here, there, everywhere

Crossing the Iraqi Border


Somewhere on the highway between Damascus and the Syrian/Iraqi border.

My alarm clock goes off at 3:45am so I have enough time to wake up, clean up, and get my stuff together before heading over to my friend’s apartment.  I packed most things before I went to bed.  It’s not much, my notebook, pens, camera, headscarf, food.  There’s enough food to feed two families – cheese, bananas, apples, a few sweets, and some bread that’s flat and moist like a crepe.  As I leave the apartment it’s still dark out.  The local riff raff, a band of unruly boys blowing off steam late into the night – right outside my bedroom window – have finally gone home to bed.  I quickly walk through the darkened streets the few blocks to my friend’s apartment and am at the door by 4:20am.  Mr. M opens the door and immediately smiles and starts joking about the early hour and how the women are still scrambling to be prepared.  Mrs. H is running around getting things together, nervous as she faces another trip to the border, scared for Miss M, her daughter. Her stress is compounded by my presence, she never wanted me to come.  Maybe she’s more cautious or has had more experience at the borders than her husband, but Mr. M convinces her it’s ok, and besides, it’s my choice, it’s not like they asked me along on this journey.  Nevertheless I feel badly for causing her more anxiety than she needs.  I’m glad Mr. M thinks it’s funny.

We leave shortly after 4:30am and walk out into the already brightening morning.  The streets are deserted and we wonder how we’ll find a cab to take us to the Iraqi neighbourhood thirty minutes outside of Damascus.  As we walk along the main street, Mr. M tries the door of a storefront and, finding it unlocked, ducks inside to wake up a taxi driver.  A young man emerges a few seconds behind Mr. M, yawning, pulling on a sweater, lighting a cigarette, stumbling a bit until his body adjusts to being wakened so quickly.  We pile into his car parked diagonally on the sidewalk.  The air is thankfully cool and even a little chilly as it blows in through the open windows.  Mr. M chats up the driver while the three women sit in the back, no conversation.  Miss M sleeps, Mrs. H worries, I wonder what the day will bring.

It’s an uneventful ride and we arrive in Sayda Zeinab a half hour later.  A few cows and dogs wander the streets, old men are out for an early morning health stroll.  Dust is everywhere and flies up in clouds as vehicles pass and cause little tornado funnels of dirt to form.  Even though Damascus is dirty, this feels even more so, very much like a frontier town, rough and unwelcoming.  We turn down the dirt streets and twist and turn until we see crowds of people moving in the same direction.

The gold dome and prayer tower of the Sayyida Zaynab Mosque, Damascus

Buses are parked all along the road, cargo doors are open and some of the drivers have crawled in, wrapped in blankets, sleeping on thin mats before the start of another long day.   Despite the activity and bustling groups of people, the mood is somber.  Everyone is Iraqi and everyone is hoping for a safe return to this neighbourhood before the end of the day.

Mr. M finds the ticket office and goes in to buy our tickets while the three of us find the bus and get on.  Around forty other Iraqis are already on the bus but no one is talking.  Mr. M isn’t coming out so I go to see what the trouble is.  Again I’m feeling guilty that maybe my presence is making things difficult, but once I find him inside the office he reassures me everything is OK and hands me a sticker to put on my passport, indicating that I’ve paid and am allowed on the bus.  He stays outside to light up his pipe.  If he’s nervous he doesn’t give it away.  He is the same as I’ve always known him, friendly to everyone, joking and making light conversation.  I get back on the bus and take my seat next to Mrs. H whose eyes are closed, her clenched hands and rapid breathing giving away that she’s still awake.  Earlier in the month she heard from her son’s friend that when he had gone to the border gunfire had broken out.  They were stuck there for more than 12 hours.  She’s not looking forward to this day.

Mr. M gets on the bus as do the other passengers.  Most of the older women are wearing the full black hijab.  The younger women wear fashionable clothes, tight jeans with spangles, t-shirts and tight jackets.  The young guys are also in jeans and leather, giving the air of nonchalance as they light up their cigarettes just outside the bus door.  Some of the passengers carry duffel bags, others carry just a small lunch.  Outside a young man slips through the crowds and buses, quietly handing out tracts of the Q’uran.  A vendor pushes his wooden cart, hoping to sell some shoes before the buses leave.

Soon the driver boards, does a head count, and shortly before 6am we are on our way.  Even though the bus is packed there is no talking or chatter.  People either doze off in a state of anxiety or look out the windows as we leave the city behind us and head east into the desert.  The drive can take up to 4 hours and even though it’s still early, we can feel the heat of the rising sun.  Thankfully the bus is air-conditioned.

Despite being tired from a late night, early morning, and the stress of causing my friends anxiety, I can’t fall asleep.  I’ve waited too long for this day.   When I was eight or nine years old, I was watching a news story showing men doing a traditional dance in Iraq in celebration of something.  I don’t remember what was said, why the piece aired or why the men danced, but I do remember being fascinated by the images on the TV and staying glued to it the story until it ended.  I wanted to go to Iraq and see these things for myself.  Around the same time I saw the dancing men, I was entranced by the Lebanese civil war.  Nightly images were broadcast around the world.  While I didn’t understand much of what I was seeing, I knew it was terrible, but the sight of the tanks and burned out buildings fascinated my young mind.  And so nothing that was happening in the region when I booked my plane ticket would keep me from doing what I could to get there.

