Tour of Duty


in Archive


I tried getting into Iraq the easy way first, by applying for a tourist visa. The first Iraqi I ever met, a diplomat in Bangladesh, clapped me on the shoulders when I rang the embassy’s buzzer and asked for a visa in early 2001. “Let me tell you about my country,” he said, shifting in his sandals and flicking a cigarette butt into a puddle. No one gets in as a tourist, he explained, except by joining an expensive group tour. He looked me over — my dirty hat, scuffed boots, goofy grin — and said I could never afford it.

His was the friendliest of several Iraqi visa denials I would receive over the next two years, and it made me want to visit all the more. Some of the impulse to visit was the urge to defy these bureaucrats, to see what an entire sinister government apparatus wanted to hide. Some of it was curiosity about history, particularly the sites of the early Shiite bloodbaths in southern Iraq. Some was curiosity about the present — the smells of the Baghdad markets, the view from Erbil’s Citadel, the quiet desperation of being an Iraqi. And the rest was a simple instinct to go forth and get my first lesson about a place I didn’t know or understand. The travelers I admired tended to be the ones who set out long before borders became solid, who didn’t know what they would find when they arrived. Why travel, I thought, if not to be disabused of propaganda?

In 2003, I lived in Cairo, just a couple of blocks from the Iraqi Airways office. The office was always empty, shut down by sanctions and no-fly rules. I walked by it almost every day. A few weeks after the U.S.-led invasion, when the anti-American rioting in Cairo had cooled and U.S. tanks were rolling unmolested through downtown Baghdad, I walked by and noticed that Saddam Hussein’s portrait, the empty office’s only human presence, was gone. I drove past the Iraqi embassy that night: There, too, the portrait outside (once staring out defiantly in the direction of a senior U.S. diplomat’s residence) had vanished. I took this as a sign of change, and perhaps of a looser visa regime, now that Saddam was in his spider hole.

The Iraqi diplomats in Cairo still wouldn’t give me a visa, but they had a quaver in their voices, the spooked tension of foot soldiers whose officer has gone AWOL at a decisive moment. I wondered: In the confusion, might I be able just to walk to the border and cross without any paperwork at all? I traveled first to the Turkish border, but before I reached Iraq, the Turks intercepted and nearly deported me. (They let me go after I pretended to be a dumb tourist, a role for which I had many years of method-acting preparation.)

Then, after a few months, I finagled an Iranian visa. By the beginning of 2004 I was at the Iranian border-town of Qasr-e Shirin, standing in line with hundreds of others at a tidy immigration hall, waiting to be cleared to enter Iraq. I intended to cross in, spend a few days in Kurdistan, then visit Baghdad, Najaf, and Karbala before leaving for Jordan.

For the others in line with me, the trip was spiritual. The Shiite sites I wanted to visit in the south attracted pilgrims from Iran and elsewhere, and in a couple of weeks, thousands would come to observe Ashura — a day commemorating the slaying of Imam Hussein, grandson of Muhammad — on the plains of Karbala, just south of modern Baghdad. I stood in line and didn’t particularly stand out, except when I handed over my Western passport. The Iranian immigration officer asked me why I was going to Iraq, and I said the same reason as everyone else — as a pilgrim to Karbala. He emitted a low whistle and, loath to question my faith, let me pass.

The Iranian border guards opened a rusty metal gate that marked the official border. Not five steps into Iraqi territory, a man with a Kalashnikov stepped from behind a barrier. He pointed his weapon at me and asked, “Saddam good, or Saddam bad?” I stuttered, and he laughed before escorting me to a concrete building, empty except for a single Iraqi immigration officer, a Kurd loyal to Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

He flipped through my passport, pausing with interest over the Arab stamps. “You have no visa,” he said eventually. “You need a visa. I am sorry.” My heart sank. I prepared myself to get thrown out of the country, ejected back to Iran. “I am sorry,” he continued, “that my country has no embassies to issue visas yet. So I have to let you in.” And then he whipped out a little rubber stamp, and smacked a blue triangle into my passport, with his name and “IRAQ – MUNTHIRIA” written on it.

