April 13, 2006

Men With Guns

Recently I wrote about some mysterious armed military irregulars in the Kurdish city of Civre in Eastern Turkey. I didn't know who they were. To recap:

“Sean, do me a favor?” I said. “Can you hold my camera at the window and just start taking pictures? I don’t care of they’re photogenic. Just document what this place looks like.”

“Sure,” Sean said and rolled down his window. He snapped pictures of the town as I drove.

Sean looked off to the side. I looked straight ahead.

“Quick, put down the camera,” I said. “Don’t take a picture of those guys.”

Just up ahead in traffic a flatbed truck was loaded down with armed men who looked like guerillas. They wore keffiyehs on their heads. Only Arabs and Kurds wear keffiyehs. Turks never do, at least none that I’ve ever seen. These guys were heavily armed and sloppily dressed. They obviously were not Turkish military. I don’t know if they were PKK or what, but they sure looked like trouble.

A Kurdish journalist friend of mine in Erbil, Iraq sent me an email that might explain who they were.
You asked about these mysterious heavily armed gunmen in the truck in front of your car, wearing Keffiyehs.

I know who the hell are they.

They were what Kurds in general call Jash (or donkeys). These are very well paid Kurdish mercenaries that the Turkish government use against the PKK. Many Turkish soldiers aren’t well trained (in most cases don’t have the courage) to fight a guerrilla war in the uncontrollable Kurdish mountains, so to save the life of their soldiers, the Turks have hired, benefiting from their joblessness and poverty because all their villages and businesses have been destroyed, some local Kurds and paid them very well so that they fight the PKK on their behalf. So the Turkish government kinda used also the poverty policy then blame all on the PKK.

During the eighties of the past century Saddam’s regime did the same. Hired locals, most escapees from military service, and gave them money and arms to fight the Peshmergas. But after the 1991 uprising all of the Iraqi Kurdish Jash failed Saddam and helped the Peshmergas as they liberated the Iraqi Kurdistan towns and cities one after one.

Back to Iraq Part IV will be posted as soon as it's written.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:48 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 12, 2006

Gaius, Meet the World

PORTLAND, OREGON -- I need one day off blogging. So we interupt this Iraq report to introduce our new baby Siamese kitten Gaius, who just arrived in our house today, to the rest of the world. (He has no idea he's on the Internet.)



UPDATE: I suppose someone is going to ask me how we came up with the name Gaius. So I might as well deal with that here.

Well, Reginald wasn't going to work and Horace was right out. My wife and I both agreed on that much from the beginning.

I met a Turk who named his cat Jeff, and I thought that was pretty cool - but only if you're a Turk. Jeff did inspire us to give our cat a foreign name, though.

I wanted to name the little guy Fulgencio. A cat deserves a strong name. But Shelly just couldn't imagine standing at the back door and calling out Fulgencio, Fulgencio until the cat came in the house. Too many syllables. Mustafa would have been funny, but only if the cat had a moustache, which he doesn't and won't. Gaius was pretty much the only name left after all that.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:45 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 11, 2006

Back to Iraq Part III – The Kurdish Disaster

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

TURKISH KURDISTAN - Sean and I dragged our sorry, exhausted, and malnourished selves to the car at 6:30 in the morning just a few hours northwest of the Turkish-Iraqi border. For the first time we had a look at our surroundings in daylight.

Turkish Kurdistan is a disaster. It is not where you want to spend your next holiday.

One village after another has been blown completely to rubble.

Destroyed Kurdish Village in Turkey.jpg

Destroyed Kurdish Village in Turkey 2.jpg

The Turkish equivalent of roadside Kurdish strip malls have also been blown to pieces, by tank shells, air strikes, or what I could not say.

War Damage Turkish Kurdistan.jpg

Military bunkers, loaded with sand bags and bristling with mounted machine guns, were set up all over the place. Helicopters flew overheard. An army foot patrol marched alongside the highway. Twenty four soldiers brandished rifles across their chests. I slowed the car down as we approached so I would not make them nervous. I could see the whites of their eyes as they stared, deadly serious, at me and Sean. It's too bad neither one of us could take pictures. But we didn't dare. Those soldiers were not just hanging out and they were not messing around.

The civil war in Eastern Turkey didn’t look anything like it was over. I could tell just from driving on through that the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) was still active. How else to explain the full-on siege by the army? The Turks’ treatment of Kurds has been horrific since the founding of the Republic. But the PKK seems hell-bent on matching the Turks with the worst they can muster, including the deliberate murder of Kurdish as well as Turkish and foreign civilians.

The violence is getting worse right now, not better. I would have interviewed people on both sides of this conflict if I had the time. But I didn’t. All I can do right now is link to other reports and tell you about what Sean and I saw from the car.

For a while the highway ran alongside the Syrian border. Turkey walled off the deranged Baathist regime of Hafez and Bashar with a mile-wide swath of land mines wrapped in barbed wire and marked with skulls and crossbones. At one point we could look right into a Syrian town in the distance where Kurds lived in possibly worse conditions than even in Turkey. The Baath stripped Syrian Kurds of their citizenship in the town pictured below for the “crime” of not being Arab.

Looking into Syria from Turkey.jpg

From a distance it appears that the biggest problem in the Middle East is Islamism. That’s probably because Islamism is the worst of the Middle East’s exported problems. Up close, though, the biggest source of conflict seems to be ethnic nationalism. The crackup of the Ottoman Empire has still not settled down into anything stable. Arab nationalism, Turkish nationalism, Kurdish nationalism, and Zionism everywhere create bloody borders and internal repression. And that’s just for starters. Lebanese went at other Lebanese for fifteen long years. Arab Sunni and Arab Shia are slugging it out in Iraq right now as you read this.

