Fiction, poetry, writing
Arrange to pick up Oliver, an ex colleague, in Khalifan at 3.00 pm. Obviously I don’t leave Soran until 3.00 pm because that’s what I’m like. His phone doesn’t work. Try texting and ringing for half hour, set off for Duhok.
Oliver calls after an hour. He had no missed calls and no messages from me. Pull off the road and wait for him to catch up in a taxi just before Akre. Arrive in Duhok at a good time – sixish, say bye to Oliver and go for a hotel. Used the Dolphin as used it before. No loo roll, no towels, one dodgy blanket, cockroach doing backflips. Buy a fastlink card, a korek card and a kebab. Go to bed with light on so cockroach buddies don’t join the party. Electricity goes off all night. Freezing and worried about cockroaches. Leave at 8.00 am for the border. No shower, no coffee!
Reach the border at 9.00. Straight forward. Have to pay 70,000 IQD as I’m 18 days late. It’s 3,000 IQD per day plus 30,000 ish to leave because I was over 5 months. It’s only 5,000 if it’s 5 months. Invisible rules again. Anyway sail through all paperwork, meet a guy, Taha, from Suli who lives in UK. Nice guy, translates stuff for me. Get in the queue for Turkey side by 10.00 am.
There’s a British car in front of me. A silver Lexus. Another ex colleague’s doppelgänger is in it with another guy. He translates for me, we chat. He used to live in Manchester. He looks like and sounds like my ex-colleague who is from Stoke on Trent and this guy is Kurdish. It’s so weird. He’s slightly heavier though.
Taha is a couple of cars behind me. He had to pay over a million dinar because he didn’t flip the border for 18 months. He’d tried twice but the border was closed. He watches my car while I go for a pee in duty free building. Says he’ll move it if need be. Even though we’re still on Iraq side they want coins for peeing. I don’t have any on me so the guy unpadlocks the gate. I pee. Such joy.
Back in the car and we haven’t moved for ages. I read Kafka on the Shore. Lexus guy brings me some juice and a biscuit to ‘raise my sugar levels’. Two hours later we still haven’t moved. I’m slightly anxious because I want to be at the airport by 5.30. At 3.30 Lexus guy brings me a shawarma and water.
We inch forward every hour or so. By 4.00 we’re at the entrance to the bridge. I can still make it for my flight I reckon, at a push.
Taha comes and tells me we won’t be going over the bridge until 6.00. Now I know I won’t make it. Forgot to say that before we reached the bridge my car broke down and five young guys jump-started it. It was because of all the stopping and starting and I was using the battery with windows and charging my phone etc.
Got out of the car and chatted with Taha. He works in Suli and does something with computers. Needed to pee! Asked the guards if there was a wc. There was. I have never been anywhere so disgusting in my life. It was filthy and piled with shit and piss all over the floor. What could I do? I added my own piss!
A guy told Taha he could get me to Mardin. I just had to follow him. Lexus guys were also heading that way so we agreed we would do that. Finally got on the bridge by 5.30. Watched the sunset over the Tigris and took a couple of pictures. The sun looks beautiful behind the razor wire. Left the bridge after 6.30!
X-rayed luggage, drove over the hole (which I couldn’t do on Kurdish side so they let me drive next to it and tutted at girly drivers). The usual young guys were hanging around and helped with filling in ‘list, list’ punctuated with a chopping sign on the hand. Then one of them hung around and put my luggage back in the car after the car had been strip searched. He then jumped in the passenger and urged me on. I figured he was trying to help, it’s happened before. I checked I had some lira to give him. Except when we got to the passport bit his mates were obviously asking him what was going on. His pockets were stuffed with cigs. He wasn’t a pleasant lad but quite forceful. He presented our passports together and I clicked he was trying to use me to get through the border. I couldn’t shake him but I got my passport back.
Stopped to get my insurance but the booth was gone. He followed me and was really antsy. I saw the silver Lexus outside so was looking for the guys but he was urging me on. Found the insurance place and Lexus guys were there. I asked them what they were going to do. It was dark by this time, 7.00 pm. They had booked a hotel in Mardin and would drive to Diyarbakir the next day. They were flying to Manchester. I asked if I could follow them as it was dark and dangerous. They agreed.
The guy who had originally offered to help us was long gone! They asked who the lad hanging around me was and I said I couldn’t get rid of him. He’d jumped in my car. They ran him! While they went back to get their car I waited and Taha came along. He was concerned about the guy who had been in my car. He said don’t trust them. I told him not to worry. He had given me his business card earlier (disgusting pee time) and asked me to email him when I reached Mardin so he knew I was safe.
