April 20, 2006

Back to Iraq Part VI - Smuggling My Way Out of Iraq

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

ZAKHO, IRAQ - Getting into Iraq was easy. Getting out of Iraq and back into Turkey was not.

Sean and I went back to the Turkish-Iraqi crossing gate just before dark. We intended to return to our rental car, parked just on the other side of the border in Turkey, before the light in the sky completely went out. It would have been nice to make a little progress back toward Istanbul before dark.

“Hello again!” I said to the customs official who, earlier that morning, thought we were lying when we said we would go back to Turkey the very same day. “Told ya we wouldn’t stay long.”

“Hello my friends!” he said and laughed. “Good to see you.”

He asked us to sit in the waiting area. Once again, a young man brought us sticky brown tea in clear glasses on little plates with dainty spoons. Another bad Syrian drama was playing on the TV set in the corner.

“I suppose you need our passports,” Sean said while stirring his tea.

“Why?” the official said.

“Don’t we need exit stamps?” I said.

“You can’t go back,” he said.

What?” Sean said.

“What do you mean we can’t go back?” I said.

I looked at Sean and felt my face flush and my heart leap into my throat. Sean looked clearly panicked. Was this guy joking? It would be a first order disaster if we couldn’t get back into Turkey. Our rental car was parked a mile away across the border. Most of our luggage was inside. We both had planes to catch the next day.

Would we have to fly out from Erbil? There is only one commercial flight every week from Erbil to Istanbul. We would have to wait in Iraq for a week - a whole week - without any cash in a country that has no international banks, has no ATMs, and accepts no credit cards. We would have to figure out some way to get ourselves onto that plane without any money. Then, after we got back to Istanbul, we would have to rent yet another car and drive all the way back to Iraq again to pick up the first car and the luggage. I felt like I was going to be sick.

“We need to get out of here!” I said and tried to explain what you can’t go back meant to us.

“Just go down the street,” he said. “It’s only fifty meters or so. You enter Kurdistan here and go back to Turkey over there.”

I felt like the perfect idiot. Iraqi Kurdistan may be safe - especially compared with Baghdad - but the place isn’t yet normal and it does make me twitchy. Sean loudly exhaled and put his hand over his heart. I instantly felt fifty pounds lighter.

We walked to the exit gate, still rattled by our ten seconds of misunderstanding. Now that we had our little false alarm scare, I desperately wanted out as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t be able to relax until we were back in Turkey with our car and could control what happened next.

It was time to flag down a taxi. No one can walk across the border from either direction. Presumably that makes cross-border traffic easier for both sides to keep track of. Anyone seen walking is obviously sneaking.

Our driver Himdad drove us past a long line of cars waiting to get their exit stamp from the Peshmerga.

“Did you see what just happened?” Sean said.

“Yep,” I said. “We went right to the front of the line again. I hate to say it, but this time I’m glad. We need to get out of here. We barely have time to drive back as it is.”

A Kurdish Iraqi border official stopped us and asked for photocopies of our passports. We didn’t have any photocopies. He demanded photocopies anyway and refused to budge.

Himdad, our driver, knew what to do. He took our passports and walked off somewhere to make copies. He came back. The border official kept us waiting for what seemed like forever.

“How long will it take to cross the border,” I asked Himdad. He understood almost no English at all. I had to point to my watch and pantomime the rest of it.

“Three,” he said and made a circular motion with his finger.

Three hours?” Sean said.

He must have meant three minutes. It was only a one-mile crossing.

I pointed at my watch. It was 6:00. Himdad pointed at 9:00.

“Shit!” I said. “We don’t have three hours.” We really didn't.

“We’re screwed,” Sean said. “We’ll never make it back to Istanbul in time.”

“I guess we just won’t get a hotel tonight,” I said and sighed. “We’ll have to drive all frigging night again. It will suck, but we’ll make it. We have to.”

Once the border official - finally! - let us go, Himdad drove onto the bridge over the river that marked the border between the two countries. A long line of cars was ahead of us. We sat still on that bridge for what seemed like forty-five minutes without moving an inch.

“Crap!” I said. “This is really taking forever. I’m going to try to sleep now so I can drive when we finally get out of here.”

Himdad could tell we were stressed. He pointed at the line of cars in front of us. “Problem,” he said.

“Yes, problem,” I said.

“One hundred dollars,” he said, “no problem.”

Sean and I looked at each other. We could bribe our way across for one hundred dollars? Without waiting in this godawful line?

“Should we do it?” I said.

“Do we have a hundred dollars?” Sean said.

“I do,” I said. “I have several fifties in my pocket.”

Himdad and I got out of the car and walked to the front of the line. Most drivers had turned off their engines. Many people were sleeping. Everyone knew we would be there for a very long time, time Sean and I just didn't have. It looked like we would spend more time sitting in line on the bridge than we spent in Iraq.

A young Turkish soldier saw me and Himdad approaching. He pointed his rifle at us and screamed something in Turkish.

Then he lowered his rifle and laughed.

I nervously laughed right back at him.

He and Himdad had a conversation in Turkish.

“You are American?” the young soldier said.

“Yes,” I said and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“One moment,” he said and walked toward a compound of some sort. He returned with a much-older officer who looked like a colonel.

“You are American?” the colonel said.

