April 28, 2006

“Everything Could Explode at Any Moment”

NORTHERN ISRAEL - Last year I drove down from Beirut into Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon along the border with Israel. Aside from Hezbollah’s other miniature state-within-a-state in the suburbs south of Beirut, the border region is the craziest place in the country.

The Lebanese government doesn’t control it and cannot police it. The army is not allowed to go down there. Soldiers I’ve talked to refer to the southern-most checkpoint before the Hezbollah-occupied zone as “the border." Psychotic road-side propaganda shows severed heads, explosions from suicide-bombs, and murderous tyrants from Iran and Syria.

Border Poster.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Severed Head.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Lisa Goldman and I decided to drive up there and take a look from the Israeli side.

“I should warn you,” I said in the car. “Something is wrong on the border. Something bad is going to happen.”

“Why do you say that?” she said.

I told her what I knew, what had recently happened when I tried to visit the border again from the Lebanese side just two weeks before.


My British friend Andrew flew out to Beirut from Washington. He wanted to visit the border. I wanted to go back to the border. So we rented a car and drove down to Saida where foreigners are required to get permission from the Lebanese army before being allowed beyond the last official checkpoint.

We found our way to the office of the ranking military intelligence officer.

“What is your nationality?” he said.

“He’s British,” I said, referring to Andrew. “And I’m American.”

The officer clasped his hands loudly together. “You are not going down there today,” he said.

“Why not?” I said.

He made an I-don’t-know face that was terrifically, intentionally, and even comically insincere.

“Is it for security reasons?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “You can go,” he said to Andrew. “But you,” he said, meaning me, “can’t go anywhere near the border right now.”

“Why not?” I said. “What’s going on?”

He laughed.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “You can tell me. Who am I going to tell?” (Har har.)

He shook his head. “No,” he said. He was deadly serious about keeping me away from that border.

“Are you worried I will do something?” I said. “Or are you worried something will happen to me?”

“Something might happen to you,” he said.

“Is it Hezbollah? The Israelis? What?”

He made his goofy what-do-I-know face once again. “I am sorry,” he said. “It’s too dangerous. You aren’t going.”


That was all I could get out of the Lebanese army. The Israeli army was a little more willing to talk.

Lisa and I met Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman Zvika Golan at a base in the north near the border. He told us to follow him in his jeep as he drove to a lookout point next to an IDF watch tower that opened up over Lebanon.

Israeli Border Post.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Lebanon from Israel.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“You aren’t safe here right now,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “The Lebanese army wouldn’t let me anywhere near the border two weeks ago. What’s going on?”

“Hezbollah is planning an operation,” he said.

“How do you know?” I said.

“We know,” he said and nodded.

I knew he was right. The Lebanese intelligence officer more or less told me the same thing. He didn’t say the threat was from Hezbollah, but he didn’t have to.

“What do you think about all this?” I said.

“We really want the Lebanese army on this border,” he said.

Lebanon and Israel technically have been at war for many decades. But Israel and Lebanon have never actually fought any battles. Israel has been involved in plenty of fighting in Lebanon, but none of it ever involved the Lebanese army or government. Neither side has ever actually fired on the other. Neither side wants to. All Israel’s Lebanon battles were waged against the PLO and Hezbollah.

“Are you in contact with the Lebanese government?” I said.

“We pass messages to the Lebanese army through the UN,” he said.

“How well are they received?” I said.

“Oh, they’re received very well,” he said. “The only problem is the Lebanese army can’t act against Hezbollah.”

He introduced me to a young bearded lieutenant in the IDF (left, below) on border patrol duty.

IDF Lieutenant and Spokesman.jpg

Photo copyright Lisa Goldman

“I have worked on the Jordanian and Egyptian borders,” he said. “This is the worst. The strangest feeling here is that the other side is a no-man’s land. There is no authority that you’re working against. It is extremely out of the ordinary to see any Lebanese police or army. Only Hezbollah is armed.”

“What do you see when you look at Lebanon?” I asked the lieutenant.

“I see poverty and difficult circumstances,” he said. “I see poor farmers who work hard. After so many years of war, the last thing they probably want is more war.”

“Do you know what you’re looking at when you look into the towns?” I said.

“We track movement on the other side,” he said. “I can tell you exactly what each of those buildings are for.”

Lebanese Village from Israel.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“What about people?” I said. “Can you tell who belongs to Hezbollah and who just happens to live there?”

“99 percent of the time I know who I’m looking at by their face,” he said. Hezbollah will love learning that if they’re still reading my blog.

The lieutenant was easily ten years younger than me. But he was so ground down from world-weariness he sounded like a man 30 years older who hadn't slept for three days.

“Any minute now something huge could break out," he said. "I am afraid to go home and leave my soldiers. When Hezbollah decides to do something, they do it. And they’re pretty good at it.”

"What do you think they'll do next?" I said.

“I have no idea," he said. "They could do anything. Kidnapping. Sniper.”

"How do you feel about that?" I said.

“Well,” he said. “You get pretty cynical about it after a while.”

“Do you think they’re watching us?” Lisa said.

“They are watching you right at this second,” the lieutenant said. “You are definitely being photographed. It’s possible you’re being watched through a sniper rifle.”

To say I felt naked and exposed at that moment would be a real understatement. I felt like my skin was invisible, that psychopaths were boring holes with their eyes straight to the core of my being. At the same time, I knew they did not see me as a person. They saw me as a potential massacre target.

I know Hezbollah wouldn’t hurt me in Lebanon, even though they did call me on my cell phone and threaten me with physical violence. All bets are off while standing next to IDF soldiers in Israel, though. Whoever was watching me surely dehumanized me as a Jew (even though I'm a non-religious "Christian") who belonged to the little Satanic fit-for-destruction Zionist Entity.

I wouldn’t say I felt scared. But I certainly didn’t feel comfortable. The earth seemed slightly tilted. Lebanon feels unhinged and psychotic from the Israeli side of the line. At least it did on that day. I kept having to remind myself that the country I love and lived in is not at all represented by the nutcases with guns in the hills who like to pick off Jews on the border.

Lebanon at a Tilt.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“How dangerous is it here, really?” I asked the lieutenant.

“I say this to my guys every morning: Everything could explode at any moment. Just after I said it this morning a bus load of pensioners showed up on a field trip. An old woman brought us some food. It’s crazy. They shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be here.”

“What’s happening here is very unusual," Zvika, the Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman, said. But he wouldn't tell me what, exactly, was so unusual. Shortly after I left the country, a story broke in the Daily Telegraph that explained it.

Iran has moved into South Lebanon. Intelligence agents are helping Hezbollah construct watch towers fitted with one-way bullet-proof windows right next to Israeli army positions.

Here's what one officer said:

This is now Iran's front line with Israel. The Iranians are using Hizbollah to spy on us so that they can collect information for future attacks. And there is very little we can do about it.

More powerful weapons, including missiles with a range of 30 miles, are also being brought in.

I asked Zvika about the last time Hezbollah and Israel got into a hot war.

“It was last November,” he said. “Hezbollah invaded the village of Ghajar in white jeeps that looked like they belonged to the UN. We bombed their positions with air strikes. After a while, the Lebanese army asked us to stop. So we stopped right away.”

"Why did you stop?" I said. "You stopped just because the Lebanese army asked you to stop?"

He looked surprised by my question.

“Of course we stopped because they asked," he said. "We have very good relations with them. We're working with them and trying to help make them relevant.”

Lebanon never admits anything like this in public.

The rhetoric that comes out of Beirut in Arabic rarely has anything to do with reality. The Lebanese government regularly affirms its "brotherhood" with Syria, its former murderous master that still knocks off elected officials and journalists. Undying loyalty to the Palestinian cause is constantly trumpeted, even while Lebanon treats its hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees worse than neglected zoo animals. Arab Nationalism is another regular theme, even though Arab Nationalism is more dead in Lebanon than in any other country around.

"The UN says Hezbollah started the last fight," I said to the lieutenant. "Do you ever start any fights?"

“They always initiate," he said. "We never do. I want to go home. I want to read the newspaper and get more than three hours of sleep every night. We have no business here.”

