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It was Anthony who had given me the background information and reassurance necessary to visit Iraqi Kurdistan and next day he excelled himself by helping me out with my visa application. Having no international representation, the Kurdistan Autonomous Region gave you 10 days upon entry to get a visa sorted out and so we set out to secure the all important stamp. It was a pity because 10 days was borderline but might just not be enough and it was not the kind of country to take the chance of overstaying. Certainly without the language and it being written in Arabic script, devoid of information, it would have been a tall order for me secure it myself. I wouldnt have known where to start.

Such was the security situation, every time Ant went out on official business he had to go in company with a driver and normally Perwez his trusted bodyguard. Perwez was ex Iraqi special forces and though affable looking, seemingly knew his stuff. His English was pretty good but we did just have to clarify that I was a tourist not a terrorist! So we mounted our "Monica" Landcruiser, named after Monica Lewinski coz "theyre big, beautiful and everybody wants one!" and headed for the Ministry of the Interior-General Directorate of Travel and Nationality-Directorate of Residence-Dohuk, a title which should have forewarned me of the impending bureaucracy. The rugby scrum to be processed at the door eventually allowed us inside, where Perwez had to hand over his pistol. It was only the first hurdle in successive layers of apparently pointless paperpushing, many souls dawdled around or haranging chain smoking officials. We hung around slowly losing the will to live and then were eventually called forward only to run into a brick wall. A new requirement for foreigners, I would have to submit to an AIDS test to stay more than the 10 days. I could only trust Perwez with the translation and couldnt be sure he actually told them my sentiments, that their test was probably the best way of actually catching it. I dug my heels in and searched for another avenue and we ended up seeing the big cheese, a shiny headed guy whose office was like a palace. After playing the tea and handshakes charade, the top dog finally agreed to giving me 15 days. There was ambiguity whether that was 15 more or whatever, it proved to be 15 days from then on which was good enough. We waited the rest of the day for the stamp and Ant forewent his class which was bad patter on my behalf. Another thing I had noticed during our long wait, all the clocks in the whole building ran 2 hours behind. The wheels turned slowly indeed!

The waiting around had been an opportunity to gain a taste of Kurdistan however. Ant and Perwez took it in turn to fill me in on some of the vagaries of the place. For example the KDP in the north and PUK in the south who had recently been warring factions were now united in a parliament under President Massoud Barzani and his nephew Prime Minister Nakhchivan. You saw their pictures everywhere, as ubiquitous as Ataturk for the Turks. Perwez explained how he had been a smuggler when he was younger, he used to bring benzene and flour from over the mountains in Iran during the time of sanctions. He would carry a 50kg bag of flour for 11 hours he said. Others brought benzene from Al Qosh, a Christian town to the south. Donkeys were used and became worth a 1000 dollars each, everyone with a donkey made a fortune seemingly. It reminded me of a Kurdish film I had seen at the Edinburgh Festival, "A Time for Drunken Horses". They used to feed their beasties booze in order to fuel them through the snow. The boys also told me that I'd missed out with the AIDS test actually, the administering doctor was renowned to be the hottest woman in Dohuk.

It was too late for Anthony's class but he still had a job to do, there was to be an exhibition the next day of photos taken by the kids and I gave him a hand at the Youth Centre framing one example from each pupil and setting them up. There werent many kids still hanging around but it was nice to see them looking suitably happy and mischevous. Back at Diakonia base camp we later got a visit from some Chaldean Christian guys from Al Qosh who looked the part with their stylish wavy hair and trendy gear. They had good English with an appropriate American accent and explained how they were suppressed and lived in danger for the sake of their appearance as much as their faith. Later, Ant then sorted me out with some very hard to come by maps of Kurdistan, a Kurdish phrasebook and the BBC World Service on TV. The first time I had seen the news in 2 months. It was the least I could do to sort him out with a few beers in return and I said cheerio to a top guy, we would be keeping in touch though.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Iraq

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