April 13, 2006

Back to Iraq Part IV - From Zakho to Dohok

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

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

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

Zakho.jpg

Night photo of Zakho, Iraq copyright Mesoud Guli 2003

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

More than a dozen people approached us.

"Taxi?"

"Taxi?"

"Dohok?"

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

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

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

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

"Yes," I said. "Hello."

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

"We're Americans," I said.

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

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

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

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

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

Sean and I started walking.

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

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

"Hey, man," Sean said.

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

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

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

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

"And I'm Sean," Sean said.

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

Sean shook his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

Sean and I walked up to the taxi stand outside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Dohok," Sean said.

"Where in Dohok?"

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

"Okay," Sean said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Part Five.

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

Posted by Michael J. Totten at April 13, 2006 07:59 PM
Comments

it is realy amazing to read your exciting blogs.
i wish you the best.

biji kurdistan
biji freedom
biji american

Posted by: Diaqo at April 13, 2006 08:43 PM

So, you didn't have to pay a visa?

What were American soldiers doing at the border? Did you see the Turkish soldiers posted there?
Did you see the miles and miles of trucks lined up at the border, or did the clashes in Turkish Kurdistan have an economic effect?

Posted by: lebanon.profile at April 14, 2006 03:29 AM

This becomes very gripping stuff even though we know you survived.

Posted by: ignacio at April 14, 2006 09:08 AM

Americans and Westreners are always welcome in Kurdistan. Kurdistan serves and respects its guests, friends and liberators. But it can be a graveyeard for its invaders. Hullago was defeated here.

Posted by: abdulla at April 15, 2006 04:03 AM

Delays in the release of the next segment are at least partly my fault. I took Michael to the Spring Beer and Wine Festival here in Portland, a known cause of productivity decline.

Please accept my apologies.

Posted by: Patrick Lasswell at April 15, 2006 10:43 AM

Let me fill in a part that Mike left out... when we got to the border we did not have to pay for a visa. It was easy that way. The Kurdish guards seemed more curious about us than worried and were very nice.

When we got in the cab Michael immediately announced that he was taking a nap, he drove that morning with almost no sleep. So when the driver turned off I had to ask him what he was doing. he made hand signs for shortcut. I elbowed Mike awake and aksed him if this sounded ok. He said yes, but to watch him, then went back to sleep. We had just passed the 20km to Mosul sign and after our earlier conversation about the kidnapping trade I was left to eagle eye the driver. I was just as tired as Mike but was keyed up because I was in a strange land.

The shortcut passes right through a UN "internally displaced persons" camp that was a right horror. I wondered if the driver took us this way on purpose to show it to us. However, it turns out the shortcut is well used on the route to Dohuk. When he got back on the main highway I relaxed. Of course the old Peshmmerga in his black and white checked headscarf was an ok guy, I can only imagine what he went through under Saddam. But I didnt know how much they stood by us at the time (considering 1991 and all). I later learned to trust the Kurds freely.

Back to your regular author... Sean.

Posted by: sean at April 15, 2006 11:16 AM

Sean: He said yes, but to watch him, then went back to sleep.

I said yes? Did I keep my worries to myself? Maybe I did.

I don't remember sleeping at all after we turned off. If I did, it was an accident. I definitely didn't go right back to sleep. I knew what Dohok's geography looked like and made damn sure the driver wasn't taking us down to the plains.

Funny how people always remember stories differently. This must be especially true in this case since we were running on almost no sleep at all.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 15, 2006 11:43 AM

Hey Mike, I was just wondering if you had anymore pics on Zackhoo because my G/f is originally from there.

Posted by: Ryan_liam at April 15, 2006 03:52 PM

Zahko. The Internet cafe is built into the northern end of the bus station. It was always operational when I was there/ $1 a hour. The bus station has a bank on the eastern side with a working ATM as of last September.

Also where you saw the Americans, is the MCT where freight is accounted for and processed before it heads south to the bases. You probably would have ran into some KBR guys around there as well as troops.

