April 09, 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 April 9, 2006 07:09 PM


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.

I've heard so many times from people overseas how Americans are ignoramuses and bigots, and also from our own home grown America haters. But I've never encountered the kind of bigotry and hatred in the U.S. that I've encountered overseas. But I suppose when we travel abroad and hear people popping off like that it's all just local color and charm not to be taken seriously like we do when we imagine how bigoted and ignorant those Americans are. America hatred in one word: Envy.

Posted by: Carlos at April 9, 2006 07:25 PM

Sometimes it seems like everyone in the Middle East hates everyone else in the Middle East.

You could expand this to read "everyone in the old Ottoman Empire hates everyone else in the old Ottoman Empire" because the Greeks, the Serbs, the Macedonians and the Bulgarians are all pretty good at ethnic hatred as well. And you forgot the Armenians, the Azeri Turks, the Turkomen, the Copts, Shi'ites, etc. etc.

Posted by: vanya at April 9, 2006 08:16 PM

"(Interestingly, Kurds love Israelis.)"

The Genetic Bonds Between Kurds and Jews

"In 2001, a team of Israeli, German, and Indian scientists discovered that the majority of Jews around the world are closely related to the Kurdish people -- more closely than they are to the Semitic-speaking Arabs or any other population that was tested...."

Posted by: genetics at April 9, 2006 09:09 PM

"(Interestingly, Kurds love Israelis.)"

The Genetic Bonds Between Kurds and Jews

"In 2001, a team of Israeli, German, and Indian scientists discovered that the majority of Jews around the world are closely related to the Kurdish people -- more closely than they are to the Semitic-speaking Arabs or any other population that was tested...."

Posted by: genetics at April 9, 2006 09:12 PM

I have also noticed how much hatred there is in the Middle East. I think this is the core of that region's problems. Sometimes even people I have met who don't hate Israel and America hate some other group with a suprising vehemence. The general civic virtues we learn in the west to avoid generalizing and blaming entire groups don't seem to exist. Even if we don't always live up to these standards we at least know them and know they are right. Until that changes it is hard to know how they can constructively deal with their grievances.

Posted by: steve at April 9, 2006 09:46 PM

The hatred is necessary to maintain the racial, er, ethnic/ "national" purity (where "nation" means a people, like the Kurds, not a nation-state). I don't think the purity is worth it.

My Slovak wife told me I will never be a Slovak, even if I become a Slovak citizen. Being OF a people/ extended tribe, is different than carrying a citizenship card.

Norman Geras recently reviewed a book about how, if Jews are not persecuted, they would assimilate. And sort of disappear. Where are the Babylonians?

Cultural competition is little understood or studied; the US immigration issues, especially the dominance of Mexican illegal immigrants, include lots of cultural issues; so do black ghetto issues and problems.

Most cultures just want to be left alone -- but get all the material advantages like computers that are available to other cultures. Which of course changes the culture.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at April 9, 2006 11:45 PM

"Not all people are haters."

True dat, Iron Mike! I guess you unconsciously picked up some of my hip-hip lingo, hehe...

I can't believe you decided to go back to Iraq. You could have had a nice stay at a remote non-Western tourist resort on the Black Sea coast, but you decide to head back to a place that few others want to go.

You're one of a kind, MJT.

BTW, what did Shelly think of your prostitute post. Wissam got a big kick out of it.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at April 10, 2006 03:19 AM

Everyone hates the Palestinians??? That is something I did not know! Could somebody fill me in a little on this subject. It just comes as a surprise to me.

Posted by: Pamela at April 10, 2006 08:46 AM
Tom Lehrer:
Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the Protestants
And the Hindus hate the Moslems
And everybody hates the Jews

-- National Brotherhood Week

Posted by: Mark Poling at April 10, 2006 09:10 AM

Re genetics

Oh yeah, let's not forget the secret factor: the chromosome of love.

The second I read the first line of that research I had already developed an intimate bond with the Kurds. Not only that, I remembered my past lives, when I was a little Jewish boy in Mosul, looking up to my Kurdish father. Oh, those were the days...

Posted by: Fabian at April 10, 2006 09:38 AM

Someday, you really need to get a producer and make a documentary out of this stuff. It'd sell. Fast.

Posted by: Paul Brinkley at April 10, 2006 09:43 AM

I second what Paul said Michael!

Posted by: Pamela at April 10, 2006 09:46 AM

Pamela from my understanding, the Palestinians were like the Gypsy's in Europe. Oh boy, some Europeans don't like those people.