"Are you scared?" I said.

“I am scared," he said. "As an officer I want my men to be scared.”

"Are they?" I said.

“Not enough," he said. "Not enough.”

Read Part Two

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. Your donations make these dispatches possible. Thanks so much for your help so far.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:01 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 26, 2006

“You Just Can’t Believe Anyone Hates You That Much”

TEL AVIV - After living in an Arab country for nearly six months, arriving in Israel came like a shock.

It startled me from the air. Whoa, I thought, as I looked out the window of the plane over the suburbs of Tel Aviv. If the border were open I could drive down there in a short couple of hours from my Beirut apartment. But this place looked nothing like Lebanon. My Lebanese friend Hassan calls Israel Disneyland. I thought about that and laughed when I watched it roll by from above.

Trim houses sprawled in Western-style suburban rows like white versions of little green Monopoly board pieces. Red-tiled roofs somehow looked more Southern California than Mediterranean. Swimming pools sparkled in sunlight. I felt that I had been whisked to the other side of the planet in no time.

The airport shocked me as well, although it probably wouldn’t shock you. There were more straight lines and right angles than I was used to. There were more women, children, and families around than I had seen for some time. Obvious tourists from places like suburban Kansas City were everywhere.

Arab countries have a certain feel. They’re masculine, relaxed, worn around the edges, and slightly shady in a Sicilian mobster sort of way. Arabs are wonderfully and disarmingly charming. Israel felt brisk, modern, shiny, and confident. It looked rich, powerful, and explicitly Jewish. I knew I had been away from home a long time when being around Arabs and Muslims felt comfortably normal and Jews seemed exotic.

First impression are just that, though. They tend to be crazily out of whack and subject to almost instant revision. Israel, I would soon find out, is a lot more like the Arab and Muslim countries than it appears at first glance. It’s not at all a little fragment of the West that is somehow weirdly displaced and on the wrong continent. It’s Middle Eastern to the core, and it has more in common with Lebanon than anywhere else I have been. The politics and the history are different, of course. But once I got settled in Tel Aviv I didn’t feel like I had ventured far from Beirut at all.

Lisa Goldman kindly welcomed me to the country and met me for drinks in a dark, smoky, and slightly bohemian bar on my first night. We talked, as everyone does, about The Conflict.


Because I’m an idiot who can’t remember to take enough pictures of people, I pulled this one of Lisa off her own Web site.

Lisa is a journalist who has been writing for the Guardian lately. She moved from Canada to Israel years ago when Ehud Barak was prime minister. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians looked imminent. Israel was on the threshold - finally - of becoming an accepted and normal country in the Middle East. It was the perfect time to relocate, a time of optimism and hope. A cruel three weeks later that dream was violently put to its death. The second intifada exploded. Israel was at war.

“It was so traumatizing,” she said. “And everybody blamed us. I don’t think I will ever get over it.”

Last year she wrote a six-part series on her blog called How Lisa Came to Israel. It’s riveting and terrifying to read. She must turn that material into a book. Do yourself a favor. Set aside some time and read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, and Part Six. If you’re a literary agent, send her an email.

“I was near 11 or 12 suicide attacks during the intifada," she said. "But that’s nothing. I know people in Jerusalem who were near 40 or 50.”

She kept going to restaurants, cafes, and bars even while bombs exploded somewhere almost every day. She even chose to sit right next to the front windows, the least safe place in any establishment.

“The staff kept asking me if I was sure I wanted to sit there," she said. "I did.”

“I didn’t want to visit Israel then,” I said.

“Hardly anyone did,” she said. “The thing is, though, even when the intifada was at its peak you were far more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than by the bombers.”

She’s right about that. Most supposedly dangerous countries in the Middle East are considerably safer than they appear from far away. The region is not one never-ending explosion. Even so, suicide bomb operations are far more terrifying and traumatizing than car crashes. They're murderous. They’re malevolent. They’re on purpose.

“It’s especially disturbing when you know what those bombs do to the human body,” she said.

“Do I want to know?” I said. I was not sure I did.

She shrugged and raised her eyebrows.

“Okay,” I said. “Just tell me.”

“Arms and legs go flying in every direction,” she said. “Heads pop off like champagne corks. You just can’t believe anyone hates you that much."


Sometimes the Middle East feels like it’s drowning in bigotry, hate, and stupidity. But hate is not the only human emotion in that part of the world, even between Arabs and Jews.

Lisa is a liberal. Not the Bush-hating idiot variety, but the kind of brave person who continues to believe in the world no matter what kind of hell it throws at her. She spends a lot of time in the West Bank and Gaza even though the people who live in those places just replaced Yasser Arafat’s Fatah regime with Hamas.

“I have Palestinian friends who say things I don’t like at all,” she said. “They say they want to destroy Israel, that it has no right to exist.”

“How can you be friends with people like that?” I said.

“Because I know the difference between rhetoric and reality,” she said.

“Threats from the West Bank aren’t just rhetoric,” I said. “How many suicide bombings did you say you’ve seen?”

“These people will never hurt me,” she said. “They are my friends. They love me. And when I say love, I do not mean that lightly.”

I thought about that, and I thought about why someone might want to reach out and forge such seemingly-impossible friendships with people who declare themselves enemies. There’s a lot more behind it than a yearning for peace and the standard liberal can’t-we-all-just-get-along point of view. It strikes me, partly, as an emotional survival technique. I, for one, would not be able to tolerate living in Israel if I did not have Palestinian friends who could balance out the restless hate from some of the others. (I'd also like to have them as friends for the usual reasons, of course.)

“How can they be friends with you?” I said.

“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” she said.

I hadn’t been in Israel for even one day and I already knew I would leave with more questions than I had when I got there. I think I understand Lisa, though she might disagree. I don’t even think I understand her Palestinian friends. (I did not get a chance to meet them. I have work to do when I go back.)

“Hamas propaganda requires dehumanization,” she said. “When you meet someone face to face you become a real person. Then they can’t hurt you.”

But some of them can. The worst of them do. It takes a special kind of moral, emotional, and physical bravery to venture regularly into the West Bank and Gaza - as an Israeli civilian - and forge meaningful lasting friendships with people who say they want to destroy you. Lisa does it. I like to think I would, too, if I were Israeli. But I honestly don’t know if I could, not if I lived through the terror and rage of the intifada as she did. That’s one reason I wanted to meet her.

Know Hope.jpg

One of the most common spray-painted slogans in Tel Aviv says Know Hope. I don’t know who wrote it or why. Does it even matter? Israel is a stressful angst-inducing place. Not compared with Baghdad, for sure, but definitely compared with Egypt, Lebanon, and Northern Iraq. I felt better every time I saw it painted on walls. Know Hope. Those two simple words are so much more poignant in a place like Israel where the current (relative) lack of violence is almost certainly only a lull. Actual peace is well on the other side of the horizon.

Know Hope 2.jpg

Know Hope 3.jpg

Hope is precious and hard in Israel now. Hamas is taking over the reins of power in Palestine. The old Fatah regime was hideously corrupt and destructive. Some Palestinians, I am sure, voted for Hamas as a protest against Arafatism. Even so, terrorists officially rule the West Bank and Gaza with the consent of the governed.

And yet - and yet - the Israelis voted in a center-left government as a response. For a while there Israel wanted a man in power who was just a big fist. Until the second intifada broke out, Ariel Sharon - the Butcher of Beirut - was considered marginal and extreme by Israelis as well as by almost everyone else in the world. Yet they swung hard to the right and picked him to lead.

I wouldn’t say Israel has since swung hard to the left. But the Labor Party did receive one and a half times as many votes as Likud in the general election last month. Wielding a big fist no longer seems necessary whether it actually was in the first place or not. The intifada is more or less over. Brutal Israeli crackdowns in the territories are likewise more or less over. That may not be enough to feel hope, but it’s something.

Seeing Israel and Palestine for myself as they really are makes me slightly more hopeful than I was before I got there. The standard narrative of the conflict is a cartoon. Upon closer inspection, it’s a lot more complicated. And it’s a lot more interesting, too.