“Yes,” I said. “Hello.”

He stared at me in shock and with disgust, abruptly turned around, and stormed back to the compound.

“Problem,” Himdad said.

We walked back to the car. The colonel wasn’t interested in any bribes. Himdad and I clearly had offended his professionalism. It wasn’t my idea, I wished I could tell him. I don’t know how this works or what I’m doing.

“Problem,” Himdad said to Sean when we got back to the car.

“An officer there wasn’t having any of it,” I added.

“Other problem,” Himdad said.

What now?

He pointed at himself and said “Peshmerga, no problem.” Then he pointed at himself again and said “Turkey, problem.”

What the hell? The Turks have a problem with him? Why didn’t he say so when we first got in the car?

“What’s the problem?” Sean said.

“Cigarette,” Himdad said and pointed at himself. “Many cigarette. Turkish. Problem.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

He peeled back the lining on the passenger side door of his car, pointed inside, said “many cigarette” again, then “Turkish” and “problem.”

“He got busted smuggling cigarettes,” I said. “Now the Turks won’t let him in.”

“Yes,” Himdad said and nodded.

“Great,” Sean said. “Why does he have this job?”

Himdad got out of the car, popped the trunk, and pulled out fifteen cartons of cigarettes. Lovely! He was smuggling again with us in the car.

“Take cigarette,” he said.

“What?” I said, even though I knew what he wanted.

He held up five fingers on this hand and said “No problem.” Then he held up six fingers and said “Problem.”

He pointed at himself and held up five fingers. Then he pointed at Sean and held up five fingers. Then he pointed at me and held up five fingers and said “No problem.” Then he pointed at himself, held up six fingers, and said “Problem.”

I knew what he meant. Each person could carry five cartons of cigarettes across the border without any problem. No one was allowed to carry six cartons. He wanted me to carry five cartons and he wanted Sean to carry five cartons.

“No problem,” he said again.

But it was a problem.

“Problem!” I said.

“Yes, problem,” Sean said.

“No problem,” Himdad said.

No one has given me more trouble in the Middle East than people who drive cars for a living. It doesn’t matter which country they’re in, they are the most obnoxious and least principled people a typical person will have to deal with on a regular basis.

Himdad already said the Turks have a problem with him because he’s known as a smuggler. For all I knew his face was on the wall in an office just on the other side. That’s more or less what he seemed to be telling us.

Sean and I had entrance stamps and exit stamps in our passports only six hours apart. That looks crazily weird and suspicious all by itself. Ten minutes ago I infuriated the colonel by trying to bribe my way across for a hundred dollars. We didn't exactly look like model American citizens.

What were we supposed to do now? Sit on the bridge for hours and wait to be detained and interrogated all night?

I thought of that stupid 1970s movie Airplane where the captain kept harrassing a ten-year old kid.

Hey, Joey. Do you like movies about gladiators?
Hey, Joey. Have you ever seen a grown man naked?
Hey, Joey. Have you ever seen the inside of a Turkish prison?

I did not want to see the inside of a Turkish prison.

Himdad handed Sean five cartons of cigarettes and pointed at his backpack. Sean looked at me without a word.

“I don’t know,” I said. “What do we do?”

If we didn’t carry five cartons apiece Himdad would be busted for smuggling again before we even got back into Turkey. Then what? He was our ride. Would we get in trouble, as well? Aside from stupid tourists like us, who on earth goes into Iraq for six hours? Who tries to bribe his way across the border except people who are up to no good?

Presumably Himdad knew what was legal and what wasn’t since this was his “job.” So perhaps it was wise just to do what he says and hope for the best. If we were interrogated on the other side we could explain to the authorities that we were smuggling under duress. Himdad didn’t tell us what he was up to until we were exactly, precisely, in the middle of the no-man’s land between Turkey and Iraq when it was too late to turn around and hire a different driver. The man was a championship asshole for roping us into his little scheme.

Sean wearily stuffed five cartons of cigarettes into his backpack. I stuffed five cartons into mine. It felt like a surrender.

We sat in the back of the taxi, pissed off and worried about what would happen next. The line of cars still wasn’t moving. It could be ten hours before we got to the other side. Then Lord only knows what would follow.

The good news was that Himdad didn’t speak English. We could plot our own move right in front of him.

“We could take these cigarettes and throw them into the river,” Sean said.

“Are you serious?” I said.

“Yes. Throw them into the river. He can’t stop us. Then it will be done.”

“Hmm,” I said. “But then we have to sit in this car with him for several more hours. We have no idea how he’ll react.”

I didn’t like Sean’s proposed solution. But I liked the fact that he was trying to come up with one. It got me thinking. I had felt check-mated by Himdad. Sean’s idea, extreme as it was, showed that Himdad hadn’t actually won yet. We could turn right around check-mate him ourselves.

“Here,” I said and clandestinely handed Sean a fifty dollar bill. “Take that to the front of the line. Wave it in somebody’s face and ask if we can hitch a ride across the border. I don’t want to do it myself because the colonel might see me. He won’t recognize you.”

Sean took the money, got out, stretched, and slowly started walking to the front of the line as though he had nothing better to do.

Himdad offered me a cigarette. “No, thanks,” I said. He lit his own cigarette and puffed away contentedly, having no idea that Sean and I were plotting to ditch him by himself on the bridge with his illegal loot.

