(10) Dohuk and Solimaniyeh, Iraq: Mistaken for an American soldier

I left Savur on an 8am dolmus to Midyat with the hopes of catching another dolmus straight to Silopi, the town nearest the Iraqi border. I like playing the “get to the next furthest place the fastest” travel game. In Silopi, taxis know the border crossing business well, and are very helpful in navigating the series of stops between Turkey and Iraq. I had read from a recent traveller on an online forum that by 2pm, taxis were unavailable, so I was hoping to get to Silopi (which would take 4 hours direct) in good time.

This, however, was not to be. When I got to Midyat at 9:30am, the next dolmus heading anywhere in my direction was supposedly at 1pm. I spent a little while wandering the town and hanging at an internet cafe, and by a little after 12, a dolmus had arrived to take us to Idil, after which I switched to Cisre, and then to Silopi.

I didn’t get there until 4pm.

But, I was in luck. As I got out of the dolmus, I was approached for a taxi to Iraq, and soon learned that a Kurdish family was leaving too, so I only paid USD25 as opposed to the usual USD50+.

Between the driver and the family, they could speak about 50 English words, which gets pretty far. I also offered some of my orange to share, which also goes pretty far.

The drive to the border was smoggy. Or smoky. Or exhausty. Dirty is basically what it was. There were kilometres of trucks lined up to go over the border. We were one of a handful of cars, whizzing by them all.

The driver navigated the various stops and checkpoints at the border. I only had to get out once – to get the actual stamp in my passport – which took place at a lovely air conditioned hall, where I was served tea which smelled like dog food, but tasted fairly tea-ish.

Getting into Iraq will probably be the easiest of any country on this trip since I got to Turkey. 10 days. $0. Done.

Once across the border, shiny new Toyoto and Hyundai taxis were lined up to take me and the Kurdish family to Dohuk, the first major city. The taxis were incredibly civilized in comparison to Turkey. Air conditioned. Everyone in seatbelts. The phrase “I’m in (insert expletive) Iraq” kept repeating in my head.

The road wound up through small towns and over a pass before it descended towards Dohuk. The sequins and jewels sewn into the Kurdish womens’ skirts reflected light that danced around the back of the taxi. We stopped in the town before Dohuk for the Kurdish man to change money, and I took the opportunity to do the same.

The villages heading towards Dohuk were concrete block homes painted in pastel shades of green, purple, pink, orange. It was as though the sky had been playing something like an Easter version of Tetris.

Once in Dohuk, we were dropped off at the taxi terminal, where photos took place and I grabbed a taxi for downtown, to a recommended hotel that my driver didn’t know. After a few questions yelled to fellow drivers at stop lights and the help of a police officer, I made it to my destination. Checked into a nondescript room on an upper floor as to avoid the blaring TV of the lobby and the possible curious onlooks from the men getting their shoes shined on the street below.

I toured the market, and felt invigorated. I’ve been questioning my reasons for travelling, my purpose, during my time in Turkey, and feeling the vibrancy, the colour, the smells and sounds of the market in Dohuk brought my sanity back.  I enjoyed dinner of greasy ground beef and tomato pizza, washed down with a Coke. The power went out while I ate.

In the market I notice quite a few slender men with plucked eyebrows working in shoe stalls or bead and sequin shops, and I ponder the attitude of Kurds towards gays and lesbians.

The next morning I was off to look for a shared taxi to Solimaniyeh. The three main (safe) towns in Kurdistan are Dohuk, Erbil, and Solimaniyeh. Mosul and Kirkuk are on the outskirts of the region, and are not generally safe. My plan was to hop over to Solimaniyeh, and spend a night in Erbil on my way back. There were a variety of side trips to mountain villages that were also possible, but travelling alone meant expensive taxi trips, so I planned to stick to the main cities.

At the taxi office, I was quickly invited into the back area to share in a breakfast of bread, yogurt and tea. The group of men seemed genuinely excited to have me join them. Not in a creepy, leery way, but in an innocent generosity sort of way. The difference is subtle, but I feel it quickly. One of the young men I eat with share with me that he is in the Iraqi army in Mosul. He then asks me if I am American, and mimes a machine gun. No, I am not an American soldier.

A variety of Kurdish men are also waiting, but for different destinations. Or maybe they are just hanging out and being social. I’m struck by how different each man looks from another. Some have light hair and eyes, and could pass for having a northern European ancestry. They make jokes about their traditional clothing – a khaki button up shirt with khaki MC Hammer-esque pants, tied together with an interwoven length of fabric fashioned into a sort of a cummerbund. I suspect that the jokes revolve around the width of a man’s pant legs indicating the amount of room needed for his package. Or so I guess as they hold out their hands in front of them. I don’t think they’re joking about fish they have caught.

One other young man arrives that wants to go to Solimaniyeh, but it soon becomes apparent we are going to be waiting a long time for a third, so we agree to pay a bit more each and leave now. Two other men join us for part of the journey, but are dropped off early.