It may look like a never-ending and unresolvable death struggle with Arabs and Palestinians on one side, Israelis and Jews on the other. But people like Lisa and her Palestinian friends can’t be crudely reduced to that level. And we’re talking here about Palestinians who say they do want to destroy Israel, not just the liberals and the moderates who say they don't.

Then there are those - and they’re almost completely ignored by the media - who defy these categories completely.

The Druze serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. And the Druze are as Arab as anyone else in the region. The biggest problem the Israeli government has with Druze members of the IDF is not that they are not loyal. The biggest problem is that they are consistently the most roguish and brutal toward Palestinians. They speak Arabic as their first language. Palestinians say they are traitors.

Bedouin also serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. The skills they learn as desert wanderers make them the perfect trackers.

Don’t assume the only reason Bedouin work with the Israelis is because they are loyal to the state they happen to live in, as may (or may not) be the case with the Druze. The tight relationship between Israeli Jews and Bedouin Arabs crosses international borders.

Lisa told me the Bedouin in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula speak Hebrew.

“Why?” I said. “Did they learn it during the occupation?” Israel seized the Sinai from Egypt during the Six Day War in 1967 and gave it back when Anwar Sadat agreed to a peace treaty.

“No,” she said. “They wanted to learn Hebrew so they can talk to us when we go down and visit.”

“When you go down there and visit?” I did not know what she was talking about.

“Last year 200,000 Israelis visited the Bedouin during Passover," she said.

“Two hundred thousand,” I said. “On just one day?”

“You didn’t know about this?” she said.

“No,” I said. Before I went to the Middle East I had no idea Israeli Jews had any kind of genuinely friendly relations with Arabs in any country except right-wing Lebanese Maronites. And a significant number of Maronites say they aren't even Arabs at all.

“The Bedouin roll our joints for us,” she said. “They sell us hashish. Israeli women like to go topless.”

“You go topless in front of the Bedouin?” I said. “Isn’t that offensive?” Bedouin are arguably the most conservative people in the entire Middle East.

“It doesn’t bother them,” she said. “They understand that our cultures are different. They don’t impose their values on us. And I never once saw a Bedouin man with wandering eyes.”

It made sense once I thought about it. Bedouin may be Egyptian Arabs, but they are completely isolated from Hosni Mubarak’s deranged state-run media. They could not care less about the politics of the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict. No one ever told them they are supposed to hate Jews. When politics can be pitched over the side, Israeli Jews and at least some Arab Muslims have a natural affinity for one another and they get along great.

“They are our brothers,” she said.

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. I’d like to do a lot more traveling and writing in the future, and your donations today make tomorrow's dispatches possible. Thanks so much for your help so far.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:12 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 25, 2006

Thank You

I’m still working on my first piece from Israel. Before I finish and post it I want to publicly thank Allison Kaplan Sommer and Lisa Goldman in Tel Aviv for helping me out more than any reasonable person could have expected – especially considering that neither had ever met me. Both welcomed me to the country in person, helped me meet other people, set me up with fixers, and even made hotel reservations for me.

I also want to say thank you so much to everyone who donates travel expenses via Pay Pal. It has been decided: If the mullahs let me in, I am going to Iran as quickly as possible.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:59 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 23, 2006

An Experiment in Journalism

I went to the Middle East for six months so I could expand my freelance writing portfolio. But I found, after a few months, there may be a better way forward than publishing disconnected dispatches here and there for low pay.

The mainstream media is an industry in decline. The audience shrinks every year. Profits circle the drain. Budgets for foreign bureaus and correspondents have been gutted stem to stern. Most journalists are paid pitifully low salaries even in good times, and freelancers are paid even worse. Striving to become a part of all that may not be the brightest idea if there’s another option.

And it looks like there might be.

I decided to try a little experiment. Instead of lining up an assignment from an editor to cover Northern Iraqi Kurdistan, I struck out on my own without asking permission from anyone. Almost all my material was posted directly to this Web site. I wanted to see if the amount of money I can raise from readers competes with the industry’s going rate.

It does.

I raised more money from you to cover Iraqi Kurdistan than I’ve made covering any other country on paid assignments. I also had a lot more fun publishing my own material here instead of somewhere else. It is so much nicer to have the freedom to write whatever I want without any oversight, without any rules or restrictions, without any word limits, and without any delays. (The LA Weekly sat on my Libya story for more than a year. Four months after publishing it, they still owe me money.)

That doesn’t mean your generous Pay Pal donations have made me rich all of a sudden. I don’t have enough blog traffic for that. And saying www.michaeltotten.com pays better than freelance assignments isn’t saying a lot. But I did raise enough to go to Iraq and pay the bills during the time I was away. That’s all I need.

My experiment was therefore a success. I can go to Northern Iraq working for you and have a better experience than if I went there for somebody else.

Not many journalists go to Northern Iraq, though. So here’s what I don’t know: Were you willing to pay me because I went where few others go? Or can I do this again in a different location? I need to know how economically viable this emerging model of journalism really is.

Over the next two weeks or so we’ll find out.

After I left Northern Iraq for the second time, and before I returned to my home in the United States where I am now, I gathered more material in Israel and Palestine. I didn’t tell you I was going to do that. I didn’t ask a single editor for an assignment. I just went. That material will begin appearing here shortly.

More foreign correspondents live in Jerusalem than perhaps any other city on Earth. Are you willing to pay for independent coverage from there as well as from neglected places like Iraqi Kurdistan?

If so, I won’t have to wait for green lights from editors before buying plane tickets and heading off on assignments. You can read a lot more of the kind of thing you’ve been reading here lately if you’re willing and able to cover expenses. We can cut the industry out of these operations entirely. I would do this for love and for free if I could. But I’m not independently wealthy, so I just can’t.

If writing about Israel and Palestine on the blog proves to be profitable, here’s what I’m thinking of next:

I want to go to Iran and “embed” myself, so to speak, with the student movement that struggles against the Khomeini regime.

I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time in Israel and Palestine as I would have liked, and I intend to go back. (I now know Palestinians who can get me safely into and out of Gaza, Hebron, and Jenin.)

I have been in contact with dissidents opposed to Assad’s Baath Party both inside and outside of Syria. It may be time to pay them a visit if the embassy in Washington (there isn’t one in Beirut) will grant me a visa.

I can secure protection and safe passage in Kabul and in the hinterlands of Afghanistan. Nothing is stopping me from going except that I do not have an assignment.

I speak some Spanish, I know Latin America well, and it’s about time I went to Cuba and, perhaps, Venezuela.

If at all possible I’d like to go to North Korea, as well.

What I need to know before I can do any of this is if you’re willing to “hire” me to write about places other than Northern Iraqi Kurdistan. Can I turn this blog into a job? Or was I lucky just this one time?

Working for you in Northern Iraq was the best job I ever had. If you want unfiltered, unplugged, and unedited foreign correspondence from other places as well, hit the Pay Pal button and I’ll provide you with lots of it for a long time.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:21 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 22, 2006

Instapundit Interview

Yesterday I was interviewed on the Glenn and Helen show over at Instapundit. You can listen to the mp3 version of the show here, or you can get the podcast for Itunes here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:07 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 20, 2006

Back to Iraq Part VI – Smuggling My Way Out of Iraq

This is the sixth and final installment in a Back to Iraq series which is basically a single long essay. Don’t miss Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.

ZAKHO, IRAQ - Getting into Iraq was easy. Getting out of Iraq and back into Turkey was not.

Sean and I went back to the Turkish-Iraqi crossing gate just before dark. We intended to return to our rental car, parked just on the other side of the border in Turkey, before the light in the sky completely went out. It would have been nice to make a little progress back toward Istanbul before dark.

“Hello again!” I said to the customs official who, earlier that morning, thought we were lying when we said we would go back to Turkey the very same day. “Told ya we wouldn’t stay long.”

“Hello my friends!” he said and laughed. “Good to see you.”

He asked us to sit in the waiting area. Once again, a young man brought us sticky brown tea in clear glasses on little plates with dainty spoons. Another bad Syrian drama was playing on the TV set in the corner.

