The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Where the West Ends.
“An adventure,” the great travel writer Tim Cahill once wrote, “is never an adventure when it happens. An adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility.” I have never taken a trip that more aptly fits that description than when my best friend Sean LaFreniere and I drove to Iraq on a whim.
It was stupid of us and the trip was unrelentingly miserable, though in my defense the idea was not solely mine. Sean was my accomplice and we suffered together.
I lived in Beirut at the time. He lived in Copenhagen, where he was studying for his Master’s in architecture. I invited him to Beirut, but he said he would rather see Turkey, so instead we met in Istanbul. Neither of us had any idea that we would end up driving all the way to Iraq. Why would we? Hardly any tourists visiting Turkey even think of it. Istanbul is one of the world’s greatest cities while Iraq is—well, it’s Iraq.
Sean’s plane was a day late due to an airline snafu, and he arrived exhausted and grumpy. “I need a drink,” he said. “Is it even possible to get a drink in this country?”
“This is Turkey!” I said. “You can get a drink in even the smallest mountain village in Anatolia.” He knew that already, but he was tired and had forgotten. I had been to only one Muslim country that bans alcohol, and that was Libya. It’s available most other places.
“Come on, Sean,” I said. “Let’s get you a drink.”
We washed down bloody steaks with smoky red wine in a brick and stone building that was older than our own country while a man in a tuxedo masterfully played the violin. I dearly wished I could have been there with my wife. The restaurant’s atmosphere was achingly romantic and I hadn’t seen her for months. Sean missed his wife, too. Angie, like my wife Shelly, was back in the United States.
But Sean and I had a man’s trip ahead of us. He and I both love hitting the open road in a car, especially in foreign countries. It is not our wives’ style. When he and I are in the mood for a road trip, we go alone.
I let Sean decide the itinerary since I’d been to Turkey before and he hadn’t. The city of Izmir on the Aegean coast is spectacular, but we only had three days before he had to return for exams and I had to catch a flight to Tel Aviv. So the plan was to visit Gallipoli and Troy which were much closer.
We hurtled down the highway from Istanbul toward Gallipoli. That road heads west in the direction of Greece and Sicily. On the way we argued about whether Turkey was Eastern or Western. In the twenty-four hours since he had arrived, he decided it was mostly Western. I played Devil’s Advocate and said it was Eastern, though what I really think is that it’s neither and both.
Many visitors to Istanbul are surprised that, aside from the mosques on the skyline, it looks much more European than Middle Eastern. They shouldn’t be. Although part of the city is on the Asian side of the Bosphorus strait, most of it is in Europe. It was the eastern capital of the Roman Empire and endured as such for centuries after the western half, with Rome as its capital, first declined and then fell. It was not until 1453 that the city, then named Constantinople and the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was conquered by Turkish Ottomans out of Asia. The Ottoman Empire then ruled over most of the Middle East and much of Europe’s Balkan Peninsula for hundreds of years. The empire was Islamic and ruled by a caliphate, but it was also, simultaneously, trans-civilizational.
Many Europeans in Bosnia and Albania converted to Islam during this time, but the Turks couldn’t resist becoming a little Westernized by incorporating Europeans into their realm. Turkey is thoroughly Western compared with its cousin Turkmenistan, which isn’t at all. The same phenomenon partly explains why Russia today has Eastern aspects to its culture due to its conquering of lands in the Far East and why Mexico and Peru are culturally part Aztec and Incan despite being the former colonies of Western imperial Spain.
“Be careful out there!” Sean’s Danish friends said, as though Turkey were teeming with Islamist fanatics who wanted to kill him. “Isn’t it dangerous?” one of his professors said. “Don’t let anyone know you’re American or living in Denmark!” Little did this educated man know, Istanbul is safer than Copenhagen.
Danes were right to be a little concerned, though. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had recently published a batch of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that Muslims all over the world considered “blasphemous.” Frenzied mobs sponsored by the Syrian government set Denmark’s embassies in Beirut and Damascus on fire. One hundred and thirty nine people, almost all of them Muslims, were killed during various protests worldwide.
Istanbul looked and felt more Western than Sean expected. It felt Western to me, too, since I had just arrived from the Arab world. I was still in Devil’s Advocate mode, though, so it was my job to make the case for Turkey being Eastern.