A few short minutes later I saw Sean walking quickly back to the car with a spring in his step. He looked happy and like he was trying to conceal hidden glee.

“Quick,” he said as he got back in the car. “I got us a ride all the way at the very front of the line.”

“Excellent!” I said. “Now we just need to get these cigarettes out of our backpacks without him seeing.”

I slowly and quietly started to unzip my backpack. Himdad turned around and offered Sean a cigarette. He saw what I was doing. This wasn’t going to work.

“Take his cigarette,” I said to Sean, “and see if you can get him to walk somewhere with you. I’ll unload all this stuff while you keep him distracted.”

Sean got out. “Want to take a walk?” he said to Himdad and gestured for him to get out of the car. Himdad happily got out. Sean slowly walked Himdad away from the car. I saw him squint and point at something off the side of the bridge in the darkness. Himdad also squinted and looked. Perfect.

As quickly as possible I pulled all ten cartons of cigarettes out of our luggage. It took longer than I expected. Sean had so many zippered compartments in his backpack where various cartons were hidden and buried.

Sean and Himdad returned just as I set our backpacks in the street next to the car. There was no turning back now. It was done.

Himdad saw our stuff outside the car. He looked at me with a startled expression.

I pointed at my watch. “Problem,” I said.

Then I handed him the fifty dollars we “owed” him, pointed toward the front of the line and said “taxi.” Presumably he would understand that Sean had just found us another taxi. Then I showed him the ten cartons of cigarettes in the back seat of his taxi so he would know we weren’t ripping him off.

“My friend,” he said and grabbed my arm.

“Problem,” I said and tapped my watch again. “Problem. I’m sorry.” I put my hand on his shoulder so he would understand there were no hard feelings.

He wasn’t happy. Now he had fifteen cartons of illegal cigarettes. He couldn’t smuggle them all by himself without getting arrested again. He would have to throw them into the river. But that was his problem and his fault. I couldn’t let myself feel too bad about that, especially since he unfairly tried to trap us in his criminal enterprise.

Sean and I started walking. Himdad yelled something at us. Sean and I ignored him and kept walking.

“Our passports!” Sean suddenly said.

Oh, that’s right. Our passports were on the dashboard of Himdad’s car. We would have to go back.

I turned around and braced myself. Himdad was running after us with our passports in his hand. Thank God he was a good sport about all of this. He could really have screwed us over.

“Thank you,” I said as Sean took the passports from Himdad. “Thank you.”

He smiled at us now, as though he understood and was over it.

Sean and I hopped in our new taxi at the very front of the line.

“Hello!” I said to the driver and shook his hand. “You aren’t smuggling anything, are you?”

“Eh?” he said as he shook his head in incomprehension. He didn’t speak any English. It didn’t matter. He knew what it meant when a fifty was waved in his face, and that’s what counted.

Two minutes later it was our turn to pull up to the customs house. That may have been the best fifty dollars I ever spent in my life.

A soldier gestured for me and Sean to get out. Another came over and spoke to us in perfect American English.

“Can I see what’s in your backpacks?” he said.

“Of course,” I said, elated that contraband was no longer in there.

“You speak excellent English,” Sean said.

“Well, I should,” the soldier said. “I’m from Long Island.”

“You’re from Long Island?” I said.

“Long Island, New York?” Sean said.

“Born and raised,” he said.

“What on earth are you doing here?” I said.

“I’m Turkish,” he said. “My parents are from here. I’m just doing my military service for my country.”

Technically his country is the United States, if that’s where he was born and raised. Perhaps, though, Turkey is one of those countries - like Ireland and Lebanon - where those living in the Diaspora feel an uncommonly strong bond with the mother country of their extended family.

The soldier from Long Island led me and Sean into the interrogation room. Every person who crosses the border is required to spend some quality time in there with the Turkish army. Amazingly, one of the other soldiers inside was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia.

These two were not all who Sean and I expected to meet in that room. I was worried about the colonel who understandably suspected that I was up to no good. Instead we were “interrogated” by two dudes from the West who looked like they would rather be shooting pool and drinking some beers.

“What it’s like down there in Iraq?” said the young man from Long Island. “Is it scary?”

“Well,” Sean said. “It’s actually kind of nice in the Kurdistan region.”

“It’s a lot nicer than most people expect,” I said. Neither Sean nor I wanted to explicitly say it’s better on the Iraqi side than it is on the Turkish side. Better, I thought, to give them the truth subtly so they wouldn’t think we were hostile or full of it.

We spent a long time in that interrogation room, drinking hot tea, laughing, and swapping stories with our new Turkish friends from the West. They were the absolute last people I expected to “grill” us. They seemed as happy to see as we were to see them.

“You guys better get going,” said the young Turkish soldier from Melbourne. “We’ve kept your driver waiting for a long time.”

“Oh that’s right,” Sean said. “Our poor driver.”

Our poor driver wasn’t the only one who suffered so we could socialize. The entire line of cars on the bridge had to just sit there.

We all shook hands warmly and said our goodbyes. I had a bounce in my step on the way back to the car. I could hardly believe how nicely our crossing turned out after how badly it started. The East is full of surprises.