“I suppose you need our passports,” Sean said while stirring his tea.

“Why?” the official said.

“Don’t we need exit stamps?” I said.

“You can’t go back,” he said.

What?” Sean said.

“What do you mean we can’t go back?” I said.

I looked at Sean and felt my face flush and my heart leap into my throat. Sean looked clearly panicked. Was this guy joking? It would be a first order disaster if we couldn’t get back into Turkey. Our rental car was parked a mile away across the border. Most of our luggage was inside. We both had planes to catch the next day.

Would we have to fly out from Erbil? There is only one commercial flight every week from Erbil to Istanbul. We would have to wait in Iraq for a week - a whole week - without any cash in a country that has no international banks, has no ATMs, and accepts no credit cards. We would have to figure out some way to get ourselves onto that plane without any money. Then, after we got back to Istanbul, we would have to rent yet another car and drive all the way back to Iraq again to pick up the first car and the luggage. I felt like I was going to be sick.

“We need to get out of here!” I said and tried to explain what you can’t go back meant to us.

“Just go down the street,” he said. “It’s only fifty meters or so. You enter Kurdistan here and go back to Turkey over there.”

I felt like the perfect idiot. Iraqi Kurdistan may be safe - especially compared with Baghdad - but the place isn’t yet normal and it does make me twitchy. Sean loudly exhaled and put his hand over his heart. I instantly felt fifty pounds lighter.

We walked to the exit gate, still rattled by our ten seconds of misunderstanding. Now that we had our little false alarm scare, I desperately wanted out as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t be able to relax until we were back in Turkey with our car and could control what happened next.

It was time to flag down a taxi. No one can walk across the border from either direction. Presumably that makes cross-border traffic easier for both sides to keep track of. Anyone seen walking is obviously sneaking.

Our driver Himdad drove us past a long line of cars waiting to get their exit stamp from the Peshmerga.

“Did you see what just happened?” Sean said.

“Yep,” I said. “We went right to the front of the line again. I hate to say it, but this time I’m glad. We need to get out of here. We barely have time to drive back as it is.”

A Kurdish Iraqi border official stopped us and asked for photocopies of our passports. We didn’t have any photocopies. He demanded photocopies anyway and refused to budge.

Himdad, our driver, knew what to do. He took our passports and walked off somewhere to make copies. He came back. The border official kept us waiting for what seemed like forever.

“How long will it take to cross the border,” I asked Himdad. He understood almost no English at all. I had to point to my watch and pantomime the rest of it.

“Three,” he said and made a circular motion with his finger.

Three hours?” Sean said.

He must have meant three minutes. It was only a one-mile crossing.

I pointed at my watch. It was 6:00. Himdad pointed at 9:00.

“Shit!” I said. “We don’t have three hours.” We really didn't.

“We’re screwed,” Sean said. “We’ll never make it back to Istanbul in time.”

“I guess we just won’t get a hotel tonight,” I said and sighed. “We’ll have to drive all frigging night again. It will suck, but we’ll make it. We have to.”

Once the border official - finally! - let us go, Himdad drove onto the bridge over the river that marked the border between the two countries. A long line of cars was ahead of us. We sat still on that bridge for what seemed like forty-five minutes without moving an inch.

“Crap!” I said. “This is really taking forever. I’m going to try to sleep now so I can drive when we finally get out of here.”

Himdad could tell we were stressed. He pointed at the line of cars in front of us. “Problem,” he said.

“Yes, problem,” I said.

“One hundred dollars,” he said, “no problem.”

Sean and I looked at each other. We could bribe our way across for one hundred dollars? Without waiting in this godawful line?

“Should we do it?” I said.

“Do we have a hundred dollars?” Sean said.

“I do,” I said. “I have several fifties in my pocket.”

Himdad and I got out of the car and walked to the front of the line. Most drivers had turned off their engines. Many people were sleeping. Everyone knew we would be there for a very long time, time Sean and I just didn't have. It looked like we would spend more time sitting in line on the bridge than we spent in Iraq.

A young Turkish soldier saw me and Himdad approaching. He pointed his rifle at us and screamed something in Turkish.

Then he lowered his rifle and laughed.

I nervously laughed right back at him.

He and Himdad had a conversation in Turkish.

“You are American?” the young soldier said.

“Yes,” I said and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“One moment,” he said and walked toward a compound of some sort. He returned with a much-older officer who looked like a colonel.

“You are American?” the colonel said.

“Yes,” I said. “Hello.”

He stared at me in shock and with disgust, abruptly turned around, and stormed back to the compound.

“Problem,” Himdad said.

We walked back to the car. The colonel wasn’t interested in any bribes. Himdad and I clearly had offended his professionalism. It wasn’t my idea, I wished I could tell him. I don’t know how this works or what I’m doing.

“Problem,” Himdad said to Sean when we got back to the car.

“An officer there wasn’t having any of it,” I added.

“Other problem,” Himdad said.

What now?

He pointed at himself and said “Peshmerga, no problem.” Then he pointed at himself again and said “Turkey, problem.”

What the hell? The Turks have a problem with him? Why didn’t he say so when we first got in the car?

“What’s the problem?” Sean said.

“Cigarette,” Himdad said and pointed at himself. “Many cigarette. Turkish. Problem.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

He peeled back the lining on the passenger side door of his car, pointed inside, said “many cigarette” again, then “Turkish” and “problem.”

“He got busted smuggling cigarettes,” I said. “Now the Turks won’t let him in.”

“Yes,” Himdad said and nodded.

“Great,” Sean said. “Why does he have this job?”

Himdad got out of the car, popped the trunk, and pulled out fifteen cartons of cigarettes. Lovely! He was smuggling again with us in the car.

“Take cigarette,” he said.

“What?” I said, even though I knew what he wanted.

He held up five fingers on this hand and said “No problem.” Then he held up six fingers and said “Problem.”

He pointed at himself and held up five fingers. Then he pointed at Sean and held up five fingers. Then he pointed at me and held up five fingers and said “No problem.” Then he pointed at himself, held up six fingers, and said “Problem.”

I knew what he meant. Each person could carry five cartons of cigarettes across the border without any problem. No one was allowed to carry six cartons. He wanted me to carry five cartons and he wanted Sean to carry five cartons.

“No problem,” he said again.

But it was a problem.

“Problem!” I said.

“Yes, problem,” Sean said.

“No problem,” Himdad said.

No one has given me more trouble in the Middle East than people who drive cars for a living. It doesn’t matter which country they’re in, they are the most obnoxious and least principled people a typical person will have to deal with on a regular basis.

Himdad already said the Turks have a problem with him because he’s known as a smuggler. For all I knew his face was on the wall in an office just on the other side. That’s more or less what he seemed to be telling us.

Sean and I had entrance stamps and exit stamps in our passports only six hours apart. That looks crazily weird and suspicious all by itself. Ten minutes ago I infuriated the colonel by trying to bribe my way across for a hundred dollars. We didn't exactly look like model American citizens.

What were we supposed to do now? Sit on the bridge for hours and wait to be detained and interrogated all night?

I thought of that stupid 1970s movie Airplane where the captain kept harrassing a ten-year old kid.

Hey, Joey. Do you like movies about gladiators?

Hey, Joey. Have you ever seen a grown man naked?

Hey, Joey. Have you ever seen the inside of a Turkish prison?

I did not want to see the inside of a Turkish prison.

Himdad handed Sean five cartons of cigarettes and pointed at his backpack. Sean looked at me without a word.

“I don’t know,” I said. “What do we do?”

If we didn’t carry five cartons apiece Himdad would be busted for smuggling again before we even got back into Turkey. Then what? He was our ride. Would we get in trouble, as well? Aside from stupid tourists like us, who on earth goes into Iraq for six hours? Who tries to bribe his way across the border except people who are up to no good?

Presumably Himdad knew what was legal and what wasn’t since this was his “job.” So perhaps it was wise just to do what he says and hope for the best. If we were interrogated on the other side we could explain to the authorities that we were smuggling under duress. Himdad didn’t tell us what he was up to until we were exactly, precisely, in the middle of the no-man’s land between Turkey and Iraq when it was too late to turn around and hire a different driver. The man was a championship asshole for roping us into his little scheme.