“Remember,” I said. “This country borders Greece and Bulgaria. But it also borders Iraq.”
I could all but hear the gears turn in his head.
“That’s right,” he said and put his hand over his mouth. He knew he shouldn’t say what he was thinking, but he removed his hand and said it anyway. “Holy shit, we could drive to Iraq.”
The instant he said it I knew that we would, indeed, drive to Iraq. Who cares about Troy when we could drive to Iraq?
I have known Sean most of my life. I should have known, then, that it’s impossible for us to rent a car in a foreign country and only drive a few hours, that he and I would almost certainly end up more than a thousand miles and a whole world away from where we innocently planned to visit over the weekend. He is the only person I grew up with in Oregon, with the possible exception of my brother, Scott, who would see any appeal whatsoever in driving from a pleasant and heavily-touristed part of the world to one of the scariest countries on earth.
But Sean didn’t yet know what I knew. I had just flown over Turkey’s Anatolian core in an airplane on a clear day from Lebanon. All of Turkey east of the Bosphorus ripples with mountains. And when I say mountains, I mean mountains. Huge, steep, snow-covered monsters that rise from the earth and the sea like impassable walls. Turkey is a miniature continent unto itself. (Hence the name Asia Minor.) You can’t blow through that land in a car like you can if you stick to I-5 in California.
I wanted to do it, though. Badly. How many people have ever decided to spontaneously take a road trip to Iraq from Europe after they were already in the car and driving in the other direction? We were heading toward Greece, not the Tigris. We had no visas. No map. No plan. And no time. Sean had to be back in Copenhagen in three days for his exams. Pulling this off would be nearly impossible. Nothing appealed to me more.
I pulled off the road and stopped the car so I could think.
“We’re going to make this work,” I said.
Why go to Iraq? Because it is there, because it is different, and because no one else wants to. Because adventurous travel and unusual human experiences make our lives better. Istanbul is spectacular and Paris is even more so, but visiting a place like Iraq engages the senses and the mind on a much deeper level even if it is unpleasant. It’s not like going to another planet, exactly, but it’s new enough and strange enough that it makes me feel like a kid again when everything was hard and had to be learned. Iraq is so different from my native Oregon that almost everything about it is utterly fascinating. Istanbul is Eastern enough and exotic enough for it to be interesting for a short while, but at the same time it’s enough like the West I grew up in that it begins to feel mundanely familiar within a few days, if not hours. A sudden arrival in an utterly alien culture is as intoxicating as a narcotic.
I called my wife and told her what I was up to. I also called a friend of mine who worked for the Council of Ministers in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region just across the Turkish border. I had visited Iraqi Kurdistan just three months earlier as a journalist, so I knew some people. And I needed to know: would it be possible to get tourist visas on arrival at the border?
“Michael!” my Iraqi friend said, disappointed that I even asked. “You know the Kurds won’t give you any problems.”
Iraqi Kurds, unlike Iraqi Arabs, are some of the most pro-American people in the world.
“Sorry,” I said. “The border is more than a thousand miles away. I don’t want to drive all the way over there in winter unless I’m sure we can get in.”
“Of course you can get in,” he said. “You are always welcome in Kurdistan.”
“Can I call you from the border if we have any problems?” I said.
“Michael!” he said. “We will not give you any trouble. The only people who might give you trouble are Turks.”
I didn’t think the Turks would care if or how we left Turkey. They might care once we tried to come back, but Sean and I had multiple-entry visas.
It soon dawned on Sean that we were actually going to Iraq. (Even though we would be in the tranquil and friendly Kurdistan region as opposed to war-torn Fallujah.) We were no longer talking about it, but doing it.
“Would you take your wife there?” he said.
“Of course,” I said. “It’s really not dangerous. Shelly wished she could have gone with me when I went there before.”
Iraqi Kurds have never been at war with the United States. Nearly every man, woman, and child was relieved when Saddam Hussein’s regime was demolished. Their part of the country suffered no insurgency, no kidnappings, almost no crime, and even less terrorism.
It was a minor drag that Sean and I wouldn’t get to see much of Turkey except from the car. Gallipoli isn’t the most interesting place in the country, but it was the site of a crucial World War I battle and the inspiration for one of the most moving speeches of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founder.
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives,” he famously said of the buried British dead, “you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie, side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”
The only things we didn’t have that we needed were a decent map and a good night’s sleep.
