Chapter One: Beyond War
“Incoming text message.”
Class had let out and I was making my way across the city from one of the university’s campuses to another when I started to receive text messages from students I had dismissed not fifteen minutes before. It was a short walk, and though some of my friends preferred that I not take it alone, I picked my way through the more heavily guarded sections of Arbil, capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Students on cell phones passed, kicking up dust on newly paved asphalt; security guards settled into their chairs in front of blast walls, sharing observations about the city’s construction cranes. Text messages kept coming.
“Bounty? NO! Kit Kat? NEVER! Mars? . . . How about sugar?? Still can’t find anything as sweet as you!”
Almost a year after first arriving in Iraq to teach American history and English, I had returned to the same university in Kurdistan to present a couple of lessons on American education and language. Moving across the city that day, trying to gather my bearings, I found myself as acutely aware of the fortifications and arms as I had been twelve months before: Why is that building so heavily guarded? Who is in that winding convoy? Is it wise to be staying in a hotel made of glass? The anxious imagination as perpetual motion machine—what catches my eye is commonplace to the locals. The bus drivers picking up familiar passengers, the cabbies gossiping at black-market gas stations, the storekeepers in the bazaar were not likely to be talking about checkpoints and armored vehicles. The students on cell phones, too, had concerns of their own beyond the Kalashnikovs that over the decades had become so ubiquitous they were almost invisible. Other forces, beyond those of bristling militarism, were busy at work.
My phone kept vibrating with new messages.
“Triangles have 3 ends. Lines have 2 ends. Life has one end. But our friendship has no ends.”
Flirtatious, solicitous, and curious, all of the incoming messages testified to a hope of engagement, as much with the wider world as with me, its apparent proxy. After another class later that same day, I spent an hour chatting with a dozen or so students keen to work on their conversation skills. Most who hung around peppered me with questions about home, my favorite movies, and my views of the relative merits of Michael Jackson and Shakira. One young man, however, interjected to talk about himself and his goals. Slightly shorter than the rest, he was notably tanned, considering the winter season, and a bit pockmarked. He was in his final year at the university but wanted to continue to improve his English. With a heavily bearded and expressionless classmate looming over him, the young man described his plans: upon graduation, he would move to Mosul to work with U.S. forces. Translators, like all Iraqis working with Western media outlets, had been hunted, targeted, and killed by the dozens. Though aware of the dangers, he still considered this the best, indeed the only, route available to further develop his language skills. My phone continued to vibrate in my suit pocket.
Incoming text message: “If the sun forget the earth . . . If fats forget food . . . If heart forget beating . . . If valentine forget love . . . If Bush forget Bin Laden . . . but, I never forget you.”
To counter terror. To develop democracy. To serve capitalism. To spread freedom. The intentions of the American invasion of Iraq were articulated in relation to no few American ideals. But for these students, a single concern was paramount: opportunity. Opportunity to learn, to pursue contacts, or a career not determined by the state; and, finally, opportunity to be part of an independent Kurdistan. Their parents had suffered violently and bitterly under Saddam Hussein. And they had watched as the dictator was deposed with overwhelming power and violence. Now, this generation’s engagement with power was something different: amid violence and corruption, hope was diffused through cell phones and satellite dishes, meted out by markets and new parliaments.
“I want to practice my English and I can’t do it anywhere else,” the young man insisted. “I will take my chances with the terrorists.”Chapter Two: How and Why: Feet on the Ground, Head in the Sky
When you reach the threshold of the great gateway
There’s a bustle of retainers, and folks gather round,
They guide you through to the hall,
Then all is hospitality and welcome to the guest;
The corps of retainers, bandoliers slung on shoulders,
Heads and hats swollen with bright silken turbans,
Hands upon daggers, awaiting their orders,
Be they to chop off a head or bring in dinner . . .
—Kurdish poet Mirza Abdullah Goran, translated by C. J. Edmonds, political officer of Her Majesty’s Foreign Service, 1919–1925
Twelve months before, in February 2005, the head of the history department at Salahaddin University had given me a five-minute introduction and then left me alone with a translator in front of fifty rather bewildered students.
“Mamosta [teacher] Ian, what are you doing here?” a male student in the back of the class quickly asked before I could speak.
Young men in tight-fitting bell-bottoms or jeans streaked unevenly with bleach filled half the seats. Some shirts shimmered; on others the collar points drooped down halfway to the wearer’s shoulders. Footwear ranged from cowboy boots to knockoff Italian square-toed loafers, the whole scene a remarkable fashion hybrid: Middle Eastern, American Western, Roman boulevardier. Women, who would wear fabulous outfits of color and glitter some months later for graduation, were now heavily made up and bundled in coats against the winter’s cold. A gang of black-clad young men, some with full beards, quietly looked on from the back of the classroom. (Some of these more religious students would prove to be good students and even better people; others would not.) A few stragglers came in, pronouncing their apologies, their stories belied by small smiles of mischief. Cell phones vibrated on desks as ringtones of the latest Syrian songs filtered through pockets and handbags.
