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PEN Blog

Road Trip to Iraq (2)

The morning of March 20, I crossed the Turkish-Iraqi border at the so-called Habur frontier gate near the town of Silopi.

The night before I had stayed in Cizre, a town about 25 miles from the border. The roads there were of almost no use because of the potholes. Still, the town itself appeared to be a hangout for truckers, and when I asked a man where to find a reasonably clean restaurant he answered, “Go where the truckers go, they know where the food is good.”

Turkey is investing heavily in Iraq, especially in northern Iraq, and the traffic through Habur frontier gate is dense. I had been warned of delays lasting up to 24 hours.

Then I learned my Turkish driver couldn’t cross the border. He claimed he had forgotten his passport. And I knew it was forbidden to cross the border by foot.

I tried to get a ride with the help of a boy who appeared to be about twelve years old. He was standing around on the Turkish side of the border crossing for reasons he didn’t feel like disclosing to me.

Within 20 minutes, the kid discovered a driver who turned out to be able to speak broken Dutch.

The driver had come all the way from Frankfurt, and his car was filled with goodies.

Soon enough, an Iraqi immigration officer stamped my passport. He gave it back to me while he said to me in English, “Welcome to Kurdistan.”

Iraqi flags were distinctly in the minority compared to all the Kurdish flags waving along the border.

About 170 feet deeper into Iraq, Kurdish custom officials stopped us.

They immediately began to remove the paper that blackened the back windows of my driver’s car. They did this as if with a vengeance.

The driver said to me calmly, “I don’t know why they’re destroying my car, but you better go now.”

I walked the last 100 feet to the border. There I had to show my passport one more time.

Then I was in Iraq.

Northern Iraq, a.k.a. Kurdistan, is a miracle of wealth and luxury compared to Eastern Turkey.

Two days later, I was in Baghdad. Everything looked very much the same as in March 2009, including all the Iraqis who told me, “It’s much better than last year.”

But the man who had driven me around and translated for me in 2009 was gone. According to an acquaintance, he had taken advantage of a refugee program. He is now washing cars somewhere in Texas.

The pessimist would say: this is how bad it has gotten; it’s better to wash cars in Texas than to drive journalists around in Baghdad.

But the more optimistic opinion would go like this: even after all the mistakes the U.S. has made in Iraq, a young man from Sadr City still believes that Texas is the best place for him to go and improve his life.

(, April 2, 2010)