I forgot to say, as we went over the bridge I booked a ticket from Mardin to Istanbul for the next morning. It meant I missed my flights for Bordeaux but there was nothing I could do about it. I knew I wouldn’t have internet on Turkey side because my fastlink wouldn’t work.
We left the border at 7.00. Police stopped us and searched cars just before Silopi. They wanted to know where we were going and if we had alcohol and cigarettes. I was glad I didn’t buy the Glenfiddich before I left! They let us go on. Another police block, same thing! They let us go on. Drove through Silopi and reached Cizre. Another police block. Cars and passports checked. The Lexus guys used translate on their phones to converse. Asked for Mardin directions.
Another police block further on and Mardin road closed. They said we could go another way so we continued. Next road block was the Jendarme. We approached slowly, headlights bouncing of the rolls of razor wire at the side of the road. Cement blocks at angles, beetle armoured vehicles in the central reservation. They waved us down.
They searched our car and a soldier spoke English. He explained we couldn’t go through. Curfew. He sent us back. He came to talk to me and said he is Kurdish. He said ‘I want freedom for everyone, do you understand me?’ He kept saying he was a Kurd. Another soldier said he was from Diyarbakir. Again he was letting me know he was a Kurd. The first soldier was adamant I understood him. I felt like shouting ‘biji Kurdistan’ but I resisted. I didn’t know if he was laying a trap. I wasn’t fancying a Turkish jail.
He was nice but sent us back. It was 9.00 pm by this time. We went back to the last police block and they sent us back up the same road. Lost in translation was the fact that there was a little side road we could go down, but it was pitch black and we didn’t know the way!
The Jendarme sent us back again. Not quite so friendly. I was running low on petrol. I’d started with three quarters of a tank but was brushing a quarter by that time.
It was actually lovely driving at night because it felt like the moors back home. The road was similar and there was a feeling of space. The sky was clear and the stars were actually just sitting on it. They looked as though you could pluck them off. Kind of 3D. I was sure I could see shadows behind them. Orion’s Belt was within reaching distance and one of the planets was shining bright. It wasn’t near the moon so I’m guessing it was Mercury. I could be wrong.
The police sent us another direction and we set off again. Another police block turned us back. It was really interesting watching the Lexus guys place their hands in view each time we were stopped. I guess as Kurds in Turkey it’s similar to being black in America. Someone should start the hashtag #kurdishlivesmatter in Turkey!
I felt like we were the ball in an old Atari game, being batted from side to side. We gave up! There were two hotels in Silopi. It was gone 10.30 pm. I was low on petrol. We turned around and headed for Silopi. No road blocks on our side, what could go wrong? We passed a petrol station that was open so I filled up and went for a pee. The toilets were amazingly clean! I didn’t have enough Turkish money so I borrowed 50 TL from the Lexus guys. I had dollars but the station wouldn’t take it.
We drove on to Silopi. I was picturing a hotel room and a hot shower, couldn’t wait. We were going to set off again at 5.00 the next morning so I’d nab 6 hours sleep. Wrong. Road block. I was leading this time and was surrounded by 6-7 police. ‘Where are you going? What are you doing here? Did you come from Iraq? Do you support the Iraqi regime?’
‘Jeez! I said I just want a shower and to sleep! Of course I don’t support the Iraqi regime.’ They laughed and said, ‘yeah they would like to sleep and shower, it’s cold. But you’re not going to Silopi. It’s dangerous’. I wanted to cry. The guy’s Lexus was being stripped again by several guys.
Did I mention the AK47s? All of them had those, standard. I’m used to that from checkpoints in Kurdistan. I wasn’t used to the revolvers though. Black. Sitting prominently on belts or chests. Looking like they mean business. At this block the main guy had a silver and black pistol. It looked mean and hard and like it wouldn’t give a damn if it had to put a bullet in someone.
I was close to tears by this point. The guy who spoke English looked sympathetic but wanted me to congratulate his English, which I did. He then, really strange and quiet said ‘the problem is Newroz. Do you know Newroz?’ ‘Of course’, I said, ‘21 March’. ‘Yeah, he said and the next day and the next’. Was he telling me he was a Kurd? Anyway we weren’t getting through. He suggested strongly that I go back to Iraq the next day and stay there. Turkey was too dangerous he indicated with shrugs and hand gestures.
