Michael Totten

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.
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.
“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.
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