We crossed the surging Dardanelles by rain-spattered ferry and landed on Turkey’s Asian shore in the charming town of Canakkale.
Gallipoli was just on the other side of the water. A monumental set piece downtown was made of big guns from the battle.
I asked the clerk at the hotel desk if he knew where I could buy a map.
He didn’t. I wasn’t surprised. Maps are generally harder to find in the Near and Middle East where a startling number of people don’t know how to read them.
“Do you have any idea what’s the best road to take to get to Turkish Kurdistan?” I said. Sean and I did have a map; it just wasn’t a good one. We couldn’t tell from the low granularity which route was best.
He didn’t answer the question. Instead he said, “I don’t like Kurds.”
“What’s wrong with Kurds?” Sean said.
“I don’t like their culture,” the clerk said and twisted his face. “They’re dirty and stupid.”
Sean and I just looked at him and blinked. He seemed like such a sweet kid when he checked us in.
I had a brief flashback to a conversation I had with a Kurd in Northern Iraq a few weeks earlier. “Istanbul is a great city,” my Kurdish friend said. “The only problem is it’s full of Turks.”
“What do you think of Arabs?” Sean said.
“Eh,” the clerk said. “We don’t like them in Turkey. We have the same religion, but that’s it. They cause so many problems. You know.”
Sometimes it seems like everyone in the Middle East hates everyone else in the Middle East. Arabs hate Kurds and Israelis. Turks hate Arabs and Kurds. Kurds hate Turks and fear Arabs. (Intriguingly, Kurds love Israelis.) Everyone hates Palestinians.
Not all people are haters. I know plenty who aren’t. But every culture has its baseline prejudices that individuals either opt into or out of. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I just want to shake people and say: Keep your old-world ethnic squabbling out of my face, willya please? Jesus, no wonder there’s so much war around here. Even so, Middle Easterners are the most friendly and charming people I’ve ever met.
Sean and I tried to go to sleep early so we could leave at first light. I stared at the ceiling and remembered my flight over the spectacularly mountainous country. We’re screwed, I thought. There’s no way we can drive across that landscape to Iraq and back in three days from where we are now.
And I was right.
Sean and I woke at dawn and headed south from Canakkale toward the ancient ruins of Troy. We wouldn’t have time to hang out there, though, or anywhere else for that matter, if we wanted to make it all the way to Iraq and back to Istanbul on time.
We weren’t in the car for a half-hour before we saw the turnoff.
“We have to stop,” Sean said.
“No time,” I said.
“It’s Troy!” Sean said. “We can’t just drive past it.”
I pulled off the road. Vicious dogs ran straight at the car. If I hadn’t slammed on the brakes I would have killed them. This happened over and over again while driving through Turkey.
We parked in the lot and paid twenty or so dollars to get in.
“Hurry,” I said to Sean. “Grab your camera and go.”
Somebody built a wooden yet somehow cartoon-looking “Trojan Horse” and stuck it directly outside what would have been the gate to the city had it not been reduced to rubble by time, neglect, and erosion. Sean ran toward it while I snapped a quick picture.
“Run,” he said.
We ran—literally, ran—through the entire ruined city in under ten minutes. It’s amazing how small the place is. This tiny little town, no bigger than a dinky modern-day village, left an imprint on history and literature completely out of proportion to its actual size. Too bad we had no time whatsoever to contemplate any of it.
We ran back to the car. I damn near killed the dogs again on the way back to the main road. Do they snarl and charge at everyone who drives past? It’s a wonder they’re still alive.
I unfurled a brand-new map we picked up from a tourist information office. It looked like the best bet was to drive down to the Aegean Coast toward Izmir, a city we initially deemed too far away from Istanbul to visit in time. We couldn’t possibly get all the way to Iraq and back in the two days we had left, but we kept going anyway. If by some miracle we could figure out how to get there on schedule, we’d have no time to do anything but have lunch and leave. We were driving 2,000 miles round-trip—to Iraq of all places—just to have lunch.
I drove us toward Izmir as fast as the coastal road would allow. The Aegean Sea sprawled out on the right. The view was extraordinary. Greece was on the other side of that water. I could see it. There were more islands between us and the Greek mainland than I could count on two hands. While beautiful, the view was also discouraging. Greece is a long way from Iraq. It’s more than a thousand road miles away. And yet there it was.