Sean was able to sneak a photo of a small Turkish military lookout point on the top of a hill.

Turkish Lookout in Kurdistan.jpg

That was the best we could do without getting pulled off the road and interrogated.

Some Kurdish villages in Turkey still stood. Every one of them, though, looked grim compared to many of those I had seen earlier in Northern Iraq.

Squalid Kurdish Village in Turkey.jpg

The only places in Turkish Kurdistan that looked pleasant were those where no people lived, where there was no dug-in military, where there was no visible poverty, where there were no blown up buildings, and where you did not look across minefields toward Syria on the horizon.

Turkish Kurdistan Countryside.jpg

Sean and I soon came upon the city of Civre that straddled the Tigris River on its winding way to Iraq. I was glad we didn’t spend the night there. It didn’t look like a war zone, as the countryside did, but it did look like a sketchy and miserable place.

“Sean, do me a favor?” I said. “Can you hold my camera at the window and just start taking pictures? I don’t care of they’re photogenic. Just document what this place looks like.”

“Sure,” Sean said and rolled down his window. He snapped pictures of the town as I drove.

Civre 1.jpg

Civre 2.jpg

Civre 3.jpg

Civre 4.jpg

Civre 5.jpg

Housing Blocks in Civre.jpg

Sean looked off to the side. I looked straight ahead.

“Quick, put down the camera,” I said. “Don’t take a picture of those guys.”

Just up ahead in traffic a flatbed truck was loaded down with armed men who looked like guerillas. They wore keffiyehs on their heads. Only Arabs and Kurds wear keffiyehs. Turks never do, at least none that I’ve ever seen. These guys were heavily armed and sloppily dressed. They obviously were not Turkish military. I don’t know if they were PKK or what, but they sure looked like trouble. A military helicopter hovered over another part of the city.

We drove slowly over the Tigris.

Tigris in Turkey.jpg

Every driver in oncoming traffic nervously stared at us. The vibe on the streets was palpably paranoid even from inside the car. It’s so easy to misunderstand what’s going on in a foreign country, especially when you don’t walk around and talk to people. I didn’t know what the real story was. But whatever it was, it wasn’t good.


Sean and I left the rental car and our non-essential luggage in a parking lot near the customs gate on our way into Iraq. We stuffed everything we needed - passports, cash, phone number lists, etc. - into our backpacks and started walking. I sure hoped my old fixer Birzo sent somebody to pick us up. We had long been out of email contact, however, and there was no way to know until we got to the other side.

As we approached the first building we were instantly mobbed by a crowd of men.



“You need a taxi.”

“We’re walking across,” Sean said.

“You can’t walk across,” a man said. “Give me your passports.” He stuck out his hand. “Come on, give me your passports.”

“Who are you?” I said in my don’t-fuck-with-me voice as I sized him up head to toe. He smelled distinctly like trouble.

“I'm a police officer,” he said.

Liar, I thought. Did he think we were stupid? He wore shabby clothes, not an officer’s uniform. And he had the obvious personality of a shake-down artist and braying carpet shop tout.

“Come with me,” he said.

I trusted that he knew the border procedure, but I would not hand him my passport. He led me and Sean into a small room in a trailer where a real police officer sat at a desk. The officer asked for our passports. We handed them over, he wrote down our names, then handed our passports back.

“Here,” our ‘guide’ said. “Get in this taxi.” He opened the back door of a yellow taxi.

“Why,” I said.

“Just get in,” Sean said, clearly annoyed with my resistant attitude. He got in the back. I climbed in after him. Two strangers, both of them men, hopped in as well. One man had horrible pink scars all over his face and his hands.

“Why do we need a taxi?” I said. “I’d rather walk.”

“No one can walk across this border, my friend,” our fake-policeman-driver-guide said. “It will cost fifty dollars.”

Fifty dollars?” I said. “For what? For a one-minute drive down the street? Come on.”

Sean put his hand on my shoulder. He was feeling much more patient than me. “Did you notice what happened back there?” he said to me quietly.

“No,” I whispered. “What did I miss?” I was a cranky sleep-deprived zombie.

“We jumped to the front of the line and no one complained.”

He was right. There was a huge line of people waiting for taxis. Mr. Fake Police Officer Man yanked us right to the front. I decided to cut him some slack. Yes, he was ripping us off. But he was also speeding us up.

We pulled up to the side of a building. The man with the horrible pink scars on his face got out.

“Follow that man,” our driver said. “He knows what to do.”

We followed him to a drive-thru type window and handed our passports to the border official. He stamped us out of the country and we were set.

“Do you know why that man’s face looks like that?” Sean said on our way back to the taxi.

“No,” I said. “Do you?”

“He's Iraqi," Sean said. "Those scars are burns from chemical weapons. I’ve seen photos online. I know that’s what happened to him.”

We drove through a post-industrial wasteland of devastated buildings, piles of scrap metal and box cars, an unfinished international highway, and derelict drive-thru gates that presumably were closed after the Saddam regime's batshit behavior required a long-ago shutdown of the Turkish side of the border. After a quick hop over a one-way bridge we were inside Iraq. The Iraqi side was cleaner, more orderly, more prosperous, and far more soft on the eyes than the Turkish side. I wish I could have taken some pictures for contrast. I swear it felt like the sun came out and the birds started chirping as we left Eastern Turkey behind.

A Peshmerga guard stood in front of the customs house wearing a crisp professional uniform.

“Choni!” I said. Hello, in Kurdish.

Everyone in the car flashed him our passports. He smiled and waved us past a sign that said "Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan Region."

Inside the immigration office a bad Syrian soap opera played on TV. Sean and I were told to sit down in the waiting area after we turned in our passports at the front desk. A young man brought us overflowing glasses of hot sticky brown tea on little plates with dainty spoons.

