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March 03, 2007

Day Five: Entering Iraq, Keep Your Talcum Dry

-Patrick S Lasswell

This Post Describes Events from the Summer of 2006


The Tools of the Consulting Trade in Iraq: Talcum, Booze, and Money

The duty-free store at Queen Alia Airport in Amman, Jordan is a marvel of middle-eastern compromise. Although the people of Jordan are substantially Palestinian and deeply infected by the problems of the last sixty years, they sell the least expensive Johnnie Walker Black I’ve ever seen there, and lots of it. Never to miss an opportunity to compromise with indigenous peoples, Michael and I purchase a liter, a bottle of wine, and a couple of cartons of wildly under priced cigarettes. They take their security quite seriously in Jordan and we are more likely to be hit by a truck on the second floor of the airport than receive a scolding about our provisioning.


Compromise Failed One Month Later: Site of Attempted Tourist Massacre

The people going to the Northern Iraqi city of Erbil (Hawler in Kurdish) in 2006 are just as interesting a group as you would expect, but the smell is not what I anticipated. Everybody making this flight has money, but you wouldn’t guess that a one in the morning on the bus to the flight. If you closed your eyes you could swear that you are aboard a metro in a bad neighborhood. Royal Jordanian Air and the people actually operating the flight are absolute professionals. The aircraft is an essentially unmarked and monochromatic old regional commuter bird that has nice seats and the capacity to fly onto small runways. The same aircraft and crew that services safe and prosperous Hawler and Suliamaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan also serves less convenient and flourishing Basra and Baghdad. I wonder if they use the same flight profile, but flying in during the dead of night has a certain appeal, regardless.

Michael had some problems getting through the ticket point because he did not have a visa or work documents for this visit. Royal Jordanian asked him to sign a document indicating he knows that Iraq may refuse him entry due to lack of visa. Showing my Department of Defense ID card opens all doors to me. You never know there’s a serviceman’s discount until you ask. As proud as I am of my hard charging Navy Reserve unit, [unit name redacted for security reasons] , it seems a shame that members of muffin-eating units get the same consideration. I’m sure that the Special Forces operators feel just about the same way about me. Little bugs have littler bugs on their backs to bite them…

Other than the smell of unwashed and nervous bodies, flying into Iraq is very normal. The captain and lead attendant are quite British, or excellent at pretending to be. The attitude helps keep the passengers relaxed, and that is a good thing. On the flight are a handful of young mothers bringing their children into Kurdistan. Everybody on the flight has made a courageous choice to ignore the hysteria and get on with their lives, we don’t need any unprofessional behavior to cause review that decision. I wonder if this is technically a violation of the foxhole rule to never share a confined space in dangerous territory with anyone braver than you are. Onboard the aircraft there is certain to be somebody with way more guts than Michael and I have put together.

When we get to Iraq, I sail through passport control with a wave of my Navy ID. Michael has to chat his way through and gets more interesting stamps on his passport. The easiest route is not the best for bragging rights and tokens. Getting a long term visa seems like a very good plan for return visits.

We are met at the gate by Michael’s friend at the Council of Ministers. Michael is embraced like a brother. I expect that the Kurdish people get some practice with that. Picking people up at the airport is probably the best part of their week; they get to see old friends returned from the outside world. I’m really looking forward to my next trip when I get to show that I have not abandoned my Kurdish friends. Michael shows a copy of his article in Reason magazine extolling the virtues of Kurdistan to the libertarian world. This is a good fit in a lot of ways, and further proof that Michael has been doing his part to share the truth about Iraqi Kurdistan.

We are taken to the Erbil International Hotel by Michael’s friend, but our reservations do not start until noon and the house is full. More goes on than meets the eye, with people of importance and wealth taking their friends from the early flight to the hotel. We are told that we should go to a hotel just out of town so we can get some rest before starting the day. Driving through the streets of Hawler (Erbil) before dawn is an easy adjustment for me. There are security checkpoints of greater and lesser extent all over, and their watchfulness relaxes me. We get to the Khanzad hotel at the very edge of the Mesopotamian plain and check in for a morning’s rest. It is later than we expected to be at this stage and we are going to have to postpone our meetings later in the day.

