Day 391: The Invasion of Iraq

26.01.10:

I blame Lonely Planet. The nearest town to the border of Iraq according to my guide book is a place called Sirnak, the real closest town is called Silopi. If I had known this in advance, I could have got off my bus in Silopi instead of foolishly staying on it until Sirnak. This meant I had to backtrack somewhat.

Yesterday when I asked for a ticket to Sirnak, a Turkish man said to me “why do you want to go there? It’s very dangerous… [gestures firing a machine gun] Best you go to Cappadocia.” Cappadocia’s fairy-chimney charms aside, this remark annoyed me more than scared me – it’s no secret that the Turks aren’t particularly enamoured with the Kurdish people that live in the border regions of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Irritating buggers who have their own fancy language and customs – how dare they? Given the recent history of the Middle East, I think it’s fair to say that these guys ain’t too big on multi-culturalism. Which is a shame because if they would stop acting like brain-dead morons for just five minutes, they might discover that they have more in common with each other than they might think.

But while people are so obsessed with building up walls to keep other humans out (stuff like this always reminds me of Jonathan Swift and his big- and little-enders) we’re going to have what we call, er, a breakdown of communication, Doc. But being an outsider I’m happy to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I have to say that the Kurds did not let themselves down. Polite, courteous, helpful, generous… a friendlier bunch I couldn’t hope to meet. For instance, I get off the bus in Sirnak and I ask to go to the border with Iraq. A guy smiles and tells me in Kurdish to come with him and he gives me a lift to where the local minibuses stop. I get to the minibus stop and am invited into a nearby office to drink tea with the people there. It’s freezing cold, I’m up in the mountains and a glass of hot, hot tea with far too much sugar is exactly what I need. I offer to pay but they refuse to take a penny, instead they help me with my bags and soon I’m on a minibus heading back the way I came, it slowly dawning on me that I could have simply got off my coach two hours earlier and been in the same place.

Oh well, it only cost me a couple of quid to go back and at least I got a cup of tea into the bargain. When I finally got (back) to Silopi, I waited with a Kurdish lady who was also going to the border, before getting into a taxi and running the gauntlet.

Brace yourselves people… I was about to invade Iraq.

As things turned out, it couldn’t be easier… apart from the fact the border closed for lunch as soon as we got there. But once it was open, I didn’t have to queue – I got stamped out of Turkey in double-quick time and before I could say what-what, I was on the Iraqi side of the frontier. This was tremendously exciting. When I was planning The Odyssey, getting into Iraq was a bit of a grey science. My Middle East Lonely Planet pretty much said that all the borders were closed to tourists and under the ‘Solo Travellers’ heading it simply stated ‘You’d have to be mad’. But my LP is a little out of date now and anyway, I wasn’t going to Iraq proper – I was going to Kurdistan.

The Kurdish region of northern Iraq was a UN protectorate for years, even before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but that’s not to suggest that they weren’t jumping for joy when Saddam was finally toppled. The Kurds were Saddam’s favourite whipping boys and suffered a ton of abuse at his command. Yesterday, ‘Chemical Ali’, the mastermind of the gassing of the Kurds in the town of Halabja, was hanged. To say the Kurds were quite pleased about this is an understatement – they were congratulating each other in the streets.

I don’t personally believe that people should be sentenced to death (it makes lawyers far too rich) but I could never imagine what it must be like to lose all your friends and all your family because some psychopathic nutter in power wants the world to know how much of a psychopathic nutter he really is, and gasses a entire town. I mean, how messed up do you have to be??

From the moment I crossed the border, the Kurds went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I was herded to the front of the queue and invited into the office for a cup of tea with the border guards. When they asked me who I was and what I was doing, for the first time in this entire ridiculous journey, I wasn’t made to feel like I was intruding. I felt like they were actually interested – not just for their own gratification, but for my safety.

The chief explained that I was not to go to Mosul or Kirkuk, but anywhere north of there was fine. I nodded. “They will kill you, understand?” I understood. “Good. Welcome to Kurdistan!” and with that they stamped me in – NO VISA, NO FEE, NO PAYMENT, NO BACKHANDER… in I went.

If you want to butter me up (and who wouldn’t?) make sure I don’t need a visa to pop into your country for a visit, or if I do, make it free. Take a bow South Africa, Rwanda and Madagascar, you rock my world.