"Well," Sean said as he flicked his eyes around the room. "We're here."

A portrait of Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani hung on the wall.


I knew I would go back to Iraqi Kurdistan. But I could hardly believe I was back there already.

The customs boss came out from behind the desk and walked up to me and Sean.

"What do you guys do?" he said. "Are you NGOs?"

"You won't believe me when I tell you," I said.

He raised his eyebrows.

"We're tourists," I said.

He laughed. "Welcome to Kurdistan! How long do you want to stay?"

"We're just here for the day," Sean said.

He laughed again. "How long will you be here, really?" he said. "Two weeks? A month?" He spread out his hands.

“I swear to God,” I said, “we are going back to Turkey today. I've been here before. Sean hasn't. We were just in the area and I want to show him Dohok."

He smirked at us, indicating he was willing to play along with what he thought was a ruse. "Welcome," he said. "Welcome."

"Sozpas," I said. Thank you, in Kurdish.

"Thank you," Sean said.

“You need to learn Kurdish” the man said to Sean. “Your friend will teach you Kurdish!”

“We’re only going to be here for one day,” I reminded him. He laughed and shook his head. “I only know a few words of Kurdish myself.”

"What else can you say?" he said.

"Choni. Nosh," I said. Hello and Cheers. "A few other things."

He grinned and patted both of us on the back. “Welcome, my American friends!” he said. “Have a wonderful time while you’re here.”

The whole thing was just weird. I don’t quite know how to convey how surreal it is to leave a country that maybe, just maybe, might join the European Union and enter a country that is a poster-child for wrenching war-torn catastrophe and have everything around me dramatically improve all at once. But that's how it goes these days when you cross into Iraq from Turkey. Even though Sean had never been there before, he, like me, breathed a sigh of relief at our arrival in a tranquil place at peace with itself.

Read Part Four.

Post-script: If you enjoy these travelogues and if you've learned something new, 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 11:10 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 10, 2006

Back to Iraq Part II – The Anatolian Deathmarch

This is the second installment of a Back to Iraq series. Read the first installment here.

ANATOLIA, TURKEY - Sean and I woke at first light and headed south from Canakkale toward the ancient ruins of Troy. We wouldn’t have time to hang out in Troy, though, or anywhere else for that matter, if we wanted to make it all the way to Iraq and back to Istanbul on time.

The air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror that came with the rental car was designed to ward off the Evil Eye. Similar, yet more elaborate, designs were frequently painted on the backs of large trucks.

Turkish Evil Eye.jpg

We weren’t in the car for even a half-hour before we saw the turnoff to Troy.

“We have to stop,” Sean said.

“No time,” I said.

“It’s Troy!” Sean said. “We can’t just drive past it.”

I pulled off the road and turned the car toward Troy. Vicious dogs ran straight at the car. If I hadn’t slammed on the breaks I would have killed them. This happened over and over again while driving through Turkey.

We parked outside Troy and paid 20 or so dollars to get in.

“Hurry,” I said to Sean. “Grab your camera and go.”

Sean ran toward the "Trojan Horse" erected out front. I ran after him and snapped a quick picture.

Trojan Horse.jpg

“Run,” Sean said.

We ran - literally - through the ruins of Troy in ten minutes.

Ruins of Troy.jpg

It’s amazing how small the place is. Such a tiny little town, no bigger than a dinky modern-day village, left an imprint on history and literature all out of proportion to its actual size. Too bad we had no time whatsoever to contemplate any of it.

We ran back to the car. I damn near killed the dogs again on the way back to the main road. Do they snarl and charge straight at every car that drives past? It’s a wonder they’re still alive.

I unfurled the brand-new map we picked up from a Tourist Info office. It looked like the best bet was to drive down to the Aegean Coast toward Izmir.

We drove toward Izmir as fast as the coastal road would allow. The Aegean sprawled out on our right.

Aegean from Turkey.jpg

Wow, I thought. What a view. That’s Greece on the other side of the water. It was also discouraging, though. Sean and I were looking at Greece. And we needed to get to Iraq as quickly as possible. Iraq was more than a thousand miles away.

The road to Izmir was a nightmare of slow-moving traffic around bends in the road and through coastal resorts. We drove for almost half a day and we still hadn’t made it to Izmir. Izmir was maybe five percent of the way to Iraq. There was no way we could make it to Iraq on time at the speed.

“Shit,” I said. “We need to head inland and get off this road.”

“The mountains will kill us," Sean said.

“The coast is killing us. We have to chance it.”

I turned off and headed into the heart of Anatolia. At first the road was encouraging. Then we got stuck behind truckers doing 20 miles an hour.

“Told you this was a bad idea," Sean said.

“The coast was a bad idea, too,” I said. “We’re pretty much screwed no matter what.”

We drove into hard driving rain, which slowed us down even more. I wanted to blow up slow trucks with a rocket launcher. Get out of the way, get out of the way, we're making terrible time! Eventually the rain cleared and revealed a punishing road toward a gigantic mountainous wall.

Huge Turkish Mountains.jpg

“Oh my God!” Sean said. “We should never have turned inland.”

He was right. I screwed up, but it was too late.

“We’ll head back to the coast when we can,” I said.

We didn’t make it back to the coast until dark. This time we were on the Mediterranean. Rain washed over the road in broad sheets. Almost no progress at all toward Iraq had been made.


Sean and I woke up in a hotel room with a virus. My throat burned when I swallowed. My entire body, from the top of my head to the bottoms of my feet, was wracked with a terrible fever ache. We had so far to go and almost no time to do it. At least we were out of the punishing mountains.

