February 27, 2006

Driving to Suli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kirkuk good, Kirkuk good,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Kirkuk good,” he said again.

I called Birzo.

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

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

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

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

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

“Kirkuk good,” my driver said.

I wanted to punch him.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Taxi,” he said.

“No!” I said, really pissed off now.

He got back on the road and sped up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael J. Totten at February 27, 2006 04:27 AM
Comments

I am always enjoying your Iraqi stories Michael! I wonder how much the Peshmerga are strong, since it seems that they are an extremely solid anti-terrorist barrier. Zarqawi's people can't infiltrate through those barriers using mountains or other non-supervised areas? Especially when you find out that the bad people are too close to the so-called Safe regions (example Kirkuk). Very weird!

Keep up the terrific stories!!

Posted by: Cedar-Guardian at February 27, 2006 07:24 AM

Well, you still paid him. Araz got off without a penny.

You know, it seems the only problems you had while in Kurdistan had to do with shady transportation providers.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at February 27, 2006 07:29 AM

It sounds like the difference between this guy and a typical Czech taxi driver is only a matter of degree, and context. An unscrupulous driver will try to get you over a barrel every time.

Posted by: SWLiP at February 27, 2006 08:39 AM

I'm glad you're confident the driver was a simpleton, and not out to make a fast buck by driving an unsuspecting westerner into the hands of the insurgency in Kirkuk. Either way, my eyes would've stayed open too...

Posted by: kh at February 27, 2006 10:23 AM

Obnoxious, self-serving drivers seem to be part of the backdrop many part of the world, it seems. I've dealt with a couple myself in northern India, one of whom seemed to care less about taking us where we wanted to go than about taking us to shops and restaurants that provide him with kickbacks. Not quite the same as being nearly driven into a warzone, though.

Posted by: Eric at February 27, 2006 11:24 AM

Frankly, I find the following two statements inconsistent:

But I remembered what my Palestinian-American friend had told me in Erbil: “Never forget that you’re in Iraq.”

and

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

So because you are from Oregon you think you can handle a torrential rain in a third world mountain road that you have never traveled before, that you do not have a map for nor you have any information on how the road condition might deteriorate or if there is a danger that landslides may block your path, and as a bonus it is in a war zone region.

While I have never lived in Iraq or the middle east, I was born in a Latinamerican mountain region. If somebody tells me not to drive a certain mountain road in the middle of a storm I listen. Mountain roads in third world countries tend to react differently to rain that Oregon's highways.

I sincerely appreciate the risks you take and the effort you make to keep us informed of what is happening in Iraq. But you would do well to keep reminding yourself of where you are.

Posted by: sytrek at February 27, 2006 11:39 AM

Sytrek,

The guy who warned me is a Westerner from a place that does not have any mountains. None of the Iraqis thought it was dangerous. Just a bit slower.

The roads are in perfect condition. I knew this already from experience in the country. Driving those roads in the rain was no more sketchy than driving in Oregon in the rain.

And Northern Iraq is very different from Latin America. Most of Latin America is much more "third world" than most of the Middle East is.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 27, 2006 11:53 AM

Dear Michael J tootens
I am glad you traveled to northern iraq, but as a kurd i have to protest what you so called Northern Iraq, because for us its called KURDLAND or localy as KURDISTAN and is the only place where westerns wouldn't get shot or whatever!
ONCE AGIAN (WELCOME TO KURDISTAN) Did you see any iraqi flags in kurdistan or just the kurdish flag!! did you see any american soldiers! I DON'T THINK SO!
THANK YOU

Posted by: Dilan at February 27, 2006 01:11 PM

Michael, I haven't posted a comment since all the Presidential debates in 2004. Nevertheless, I have read your blog consistently. I have to tell you that you are doing wonderful things.

I don't know how you stayed in that car with that driver. like you say, he could have driven you right into harms way and sold you for $1,000.00..Thank goodness, you are still safe!

Posted by: Cathy at February 27, 2006 01:36 PM

"You know, it seems the only problems you had while in Kurdistan had to do with shady transportation providers."

Considering how one shady transportation provider could hustle an unarmed man like Totten off into the hands of Al-Qaeda, that's far more than enough.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian at February 27, 2006 01:36 PM

Tatterdemalian,

"Considering how one shady transportation provider could hustle an unarmed man like Totten off into the hands of Al-Qaeda, that's far more than enough."

Sure, but don't you think my original comment says something about Kurdistan?

He was safe enough to walk around without fear. He was safe enough to eat in cafes, take pictures, drink a couple brewskis, hang out with the locals, and enjoy his five star "Sheraton" hotel.

Don't you think it's saying a lot that the biggest problems Michael faced in Iraq had to do with shady transportation providers? I mean, if getting kidnapped was always on his mind, would he even have chosen to take a ride with a shady taxi driver?

That man didn't come pre-approved by anyone. Sure, he was from an "agency," but what does that mean when he could blend into the Kirkuk population and fake a kidnapping while getting paid off.

Michael was willing to get into that cab with a strange driver willing to tell him he was going to drive through Kirkuk. Enough said.

Michael's biggest problem was with transportation providers. That's saying a lot given that taxi drivers around the world are notorious cheats.

It shows that Kurdistan is a lot better off than you could even imagine, bud.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at February 27, 2006 02:09 PM

I can imagine how frustrated you were with that taxi driver but to be honest had the driver spoke english he would have said:
( Kirkuk is good because it will take you sooner into Suli and the state of the road is much better than a high mountain Hewler-Suli road especialy when it is raining)
by the way Kirkuk-Suli road is under Peshmarga control and you would not get kidnapped if you go there!

Posted by: hiwa mahmmud at February 27, 2006 03:23 PM

Somehow I doubt the hotel was "five star" by conventional standards. I don't have any proof to back up this claim. Just call it a hunch.

Posted by: Grant McEntire at February 27, 2006 08:52 PM

Grant,

Quite right. My hotel is Suli was a disaster. My hotel in Erbil, though, the fake "Sheraton," was actually a very nice place.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 27, 2006 11:11 PM

Photographs? I'd love to see what this S.O.B. looks like.

According to Mapquest, the major road from Irbil to Sulaymaniyah does run through Kirkuk. There is a shorter, minor road that runs through Dukan. That's probably the route you took, I guess.

Posted by: Solomon2 at February 28, 2006 05:04 AM

MJT

The Iraq stuff has been great. Thanks.

I really appreciate that you are not like most journalists who patronize the locals. I am sure they do it out of the best intentions--if you don't have something nice to say... But everyone sees through such nonsense and it does nobody any good. The best policy is tell it like it is and let the chips fall where they may.

Once again thanks!

Posted by: JBP at February 28, 2006 08:30 AM

MJT,

I wonder how many tourists you are inspiring to go to Kurdistan.

It seems most people are still rather wary.

Then again, there isn't that much touristic to see there. It's not like a trip to the Louvre or Santiago de Compostella or the Hermitage. Then again, Americans just might want to see where their tax dollars are being spent.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at February 28, 2006 03:58 PM

I have travelled all over Kurdistan and found it difficult (since I am American) to pay for anything. The Kurds are a very generous people, thankful for the help America has provided and if you can highlight them in your blog then more power to ya. It is a shame that you didn't get to see the mountains you went through, they are cool. If you leave by the same road, after you pass the power station west of town look at the mountain directly ahead of you. It looks like a sleeping Indian. The other way is faster though. Stay safe and enjoy the pistacios!

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