A barrage of various forms of the same question soon followed. A young man asked, “We mean, what are you doing in Kurdistan, not just at the university?”
The question was not unreasonable. After all, in a city and a country that had seen decades of war, where regional stability was precarious and the history of oppression and a sense of limited options weighed on every student, a classroom was not a place to expect strangers. It was, to be sure, a classroom in Kurdistan—a place where secularism had a strong toehold and virtual national autonomy had been established for nearly a decade and a half, but it was also in Iraq, where sectarian violence was fast becoming the daily norm.
“What do you think of Kurdistan? And how do you make out of the university?” one student ventured shyly in broken English. He added, “You are very welcome to Kurdistan. And thank you. And I want to talk about America too.” The United States had “liberated” them, to use a word floated freely by the Kurds in reference to the toppling of Saddam. American movies and consumer products were rapidly appearing in the bazaar. But despite the dramatic changes resulting from American foreign policy and economic might, I was the first American that most of these young men and women had ever met.
Behind the lectern, a faded map of Iraq, with the region of Kurdistan outlined, hung near the eraser board. Next to it, another map showed North Africa and the greater Mediterranean, including southern Europe, with the Middle East highlighted in bright green. These were the visual aids for what would be the first class in American history for the young Kurds, whose capacity to look West was restrained because they were in Iraq.
Four days before the January 30, 2005, elections, I had crossed into Iraq. Four hours north of the border is Diyarbakir, the southeastern Turkish city into which one flies when entering Iraq from the north. It has long been a stronghold of Kurdish nationalism and militancy in Turkey—this was true Anatolia, the East, a world away from the thriving cosmopolitan capital on the Bosporus. The plains stretching out around Diyarbakir soon give way to dusty and crumbling mountains as one heads south to the border.
This is a historic cradle of humanity, and the local people lay active claim to its heritage. Mount Ararat, the supposed resting spot of Noah’s ark, lies to the northeast, and to the southwest is Harran, the village in which Abraham first heard the voice of God. Taxi drivers, hoteliers, and soldiers alike tell tales linking them to millennia past as well as to stories common to the Koran, the Torah, and the Bible. A legend of Abraham’s birth is juxtaposed with a spotting of the ark by Russian pilots during the First World War. In places one can make out the train track that in better times carried people into Syria; now it is obscured amid the rocks and weedy growth of the border no-man’s-land. As one continues toward the border, the decaying past figures less prominently than the present checkpoints, and the minefields are more relevant to the future than stories. Like the dust, the roadside rubbish, and abandoned, broken-down vehicles, tokens of politics are ubiquitous; the overwhelming sense of nowhere is countered by reminders of geopolitics past and present. Every couple of hundred yards, there is evidence of stifled declarations of power and sovereignty, empty guard towers rising up from barren land.
In Silopi, a few miles before one officially crosses over into Iraq, an indiscriminate row of dirty shops stands apart from the road, fronted by a parking lot—an arrangement reminiscent of American strip malls. In the space where a sidewalk might have existed, a car, bombed out and half missing, is mounted on blocks. In the bustling chaos, one could easily miss the wreck; but if one happens to look out one’s left-side window, the image is not easily forgotten. The rear tires are raised an extra two feet to give a full view of the ruined undercarriage. The car is a symbol, a menacing signpost to the wayward pilgrim. The bombing may well have been the work of a Kurdish separatist group, but whoever the agent, the act was meant to encourage some and deter others. It is, in fact, an advertisement of violence on the route into Iraq initially favored by American military planners, before the war started in March 2003. With Jordan and Syria unwilling to grant passage to American troops, and the Saudi government increasingly riven by violent internal struggle over, in part, relations with America, only three potentially feasible routes could be imagined for an American invasion. The Kuwait-Iraq border was a likely one. Iraq’s own short seacoast provided only limited access. The third way was through Turkey. Turkey had cooperated in the first Gulf War, and it was hoped the promise of six billion dollars in aid would inspire a similarly friendly attitude the second time around; thus planners had assumed a significant portion of American troops would enter Iraq, as I was doing, from the north. Barely three weeks before the invasion, however, in what may have proved to be a blessing in disguise for the American effort—the terms of one American offer would have allowed Turkish troops into northern Iraq, which might well have ignited a separate Turkish-Kurdish conflict there—Turkey’s Grand National Assembly voted against allowing the Fourth Infantry Division passage through Turkey into Iraq.