But we were back on the punishing coast. A twisty little road hugged the shore which rose up so sheer from the Mediterranean it was impossible to drive more than 30 miles an hour.

Turkish Coast.jpg

“Now you see why I wanted to get off the coast!” I said.

Sean nodded silently. There was no way to win. You just can’t drive across Turkey in a normal amount of time unless you take the autobahn from Istanbul toward Ankara. We were so far from that road, though, it was very near hopeless.

I tried to sleep in the passenger seat while Sean took the wheel. There would be no more stopping to sleep in hotels. We would have to drive straight for the rest of the trip.

The food we were eating was terrible. There was no time to stop in proper restaurants. We had soft drinks, potato chips, and other crap from convenience stores. We tried to pop into a little food stall at night. Then we saw what was being cooked on a stove in bubbling cauldrons and walked right back out the door.

"I can't deal with that right now," I said.

"It looks like Orc food," Sean said.

An old man stood by the side of the road selling bananas in troglodyte country where some people lived in caves tunneled into the ground and the cliffs.

"Want some bananas?" I said.

"Yes!" Sean said.

I pulled off the road. "Quick, get those bananas," I said.

Sean rolled down the window and handed the old man a dollar. The old man gave us bananas. Real food at last.

We passed through great-looking towns that I could not tell you the names of. Turkey is packed with wonderful places that hardly anyone in the States ever hears about.

Turkish Coastal Town 1.jpg

Turkish Coastal Town 2.jpg

The virus was killing me

“We need a pharmacy,” I said.

“No time to stop,” Sean said.

“If we’re going to drive all day and all night we can’t be feeling like this," I said. "We’ll drive off the road and kill both of us.”

We stopped at a pharmacy and bought medicine.

We also stopped at an Internet café. Sean and I wouldn’t be able to take our rental car across the border into Iraq. We needed someone to pick us up and take us to Dohok. So I sent an email to one of my fixers and tried to hire him for the next day. I asked him to please send someone else to meet us if he wouldn’t be able to do it himself.

Sean and I got back in the car. A few hours later we could stop at another Internet café, check the email again, and continue to work on our Iraqi logistics. We didn't yet know that there would be no more Internet cafes.

I felt amazingly irresponsible trying to put an Iraqi itinerary together at the last second from the road while sick with no time.

“If no one picks us up,” I said to Sean, “we'll have to hitchhike or flag down a taxi.”

“Hitchhike in Iraq?” Sean said.

“Sure,” I said. “It’s the Kurds in Northern Iraq. They’re cool.”

Sean didn’t say anything. I knew how dubious what I suggested must have sounded to him.

“Are you okay with that?" I said. "Will you cross the border if no one is there to pick us up? We'll figure something out. Trust me. Trust the Kurds. Trust the universe. We’ll be fine.”

“Alright,” Sean said. We else could we do?

We continued the punishing drive on the coast, in the rain, malnourished, sleep-deprived, and wracked with a terrible illness. It was unspeakable.

"Holy shit, look at that!" Sean said as we drove past some hotels on the side of the road.

"What?" I said.

"A sea castle," Sean said. "Wait, you'll see it again in a second."

"Holy shit!" I said and pulled off to the side of the road.

An otherworldly sea castle appeared to literally float off the coast of the Mediterranean. I had never even heard of this thing.

Turkish Sea Castle 1.jpg

Turkish Sea Castle 2.jpg

"Wow," Sean said. "Look what they have. This country is just amazing."

"Yep," I said. "We need to come back here and visit it properly."

"Let's go, let's go," he said. "It's getting dark."

It was, indeed, getting dark. The cold medicine we bought at the pharmacy seemed to have no effect. We were both sick as dogs and had no time to stop at a hotel to sleep.

BANG. We got a flat tire. I pulled onto the shoulder.

"So much for Iraq," Sean said.

"Wait," I said. "We might have a spare."

I popped the trunk. We did, indeed, have a spare. It was a real spare tire, too, not one of those bullshit spare tires that you can't drive more than 30 miles an hour on. The only problem was we had no jack.

Sean and I walked across the road and ducked into a store where a man sold yard tools. The store owner did not speak a word of English. Darkness was falling. Sean drew a picture of a blown out tire on a pad of paper. The man indicated he didn't sell tires. I grabbed the pad of paper and drew a picture of a car propped up on a jack.

The man called a friend of his who showed up on a motorcycle with a car jack. Without saying a word or even looking at us he jacked up our car and changed the tire for us in two minutes. I handed our savior twenty dollars.

"Thank you so much!" I said. He rode away on his bike.

And we were off. The whole flat tire incident only took half an hour. What incredible luck. We just might make it to Iraq after all.


We drove all night, taking turns at the wheel in the dark. At some point we finally left the Levant and approached inland Turkish Kurdistan. Most of the traffic on the road had slacked off. It was mostly just us and some truckers. Towns grew poorer and farther apart. Syria was only a few miles off to our right. Turkey didn't look remotely like Europe any more. We were deep in the Middle East now.

"I can't drive anymore," Sean said. "You have to do it."

I got behind the wheel and drove as far as I could until 3:00 in the morning.

"You have to drive now," I said. "I'm going to go off the road if I drive any farther."

"I can't drive anymore," Sean said.

I stopped the car and got out. My teeth instantly chattered. It was absolutely frigid outside. If we napped on the side of the road we would shake inside our coats.

"We can't sleep now," I said as I got back in the car. "You have no idea how cold it is here. We need to find a hotel."

But we were in the absolute middle of nowhere. Even though it was dark, I could tell we were in the desert. All I could see were rocks and scrub in the headlights.

I drove, slowly so I would not kill us. We found a Turkish trucker motel. What looked like 900 trucks were outside.

"I'm stopping here," I said.

