Saturday, March 18, 2006


Notice: to read the full story, have a look at my book “Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan”. Clic here to learn more. Order a copy and keep me on the road!

An elderly bunch plays "dama" over a board drawn with chalk in the pavement, with movements that combine gentleness and velocity. We are not far from the bridge that, has granted way over the river Zakho, for near a millennia in the town of the same name. A black and white turban caracoles around their head as a Babel Tower. It is an exclusive pattern, like a plate number, and it indicates the men are from the North Eastern Mountains. They play with stones rhythmically; it seems they are trying to attune history.

I am in the Iraqi Kurdistan, and so much calm here is as foreigner as I am. For the first time, what is apparently sliding irreparably into civil war is the rest of the country. Even if since the end of the first Gulf War Saddam's helicopters haven't raided the region unleashing lethal gas, only for three years the Kurds have been able to relax and play "dama". The fringe of a large and gloomy cloud obscures the sun. One of the men stands up and exclaims: "Stormy weather is coming from Iraq". Given the fact that, at least technically, the conversation is taking place in Iraq, the comment is not a mere weather forecast, but -and specially- in front of a foreigner, a proud declaration of independence. In the mast of a nearby school, the Kurdish flag supports the comment.

I changed ten dollars to Iraqi dinars and hit the road without more plans than advancing trough the mountain road network towards Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. My map, with its designs of miniature camels in the Eastern Deserts and oilfields in the Persian Gulf area, caters more for getting school boys interested into geography lessons than to guide a foreigner in the aftermath of the war. I don't either the least reference about the local reaction to hitch hikers.

Happily, as I am still walking in the outskirts of Zakho, and only after two minutes waiting, a spotless Chrysler Concorde stops. Surprise wrests heavier than the lack of habit it seems. I get in it astonished; it is not the kind of car you would expect to stop in a country that counts 20 years of internal and external conflicts. In spite of prejudices, the average car in Kurdistan is a 1991 Opel Vectra. Not bad, Syrians are still driving their 1950s De Soto and 304 Peugeots... The driver is a barber, and he speaks fluent German as a consequence of exile. He drops me in the highway to Mosul, which has been strongly advised against. It seems I am forced to take it for at least 50 km. As tango philosophy goes: "If you are already in the dance floor you must dance". Well, I didn't come to Iraq to take dance lessons, but there were no options, so there in the Mosul highway I extended my thumb.

Two minutes again, a Peshmerga (Police) commander slows down his Mazda (freezing traffic for one minute) and welcomes me in. He is driving to Duhok, a middle size town considered safe from where I can finally connect with the mountain network. Despite my driver is a policeman, the local Pesh stop me for questioning and examine my passport suspiciously before waving me through. To the inherent difficulty of explaining that one finds attractive the panorama of hitch hiking in countries bordering collapse you must add the bonus of having to explain it in Arabic (The only channel of communication since I don't speak Arabic). The most annoying thing of roadside questionings is that after you are let in peace there is always another curious gun-totting official at the exit of the next town.

So in Duhok itself I was stopped again by the Pesh that, not understanding why did I want to palm down cars as I walk when I could just charter a taxi from the city center, they propose the military version: a soldier with a Kalashnikov stops the first car, opens the door and orders me to jump in, and takes seat at my side.

I travel with armed escort until the village of Zawita, when the soldier (I must say he was of the smiley type) gets down and pays both his fare and mine. I am already in the mountain road. By a petrol station, a lieutenant of the Peshmerga pulls aside. I am tempted to think that, either the security forces are extremely kind, or all the population holds a position in them. (With time I would consider realistic the second option). My driver's name is Memet, who changes gears and listens to electronic music as he speeds by the sinuous road. The alpine like landscape conjures up an aesthetic illusion, for a second I think this is Tirol... The lieutenant himself doesn't seem to have a much accurate idea of where we are and, maybe conditioned by history, he asks: "So... is Irak beautiful? I mean Kurdistan!" He laughs at himself as the first rain drops predicted by the senior dama players of Zakho come true.

When we reach a village called Barzan he takes another direction. It is too rainy to make travel pleasant so I decide to stay there for the night. Memet says I should have no problems finding shelter in the "maker". I didn't know what a maker was, and as Memet's explanation in Arabic didn't help, I decided to walk up hill following his index finger in search of... well, in search of a "maker". At the sight of the only official looking installation I knock the door, which was opened.

Two men were drinking tea in the large carpeted room only whose squareness was only interrupted by the large heating stove vertical pipe. They stand up with one movement and, as if they had been waiting for me, they made place in the ritual for me. A banner of the KDP (Democratic Party of Kurdistan, hangs from the wall. Only a day after I would understand that I was in the base of the Peshmerga who look after the grave of Mustafa Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Guerrilla that confronted Saddam. As the surname indicates, Barzani was original from Barzan village. Unwillingly, and forced by the rain, I had hit the spiritual center of Kurdistan, as anybody who sees the hundreds of flag decorated cars in weekend pilgrimage-picnic to the site may agree to call.

This Pesh, unlike the ones in the checkpoints, execute a verbless hospitality. They are not interested in my passport or destination, they simply like to help. During the dinner, down in the floor around a giant circular tray, the TV displays home videos in which columns of Pesh triumphally trek down the Shirin Mountains after Saddam was defeated in the first Gulf War. In March, when most of the Kurdish national days (Anniversary of Barzani's death, Declaration of Autonomy, etc) seem to happen, such imaginary is so profuse that you think the good men are still descending, happy and muddy. Provided each fighter has grasped some wisdom during his sojourn in the heights, as Zarathustra did, there is no doubt we are witnessing the rise of an enlightened nation.

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