The way south toward Izmir was a nightmare of slow-moving traffic around tight bends in the road and through coastal resorts. Izmir was at most five percent of the way to Iraq from Istanbul. We had driven almost half a day and still hadn’t made it even that far. There was no way we could make it to Iraq in even a week at that speed.
“We need to head inland and get off this road,” I said.
“The mountains will kill us,” Sean said.
“The coast is killing us. We have to chance it.”
I turned off and headed toward the heart of Anatolia. At first the road was encouraging. Then we got stuck behind truckers doing 20 miles an hour.
“Told you this was a bad idea,” Sean said.
“The coast was a bad idea, too,” I said. “We’re pretty much screwed no matter what.”
We pressed on into hard driving rain, which slowed us down even more. I wanted to blow up the slow trucks ahead with a rocket launcher. Get out of the way, get out of the way, we’re making terrible time! Eventually the rain cleared, revealing a punishing road toward a gigantic mountainous wall.
“Oh my God!” Sean said. “We never should have turned inland.”
He was right. I screwed up, but it was too late.
“We’ll head back to the coast when we can,” I said.
We didn’t make it back to the coast until dark. This time we were on the Mediterranean. Rain washed over the road in broad sheets. In a third of our available time, almost no progress had been made at all toward Iraq.
We both woke up with a virus. My throat burned when I swallowed. My entire body, from the top of my head to the bottoms of my feet, was wracked with a terrible fever ache. We had so far to go and almost no time to do it. At least we were out of the punishing mountains.
But we were back on the punishing coast. A twisty little road hugged the shore which rose up so sheer from the Mediterranean it was impossible to drive more than 30 miles an hour without plunging shriekingly over a cliff.
“Now you see why I wanted to get off the coast!” I said.
Sean nodded silently. There was no way to win. You just can’t drive across Turkey in a normal amount of time unless you take the autobahn linking Istanbul and Ankara. We were so far from that road, though, that it was very near hopeless.
I tried to sleep in the passenger seat while Sean took the wheel. There would be no more stopping to sleep in hotels. We would have to drive straight for the rest of the trip.
Without time to stop at restaurants, we were forced to eat terrible food. We had soft drinks, potato chips, and other crap from convenience stores attached to gas stations that carried the same kind of salty, sugary snacks sold in similar stores in the United States.
Once we tried to pop into a little food stall at night. Then we saw what was being cooked on a stove: a nasty green-brown substance bubbling in an unspeakable cauldron. We both turned and walked right out the door.
“I can’t deal with that right now,” I said.
“It looks like Orc food,” Sean said.
In troglodyte country, where some people live in caves tunneled into the ground and the cliffs, an old man stood by the side of the road selling bananas.
“Want some bananas?” I said.
“Yes!” Sean said.
I pulled off the road.
“Quick, get those bananas,” I said.
Sean rolled down the window and handed the old man a dollar. In return we received a handful of bananas. Real food at last.
We passed through great-looking towns that I cannot tell you the names of. Turkey is packed with wonderful places that hardly anyone in the States ever hears about.
The virus was killing me.
“We need a pharmacy,” I said.
“No time to stop,” Sean said.
“If we’re going to drive all day and all night we can’t be feeling like this,” I said. “We’ll drive off the road and kill both of us.”
We stopped at a pharmacy and bought medicine.
We also stopped at an Internet café. Sean and I wouldn’t be able to take our rental car across the border into Iraq. If we wanted to make our way to the Iraqi city of Duhok, someone would have to pick us up. So I sent an email to one of my fixers and tried to hire him for the next day. I asked him to please send someone else to meet us if he couldn’t do it himself.
Sean and I got back in the car. A few hours later we could stop at another Internet café, check the email again, and continue to work on our Iraqi logistics. We didn’t yet know that there would be no more Internet cafés. We’d be flying blind from then on.
I felt amazingly irresponsible for trying to put together an Iraqi itinerary at the last second from the road while sick and with no time.
“If no one picks us up,” I said to Sean, “we’ll have to hitchhike or flag down a taxi.”
“Hitchhike in Iraq?” Sean said.
“Sure,” I said. “It’s the Kurds in Northern Iraq. They’re cool.”
Sean didn’t say anything. I knew how dubious what I suggested must have sounded.