"I don't want to spend the night with a bunch of loud truckers," Sean said. The parking lot was awfully loud.

"There's nothing else out here," I said. "It's either the truckers, the cold, or I kill us on the side of the road."

We went into the trucker motel in the middle of the Turkish wasteland on the road to Iraq. It was exactly as grim inside as you would expect. A twitchy man on the night shift checked us into a room.

"Sozpas," I said. Thank you, in Kurdish.

"Are you sure you're speaking the right language?" Sean said. "Are we really in Kurdistan?"

"I don't know," I said. "I think so, but I'm not sure. Anyway, he did not seem offended."

It was four o'clock in the morning. We set our alarm clocks for six. Two hours later we woke. I felt exhausted and needed to sleep for a week. My eyes burned from the light. But I felt great at the same time. My fever had broken. It was time to head into Iraq.

Read Part Three.

Post-script: If you like what I write, don't forget to pitch in. These stories don't write themselves.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:41 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 9, 2006

Back to Iraq – Part One

GALLIPOLI PENNINSULA, WESTERN TURKEY - My recent trip to Turkey wasn’t my first, but my friend Sean LaFreniere - whom I flew from Beirut to Istanbul to meet - had never been there before. So I let him decide our itinerary. He wanted to see Gallipoli and Troy, even though Izmir has better ruins than Troy. We didn’t have time to drive all the way down to Izmir on a brief three-day trip, though. So Troy it was.

I have known Sean most of my life. I should have known, then, that it’s impossible for us to rent a car in a foreign country and only drive a few hours. We ended up more than a thousand miles and a whole world away from where we innocently planned to visit over the weekend.

We hurtled down the highway from Istanbul to Gallipoli and argued about whether Turkey was Eastern or Western. Sean said it was Western. I played Devil’s Advocate and said it was Eastern. (What I really think is that it’s neither and both. It isn’t Eastern or Western. It’s Turkey.)

“Remember, Sean,” I said. “This country borders Greece and Bulgaria. But it also borders Iraq.”

I could all but hear the gears turn in his head.

“That’s right,” he said and put his hand over his mouth. “Holy shit, we could drive to Iraq.”

I knew the instant he said it that we would, indeed, drive to Iraq. Who cares about Troy when we could drive to Iraq?

He did not yet know what I knew. I had just flown over Anatolia in an airplane on a clear day. All of Turkey east of the Bosphorous ripples with mountains. And when I say mountains, I mean mountains. Huge, steep, snow-covered monsters that rise up from the earth and the sea like giant rock walls. Turkey is a miniature continent unto itself. (Hence the name Asia Minor.) You can’t blow through that land in a car like you can if you stick to I-5 in California.

Anatolia Mountains.jpg

Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere

I wanted to do it, though. Badly. How many people have ever decided to spontaneously make a road trip to Iraq from Europe for one day as a tourist after they were already in the car and driving the wrong direction toward Greece instead of the Tigris? We had no visas. No map. No plan. And no time. Sean had to be back in Copenhagen in three days for final exams. Pulling this off would be very nearly impossible. Nothing appealed to me more.

I pulled off the road and stopped the car so I could think.

“We’re going to make this work,” I said.


I called my wife Shelly and told her what we were up to. I also called a friend of mine who works on the Council of Ministers in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Would it be possible for us to get tourist visas on arrival at the border?

“Michael!” he said, disappointed that I even asked. “You know the Kurds won’t give you any problems.”

“Sorry,” I said. “The border is more than a thousand miles away. I don’t want to drive all the way over there in Winter unless I’m sure we can get in.”

“Of course you can get in,” he said. “You are always welcome in Kurdistan.”

“Can I call you from the border if we have any problems?” I said.

“Michael!” he said. “We will not give you any trouble. The only people who might give you trouble are Turks.”

I didn’t think the Turks would care if or how we left Turkey. They might care once we tried to come back, but Sean and I already had multiple-entry visas. We decided to drive all night if we had to and not bother getting hotel rooms. So it looked like we were set.

It dawned on Sean that we were actually going to Iraq, even if it was the Kurdistan region. We were no longer talking about it, but doing it.

“Would you take your wife there?” he said.

“Of course,” I said. “It’s really not dangerous. Shelly wished she could have gone with me when I went there before.”

It was a minor drag that we couldn’t see much of Turkey except from the car. Gallipoli (Gelibolu in Turkish) isn’t the most interesting place in the country, but it was the site of a crucial World War I battle and the inspiration for one of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s most moving speeches.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives...you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie, side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.
The only thing we didn’t have that we needed was a decent map and a decent night’s sleep.

We crossed the Dardanelles by ferry and landed on the Asian shore in the charming town of Canakkale.


Gallipoli was just on the other side of the water. Big guns from the battle made a set piece downtown.

Gallipoli Guns.jpg

I asked the clerk at the hotel desk if he knew a place where I could buy a map.

He didn't. I wasn’t surprised. Maps are generally harder to find in the East, and it’s weird how many people do not know how to read them.

“Do you have any idea what’s the best road to take to get to Turkish Kurdistan?” I said. Sean and I did have a map, we just couldn’t tell from the small granularity which was the best route.

“I don’t like Kurds,” the clerk said.

“What’s wrong with Kurds?” Sean said.

“I don’t like their culture,” he said and twisted his face. “They’re dirty and stupid.”

Sean and I just looked at him and blinked. He seemed like such a sweet kid when he checked us into the hotel.

I had a brief flashback to a conversation I had with a Kurd in Northern Iraq a few weeks before. Istanbul is a great city, my Kurdish friend said. The only problem is it’s full of Turks.

“What do you think of Arabs?” Sean said.