Although it was not our intention, going from the airport to the Khanzad hotel is incredibly good. I wasn’t particularly nervous yet in the trip, but if I had been, the location and layout of this hotel would have helped immensely. If ten caterpillars with bad intent approached this hotel, they would be spotted a mile away and dealt with long before they could cause harm. From our rooms we can see the dawn rise, and Michael and I break out the scotch and toast our arrival into Iraqi Kurdistan and paid consulting. The grounds behind the hotel are beautiful and Michael and I take pictures of each other forced to endure the perils of wartime in five star hotels with premium scotch.


Overlooking the War Torn Landscape with Woe: Alexander the Great Fought Just Down the Road from Here

We each go to our rooms and get some much needed sleep. Michael calls to wake me up for a first. I’ve been having a very bad time staying asleep, but I’ve figured out a plan that works like a charm. I take the clothes I’m going to be wearing and soak them completely in the shower. I hang them out where they can dry near the bed and the humidity where I’m sleeping is increased substantially. I grew up in a small town on the Oregon coast where it rarely got above 70 F or below 70 percent humidity. While I don’t think my wife is going to all that keen on me using this at home, as a travel method for arid regions it works great.

Breakfast is different, not bad at all, just very different from what I’m used to. Bread with glorious dollops of cream and cream cheese and Kurdish cheese and an apricot preserve that is simply marvelous. As someone who has experienced upset stomach while traveling since 1969, that is a matter of some concern to me. (Note: As of day seven, the intense amount of cream has triggered upset stomach. Something about eating the equivalent of a half-pint of heavy cream every day has triggered lactose intolerance. Thank God for Imodium.) [Second note: Further experience reveals that it is not lactose issues so much as good old fashioned dysentery rearing its ugly…presence. I take a lot of naps and get it under control.] We arrive late for the buffet, but the waiters graciously provide us with a meal, pointing out with especial pride the Kurdish cheese. The local pride in distinctive products makes me feel right at home as an Oregonian. Now, if we can get a good brewery going to take advantage of all that barley and wheat they grow here, it’ll just be a happy, malty extension of Eastern Oregon.

After we finish breakfast, we pack up our gear and head back out to the original hotel. The bill is amicably resolved because hotel prices are always negotiable, especially when you are using rooms that would otherwise go empty. A “taxi” is hailed and Michael and I resume our load plan from Amman with his longer legs behind the driver and my reduced length behind the empty passenger seat. This doesn’t make sense except that as the stronger security component of team, my getting in last and out first provides an edge. The taxi is just somebody’s buddy with a car, and the driver hits us up for 5,000 Iraqi Dinar (ID) [$3.33] more when we arrive at our destination because the driver always is smarmy. On the way over, we are stopped at a checkpoint where the guard really looks us over. I get out my magic Navy ID and things go much more smoothly. We resolve to include that with every passport check from now on.

When we get to our destination, we are thoroughly searched again. Every item is examined, but politely. After a few moments Michael realizes that we have left the duty free bags behind in the taxi. A bit of discomfort goes on because forgetting things in Iraq is a lot more weighty a concern than elsewhere. Also, the bottle of JW Black Label has barely been touched! Michael relaxes a bit when he remembers that we did not get a regular taxi, and that the people at the Khanzad desk who called him will surely know his name and be able to get in touch with him. We resolve to call as soon as we get done with the luggage inspection. Within ten minutes, however, the driver shows up with our provisions. He may be smarmy because his profession requires that attitude, but Kurds are not thieves.


New House in Hawler (Erbil): Note the Expansion Option, You Can Build Another Right Alongside. Different Sense of Community Amongst the Kurds.

Our second arrival at the Erbil International Hotel front desk is much more receptive. The reservations are found and we are whisked up to our rooms with the aid of an attendant bellhop. In our rooms we unwind a bit more and start preparing to work. I go to Michael's room to obtain local currency. While we are doing this the wads of cash we had to carry are laid out, and then we get silly. We fan out the massive stack of Iraqi currency, then we each fan out our stack of US currency. Then we add our other work tools to the display, computers, cameras, tobacco, Michael's wine, my scotch, a set of handcuffs I brought in case I carried a gun, and the best talcum powder available in London. We take several pictures and entitle the display “Talcum, Booze, and Money” in reference to Warren Zevon's timeless ode to mercenary travel.

We are able to reach Birzo our translator, who we have been calling all morning. He is studying for his final exams, but he makes time for us. We meet in the lobby, have coffee, and explain our job here. Birzo immediately grasps the concept and improves on our tentative plans. Michael had said the much of our work here would be sitting and having tea with the locals to arrive at an arrangement, and that is exactly how things go.


