s perception of it as a land of war and destruction.

As a child, he was forced to flee Iraq with his family. But upon returning as an adult, he finds a place at odds with the media portrayals of it. It is Iraq – a place of peace, love and life – that he wants to show the world.

He has a vision of how he can do that: by flying hot air balloons over the ancient city of Babylon.

Iraq is not just a country full of war and killing and massacres, nor full of terrorism. It's full of people that love life. And they love peace.

by Murtada al-Hachami

He persuades some of the world’s best hot air balloon crews of his vision and 17 of them – from Poland, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States – gather at Copenhagen Airport in Denmark to fly to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

But as they wait for their flight, news comes through of the deteriorating security situation in the country. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) is in the ascendancy and growing increasingly dangerous.

They have just minutes to decide whether to board the flight to Iraq and potentially risk becoming a target for an ISIL attack or to walk away and leave Murtada’s dream in pieces.

Murtada knows that it isn’t only the international crews that are in danger. There are people in his country who do not share his vision and would like to see him stopped. “One day you will find me shot for what I’m doing,” he reflects.

Balloons over Babylon follows Murtada and the international hot air balloon crews as they encounter obstacle after obstacle in their pursuit of a dream.

Will they be able to send a message of peace from Iraq to the world or will violence prevail?

'I would love to see people around the world discovering Babylon once more,' Murtada says [Donald Bostrom/Al Jazeera]
‘I would love to see people around the world discovering Babylon once more,’ Murtada says [Donald Bostrom/Al Jazeera]



By Folke Ryden

For more than a decade I had worked as a television correspondent, sometimes in war-torn places. I was part of a western media establishment responsible for images of chaos and devastation served to viewers on a daily basis.

During the full-scale sectarian civil war in Iraq (2004-2007) I was reporting from Baghdad and my stories were full of pictures of death and destruction. Yet, I was at the same time aware of the fact that life went on as usual for most citizens in Baghdad and Iraq. People went to work, to school, to the market. However, those everyday life images were seldom broadcast in western media.

Then I heard of Murtada, a man with a mission of promoting peace and love by painting a different, yet true, picture of Iraq. I immediately felt personally compelled to tell his story.

Balloons over Babylon is, on one hand, a story about change. After decades of war and conflict, there is a want to change the negative image of Iraq. Our hero, Murtada, personifies that want for change. He, just like anyone else, wants his country to be the best in the world.

At the same time, Murtada also represents the outside world. During his two decades in exile, Murtada, together with the rest of the world, were spoon-fed negative images of Iraq. Media showed nothing but war, conflict, looting and more.

Balloons over Babylon shows the world, including the people of Iraq itself, that there exists a force for positive change. It is well overdue to show Iraq from its true perspective, as a magnificent country with a rich history of epic legends and a progressive population.

When Murtada returned to Iraq as an adult, he found a country at odds with the media's depictions of war and destruction [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
When Murtada returned to Iraq as an adult, he found a country at odds with the media’s depictions of war and destruction [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

But the road to change is long, difficult and dangerous.

Balloons over Babylon also tells the story of the personal journey of Murtada. It is a story of seeking redemption and revenge for the little bullied boy in London. He fights his way through the complex Iraqi bureaucracy in search of funds to finance his project.

It is a road he needs to navigate with great care. Corruption and contradicting beliefs in what Iraq should be put Murtada in the crosshairs of many powerful figures. How far is Murtada willing to go in order to reach his goals? At the end of the day, all he wants is, like all of us, to be recognised and acknowledged.

Balloons over Babylon is also about peace and love. It is about Murtada’s love for his family and depicts a sensitive relationship with his oldest son, 11-year-old Yousif. And it is about Murtada’s love for his home country and his urge to show his Iraq to the world.

It is not about promoting his country for the sake of financial gain. He wants to invite the world to Iraq to create an exchange between the visitors and the people, to promote peace and understanding. In the conflict-ridden world of today, that’s an important message that should be much more promoted.

It is a story that, in every sense, gives a counterweight both in terms of the generalising image of Muslims like ISIL fighters, and of Babylon and Mesopotamia, a place with a unique history and the cradle of our civilisation.

Murtada hoped to show the world a different side of his country, one that celebrated peace and life [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
Murtada hoped to show the world a different side of his country, one that celebrated peace and life [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]