“Eh,” the clerk said. “We don’t like them in Turkey. We have the same religion, but that’s it. They cause so many problems. You know.”

Sometimes it seems like everyone in the Middle East hates everyone else in the Middle East. Arabs hate Kurds and Israelis. Turks hate Arabs and Kurds. Kurds hate Turks and fear Arabs. (Interestingly, Kurds love Israelis.) Everyone, especially Lebanese, hates Palestinians.

Not all people are haters. I've met plenty who aren't. But every culture has its baseline prejudices that individuals either opt into or out of. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I just want to shake people and say: Keep your old-world ethnic squabbling out of my face, willya please? Jesus, no wonder there’s so much war around here. Even so, Middle Easterners are the most friendly and charming people I've ever met.

Sean and I tried to go to sleep early so we could wake up and go at first light. I stared at the ceiling and remembered my flight over Eastern Turkey. We are so screwed, I thought. There's no way we can drive across that landscape to Iraq and back in three days from where we are now. And I was right.

Read Part Two...

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:09 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

Sean’s Take on Turkey

My friend Sean LaFreniere was partly the subject of my last post and he left a long reponse in the comments section, answering me as well as some critics.

Hey everyone, as the subject of this post I thought it might be time for a comment...

First, I'm not nearly as much of a "babe-in-the-woods" as Michael makes me out to be, but for dramatic effect I am happy to let that go.

I asked about alcohol as in "do you have a full bar?" as opposed to just beer and wine. I was not shocked to find alcohol in Istanbul, but I was a bit surprised to find it in the boonies way outside of town.

I didn't bolt from the transsexual hookers in prude fear, but in the realization that they were shoe-horning us in, literally, in preparation to slam us with a bar bill that we could not afford. I played up the, "oh, my, look at the time" gag as a way to give Mike an excuse to leave (since he was buying the drinks).

And Mike might want to clarify that we grew up in small-town Salem, Oregon and our friends in Portland include a large portion of this group as well. Portland is indeed one of the most educated and literate big cities in America (look up the stats on your own). We have more book stores and higher library use per capita than any other major city and a larger than average portion of new immigrants have advanced degrees. However, book smarts are no substitute for travel, and that was the point of Mike's post [in the comments section - MJT] and with which I strongly agree.

I studied European and Mid East history and religion as an undergrad and have been to Europe a few times before now. However, living for an extended term in Europe has been an eye-opener and visiting the Mid East for my first time blew my mind, so to speak.

I worked with Muslims in Portland and studied the Koran even before 9-11. I have a particular interest in Middle East history and culture... in fact I was one of the first people Mike ever met to begin discussing the Mid East.

I know that Istanbul was a world-class city, I also know that there is a vast difference between the rural and urban portions of any country, and I expected Turkey to compare well (as a prospective EU member and one of the WWI powers) with Europe... However, I was STILL surprised, as Mike notes, at how "normal" western Turkey was (the eastern half is an entirely different matter).

I commute through the largest Muslim neighborhood in Copenhagen right now. I see women in veils and even burkas daily. I also eat more shwarma than is probably good for my health. And my architecture project this term was to design a Muslim neighborhood in CPH, complete with a mosque and a souk. So I was very interested in visiting a Mid East country (and I wanted to see Michael) and Istanbul was within my budget for airfare.

What I was most surprised by was that W. Turkey is less conservative than Muslim Copenhagen. I was also humorously surprised that Tuborg (Danish beer) is perhaps the most common brand in Turkey (given the Danish cartoon controversy). I also laughed to see a post-card from Anatolia showing a woman in a skimpy thong on the beach. I expected Turkey to be modern, but not quite this liberal.

One of my realizations this year is that Scandinavia, which boasts of less than 10% church attendance, is much MORE religious than we Americans are led to believe. This Easter weekend the streets of were rolled up and put in storage. Everything was quiet and churches were busy (ok, they often lure Danes inside with coffee and music, but heh).

Meanwhile, I was rather surprised to see the call of muezzins mostly ignored in even rural Turkey. I was also a bit surprised at how rare veils and head scarves were. And Mike understated the sexy dress and dancing in the Istanbul disco and we found the same in mid sized towns as well. It seems that maybe the polls and surveys paint them as more observant than they really are?

So, that is my thought of the week... Europe may be under-reporting their religiosity, while the Mid East may be over-reporting theirs.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:55 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 7, 2006

Turkish Surprise

ISTANBUL – Before heading out on my next self-selected assignment I met my old friend Sean LaFreniere in Istanbul. He’s in Denmark getting his Masters in Architecture at the Royal Academy. I urged him to come out and visit me in the East. He had never left the comfort zone of Western Civilization and had a hard time believing me when I told him the Islamic East is a far more interesting – and pleasant – place to visit than Western Europe. But he was intrigued all the same and said he looked forward to hanging out with Turks instead of Danes for a change.

“Be careful out there!” his Danish friends said, as though Turkey were teeming with dragons, cannibals, or cartoon-hating Islamist fanatics who wanted to kill him. “Isn’t it dangerous?” one of his professors said. “Don’t let anyone know you’re American or living in Denmark!”

Sigh. Istanbul is in all liklihood safer than Copenhagen. But you just can’t convince some people.

Sean’s plane was a day late due to a KLM Airlines snafu, and he arrived exhausted and grumpy. “I need a drink,” he said. “Is it even possible to get a drink in this country?”

“This is Turkey!” I said. “You can get a drink in even the smallest mountain village in Anatolia.” I’ve only been to one Muslim country that bans alcohol, and that was Libya. It’s available most other places.

It does not cease to amaze me how much the Iranian mullahs and the deviant Arabian Wahhabis have managed to convince Westerners that their reactionary ideologies are somehow mainstream and normal in the Middle East. The hard-line booze-banning and jihad-raving fanatics are marginal and extreme almost everywhere outside a few strongholds.

