A Horse With No Name

The border crossing at Shalamcheh

I finally arrive at the border around mid-day. My heart is racing but at the same time the familiar sight of concrete canopies, travellers with suitcases, and endless lines of trucks is somewhat calming. I take a sip of water, and notice that there's only two small bottles left in my tank bag. I hang up my helmet and jacket, grab the carnet and other papers, and head into a large building labelled "departures". Inside is a huge open area with dusty metal detectors and a queue of at least 30 people in front of the only staffed desk. I approach the customs officers leaning against one of the metal detectors and show him the carnet and my passport. He thinks for a moment, then leads me past the crowd to the front of the queue. He speaks with the woman behind the counter, then hands her my passport and visa. She stamps it quickly, and as we walk back past the queue I motion some embarrassed apologies to the people there. I'm pointed to a secondary building, where I find a jovial old guy who makes short work of the vehicle exit. He pats my shoulder while handing back the carnet, and wishes me a safe journey. "Inshallah", I reply almost involuntary, and he laughs. Leaving the Irani terminal I find a soldier in a booth who asks to see the stamps on my visa and carnet before letting me pass. He's drinking coca cola from a half-crushed can. After he waves me along I breathe a huge sigh of relief: I'm out of Iran. They can't touch me anymore.

For the past month the regime in Tehran has been violently suppressing demonstrations demanding justice for Mahsa Amini, killed by the religious police for not wearing her headscarf correctly. The international news talks about dozens of people killed, but here on the ground people claim it’s up in the thousands. Two days ago in Sanandaj there were armoured vehicles in the streets and riot police carrying shotguns and rifles, with barricades and wrecked cars everywhere. The taxi driver that took me to a quiet little restaurant explained that just last week one of his neighbours had been killed, a 60-year old man. During a protest the riot police charged and a girl fell in the street. The old man rushed out to help her but both were gunned down. Like the taxi driver, most people talk about their anger and the violence freely. Perhaps it helps that I’m an obvious outsider. Students and fellow restaurant goers latch onto me and through google-translate mediated conversations ask my opinion about their country, their city, their food. But most of all they want to know whether the outside world knows that they are dying in their struggle for freedom. At every checkpoint along the way the police and soldiers eye me curiously while studying my passport and VISA. Tourist, or foreign instigator? Because Iran has a huge conscript army most of them are young, barely more than teenagers. Yesterday someone warned me that the regime may be following me, reading my messages, tracing my footsteps through their country. A foreign national is a valuable bargaining chip, and all they need to do is catch me doing something illegal, like speaking about the repression with the locals. All morning I’ve been looking over my shoulder as I made my way south to the Iraqi border. I’ve been nervous and worried before, but never about spending a few years in a foreign prison. Perhaps I’m imagining things. But the burn marks on the street in Sanandaj were real.

Past the booth is a giant parking lot, several football fields in size at least. Dozens of trucks linger, some obviously broken, others in various states of unloading. Ramshackle little shops line the fence to my left. Haggardly dressed civilians and stray dogs lounge in the shade between the trucks and the little buildings. This is the no-mans land between the border posts, formally not "in" either Iran or Iraq, and therefor nobody's responsibility and nobody's care. Piles of trash, potholes, and scrap metal are everywhere. The opposite side, towards Iraq, features a giant concrete wall where more trucks are lined-up waiting to cross the border. For a moment I consider buying some water from one of the merchants, but the urge to press on is too strong. I'll have lunch soon in Basrah, I tell myself.