*

Sean and I weren’t the only ones amazed by who we ran into in the ass-end of war-torn Turkish Kurdistan.

On the dark empty highway an armed Turkish military patrol pulled us off to the side of the road. We were never stopped on our way into Turkish Kurdistan. On the way out, though, the army wanted to know who everyone was and what they were doing.

I pulled the car over. Soldiers bearing rifles completely surrounded us. I rolled down the driver’s side window and reached for my passport. A uniformed officer barked something at me in Turkish. I didn’t understand any of it.

“Hello!” I said. “Do you speak English?”

He jerked his head backward, clearly startled, squinted his eyes, and said something else to me in Turkish.

All the soldiers wore deadly serious facial expressions and held their rifles ramrod straight across their chests. We could have been terrorists or gun-runners for the PKK, and they were not messing around.

I handed him my passport. “We’re Americans!” I said playing up the oblivious aw-shucks tourist persona for all it was worth. “How ya doin’?” Sean gave them all a big grin.

Americans?”

“Yeah, hey, what’s up?” Sean said.

The soldiers looked at each other, looked at me and Sean, looked at each other again, and busted out in big laughs all around. They just couldn’t believe two American tourists would be toodling around blasted-up Turkish Kurdistan, in the middle of the night, just a few miles from Syria and Iraq, in a rental car, with luggage piled up in the back, when five seconds before they were worried we could be terrorists.

The East is full of surprises.

We made it back to Istanbul on time. The only hitch was we got pulled over for "speeding" and were forced to give the traffic policeman fifty dollars in cash.

Sean went back to Copenhagen. I moved on to my next destination in the Middle East.

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. If I were independently wealthy I would do this solely for the love of it and for free. But I need money to cover expenses. The more I raise now the more of this kind of writing you’ll see in the future. Thanks so much for your support so far.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at April 20, 2006 04:17 PM
Comments

Wow. Just.... Wow.

I am clearly not prepared to travel in the Middle East.

Thank you so much for the "day in Iraq" as well as for all your other ME coverage in the past six months. Looking forward to your next destination!

Posted by: diane at April 20, 2006 04:39 PM

Great series Michael.

Posted by: GZ Expat at April 20, 2006 10:44 PM

Excellent and very immediate in feel. Very dangerous venture when you consider how widespread and varied sudden death is in Iraq and a host of other nearby countries.

You have no idea until you see the log listing:

http://www.ReligionOfPeace.com

Aw shucks, no postal box address yet. There must be quite a number of us who will not trust credit card data on line.

Reasons: google [BendGovernment] or [TonyGuitar].

Posted by: TonyGuitar at April 20, 2006 11:48 PM

Tony, everyone in this six-part story is a Muslim except for me and Sean. That "religion of peace" Web site has nothing to say about any of those people.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 20, 2006 11:51 PM

Absolutely Marvelous. Dude, I wish I could donate but I am working two jobs as a college student now. On the plus side, I do tell everyone about your column and I am heavily anticipating your book. Please keep writing. Do you have any pictures of the backup on the bridge?

Posted by: mantis at April 21, 2006 12:02 AM

"The East is full of surprises."

Yeah, those Chinese are a quirky group. Oh, wait.

I was pretty surprised quite a number of times in the US, Canada, Mexico, Latin America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa, East Asia and the Caribbean. I haven't been to been Australia. There might not be surprises there.

I don't mean to take umbridge with a small point, but you do use it twice and it struck me both times. I don't see what's exceptionally Eastern about rough times at a border crossing. Your experience seems to say more about poor countries with large diaspora communities than about any particular region.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at April 21, 2006 01:37 AM

Great great piece. Thank you!

Posted by: Jane Woodworth at April 21, 2006 05:39 AM

Michael - been reading your site for quite a while now. This is some of the best writing online and the effort you go to put out worthwhile, in depth material is impressive. Thanks for your work. Tip jar is hit.

Posted by: Flyer at April 21, 2006 07:54 AM

Top-notch writing! Well worth waiting these past few days to read. Best Wishes on whatever's next!

Posted by: Ken Stewart at April 21, 2006 08:54 AM

Another winner, Michael.

Posted by: Joe Katzman at April 21, 2006 09:21 AM

This whole series sure would make a good novel.. Thanks for the great work!

Posted by: TexasRainmaker at April 21, 2006 11:24 AM

Mr. Totten, the entry of that "ReligionOfPeace" site appears to be basically political spam, akin to the sort of hand-entered advertising for over-the-counter drugs or marital aids that plagues blogs in general. It's just as irrelevant, notwithstanding the superficial keyword matching.

I'd not be surprised if it was actually robot-entered, using one of the captcha-defeater programs (see example listed below).

[http://sam.zoy.org/pwntcha/]

Just to mention it, if you're using WordPress, you might consider the combination of the free (as of last knowledge) "Bad Behavior" and "Spam Karma 2" plugins, plus the (also free) BBStats plugin.

