Driving across the Nineveh Plain on the first sunny day in weeks. Emerald green everywhere, like drinking a colour. There’s still snow on the mountain tops fringing this huge expanse of low flat. Signs of conflict are everywhere. The road is broken sporadically by haphazardly strewn concrete crash barriers, pushed apart to let vehicles use the road now that this is no longer close to the fighting. Many are pockmarked, split and crumbling in parts. Now a handy perch for the smiling children sitting atop them, swinging their legs and hawking sodas and bottled water, their usage has morphed into something more benign.
In the middle of nowhere, a man has set huge heaped baskets of olives on the tops of four upturned oil drums by the road side. They glisten slickly in the sunlight. Khaki/sage/black ovals of last year’s sun reflecting the light of this year’s succulently back. From this distance it is hard to tell whether the small villages along the way have been destroyed by conflict, or simply succumbed to the dust and heat of a hundred 50degree summers. There is much construction evident. Though whether these half buildings remain unfinished due to tax evasion or economic crisis is hard to say.
A month ago this trip would have made me anxious. But now I realise that Hafiz was right. I was never not coming here. And so there is no point or merit in fear. Especially not that born of inexperience and naivety. And anyway, I have already been here countless times before. And shall be again countless times forever. Every one different and every one exactly the same.
A dense scatter of pastel blocks nestled at the base of a mountain range, Dohuk is Kurdistani bizarchitecture at its finest, Ayn Rand would have an absolute fit.
The road from Dohuk to Zakho sports a continuous line of palm trees down its central reservation, their fronds pleasantly backdropped by snow covered mountains in a startle of juxtaposition. The outskirts of Zakho bring us to a stop, next to a couple of jeeps full of armed Federal Police. My driver waves his arms vaguely and says things in Kurdish. I can only assume he is asking where I’d like to go. I try
“Turkish border” Blank stare. “Turkey”
“Yes please” Blank stare, more hand waving.
I call over the Federal Police and ask if anyone speaks English. Negative that. I get out my passport, wave it around a bit while saying
“Turkey. Visa. Border” repetitively.
I realise I am doing a sterling job of fulfilling the criteria for whoever it was (Einstein’s?) definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Eventually we call the big boss. The big boss tells me he knows I want to go to Turkey,
“For visa run” he states.
“Yes” I agree, “but can you please tell the driver?”
We reach somewhere that resembles a border crossing not in the slightest and park the car. The driver stubs out his cigarette and strides purposefully out of the vehicle. “Come along” he says, sternly, boosting my hopes that perhaps he does in fact speak some English. Alas this somewhat surprising colloquialism turns out to be an isolated incidence. I ask him if he is quite sure that this is the Turkish border. He smiles congenially and says “Come ALONG” I trot after him as he asks some more Federal Police something and then, with another sharp “Come along!” he races off through the door of what looks like a station waiting room. We tap on several glass partitions and have a number of quite involved conversations in our respective languages. I smile and say,
“I’m really sorry, I have no idea what you are saying” a lot.
I am given a small piece of paper with some Arabic (I think) on it. We take this with us, out of the building, across a square and into another building. This one looks like an office block. We go up umpteen flights of stairs, our conversation confined to sporadic “Come ALONG”s and the odd “I have no idea what we’re doing, but thank you very much for helping me”s. Eventually we arrive at a room, on the door of which is written: Residency Office and in which sit two men, smoking – they take my little piece of paper and give it a jolly good stamping. Then they ask me how I am, in English. I delightedly reply that I am fantastic, but wondering whether this is in fact anything to do with the Turkish border or have I just applied for some sort of Iraqi residency? Unable or unwilling to shed any light on this matter, which they make clear is of no interest whatsoever to them, they peruse my (British) passport and offer me an almond. Aha! I think, I know this one – some rather marvellous friends of mine mentioned being offered almonds that never materialised all through their trip across Iran. Eventually they worked out that it is in fact “Almand?” – which is actually “are you German?” and not “Almond?” at all. So I say,
“No, no, British, UK”
They nod sagely and reel off a list of football club names. And then we head back downstairs, back across the square and back to the room that looks like a station waiting room. We re-knock on all the little glass partitions, we re-have the same sorts of quite involved simultaneous monologues in our respective languages. And eventually one of the men behind one of the glass partitions rigorously stamps my passport and relieves me of a thumb print. And then takes my little piece of paper away and dismisses me with the sort of hand wave you might make to brush some dust off your suit jacket. What now? I wonder. But my driver ushers me out with another
And walks with me to a road – along which he points and makes the sort of gesture one might when one is releasing some sort of creature back into the wild and that creature isn’t really making any move to leave – a sort of two handed “Go on now little one…” I look down the road. In the distance is a long line of trucks and yes, if I squint hard, I can make out something that does look a little more like a border post. I turn to the driver and he makes turningasteeringwheel motions with his hands and then handstogethertosideofhead sleeping gestures and I hope this means “I am going to go back to the car where I will sleep until you come back” I’m glad I didn’t pay him yet I muse, that should buy me another few hours if this takes as long as I suspect it might.
