It was late summer 2009. I was living on a vine covered balcony in Tbilisi, Georgia for a month, trying to correct my eyesight. Eating pomegranates and doing eye exercises all day, I managed to lower my prescription from -3.00 to -1.75. The eye doctors told me I was silly for trying. I guess doctors in general are losing clout.
That’s about when I heard you could travel visa-free to Iraq. It immediately caught my interest.
The balcony I was living on, was in a hostel near the center of Tbilisi. Run by a kind, fat, old woman and her legless wheelchair-bound husband – it was a true travellers hub. This was before people got sucked into the virtual abyss. Still no phones strapped to their faces. Here, people mingled freely drinking Georgian wine and danced when they felt like it.
It was full of Poles, Balts, Israelis, a cross section of Eastern Europeans with a few Westerners mixed in. They were looking for something still off the beaten path, some risks, a little adventure. And some – just a cheap place to travel.
I don’t remember who told me you could get into Iraq. At that time it was still fairly dangerous. But I knew when I heard it I was going to go.
I managed to convince a Frenchman to come along. Bearded, short and with glasses, he looked almost Arab. Compared to myself – taller with a shaved head and big steel toe boats I had worn to Chernobyl, it was a balanced team.
Our plan was to hitchhike down through Turkey to Iraq. So off we went. The hitchhiking was easy, the roads good, we had brought along a Dutchman for this part. He was an excellent Guitarist, having some success with that these days, back in Holland. On some rooftop in Diyarbakir (if memory serves) we befriended a man who had been shot in the face.
He claimed to have been Saddam’s personal driver, showed us his license and some photos of him in army gear. He seemed legit, his attitude genuine. He didn’t want money – just to tell us his story. And so we listened. We told him where we were headed, and he wished us luck.
The most exciting thing on this leg of the journey was having stones throne at us by children. The kids in Turkey are funny. They just walk up to you, hold out there hand and demand “money”. All in all, Turkey was rather uneventful.
That is until you got close to the Iraqi border. The vibe changed completely. People became a lot more shifty. They smiled less. The air grew heavier the closer we got. We knew we were headed in the right direction.
It was too much for the Dutchman, and despite our best efforts to get him to come along, he became nervous. Then he left. Spending a night in Mardin, we smoked some hash, excited to get to the border the next day.
Borders are always a funny place. The more dodgy the border crossing the more fun it is. The more characters you meet. The harder it is to tell the difference between anxiety and excitement. When we got to the Iraqi border, the Turks let us through without issue. They didn’t give a shit what we were up to as long as it wasn’t in Turkey.
The Iraqis though had a mischievous look, as if they knew something we didn’t. Was there something wrong with us? Did we not know they had some issues at the moment? What was it exactly we were going to do in Iraq during a low grade, but ongoing war?
They thought that was funny. Then they stamped our passports and off we went. 10 days – visa free.
On the Iraqi side of the border you’re swarmed with taxi drivers. I’m not sure about you but I’ve found taxi drivers to generally be the scum of the earth. Which makes them fun to be around, as long as you watch yourself. But these taxi drivers didn’t seem interested in ripping you off. They wanted to get you where you were going in one piece. We picked the one that seemed the most genuine, which is usually the one that isn’t harassing you. And off we drove.
It was getting dark by the time we rolled into Dohuk. He dropped us off near what we figured was the ‘center’ and walked into the first hotel-type building we saw. The lighting was garish, crude neon, it was dank and dirty. Perfect. We communicated what needed, then went to drop our bags in the room.
Hunger overtook us, so we turned, and went out into the street. Dohuk, being a border town, is full of Arabs and Kurds. Kurds are friendly to Westerners on account that they weren’t attacked by them. Iraqi Arabs are generally not.
Imagine walking down the street, and everybody is staring at you. And everybody is staring at you as if they want to kill you. Compared to my bearded, dark haired French comrade, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Shaved head like a G.I., steel toe boots looking like Army Issue, white and tall, I was an obvious target.
I remember smiling and offering greetings to people which they would not return. Some would sneer in disgust. People were burning holes in me with their eyes. I started asking myself, what the fuck am I doing here? I was looking into a black hole. Not a single person wanted us there. The vibe was hellish. The Frenchman noticed my depression, and we started talking about what we should do.
I was in a bad way, and felt the risks where too high. I voiced my doubts about coming at all. As we stood on the street talking, out of the shadows a short man walked. He was dressed in Khaki colored traditional clothing, topped with a Keffiyeh. He walked up to me, smiling widely and grabbed my cheek. He laughed at me.
It was the first friendly person I saw. I swear, this old man was like an angel. We didn’t understand a word he said, but he wanted us to come along with him. So we did. He brought us to a small, crude Cafe. He introduced us to the people there and we were, finally, welcomed. In fact, these people were excited to have us there. We were instant celebrities and didn’t pay for a thing. They were great.
There was the guy whose eyes pointed in different directions showing us grainy porn on his cell. And the Interrogator. Well dressed in a tailored casual suit, asking a thousand friendly questions. The Chimney, who would not put down the sheesha pipe. A constant stream of smoke exiting the natural holes in his head. We were damn happy to see them. We smoked until our lungs hurt, until we were drunk on tea, and the long day wore us out.
After we got back to the Hotel, I turned on the T.V. I wanted to know what the hell they watch on T.V. here. They were showing footage from inside Mecca. It was the Kaaba, the small square building that houses the holy black rock. Thousands of Muslims circle this rock endlessly, working their way inward to try and touch it. I’ve heard people say that this rock is actually a meteorite. Who knows, I’d rather not google it.
(I googled it. Nobody seems to know if it is a meteorite or not.)
