"The mountains are my friends." (an Iraqi-Kurdish saying)
Up until the point of writing this journal, I would have characterized my life as not being particularly interesting, unless you happened to be in the computer programming profession like me. Don’t get me wrong. I have no complaints about my life. It is just that I have had a certain degree of difficulty in persuading other people that what I do is interesting. I write programs and do consulting for a living. I have written a compiler for some exotic micro-code and am somewhat of an expert in the subject of digital signatures in Israel. I have lived in Israel for the last 25 years. I guess that is pretty exciting for a guy from Columbus Ohio, good ol’ USA. I was drafted into both US and Israeli armies and did my best to avoid combat. I was always more afraid of having to shoot someone than of being shot. I was too cowardly to be a conscientious objector, so I went where I was told to go and did what I was told to do. My life was about to get pretty damned interesting.
Wednesday 1/10/03 10:30-11:00> A professional article I wrote on our experiences provisioning Internet-over-Cable TV networks was published today in a respected web site (Cable Datacom) in the USA. Nissim, our group CEO, called me up to his office to congratulate me on getting the article published. Then he told me that’s not the reason he called me up to his office and asked me to close the door so that nobody would hear what he was about to say. He asked me whether I possessed a foreign passport. I said yes and that I had an up-to-date US passport. He told me about a business opportunity that involved developing Iraqi Kurdistan’s communication infrastructure. Nissim asked me whether I would be willing, in principle, to travel to Kurdistan to survey the infrastructure to evaluate what we can build on and what needs to be done. I asked whether it might be premature to invest in a business project in Iraq while the Iraqis and Americans are still shooting at each other. Nissim assured me that there is no shooting going on in the place I would be visiting, Suleimaniya. I would probably be going through Turkey, cross over the border into Iraq where we would be met by Kurdish officials and conveyed to Suleimaniya. In fact, it was untouched during the latest war. I said that it sounded interesting indeed and I would be willing to go, as long as it is reasonably safe and my wife agreed that I go. I also insisted on telling Rony (my boss). Nissim said he would tell Rony and Moshe (our company CEO) personally and that I should keep it secret until he did.
Today 1000 demonstrators stormed an Iraqi police station about 3 blocks from the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad to demand jobs as policemen. US troops arrived to help quell the demonstration 45 minutes later. At a mosque in southwestern Baghdad, some Shiites rallied to protest the brief detention by the US forces of the local preacher yesterday. A few US military vehicles arrived on the scene to disperse the crowd but were driven off by a hail of stones. A US soldier fired a warning shot and some security guards at the mosque fired back with small arms.
Friday 3/10/03 10:20-11:50> I met with Nissim, Eli, and Gabi at the Tapuz in Batzra near Ra’anana. Eli and Gabi are partners in this business venture. Eli is Nissim’s counterpart and Gabi is higher up the totem pole. Eli checked me out to see whether I was suitable to do the survey. After I passed muster, I asked my own questions. What I did not know about the place, the people, the politics, and the project would have filled Encyclopedia Galactica. I told Eli there may be a problem with my going to Iraq because of my security classification. As far as I knew, I would have to get permission from our Ministry of Defense. Eli said he had connections and would try to obtain permission for me to go. Eli thought it would be a good idea to schedule the trip when Uri would be available to travel with me. Uri was supposed to survey the place and people from the point of view of physical security and to set up an office in Suleimaniya. Uri was ex-service, as were Eli and Gabi. He had operational experience and could be counted on. I left feeling that everything was well planned and under control, and I knew everything I need to know in order to set out on this little adventure.
Tuesday 7/10/03> I began researching Suleimaniya, the Kurds, Iraq, and the technical areas I had to survey over the Internet. I downloaded maps of the area and advisories from the US State Department, US Congressional committee papers, and UN assessments. I started developing a detailed questionnaire that would form the basis of my survey.
Wednesday 8/10/03> I continued my research and survey questionnaire throughout the day.
17:00> Meeting with Uri, Nissim, and Eli
I met Uri for the first time. He was waiting outside Nissim’s office. Uri looked rather nondescript – a bit roly-poly. I wonder how I looked to Uri. Over the next several days of our time together, Uri subtly changed shape in front of my mind’s eye.