“Are you okay with that?” I said. “Will you cross the border if no one is there to pick us up? We’ll figure something out. Trust me. Trust the Kurds. Trust the universe. We’ll be fine.”
“Alright,” Sean said and threw his hands in the air.
We continued the punishing drive along the coast, in the rain, malnourished, sleep-deprived, and wracked with a terrible illness. It was unspeakable.
“Holy shit, look at that!” Sean said as we drove past some hotels on the side of the road.
“What?” I said.
“A sea castle,” Sean said. “Wait, you’ll see it again in a second.”
I saw it when we cleared the bank of hotels.
“Holy shit!” I said and pulled off to the side of the road.
An otherworldly sea castle appeared to literally float off the coast of the Mediterranean. I had never even heard of this thing.
“Wow,” Sean said. “Look what they have! This country is just amazing.”
“Yep,” I said. “We need to come back here and visit it properly.”
“Let’s go, let’s go,” he said. “It’s getting dark.”
It was, indeed, getting dark. The cold medicine we bought at the pharmacy seemed to have no effect. We were both sick as dogs and had no time to stop at a hotel to sleep it off.
BANG. We got a flat tire. I pulled onto the shoulder.
“So much for Iraq,” Sean said.
“Wait,” I said. “We might have a spare.”
I popped the trunk. We did have a spare! It was a real spare, too, not a near-useless “donut” that can fall off at speeds faster than thirty miles an hour. The only problem was we had no jack.
Sean and I walked across the road and ducked into a store that sold yard tools. The owner did not speak a word of English. Darkness was falling. Sean drew a picture of a blown out tire on a pad of paper. The man indicated he didn’t sell tires. I grabbed the pad of paper and drew a picture of a car propped up on a jack.
The man called a friend of his who showed up on a motorcycle with a big bag of tools. Without saying a word or even looking at us he jacked up our car and changed the tire for us in two minutes. I handed our savior twenty dollars.
“Thank you so much!” I said. He rode away on his bike.
And then we were off. The whole flat tire incident only took half an hour. What incredible luck. We just might make it to Iraq after all.
We drove all night, taking turns at the wheel in the dark. I could tell when we finally left the Mediterranean and approached inland Turkish Kurdistan after the silhouettes of palm trees vanished and I could see semi-desert features at the edge of the headlight range. Most traffic slacked off by this point. Towns grew poorer and farther apart. Syria was only a few miles off to our right. Turkey didn’t look remotely like Europe any more. That much was obvious even in the dark. We were deep in the Middle East now.
“I can’t drive anymore,” Sean said. “You have to do it.”
I got behind the wheel and drove as far as I could until three o’clock in the morning.
“You have to drive now,” I said. “I’m going to go off the road if I drive any farther.”
“I can’t drive anymore,” Sean said.
I stopped the car and got out. My teeth instantly chattered. It was absolutely frigid outside. If we napped on the side of the road we would shake inside our coats. My entire body still throbbed with fever ache. I needed a bed.
“We can’t sleep now,” I said as I got back in the car. “You have no idea how cold it is here. We need to find a hotel.”
But we were in the absolute middle of nowhere. All I could see were rocks and scrub in the headlights.
I drove slowly so I would not kill us. We found a low-rent Turkish trucker motel. What looked like 900 trucks were outside.
“I’m stopping here,” I said.
“I don’t want to spend the night with a bunch of loud truckers,” Sean said. The parking lot was awfully noisy.
“There’s nothing else out here,” I said. “It’s either the truckers, the cold, or I kill us on the side of the road.”
We went into the trucker motel in the middle of the Turkish wasteland on the road to Iraq. It was exactly as grim inside as you would expect. A twitchy man on the night shift checked us into a room.
“Sozpas,” I said. Thank you, in Kurdish.
“Are you sure you’re speaking the right language?” Sean said. “Are we really in Kurdistan?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think so, but I’m not sure. Anyway, he did not seem offended.” He probably was, however, surprised. The Turkish government had only recently begun to relent in its draconian suppression of the Kurdish language.
It was four o’clock in the morning. We set our alarm clocks for six. Two hours later we woke. I felt exhausted and needed to sleep for a week. My eyes burned from the light. But I felt great at the same time. My fever had broken. And it was time to head into Iraq.