I walked out flushed with fear, wondering how to proceed now that I was in Iraq, had no Iraqi money, and knew nothing about where I would sleep when the sun went down in six hours. I thought of hitching a lift with the Iranians, but I wanted to go north to the comparatively safe region of Kurdistan before heading to the more dangerous south. As I pondered a strategy, taxi drivers spotted me and closed in, yelling “Hundred dollars! Baghdad!” — a dollar figure I could scarcely afford, and a destination I dreaded. I argued over fares to Sulaimania until a man in a truck approached me and offered in French to give me a lift to the taxi stand in Khanaqin, the nearest town. He was an Iraqi businessman, bald and with a snowy beard that reminded me of Santa Claus. There were dozens of cans of dye in the back of his truck, cargo he intended to bring to Baghdad to supply beauty salons. He offered a ride all the way to the Baghdad Sheraton (another luxury the meager cash strapped to my belly would not permit), but I got out at Khanaqin and picked up the first shared taxi heading north to Sulaimania.

We passed houses and towns that had been flattened by decades of war, pounded into the dust by Saddam in retaliation for the Kurds’ fight for independence and too-friendly relations with Iran. Every few minutes we passed a building that looked as if it had been stomped on by a race of giants and then abandoned for 20 years. A checkpoint stopped us after an hour, and I met the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas who would protect and annoy me during much of the next week. They emptied my bag and interrogated me, searching for evidence that I had come with ill motives. I didn’t speak Kurdish, but I could get by in Persian, a language many Kurds spoke well, having fled Iraq temporarily for Iran. My Iranian visa, a Hizbullah souvenir keychain (coffin-shaped, with a photo of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah), and books in Persian made them think I might be an Iranian spy. Eventually, in Sulaimania, the regional chief of security, Sarkawf Kubba, gave me a sheet of paper with his signature, which when presented at roadblocks allowed me to pass without trouble. It was in Kurdish. “This man is a moron, a danger only to himself,” I imagined it said. “He also smells bad, and likes to practice his Persian. Permit him passage without let or hindrance.”

I stayed first in Sulaimania, in Iraq’s cold and mountainous north. I arrived after dark, ate a dinner of baklava, and slept in a freezing hotel that cost $2 per night. I wandered Sulaimania over the next days, picnicked in the cemetery on a hill overlooking the whole city, and made a day trip to visit Halabja, site of the poison-gas attack by Saddam. Other than the suspicions of the peshmerga, who every time they found me thought they might have caught a prize spy, the only sense of acute danger was in Halabja. Islamist sentiment was strong there — Zarqawi’s Ansar al-Islam had been active nearby — and the peshmerga insisted that I travel everywhere with armed guards, supplied at no cost by the Kurdish regional government. The Kurds claimed to the world that their territory was safe, and the death of a foreigner would have hurt their p.r. campaign.

I hitched a ride out of the city with a German-speaking Kurd and spent half an hour on an uneasy prowl around the city of Kirkuk before heading north to Erbil, the largest and most prosperous Iraqi Kurdish city. I took a luxury hotel room next to the Citadel, at a cost of about $10 per night. For this sum I had a hot shower and viewing rights to a cable television downstairs. For three days I wandered the streets, ate kebabs for every meal, and explored the Citadel. But at night the streets were empty, and I stayed in, drinking whiskey with the hotel manager and watching an early-1990s Peter Scolari movie on cable with an Iranian trader.

Erbil and Sulaimania were safe, but sooner or later I would have to go into the Arab south, the region where I was most likely to get myself blown up, shot, or beheaded. In a way, I had no choice. The Turkish border wasn’t, to my knowledge, open yet, and I had no visa to return to Iran or cross into Syria. Moreover, I wanted to see Baghdad, and I suspected (rightly, as it turns out) that Arab Iraq would become even more dangerous if I waited. If I didn’t see it now, I thought, I never would. In preparation, I did what any sane person would do, which is to say I relied on advice from strangers on the Internet. I posted questions about safety on travelers’ bulletin boards on the Web, and I received what sounded like knowledgeable replies. A Danish lawyer had undertaken a similar trip and advised me not to lodge in the African Quarter of Baghdad, supposedly cheap but deadly. And he said Tikrit was not worth the time.