Sean wearily stuffed five cartons of cigarettes into his backpack. I stuffed five cartons into mine. It felt like a surrender.

We sat in the back of the taxi, pissed off and worried about what would happen next. The line of cars still wasn’t moving. It could be ten hours before we got to the other side. Then Lord only knows what would follow.

The good news was that Himdad didn’t speak English. We could plot our own move right in front of him.

“We could take these cigarettes and throw them into the river,” Sean said.

“Are you serious?” I said.

“Yes. Throw them into the river. He can’t stop us. Then it will be done.”

“Hmm,” I said. “But then we have to sit in this car with him for several more hours. We have no idea how he’ll react.”

I didn’t like Sean’s proposed solution. But I liked the fact that he was trying to come up with one. It got me thinking. I had felt check-mated by Himdad. Sean’s idea, extreme as it was, showed that Himdad hadn’t actually won yet. We could turn right around check-mate him ourselves.

“Here,” I said and clandestinely handed Sean a fifty dollar bill. “Take that to the front of the line. Wave it in somebody’s face and ask if we can hitch a ride across the border. I don’t want to do it myself because the colonel might see me. He won’t recognize you.”

Sean took the money, got out, stretched, and slowly started walking to the front of the line as though he had nothing better to do.

Himdad offered me a cigarette. “No, thanks,” I said. He lit his own cigarette and puffed away contentedly, having no idea that Sean and I were plotting to ditch him by himself on the bridge with his illegal loot.

A few short minutes later I saw Sean walking quickly back to the car with a spring in his step. He looked happy and like he was trying to conceal hidden glee.

“Quick,” he said as he got back in the car. “I got us a ride all the way at the very front of the line.”

“Excellent!” I said. “Now we just need to get these cigarettes out of our backpacks without him seeing.”

I slowly and quietly started to unzip my backpack. Himdad turned around and offered Sean a cigarette. He saw what I was doing. This wasn’t going to work.

“Take his cigarette,” I said to Sean, “and see if you can get him to walk somewhere with you. I’ll unload all this stuff while you keep him distracted.”

Sean got out. “Want to take a walk?” he said to Himdad and gestured for him to get out of the car. Himdad happily got out. Sean slowly walked Himdad away from the car. I saw him squint and point at something off the side of the bridge in the darkness. Himdad also squinted and looked. Perfect.

As quickly as possible I pulled all ten cartons of cigarettes out of our luggage. It took longer than I expected. Sean had so many zippered compartments in his backpack where various cartons were hidden and buried.

Sean and Himdad returned just as I set our backpacks in the street next to the car. There was no turning back now. It was done.

Himdad saw our stuff outside the car. He looked at me with a startled expression.

I pointed at my watch. “Problem,” I said.

Then I handed him the fifty dollars we “owed” him, pointed toward the front of the line and said “taxi.” Presumably he would understand that Sean had just found us another taxi. Then I showed him the ten cartons of cigarettes in the back seat of his taxi so he would know we weren’t ripping him off.

“My friend,” he said and grabbed my arm.

“Problem,” I said and tapped my watch again. “Problem. I’m sorry.” I put my hand on his shoulder so he would understand there were no hard feelings.

He wasn’t happy. Now he had fifteen cartons of illegal cigarettes. He couldn’t smuggle them all by himself without getting arrested again. He would have to throw them into the river. But that was his problem and his fault. I couldn’t let myself feel too bad about that, especially since he unfairly tried to trap us in his criminal enterprise.

Sean and I started walking. Himdad yelled something at us. Sean and I ignored him and kept walking.

“Our passports!” Sean suddenly said.

Oh, that’s right. Our passports were on the dashboard of Himdad’s car. We would have to go back.

I turned around and braced myself. Himdad was running after us with our passports in his hand. Thank God he was a good sport about all of this. He could really have screwed us over.

“Thank you,” I said as Sean took the passports from Himdad. “Thank you.”

He smiled at us now, as though he understood and was over it.

Sean and I hopped in our new taxi at the very front of the line.

“Hello!” I said to the driver and shook his hand. “You aren’t smuggling anything, are you?”

“Eh?” he said as he shook his head in incomprehension. He didn’t speak any English. It didn’t matter. He knew what it meant when a fifty was waved in his face, and that’s what counted.

Two minutes later it was our turn to pull up to the customs house. That may have been the best fifty dollars I ever spent in my life.

A soldier gestured for me and Sean to get out. Another came over and spoke to us in perfect American English.

“Can I see what’s in your backpacks?” he said.

“Of course,” I said, elated that contraband was no longer in there.

“You speak excellent English,” Sean said.

“Well, I should,” the soldier said. “I’m from Long Island.”

“You’re from Long Island?” I said.

“Long Island, New York?” Sean said.

“Born and raised,” he said.

“What on earth are you doing here?” I said.

“I’m Turkish,” he said. “My parents are from here. I’m just doing my military service for my country.”

Technically his country is the United States, if that’s where he was born and raised. Perhaps, though, Turkey is one of those countries - like Ireland and Lebanon - where those living in the Diaspora feel an uncommonly strong bond with the mother country of their extended family.

The soldier from Long Island led me and Sean into the interrogation room. Every person who crosses the border is required to spend some quality time in there with the Turkish army. Amazingly, one of the other soldiers inside was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia.

These two were not all who Sean and I expected to meet in that room. I was worried about the colonel who understandably suspected that I was up to no good. Instead we were “interrogated” by two dudes from the West who looked like they would rather be shooting pool and drinking some beers.

“What it’s like down there in Iraq?” said the young man from Long Island. “Is it scary?”

“Well,” Sean said. “It’s actually kind of nice in the Kurdistan region.”

“It’s a lot nicer than most people expect,” I said. Neither Sean nor I wanted to explicitly say it’s better on the Iraqi side than it is on the Turkish side. Better, I thought, to give them the truth subtly so they wouldn’t think we were hostile or full of it.

We spent a long time in that interrogation room, drinking hot tea, laughing, and swapping stories with our new Turkish friends from the West. They were the absolute last people I expected to “grill” us. They seemed as happy to see as we were to see them.

“You guys better get going,” said the young Turkish soldier from Melbourne. “We’ve kept your driver waiting for a long time.”

“Oh that’s right,” Sean said. “Our poor driver.”

Our poor driver wasn’t the only one who suffered so we could socialize. The entire line of cars on the bridge had to just sit there.

We all shook hands warmly and said our goodbyes. I had a bounce in my step on the way back to the car. I could hardly believe how nicely our crossing turned out after how badly it started. The East is full of surprises.


Sean and I weren’t the only ones amazed by who we ran into in the ass-end of war-torn Turkish Kurdistan.

On the dark empty highway an armed Turkish military patrol pulled us off to the side of the road. We were never stopped on our way into Turkish Kurdistan. On the way out, though, the army wanted to know who everyone was and what they were doing.

I pulled the car over. Soldiers bearing rifles completely surrounded us. I rolled down the driver’s side window and reached for my passport. A uniformed officer barked something at me in Turkish. I didn’t understand any of it.

“Hello!” I said. “Do you speak English?”

He jerked his head backward, clearly startled, squinted his eyes, and said something else to me in Turkish.

All the soldiers wore deadly serious facial expressions and held their rifles ramrod straight across their chests. We could have been terrorists or gun-runners for the PKK, and they were not messing around.

I handed him my passport. “We’re Americans!” I said playing up the oblivious aw-shucks tourist persona for all it was worth. “How ya doin’?” Sean gave them all a big grin.


“Yeah, hey, what’s up?” Sean said.

The soldiers looked at each other, looked at me and Sean, looked at each other again, and busted out in big laughs all around. They just couldn’t believe two American tourists would be toodling around blasted-up Turkish Kurdistan, in the middle of the night, just a few miles from Syria and Iraq, in a rental car, with luggage piled up in the back, when five seconds before they were worried we could be terrorists.