Sean and I dragged our sorry, exhausted, malnourished selves to the car at 6:30 in the morning just a few hours northwest of the Turkish-Iraqi border. For the first time we had a look at our new surroundings in daylight.
Turkish Kurdistan is a disaster. It is emphatically not where you want to go on vacation.
One village after another had been blown to pieces by tank shells and air strikes. Military bunkers, loaded with sand bags and bristling with mounted machine guns, were set up all over the place. Helicopters flew overhead. An army foot patrol marched toward us alongside the highway. Twenty-four soldiers brandished rifles across their chests. I slowed the car down as we approached so I would not make them nervous. I could see the whites of their eyes as they stared, deadly serious, at me through the windshield. Neither of us dared take their pictures. Those soldiers were not just hanging out and they were not messing around.
The civil war in Eastern Turkey didn’t look anything like it was over. I could tell just from driving through that the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK) was still active. How else to explain the full-on siege by the army? The Turks’ treatment of Kurds has been horrific since the founding of the republic, but the separatist PKK seems hell-bent on matching the Turks with the worst it can muster, including the deliberate murder of Kurdish as well as Turkish and foreign civilians.
The highway ran right alongside the Syrian border for a stretch. Turkey had walled off the deranged Baathist regime of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad with a mile-wide swath of land mines wrapped in barbed wire and marked with skulls and crossbones. At one point we could look right into a Syrian town in the distance where Kurds lived in possibly worse conditions than even in Turkey. While many, if not most, Turkish nationalists have a near-ideological hatred of Kurdish nationalism, the Arab nationalist regime in Damascus is worse. At least the Turkish government is elected and the Kurds get to vote. The Assad regime is a totalitarian monster that stripped many Syrian Kurds of their citizenship solely for the “crime” of not being Arab.
From a distance it appears that the biggest problem in the Middle East is radical Islam. Islamism surely is the worst of the Middle East’s exported problems, but up close the biggest source of conflict seems to be ethnic nationalism and sectarianism, at least in the Eastern Mediterranean where no state is homogenous. The crackup of the Ottoman Empire has yet to settle down into anything stable. Arab nationalism, Turkish nationalism, and Kurdish nationalism everywhere create bloody borders and internal repression. And that’s just for starters. Lebanese went at other Lebanese for fifteen long years. Sunni and Shia death squads mercilessly “cleansed” whole swaths of Iraq of the other. Syria’s Alawite minority was using the state to violently suppress the Sunni majority.
Every Kurdish village I saw still standing in Eastern Turkey looked grim and forlorn compared with those I had seen in Iraq. The only places in Turkish Kurdistan that looked pleasant, from the main road at least, were those where no people lived, where the army hadn’t dug in, where there was no visible poverty, where there were no blown up buildings, and where you did not look across minefields toward Syria.
Sean and I soon came upon the city of Cizre that straddled the Tigris River on its winding way to Iraq. I was glad we didn’t spend the night there. It didn’t look like a war zone, as parts of the countryside did, but it did look sketchy and miserable. Most businesses were shuttered behind filthy metal garage-style doors. Apartment buildings that looked like low-rise versions of communist public housing units in the former Soviet Union sulked behind crumbling walls. Utterly gone was the quasi-Victorian architecture of central Istanbul, the lovely classical Ottoman-era homes of the mountain interior, and the typically Mediterranean look and feel of the southern coast.
Sean documented the misery with his camera while I drove until I saw, just up ahead, a flatbed truck loaded with armed men who looked like guerrillas.
“Quick, put down the camera,” I said. “Don’t take a picture of those guys.”
They wore keffiyehs on their heads. Only Arabs and Kurds wear keffiyehs. Turks never do, at least none that I’ve seen. These guys were heavily armed and sloppily dressed. They obviously were not Turkish military. They may have been PKK fighters or they may have been what the Kurds call Jash.
The Jash, or donkeys, are “very well paid Kurdish mercenaries that the Turkish government use against the PKK,” said a man I know in Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. “Many Turkish soldiers aren’t well trained (in most cases don’t have the courage) to fight a guerrilla war in the uncontrollable Kurdish mountains. To save the lives of their soldiers, the Turks hired some local Kurds and paid them very well to fight the PKK on their behalf. During the 1980s Saddam’s regime did the same. He hired locals, mostly escapees from military service, and gave them money and arms. But after the 1991 uprising all of the Iraqi Kurdish Jash failed Saddam and helped the [Kurdish fighters] as they liberated the Iraqi Kurdistan towns and cities one after one.”