A (defunct) blog example follows, showing not a single spam comment having slipped through in spite of literally tens of thousands of automated attempts from a couple of months ago:

[http://bark.porkalicious.com/]

Posted by: Brother Bark at April 21, 2006 12:07 PM

BTW, that was a hair-raising tale of border fun in the ever-so-soothing Middle East. :)

Posted by: Brother Bark at April 21, 2006 12:10 PM

I am sorry about the lack of pics from the bridge. It was just to weird a situation to whip out a camera. And we were "thinking on our feet" the whole time, not one dull momment. But we sat on that bridge, as it wobbled and shook, over a raging whitewater tributary of the Tigris. For many hours we all stood still, many cars and trucks just parked with their engines off. It wasnt until we found a cabby ready to let us jump in that we made ANY progress. I feel for the Iraqis stuck on the other side of that border. It is a royal pain. But I also understand the fear of the Turks as I know the Kurds are interested in cross border "activity" and the recent spate of violence in Turkey makes it seem all the more real. Sigh.

Posted by: sean at April 21, 2006 12:25 PM

I sort of don't get the point of this series.

It seems to be a series of fairly horrible situations punctuated with relief when someone in these countries you visit turns out to be just normally decent.

Asshole drivers, corrupt guards, incompetent bureaucracy, crappy roads, threatening soldiers, bribery, cold, hunger, weariness, fear. And then you meet someone who is nice to you and the contrast is so sharp that it makes you all warm and grateful to them.

The lesson I've picked up from the series is that yes, indeed, the Middle East is as big a s**thole as I thought it was; and yes there are nice people there (like there are everywhere) and also a lot of dishonest shysters.

I guess what I'm saying is, what's the point? That you didn't know how good you had it here until you went someplace rotten? That there are some good people everywhere? I think we already knew that.

You have a wife. I think you ought to stop putting yourself in dangerous situations and start working on building a career in a safe location so you can assure her of a long good life together. I.e., grow the hell up.

Posted by: Mark at April 21, 2006 12:40 PM

Mark: I think you ought to stop putting yourself in dangerous situations and start working on building a career in a safe location

Thanks for the advice! I already had one of those careers and it bored me nearly to death.

I'm pretty happy with the way my life is going right now. I'll ask for your advice if that ever changes.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 21, 2006 12:52 PM

Great series of posts Michael and Sean.

This last post in particular reminds me of traveling through Eastern Europe back when the Soviets were in charge.

Except we used to bribe the guards with packs of American cigarettes instead of cash. There was always fewer angry looks...

Posted by: dee at April 21, 2006 01:14 PM

Yo people,

Am I the only one who thinks this last piece is much ado about not very much? I mean, Holy Traffic Jam, Batman!!!

BTW, super stealth moves ditching the smokes in the back seat, Michael. You're like some kind of ninja or something.

Posted by: Tommy from New Jersey at April 21, 2006 01:27 PM

Michael and BrotherBark, That Religion of Peace site is an unknown entity to me. I thought it suggested a widespread series of Jihadist events.

Your strong reactions took me by surprise. Guess you are suggesting we should not be too trusting of some of these websites.

Suppose I, and many others are cautioned about sites of that type. Are you suggesting, that while some of the entries are true.. there may be much padding as well? Pretty good con job.

Everything with a grain of salt, I guess. TG

Posted by: TonyGuitar at April 21, 2006 01:37 PM

Some of your stuff is some of the most surreal writing I've ever read. foreign drivers, Turkish soldiers from New York, etc.

If you're not writing a book about this stuff as well as blogging, you should be.

Posted by: Spade at April 21, 2006 01:38 PM

Geez, what a load of crapola from Mark! Personally, I haven't seen something this great on the web in a long, long time. An absolutely excellent series of stories, and excellent writing as well.

Please make this and your other stories into a book. I've hit your tip jar a couple of times so that might actually be a money loser for you, at least from me, but you should do it anyway.

BTW, if you want some advice from me, ignore Mark. You seem to be doing just fine.

Posted by: Pat Hajovsky at April 21, 2006 02:03 PM

Mark says: grow the hell up.

C'mon Mark, you're just can't stand the though of somebody out there having some real experiences and sharing it with the rest of us. Meanwhile, you're frustrated in your boring life going back and forth to your 9-5.

As for Tommy, he clearly still lives with his Mommy.

Michael and Sean, thanks for sharing. It's all been very interesting. The pictures are great. It's nice to see that American's are well received in parts of Iraq, and that there is a lot of prosperity in parts of Iraq. These people treat you and Sean, and American's in general, better than our own press does. :-)

Keep up the good work.

Posted by: MS at April 21, 2006 02:08 PM

Thank you for sharing this amazing and eye-opening tale with all of us. And astounding pictures in the other articles below, as well. Most reporters have no idea of what it takes to get through daily life in the countries they report on.

Posted by: Mike Kelley at April 21, 2006 02:12 PM

Tony Guitar,

The problem with Web sites such as religionofpeace.com isn't that they are completely wrong. Murderous jihadists who subscribe to a deranged ideology really do exist in the Middle East.

Thing is, your average Muslim has little meaningful in common with the crazies. It's easy to scratch a Middle Easterner and have him or her denounce the lunatics as lunatics.

In some places it's easier than others. Islamism is sadly on the rise in Egypt right now.

But. Very few Turks and very few Kurds have anything to do with any jihad. Same goes with Iranians and Algerians who know from personal experience how awful the extremists really are.

The Islamic world is extraordinarily diverse.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 21, 2006 03:01 PM

Michael,

I have enjoyed the series very much. It is good to see a simple, boots-on-the-ground perspective from someone that simply goes there to see what is happening. With no employer or editor or anyone else to please, I sense a freedom in your writing that is very rare.