The East is full of surprises.

We made it back to Istanbul on time. The only hitch was we got pulled over for "speeding" and were forced to give the traffic policeman fifty dollars in cash.

Sean went back to Copenhagen. I moved on to my next destination in the Middle East.

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. If I were independently wealthy I would do this solely for the love of it and for free. But I need money to cover expenses. The more I raise now the more of this kind of writing you’ll see in the future. Thanks so much for your support so far.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:17 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 17, 2006

Back to Iraq Part V – By Force of Sheer Will

This is the fifth installment in a Back to Iraq series which is basically a single long essay. Don’t miss Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

Dohok from Hotel.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

DOHOK, IRAQ - Sean and I walked up to the front steps of the Political Science building at Dohok University and lit up a couple of cigarettes. We had just arrived in Dohok, Iraqi Kurdistan, and we had no ride, no guide, and no translator. What better place to pick somebody up than where the young and the educated gather to study, to meet, and to hang out?

Thirty or forty sharply dressed young men and women loitered with backpacks slung over their shoulders and books under their arms. I figured we could stand there for a minute or two and see if anyone felt like approaching us. But no one did.

“Let’s go talk to that guy,” I said to Sean and gestured toward a garrulous-looking barrel-chested young Kurd wearing glasses and a tie and joking with friends. “He looks friendly enough.”

“Hello!” I said to the young man who would, in fact, be our guide later that day. “Do you speak English?”

He looked startled.

“Yes?” he said. “Can I help you?”

Heads turned all around at the sound of spoken English.

“Yes, hi,” I said and shook his hand. “We’re Americans here for the day. We just came over from Turkey. Someone was supposed to meet us at the border and pick us up, but we couldn’t find him. We’re hoping somebody here can tell us where we can go to hire a driver and translator.”

“Of course, come with me,” he said and led Sean and I through the front door. “A translator works on staff in this building.”

“Excellent,” Sean said.

“I’m Michael, by the way,” I said.

“And I’m Sean,” Sean said.

“Kiman,” he said and shook our hands again. “Welcome to Kurdistan.”

Kiman spoke to the receptionist just inside the door. As it turned out, she said, the department’s translator had the day off.

“Do you know where else we can find one?” I said to Kiman. Just then I noticed that a rather large crowd of students had gathered around. They looked at me and Sean like we were some weird cross between rock stars and zoo animals.

“I’m sorry,” Kiman said. “I don’t know that.”

“How about the press relations office of the KDP?” Dohok is a stronghold for Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party.

“I don’t know that either,” Kiman said. “I’ll tell you what. I have class in an hour. I’ll be free at 2:00. I can show you around myself after that if you like.”

That would mean Sean and I would have two hours without a guide. I looked at Sean.

“What do you think?” I said.

“I don’t know,” Sean said. “What do we do for two hours?”

“We could take a taxi downtown and go to the souk,” I said. “Then we can come back here and meet him.”

“Okay,” Sean said.

“Great,” I said to Kiman. “We’ll pay you the money we were going to pay the guy who was supposed to pick us up this morning.”

“No, no, no,” Kiman said. “You cannot give me money.”

“We were prepared to pay money anyway,” I said.

“You are my guests,” Kiman said. “I will be happy to show you around. What do you want to see?”

“Just the city,” Sean said. “We don’t know where we’re going and we don’t know what we’re looking at. I’m studying architecture and would love to see some new construction.”

Kiman, kind soul that he is, wouldn’t let us take a taxi downtown. He drove us himself in his brand-new SUV.

I leaned out the window and snapped a photo of the Kurdistan flag painted on the side of a mountain overlooking the city.

Kurdistan Flag Over Dohok.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“I have to ask,” Sean said. “I know what Mike says, but…are we safe here?”

“Um,” Kiman said. “Not really, no. You have to be very careful.”

What the hell? We weren’t safe in Dohok? Since when? The car was momentarily silent. I tried to figure out what to say to convince Sean that we were fine without acting like I knew Dohok better than someone who lived there.

Here, you are safe,” Kiman said, as though he realized what he just said could be misunderstood. “Dohok is safe. Kurdistan is safe. Just don’t go south.”

He dropped us off near the souk (pronounced seek in Kurdish) in front of an Internet café.

“I’ll meet you back here in two hours,” he said.

Sean and I said our thanks and goodbyes and wandered around downtown Dohok.

Dohok Souk.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

Although the aesthetic is different, the freshly constructed outskirts of Dohok are as modern as suburban Columbus, Ohio. Downtown is more interesting. It feels more authentically Middle Eastern, where the old and the new co-exist side by side. Older people wear traditional clothes while the younger dress more or less like Westerners. Brand-new cars share traffic with hand-pulled and donkey-towed carts.

Men in Dohok.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

I knew I would once again write about Iraqi Kurdistan. Sean planned to give a presentation at school about Iraqi Kurdistan’s architecture and reconstruction. But the truth is we went there mostly as tourists. So we did what tourists do. We took pictures of each other in our new far-flung location.

I look as exhausted as I felt in the picture below. Somehow Sean managed to look chipper and ready to go. (Probably because I did all the driving so far that day.)

Me in Dohok.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

Sean in Dohok.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

If we were going to shop in the souk we needed Iraqi money. So we walked up the front stairs in a hotel and asked the man behind the counter if we could buy some dinars from him. He ran the Kurdish Iraqi version of a family-run boutique hotel. It wasn’t as nice as the fake “Sheraton” in Erbil, but it sure beat the dump of a place run by the PUK in Suleimaniya, the inappropriately named Suli Palace.

Iraqi Money.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

The power went out and the man finished his sentence without hesitation as though nothing was wrong. Welcome to Iraq where this happens every day.

Finally Sean and I could sit down and eat a proper meal. We found (what else?) a kebab place.

“Welcome my cousins!” said the host as we walked in the door. He shook our hands and slapped us on the back. The restaurant was full. It appeared there was nowhere for us to sit. Whether we liked it or not, though, we were Americans and we got special treatment.

The host walked over to a table where two young men sat and kicked them out to make room.

"No!" Sean said.

"That isn't necessary," I said.

"Please, please, sit down," the host said.

"Do you want to join us?" Sean said to the guys who were given the boot.

"Please," I said and gestured for them to sit. There was room enough for four at the table. But they wouldn't have any of it, not because they didn't want to sit with other people but because they wanted to make sure we were comfortable. That made us uncomfortable. But that's how it goes in Iraqi Kurdistan.

We ordered two kebabs. The waiter brought eight, along with enough vegetables and hummus to feed half of Dohok. He only charged us for two. We could only eat three.

A large table cleared out and a gaggle of Peshmerga came in. Half the men in the restaurant stood up. Everyone in the restaurant greeted them warmly. It’s fascinating to watch the Peshmerga soldiers interact with local Kurdish Iraqi civilians. If anywhere in the world has a genuine People’s Army, this place is it. I’ve never seen such genuine heartfelt love for soldiers as I’ve seen in Northern Iraq.

Peshmerga in Dohok.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Sean and I still had another hour before it was time to meet Kiman. So we went to the grocery store.

Back to Mazi Mart.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Appliances in Mazi Mart.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

I could hardly believe I was back at the Mazi Mart. It's so incredibly normal in every way. Yet I've twice crossed the Middle East to go there and take pictures. Once again, I felt like a complete and utter goofball taking pictures of cartons of milk, sticks of margarine, boxes of Froot Loops, and thin cans of Red Bull. Everyone had to stare. What's so interesting about the grocery store that he has to take pictures?

Inside Mazi Mart Yet Again.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Because Americans are happy to see that Northern Iraq is a normal, reasonably prosperous place. Sean even took pictures of the laser scanner in the checkout line.

Mazi Mart Laser Scanner.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

We met two American soldiers in front of the store. They sat on a park bench outside. Iraqi Kurdistan is perfectly safe, so they did not carry guns. They did not wear body armor or helmets. (I foolishly did not catch their names. One wore a moustache, and I'll call him Mark. The other was blonde. I'll call him Jake.)

"Hey guys," Sean said.