The Lexus guys told me we were going to a petrol station down the road and we would sleep in our cars and set off in the morning after curfew. 5.00 am. Just 6 hours to get through. We drive to a big petrol station and truck stop. Soil on a yellow neon sign told me what it was called. There were so many wagons there but there was a shop and wc’s so we agreed to stay. We parked up next to two other cars in the light of the petrol station. I got my big coat out of the back of the car. The one everyone laughs at because it’s like a feather down quilt. I was so glad I packed it. Wrapped up I slept for half an hour at a time until it got too cold at 4.00 am. I started the engine and drifted off again for 20 minutes. Then I realised the clock was wrong because turkey is an hour behind Kurdistan. It was like torture. I needed to pee. I waited another hour then went to look for the loo. Couldn’t find it. Just some ablution place and a gent’s loo. Oh, and a makeshift on the road mosque, of course. I went back to the car and dozed while squirming.
At 4.00 (Turkish time) good old call to prayer rang out. Glad I was awake or I’d have been properly pissed off. I didn’t want to run my engine anymore so I was wrapped up waiting for 5.00 am. Trucks started leaving around 4.30 and I watched dawn stretch over the sky. It was quite beautiful.
At 5.00 I tapped on the guys window. Doppelgänger showed me where the loo was – bliss. Then we were on the road again. First road block was before Cizre and they let us through after some questioning and desultory bag checking. Other road blocks were dismantled so we flew through. I would make my flight. Until we got to the Jendarme block. Two youngsters from the night before were though and told us to turn around. An important looking guy strode out from behind the makeshift blockade and carried his considerable bulk, straight backed, towards us. No way. We weren’t going that way. Turn back. We gave up. I was wondering how long it would take me to get back over the border. Would I need to stay in Duhok again? If so I was going to a proper hotel with hot shower and real covers on the bed.
We set off dejected. Same as last night, doppelgänger said. On the way they flashed down a small van and asked the driver if he knew any way to get to Mardin. He said follow me. We drove after him and then he pulled over and pointed to a small side road. With plenty of arm movements he directed us along there.
It was the rural route. Shepherds and sheep shared the road with us. Dogs barked and jumped at our cars. So many roaming shepherd family camps and the green was so beautiful. I could have been driving through the Peak District. Horses, dogs, goats, sheep, a magpie, which of course I saluted, bubbling brooks and potholed roads. We drove through tiny villages where school kids were waiting for buses. An old man with his head wrapped in a white cloth got out of his van and talked loudly and happily in Turkish or Kirmanji, I couldn’t hear him. He was so happy to point us in the right direction. He shook hands with the Lexus guy with a big toothless grin on his face. He smiled and waved at me as I drove past.
The road was full of twists and turns, ups and downs, small villages and beautiful fields. Young blossom was kissing the trees next to a stream and two women sat with their backs to the road, deep in conversation heads turned towards each other, not giving away the fact it was only 7.00 am. The rising sun picked out the weather lines on one woman’s face.
Round the corner of that small village and we come across a small herd of goats being driven by a shepherdess and her daughter. Not even a glance at our foreign cars as we passed them, an intensity on their faces that said these are our livelihood, what would we do if anything happened to them. I was tempted to make up a story about them. I resisted. I was tired.
Eventually we joined a main road and could fly through. I was hopeful about getting my plane but concerned that we would meet another road block. We bombed along until we had to take a turn signed for Mardin and there were police barriers in the road. Lexus guys stopped and asked a taxi and he pointed is in the other direction. The road all the lorries were taking. We tucked in behind them. Time was getting on. I reckoned I needed to be at the airport for 8.30 but with 120 kms to go and it being 7.45 I didn’t hold out much hope.
But surprisingly it went well. Twists and turns. Up and down hills, between mountains. All the time large wagons sandwiching us. Only 60 kms to go and it was 8.15. I could still make my flight, Mardin’s a small airport, it was a domestic flight, like taking a bus. Then we hit a row of wagons. Drivers were out, squatting for a chat and a brew, peeing up the hill, gossiping and walking up and down. Accident! It was like hope and devastation all the way through the journey. I was imitating classic bi-polar mood swings of extreme ups and downs. There were wagons as far as we could see, one after the other, after the other. No flight for me. But we’d come so far I would have to buy another one if we reached the airport, at a highly inflated cost obviously. I shrugged. What could I do?