Nissim told Uri and me that we would fly to Jordan tomorrow, where we would meet Polad and drive together across the Jordanian-Iraqi border to Suleimaniya. Eli said Polad should be about 25-30 years old. I asked how long the trip should take, start to finish. Nissim estimated four days: 1 day to get there, 2 days to perform the survey, and 1 day to get back.
Tension is growing in Iraqi Kurdistan over the prospect of Turkey sending its troops into Iraq. KDP and PUK Kurds threaten to take up arms against the Turks if they enter Iraqi Kurdistan.
Thursday 9/10/03 14:00> Meeting with Oded (MoD)
Artnet gave me a digital camera to photograph the infrastructure. I received a Sony video camera from Isfar, cell phone, Iridium satellite phone, open airline tickets, and cash for expenses.
Oded instructed me about field security when I travel through Arab countries. Two things he said to me were memorable. I should remove any and all tags in Hebrew or containing Israeli content – no Hebrew/Israeli documents or equipment with Hebrew engraving (pc or cell phone). I could not even take my credit card since it contains a Hebrew word in English letters. Removing all Hebrew/Israeli signs turned out to be harder and more elusive than I would have imagined. After checking and double-checking with my wife and son, before leaving home, I discovered later, at the hotel in Amman, that I was carrying Israeli coins in my pocket. I threw the coins in a public trash can. Next problem was what to do with my Israeli passport. As a dual citizen, I am required by both countries to enter and leave Israel with my Israeli passport and the US with my US passport. Anywhere in between does not matter. Even my US passport was problematic since a change on the last page was stamped with the location of the embassy where the change was made: Tel Aviv. I decided to bite the bullet and hope that no Arab official would read every page of my passport. The other memorable thing Oded told me was that I should make sure that Uri and I stayed in the same room together. Sorry, but there were limits to what I was willing to do for field security.
16:00-19:30> I go home to pack for the trip. My wife, Talma, and I go over all my clothes and equipment to make sure there are no signs of Israel or Hebrew. My son, Ari, drives me to the airport.
20:30> I meet Uri at BG Airport. We switched from speaking Hebrew to speaking English to each other. After checking in at the Royal Jordanian ticket counter, we go up to departure passport control. Once we are through, Uri and I went to the VIP lounge to avail ourselves of a "special" service. We deposited our Israeli passports in a pouch so that we would not have to carry them with us. We would receive the contents of the pouch upon return to Israel, just outside arrival passport control.
22:30> Departure from BG Airport to Queen Alia International Airport in Amman Jordan
In Baghdad today, a Spanish diplomat was shot as he left his home, a suicide bomber drove his explosive-laden car into a local police station killing 8 Iraqis, and a US soldier was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his convoy in Baqouba 30 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Friday 10/10/03 01:30> Check-in to Intercontinental Hotel and call Polad
09:30> Meet Polad for breakfast
Polad was young (age 24), thin mustache and goatee, and dressed elegantly. He was built solidly under his suit. He said he worked out at a gym every day. He knew that Uri and I were Israeli. He seemed a bit nervous with us. There were sweat stains in unexpected spots on his white shirt.
I asked Polad which route we would be taking from the Jordanian-Iraqi border to Suleimaniya. Polad said we had to go through Baghdad, swing north up to Kirkuk, and then east to Suleimaniya. My blood turned cold. Who decided on our route through Amman-Baghdad-Suleimaniya? A whole new load of unplanned risk had just been dumped in our laps. Polad explained that the risk for him to travel to Kurdestan via Turkey was too great. The Turks would certainly abduct him along the way to the border. As for us, Polad had heard that the Turkish border guards would not have permitted non-Iraqis to cross their border into Iraq. The only other alternatives were Syria or Iran, which would have been problematic for us.
He said he had to meet someone in the city. We agreed to meet for lunch around 1 pm.
Uri told me the story about his fishing photo album and his hobby of free-diving off the coast of Panama. He explained the technique of free-diving without intention; that is, without betraying your intention to the fish you are hunting, even though you want very much to catch a big fish and you have no air left in your lungs. This was the first in a steady stream of stories (most of which I’ve forgotten, unfortunately) which I would refer to as our 1001 Kurdish Nights.