I checked my phone, an old black and green screened Nokia. The type of phone you can get for 10 bucks and can throw, with a battery life of a week. There was a text from my cell provider.
‘We wish you a nice stay in Iraq’.
The next day, the sun was out and people on the street seemed less hostile. I can only imagine that word got out that we were just travellers. We decided to leave Dohuk and head to Erbil. Erbil is the headquarters of the Kurdish Military. Funded and protected by the U.S., the Kurds lived well compared with the rest of Iraq.
We shared a long distance Taxi there with a Professor from the University of Mosul. I wanted to know more about whats going on, so I asked him. He said to me “My University was destroyed. The hospitals, gone. The sewage plants, gone. Power plants, libraries, schools, almost the entire infrastructure of our country – destroyed. What do you think how can it be?”
Erbil was chaotic. We needed cash so we found a guy on the street with a big plexiglass box. It was the size of a square meter and it was full of stacks of cash. People walked around in the streets with arm length stacks of cash. We traded ours for theirs, to get what we need.
Shopkeepers sporting AK-47s. Clothing shop mannequins dressed in all fashionable battle gear. A man asked us if we wanted to go to Baghdad, then laughed and pulled a finger across his throat. All in all -a pretty fun place.
We sat with a man who asked us what was our religion. At that point I wasn’t sure – which would make me Agnostic. He replied “Ah, a free thinker. The worst kind.” He was very cordial and polite about it, and we went our separate ways.
The closest working ATM was in a Hotel, which was surrounded by 10 foot tall blast walls. We went in there and tried to get a free breakfast, but they were having none of it. The ATM didn’t work either.
Strange Government Graffiti was everywhere, pictographs telling people not to beat children. Telling people to help the blind to cross the street.
We saw a foreigner, a woman, who we approached. She looked nervous that we would talk to her. She was part of some NGO. No, she “wasn’t a tourist out here looking for a fun time”. She seemed to think we were insane.
We were in a market at one point when a Toyota 4Runner pulled into the crowd. There were bullet holes along the siding. A man got out and, stood on the running boards and started yelling:
“Baghdad! Baghdad! Baghdad!”
A few randoms emerged from the crowd, got into the 4Runner and away they went. On their own adventure, no doubt.
Erbil was spent, so we decided to go to Sulaymaniyah. At the bus station, there was a man who wanted to get on the bus. But for some reason we never figured out, the others did not want him on the bus.
He would get on the bus, and some men would drag him out of the bus. But he wouldn’t give up. So he’d get on the bus, they’d argue and throw him off again. This went on for at least 20 minutes. And as each minute passed, it got more heated. Then his shirt got torn. So he punched through a window on the bus. I guess he thought that would better his odds of actually getting on. Before long, one of the passengers picked up a piece of concrete rubble. I took a drag from my cigarette and watched. Concrete man walked up and battered bus boy across the face with it. He started bleeding and staggered about and then it looked like it was going to kick off.
I learned over the years to stay out of other peoples business. Having had people chase me with knives for not minding my own, I wasn’t getting in the middle of this. Especially in this time and place. So I lit another cigarette and we just watched this poor guy get beaten to a pulp. And then what looked like the cops showed up. And as fast as that it was over. The lynch mob dispersed and the cops took the beaten man with them.
We got on the bus. We waited about 20 minutes and as the bus was pulling away, sure enough, the guy was back. His head was bandaged up, he had a new shirt on, and got in. And sat down. And we left. You have to admire his persistence. It’s stuff like this that’s the spice of life.
On the highways there are military checkpoints everywhere. We drove on through the outskirts of Kirkuk, which is the closest we got (and wanted to get) to the actual shooting war.
Sulaymaniyah was, for lack of a better word, relaxed. Or maybe by then the edge had worn off. I no longer saw death lurking in everybody’s eyes. For the most part, people were just trying to get on with life. And you have to admire them for it. We were just there to dip our toes in the deep end. These people had/have no other option but to sink or swim.
We were offered an armed escort to go visit the Ancient ruins of Ninevah. The catch was it would cost us $10,000 – too rich for our blood. We refused the offer and got on another bus.
That’s when I saw her. Everybody saw her. The most beautiful girl you could imagine in the middle of this rough, chaotic country. She got on the bus and it went quiet. Everybody stared at her. Old men, old women, kids, everybody. She had Dark brown hair, curly and long, and she wore a dark dress with small dots on it. She was absolutely captivating.
She had fine bone structure and full lips. She must have been no more than 20. Her dark, Asiatic eyes lowered, conscious of the effect she had on people. And yet, she was calm. Thinking back, she is what I went to Iraq for. To see such serene beauty in this anarchic, terror stricken zone was all you needed to know life was worth living.
Not that I had to reaffirm to myself that I wanted to live, but that here was a reminder that this is what its all about. The diamond in the rough. Light at the end of the tunnel. She’s burned into my mind for life.
The bus stopped and she got off. We all watched her get off, and then life returned as it was before she had gotten on. As if time stopped while she was there. This might seem exaggerated to some. A pretty girl on a bus, so what? When you travel to places that are dodgy or dangerous, life becomes more visceral. You smell the air more. Your senses heighten. Every moment counts. Every transaction between people means something. You value things that in modern life are taken for granted.
In other words, you are alive and you know it. You live exactly in the moment. And when that happens, it’s magic. After that, we pretty much turned around and made a straight line for the border. I’d had enough edge-walking in Iraq and so had the Frenchie.
If you go into the Dragons lair, you’re looking for something, some kind of treasure. And thats exactly what she was. So why stay longer and test our luck?
There’s plenty of other Dragon’s Lair’s out there.
Peter Herchen is the author of this article and also the CEO of Hostelpro OÜ. A very avid traveller and hostel lover.