I was traveling with Peter Galbraith, a frequent visitor to Iraq and the Kurdistan region in particular, and his son Andrew. Galbraith, a lawyer by training and a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, who had advised the Kurds during the negotiations on the Transitional Authority Law (TAL), which would describe a legal framework for relations between Iraq’s different religious and ethnic groups and regions until the writing of a constitution. He had been in Iraq during the Kurdish uprising in 1991 and, while fleeing across the Tigris into Syria, was nearly captured by Saddam’s forces. He had done much to document and publicize Saddam’s attacks upon Kurdish cities and his systematic destruction of Kurdish villages through displacement, rape, and murder. Many considered him an honorary Kurd.
Overcrowded and muddy from a morning rain, the border was expected to close in forty-eight hours due to election security procedures, and people of all sorts were rushing to get in or out. For our taxi driver the fare represented a good payday, and the danger across the border had nothing to do with him. Clearly familiar with the process, he made a series of stops at anonymous office buildings into which he took our passports. Our final stop before starting procedures with Turkish officials was at a gas station that specialized in siphoning off gas from taxis. Having sold their gas at a premium in Turkey, the drivers would get a full tank at cheaper prices on the other side of the border.
Standing in puddles of gasoline, with cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths, the attendants lined up each waiting car, propped up one tire, and siphoned the tank until the empty light flashed on the dashboard. An old man wandered in front of our car and flicked his ash near half-empty gasoline barrels. It flitted off in a gust of wind that failed to clear the fumes around the car. The attendants paid the man no mind; I bolted from the car to a dirt hill some twenty yards off. My reaction quickly became a bit of comic relief for those around the station. In a tableau of the absurd—cars awkwardly half-aloft, gas flowing out of full tanks into barrels, old men flirting with self-immolation, young men interrupting prayer to answer cell phones—acting in what seemed to me a reasonable manner, I had made myself look foolish to the locals. I was learning to be a guest here, not simply relinquishing control but adapting.
On this day, the Kurds also disappeared with our passports, but they offered us tea and food while we waited. The courtesy was not incidental. Some six weeks later, in Baghdad, I was talking to a South African private security contractor about the differences between that city and the Kurdish city of Arbil. “We’re the dogs here [Iraq]. I know that,” he said of hired bodyguards, “but in Arbil, when we visit an office with a client, they bring tea to our vehicles or positions.” Arbil is many things that Baghdad is not, but considering his profession one might have expected the South African to note the relative safety as the foremost distinction. “People on the street here,” he said of Kurdistan with a sense of awe born of having been in Baghdad too long, “will actually look at you for a second, even smile sometimes.” After four hours in a cramped, smoke-filled taxi, a brief stop at an explosives dump disguised as a gas station, and the studied discourtesies of Turkish border officials, I did not need to visit Baghdad to appreciate Kurdish hospitality.
No proper introduction to the people, nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial writers seem to concur, could omit to mention it. In his enduring memoir Road Through Kurdistan
, published in 1937, Archibald Milne Hamilton, a New Zealander building a British road through the region, remarked on the “sacred obligation” of hospitality in Kurdistan. “A Kurdish host always likes to know when he should expect guests, that he may have food ready, and offer the best that he may provide.” Kurdish history is rife with war, politicking, and displacement. Many here have memories of long marches and periods of extreme deprivation, yet the culture cherishes the enjoyment of food and the business of playing host. In the coming months, I would observe the same enthusiasm, whether my dinner companions were the future president of Iraq and the prime minister of Kurdistan, or students in roadside shanties or displaced Iranian Kurds in refugee camps. Whether seated on couches in elegant living rooms, or on worn Kurdish rugs on the floors of bullet-ridden one-story concrete blocks some called home, long conversations were the rule preceding and following meals. On picnics in the foothills outside Mosul or in the mountains on the Iranian border, men would retreat from lunch to gossip, smoke, and play a game like bowling with rocks, while the women cleared plates and prepared tea and talked among themselves.
Having crossed the border, we were left to wait at a government compound that also served as an immigration center. From a small kitchen in a space shared with two holes—the bathroom—there emerged a guard in sandals who must have doubled as the compound’s chef. For the three of us he brought out food enough for thirteen. Three large bowls of white rice; a pile of flat bread the diameter of a large pizza, stacked six inches high; peppers and tomatoes stuffed with boiled meat; freshly cooked kebabs. A stew of white beans and shredded chicken was for lack of space placed atop the kebabs. Dropped dismissively on the table as well were a couple heads of lettuce, fistfuls of spring onions, and a half dozen sliced tomatoes. Hamilton had been similarly overwhelmed: “On another tray are many dishes, of deliciously seasoned stews of vegetables and fruits and the choicest flesh of gamebirds and lambs—the latter having been specially killed for us.” On this day, nothing had been killed in our honor, but a can of spaghetti, a gesture of understanding toward the Western palate, was offered as a side dish. Refilled water bottles were added for the sake of presentation.