13:40> Lunch at Fakhar-el-Din
The three of us walked to the restaurant. We had trouble locating it on our own, so Polad stopped a group of locals to ask for directions in English. It was amusing that Polad spoke no Arabic. The youths he stopped were polite. One of them took us around the corner and pointed out the correct way to get to the restaurant.
Polad told us how Saddam had attacked his family and people, and chased them into the surrounding mountains. At first, they hid. Then the Kurds took control of the narrow passes in the mountains to prevent Saddam’s soldiers from reaching them. Polad told us that the Kurds have a saying: “the mountains are my friends.”
After lunch, Polad ordered a nargila (hooka?) with apple tobacco to smoke. He offered to let me try a puff of the nargila. He told me to inhale the smoke deeply. I did as told and fully expected to cough the lining out of my lungs since I am not a smoker (except for secondary smoking, which I am trying to give up). I was surprised by the amount of smoke that issued from my lungs without incident. The smell of apple smoke reminded me of the smells of pipe tobacco, like cherry blend, from my father’s meerschaum that I loved so much.
22:00> Oktober Fest at hotel
We all decided to attend the Oktober Fest hosted by our hotel near the pool. It would be good practice for Uri’s German cover and it made me nostalgic for my previous life in the US Army when I was stationed in Germany. I figured the beer would flow freely and help me sleep this night. Polad begged off as we approached the entrance to the Fest. He said he wanted to get to bed early. The beer was good although it was Amstel (Dutch); the um-pa-pa band was ok, though the yodeler in the lederhosen was probably American; and the sausages were good, though we were in a Moslem country.
Saturday 11/10/03 04:50-05:10> Check-out from hotel
05:15> Taxi ride with Ali and friend to border
Ali drove too fast for my taste (little did I know that within just a few hours I would be looking back on Ali’s driving with some nostalgia). He was a polite driver and the truck drivers he passed on the road were polite too.
08:45> Arrival at the border crossing
We waited a long time for the passport clerks to check our passports by phoning up the next echelon in the bureaucracy. The clerk called Polad up to his window just to tell him to go back and wait two or three times. When the Jordanian appeared to tire of his game with Polad, he released us all.
09:30> Cross border and meet family security detail and convoy
We were met at the border by Polad’s family bodyguards and drivers, and smiling US soldiers. Polad took our passports into an office and came back in less than 5 minutes with our passports stamped. We were on our way.
The bodyguards wore combat fatigues, black chest webbing, and M4 carbines. There were 3 Saddam cars (SUV’s) for us. Uri and I would ride in one SUV, and Polad would ride another. The bodyguards were distributed among the three cars. The “Saddam” cars are suburban jeeps (SUVs) that used to belong to Saddam and his henchmen. After the US and allies drove Saddam underground, the Kurds expropriated the cars for their own soldiers. The rest of the Iraqis are afraid the cars are haunted by Saddam’s ghost.
09:45> Journey to capital
We traveled in close formation, flying low at 160 kph (100 mph), often swerving suddenly to avoid bomb craters in the middle of the main road through H3 desert. Uri pointed out to me that we were traveling through “Scud Country”, the area from which Saddam launched his scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.
We stopped for gas and oil. I told one of the bodyguards that I had to go to the WC. A bodyguard with an M4 accompanied me to the latrine. I entered a stall and was confronted by a squatter toilet (a hole in the floor with a footprint on either side) and a plastic pitcher of water to clean the left hand (fecal wiper). No toilet paper and no poop from this camper.
11:00> Lunch at truck stop/restaurant
The restaurant laid out quite a spread for the bodyguards, drivers, and us. I was not particularly hungry and the food did not look particularly appetizing, but the effort was appreciated. The meal included ochre and rice, a bit of lamb meat on a bone, pita, and thick tea. There was too much competition with the flies and I finally gave up.
16:00> Stop at Uncle’s residence in the capital to rest a bit and look around
We stopped in Uncle Jalal’s back yard. The house used to belong to one of Saddam’s half-brothers. The property extends to the banks of the Tigris. The area in which the house is located is known as the “Green Zone”. Newsweek called it the “Beverly Hills” of Baghdad. Uncle Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, was the first president of Iraq following the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Uncle Jalal wasn't at home while we were there, but our bodyguards had a key to the property.
