February 27, 2006

Driving to Suli

KURDISTAN, IRAQ – I liked almost everyone I met in Iraqi Kurdistan. But no culture is without its annoying bastards, and the idiot who drove me from Erbil to Suleimaniya was one of them.

A torrential storm blew into Erbil on my last morning in the city. Streets flooded, in some places with feet of water. The power was out everywhere except in my fake “Sheraton” hotel. A journalist friend who was staying in another hotel packed his bags and moved into the “Sheraton” while I was on my way out. His hotel was wet as well as dark.

“You might not want to drive to Suli today,” he said. “You’ll have to go over some steep mountain passes.”

“I’m from Oregon,” I said. “It rains eight months out of the year there. I’m not worried.”

I would have to find a new driver and translator in Suleimaniya unless I wanted to pay hotel accommodations for my guys in Erbil. So I asked Birzo, my translator, to find me a driver who would just drop me off at my hotel in Suli, then turn around and head back to Erbil. He took me downtown and set me up with a company that had a good reputation.

“This man will take you to the Suli Palace Hotel,” Birzo said as he introduced me to a fat grinning 20 year-old. “Normally it would cost 50 dollars, but it’s raining so he wants 60. He doesn’t speak English, but you should be fine. He knows where the hotel is.”

“Okay, Birzo,” I said. “Thanks for all your help.”

“If you have any problems,” he said, “just call me and I will translate for you over the phone.”

I loaded my luggage into the car and we were off.

As we were leaving the city, my driver said “We go Kirkuk.”

“No!” I said, more sharply than I probably should have.

“Kirkuk good, Kirkuk good,” he said.

“No,” I said. “Suleimaniya. We are going to Suleimaniya.”

“Erbil. Kirkuk. Suleimaniya.” he said. The fastest road went through Kirkuk. “Kirkuk good.”

Kirkuk isn’t good. It’s a catastrophe. Violent acts of terrorism and war take place every day in that city. Westerners are specifically targeted. Bonus points are earned for killing or capturing Western journalists. I dared not go to that city without a security detail, and especially not with a stranger who doesn’t speak English.

Kidnapping crews have set up shop all over Iraq. Guys will snatch you off the street for a mere 1,000 dollars. Then they’ll sell you to another crew who pays 5,000 dollars. You get traded all the way up to the top of the kidnapping chain where one of two things will happen. For-profit criminals will release you if someone pays them millions of dollars. Or Zarqawi’s jihadists will cut off your head on TV. It all depends on which group of vicious bastards you end up with. Kirkuk is in Iraq’s red zone where the kidnappers and killers still operate.

“No, no, no, no, no,” I said. “We are not going to Kirkuk.”

“Kirkuk good,” he said again.

I called Birzo.

“Birzo,” I said. “It’s Michael. I need you to talk to my driver, please. He insists on taking me to Kirkuk. Either we go directly to Suleimaniya or I’m getting out of this car.”

“Hand him the phone,” Birzo said. “I will talk to him.”

I handed my driver the phone. He and Birzo had a little chat in Kurdish. The driver handed me the phone back.

“It’s fine,” Birzo said. “He will take you directly to Suleimaniya.”

“Thanks, Birzo,” I said. “Sorry for bothering you. I’ll see you again in a few days.” I hung up the phone.

“Kirkuk good,” my driver said.

I wanted to punch him.

*

He turned and went onto a different road out of the city, this time toward the mountains. It looked like we were going the right way. But I had never driven to Suleimaniya before. My plan was to take a nap on the road, but now I needed to be awake and alert in case he tried to drive me unprotected into the war zone.

I didn’t know him from Adam. He was probably just blasé about security. He seemed like a simpleton and he probably didn’t realize that Kirkuk is much more dangerous for me than it is for him. I doubted he wanted to take me to Kirkuk. He almost certainly just wanted to take me through it on the faster road to Suleimaniya. But there was no way I could be sure he wasn’t some bastard who would drop me off in the wrong part of town for 1,000 dollars. It was unlikely, I know. But I couldn’t be sure. So I stayed awake to verify that we stuck to the mountains and didn’t drive down into the plains. I could go to Kirkuk with the Peshmerga or with the army, but not with this guy.

We drove for hours through the mountains in a horrendous downpour. After a while I was certain he wasn’t taking me to Kirkuk. I didn’t have a map with me (I never did see one for sale anywhere) but I know the geography in my head.

I started to feel bad that I didn’t trust him and that I had yelled “No!” at him so fiercely. But I remembered what my Palestinian-American friend had told me in Erbil: “Never forget that you’re in Iraq.” I didn’t quite act like myself in that country, at least not all the time. I even slept differently. Normally it takes me an hour to fully wake up in the morning, but in Iraq I was instantly awake and alert and hyperaware of my surroundings.

Night fell and we were still on the road. It took much longer to reach Suleimaniya than I expected, mostly because of the hard driving rain. Finally I saw the faint glow of whatever electricity was still on in the city as we approached the outskirts.

My driver pulled off the road and started to park behind a taxi sitting there with its lights off.

“Taxi,” he said.

“No!” I said, really pissed off now.

He got back on the road and sped up.

The nerve of that guy. I was paying him to drive me to a hotel in Suleimaniya, not to a place in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Suleimaniya, in the countryside, in the rain, in the dark, in Iraq. No way would I let him strand me out there like that. And I wouldn’t give him a tip either.

Suleimaniya was flooded just as badly as Erbil was flooded. We pulled off the highway onto a low lying street that had been turned into a fast-moving river. The water was so high I’m amazed it didn’t flood the inside of the car.

When we finally reached the inside of the hotel, an attendant who wore a hipster goatee ran outside to the car in the rain and soaked himself bringing my luggage into the lobby. I tipped him five dollars. (I didn’t have anything smaller, and I could not give him nothing.) My driver saw me do this.

I handed 60 dollars to the driver, the agreed-upon amount. He stuffed it in his pocket, then stuck out his hand asking for more.

“What?” I said, pretending I did not understand.

A security guard holding a machine gun said “He wants you to give him more money.”

I looked at my driver cold in the eyes and said “No.” You don’t try to drive me into a war zone, then try to strand me in the Iraqi countryside during a storm and expect to make extra money.

He swatted his hand at me like a little girl and stormed out of the hotel in disgust. The security guard laughed. I went up to my room, happy to be in a warm well-lighted place.

Postscript: If you enjoy these stories, don’t forget to hit the tip jar!

Posted by Michael J. Totten at February 27, 2006 4:27 AM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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