I had a quick mooch around the town of Z???, I could have turned around and headed back to Turkey, got my head down for the night and taken the 0800 bus towards Cyprus in the morning, but I was intrigued – here I was in the most dangerous country in the world and it was amazingly pleasant. Zarko was neat and tidy, good roads, trees, fountains, pavements… Londa, a friend of the irrepressible Kendra (Cairo), had offered me her couch to surf – but it was in Suleymania, on the other side of the region.

With no news about my visas for the continuation of The Odyssey after this, I figured what the hell. I texted Londa and said I was on my way.

There’s no public transport from Zarko to Erbil, the administrative capital of Kurdistan, so I had to share a taxi with three other people, but it only cost me $10, so I thought what the hell. On the way, we went uncomfortably close to Mosul – I could feel my buttocks clench as the milestones counted down. But then we swung a left and headed away and I breathed a sigh of relief. I doubt I would have got through the roadblocks anyway… my entry stamp is only valid for the Kurdish region.

I have to say though, there were a lot fewer roadblocks than I was expecting.. this is not West Africa by any means. Also, the roadblocks here actually made me feel safer, rather than made me feel like an escaped prisoner of war. And the guys manning the roadblocks seemed to be there for a reason… like our protection, rather than a protection racket – again, unlike West Africa. I can’t put this bluntly enough: the police in over half the states of Africa are just there to line their own pockets while stopping any intra-national or international trade going on, because the most effective way to keep a country on its knees is to keep everybody poor and everything wretched.

Although I have to say, when a guy came out of his little office sporting an AK-47 and wearing a balaclava, I did my best to stay calm… I had just heard about an attack in Afghanistan carried out by insurgents posing as soldiers, but I needn’t have worried, he looked at my passport, flashed me a smile and said “welcome”. It was bitterly cold, so the balaclava was necessary, but it still freaked me out.

When I got to Erbil, I had missed the last bus onwards, so it was another service taxi for the rest of the journey to Suleymania. I arrived at Londa’s around 11pm. She lived in a big new apartment complex, one of those where the block letter is written in neon light on the top (like the cover of The Killer’s Hot Fuss album) in a place called (somewhat bizarrely) German Village. In the distance, the snow-covered hills surrounded me like sentinels.

My word – I was in Iraq. At 11 o’clock at night, walking through a city I had never been to before that isn’t even mentioned in my Lonely Planet.

I was in IRAQ.

My name is Graham Hughes and THIS is The Odyssey.

Day 392: Drunk… with an AK-47

27.01.10:

Londa hails from a place called Colorado in a little out-of-the-way country called America not far from Comoros, Sao Tome and Djibouti. She’s been living in Iraq now for more than six months and seems to quite like the place. I guess it makes a change from fast food, big fat fatty fat fats and weird ball games that nobody else in the world plays. She’s working in the school here in German Village, as (seemingly) are most of the people who live in these apartments.

Funnily enough, I’m not Londa’s only CouchSurfer; she’s also hosting a lovely girl from Amsterdam named Felia, who is interviewing ethnic Kurds for a ‘Uni’ project. Today, I went out for a walk around the town, got my beard trimmed and stuffed my face with kebab (the only food seemingly available round these parts).

If I can just make one teeny-tiny complaint about Iraq? Kebabs need SAUCE! Oi! Egypt – pay attention!! A few lukewarm shreds of lamb in a bit of pitta does not a kebab make! Mayo! Chilli Sauce! Yoghurt! Ketchup! Something! Anything! Come on, you’re killing me over here. Suleymania is a neat little city, very orderly, surrounded by hills peppered with snow. It was tremendously cold, but that wasn’t going to stop me.

I promised I wouldn’t go on about how friendly everybody is any more than I have to, but er, well… you know when you go into a nightclub that you don’t feel comfortable in? One in which the glamour girls pout and the Brylcreem crowd discuss rpms and bpms and you don’t feel you belong? You know when you feel about as welcome as a sausage in a synagogue? Well, Kurdistan is the opposite of that. These guys, shut off from the rest of the world for so long, go out of their way to make you feel appreciated, wanted… and safe.

The snarling what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here? of other countries that it would be remiss of me to mention, was swept away, and here I was in a land in which the poor man, who has slogged his guts out over land and sea just to visit, to see you, to hear what you have to say, is welcomed with open arms as opposed to cool indifference or outright hostility. Thank you, Kurdistan, thank you Iraq… you have made me want to continue this quest to its bitter end. You’ve reminded me of the common humanity we all share, the journey we took to be where we are today and the future so delicate in our hands…

When I was in Cape Verde I got messages off people who seemed to think that I deserved to spend six days sharing a tiny, unlit jail cell with ten other people because “I turned up uninvited” (a fax from the UK representative of Cape Verde was apparently not enough notice). This upset me at the time, but now it just infuriates me – what is going through these moron’s heads? Do they not see that we’re all in this together and that the hapless wayfarer they invite in might one day turn out to be themselves? Or is that not the way it works anymore?