16:45> Continue on to Suleimaniya
We continue driving at 160-165 kph, weaving in and out of traffic, narrowly missing oncoming trucks, cars, and motorbikes.
Uri tells me a story about a friendly fishing competition with his free-diving buddies.
After dark, cars drove without headlights. Trucks that had run out of gas parked in the middle of the road, in the dark, without warning lights.
20:00> Arrival in Suleimaniya and check-in at Abu Sanaa hotel
This is the hotel where an English news reporter, Gaby Rado, fell to his death from the roof, 30/3/03.
The bathroom had a leaky but Western-style toilet and douche, but no toilet paper.
21:00> Picked up for dinner in the back yard of a nice restaurant
Meet with Qubad and Lahur (Polad joined us later)
Meet with Norwegian prosecutors (meeting with Kurds to decide whether or not to extradite Mullah Krekar, the Ansar al-Islam terrorist, to Iraq), US Special Forces, and FBI liaisons
Sunday 12/10/03 09:00> Breakfast at hotel and changed $50 to KID (Kurdish Iraqi Dinars).
I commented to Uri that it was strange that I had not heard a single dog bark. Later someone explained to me that people do not like dogs and are usually afraid of them.
Uri told me about one of his more famous clients: he trained Noriega’s security staff.
11:20> Picked up, driven to Suleimaniya Palace, and checked-in
We were told Aras would meet with us at the hotel around 13:00.
14:00> We decided to go to the restaurant on the top (7th) floor to photograph the surroundings.
I talk to the maiter d' with the pale blue eyes while Uri clicks away on his camera from the tallest building in Kurdistan at the center of Suleimaniya. He photographed a 4-story white building with a large satellite dish on its roof which was KurdTel, the local PTT.
Somebody notifies Qubad (or he comes by accident), who comes and politely but firmly asks us to leave the restaurant immediately. Apparently, they were making arrangements for lunch with some high-level dignitary.
We go back to our rooms on the 4th floor and wait
16:00> Qubad called me to meet with Uri and me. He came to my room. I went over to Uri’s room to bring him over. I saw Polad and Iwah (Polad’s bodyguard) standing on the stairs in the hallway.
Qubad gives us the 3rd degree (politely but firmly). He had not been told about Uri’s arrival – only mine. He insisted on knowing who was informed about our visit. At first, he seemed to believe that we were both intelligence operatives. I do not know whether Qubad would have been more comfortable with the idea of both of us being intelligence operatives or civilian businessman. I told Qubad the truth – that we were businessmen with business objectives (the evaluation of local communications infrastructure in order to make a business proposal to the local PTT) who were officially sanctioned by our government. I told him that our Ministry of Defense was aware of our trip and that I could not have come to Iraq without our Ministry of Defense’s express approval. I said that my bosses and their business partners also knew – as well as my wife and three sons.
16:20> Qubad says he has to leave and will come back around 18:00.
17:30> Qubad came back to talk with Uri in his room. Uri thought Qubad would come over to talk with me too, but he did not.
18:00> Uri came over to my room to tell me about Qubad’s 2nd visit to our rooms and I told Uri that Qubad never returned to me after our first interrogation.
I wrote down my impressions regarding this business trip so far. I described the obvious snub of the family not meeting with us, our political liability in the eyes of Qubad, and our security exposure. Uri asked to read my notes. After he finished reading them, he asked me whether I could remember what I had written, and then he proceeded to rip them up into little pieces of paper and flush them down the toilet in my room. I told Uri that I had committed my notes to memory and could reconstruct them when we returned home. Uri was concerned that my notes might be embarrassing to our hosts and therefore dangerous for us.
I don’t know whether Uri was trying to calm me or we both found each other interesting to talk to. Maybe he was trying to prevent me from being sucked under in a whirlpool of fear and analysis. In any event, we talked constantly and non-stop about everything that we had learned or experienced. At one point, toward the end of our stay, I expressed a fear that we might run out of subjects to talk about at the current rate at which we were running through verbal material. As it turned out, we hardly scratched our respective surfaces.
20:00> After waiting in vain for Aras and not eating since breakfast, Uri and I went back to the top floor restaurant to eat dinner.
