I Hitchhiked Though Iraqi Kurdistan
The station wagon rattles to halt in the dust and the driver turns to me, extending a hand and indicating that this is as far as he’s going. Soldiers man a checkpoint on the T-intersection up ahead and as I grab my pack from the back seat, he shouts something at them about “Australia” – that must refer to me – and “Erbil” – the city I’m trying to get to. With another cloud of dust my ride is gone, and there’s nothing left to do but approach the soldiers and ask: “Erbil?” They nod and invite me to sit down over backgammon and tea. There isn’t much talking – I don’t know any Kurdish and the soldiers are unwilling to engage my attempts at Arabic. For Iraqi Kurds used to persecution by Arab dictators like Saddam Hussein, Arabic isn’t a friendly language.
The Kurds inhabit a mountainous region that covers parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, and their treatment by each of these countries ranges between indifference and outright hostility. Turkey refuses to even recognise their existence, referring to them as “mountain Turks”. Saddam Hussein punished Kurdish aid to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War by gassing thousands of Kurdish civilians to death in the town of Halabja in 1988. All this has led to a strong desire amongst Kurds for the creation of their very own nation, a “Kurdistan” all for themselves.
In Iraq, the US invasion in 2003 gave them the opportunity to carve out a semi-autonomous region that now covers almost the entire northern third of the country. In addition to their unique culture and language, Iraqi Kurds now have their own government, flag and army – the equally feared and respected Peshmerga. As a tourist, you can now cross the border from Silopi, Turkey and get a 10-day tourist visa to the friendly and relatively safe “Iraqi Kurdistan Region”, although there’s nothing stopping you from getting in a bus and gunning it straight for Baghdad – besides common sense.
After an hour, a car pulls over and the soldiers indicate that it’s my next ride. “Yellah,” they’re saying and there’s no choice but to accept. When the boot pops open it reveals a pile of AK-47 assault rifles that I have to push aside to fit my pack, but it’s not until I’m already in the backseat that this strikes me as odd. By then we’re already flying down off the mountains and into the desert flats of Mesopotamia as Lieutenant Mokhdar in the passenger seat is introducing himself and the moustachioed Sergeant Nagov behind the wheel.
“We have holidays for the first time in one year,” Mokhdar is shouting. He’s in his late twenties, a clean shaven officer. “We’re on our way home. But before the trip, we drink whiskey all the morning!” And he throws his head back and cackles.
I respond by buckling my seatbelt, but Mokhdar shakes his head. “Sergeant Nagov here is the best driver in my platoon. The best. You don’t need a seatbelt if he drives.”
Nagov doesn’t speak English, but the way he maintains control of the car while swerving around semi-trailers at 80 kilometres an hour with a belly full of whiskey in him is testament enough to his skill. I ask what they’ve been doing for the past year.
“We fight Al-Qaeda! We do it alone now but we used to fight with the Americans. When we catch them, we hang them by their necks,” and he imitates the expression of a man being hung. “Very good!”
I reply that it must be scary fighting Al-Qaeda and he looks offended. “My friend we are Peshmerga. It means ‘Those who face death.’” There’s a pause. “Anyway, what are you doing here?”
So I tell him about the rumours I’d heard in Turkish hostels, the border crossing at Zakho and the warnings from Captain Obvious over tea in the immigration hall: “You know Iraq is a dangerous country, right?” Mokhdar clicks his tongue in disapproval when I tell him about trying to board a bus from Dohuk to Erbil, and nods when he hears how the driver refused to sell me a ticket.
“This bus goes through Mosul,” the bus driver had said. “If you go there, they drag you away and cut off your head in front of a video camera.” I talk about my dwindling funds, how hitchhiking was the only other option, and how the route to Erbil took me several days through the mountains, stopping awhile at the fairy tale town of Amadiyya, perched on the edge of a valley lined with mountains like jagged teeth.
“Kurdistan is a beautiful place,” says Lieutenant Mokhdar, and I agree.
Before long, Nagov announces that his blood-alcohol level is getting dangerously low, and after picking up some Coronas, lemons and pomegranates we find a suitable patch of desert to settle in for an afternoon session.
“So you’re a Christian,” says Mokhdar after a while, with a bluntness one becomes accustomed to in the Middle East. He smiles when I say the idea of religion hasn’t got me convinced. “Ah, so you worship Mr Darwin.”
He starts talking about how “we’re all the same, regardless of our gods” when Nagov interrupts, glaring at me as he delivers what sounds like a very serious sermon in Kurdish. “He thinks you’re a good man,” Mokhdar translates, “and if you want, you can come to his house in Erbil. He has a wife for you.” I laugh it off, but Nagov doesn’t look like he’s joking.
“He’s serious,” continues Mokhdar. “His daughter is 15 years old and she’s very beautiful.”
As I respectfully decline, I’m thinking I’ve almost checked off all the Middle Eastern clichés – religion talk: check. Offer of a bride, check. I just need someone to offer me some camels for my sister.
“You make sex with many women!” Nagov is saying, apparently.
Mokhdar changes the subject: “Would you like to shoot my gun?” Check.
The desert road has swollen to an eight-lane highway and we can see the outline of the Citadel of Erbil, a mud-brick ruin in the centre of Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital that has, according to legend, been continuously inhabited for the past 8000 years. Later I will find out that only one family actually lives there now, just to keep the record going.
We pass a sign saying we’re 400 kilometres from Baghdad and Mokhdar whirls around in his seat. “You should come to Baghdad with us!” he shouts. I’d love to, but the situation there is probably still too dicey for backpackers. “True,” he replies, “but you know what? Someday we will have peace in this country. Then, bring your friends, your family, your girlfriend. You are welcome to visit my home.” We exchange email addresses and suddenly he’s asking how much money I have. The answer is not much, but it’s customary to tip your lift around here so I offer him a handful of dinars.
“No, not for me,” he says, and pulls out his own wallet, bulging with both dinars and crisp American hundred dollar bills. “If you need money, just take. Please don’t worry, I make plenty,” he insists but I can’t bring myself to simply take another man’s money, especially when he earned it dodging insurgents’ bullets.
Mokhdar smiles at this and starts explaining how much a hotel room, a taxi and a restaurant meal should cost in Erbil when I realise how fast we’re suddenly going. Nagov has stopped making lewd gestures at women in other cars and is glaring at the rear end of the semi-trailer we’re going to hit if he doesn’t slow down. Mokhdar, noticing that I’ve put on my seatbelt and assumed some form of brace position, casually reaches over and takes the wheel from Nagov. We swerve onto the shoulder of the highway, fishtailing in the dust before careening back onto the road and across into oncoming traffic. We dodge a bus on the wrong side of the road and with a final scream from the tyres we stabilise.
“We were just going 150 kilometres per hour!” Mokhdar screams at me as Nagov pumps the Arabic pop on the radio. The traffic is slowing as we pass the scene of a bus crash, and there’s nothing to do but laugh at Mokhdad’s bobbing, finger-clicking dance and try not to think too hard about what just almost happened. “Those who face death,” indeed.
They drop me close to Erbil’s centre where they hail a cab, negotiate a price and then insist on paying it for me. An eternity of hugs and handshakes follows and with a shout they’re off again, speeding south into the desert towards Baghdad.