I may as well put my cards on the table right now – I don’t believe in many things, and I certainly don’t believe in karma (sorry, Earl) – too many villains have died a peaceful death in their beds (Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Stalin…) for me to buy it. But there is a balance sheet in life (the only people who raise statues to despots are despots themselves) and that balance sheet should be in the black – the positive things you’ve done in your life, the times you’ve been there for your friends and family, the times you’ve welcomed a stranger, the times you’ve spread happiness instead of spitting in the face of another… it should be in the black. That’s all I’m saying, and if the good folks of northern Iraq have the right attitude, then so should you.

Anyways, later Londa returned to the flat and we headed out to the market together with Felia. Downtown Suleymania! We popped into a tea shop… man, these guys take their tea SERIOUSLY! It was more like a fast food joint; over a hundred happy tea-drinking customers – the teamaker-in-chief filling the little hourglass glasses like a man possessed. We were invited to take a seat. Londa tried to get me to drink my tea out of a saucer, but as I explained to her, I’m an Englishman, not a cat.

After drinkies, we rose to leave and attempted to pay our hosts… did they overcharge? Did they hell. They didn’t even want paying. Thank you for coming, the tea is on the house.

My word, this is what makes it all worthwhile. You might scoff at this and wonder what they hell I’m on about, it’s only a cup of tea – but it’s more than that, it’s what that cup of tea represents. In my country (I love it, but it does spin me out on occasion), they think it’s acceptable for you to pay £60 for a two-and-a-half hour trip on the train to London. That’s a little under two days wages if you’re on minimum wage. Upon this train, not only are they happy to charge you £5 an hour to use their Wi-Fi (in Turkey, it’s free), they will also blithely charge you £2.10 for a cup of tea.

This situation disgusts me, not just in terms of morality, but also in terms of business – what possible good can come of pricing 95% of the population out of using your product? Unless you happen to be Rolls Royce, of course.

Where’s the service? Where’s the brand loyalty? Where’s the love? Do you think if Virgin Trains went bankrupt tomorrow anyone would be crying in the streets? Not a chance. They might even do a little dance. Such is the ‘public’ transport in the UK, to paraphrase Jim Bob; the public get the transport that no public would deserve… but how much would we love those trains, how quintessentially English would they be if they gave out free cups of tea. I can see it in the Lonely Planet now… “the trains in England are a bit of a rip, but the free cups of tea make up for it”.

Am I the only one thinking this? Am I the only one left who can give you twelve reasons why the customer matters?

Well, given the current state of British Cinema and the cattle-herding culture of our supermarkets, magazines, television and nightclubs, I think I’m alone on this one. What a difference a cup of tea could make. It could change the world.

After tea, I got chatting with a Kurdish guy who had been living in London for the past few years, but had now returned to his homeland (as we all will do one day). Had things got better since the invasion? His, and many other Kurds, answer was an unequivocal YES, something that should give Tony Blair a bit of an umph when he comes to give testimony to the Iraq Inquiry on Friday.

At the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I debated the issue with my mate Glenn – he was, like all right-thinking individuals, against it. So was I – up to a point. What was the point? Well, simply this: I don’t think that any criminal in the world should be allowed to get away with it. There is a strange but quintessentially British concept that people should be given a sporting chance to not have to account for their crimes, but that doesn’t hold much water with me, I’m sorry.

Of course, invading a country to take down one mad dictator is akin to cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer, and that’s where mine and Tony Blair’s views differ – I would have been much more sneaky, but the result would have been the same – the downfall of a tyrant. If you want to destroy my sweater, pull this thread while I walk away…

Although with my plan there would have been no Guantanemo, no Abu Grabe, no ‘crusade’, no open invitation to every coked-up and horny teenager in the region to blow themselves up in a vain effort to get laid.

But there is no place for my James Bond Supervillain scheming in this adventure, I’ve just got to get on with the job in hand. But if you want the opinion of the guys up here in Kurdistan, it’s thanks Tony and the British Army, you did the right thing.