"Ah, hey, what's up?" they said and stood up to shake our hands. "What are you guys doing here?"

"We're tourists," I said.

"No way," said Jake.

"Yep," Sean said. "We drove here for the day from Istanbul."

"I've been here before," I said, "as a journalist. I wanted to come back and Sean wanted to check it out. We had a few days, so what the hell."

"Where are you guys from?" Mark said.

"We're from Portland," Sean said. "Although Mike has been living in Beirut and I'm living and studying in Denmark."

"We're from Seattle," Jake said.

“My wife says Portland is having some pretty rough weather right now,” Mark said. How odd to hear a weather report about what’s going on at my house from a guy in Northern Iraq.

“Are you here on R and R?” I said.

“Yeah,” Jake said. “It’s a bit embarrassing right now because of what happened recently.”

“Why, what happened?” Sean said.

“Well, you know,” Jake said. “Lots of us come up here to take a break. A few guys don’t deal with decompression after combat quite as well as they should.”

“Can you tell us what happened?” I said.

Mark and Jake looked at each other.

“I’d rather not,” Mark said. “Just understand that only a small minority don’t know how to behave.”

Sean and I later decided we wished we had witnessed whatever bad behavior these guys were talking about. We might have been able to put a stop to it if we said Hey, knock that shit off at them in American English, especially if I said I'm a journalist. Then again, maybe not. I have no idea what it's like to freak out after combat. Perhaps it's a good thing we missed it.

“How’s it going down there, anyway?” Sean said.

“Are you optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between?” I said.

“I’m pretty impressed with the Iraqi army right now,” Mark said. “They’re coming along much better than we expected. They’re great. The police are another story, though.”

“They’re tribal and corrupt,” Jake said. “It's awful. There isn’t much anyone has been able to do about it yet.”

“The Kurds seem to like us,” Sean said. “What do the Arabs think?”

“It depends,” Mark said. “Some of them like us, some of them don’t. A lot of them are conflicted.”

“I understand where they’re coming from,” Jake said. “They’ve had enough of the occupation. But they’re afraid. I don’t blame them for being tired of us. When we drive our military convoys down a two-lane street we take up the whole road and force all the other cars to get out of our way. We do it because we have to, for our protection. But I hate having to do it. I don’t want to force people out of our way, and no one likes being forced out of our way.”

“The Kurds are farther along right now,” Mark said. “Some of the Arabs still don’t get the freedom and democracy thing like the Kurds do. I just want to say to them: Haven’t you seen what it’s like in the north? What, exactly, is it that you’re not understanding?”

I don't know central or southern Iraq. I have never been there. An article just appeared, though, at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting about the economic divide on each side of the Kurdistan line. As it turns out, huge numbers of Arab laborers are heading north where they can make more money and live in a more secure environment. They're taking low-end jobs that the Kurds of Iraq no longer want. Arab Iraq is now to Kurdish Iraq what Mexico is to the United States.

“You guys have one hell of a job,” I said.

“I just want to say thanks for what you’re doing here,” Sean said and shook both of their hands.

“Thanks, man,” Mark said. “I really appreciate your saying that.”

“We better go,” I said. “It’s time to meet Kiman downtown. A pleasure meeting you two,” I said to Mark and Jake. “You guys be safe down there.”

Sean and I hailed a taxi and went back to the Internet café near the souk. Kiman pulled up in his SUV at the exact moment we arrived.

“Hello my friends!” he said as he rolled down the passenger side window.

It's hard to convey what it's actually like meeting Iraqi Kurds. Fleshing out the dialogue doesn't capture the feel of it. Americans and Kurds don't just get along because we're temporary allies of convenience in the Middle East. The connection is deeper and personal. Kurdish culture and American culture might as well be from different planets. But somehow, oddly enough, Kurds think much like Americans do. Let me rephrase that: Americans think like the Kurds. We have similar values despite our extraordinarily different cultural backgrounds. I find it easier to develop a rapport with Iraqi Kurds than with people from any other country I have ever been to. It's instant, powerful, and totally unexpected.

Michael Yon noticed something similar a year ago.

Meetings with Iraqi Arabs sometimes seem more like talking with the French. We are not enemies. But, generally speaking, there is no real personal connection. At best, our collective personalities just don’t seem to “click.” Yet by recognizing the sovereignty and inevitability of each other, we manage to cooperate toward our common interests, while not going to war when we disagree. But with the Kurds, like the Poles or the Brits, there is an easy and audible click. We have mutual goals, mutual enemies, and, also importantly, we actually like each other.

I hopped in the back of Kiman's SUV and let Sean take the front. I had seen more of the city than he had.

“What do you want to go?” Kiman said.

“Well,” I said. “We’ve already seen downtown. How about some of the new neighborhoods on the outskirts?”

“I’m working on an Islamic architecture project at the university,” Sean said. “I realize the new construction around here isn’t necessarily Islamic. But it’s in an Islamic country and I should see it.”

“As you like,” Kiman said as we pulled away from the curb.

“Thanks so much again,” I said, feeling a bit awkward that I was going to pay someone for this service but now we had it for free.

Dohok is not a large city. Perhaps 750,000 people live there. Somehow it feels even smaller. I wouldn’t say it’s a backwater, but it’s not a cosmopolitan capital either. The more time I spend in the Iraqi Kurdistan cities of Suleimaniya and Dohok the more I think they really are so much like Utah.

Dohok from Hotel 2.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

“What do you think of George W. Bush?” Sean said to Kiman.

“He’s controversial,” Kiman said. “A lot of people don’t like him. But I don’t care about that. American presidents are all the same from our point of view. We love Bush for freeing us from Saddam, but we would love any American president.”

“How many hours of electricity do you get here in Dohok?” I said. The grid seemed a little more solid than what I was used to in Northern Iraq.

“We get about twelve hours a day,” Kiman said.

“Twelve hours!” I said. “That’s pretty good. In Erbil they only get two.”

“We buy it from Turkey,” Kiman said. “We’re supposed to get 24 hours, but we don’t.”

The new construction in Dohok is amazing. Aside from a few standard apartment buildings, almost all the new homes are, at least on the surface, comparable to middle class, upper-middle class, and even elite houses in the United States.

Big House in Dohok.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

Construction Site in Dohok.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

Dohok Apartment Building.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

Expensive House in Dohok.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

Glass Building in Dohok.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

It’s hard to write about Dohok because the place is so normal. Getting there is an adventure, but there is little adventure to be found after arrival. The most remarkable thing about the city is how unremarkable it is.

The first time I went there on a day trip from Erbil it seemed like such an innocent place. After seeing the rough hell of Turkish Kurdistan, though, and realizing that the Kurds in Iraq had it even worse under Saddam, it did not seem so innocent to me anymore. Iraqi Kurds struck me as deeply, profoundly, mature. It took so much work, blood, and sacrifice to build what they have. And they built it from nothing.

Iraq is the only country in the world where Kurds wield any power. They're ground down under the majoritarian boot everywhere else. For the most part they wield their power responsibly. Government corruption is still just atrocious, and they haven’t yet fully emerged from a traditional society into a completely liberal and modern one. A Kurdish journalist was recently thrown in prison after a fifteen minute show trial for blasting the KDP in a newspaper column. He was later released, but he’s not yet out of trouble. The Kurdish quasi-state wants to be liberal, but still doesn’t quite understand how or what that means.

Even so, they’ve made more progress in the region than anyone else except, perhaps, for the Lebanese and the Israelis. And they started a mere fifteen years ago from the bottom of Saddam’s mass graves. From the Mouth of Hell to…the Utah of the Middle East. By force of sheer will against extraordinarily long odds.

Sean and I passed through our last Peshmerga checkpoint in a taxi on the way back to the border at Zakho.

Peshmerga Checkpoint.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

We thought our adventure was over, that all we had left was a drive on the autobahn back to Istanbul. We should have known, though, that getting out of Iraq and back into Turkey would not be so easy. Even if we did know what a horrendous pain that process normally is, there was no way we could have predicted what lay ahead.

