To Erbil, Iraq. October 2012
By 5:30pm I’d been driving all day, racing to get to the border crossing before dark. I was driving parallel to the serene Aras River which, by contrast was utterly dominated by creepy, jagged, ominous-looking mountains on the other side. I noticed the heavy-duty barbed wire-fencing and realised this was my first glimpse of Iran.
After checking-out of Armenia there was a lonely 1km walk over a bridge in no man’s land to the Iranian immigration at Noudooz. On all sides I was surrounded by these colossal, bulbous and craggy orange mountains – like the towering outer walls of some medieval castle, inside which ruled an evil tyrant. They were almost frightening as the sun dropped and darkness crept over. Walking across that bridge in the cool dusk air couldn’t have been more spooky or magical.
At customs, three officers with heavy moustaches inspected my passport as if an object from outer-space had just crash landed on their desk. Soon the boss was called and he too checked the front and back pages upside-down, presumably looking for any clues as to its origin. The queue behind me however, a mix of Armenian and Iranian men remained patient and polite.
‘What’s your father’s name?’
‘Are you married?’
‘How will you leave Iran?’, asked Mr Moustache in emotionless monotone. Seeing him stamp my visa, a wave of relief percolated through me, for it had taken over 3 months of interviews and background checks plus $200 just for this little stamp.
‘Goodbye’ , he announced robotically. And with that rather odd send off, I showed the contents of my rucksack to an uninterested officer who simply waved me on.
Damn! I could’ve smuggled in whisky.
Arriving in the northern city of Tabriz around midnight, I met for the first time my friend and host Babak and his brother Sahand. They were two highly-educated, worldly-wise students completing their university studies whilst living away from home in this northern region. ‘I would love to smoke some shisha while I’m here’, I said after they collected me from the bus stop in their cheap little Chinese car. Babak and Sahand looked at each other, paused and then said OK. When we arrived at their spacious apartment and met their smiling, podgy, pot-head friend Mohammed, the three of them looked at me with a hint of concern.
‘So you are really sure you want to smoke shisha?’, they quizzed.
‘Of course, why not? I do it all the time back home.’
‘It’s a little difficult to find here though.’, Babak said.
‘Really? Because I just passed a restaurant with people smoking it about 20 minutes back up the main road.’
‘Yes, I’m sure!’
The three of them broke off into a volley of animated Persian chatter at my find. I didn’t understand what the fuss was about until Babak announced, ‘It’s a little difficult to find such concentrated Heroin crystals here, but we can try.’
The penny dropped. In Iran, ‘shisha’ implies the highly illegal act of smoking a certain strain of Afghan poppies, not the innocent hubbly-bubbly water-pipe as it’s known in other parts of the world. I think they were quietly reassured when I explained I only meant the latter. But this telling first encounter with Iranians, which showed their openness and willingness to help despite the unusual request, validated my preset idea of their friendly nature. I knew right then I was falling in love with Iran.
Next morning we hit the traffic-choked streets of Tabriz, getting up close and personal to some of Iran’s worst drivers. Babak took me to meet his girlfriend Zahra, who was skipping class at university to spend the day with me (apparently I was the first foreigner they’d ever met).
In this city of over 1 million people, there are no fewer than 130 parks. We headed up to Shah Gouli Park where you can catch a decent panorama of the city below and the gently sloping valley in which this historical capital lies. After all, Tabriz is the probable home of the biblical ‘Garden of Eden’ and during the Silk Road era, one Marco Polo passed through, commenting, ‘..a great city surrounded by beautiful and pleasant gardens.’
Shah Gouli Park, certainly has pleasant gardens and a wonderful little palace set in the middle of a big square pool, formerly the summer home of the Prince of Iran. High above Tabriz, walking past well-kept flower beds and statues, our conversation turned to politics and the lack of freedom in Iran today compared to life before the revolution. President Ahmajinedad, with his reckless economic and risky foreign policies has been dragging Iran into the ground since 2005. He was re-elected in June 2009 amid widespread allegations of fraud. Millions of citizens peacefully protested on the streets only to be confronted by an increasingly authoritarian regime. Dozens were shot and killed and the Green Movement was born. My hosts were surprisingly frank about the situation and openly criticised the regime.
‘So do you think Ahmajinedad’s nuclear plans are peaceful?’ I ventured.
‘There is nothing peaceful about Ahmajinedad!’ Babak quipped.
‘So if he is up to no good and the west steps in, how will you feel then?’
‘I hope they do bomb it’, he said referring to any future military strike, ‘the sooner this regime is gone the better!’
Facebook, Gmail, BBC and YouTube are some of many banned websites in Iran, yet with proxy internet servers many citizens have access to western news and media. There is a stereotypical view of westerns that all Iranians are a bunch of Islamic, flag-burning fanatics, forever chanting ‘Death to America and Britain’ outside our embassies. And I felt that ordinary Iranians are not only aware of this misperception but keen to debunk it. ‘This is all staged’, Babak told me as we walked down toward the golden-domed palace. ‘There may be about 5% of the population who are this crazy and the government calls on them to march and protest. It’s not the real view of Iranian people.’