“Come on, Sean,” I said. “Let’s get you a drink.”

We went restaurant and bar-hopping in Beyoglu, the fashionable and cosmopolitan core of Istanbul.

Beyoglu at Night 2.jpg

We found a restaurant in a brick and stone building that was surely older than our own country.

“Do you have any, um, alcohol?” Sean said sheepishly to the waiter.

The waiter blinked. “Of course,” he said, and shook his head slightly.

“Okay,” Sean said and smiled with mild embarrassment.

I don’t mean to poke fun at my friend here. It’s in large part the media’s fault that Westerners have peculiar ideas about what Muslim countries are actually like. The Middle East section of major newspapers might as well be renamed When Muslims Behave Badly. When shit blows up, it makes the news. The slogans of lunatic Hamas-bots in Palestine make the news. When the Syrian Baath bussed in a rent-a-mob from Damascus to torch the Danish embassy in Beirut, that made the news.

Journalists don’t deliberately try to make the Middle East look crazier, more dangerous, and more reactionary than it really is. Suicide bombers are genuinely more newsworthy than the nightlife scene in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia’s weird laws rightfully get more attention than the lack of such weirdness in Turkey, Lebanon, the UAE, Tunisia, Morocco, and other reasonable Muslim-majority countries. The normal qualities of the Middle East are rarely documented about outside the travel writing genre. The fact that you can legally get drunk in Istanbul, Cairo, Beirut, Ramallah, Amman, Casablanca, Tunis, Dubai, etc., is only remarkable to people who have never been to those places.

Beyoglu at Night.jpg

Sean and I ate our steaks, drank our wine, and moved on to a nightclub that pumped trance and rave music through its outdoor speakers. We found a table. Almost everyone in the place likewise sat at a table. Very few people got up and danced. The club had the feel of a Middle School sock hop where everyone was too shy to get out there.

Some people did dance, though, and Sean noticed what was odd before I did.

“Look,” he said. “Men are dancing together. Women are dancing together.”

He was right. The club was segregated by gender. Men and women sat together. But they didn’t dance together. Men danced only with other men. Women danced only with other women.

It wasn’t a gay club. It was an Islamic club where too much contact between unmarried singles was to be avoided. You wouldn’t think at first glance to find that kind of conservatism inside. None of the women were veiled. None wore a headscarf over their hair. They wore tight pants, knee-high boots, and looked, well, hot for the most part. The club was fully modern in every way except for the segregation on the dance floor.

“This country sure is conservative,” Sean said.

“Wait,” I said. “Don’t judge an entire culture by the first place you pop into. Let’s move to another club.”

We moved to another club. Since we didn’t know where to go, we just walked into places at random. That, we would later find out, was a mistake.

Our second club was a metal-head bar. It was almost all men in there. They wore Motley Crue and Metallica t-shirts. Long stringy hair, oversized moustaches, and jailhouse tats were the norm. A live band played on the stage. Young hard rocking Turks literally banged their heads to the guitars. No wonder there weren’t many women inside.

“Do you want to get a beer?” Sean said.

“I’m happy to see this place exists in Istanbul,” I said and laughed. “But it isn’t our scene.”

So we moved on again.

We found a place above a restaurant that featured live Turkish folk music, exotic songs from the Eastern mountain towns of Anatolia. Dashing young urbanized men and women, most of whom were probably secular, danced together in a circle in the center of the room. The dance was complicated, unpredictable, and involved the twirling of unfolded napkins from the tables. Everyone knew the steps. It looked fun. I would have liked to join in, but this entertainment was clearly only for Turks. As liberal, modern, and secular as Istanbul may be, the people have not forgotten who they are or where they came from.

Sean and I were getting woozy from booze, but we were on vacation and still only blocks from our hotel. We needed to find at least one other scene. So far each place we had been to was radically different from all the others.

We walked. A tout stood in front of a nightclub and beckoned us in.

“Is this a good place?” I said.

“It’s a great place!” the tout said. “And there isn’t a cover charge.”

“Okay,” Sean said. “Let’s check it out.”

We went in and checked it out. Loud techno music pulsed from the speakers. Men and women sat together at the bar and at tables. A dance floor was lit up on the mezzanine bathed in pink light. Sean and I walked toward it.

“Sit here, sit here,” a waiter said and pushed us toward a table.

“We want to go up there,” I said.

“No, please, sit here,” he said.

Okay, I thought. Whatever. So we sat.

“What would you like to drink?” he said.

“I’ll have a beer,” I said.

“Make that two,” Sean said.

The waiter brought us two beers, even though we didn’t specify which kind we wanted. Who knew what kind they had? It didn’t matter.

Two young women abruptly sat at our table without asking, one on my right and one on Sean’s left.

Oh, I thought. We’re in one of those places. There was no indication on the outside, unless we missed it.

“Hello,” said the girl on my right. “Buy me a drink?”

What the hell, I thought. I knew what kind of place we were in, and I knew that it could mean trouble. But I was curious at the same time. I had never been in a prostitute bar before. I wanted to play it out for a few minutes just to see how it goes. What’s the procedure? How do these places work anyway?

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll buy you a drink.” I looked at my watch. We couldn’t stay more than five minutes. I would have to think of a way to get out of there without being rude.

The waiter came back. The two girls ordered two beers. The waiter brought the two beers. Now it was me, Sean, and two hookers from wherever hookers in Turkey come from. I doubted they were actually locals, but it was impossible to tell just by looking at them. Turkish is an ethnicity, not a race. The facial features and skin tones of Turks are all over the gene map.

“Where are you from?” said the girl to my right.