I was there many times, and the Kurds were always great. If you went into the restaurant that has rotisserie chickens for sale outside I ate there many times too.

Posted by: john beard at April 15, 2006 04:06 PM

Outside of that restaurant, the chicken guy also sold bananas. I had no idea what stuff cost over there so I gave the guy $4 American. He stuffed a huge plastic bag full of bananas and handed them to me with a huge smile.

I took a few for me and left the rest in the kitchen for the troops. It was funny. And you should have seen the waiters face when our table, about 15 guys, all threw a couple bucks each into the tip. I thought he was gonna kiss us.

Posted by: john beard at April 15, 2006 04:11 PM

Wow...I cannot wait for the next part...
Going to Beer and Wine Festival is the good excuse though :-)

Posted by: Agnieszka O. at April 15, 2006 06:44 PM

Zahko — What's up with that photograph? All those lights? What happened to the Iraqis languishing in darkness because the evil Americans stole all their electricity?

Posted by: richard mcenroe at April 15, 2006 07:06 PM

Bad patrick! No more beer for Michael! LOL I totally understand that those Portland festivals can get a little crazy. :) At least that's what my little brother tells me.

Keep it up Michael! Lovin' every minute of it.

Posted by: Megs at April 15, 2006 07:16 PM

Great stuff. Keep up the great work.

Posted by: TexasRainmaker at April 15, 2006 07:31 PM

I don't have any pictures of Zakho. That's why I posted somebody else's. (Sean and I were just trying to get to Dohok as quickly as possible.)

Richard: Iraqi Kurdistan does have a serious electricity problem still. They don't have no electricity, they just don't have anywhere near enough of it. But it's better in Zakho and Dohok, and there are generators all over the place everywhere anyway so it's not quite as bad as it sounds.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 15, 2006 10:27 PM

Fantastic stuff! Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: K T Cat at April 16, 2006 05:46 AM

Hi Micheal

Americans and Westreners are always welcome in Kurdistan.

A suggestion to Micheal as you mentioned it at the beginning of your long essay. Instead of using Erbil I reckon Hawler it could be much better. while you are talking about Kurdish region,because Saddam's regime used to called it Erbil.

Micheal a book will be great idea?

I really appreciate your work&effort well done Micheal.

I cannot wait for the next part...

biji Kurdistan
biji Peshmerga
biji American.

Posted by: Soran at April 16, 2006 06:36 AM

"Internally displaced" persons camp, huh. Any signs of the Kurdistan government trying to resettle them? I haven't heard anything about it from the MSM, but they would rather smash all their cameras and cut their wrists with the shards than show any indication of it, if it was happening.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian at April 16, 2006 09:02 AM

I too would be interested in conditions at that UN camp.

I wonder how long the Kurds will put up with the shenanigans of the Sunnis and Shias, and push for partition? Mosul, and it's oil fields, would, no doubt, be a point of contention.

Kevin L. Connors
WestPundit

Posted by: Kevin L. Connors at April 16, 2006 10:25 AM

It is funny how such a low-intensity, low casualty war like Iraq is so skewered in the media. Do they know how many people died in wars in past decades?

In fact, the fact that there are so few other wars in the world right now allows people to obsess over the war.

Posted by: Twok at April 16, 2006 11:03 AM

Thanks for the essay Micheal. I just got my grad degree in History, with an interest in Turkish history. But I have never been there, and these pics of Turkish Kurdistan and SW Turkey help put more of what I studied in perspective. Thank You.

Posted by: Rachel at April 16, 2006 11:37 AM

Unfortunately we did not get a chance to get out of the car and investigate the camp. I will try to do so on my next visit. From what we saw it looked quite bad. Stone, tin, tires for building materials. Of course no sewage or power system. However, Mike has suggested that inside what appear to be wretched homes in the Mid East he has been suprised by their relative comfort. MMM.. well, I guess I need another visit.

Posted by: sean at April 23, 2006 11:29 AM

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