On either side of the border, as far as one could see, Turkish and Iraqi truck drivers were also taking their lunch or afternoon tea. They did not have kebabs, but probably a cold version of the white bean stew and certainly the flat bread, which was made differently, I would learn, in each Kurdish city. Instead of dining on plastic tables as we were, the drivers ate on aluminum doors that folded down on hinges from the sides of the oil tankers. Our trip across the border from Diyarbakir had taken five hours. The trip from Zakho, the first real town beyond the border, to Arbil would take another four. An oil truck driver making the round-trip from a refinery in Turkey to northern Iraq and then back to Turkey, with a stop somewhere near Kirkuk to pick up crude, could take anywhere from three weeks to two months, with most of the time spent waiting.
Uphill and down, stretching over the plains, Turkish and Iraqi oil trucks stood in line. For the drivers in Silopi, on the Turkish side of the border, the most dangerous part of the job lay ahead. Scores of drivers, from as far away as China and as near as Egypt, had been kidnapped since the beginning of the war. Many had been killed. American truck drivers contracting with coalition forces traveled in guarded convoys and were also paid handsomely for the risk. A Turkish driver down from Ankara would drive by himself, perhaps with an old pistol on the seat beside him. This afternoon, however, boredom, not danger, was the order of the day, as cabs sat empty and drivers lingered, eating around their trucks or on blankets by the side of the road. The small truck cabs were old and dusty, with the company’s name or country of origin painted on the side in letters now chipping and peeling. Some men chatted with friends, some rolled dice on makeshift tables, and others simply sat on their haunches watching nothing go by.
In places, the wait lines diverted into parking lots the size of football stadiums where trucks by the thousands were packed side by side. The scene resulted from one of those economies peculiar to war, such as Joseph Heller captured so well in Catch-22
. In Heller’s mordant satire of the Second World War, Milo Minderbinder achieves notoriety and riches by buying high and selling low, thanks to the often peculiar constructs of wartime economies. At the end of January, gasoline was selling for around one dollar per liter in Turkey, while across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan, prices had settled at around ten cents per liter. But Turkish and Iraqi oil truck drivers had discovered that, via the black market and government subsidies, one could make a significant profit importing refined oil into Iraq and then illegally exporting that same refined oil. The trucks waiting to leave Iraqi Kurdistan were symptoms of a country plagued by violence and organized crime. For the better part of 2005, pipelines from the northern oil fields around Kirkuk were shut down, so all exporting of crude oil was done by truck. By September of that year, a new system involving extensive tribal security and unannounced openings and closings of the pipeline was allowing five million barrels of crude per month to flow out into Turkey—a mere fraction of Kirkuk’s production capacity of nearly a million barrels a day. There was thus plenty of work for daring truck drivers. The trucks carried crude into Turkey, to be refined in Turkish refineries. Iraq was thus importing the refined version of its own greatest natural resource, in effect outsourcing the refining process.
Having finished lunch, we sped south by the bored and restless truckers, in a convoy of four white Land Cruisers—two of them carrying a guard of eight Kurdish soldiers—doing sixty when no other vehicle on that street could even move, heading south away from the ark’s supposed resting spot, past checkpoints as night fell, just north of Nineveh, where Jonah traveled after emerging from three days and nights in the belly of a great fish, downward closer to the tomb of Daniel in Kirkuk and that of the Shia martyr Ali in Najaf. For the first fifteen miles after we crossed the border, two pickup trucks with mounted machine guns escorted us through a series of mountain passes. En route to Arbil, we passed forty-five miles north of the provincial capital Mosul and cleared at least a dozen checkpoints. Despite the relative safety compared with central and western Iraq, it seemed like a war zone. We passed the four-hour drive with a mix tape of Kurdish, Iraqi, and Lebanese pop music on continuous loop.Notes
 Archibald M. Hamilton, Road Through Kurdistan: Travels in Northern Iraq
(Tauris Parke Paperbacks: New York and London, 1937), 112, 116, 169.
 Robert E. Looney, "The Business of Insurgency: the Expansion of Iraq's Shadow Economy," National Interest
(Fall 2005), 68, 69; James Glanz, "Thanks to Guards, Iraq Oil Pipeline Is Up and Running, On and Off," New York Times
, 3 September 2005, A6.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Elvis Is Titanic by Ian Klaus. Copyright © 2007 by Ian Klaus. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.