And I toddle off along this road, into the distance, on my own. Eventually it takes me across a large river, possibly the Tigris and then past a long row of stationary trucks and cars with despondent people sitting on the floor next to them. No one else appears to be on foot. I reach the sort of booth that usually has a man requiring to look at your passport within. There’s no one there. I carry on, through more and more hot and despondent looking men and two more empty booths. Everyone is staring balefully at me. I decide to believe that this is because they are bored to the point of jumping into the Tigris, so any distraction at all is stareable at. Rather than it being incredulity because I’m not meant to be there. I try beaming at them and am relieved to note small smiles in return. Some buildings appear to my left, and once I’ve passed them a man comes running up and indicates that I was meant to go in. I do. There is a security x-ray machine. I put my handbag and jacket on it. And wait. And wait. While some dude unpacks every single item from the three large bin liners that amount to the luggage of a portly, older lady, who on the whole seems to be taking this indignity rather well. Eventually we get to my handbag, which receives a very unimpressed glance and I’m allowed to progress to some more glass partitions and have some more involved simultaneous monologues before being waved away. I look ahead and am slightly disconcerted to see that there’s nothing there, aside from more stationary vehicles and despondent people, for ages. I wonder whether I’ve left Iraq and am now in no-man’s land, am still in Iraq, or if this is now Turkey. With nothing for it but to walk on. I walk on.
After what seems like a very long way, I finally arrive at a booth that says Passport on it and actually has someone inside! I hand him my passport – he rifles through it. About 6 times, and then says,
“Visa?!” My turn to look blank,
“Where visa?” he says.
“What visa? This is turkey, I get a little sticker thing on arrival as far as I remember…”
“VISA!” he says.
A nice Kurdish man appears and helpfully shows me his visa,
“He is saying you need one of these”
The booth man points at the Kurdish man’s visa and in a satisfied tone announces,
“Visa” then points at me “You. No visa”
I point out that my passport is British, so I don’t need the same visa an Iraqi citizen does to enter Turkey. And then I just stand there, blocking access to the booth for anyone else. I smile at the booth man. I smile at the Kurdish man and we have a little chat, about how long it took him to get his visa (2 weeks). I smile at the booth man again when he waves his hands back towards Iraq and says something that quite possibly translates to “You’re not coming in here without a visa, go and spend 2 weeks applying for one now.” I cross my arms, lean against the booth and apologise to the Kurdish man – who assures me it’s fine – his car is parked miles back down the queue so he isn’t going anywhere fast anyway. I smile at the now obviously irate booth man again. We do this for about 10 minutes, before he starts gesticulating in the other direction. The Kurdish man informs me that he is now saying I should go the other way. So I do – wondering where I can find a visa sticker, as I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get back out again without one. I find a promisingly official looking building and go in to see whether I can find anyone to ask. A very nice man helpfully escorts me to an empty, locked office and says that everyone is having lunch now. They’ll be back in a few hours, so I can come back then. Oh joy. I exit the other side of this building and find another very helpful man who kindly escorts me to what he says is a Police station. Inside the Police station are a couple of bored looking policemen, who perk up when they see me and demand to view my passport. They ask how I am there without a visa. I explain that I don’t have a visa, because UK citizens get one on arrival, this is my arrival, so now can I please have a visa? One of them takes me 300m back down to a number of checkpoint booths and tells me I can pay someone there to give me a visa. There is no one there. No he says, they are all eating now. Right. Back to square one. I thank him and he tells me that when I get a visa I shouldn’t go back to the kid in the first booth, I should come to his office.
I decide to go and eat too. There is a building with Duty Free written on it that looks like my best bet. It’s some way back, but whatever, I’m now starving . I have only USD on me. The cafe does not accept USD. I naively enquire as to whether or not they take cards. The man behind the counter gives me an appalled look and shakes his head. I try a convenience store. Blank look. I take out my visa card and show it to the cashier. He looks terrified,
“No no nonono” he says, waving his hands and shaking his head.