My co-passenger, Karwan, is generous. At each stop we take he comes back to the car with offers of bottled water, juice, gum.

The road to Solimaniyeh is lovely. As we are bypassing Erbil, we are able to take a more direct and scenic route. We wind up and down, sidling up against a dry mountain range to our right. The low mountains I had visited in Turkey were nice, but these were getting higher, and they drew my attention out of the car window.

We stop for lunch and I get to learn a bit more about Karwan. He’s originally from Kurdistan, but has been living and working in Germany for the past 8 years, though his European papers are for Italy. He’s visiting his family here for a few months, and will return to Germany later in the summer.

I ask Karwan to order for me. I have no idea what I want, let alone what is possible. Soon dish after dish of vegetables, rice, meats, and soups appear. Two thoughts enter my head. 1) There’s no way I can eat all this. 2) Please forgive me stomach for the meat I’m about to shock you with. In addition to my meat, Karwan insists I try some of his. This is more mammal than I’ve eaten probably in the past 6 years combined.

I ask what he does in Germany. He points to the chairs and tables of the restaurant and makes gestures that I understand to mean he manufactures furniture. He points to a finger that has been partially cut off. Part of the dangers of the job I suppose.

I ask why he left Iraq eight years ago. “Sadaam,” he says, and makes gun noises. He looks down at his food and pauses. “Not good.”

He tells me very affirmatively that he will get his official EU citizens papers in October 2011. He obviously has the date memorized.

We arrive in Sulimaniyeh in the late afternoon. At this point I’ve decided to bypass Erbil and head back to Dohuk the next day. Karwan will do the same. He’s made passing remarks about staying with his family, or visiting villages when we get back, but I’m not holding my breath yet.

At our hotel, I insist on separate rooms. I don’t know what his marital status is, but I don’t want to give any suggestive impressions. I find it interesting that sharing a room with a fellow tourist wouldn’t give me pause, but sharing one with a local guy does. Maybe it’s a vibe he’s giving off. I don’t know.

We head off to explore the town, and I find out that he hasn’t actually been here before. I guess that’s what growing up in war does. We wander market after market, meet his friend briefly, and explore the highlights of downtown. By this point I’m not feeling so well. The meat is not agreeing with me.

We head back to the hotel, and Karwan wants to pick up some alcohol. I turn down his offers. Back at our rooms, I tell Karwan not to expect me for dinner later. Part feeling sick and tired, part feeling vibes I don’t want to go any further. He takes out a cooler he bought for me at the liquor store. I tell him I don’t drink alcohol.

The next morning we head back to Dohuk in another shared taxi for two, paying a little bit extra not to have to wait for other passengers. He invites me to stay with his family back in Dohuk, and I accept.

At his brother’s house, I am set immediately at ease. Strong women, children. This is not going to be uncomfortable.

Shortly after our arrival, lunch is served. A huge spread of vegetables, rice and meet. It’s nice to see vegetables. What strikes me as strange is that after we are finished, all the food get scraped up into one big bowl, as if it’s going to get thrown out, no leftovers. They have two fridges, so it’s not for a lack of cool food storage (not that that matter in this area of the world anyways).

Karwan’s brother’s wife’s sister and niece come over. It’s the niece’s 6th birthday, and the women ask if I want to go shopping with them. We take a taxi downtown to the market area I had been to a few days before. I notice that women are dressed in the full range of head wear – I spot one or two burqas, but most of the women have either a loosely fitted head scarf or none at all (like my hosts).

The women, who don’t really speak English, are obviously looking for some sort of fancy fabric. We head into one fabric shop and stay there for quite a while. While we wait, I start playing my favourite children’s game, the “guess which hand it’s in?” game. A small fabric jewel becomes the object of focus. After the basic guessing, I start doing odd things like pretending I’ve swallowed it and finding it in her ear. It goes over well. When it’s her turn I make like I’m using all five senses plus my special finger radar to determine the jewel’s whereabouts. Later we play soccer with the jewel. Endless fun.

After a while Karwan joins us. It’s time to buy gifts for the birthday girl. At one of the toy stands she picks out a doll. Her younger brother is with us, so he gets a gift too. Karwan picks up a collection of plastic weapons for him. They go through it together, seeing if the young boy can name the grenade, the machine gun.

I point to the child size weapons and say, “very dangerous.” My passive way of disapproving of these sorts of toys.

Karwan tells me that he started in the Kurdish army when he was 15, and continued until he left for Germany. He shares his experiences very seriously, in a way that communicates the gravity of what he had to do.

Back at the house, we have dinner and relatives come and go.

In one chat, I explain my upcoming itinerary. Back to Turkey, onto Iran, and then Central Asia.

Karwan’s brother’s wife’s sister’s husband inhales through his teeth. “Iran,” he says in a low voice. “Dangerous. Many problems.”