We noticed cars were driving on the opposite side of the road and as there was no traffic coming towards us we figured we’d try it too. We drove on the verge at a deeply tilted angle and of course all of a sudden wagons were driving towards us. I was terrified that the car would flip over. It didn’t, but it was scary nonetheless. It took maybe 10 minutes to find the source of the problem – a broken down wagon, army and police directing 6 cars through each way. It would have taken 6 hours to get through if we hadn’t done our crazy stunt.
We were on the way again, time had moved on, but I was resigned, or hopeful or a mixture of the two. We hadn’t seen any checkpoints on this backwoods route, but that didn’t mean they weren’t around Mardin. But we were so close. And finally, we drove into Mardin, small cobbled streets, people going about their business. Normality! A bit of a traffic jam and Jendarme with rifles, I couldn’t believe it. Not then, not when we were so damn close. But they were directing traffic around some roadworks, it was nothing.
Following signs we were soon heading towards the airport and then I lost concentration and the Lexus was gone. I was so close. I didn’t think I would make my plane, but I wanted to get to the airport after my epic 40 hour journey. Looking around, I couldn’t see them anywhere so I made the decision to carry on and hope they found their way.
Down the winding road looking out over Mesopotamia it was hard to believe the problems I’d had to overcome to reach that point. So what if I was going to miss my flight. I’d already missed three, what was one more? I finally reached the airport at 9.00 am. There in front of me was the Lexus, they’d beat me to it. I was happy.
Parked up, bags out of the car, a quick chat with the Lexus guys and I headed into the airport. No. The car park attendant shouted at me in Turkish and continued even though it was obvious I didn’t understand him. It was 9.10, he wouldn’t let me go until he had walked slowly around the car park and noted the registration for my car and the Lexus. The slowly he sauntered back to his booth. I was tapping my watch, as though I had somewhere to be, or a flight to make. Finally, he took my keys from me and gave me a ticket. I pulled my bags into the airport building. Straight to the desk to tell them I had missed my flight and find out if there was another one.
The flight was delayed, by 35 minutes. I had made it. I was on my way to Istanbul. I still had to get from Sabiha Gokcen airport to Ataturk and arrange a flight to Bordeaux, I was meeting up there for a writing week, but that was ok. I could do that somehow once I had internet.
Flight arrived in Istanbul. My bags also arrived. Happy days. Went and checked with Pegasus that I could use the original ticket I had booked as a return to Mardin. They assured me it was ok. Went outside and got the Havatas bus to Taksim. Uneventful, midday, no heavy traffic. But I needed internet to see if I could book a flight to Bordeaux. Arrived Taksim Square and changed to the Havatas bus to Ataturk. Longwinded, but the cheapest, safest and easiest option between airports.
Changed to my UK sim card and gave Graham a call, knowing he was waiting in Bordeaux for information. He tells me there was a bomb in Istanbul, in the tourist, shopping area. I don’t know for sure, but I guessed it was close to where I was. Still I hadn’t heard anything, I was still in one piece. Having used the phone and run up a bit of a bill, I reckoned I had nothing to lose except money if I went online and looked for a flight. I did, it cost (£40.00 for 5 minutes), but I found a flight leaving at 5.30 pm that day, arriving in Bordeaux at 10.00 pm – awesome. It was 2.45 pm we were leaving Taksim shortly, it was the middle of the afternoon, 40 minute drive. No problem.
Except, there had been a bomb in Istanbul. Traffic was the heaviest I have seen it and I drove through Istanbul a couple of years ago – that’s obviously another story. It took us at least 2 hours and I was convinced I had missed my flight. Not only were we late, but we stopped at the domestic terminal first and two young lads waited until we set off again and then jumped up because they’d missed their stop. Another delay.
Got to the terminal, finally, bags through scanner, boots off, what’s that in your luggage, can you open your case please? Damn! All was ok, dressed, ran to escalators, upstairs found the check in counter number for KLM, 20 minutes before take off. Nobody at the desk. I was running up and down, nobody to ask, then found a BA attendant and she pointed out I was looking at G desks and I should be looking at H for KLM. Doh! Ran around the corner and people were there. And they allowed me to book in, gave me a priority pass to get through to the gate, confirmed my previous return flight had been cancelled and I couldn’t even use the return portion, and I was on my way.
I made it to Bordeaux. Slightly traumatised, well, very traumatised. I drove through a war zone at night. Turkey. Was advised to return to Iraq (Kurdistan) because it was safer! Met some amazing people who helped me a lot. And feel better for having written it all out.