As I slowly drove onto a bridge over the Tigris, I noticed that every driver in oncoming traffic stared at us nervously. The vibe on the streets was palpably paranoid even from inside the car. It’s so easy to misunderstand what’s going on in a strange foreign land, especially when you don’t walk around and talk to people, but it was clear that the situation in Cizre in early 2006 was not good.
No one is allowed to drive a passenger car from Turkey into Iraq. Only trucks are allowed to cross over. And the truck inspection line stretched for miles.
So Sean and I left the rental car and our non-essential luggage in a gravel lot near the customs gate. We stuffed everything we needed—passports, cash, phone numbers, etc.—into our backpacks and started walking. I sure hoped my Kurdish fixer sent somebody to pick us up. We had long been out of email contact, however, and there was no way to know until we got to the other side.
As we approached the first building we were instantly mobbed by a crowd of gritty middle-aged men.
“You need a taxi.”
“We’re walking across,” Sean said.
“You can’t walk across,” a man said. “Give me your passports.” He stuck out his hand. “Come on, give me your passports.”
“Who are you?” I said as I sized him up head to toe. He smelled distinctly like trouble.
“I’m a police officer,” he said.
Liar, I thought. Did he think we were stupid? He wore shabby clothes, not an officer’s uniform. And he had the obvious personality of a shake-down artist or braying carpet shop tout.
“Come with me,” he said.
I trusted that he knew the border procedure, but I would not hand him my passport. He led Sean and me into a small room in a trailer where a real police officer sat behind a desk. The officer asked for our passports. We handed them over, he wrote down our names, then handed our passports back.
“Here,” our ‘guide’ said. “Get in this taxi.” He opened the back door of a yellow taxi.
“Why?” I said.
“Just get in,” Sean said, annoyed with my resistant attitude. He got in the back. I climbed in after him. Two strangers, both of them men, hopped in with us. One had horrible pink scars all over his face and his hands.
“Why do we need a taxi?” I said. “I’d rather walk.”
“No one can walk across this border, my friend,” our fake policeman-driver-guide said. “It will cost fifty dollars.”
“Fifty dollars?” I said. “For what? For a one-minute drive down the street? Come on.”
Sean put his hand on my shoulder. He was feeling much more patient than I. I was sleep-deprived and cranky, and I had been shaken down in Egypt and Jordan recently and was in no mood for more.
“Did you notice what happened back there?” Sean said to me quietly. “We jumped to the front of the line and no one complained.”
He was right. There was a huge line of people waiting for taxis. Mr. Fake Police Officer Man yanked us right to the front. I decided to cut him some slack. Yes, he was ripping us off. But he was also speeding things up.
We pulled up to the side of a building. The man with the horrible pink scars on his face got out.
“Follow that man,” our driver said. “He knows what to do.”
We followed him to a drive-thru type window and handed our passports to the border official. He stamped us out of the country and we were set.
“Do you know why that man’s face looks like that?” Sean said on our way back to the taxi.
“No,” I said. “Do you?”
“He’s Iraqi,” Sean said. “Those scars are burns from chemical weapons. I’ve seen photos online. I know that’s what happened to him.”
We drove through a wasteland of devastated buildings, piles of scrap metal and box cars, an unfinished international highway, and derelict drive-thru gates that presumably were closed after the deranged behavior of Saddam’s regime required a shutdown of the Turkish side of the border. After a quick hop over a one-way bridge we were inside Iraq. The Iraqi side was cleaner, more orderly, more prosperous, and far softer on the eyes than the Turkish side. I swear it felt like the sun came out and the birds started chirping as we left Eastern Turkey behind.
An Iraqi Kurdish guard stood in front of the customs house wearing a crisp professional uniform.
“Choni!” I said. Hello, in Kurdish.
Everyone in the car flashed him our passports. He smiled and waved us past a sign that said “Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan Region.”
Inside the immigration office a bad Syrian soap opera played on TV. We were told to sit down in the waiting area after turning in our passports at the front desk. A young man brought us overflowing glasses of hot sticky brown tea on little plates with dainty spoons.
“Well,” Sean said as he nervously flicked his eyes around the room. “We’re here.”