This castle of a country may well have its evil tyrant inside, but it seems he has few supporters.
We stopped for lunch near the lake in a traditional sit-down Persian-rugs style restaurant and ate some delicious Iranian meat kebabs and a round of Fantas. Then came a big, ornate smoking pipe, an Iranian tradition. ‘Lemon flavor is the most common’. Finally I got my shisha, and it wasn’t, as Babak pointed out, ‘the bad kind’. Two air-force guys came in for a smoke. They looked young, maybe about 20. ‘In Iran national-service is compulsory for 2 years. If you don’t do it you can’t get a passport, ID card, driver’s license or even a job. But I only did a year because of my Dad’, Babak explained.
‘He’s well connected?’ I assumed, thinking of all the corruption I’ve become accustomed to, living in Asia for so long.
‘No no. My father was a soldier in the Iraq war. So I get some exemption because of that.’
I asked him how Iranians felt after the Great Satan, America, captured and killed their other arch-enemy Saddam Hussein (or, as an Iraqi guy I met on a plane said recently, ‘actually we used to call him Madman Insane’). ‘Oh we were very happy about that!’ Babak said, smiling wryly.
We went to a museum which had some very gloomy, morbid sculptures by a local artist. I was most interested however in two skeletons preserved in the earth. They lie facing each other in the foetal position next to some ancient clay pots. An old man introduced himself, a retired English teacher with a heavy Persian accent, and asks where I’m from. Do they speak English in Scotland, he follows. My reply baffles him somewhat. ‘So you don’t speak Scottish?’ he pressed.
Next door is the famous Blue Mosque, although not blue at all on the outside, its inner walls have some shades of blue in the marbled walls and ceiling. A lone Vietnamese tourist was posing around the mosque and asking passersby to photograph him looking wistfully up into the sky or striking a pose, hand on hip, a pouted lip. He even wore a very feminine scarf as if to confirm the team he was batting for. A brave show in a country where not only is being gay illegal, but punishable by hanging.
On my last night before the journey to Iraq, I was invited to Mohammed’s for a little party with Babak and Sahand. Walking into his fourth floor apartment brought me straight back to my student days – the smell of cheap food, stale smoke and old carpet – and yes they were smoking lots of hashish and weed. ‘This comes from just over the border in Afghanistan, it’s very good hash’, I’m confidently assured. Back in the day when my friends and I smoked, I recall our wide-eyed dealers coming out with similar, fanciful lines, ‘It’s fresh from Morocco!’, ‘just in from Afghanistan!’etc. Only this time I could actually believe its origin. What a pity I stopped smoking it years ago!
As the guest in Iranian culture it is customary to be seated first, served first and offered some of everything before other guests and regardless of age. In between smoking and rolling more joints, Mohammed busied himself grilling chicken. Meanwhile, Babak poured some of his delicious home-made wine and Persian pop music (quite something!) raved in the background – now it was a party! Great night, great company!
Alarm went off at 05:30 interrupting some lost dream. Sahand and Babak drove me to the local bus station in the chilly dawn air. It was still dark when we said our goodbyes in the car park. I tried in vain to offer Babak something to cover the costs of my stay (which he had absorbed entirely). His generosity and that of every other Iranian I met surpassed my expectations.
I caught a shared taxi crossing the beautiful, alien landscape around Lake Urmia, the Middle East’s largest saltwater lake (and third largest in the world), about two hours east of Tabriz where upon I connected to a big comfortable tour bus that was to drive me through the Iran/Iraq border and all the way down to Erbil by dinner time. We passed two military checkpoints then hit the busy crossing itself. Queues of container trucks and lorries backed up for miles. Signs warning of landmines were visible beyond the barbed wire in the hills above us.
It was now midday and the sun beat down on a group of mostly Turkish, Iranian, some Iraqis and me. Once ushered into a shade-less open-air holding pen, we were pushed around in the cramped area, all of us trying to get through a small wooden door into a processing room where just two young soldiers were stamping passports. Throngs of big sweaty Arabs with sharp elbows pushed and shoved their way to the front. Babies were crying, women were fainting in the heat while huge bags were being passed over our heads from the back of the queue, if you could still call it that. It was chaos. Truck drivers managed to slip their own passports and a small bundle of others through a window. Big groups of Turkish travellers seemed magically to get their bundles in ahead of mine even though I arrived hours before.
I followed my passport’s glacial journey from soldier to soldier, keen not to lose sight of it in this anarchy. It had landed on the desk of one extremely stressed-out soldier whose sole task was to go through the growing piles of passports being thrown at him from all directions. As mine was the only one not written in Arabic, it was ominously pushed to one side.
