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Bernard Shaw once penned that martyrdom is the shortest way to fame. I cannot say, though, that I am driven by any masochist quest to trespass fire lines. There isn't either any necessity to cross Iraqi territory in my otherwise natural passage from Turkey to Iran. If something took me here, that was the loyalty to the idea that caused me to hit the road on May 1st, 2005: human being is intrinsically good stock. It's been more than 10 months since I let my native Argentina and started my walk from Belfast City, in Northern Ireland, with my stuffed backpack and my thumb ready, committed to roam Europe and Asia, not as a tourist, but as a wanderer. No credit card, no mobile phone, no hotel bookings, no buses. No plans. Hitch hiking, my only mean of transportation. Cheap, that's true, but mainly a secret gate to the harmony of chaos, a chance for advancing without imposing, abandoning oneself to the involuntary punctuation of the road that builds itself.
Behind the expedition one aim: to compensate the partial and stereotyped picture of the world generated by mainstream media by portraying universal hospitality across the globe. Official image of the world, centered in the political conflicts among governments, outframes the basic honesty of the average man struggling under any flag, fomenting thus the paranoia that grants ground for further conflicts.Since I left Belfast I haven't found a country whose people is not convinced that hell starts in the neighboring country. The Hungarians swore that I would be eaten alive by Romanian Gypsies, while in Romania those Gypsies warned me, as they obliged me to drink their ziuca, about the great danger involved in crossing the Bulgarian border. Of course Bulgarians would rather grant me citizenship than letting me trot into the wild Muslim world. So each time I would get a new stamp in my passport I would tell myself: "Ok, here is where I am going to be effectively thrown to the hungry dogs". Only to have my expectations frustrated by a bunch of jumpy-around locals inviting me to their homes. Now it is the Turks who fear for my integrity as I hitch trough their country in my way to Iraq, the famed homeland of the kidnapping art, even if I am going to the relatively safe North.
The distance between Europe and Iraq is more symbolic than geographic. Even if the chaos with which the country is constantly linked with seems incompatible with proximity, let us remember that Iraq will have a full border with the European Union as soon as Turkey is blended in the joint. Hitch hiking swiftly from Ankara to the Southeastern provinces I am driven in fact a highway that bears –or drags- the European standard road nomenclature E-90 until the very border , always failing to signpost Iraq at all, as if shameful of its destination. Across intensely green grasslands guarded by still snowcapped mountains I bypass the cities of Sanliurfa and Batman. In Sanliurfa, the tailors receive the most unusual instructions in their lifetime, namely to produce somehow an Argentinean flag to hang from my backpack. If I happen to stumble upon fundamentalists, hope they see from the distance I am a South American. Holding also an Italian passport I deposit it in Batman Town Hall (as ridiculous as it may sound). I reach Silopi, the last Turkish town, in a yellow Scania whose driver declares how much he likes me. And strategically removes the news in the dial and tunes some romantic music. The episode hardly matches the circumstance of arriving the tricky border..
But border are we exactly talking about? Is there a border? If I believe the map I should say I am crossing from Turkey into Iraq. That's officialdom. Reality: the last "Turkish" guy I talked to (he halted me in the streets of Silopi and forced me to accept his invitation to drink lemonade) welcomed me to the Mesopotamia, and finally wished me good trip to Southern Kurdistan. In this case, if you want to update your lingo, you have better get back t the times of Ramses II. Despite having mastered the mountain passes among present day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish people have never been able (or allowed to) established their own state, becoming the largest ethnic group worldwide without one. Nevertheless, they brokenheartedly refer to every patch of land they inhabit as Kurdistan, and still denounce the Treaty of Sevres (1920), in which the triumphant Allies granted freedom to other victims of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Armenians, but never consolidated the sovereignty promised to the Kurds. The fact that oil hides underground may have something to do…
What decades of hiding in the mountains grenade propeller in hand didn't reward the Kurds just fell from heaven when Saddam was elbowed out in 2003 by the Coalition Forces. Since then, the pompously titled Kurdish Autonomous Region began to consolidate itself as a truly independent republic, even if still tied to the national capital Baghdad. And so the wind caused yet another flag to wave: the Kurdish Flag, which suddenly came out of all closets. The Peshmerga, (or simply Pesh), mountain partisans under command of local hero Barzani, also trekked down the mountains to become a full legal nation wide police force. Just imagine one day IRA forces patrolling the streets of Belfast and Londonderry.
"Welcome to the Iraqi Kurdish Autonomous Region"- announces a sign in the checkpoint. The kind man behind the glass takes my passport with some surprise... "Argentina? Maradona!" Until then he is sadly average. But then adds a striking: "Are you a terrorist, sorry...oh no Mister! I mean...are you a tourist? I was starting to think that the Kurdish Democratic Party in charge was democratic to the extent of having a tick box for every path of life… In shameless opposition to the Iraqi embassies in Ankara or Cairo who had asked me for a special visa costing 50 bucks and taking three weeks to process, these folks just ask me: 'So why are you coming to Kurdistan?" "Well – I answered naively- you are a new country and I wanted to visit you." I also let them know I had visited the Syrian Occupied Kurdistan and gave the Kurdish names of the towns. After that, they became the most accommodating guys you could think of, stamped my passport and waved my trough. I was in.
I thought I was able of such arrogances only in inoffensive countries like Slovenia or Latvia. But instead I found myself stepping into Iraq at night, without local currency and with a crappy map downloaded from the internet. With what moral authority I am going to tell my children not to throw fireworks to the neighbor's dog? I entered the first roadside restaurant I met to examine my map, and there the image of a U.S. contractor taking his food tray to the table fully dressed in Marine uniform took me to reality, I was in Iraq, I should watch my step. Convincing the opportunist taxi driver that I didn't owe him 20 dollars just for hauling me the 2 kms between the two border posts had been impossible to the point of letting him speaking alone to his old Renault 12. When I exited the restaurant he was there again, accompanied by a police officer. He wanted his money, but it was not his day, the policeman was more interested in knowing the countries I had seen in my journey and told the driver not to bother me again.
An early impression of Zakho, the first Kurdish town, was that of a lack of balance. Cars luxurious even by European standards (read BMW X-5, Chrysler Concorde) jam the main street aligned with decrepit shops and very basic housing, Kurdish flags equally decorating crumbling houses and expensive toys. Of course, it was too soon to understand anything.
As I walk in search of a cheap pension, the crowd that chews kebab under a portrait of a head robbed Barzani stare at me as if I were a green dog. Just think the country hasn't seen a tourist in the last 25 years. So visible, the security forces promptly entered the 2-dollars-a-day room I was sharing with three workers from Mosul, and did the usual questions. The usual questions didn't include what I am sure they were asking themselves: what is a foreigner doing outside the Hilton? Even if it is the language of the enemy here, they seem to appreciate that I speak some Arabic, although they left the place offended because I had refused to sell them my tent. Both the workers and the officials advised me against visiting Mosul, Tikrit or Baghdad. Their reason, let aside the daily car bomb in Baghdad, is more quintessential: "People there is Arab" –he sentences. Of course, hell is a plant that grows on the other side of the fence…
In the morning I peep through the window. The Kurdish tricolor is waving outside, the green, the red and the golden sun in the intermediate white stripe contrasting bravely with the gloomy, cloudy sky. The heart beats. Ready to attempt hitch hiking in a country that attempts existing.