The trucks are waiting between a narrow set of concrete barriers, extending several hundred meters past the wall all the way to the Iraq border post. There's no way to get around it, so for twenty frustrating minutes I move between the trucks and the concrete blocks trying to get to the front of the line. Some drivers notice me and try to move aside, others don't seem to care and stare straight ahead, leading me to take some risky bypasses into the loose sand next to the tarmac. Eventually I get to the front of the line, where I find three young Iraqi soldiers and a gate. They instruct me to park the bike and head to immigration through a series of fenced-in walkways, but before I do I empty my second to last bottle of water. It's almost one o'clock, and the heat is murderous. The soldiers marvel at the bike but we can't really have a conversation because they only speak a few words of English. At the immigration desk the clerk explains that I should get the bike imported first, and then he'll sort out a visa later. He walks me outside and points to a line of makeshift offices about a hundred meters away. "Find Mohamed", he says, and with my paperwork and last bottle of water in hand I start across the yard, full of gravel, plastic, and other garbage. In the second office I find Mohamed, a friendly looking 60-something. He explains that Iraq doesn't use the carnet, and instead he prints several pages to fill out and I spend almost half an hour filling out the forms. The AC in the office is broken, and after I've finished my water Mohamed gets up and fetches me a small bottle from the fridge next door. His face looks weary and tired, but his eyes are friendly. When I'm finished with the forms he signs the first one and staples them together. "Now, go next door", he says. I thank him, and make my way outside. I'm still nauseous from the medication I took yesterday, so I'm not feeling the hunger. But my shirt is soaked with sweat and my head is spinning from the heat.

A few doors further up the line I find another customs officer, who takes a look at the documents and tells me I need to pay 100 dollars to import the motorcycle. I only have euros with me, and I don't recall reading anything about this fee, so I question him about it but he insists. I ask him if he takes euros, but he declines and tells me to go find dollars. I walk back outside into the giant yard full of little buildings, trucks, and garbage. I go around for a while but nobody speaks English, and nobody has any dollars. I consider the idea that it might be a bribe, and decide to return to the immigration desk. The same man I talked to before looks over the documents with approval, and tells me where to go for my visa: "just across the yard, to the departures hall on this side, and ask there". I trudge back outside, across the open area, about two hundred meters due south, straight into the blinding sun. In a little office adjacent to the departure waiting room I find a man in a neat uniform with three stars on his shoulder. He's a captain of the Iraqi customs bureau, he explains in perfect English. He immediately offers me a bottle of water, takes my passport, and within 5 minutes I have a lovely visa pasted and stamped in my passport. I need to pay him 75 dollars for this, and gives me back 25 dollars in change for my 100 euros. All the while we make some small talk about the weather and my plans for the journey. He gives me a little receipt for the payment and staples it to the rest of my file. I decide to ask him about the 100 dollars for the motorcycle, upon which he scratches his head. "I don't know", he says. "But I don't think so". Maybe it was a bribe after all, then. He shakes my hand warmly, and gives me another bottle of water on my way out.

It's almost two o’clock. Back at the gate with the soldiers, my bike has been moved aside to make room for a second line of trucks. I show them the file, but something is wrong, and they can't let me pass yet. It takes a while to figure out that what they need is confirmation from the Iranians that I have legally exported the motorcycle on their side. The stamp on the carnet isn't enough, they need a copy of the export voucher, which is on the Iranian side in a desk drawer somewhere. The only solution is for me to walk all the way across the no man's land, back to the Iranian side, talk to the customs officer there, have him retrieve the voucher, get him to make a copy, and then walk all the way back. At least there's more water on the Iranian side, because I'm dying of thirst. Half an hour later and once again drenched in sweat I return with the copy. One of the soldiers drops it in a little ledger, and the other two open the gate for me. They smile, and tell me "go". So I go, tired and thirsty, but delighted to finally continue.

Past the gate with the soldiers is a parking area with a bunch of fences and a little booth. As I ride past the booth, a soldier in a different uniform than the ones before comes running outside, screaming at me to stop. I turn around and park next to the booth, apologizing profusely. I must've missed something. Inside the booth is another soldier, and together they inspect the documents. Something is missing, but they can't explain what it is. Eventually one of them gets his phone out, and using Google Translate informs me that "the process is not complete. You must security". He refuses to elaborate further, and sends me away. Several truck drivers are in line behind me, vying for his attention. I'm kind of lost at this point, so I walk back to the immigration office to figure out what the problem is. I'm told that customs needs to perform a security check of the motorcycle, and if I'll just wait here for a moment they will call the man in question for me. After a few minutes he's here, dressed casually in jeans and a checkered shirt, sporting expensive sunglasses. We walk over to the bike, and he checks my bags and asks if I'm carrying any alcohol. "No", I say. "I just came from Iran". He looks at me sternly, not appreciating the humor. Then he signs and stamps one of the sheets in my stack, and swaggers off.