Today a suicide bomber detonated explosives packed in a car just outside the Baghdad hotel killing 7 people and wounding 40.
Monday 13/10/03 09:00> Uri and I met for breakfast on the ground floor.
Uri tells me a bit about his part in the Sabena affair with Barak and Bibi Netanyahu.
We continue our wait for Aras in our rooms. None of the local phone numbers that we have for the family or the bodyguards are in service. We call Nissim and Eli. I say I want to go back home. We have accomplished nothing and there is no prospect of accomplishing anything in the near future. Eli asks us to give him a few hours to see what he can do about our situation. I have no viable choice. Of course, we did have other choices and alternatives: we could have thrown ourselves on the mercy of the US or allied soldiers or we could have left the hotel on our own and tried to reach the Turkish or Jordanian border, like in Bravo-2-0, without maps, weapons, or a snowball’s chance in hell.
We have lunch at the Indian restaurant on the 1st floor.
18:00> Aras calls me from the lobby. I get Uri and we go down to meet him. Aras is very genial and explains to us that something important came up and he had to take Uncle Jalal to the North Western border. I was so relieved to finally meet with Aras and hopeful for the first time since arrival about being able to do what I was sent to do. Aras promised he would try to set up the meetings that I requested and provide us with a driver, translator, and a local cell phone that would work (AsiaCell).
19:00> We go back to the top floor restaurant to eat dinner.
Around 10 p.m., rival Shiite factions clashed in Karbala at a local shrine about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad. A firefight ensued with small arms and RPGs throughout the night.
Tuesday 14/10/03 08:30> Uri and I meet for breakfast on the ground floor.
Uri and I talk about the US special forces and British SAS team sitting at tables near us. He tells me about his invention which is still called Uri’s ear to this day. He tells me a story about being unemotional while playing backgammon.
09:10> Aras calls Uri while he was waiting in the lobby (I went upstairs to brush my teeth). Aras confirms the meeting with the local PTT.
09:20> We meet our translator (Rebaz) and our driver (Qatab). They take us by car to our meeting at the PTT.
09:45> Even though the PTT is less than 5 minutes walk from the hotel (as we later found out), we drove around and around until we found out where the meeting was supposed to take place. We met with Hushiar, Bakhtiar, Shezad, and the support guy from the country north-west of us (Iran). The meeting went very well. Bakhtiar gave us a tour of the facilities.
13:20-15:00> Bakhtiar took us all out to lunch at our hotel. We walked to the hotel. We ate lunch on the top floor. It was a power lunch and generated a lot of productive information. Bakhtiar asked me whether I would like to accompany him tomorrow to see one of their residential communications closets (boxes). I thanked him and said I would call him when I knew my schedule tomorrow.
16:30> Rebwar and Qatab picked us up at the hotel and drove us to Lake Duchan to see the dam and hydroelectric power plant.
Uri asked our driver to stop by the road so that he could take a picture of the approach to the lake. He walked through the front yard of this family’s home and was met by the family. Uri took a picture of the family on the side of their home and showed them the picture on the digital camera display. The old woman said that she wanted the picture. Uri promised to give it to her next time he passes through. In the picture, you can see half a bombshell next to the side of the house.
Qatab and I are standing on top of the dam, overlooking the hydroelectric power plant. Rebwar is standing behind us near our car.
20:00> We returned to the hotel. One of the Americans we met at the dinner on our first night in Suleimaniya recognized Uri just outside the hotel and called over to him.
We had dinner at the Indian restaurant on the 2nd floor. Lahur walked into the same restaurant with his wife and Iwah. We waved and invited Iwah over to our table. He sat down with us but did not want anything to eat or drink.
Polad calls me and says that he will try to tear himself away from his mother to come and see us tomorrow.
Before dawn today there was gunfire near the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. The local police came and shot at a few buildings in the area, in response, and then left. Later on, a car bomb exploded outside the Turkish embassy in Baghdad killing 2 besides the suicide bomber. A group of people trying to cross the Syrian border into Iraq were intercepted by US and Iraqi forces in the area. The group fired RPGs at the US and Iraqis. The friendlies returned fire killing several infiltrators. No friendlies were hurt.
Wednesday 15/10/03 09:00> Uri and I met for breakfast in the usual place.
