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 April 17, 2006 4:13 PM
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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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