Another poster, who went by the handle TravellinAndi, said he could arrange a safe place to stay in Kirkuk, the bitterly contested northern city, if I could make it to the gate of the U.S. air base near the city center. I said I’d be there at 3:00 the next day. I stuffed myself with five Kurds into a taxi bound for Kirkuk — a journey that lasted less than an hour, but by the end frightened us all. We chatted merrily on the road, but at Kirkuk’s city limits we all grew silent and our heads swiveled outward, looking at the city streets for signs of a sniper or a bomber. If we had spotted one, the best we could have done would have been to scream and floor it, but chances are we’d simply be dead.

As it happened, though, the greatest danger we faced was from the skittish soldiers manning a U.S. Army roadblock. Traffic slowed as we approached, and the Kurds, agitated, begged me to poke my head out the window and greet them in a way that would keep us from getting shot. I did so, and the nearest specialist waved us through, perhaps less surprised than he should have been that an American was riding shotgun with a group of Iraqis. After the checkpoint, they dropped me off and I wandered downtown for about an hour before hailing a cab and asking it to take me to meet TravellinAndi at the gate.

Andi turned out to be a California longhair working at the base on a contract basis, a Milo Minderbinder-type who scavenged and had dozens of schemes going on the side. The freeloading hippie in him appreciated my gall, and he let me sleep in a tent outside his quarters, eating military chow, for as long as I needed. I gratefully accepted. The Air Force patted me down and had a K-9 unit sniff my bag for bombs on the way in, but afterward I came and went freely within the base’s perimeter. At the dining facility, I ate delicious crinkle-cut French fries (bought with my tax dollars, I thought — this made them even tastier), and at a call center I rang my parents in Dallas, on the Department of Defense’s dime.

At the end of my stay, I hitchhiked from the gate to the Kirkuk bus terminal and caught an early-morning shared taxi to Baghdad. Along the way, we stopped once, and an Iraqi fellow passenger, an Assyrian Christian who said he had been a general in Saddam’s army, shared a bag of pistachios. During the four-hour drive, we passed numerous buildings stripped down to skeletons by looters. “Hawasim,” he said, sighing and using the distinctively Iraqi slang word for the looters. He pointed at a building whose roof had been plundered for its tin, and then swept his pointing finger over at the truck passing us — a government vehicle, probably stolen just at the outbreak of war less than a year earlier. The General said the hawasim had taken a bad situation and made it terrible. But he said, too, that life in Iraq was always bad, and that as an old man who had fought in the Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War, he was used to bad situations.

In Baghdad, security deteriorated from the day I arrived. It was Ashura, the mourning day for which the Iranians at the border had come. Iraqi Shia gathered at mosques in the city to weep. Their crowds made irresistible targets for bombers: Hundreds died, and taxi drivers urged me to go inside and wait for the butchery to end. I had intended to go to Karbala that day, but no one would take me. So instead I spent the afternoon on my balcony at Al Fanar Hotel, finishing the General’s pistachios and watching Blackhawk helicopters zoom over the Tigris. That night I slept well, weary with a day of fear, and lulled by the choppers’ buzz and the booms and rattles of bombs and guns.

After days of driving around the city, seeing sights, and continuing my diet of kebabs and adrenaline, I went to a taxi stand and bought a seat in a GMC Suburban bound for Amman, Jordan. This was what I came for, sort of: a peek at Iraq’s present and past, undistorted by government minders or the reports of others. I traveled as I pleased, and I felt limited mostly by my own terror at being kidnapped or murdered. I was happy, although this terror was, on reflection, perhaps a significant limitation in itself.

Once we left Falluja and Ramadi — we stopped for gas and food, and I attracted many unwelcome stares — the drive was uneventful, five hours of the most boring sandbox in the world. One passenger, a Dutch-Iraqi named Zed (“Zayed”) spoke some English and chattered excitedly with the others when he discovered that I had come to Iraq as a tourist. We played a kind of “I Spy” with my growing Arabic vocabulary and with Dutch I had picked up years before. City gave way to desert, and after “dust” we ran out of objects to spy.

Then we saw the carcass of a truck, cannibalized by looters, with everything but its chassis picked clean. “Hawasim,” I said, and rolled my eyes. At this, Zed cackled hysterically, and poked his compatriots. “He is not Iraqi,” he sputtered. “But he thinks he is!” • 31 March 2008