Uri tells me a story about the time he played a trick as a chauffeur on Ephraim Kishon in Berlin.
09:30> Rebaz came to collect us for our meeting at the Ministry of Communications and Transportation.
10:00-11:20> We arrived on time at the office of Minister Dosky of the MoC&T. Dosky called his technical staff to join us. The meeting looked like it was going south. Maybe we violated protocol by meeting with the PTT before we met with his ministry and maybe we exuded the impression that we were white men trying to sell cheap trinkets to the Indians. On top of it all, Dosky was not physically well that day. Nothing we said could distract him from his dark mood. He dismissed us to go down to the director’s office and continue our technical discussions. The staff turned out to be quite friendly and helpful.
11:30> We drove to the family’s headquarters in town. Uri saw and pointed out to me Uncle Jalal’s wife driving past us. She does a lot of charity work for the local orphans. We also met Aras.
Rebwar and Qatab (who knows a few words of English, but I’m not sure which ones he knows) took us to the market for a short tour. Uri was looking for a bush jacket like the bodyguards wore.
12:20> We drove to the Ministry of Trade and Commerce (or Chamber of Commerce). We arrived at the minister’s office late (12:40). Aras had set up the meeting for 12:30 but the secretary said she had understood that the meeting was set for 12:00. The minister came out at 12:45 and said he had waited since 12:00 but now he had to leave for a meeting with the parliamentary council. We scheduled a meeting with the minister at our hotel at 17:00.
I called Baktiar and we agreed to meet at 19:00.
13:00> We went back to the market to walk around a bit with Rebaz.
Rebaz warned us that we may see pairs of men walking together holding hands, but we should not conclude that they are gay. It is a culturally acceptable show of affection between men, liking kissing the prescribed 4 times on alternating cheeks.
14:20> Rebwar found us in the market and told Rebaz to tell us that there had been a mistake at the Ministry of Trade and Commerce. We had met with the wrong minister in the wrong office. The gentleman we met at 12:45 was actually the Minister of Humanitarian Aid and Welfare. The Minister of Trade and Commerce was waiting for us.
14:35> We met the Minister of Trade and Commerce and some of the members of the Chamber of Commerce. They were all gracious and helpful. After the meeting, the minister invited us out for lunch across the street but apologized that he would be unable to join us. Some of the Chamber of Commerce members took us down to lunch. I asked Rebaz to go to the office of the Ministry of Aid and Welfare to explain the mix-up and to politely cancel our appointment with the minister at 17:00 at our hotel.
I called Bakhtiar to ask whether he would like to meet at 16:00 instead of 19:00. He said that slot was filled, but we could meet at 17:00.
15:30> After we finished lunch and said our good-byes, Rebwar dropped Rebaz and us off in the market. We looked around for maps. In one book store, Rebaz showed us a book of popular songs he had translated from English to his language. Walking along the narrow passages, Rebaz warned us that public displays of affection between man and woman were culturally unacceptable and that soliciting or engaging in prostitution could land a person in jail for months, whether he was a foreigner or not. Rebaz bought a small sack of hot "fool" (kidney beans). Uri stopped to get his shoes shined for a couple of "dinar" (local currency) and I did the same.
17:00> Rebwar picks us up, drops Uri off at our hotel, and takes me to the PTT to meet Baktiar for our small excursion.
17:20-18:00> I meet Bakhtiar and Shezad. We drive in Shezad’s car out to the residential area of Suleimaniya. We stop at a communications box. Bakhtiar explains how the phone cables are distributed from the Main Distribution Frame (MDF) to the communications boxes to the houses. We discuss his plans to increase capacity by putting up fixed wireless cellular antennae near the boxes and replacing copper trunk runs to the MDF with fiber optic cables. We drive back and they drop me off at the hotel.
18:10> A few minutes after I checked in with Uri, Aras called us from the lobby. We came down and briefed him on the good results from our meetings. I told Aras that we had accomplished everything we needed for our business plan and proposals. We were ready to leave. Aras said he would arrange a 2-car convoy of armed guards to drive us back to the border tomorrow morning, sometime between 09:00 and 10:00. We thanked Aras for everything. I joked with him that it would be nice if his people could drive us all the way home.