Kudos for another great series. When are you going to Iran?

Posted by: Impacted Wisdom Truth at April 21, 2006 03:13 PM

Good story. Thanks, 20 bucks in tip jar. Earl

Posted by: Earl at April 21, 2006 05:11 PM

The point of this series is that instead of just letting the media tell you about the world, from the various "green zones", you can actually go there!

Michael and I grew up in small town Oregon. We both have English degrees, but not in journalism, and until recently we both held down geeky tech jobs.

Of course we did not go to Uganda after rebels threatened to kill any white people they see, but I would never have thought that I would have walked around in Iraq and Russia if you had asked me in high school in the 80's.

But I have and now I am much more willing to go to the unkown corners of the globe and look for myself (Iran, N Korea).

Meanwhile, I got to go with Michael's financial help and he got to go with yours. So I think we owe y'all some pictures and stories.

If you put together our two cents with those of others doing the same you can augment (or even counter) the MSM coverage of the region.

And maybe someday you can go there too. We did.

Posted by: sean at April 21, 2006 05:51 PM

Great answer, Sean.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 21, 2006 05:54 PM

Very enjoyable posts. Tip jar was hit yet again this week. How have your perceptions of Portland changed after your six month trip?

Posted by: markytom at April 21, 2006 07:41 PM

Turkey has compulsory military service for all its citizens, and their law considers children born to Turkish parents overseas to be citizens. God help you if your parents are Turks and you travel to Turkey without having served. The BEST you can hope for is to be immediately drafted, the worst would be prison.

Posted by: Buck at April 21, 2006 08:06 PM

"But. Very few Turks and very few Kurds have anything to do with any jihad. Same goes with Iranians and Algerians who know from personal experience how awful the extremists really are."
But did you DARE question their religion, to their face, anyone of them? Did you make a joke at the expense of their prophet?
No, of course not. You were a polite guest in their lands.
And you were damn lucky.

Posted by: Frank at April 21, 2006 08:34 PM

So i read blog this for the first time today.
It seems that this series is well recieved.
I have to say, however, that it was lacking in something akin to afterthought atleast.

Granted I've never been to Iraq and have an unusual amount of sympathy for people (in suffering), it just seems to me that the potrayal of Himdad as a rogue cab-driver was a tad harsh. Hoping that this was your bit of 'writing mimicking real-time' and you were recreating your emotions as you felt them, we are nonetheless talking about Iraq. A war-torn, subjugated country of people trying to survive under threat to life and inhumane conditions.

I'm not sure how much better "Kurdistan" is compared to other areas of the world (besides borderside Turkey). For, I have heard places with toilets that work being described as "rather exquisite". So in my head, when i imagine Kurdistan I imagine an area of Iraq not reeking of smoke, mortar, bombed buildings, raging crowds and ambulances.

And even with all that gone, Iraq in times like this is hard-put to provide decent jobs and wages. Thus it is hard to imagine anyone making a decent living anyway, and if Himdad had to smuggle a few cartons across the border - was it really that unseasonable?

What if his reasons were defendable? As a human he could've been trying to protect/provide/not sell out his family? All perfectly defendable.

Understandably you wouldn't have been in the position to think of this then, but perhaps you should've thought of it afterwards atleast. A little analysis never hurt anyone and it helps to not judge people as quickly the next time.

Another eg of how you have betrayed some faith in understanding that situation: earlier in your description you describe your absolute necessity to get to Turkey in time, and how absolutely crucial it was that this happen in a certain time frame. The fact that cars had come to a standstill on the bridge seemed torturous almost. And yet you seem to have lost sight of this, when you got up front and were "interrogated" by some friendlies spending some length of time with them - it didn't cross your mind once that someone else in that traffic jam could have urgent needs also. They just may not have the finances/reckoning to bribe their way out as you did.

Perhaps as true as your descriptions are they perhaps require some tempering with hindsight.

Posted by: warofthepoopies at April 21, 2006 09:58 PM

So i read blog this for the first time today.
It seems that this series is well recieved.
I have to say, however, that it was lacking in something akin to afterthought atleast.

Granted I've never been to Iraq and have an unusual amount of sympathy for people (in suffering), it just seems to me that the potrayal of Himdad as a rogue cab-driver was a tad harsh. Hoping that this was your bit of 'writing mimicking real-time' and you were recreating your emotions as you felt them, we are nonetheless talking about Iraq. A war-torn, subjugated country of people trying to survive under threat to life and inhumane conditions.

I'm not sure how much better "Kurdistan" is compared to other areas of the world (besides borderside Turkey). For, I have heard places with toilets that work being described as "rather exquisite". So in my head, when i imagine Kurdistan I imagine an area of Iraq not reeking of smoke, mortar, bombed buildings, raging crowds and ambulances.

And even with all that gone, Iraq in times like this is hard-put to provide decent jobs and wages. Thus it is hard to imagine anyone making a decent living anyway, and if Himdad had to smuggle a few cartons across the border - was it really that unseasonable?

What if his reasons were defendable? As a human he could've been trying to protect/provide/not sell out his family? All perfectly defendable.