Twenty-eight long years later I’m almost in Iraq.  I try to reconcile my excitement with the fear of my friends.  Theirs is not a romantic journey to fulfill a dream, it’s a required trip by the Syrian government if they want to stay in the country as refugees.  I finally doze off for a few minutes, my eyelids drooping in time to the gentle rocking of the bus.  Suddenly, there’s an electric charge in the bus and everyone wakes up.  We don’t have to be told that we’ve reached the Syrian border, something in the air puts every nerve on end.

The gate to No Man’s Land between Syria and Iraq

As everyone gathers their documents and climbs down the bus stairs to go through the first round of bureaucracy, I see Mr. M chatting quietly with the bus driver who looks over my way and shakes his head.  It’s a no-go, I can’t be on the bus once they leave Syria and enter the seven kilometers of No Man’s Land to the Iraqi side.  The driver has done this trip too many times to count, and he’d prefer to keep his quick return record intact.  I’m an unknown variable he’d rather not deal with.  He does apologize, however, and with confidence bordering on arrogance tells me I can leave my stuff on the bus so I don’t have to sit with it in the sun for the next two hours, which is as long as he predicts it will take.  I grab my purse and notebook, a few apples, and much to Mr. M’s amusement and Mrs. H’s relief, I go sulk in the café next to the immigration building.  A half hour later everyone is back on the bus with Syrian exit stamps in their passports, and I walk beside the open bus door for a few feet before it closes and Mrs. H and Mr. M wave goodbye.  It drives away and all of a sudden I’m struck by the realization that I’m a woman, alone, at a desert border, next to the most dangerous country in the world.  But as the bus slowly fades from sight, a hand briefly touches the arm of my shirt and I’m introduced to Y, a Palestinian who goes along for every trip to help with paperwork.  He always waits in Syria, drinking tea and chatting with the border guards.  He’s heard my story from the bus driver and offers to keep me company while I wait.  I’m relieved and happy to have someone to talk to.  As we sit and try to converse in my broken Arabic and his almost non-existent English, he decides he’ll help me try to make it to the Iraqi side before the bus returns.

Me & Y hanging out by the bus

We leave the concrete café with it’s rotary fans blowing in place, flies buzzing and dropping dead, children playing with remote-control cars, and walk into the blazing desert sun to a low-ceilinged shack where a Syrian general sits eating breakfast in his undershirt and sweat-stained pants.  He hardly looks up from his meal while Y explains my situation, pausing occasionally to swat at the flies buzzing around his head and then to give me a cursory up-and-down look.  He’s not impressed, in fact, he appears incredibly bored, and the stupid North American tourist is boring him even more.  The other soldiers around him snicker and whisper among themselves, also looking me over and shaking their heads in approval?  disapproval?  He picks at his teeth, pulls something out of his mouth, and tells whatever is on his hand that no, he can do nothing to help.  He then waves me away with the same enthusiasm he waves at the flies.

Y is not discouraged, however, and so we continue on to the immigration control where he relays my story once again to another bored border official.  Same answer, and the same answer again from someone else who looks official but doesn’t seem to wield any power.

The wall separating the border from a military compound

We leave the building one last time and walk around the strip of rutted asphalt that poses as a road.  Behind a 12 foot high concrete barricade, an explosion rips through the mid-morning haze.  Y explains it’s a military training base, it’s nothing to be alarmed at.  We continue walking around under the watchful gaze of the President whose pictures are everywhere.  By this time my presence at the border has caused some consternation and two plain-clothed “gentlemen” approach Y, putting their arms around him as though close friends.  They walk off and I know they’re talking about me, what I’m doing there, how he knows me.  Y’s been through this before and knows what he’s doing and saying.  We’re soon left alone.

A pick-up truck arrives from Iraq with two guards.  They jump out while a few waiting Iraqi civilians load their luggage and jump in.  As the guards take care of paperwork, I approach them to find out if I can hitch a ride to the border.  We end up talking about other things for awhile, the one guard is only twenty-two years old.  He is slight but all muscle.  His job is to accompany returning Iraqis from the border to Baghdad.  He says he never knows if it’s his last journey.  As he gets back in the flatbed, he apologizes but they can’t take me.  Perhaps we can go for dinner sometime when he’s back in Syria?  As the truck turns around, the guards wave to me and I want to cry.  They are so young and their future is so bleak, but their backs are straight, they still have some swagger in their walk, and they still ask girls out whenever they get the chance.

As their truck passes through the gates and enters No Man’s Land, a bus appears on the horizon.  Y’s face lights up and while I’m happy my friends are safe and on their way back, I have to admit to myself I’m not going to Iraq – today.  Less than five minutes later they are getting off the bus and heading back into Syrian immigration for a re-entry stamp.  They exit the building a short time later and even though it’s only been a few hours, we hug like we’ve been separated for years.

The border I wasn’t allowed to pass through… today.

I’m finally allowed onto the bus and this time, everyone is quiet with memory of the country they returned to, if only for a stamp in the passport.  Iraq has changed so much in the past fifteen years, I wonder if I’ll ever see the men dancing in celebration.  My friends wonder the same thing for different reasons.  But at this moment, it’s enough for all of us to be exactly where we are.

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