18:40> Polad and Iwah join us in the lobby. Aras invites us to dinner at a very nice restaurant on a mountain top overlooking Suleimaniya. Aras apologizes that he will not be able to join us, but Polad and Iwah will accompany us. Polad gives us a half hour to freshen up in our rooms. We are to meet again at 19:10.
19:30> Polad and Iwah pick us up and drive us to the restaurant. We sit at a table outside at the edge of a precipice. Later Polad receives a call from James, a British chap working at the local TV station as a news broadcaster, and invites him to join us.
Polad explains to us the local custom that we should not be too ready to leave tomorrow, right on time, as that would insult our hosts. We should be a bit late and draw out our stay so that our host will receive the impression that we would stay longer if only we could. For instance, we should not be all packed and ready to go at 09:00 tomorrow morning. 10:00 would be a good time to come sauntering down.
Thursday 16/10/03 09:00-09:30 Uri and I have a leisurely breakfast at the usual place and check out of the hotel.
Uri tells me about his surprise somersault at his stuffy client’s office in Berlin.
10:10> Aras arrives with our escort. He tells us that he has arranged to pick up a taxi driver in the capital tomorrow morning, who will join our convoy to the border and take us from there all the way to Amman. Aras gives Uri and me each a gift: a beautiful chess/backgammon board with pieces, in canvas carrying bags. We thank Aras profusely for the gifts and everything else that he has done for us.
10:30> We take off – 2 cars and 6 men (not including us).
11:00> I asked to stop at the airstrip just southwest of Suleimaniya to judge its suitability for commercial flight landings and take-offs. It is on our way.
13:00> We stop for lunch in a small restaurant in Kirkuk, a 100 km west of Suleimaniya.
16:30> We reach the capital city. We drive through town to the Babylon hotel. There were no vacancies. We drove around some more and pulled in back of the Palestine hotel. There was heavy security there and the local police had us sit on the sidewalk while our bodyguards went into the hotel to check for vacancies. We were alone with the local police and quite exposed. Our bodyguards came back to collect us. There were no vacancies there either. We drove back up the street and tried the Al Safeer hotel. It was about as flea-bitten as Abu Sanaa, in Suleimaniya, but at least they had vacancies. Uri and I shared a room on the 3rd floor. I thought to myself that Oded would be happy that I was finally taking his advice. The bodyguards took rooms on either side of us.
We heard a dog barking in the distance. We also heard the sharp report of a gunshot not so far away.
19:10> The bodyguards knocked on our door and called us down to supper.
Friday 17/10/03 03:40> One of our bodyguards woke us up. We dressed, packed, and went downstairs to breakfast. Mariwan had gone to get our taxi driver (Majid) and get some food. We all ate at one table while the cab driver ate alone at another table.
04:10> We checked out of the hotel and began our final run to the border.
05:00> We ran into a checkpoint manned by US soldiers. They told us we could not go this way. The area was closed to civilian traffic indefinitely. We were told to turn around and go back. Our two cars and the cab crossed over to the opposite lane and regrouped, in sight of the armed soldiers and tank. Our cab driver (we were in another car still) took the lead and started driving up the exit ramp in a wild and ill-considered attempt to pass over the checkpoint and drive through the closed area. Our drivers started to follow him. I was about to ask Uri whether he knew how to say “stop” in the language of our drivers, but he had already grabbed the right shoulder of our driver and yelled at him in English to stop. We told Mariwan that this attempt would get us all killed for sure as the US soldiers would not hesitate for a moment to shoot us for driving so suspiciously. Somehow, Mariwan communicated to our other driver and the cab driver in the lead to stop, turn back, and regroup. We decided to drive back in the direction of the capital until we were out of sight of the checkpoint and then turned off on a side road that took us on a slight detour around a lake that eventually rejoined the main road to the border. This bit of resourcefulness was thanks to our crazy cab driver’s rather intimate knowledge of his country’s back roads.
Along the way, our car (Land Cruiser) had some problems, but after stuttering and stammering for awhile the problems worked themselves out.