Anyway, once the Muslims ran off most of the Jewish people a good while ago, the Palestinians kind of moved in. Well that suited those countries, they no longer had these gypsies living amongst them. Anyway, to make a long story short, hatred of Jewish people are the only reason there is any support for the Palestinians, but only because the Islamic countries hate the Jewish people more than anyone.

Of course I could be wrong.

Question, in the above paragraphs, if I replaced Jews with Jewish People would that be wrong? Personally I have never understood why people hate the Jewish people so much. In the early 90's I dated a Jewish girl, I was a Goi(sp?), at least her grandmother called me that, anyway her parents were actually worried when I took her outside the Atlanta area to meet my parents. I never understood that either.

Posted by: James Stephenson at April 10, 2006 11:29 AM

Lebanon.Profile: BTW, what did Shelly think of your prostitute post.

She thought it was pretty funny.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 10, 2006 11:30 AM

I have a Turkish friend in Atlanta who got his engineering P.H.D. at Georgia Tech. He had to go back to Turkey to fulfill his military service obligation. When he came back to Atlanta, he shared how his training seemed to involve an indoctrination of Kurd hating (often referred to as "terrorists"). Be careful, the Turks and Kurds have a long history which has bred much hatred and distrust.

Posted by: Doug Teper at April 10, 2006 11:45 AM


There is no way you shouldn't know that there is no place in Turkey, called Kurdistan. The only one who calls a part of Turkey as Kurdistan is PKK. And PKK is a bloody terrorist group. PKK is in the terror list of both EU and USA, (and a lot more). Please hesitate to use same speech with a terrorist. We felt the same despair, when el Queada hit US civilians. PKK is killing our civilians in the Eastern Turkey. Please be sensitive and call it Eastern Turkey. Last time you did this, you said I was trying to identify the region for the ones who don't know the region. But it's not the way you should do. THE PEOPLE WHO DON'T KNOW THE REGION; Michael defined us as people who don't use maps, but I know you westners do. Please get a map and look where the Eastern Turkey is, when Micheal says "Eastern Turkey". Or, I can send you the below link each time Michael demands.


And as a last note, kurds living in Turkey are the nationals of Turkish Republic. In every nation you can find exceptions but as a nation we don't have hatred feelings to any nations. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's speech (in Michael's note) is a valuable example. We don't feel hostility either to the ones who came Anatolia to war.

Peace for all.


Posted by: hakanbulut at April 10, 2006 12:16 PM


The name "Kurdistan" simply means, to me, a place where Kurds live. I am not recognizing it as an independent country. That's why I called it "Turkish Kurdistan" instead of just "Kurdistan."

Iraqi Kurds get mad at me when I refer to their region as "Northern Iraq" instead of "Kurdistan."

I can't win. Someone is going to get mad at me no matter which names I use. Please keep this argument to yourselves and leave me out of it.


Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 10, 2006 12:35 PM

A Cyprian friend in college once mentioned Turks. He said he hadn't seen any Turks on campus and the way he said it was chilling. At that moment I believed that if he met a Turk he'd kill him. Probably he wouldn't have, but it did give me a baseline to judge what hatred means.

Posted by: Synova at April 10, 2006 12:36 PM

I can't say enough how much I enjoy your stories about the oft-overlooked beauties of the Middle East, Mike. How cool is it to just up and decide to drive to Iraq on a whim? How cool is that?

Posted by: Rafique Tucker at April 10, 2006 12:43 PM

Call any region in Iraq whatever you (or the Iraqi people) like. And to be apart from any argument, please don't do the way the terrorists do. Feel the same sensitivity when someone talks about cleaning Israel from the region, or another talks about dividing Turkey by force according their race origins. By the way, kurds don't live only in eastern Turkey. Kurds and Turks live together everywhere in Turkey (not only eatern part) Istanbul, Izmir, Kocaeli, Ankara, etc.. like the Turks do.

Peace without being a race obsessional.

Posted by: hakanbulut at April 10, 2006 02:37 PM

The Middle East is medievil Europe when it comes to race and religion tensions. With time and education that will change though. I fear how they'll fall back into the dark ages when they run out of their only source of wealth (oil) and the extremely high population that it will have in the hundred or two years it has left. When the middle east becomes a giant Easter Island...that's when it will really hit the fan.

Posted by: Tyler at April 10, 2006 04:29 PM

Michael, if you ever decide to explore the Black Sea coast of Turkey, Sinop is wonderful, quiet and peaceful. Trabzon is also nice very green alive with all kinds of nature.

Travelling around Turkey on Ulusoy or Metro buses over the mountains, it reminded me of the mountain ranges here in the Rocky Mountains and the 14ers!