I start laughing aloud unintentionally. I try my best to explain, but how do I describe the irony of people in Iraq telling me another country is dangerous? While I understand the relative safety of this area of Iraq, and the perceptions of Iran, this would sound pretty funny to most people back home.

Later Karwan explains he will arrange a taxi to my hotel soon, as it may cause problems with the police for me to stay here. I’m not sure if they mean for them or me, but I go with the flow. We chat for a while longer, and the birthday girl returns from her party. We pose for some photos. Later I’m told that I’ll actually stay with them after all. I try to ensure it won’t be a problem, but it seems it won’t be. I arrange that I’ll leave for the taxi stand at about 8 in the morning. Karwan leaves to stay at his mother’s house, and I take a family photo in front of his brother’s home.

In the morning, Karwan’s nephew wakes me up, and his mom helps arrange a taxi for me. It’s still early, and the taxi arrives earlier than I anticipate. Apparently “8am” means “in 10 minutes” at 7am. I pack my bags quickly, and as I leave the home in the taxi, I see the nephew crossing the highway with his buddies on his way to school.

At the taxi stand, I’m the first one for a car to the border. I wait a while and then decide to fork out for the whole car. The lot is dead and I expect I would be waiting hours otherwise.

The ride to the border is mostly nondescript. The driver speaks a bit of English so we exchange basic information.

At one police checkpoint the truck in front of us is waived over, but it doesn’t stop. I see the police officers look at each other and exchange remarks, something to the effect of “I told buddy to pull over. What does he think he’s doing?” My driver offers a ride to the officer, and we quickly catch up to the truck, which has since moved over to a side gravel road. We honk and the police officer makes a gesture for it to stop. The truck finally pulls over, and the officer leaves the taxi.

The driver explains why this issue with the truck.


I try to ask how the officer knew he was Arabic.

“Arabics terrorists.”

I tried one more time. I point to my face and attempt to ask what is visually different about Arab people.

“Arabics crazy.”

I can tell I’m not going to get anywhere so let the matter drop. I’m sure it’s something subtle that locals can tell, like Vancouverites being able to tell whether someone is from Surrey. (Kidding!)

Just before the border a variety of cars are waiting. My original intent was to just catch a taxi to the town over the border and find dolmuses from there, but I spot a taxi going all the way to Diyarbakir in need of one more passenger and I enquire about the price. $50. Done.

I set my bags down, and the driver instructs me to head inside a nearby building for my first border crossing check. I start to pick up my bags again – I don’t want to be a mule for smuggled cigarettes – but the driver tells me to put them down.

“No cigarettes,” I say as I shake my finger.

“No, no cigarettes,” the driver confirms with a smile and laugh. My bag is stuffed tight enough that they wouldn’t be able to get more than a pack in there anyways.

Security heading back into Turkey is tight, but not. My bags go through x-ray machines twice, but are examined much less scrupulously than those of my fellow passengers, who turn out to be Kurdish businessmen from Germany and the Netherlands. They have obviously agreed to help smuggle a few cartons over, as each of them claim a small bag of cigarettes as their own.

Our young driver seems to have a variety of friends in his fellow cross-border drivers. We sneak in front of other cars without much fuss, and he gets other people to move our car forward as the line sneaks ahead over the bridge to Turkey.

Once on the bridge, after Iraqi screenings, each car around us, including ours, has people pull cigarettes out of plastic bags, break the cartons into smaller pieces, and stuff them into obviously well used hidden compartments of the cars and vans. Hands place packages blindly into spaces up under the foot step of the van in front of us. Empty cigarette boxes and carton wrappers litter the entirety of the bridge.

After just under 2 hours, we make it through the variety of border control points. In Silopi the young driver trades off with his brother, and it becomes clear we’re not in Iraq any more. No seat belts. Old car. Many a cigarette are smoked. The driver plays travel agent, and arranges air tickets to Istanbul for my fellow passengers.

We arrive in Diyarbakir three hours later, and along the way through town our driver spots someone of relevance. A drop of the smuggled cigarettes happens as we are double parked on a main street. We then seemingly stop for tea at the travel agency that has the air tickets for the Kurdish businessmen. I just want to get to the bus station. Who knows what the schedule is for tickets to Van – I don’t want to miss the afternoon round if there are any. I leave the businessmen behind and assertively request to have the last few kilometres of my journey completed.

As we head to the bus station, the driver asks if I am Christian. I shake my head. He pulls a book out of his glove compartment to share with me: Glad News! God Loves You, My Muslim Friend. I flip through the Christian propaganda slowly as to not offend, and then hand it back to him. It becomes clear that he wants me to take it, and after offering excuses related to the size of my bag or the value of the book, I finally acquiesce. We arrive at the bus station and he helps me retrieve my bags from the trunk. I quietly leave the book behind on the passenger seat and head inside to arrange a bus to Van.