Tea Glasses: Essential to Business in Kurdistan [Tomorrow's Headlines: Turks Bomb Tea Glass Factory!]

We talk for a few hours, having coffee and catching up while waiting for the heat of the day to subside. Nothing is done between one and five in the afternoon during the summer. Additionally, we arrived on a Friday, so most stores are closed. Our first stop is the Souk for cell phones and SIM cards. There is some extended negotiating for what kind of phone and the exact number to get. SIM cards, the wee devices that determine a cell phone’s identity and billing are often sold and re-sold. Some of the new numbers are less successfully reached and older numbers are more valuable. Or perhaps it is astrology; we are literally in the shadow of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, so you have to allow for these things. Michael has brought a really spiffy phone from the US that he wants to mate a local SIM card with, but it is a marriage denied. We both get the cheapest Nokia available, which means it is durable, feature packed, lightweight, small, and functional. Newest technology, oldest city; sure, why not?

Electrical Safety.JPG

Electrical Safety: A Contrarian Perspective

After that we take a stroll through the Souk, a newer trading center that has only been operating since slightly before Leviticus. The wiring has been around about as long, but without the same rigorous interpretation or analysis. I start to annoy Birzo with my incessant focus on electrical safety, but years of living aboard steel hulls inform me that I am in severe peril. Generations of living in fireproof mud brick and reinforced concrete informs Birzo differently, and I try not to be obnoxious about my attention. Still, I can’t stop taking pictures of the train wreck that carries electrical power.

Cute kid in souk.JPG

Cute Kid in Erbil (Hawler) Souk Posing for Americans

The archeological wiring is the only peril for us here. We are arriving unannounced and following no particular plan. Still people come to see and hear the real Ameriki. Most reassuring is the presence of children and women in the sparsely populated Friday Souk. The armed Peshmerga wandering around the town also help keep things relaxed. It is important to remember that Iraqi Kurdistan is populated by over five million people, but the US presence here is less than 200 troops. One fifth of Iraq requires less than 0.1% of the total Coalition forces to secure because Kurdistan looks after itself so well.

It is still hot in the late afternoon, and although I am holding up fairly well, I make it a point to get some water before continuing. Michael is constantly amazed at how much water I consume. A big part of it is the Imodium screwing with my hydration. Until the rigors of travel stop messing with my insides, I am taking on water like an old steam train. I only brought one container of powdered Gatorade, and it has to last until I get out of here. The sports drink did wonders in London, and I need it to be able to hold up until I get out.

After the Souk, we go to the latest shopping experience in Kurdistan, the Nazza Mall. It is more of a Fred Meyer’s than a true mall, although there are independent vendors inside. The selection is amazing and we are able to get a host of things we needed and some we just got because they were cool. We stocked up on bulk water to avoid buying out the mini-bar every day. I got a lighter and Michael forgot to with the insouciant belief that fire is always available that smokers so often operate with. Michael later steals…borrows…the lighter with the insouciant kleptomania that smokers so often impose upon their acquaintances.

Biscuits and happiness.JPG

Biscuits and Happiness at the Nazza Mall. The Owner Let Us Take Pictures Because We Were Americans.

After a bit of shopping, we get back to the hotel and rest for a while before dinner. Taking these things in stages is important because we really need to be on top of our game for brief periods. There is no pressure and there is no reward for powering through without a rest. What is important is that when we have a meeting, we are 100% on track with the meeting. It is also important to not get sick of each other, so away time is key.

We get back together for dinner and await a phone call from Michael’s friend in the Council of Ministers. Dinner is in the garden where tables are laid out for the evening cool. We relax and enjoy an excellent mixed grill with a flatbread that covers the large plate. Michael’s friend arrives and we explain our purpose here. Once the situation becomes clear, a plan of action is developed. We are to meet with important people, explain our situation, and with their assistance, everything will happen. Just like that. It helps a lot that we are here to accomplish something that the Kurdish Regional Government really wants done, and that we are representing an organization that can do the job. It also helps that we are friends, we have returned to accomplish something worth doing, and we see past the hysteria to realize that Iraqi Kurdistan intends to succeed.

It is a long day, and we accomplished much. At the end of it, I feel like I have been here for a week. Michael and I spend some more time talking and planning the upcoming days. My bed is comfortable, the room is cool, progress is being made, and I rest well. Altogether, a very interesting birthday.


Fantastic report. Keep up the good work. I'm dying to visit Kurdistan. (I also grew up in Oregon. Troutdale to be exact.)

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