“United States,” I said.

“Where?” she said.

“America,” I said. “Where are you from?”

“Russia,” she said.

“Ah,” I said. What the hell was I supposed to say?

Sean abruptly stood up. “We have to get out of here now,” he said.

Of course we had to get out of there. But I wanted to finish my beer. What’s the worst that could happen if we only stayed for five minutes?

I summoned the waiter and paid him while Sean stood there tapping his foot and craning his head toward the door. The bill came to 20 dollars. I thought Sean was over-reacting. We weren’t being charged for the women.

He all but ran toward the front door.

“Excuse me,” I said to the Russian ladies. “I need to go with my friend.”

On my way past the bar I noticed a distinctively male looking person wearing lipstick and a dress.

Sean bolted into the street. I followed him out.

“Do you know what that place is?” he said.

I had an idea.

“Tell me,” I said. “Tell me it’s not what I’m thinking.”

“It’s a she-male hooker bar.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

“When the girl on my left asked me where I was from, it was obvious she was a man.”

We laughed and called it a night.

“You still think this country is uptight and conservative?” I said.

“It’s not what I expected at all.”

“The girl to my right made an awfully convincing woman,” I said. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t looking to pick up a prostitute. That could have been ugly.”

What amazes me most is that this fine upstanding establishment hired a guy to pull random tourists in off the street. What are the odds that two Americans who happen to be walking by are looking for prostitutes at that particular moment? We weren’t in a red light district. We were downtown. And what are the odds that two random Americans who are looking for prostitutes are looking for she-males? Pretty damn low, I should say. When you’ve got that kind of business model, it’s probably best to let customers come to you.

Sean hadn’t yet spent eight hours of his life in a Muslim country. Yet already he found himself, by sheer chance, inside a place more sexually decadent than anywhere he had ever been in the U.S. or Europe.

The East is full of surprises. The East as portrayed in the media – the East of burkhas, prohibition, jihad, and camels – is a cartoon.

Post-script: I didn’t go to Turkey to work. I went to Turkey for fun and to see my friend Sean. But if you enjoy reading these posts and decide to hit the tip jar, I promise not to get mad.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:53 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 5, 2006

An Open Letter to Hezbollah

Dear Hussein Naboulsi,

I know you’re still monitoring my Web site. At least you kept monitoring me long after the two of us stopped talking – if "talking" is the right word. One of my colleagues said you told him I’m blacklisted because of what I wrote about you in the LA Weekly. You won’t give me quotes anymore. You won’t give him quotes anymore either because he’s tainted by his association with me.

What do you people expect? It’s one thing when you trot out your impotent Death to America slogans. It’s another thing altogether when you threaten and bully us personally. I’m not a wire agency reporter. When you talk to me you’re on the record. When you say “We know who you are, we read everything you write, and we know where you live,” you’re on the record. Of course I’m going to quote you. If you don’t want to look like an asshole in print, don’t act like an asshole in life.

Some journalists may cave under that kind of pressure. I almost did myself until my Lebanese friends – who know you much better than I ever will – reminded me that you guys like to puff up your chests to make yourselves look bigger and scarier than you actually are.

It kills me how the job title printed on the business card you gave me says “Media Relations.” Whoever says Hezbollah has no sense of humor doesn’t know you like I do. You’re a real card, Hussein. A regular bucket o’ laughs.

I’ll admit it feels a bit slimy knowing that I’m under Internet surveillance by a group listed by the United States government as a terrorist organization. It’s nothing, though, compared to the palpable paranoia on the streets of Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon. You guys really need to calm down. Breathe. Take up yoga or Pilates or something. The CIA, the Mossad, and the Lebanese army pretty much know what you’re up to all the time as it is. Learn to accept the things you cannot change. Don’t stir up too much trouble at any one time and you should be fine, anyway.

Let me give you some personal advice, Hussein. Maybe we can be on the same page for a change. Get out of the “suburbs” and go hang out in Beirut once in a while. Don’t tell people who you work for. Just strike up conversations in restaurants, coffeeshops, and bars. Lebanese are friendly, so that’s easy. Ask Sunni, Christians, and Druze what they think of Hezbollah. Listen to what they have to say. Remember that you have to live with these people. I suppose you could turn your guns on them. We all know you can beat the Lebanese military in a one-on-one fight. Who knows, though? There's always a chance the Israeli Defense Forces might intervene against you on Lebanon’s behalf. How much would that suck?

You’re not doing so well in the PR department these days. And you can’t entirely blame people like me who work for the “Zionist” media. The fact that you take orders from a hostile foreign dictatorship, the very same regime that assassinates Lebanon’s elected officials and journalists, makes you look, well, a bit on the treasonous side.

Anyhoo, I don’t live in Lebanon anymore. I'm back at my house in the United States now. You won’t see my face, my camera, or my notepad down in Haret Hreik any time soon. It’s time to remove me from your daily routine. There are other journalists who need to be hassled.

You’re a one-man bad press generator, Hussein. If I were your boss, I would fire you.

Michael J. Totten

United States of America

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:04 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

April 4, 2006

Adjusting to Home

Sorry for being aloof right after I said I'm back. To be clear, I'm back in the Unites States, not back in my apartment in Lebanon. I feel a small amount of culture shock and a major amount of dislocation. This morning it took me a full thirty seconds to figure out which country I woke up in. I love traveling, but I've been doing far too much of it lately.

Two days after I arrived home in Oregon I flew to Southern California to visit my father-in-law after the doctors cracked open his chest and did major surgery on his heart. I'm finally back in my house where I intend to stay put for a while and get back to the business of writing. Just give me a minute (er, half a day actually) to get myself together.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:17 PM | Permalink | Comments Off
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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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