Read Part Six

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. I’d like to do a lot more traveling and writing in the future, but that's only possible if I can raise enough to cover the costs. Thanks so much for your support so far.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:13 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 16, 2006

Part Five Coming Soon

I'm still working on Back to Iraq Part Five. This installment is going to be a long one. I'm trying to get all the rest of my Iraq material (gathered in a mere couple of hours) into this entry.

In Part Six I'll describe what happened while trying to get out of Iraq. I should have known that wouldn't be as easy as getting in. But it was waaaaay more of an adventure (in the bad sense of the word) than I possibly could have predicted. It will be a lot more fun to write about than it was to experience...

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:08 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 13, 2006

Back to Iraq Part IV – From Zakho to Dohok

This is the fourth installment in a Back to Iraq series which is basically a single long essay. Don’t miss Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

ZAKHO, IRAQ - Sean and I arrived in Iraq with no ride. Our rental car was parked back in Turkey. We had no idea whether or not my fixer friend Birzo had arranged for someone to pick us up and take us into Dohok. There was no way to check my email to find out. If Birzo did send someone, where were we supposed to find him? No one was allowed to drive anywhere near the gate at the border.

We walked into the nearby city of Zakho to see if we could find someone who seemed to be looking for us. Zakho is a small town, but it's huge if you're looking for a complete stranger who may or may not be looking for you.


Night photo of Zakho, Iraq copyright Mesoud Guli 2003

The first time I arrived in Northern Iraq, at the airport in Erbil, I tried to blend in as much as possible. Iraq wasn't a place where I wanted to look like an obvious American, even if it was Iraqi Kurdistan. This time, though, I tried to radiate as much Americanism as possible. Hey! Look at us! We're Americans! Is anyone around here looking for two Americans who need a ride?

More than a dozen people approached us.




"Someone is picking us up," Sean said, even though we didn't know if that really was true. It could have been true.

Not a single person spoke any English. But they seemed intrigued and excited when they found out we were Americans.

One man led us over to a Peshmerga soldier standing guard next to a gate.

"Hello?" the Peshmerga said. "You speak English?"

"Yes," I said. "Hello."

"Where are you from?" he said a bit coldly.

"We're Americans," I said.

His eyes turned to saucers. "Americans! Welcome!" he said. "How can I help you?"

"I think someone is supposed to pick us up and take us into Dohok," Sean said. "But we don't know where to find him."

"Is there a place where people usually meet their rides on this side of the border?" I said.

"I don't know," the soldier said. "But the American military is here. Perhaps they can help you."

He led us through the gate and across a parking lot next to a restaurant. "Over there," he said and gestured around a corner. "Walk that way and you will find your fellow Americans."

Sean and I started walking.

"Huh," I said to Sean. "I didn't meet any American soldiers when I was here before. This should be interesting."

We walked past some parked civilian cars toward a compound of some sort. A pink-faced twenty-something who looked like a grown-up Iowa farm boy leaned over the engine of a truck under a propped-up hood with a wrench in his hand.

"Hey, man," Sean said.

"Ah, hey guys," he said as though there was nothing remotely unusual about two unshaven Americans with backpacks ambling on over. "What's up?"

"We just got here from Turkey," I said. "Someone is supposed to pick us up, but we don't know where to find him. Is there Internet access anywhere around here? If I can check my email there might be more detailed instructions waiting for us."

"Hmm," he said. "There used to be a wireless Internet cafe around here, but they closed it down a couple of days ago." Who they were wasn't clear.

"I'm Michael, by the way," I said.

"And I'm Sean," Sean said.

"Tony," he said and shook my hand like he wanted to break it. "Good to meet you guys."

Sean shook his hand.

"There's a restaurant right over there," Tony said and pointed. "Lots of people meet up there when they come over the border."

"Perfect," I said. "We'll check it out. Thanks!"

Sean and I walked to the restaurant and looked around for anyone who looked like they might be looking for somebody else. A waiter brought us some tea. We tried to look as obvious as humanly possible, making eye contact with everyone, etc. After twenty minutes or so we decided it would be best to find a taxi. In just a few hours we would have to go back to Turkey. We didn't have all day to wait around for someone who might not even show up.

I tried to pay the waiter who brought us our tea, but he flatly refused to take any money.

"Sozpas," I said and put my hand over my heart.

Sean and I walked up to the taxi stand outside.

"Choni," I said as we approached a group of men standing around. "Does anyone here speak English?"

"I speak English," a man said. "Do you need a taxi?"

"Please," Sean said. "We want to go to Dohok."

"Any of these men can take you," the man said. Twelve or so guys looked at us with hope.

"Do any of them speak English?" I said. "We would like to hire a driver all day who can also act as a guide."

"I don't think so," the man said. "They only speak Kurdish and Arabic." He addressed all the drivers in Kurdish. Presumably he asked if any spoke English. None apparently did.

The boldest of the drivers stepped forward. He appeared to be around sixty years old and wore a black and white keffiyeh on his head.

"Let's just go with him," Sean said.

"Where do you want to go?" the English-speaking stranger said.

"Dohok," Sean said.

"Where in Dohok?"

"Um," I said. "Let's go to Dohok University. We should be able to find somebody there who speaks English who we can hire as a translator and guide for the day."

"Okay," Sean said.

"Thank you so much," I said to the man who helped us out.

"Welcome to Kurdistan," he said as he waved goodbye.

We hopped in the back of the taxi. The driver spoke to us in Kurdish. We tried talking to him in English. It didn't work out.

"La etkellem Kirdi katir," I said. I don't speak much Kurdish. I said it in Arabic. Our driver smiled and shrugged.

He drove us for five minutes on the four-lane highway toward Dohok and Mosul. Then he abruptly turned off onto a minor road into the wilderness.

Sean elbowed me. "Is this the right way?" he said under his breath. "This doesn't look good."

"I don't know," I said. "I've never driven from Zakho to Dohok before."

I hated to agree with Sean about this, but I did. It didn't look good. Where the hell was he taking us?

"Don't we want the main road?" Sean said to the driver, even though it was useless. We had no language in common. At least that freed us to talk about him amongst ourselves.

"How much should we trust him?" Sean said. "You told me we can be kidnapped in this country for only one thousand dollars."

"That only happens down in the red zone," I said. "No one ever gets kidnapped in Kurdistan."

I knew that was true. But it did not make me happy that we already had a reason to have that conversation. I do trust the Kurds. But showing up in even the safest part of Iraq is enough to get my survival instinct dialed all the way up to eleven. It must have been many times worse for Sean who had not even been there yet for an hour.

"What do we do if he takes us to a bad place?" Sean said.

Hell if I knew. Fight him, I guess. It would be too late, though, once we figured out that such a thing would be necessary.

"Just make sure he sticks to the mountains," I said. "Mosul is down in the plains. As long as this road hugs the mountains, we're still on the way to Dohok."

I was annoyed at myself for feeling paranoid. I was the one who had earlier said We can hitchhike in Northern Iraq.

A half-hour later our driver took us back on the main road at a Peshmerga checkpoint. He turned the car toward the mountains, toward Dohok. Not toward the plains. Not toward the dangerous red zone and Mosul.

"I guess that was a shortcut," Sean said.

"I guess so," I said. "He's fine. We're fine."

As we pulled up to the checkpoint our driver said something in Kurdish to the Peshmerga. I heard the word "Americhi." American. The soldier waved us on through.

Two minutes later we arrived at the gate to the University of Dohok on the outskirts of the city where, hopefully, we could meet some new friends. We needed a guide. I spent all of four hours in Dohok the first time I went to Iraqi Kurdistan. I could not be our guide for the day. I didn't know my way around at all.

This was the Middle East. And it was the land of the Kurds. People would help us. All we had to do was show up.

Sean and I stepped out of the car, paid our man twenty dollars, and walked toward the front door of the main building where sharply dressed young men and women gathered around.

Read Part Five.

Post-script: Parts Five and Six, including more photos, are coming soon. If you enjoy this travelogue, please hit my tip jar. I am not independently wealthy and I can only afford to write this sort of thing if I’m paid. Many thanks for your support so far.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:59 PM | Permalink | Comments Off
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