I point to the card machine 2 inches from his left hand. He glances that way, and then does a double take like he’s never seen this curious thing before in his life and has absolutely no idea how on earth it could have got there. I last ditch attempt the duty free shop – surely they must take cards. I ask a man there. They do! Delightedly I scan the edible options. Which basically amount to peanut M&Ms. I take a bumper bag, thinking it’s better than nothing, and head for the cash desk. I hand over my card and the cashier asks for my passport. I give it. He scans through it a few times and then says,
My heart sinks. And my smile falls off for the first time that day. Through clenched teeth I spit,
“I don’t yet have a visa, the only reason I am trying to buy anything here at all is because I am waiting to get a visa because this fucking place hasn’t yet worked out how to efficiently have a lunch break without shutting down entirely”
He looks crestfallen. I apologise, tell him I know it isn’t his fault. Not that it matters, he doesn’t understand a word I’m saying anyway.
I go back to the first closed visa place to wait. It is so far away from the duty free building that I actually only have about 10 minutes left of sitting in the gorgeous sunshine until someone accidentally makes a teeny noise inside, alerting me to their presence. I leap up and start tapping on the glass partition. Until someone opens it,
“Visa?” I hopefully enquire.
2 minutes later and I have a sticker in my passport and am USD30 lighter. I head to the Policeman’s office thinking, yay – I’m half way through, now all I have to do is walk into Turkey, turn around and walk back to do it all over again in reverse…
My initial policeman is quite hard to identify because suddenly all of the policemen in the place appear to be identical quintuplets. But then one of the quintuplets sees me and beams happily. This is unexpected, but I am glad of the welcome. He stamps my passport for me and then informs me that he is going to let me stay in Turkey for 6 months. I explain that actually, 6 minutes is more than sufficient and all I need to do is cross the border and come back in to Iraq again. He nods uncertainly. I ask which way I need to go to get to Turkey so I can turn around and come back again. He says I need to turn right outside the building. Once I get outside, I realise there is what looks like another 100kms to walk before I finally reach the last set of passport booths. And then that far to come back again and then the several hundred kms I’ve already walked from Iraq. Nothing for it though. As I set off, wondering at which point I am going to collapse form starvation, my policeman comes running out – he says,
“Are you leaving Turkey today?!”
“Yes!” I assure him, “Yes yes”
He users me back to his office and says,
“Don’t worry, I have right stamp”
And then very kindly exit stamps my passport without me having to do any of the going out and coming back in again malarkey. And then I leave again, setting off to where I can see trucks crossing back into no man’s land, going the opposite way from which I came. Only two rabid looking dogs now stand in my way. They make very inhospitable noises and circle aggressively. I decide they’re probably just posturing and carry on walking while telling them how very cute and adorable they are. Seems to work as no mauling occurs. I finally reach a booth full of men. The other booths full of men haven’t really been very helpful. So I decide to just walk on. I know they’ll stop me if they don’t like that. They don’t stop me and I walk the next 500m to another booth full of men. These ones have clocked me coming and don’t look too impressed. Their glass partition is at trucker height, so I go round the back and up the steps to knock on the door instead. I greet them cordially and ask how they are. They remain unimpressed and ask what on earth I’m doing,
“Going to Iraq” I say.
“Well you can’t” they say. “Not like that” and point at my feet. “Go back to the blahblahblah”
My tolerance for all this now wearing slightly thin, I ask where blahblahblah is and am told it is 30m away. There is nothing but baking blacktop for at least 300m around. I laugh and point this out. Then I ask why I need to go back. They tell me they have a call from the police station, who said to send me back, but not why. Reeling slightly from all this unaccustomed English, I tell them the police station told me to come here and ask if perhaps they could maybe call the Police Station and find out why they want me to go back, because it’s bloody far and now way too hot for all this walking through packs of rabid dogs. Surprisingly they agree to this after only three repetitions. And it transpires that the Police Station does not in fact want me back at all, they are simply saying to keep me there until a car can be found to take me to Iraq because pedestrians are not allowed. Things were looking up! And in fact, without all the walking it was only another half an hour before I was across no man’s land, through the Iraqi border control and the very lovely family with the car even drove me back to the Residency Office, which was some kms from where the border crossing spat me out. All in all, the whole thing took under three hours. Apparently that’s pretty good going, or so I’m told.
The reason there are no pictures of any of this is because I had heard rumours of people having their camera equipment confiscated at this border, so I left my camera at home.
See pictures of the rest of my time here in Iraq on my photography website: www.efimages.co.uk