Understandably you wouldn't have been in the position to think of this then, but perhaps you should've thought of it afterwards atleast. A little analysis never hurt anyone and it helps to not judge people as quickly the next time.

Another eg of how you have betrayed some faith in understanding that situation: earlier in your description you describe your absolute necessity to get to Turkey in time, and how absolutely crucial it was that this happen in a certain time frame. The fact that cars had come to a standstill on the bridge seemed torturous almost. And yet you seem to have lost sight of this, when you got up front and were "interrogated" by some friendlies spending some length of time with them - it didn't cross your mind once that someone else in that traffic jam could have urgent needs also. They just may not have the finances/reckoning to bribe their way out as you did.

Perhaps as true as your descriptions are they perhaps require some tempering with hindsight.

Posted by: warofthepoopies at April 21, 2006 09:59 PM

Markytom: How have your perceptions of Portland changed after your six month trip?

Portland looks like innocent Leave-It-To-Beaver Land to me now.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 21, 2006 11:26 PM

Thanks so much, Markytom, for hitting the tip jar by the way. I just can't do this sort of writing without help from you all.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 21, 2006 11:27 PM

Hoping that this was your bit of 'writing mimicking real-time' and you were recreating your emotions as you felt them

Yes, that's exactly what I was doing.

I have no hard feelings against Himdad. That was possible once I was freed from being sucked into his little enterprise. I tried to make that clear in the article itself when I wrote I put my hand on his shoulder so he would understand there were no hard feelings.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 21, 2006 11:33 PM

Michael, I just listened to the podcast over on instapundit. (All 49 minutes of it) You were really good. Thanks for everything you have done.

Posted by: Cathy at April 22, 2006 02:05 AM

Warofthepoopies - Michael didn't quite express our thoughts during that situation as deeply as he might have, probably for narrative purposes.

But we DID indeed think about the situation from the cab driver's perspective. We clearly understood that he had a need to make a buck and not go to jail either.

Another reader commented that Mike and I were at the mercy of various "nice people" and were basically powerless to act in our own defense. This was not true. As in this cab ride, for instance.

We COULD have simply told the Turkish soldiers what the cabby was up to. We would have been through the line quickly and he would have been in jail. We didn't do that.

We COULD have tossed the cartons over the bridge, other people dumped a few things in the dark as well. But that would have costs the driver plenty.

In the end we did act in our own defense, we found another ride. Michael left out the fact that he not only paid the driver for our ride, he paid him for all those cigarettes too. The driver probably DID toss them off the bridge, or sell them to other drivers, AND he got paid for them probably more than he was going to make in Turkey.

So, he didn't get screwed. And we were never mad at him, just concerned. It WOULD have looked bad for us and it WOULD have delayed us and it MIGHT have gotten us in big trouble.

It turned out that this put us at the front of the line instead of the back... this allowed us a little extra time to talk with the Turkish soldiers. And we probably didn't hold up the line much more than we had to. Our talking with the soldiers was our way of answering the interrogation. We would have had to spend the time regardless, but by making it friendly it went better for everyone involved.

Meanwhile, out at the cab the entire time we had our pleasant chat the soldiers were going over the car with bomb sniffing dogs and mirrors, as they always do. When they were done someone came into the office and told us our driver was waiting. That's when we realized how much time we had spent and made our quick, polite good byes.

Ok, does that explain it a bit more?

Posted by: sean at April 22, 2006 04:05 AM

Yo MS,

I ain't trying to pick no fight, but you should back off if you knows whats good for you, okay?

I don't live with my Mommy no more, God Bless her. I moved at and work at the Post Office in Newark. But she raised me right, you know? I know better than to insult other people's Mothers.

Anywayz... alls I'm saying is that there was all this build up for the last one in the series... and the title sounded really cool. I was psyched, you know? Then, I started reading it, and it turned out all that happened was Michael got stuck in traffic. That happens to me every day when I drive to the Post Office in Newark. So then he greases some cabbie to take him to the front of the line. Wow... I just told the whole story.

Posted by: Tommy from New Jersey at April 22, 2006 09:23 AM

Buck,

You're completely right. It's not one's heart-felt connection to one's country of origin that causes one to rush back to serve in the military. It normally has something to do with obligatory military service. If you want to visit your ancestral home at all for the rest of your life, you've got to serve the time.

Greece used to be particularly bad. At times, they tried to draft third generation Chicagoans for having Greek last names.

Indian and Pakistani Americans feel particularly strongly towards their countries of origin, but don't serve in the military because it's not compulsive.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at April 22, 2006 09:44 AM

Sean,

Good explanation, however, it still don't see the big problem with the cigarettes.

Yes, the guy was irresponsible not to tell you before you left. But, one, you could have told him "No," and he would have then had a chance to sell his stash to another driver. He didn't have the option of turning around and not taking you across, and if he tried any shenanigans, he would have to fear you wouldn't pay him.

Two, what's the big deal about taking the legal amount of the product over the border? I've taken an extra liter of alcohol with me before. If I knew I would be scrutinized like he was, I might have asked a fellow passenger to help me out (as I have seen happen many times on planes).

Does it seem shady? Sure. But, in the end, it really isn't a big deal. Why should the government limit the amount of cigarettes or alcohol you can take across the border? So they can steal your hard earned money by placing tariffs, over taxing, and aiding monopolies in their theft.