I love Istanbul. Ortakoy is my favorite neighborhood, and Hagia Sofia is wonderful.

The Turks I found were the most hospitable people I have known.

Sigh, I just remembered how beautiful Fethiye is.

Kendine iyi bak Michael ve Sean

(take good care Michael and Sean)

Posted by: Colorado Pamela at April 10, 2006 04:48 PM

there is a place called kurdistan, it had been yesterday, it is today and it will be tomorrow, this is historical and social fact, you can not deny 40 million kurds living in turkey,iran,iraq and syria and to them their country is called kurdistan,just get used to it, because u can deny a reality.

Posted by: botan at April 10, 2006 04:57 PM

The Turks hate the arabs but particularly the shiite - they wd rather deal with sunni. Further, they really hate the Kurds. They don't love the Jews, but there is a decent relationship between Israel and Turkey, which we can thank Ataturk for.

In the Middle East, if they are not flying the banner about the evils of Jews/Israel they are quietly talking about how much they hate the Palestinians. Hate. They also hate the Saudis and Kuwaitis. You have to ask yourself, why is it only Israel and Jordan allow "palestinians" to become citizens?

The Kurds hate the Turks, hate the Arabs and love Israel - of course their feelings towards Jews in general is unknown to me.

But when you get deeper into it, there are tribes, families and so on that have their own likes and dislikes - the middle east is like the Hatfield and McCoys, only with AK-47s.

Posted by: Hman at April 10, 2006 08:34 PM

TurcoPundit http://turcopundit.blogspot.com/

Foreign Press Review http://www.avsam.org/fpr

Posted by: bahadir at April 10, 2006 10:14 PM

There is no way you shouldn't know that there is no place in Turkey, called Kurdistan. The only one who calls a part of Turkey as Kurdistan is PKK. And PKK is a bloody terrorist group.

From wikipedia:

The Kurdistan Workers Party (Kurdish: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan or PKK), also known as KADEK and Kongra-Gel, is a militant organisation, dedicated to creating an independent Kurdish state in a territory (sometimes referenced as Kurdistan) that consists of parts of south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Iraq, north-eastern Syria and north-western Iran. It is in the terrorist organisations list of the US, UK and EU. Its current ideological foundation is revolutionary Marxism-Leninism and Kurdist nationalism.

It's really amazing how many of the various terrorist outfits can be traced back to communist ideas and had Soviet support.

Posted by: rosignol at April 10, 2006 11:42 PM

Why do the other Arabs hate the Palestinians?

Posted by: CD at April 11, 2006 03:29 PM

There are a lot of bad feelings in the Arab world for the Palestinians because of all of the Palestinian refugees who left Palestine/Isreal after the establishment of the state of Isreal and the start of hostilities. The refugees were admitted into other Arab countries with the expectation that they only be there a short time while until Isreal was destroyed. Instead we are now going on 60 years with an estimated half of all Palestinians (roughly 4.3 million according to the UN) living as refugees and the vast majority of those living in neighboring Arab states where they are percieved as interlopers and a drain on resources. If you ask your typical Jordanian or Egyptian what they think about Isreali occupation of Palestine, they will talk your ear off about the injustice to their Palestinian brothers. Ask them about the Palestinians living in their town and they will complain non-stop about how lazy, greedy, mischevious, etc those Palestinians are.

Posted by: Mike at April 12, 2006 08:09 AM

I'm a Turk and don't hate anybody. The only thing I hate are your meaningless generalisations.

Posted by: Scyth at April 13, 2006 03:02 AM

Thanks for the explanation mike.

Posted by: CD at April 13, 2006 01:29 PM

One thing about Muslims of every ethnicity is that, personally, they are darlings. Friendly, hospitable, forgiving, good natured, etc.

But when Muslims become a group, then they become hateful, bigotted, racist, chauvinist, misogynist, supremecist, etc.

That is why ISLAM may be an acceptable personal religion - but as a communal religion it is DEADLY and should be DESTROYED.

And Proph. Mohammad was a pedophile slavemaster.

Posted by: mandra at April 14, 2006 10:22 AM

There is no way you shouldn't know that there is no place in Turkey, called Kurdistan. The only one who calls a part of Turkey as Kurdistan is PKK.

I don't think the writer of this comment is very well informed. Kurdistan is a term used worldwide -- and it is a term used in Turkey as well.

To say it is a term used only by terrorists is idiotic since one would have to indict senior member of the US military, the US state department, all US academics dealing with the region as "Terrorists" for refering to the Kurdish area, including the portion currently in Turkey as Kudistan

Posted by: FL at April 14, 2006 03:00 PM
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