After our mooch, we were invited around to Londa’s neighbour’s flat for a bit of a shindig. Sam and Jenny, my word, what a pair of superstars. Sam is half Spanish, half Lebanese (with a handle-bar moustache that almost puts Stan’s to shame) and Jenny is from the Philippines. Actually, looking around the room, it was like the UN had dropped by for some booze and delicious food… although as I looked around the room I found it beginning to spin…

I had already drank a bottle of whisky when Sam suggested we pop out and get some more… something you should know about Iraq: the booze is remarkably cheap. By 11pm, I was sitting in Sam’s flat wearing a crash helmet and sporting a (real) AK-47 explaining why England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty.

To cut a long story short, I got gloriously (and dementedly) wasted and did a few things that I would totally regret could I remember doing them. Luckily for me, Sam and Londa were on hand to look after me, so I didn’t end up face down in the snow believing I was in a wonderful world made of icing sugar.

One thing I do remember though: me and Sam arm-in-arm doing our best Satchmo impressions on a kick-ass rendition of Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong. Unfortunately, I’ve already used that for a tune of the day.

Day 394: Chav and Chav-Nots

29.01.10:

You know what though – all these dangerous places I’ve been to, I haven’t seen one gang of horrible teenage lads hanging around on a street corner with their hoods up threatening passers-by for no better reason than they’re too stupid to think of anything else to do. (Plus nobody stops them.) When I lived in Orrell Park in Liverpool, I wouldn’t let them interfere with my wish to go to the shops at night, but even I had to admit that their presence made me much more anxious (in terms of fearing of injury or death) than my time in Lagos, Kinshasa, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Iraq put together.

So next time somebody tells you not to go to such-and-such dangerous place, might I suggest you take them by the arm and go for a stroll to your go see your friendly neighbourhood scallies hanging around outside Blockbuster on a Friday night. Then tell them there ain’t no chavs in Sierra Leone, baby… happy days.

Today, I (reluctantly) left Sam and Jenny’s flat and plomped myself on a bus back towards Turkey. Sam reckons he’ll see me in Melbourne for Christmas, and you know what, I believe him. The bus took me as far as Erbil (or Arbil or Irbil, whatever) and as soon as I was off it, I was stuffed into a shared taxi to Zarko. The guy in the passenger seat spoke English and we discussed many things, including the fact that Tony Blair was being interviewed by the Iraq Inquiry today – it’s bizarre when your silly little life and important international events converge. What did he think of it all? He didn’t understand why there was an inquiry in the first place. I guess that says everything as far as the Kurds are concerned. I’m sure that other people in this country (and ours) have very differing options, but I’m offering this as a non-professional piece of journalistic intrigue.

Once we arrived in Zarko, it was cold. REALLY cold, and the last thing that I wanted was to be held at the border for five hours. But that’s exactly what happened. It would appear that getting into Iraq is a lot easier than getting out. I knew it was a hopeless cause once I was told that I needed the signatures of not one, not two but THREE different military-types in order to not have my camcorder tapes impounded. The whole process took over an hour, and that was just one step on our arduous journey covering the half-mile that constituted the border. It was one in the morning before long, I was in the town of Silopi on the other side.

Something I found hilarious, though – the lengths my service taxi-driver went through to hide the duty-free ciggies he and the other passengers had bought. You’ve seen that bit in The French Connection? It was a bit like that. I haven’t seen so many hidden compartments since I last played Wolfenstein. Roll with it, people… roll with it.

I just spent the last three days in Iraq… what did you do this week?

Day 395: The Silopi Slope

30.01.10:

I had checked in to a local hotel in Silopi, sharing a room with a few other guys to get the price down to $10 (which was pretty extortionate if I stopped to think about it). I worried that I had mucked up the time difference between Iraq and Turkey and would find that my bus to Silifke had left half an hour ago, but that didn’t entice me to rush and I squeezed every last bit of sleep out of the situation that Chronos would allow. The bus station was just across the road.

I wanted a seat on the 8pm bus to Silifke, the town from which I could get the boat to Cyprus and therefore tick off that last remaining country on my list of European Nations. However, the bus was sold out and so I found myself hanging around for a couple of hours for the next one and what followed was a day so mired in confusion and conflicting information, I don’t know where to begin.

It was as though nobody knew how the hell I was to get to Silifke, least of all me. I therefore ended up getting off the bus no less than four times before clambering back on board the same bus again and again. It wasn’t until late afternoon when I finally got on a separate bus, assured that this was the right one. Funnily enough, when we stopped for dinner, my fellow diners were my friends that I had made on the first bus… weird.

After a minibus ride, another bus and finally another minibus, I arrived in Sillifke in the wee small hours feeling very much like a pinball with a ticket to go somewhere. I checked into the first hotel that would accept my $10 and got my head down for the night. Tomorrow: Cyprus.