The drawbridge to exit this Persian castle, which had looked so foreboding and closed at its mountainous northern border was now tantalizingly close.
The next 5 hours passed like this. I tried explaining that the bus (which departed at 3pm) was waiting for me, but it fell on deaf ears – the soldier spoke no English. It drove off leaving me alone at the border, still stuck inside Iran. Whilst wiping the sweat from my back and reminding myself to be patient, I met a handsome 27 year old guy called Heman. ‘It’s not working!’ was his critical assessment of Iranian passport control.
‘The economy in Iran is very much bad now. Many people you see here are going for work in Kurdistan (northern Iraq)’. This seemed about right. Just yesterday, the Iranian currency nose-dived, crashing to a record low, prompting riots on the streets of Tehran and beyond. The few thousand rials I had in my pocket had devalued by over 50% within 24 hours. Babak too had suggested emigrating to Israel of all places, if his country continued on its downward spiral. That act alone carries a death sentence in Iran.
‘What will you do in Iraq?’ I asked Heman while we were being hustled around like cattle.
‘Tiles. I can do tiles. But I used to be English teacher in Iran. Now my English very bad because I have nobody to practice with’, a consequence perhaps of there being very few foreigners travelling and working in Iran. Heman did try to help me retrieve my passport but after he got his back he disappeared into Iraq.
By 6pm, the masses of screaming babies, fainting mothers and bad-tempered men had gone and the two exhausted soldiers checked my passport and stamped me out of Iran in under five minutes. Entering Iraq was a breeze compared to leaving Iran: a friendly welcoming smile from a border guard made all the lost hours waiting dissipate into the warm dusk air. I changed some dollars for dinars (my rials evidently now not worth the paper they were printed on) and walked triumphantly into Iraq.
Next stop Bagdad!
Of course my bus was long gone, so there I was standing in this huge truck/car-park with a backpack slung over my shoulders and the sun dropping fast behind a ridge of steep mountains – once again darkness creeping over and I keen to get moving. I had to get to Erbil that night. I was going to ask some truck drivers for a lift, but nobody seemed to be moving anywhere in a hurry. I found a Turkish guy wearing a black leather jacket (why do they always wear the same jacket?) who spoke French – he was also going to Erbil tonight and in negotiations with three other Iraqi men about the journey. So I quickly decided to jump in the car with them and headed for Erbil. Throughout the 250km journey there was a lot of chatter, but not a word in English. I learn nobodies’ names. I’m excited just to be moving again.
One of the benefits of living a textured, well-travelled life is that you don’t get easily shocked. I’ve experienced my fair share of crazy drivers around the world and I would be lying if I told you that the thought of trouble on this trip hadn’t occurred to me, however it was never about dying in a car crash on my first day in Iraq! I was convinced this driver had a death-wish. We narrowly avoided smashing into a cow and then two girls crossing the road. The road itself is quite terrible in parts, dusty and potholed, although the government is clearly trying to repair it. The smell of burning rubber, mixed in with his cigarette smoke, wafted around the car. His brake discs must surely be shot to shit, I thought.
Any minute now we are flying off the edge of this mountain.
It’s now pitch-black and the mountain road has few lights. A local saying goes, ‘Kurds have no friends but the mountains’. Just when I begin to think that he knows these roads well, we take a wrong turn somewhere and suddenly we’re lost on an empty path halfway up a mountain devoid of traffic. I half expected the guy next to me to start chanting al Qaeda slogans, pull out a black hood and cover my head. Was this how it was going to end – kidnapped? Well, no. My mind was just buzzing, entertaining one of those ‘wish I was anywhere but here’ moments. In retrospect, I was far more scared about the psycho in the drivers’ seat than anything else.
After lots of chatter and finger-pointing Mr Schumacher found the main road again and soon we started passing small villages and the occasional sign-posts in English which reassuringly pointed toward Erbil. After a three hour white-knuckle, fist clenching drive, I was told simply to get out on a highway near the edge of Erbil city. An unceremonious ending to an epic journey.
Fortunately it was well-lit and there were signs pointing to the town centre. So I thanked them in Arabic for kindly not killing me when they had the chance, then jumped into a passing taxi. I simply said ‘hotel’ and within 20 minutes found the excellent Hotel Darya. For $55 a night I could have a hot shower, watch a crappy Arabic version of an equally crappy American singing contest on cable TV and rest in a comfortable bed. It wasn’t until around 11pm that I realised in all the travelling, I hadn’t even stopped to eat.
At times this particular journey tested my patience. Iran had been surprisingly trouble free until the border with Iraq. But apart from that one long day travelling to Erbil, the many Kurdish people I met were extremely friendly and helpful, (just as were the folk of Tabriz). There are few tourists, understandably so, given its proximity to the violence still occurring in central Iraq. The high walls around these two countries may make them seem like sinister, intimidating places to visit, but once you overcome this, some of the world’s friendliest people eagerly await.
Copyright © 2013 Andy McGinlay