Friday, November 04, 2005

Traveling Iraq: pt.3

Okay, first I'd like to describe what driving in Iraq is like. Just put yourself back in the 1970's and you've pretty much got it, but without road rules. Shove as many people as possible into a smallish car, and no seat belts, drinks and snacks all around, music (Bee Gees is popular, may as well stay with the 70's theme), and the joke is, while in the car, you feel freer than you do in the US!

Then, when hurtling down mountain roads where you can't see around the bend, pass the car in front of you. And if you are stuck in a traffic jam, just keep creating your own lane until there are no more definitive lanes....never use a map....just ask 15 times for directions, spend an extra hour or two on the road. Be essentially as inefficient as possible, but as ingenious as you must as well. Be prepared to patch a tire, or try a different route, and be patient, as there are people who don't even know what village they live in, forget about the way to the nearest city.

Now we can move on.

The next day we headed for Dohuk. To get there, one would normally go through Mosul, which, for obvious reasons we did NOT want to do. At every checkpoint, we got the oddest looks, Shia and Sunni Arabs, sometimes with Kurds as well, and an American female, was enough to confuse the heck out of anyone! But to me, it really represented the new Iraq. This was still only 8 weeks after elections, and unity was feeling stronger at that time.

I love Dohuk. (The photo to the left are people on the street watching a wedding party process through town.) I'd like to say that I got so many kind responses in Kurdistan. Many times I would end up getting “Americi?” when they saw my passport, and then get “you are most welcome here” or “you are our guest here”, or just a very enthusiastic thumbs up and smiles and waving from the guards at the checkpoints. It was a long drive, almost 5 hours, in part because we were trying to avoid certain spots, in part because we had to keep stopping to ask directions, (at least 20 times, no exaggeration-they don't use maps there) you just ask the Kurdish version of “hey Johnny” or “hi there Johnny”, equivalent to us saying “Hi mister!” as we stopped and asked for directions to Dohuk “NI Mosul!” (meaning not to/near/through Mosul). One person actually said, “God help you if you go to there, don’t do it, or you will not live to tell”. We blew a tire on the road, there were so many cars with plates from Mosul on that road and though I am able to say I felt no fear, some of my guides were feeling a bit anxious over me being there. That's the terrible thing. I can handle causing myself fear, but not being the cause for others. The other thing that was disconcerting was watching the driver every time a rock was sent up from a lorry, and hit the windshield with a crack, he would automatically duck his head as a reflex. That brought home the reality of living in Baghdad for the past years to me. I couldn’t possibly feel as scared as most Iraqis, because I haven’t lived in that climate of fear for that long. But I remember too well the feeling immediately following Sept.11 here. Too many have forgotten it. Yes, we were resolved. But most were always waiting for the next attack, specifically in the first week following. I only wish people could keep that in mind when they are losing patience with Iraq. For them, it is like living in NYC every day as the day after September 11, only the attacks don’t stop, so the fight/flight reflex is always just below the surface. And they've been doing it for decades. And people wonder why it's taking "so long".

Back to Dohuk. The sunset, shown in the photo to the right was beautiful as we drove back into the city after an excursion. The traffic was quite bad, but only going into town, as it was the eve of the Kurdish New Year. Dohuk is friendly, it still feels like a village, there is a certain warmth to the people there, even as it is growing into an obviously ever more prosperous place to live. So, we sat in traffic, but not unhappily, as the weather was nice (not like July, let me tell you those stories you've heard about the heat there in summer are too true!) and there was a great feeling in the air of excitement and at the same time of peacefulness.

Nawrouz, or Kurdish New Year brings something else. This evening before means that everyone burns tires in celebration, the lights in the photo to the left are all from burning tires. It sounds odd, but it really is beautiful at night to see those fires. I wish I could have captured it, but in the mountains to the right of those in the photo, there was even a fire way up at the top. I wondered if the person who did that had a personal oasis in a cave up there...

The next day everyone takes their families on picnics in the mountains, and we were planning to do the same. To prepare for this, we went to a local marketplace (below). You've seen photos of this before if you have visited Michael Yon's site. Next time, I'll take you with me to Sulaf, a beautiful mountain village near Dohuk, where I arguably spent one of the best days of my life.


Blogger Mark said...

Great post. I wish more Americans could really understand the complexity that is Iraq. If we did, we might not see polls showing a lack of support for continuing the war.

It's amazing that the fate of the world seems to be contingent on the course of one nation: Iraq. If Iraq becomes a successful democracy, the world will be a much better place.

Thanks for the pictures and the detailed narritive.

5:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. Have you been able to go to Iraq in recent times like June or July? I bet it was just the same. Almost everyone seems to forget that democracy takes time. The fact that they have gotten a constitution in 2 years after 35 years of tyranny is a good start.

5:49 PM  
Blogger BobH said...

Thanks for the photos and the interesting text. I would like to see more photos of some of the villages in Kurdistan.

3:13 AM  
Anonymous Health Blog said...

This was still only 8 weeks after elections,
and unity was feeling stronger at that time.

11:26 AM  

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