The best thing you did, cigarettes, was bribe your way through the traffic jam. If the cigarettes were the impetus to move, then it was them that saved you a few hours. But don't you think throwing the cigarettes into the river would have been a bit extreme? Why not just hand them back to the guy and say, "No?"

Posted by: lebanon.profile at April 22, 2006 09:54 AM

LP: what's the big deal about taking the legal amount of the product over the border?

Because Himdad kept saying he was known as a smuggler, that the Turkish police had a major problem with him for that reason, I had already tried to bribe our way across the border with him standing next to me, and Sean and I had entrance stamps and exit stamps only six hours apart. It didn't look good.

Maybe everything would have been fine. We also could have been detained all frigging night by the colonel. I don't know. The Turks have a reputation for being real bastards at that border. They weren't, in our experience, but we didn't yet know that.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 22, 2006 10:09 AM

In the last paragraph, I meant to say "cigarettes aside."

Posted by: lebanon.profile at April 22, 2006 10:15 AM

It is so refreshing to read your first-person perspective of a little slice of the Middle East. I find that I'm getting tired of the overly-extrapolated articles that some out of limited experience but pretend to speak to a larger whole. That style sets my teeth on edge.

This style is far more honest. You are speaking to what you have seen, and only what you have seen... and when you speculate about the larger picture, you clearly label it as your opinion.

Thank you very much for this whole series. I reiterate that you should perhaps work this into a book. Tim Cahill's done pretty well with "travel writing"; such a book should do well.

Posted by: B. Durbin at April 22, 2006 10:47 AM

Great work. I don't know why you link LGF, that blog is full of morons.

Posted by: gonzo at April 22, 2006 01:16 PM

Lebanon... of course the government limits the amount of untaxed cigs coming over the border, all states do it. If they didn't they would be flooded with untaxed goods. And yes, states have a right to tax all goods entering their country, even something as vital as cigarettes.

Sure it should have been fine to tow the legal line and bring in the exact number of smokes allowed per person. On the other hand the guy was a known smuggler. He also suggested that he often hid smokes in the door panels of the car. Who knows what else he was up to?

We did, in fact, have to open our bags for the Turkish border guards. They probably would have been suspicious given our entry and exit stamps. They could have asked us all kinds of questions and after the failed bribery attempt (again the driver's idea) they could have done worse.

Given our tight schedule we didn't need any delays and we certainly didn't want to be barred re-entry to Turkey and need to ask the US Army for a lift down to Baghdad. So we needed out of the cigarette smuggling racket.

We tried to simply tell the cabby "no" but that pesky language barrier allowed him to play dumb. I only brought up tossing the cigarettes as an extreme measure to counter Mike's assertion that we had no way out. Once I reminded him that we did in fact have a way out he came up with an even better one.

In the end the entire fiasco worked to both our benefit. We got ahead in line and the cabby got paid for the cigarettes from us and still had a chance to either smuggle them or sell them after we left. However, he is still a bastard for not cluing us in on his little game until we were sitting on the bridge ahead of the Turkish soldiers with no way to go back.

Posted by: Sean at April 22, 2006 05:17 PM

Some comments here say something along the lines of, "It was just a traffic jam. So what is the big deal"?

Well, I live in Los Angeles, and certainly have experienced my share of traffic jams. However, I have never had to go through an interrogation in order to get where I am going, and certainly have not had to deal with men toting submachine guns in the process. I mean, the 405 can be pretty brutal, but Yeesh...

Throw in the possibility of being thrown in jail (in Turkey!) as an unwitting accessory to smuggling, and that is all the drama I would need. I find the contemptuous reductionism of Michael's and Sean's story to one of a mere "traffic jam" to be stunningly myopic.

Posted by: Impacted Wisdom Truth at April 23, 2006 03:41 AM

Tommy from New Jersey

In Newark, smuggling cigs don't land you in no Turkish prison, yo, there's more to the story than that.

Very myopic.

Posted by: Mary from Hoboken at April 23, 2006 11:48 AM

Sean,

thanks for the clarification, that was quite an addition to the story. I guess being unaware of some of the actual details makes it harder to see, from a reader's perpective, where you're coming from.

Perhaps if (& when) you publish this - those paragraphs might be a great addition to it.

Posted by: warofthepoopies at April 23, 2006 09:27 PM

Heads up!

Avast just trapped the latest Virus worm for me.
Thanks, Avast.

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that includes the details of the current threat making the rounds, complete with it*s nuclear like yellow alarm device.4/26/06

http://TonyGuitar.blogspot.com

Click on the graphic to enlarge so you can jot down the ID details. Then check against your anti-virus list to see if you are protected.

Lots of malicious Email these days. TG

Posted by: TonyGuitar at April 26, 2006 10:54 PM

I have only read two sections but your story is really interesting and informative - you two seem to be really innovative when things don't go as planned - I would have been nervous about the cigarettes too. As far as the criticism goes - it might help to remember that the authors are not speaking for the country but describing their experiences and reactions - which, in the case of the border crossing, is completely understandable as I have yet to meet anyone who isn't already a little nervous when dealing with the police or the military while visiting another country - especially when you don't speak the language fluently. Good luck with the rest of your travels.

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