09:20> We reached the border. Meriwan paid the cab driver half the trip price ($100) and asked us to pay the rest ($100) when we reached our hotel. We said that it was no problem and would be happy to pay the whole amount instead of Aras paying half, but they refused to take our money. We said good-bye to our bodyguards and got into the cab to make our ways through both border controls. To speed our passage through the long lines, our cab driver told the local soldiers that we were traveling on diplomatic passports. This was neither true nor a very good idea in our humble opinion since our passports were not diplomatic. Our cab driver gave us his passport and we went into the border control office to get exit permits. I was sure we would be arrested for impersonating diplomats. The clerk looked at Uri’s passport, which was German, and said “Germany good”. Then he examined my passport, which was US, and pronounced “America not so good”. After that remark, I was wishing that my cover had a cover. On a large fresco on the wall where our cab was parked, a likeness of Saddam gazed at me unrepentantly.
09:50> We re-entered the cab and drove the 2 km no man's land until we reached the Jordanian border control.
We were directed to the office where an entry visa could be purchased. We passed through passport control. It seemed to go faster than the last time we went through and obtained our exit permits. The young officer was friendlier this time. Our luggage was checked thoroughly for security and customs. I had to pay 1 JD (Jordanian Dinar) for the extra cameras I was carrying in my suitcase.
12:00> We finally cleared the Jordanian border controls and drove towards Amman.
12:30> We stopped at a small restaurant in a dusty town along the way. We paid for the driver’s meal too.
16:10> We drove into the northern suburbs of Amman and stopped at the cab company’s dispatch office, so that one of their people who spoke English could ask me which hotel we wanted and direct our driver to the hotel. I told the guy we wanted to go to the Intercontinental Hotel. He explained directions to the driver and we continued on our way.
17:00> We pulled into the hotel and paid the driver with ample bakshish (a tip or a bribe). We entered the hotel and I tried to call the Royal Jordanian reservations office to check whether we could catch an earlier flight back to Israel this evening. There was no answer from reservations. We decided to check into the hotel for one night.
We showered and went to sleep until 21:00. Then we went up to the 8th-floor lounge where we partook of the happy hour and had a bit to eat and drink.
Today a bomb exploded at a police station in Kirkuk. A suicide car bomber was shot and killed near the police ministry in Irbil before he was able to detonate the explosives in his car. A US humvee was damaged by a homemade bomb near Falluja. In Baghdad, a US MP was killed by a roadside bomb. In Karbala the firefights continue, killing 3 Americans and 10 Iraqis.
Saturday 18/10/03 09:00> We met for breakfast at the 8th-floor lounge. Afterward, I tried calling RJ reservations again to check whether we could get a flight home today. The reservations office answered the phone but said there was no routing available for us today. We had no alternative but to stay with our original confirmed flight schedule tomorrow. I reserved our rooms for another night.
We had lunch at the Atrium restaurant buffet in the hotel. It was excellent.
Uri told me about the free-diving people he met in South Africa and he showed me his photo album.
Uri and I worked on our notes in our rooms.
We had dinner at a Lebanese pool-side restaurant at our hotel.
Two US soldiers sent to investigate an explosion were ambushed and killed in Kirkuk today.
Sunday 19/10/03 09:00> We had breakfast at the usual place. The reception desk said we could check out as late as we liked.
I went down to the hotel book store to look around.
We packed and worked on our notes.
We had lunch again at the Atrium buffet.
We browsed through the gift shops.
18:00> We checked out of the hotel and a cab took us to the Queen Alia airport.
We arrived a half hour earlier and waited before check-in for our boarding cards. We passed passport controls and security inspections without event. We visited the impressive duty-free shop.
22:30> We boarded our flight at 22:00 and took off on time. The flight lasted about 25 minutes. We touched down, cruised to the disembarkation point, and took the bus to the arrivals terminal. As we landed in Israel, Uri and I switched back from English to Hebrew. At the entrance, we were met by a stewardess who gave us our Israeli passports.
After we went through passport control and picked up our luggage, Uri and I walked through customs control with nothing to declare except, perhaps, how good it was to be back in our country once more. Ari was waiting for me as I came out. Eli was waiting for Uri. I said hello to Eli and good-bye to Uri.
If you want to know whether or not I was afraid we would not make it back alive, that is a secret between me and the poor laundry staff who had to clean my underwear. I thanked Nissim for the once-in-a-lifetime adventure on which he had sent me, but also told him never again in this lifetime would I go back there.