Michael Totten

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.
“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.
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