I return to the soldiers in the booth. The same one as before looks at my papers, and tells me it's still not complete. He can't or won't explain what's missing, so I decide to return to Mohamed in his office and ask him. I arrive panting and drowning in sweat, and he hands me another bottle of water and tells me that two things are missing. First of all I really do need to pay a hundred dollars, and second, I need to go over to the inspection area to get a signature from someone. This brings me back to the problem of changing euros for dollars, and I walk back over to captain's office to see if he has any more dollars he'd like to get rid of. Captain expresses surprise at the requirement for payment, but is happy to change some money for me, so I return to the office next to Mohamed’s with a hundred dollars to collect another signature, a stamp, and a receipt which are added to the stack of paperwork. Next is the inspection area, a little further into the bowels of the border post. Next to a large x-ray machine sits a truck full of bags of potatoes and cabbages with a few customs officers standing around, and I collapse on the steps of their office, tired and thirsty. I show my papers, and the youngest of the lot tells me to relax and wait, then runs inside to fetch me some water. I thank him, then sit down again and watch as the trio takes their time inspecting the truck. The driver is questioned, some of the bags with vegetables are opened, a long pole with a mirror is brought out and the entire underside of the truck and trailer is minutely checked. After what seems like an eternity they finish with the truck, and one of the officers finally approaches me. He takes a brief look at the stack of papers, then pulls out a pen and jots a tiny signature in the corner of each page. I return to the soldier in the booth, who takes an approving look at the sum of all my hard work, then tells me: "now go make copy". He pronounces it with a hard b. Cobby. At this point it's nearly four o'clock and I'm on the verge of tears. I haven't eaten since breakfast, I'm tired and dizzy, and it's occurred to me that the Kuwaiti border post on the other side of the country probably closes at night. If this takes any longer I might have to spend the night in Basrah, and I really don't feel like doing that.

I collect my thoughts. There's a copier on the other side of the border in Iran, with the friendly customs officer from what seems like an eternity ago, but that's a fifteen minute walk. There was also a copier in captains office however, which is much closer. I sprint across the dirt yard to the office, but find it empty. Captains not here. The door is open however, and the printer is humming in the corner. I look around. There's no one in the offices adjacent, and the waiting room is empty. There's a small stack of paper in the machine, so I decide fuck it, and I copy all seven pages. Sweat drops on the papers as I staple them together. Back at the booth, I have to wait a few minutes because the soldiers are busy with an expensive sports car with a United Arab Emirates license plate. Once finished I shove the copy into his hands. He looks at me with a mix of disgust and annoyance and tells me: "Three cobbies", then gestures for me to get lost.

I want to hit him, I want to strangle him, I want to fucking cry, but I don't. I slowly walk off, back to the immigration office. The man from earlier today who spoke English is gone. The others are either busy or don't give a shit, as I try to explain to them that I'm looking for blank A4 paper. I didn't see any paper in captains office, but it's an office. There has to be paper somewhere, so I walk back over. He's still not there, so I rifle trough the file cabinets and the shelves, but no luck. As I'm doing this it occurs to me that this is a crime, and I could well be arrested. Just as I've closed the last filing cabinet and make my way to the door, captain returns. He seems unfazed by my presence, and in a bout of ecstatic nervosity I shake his hand again and ask if he has any paper, because the stupid fucking soldier at the gate keeps asking for copies. He nods, gets out his key and opens the desk drawer where he keeps his money box and his printer paper. He hands me another bottle of water, and together we run two more sets of copies. On my way out he hands me another bottle of water, and tells me, "Good luck".

I slowly walk back to the gate. I have to stand in line for a few minutes behind a family, but then finally the soldier addresses me again. He takes two of the copies. His co-worker, who up til now has been mostly silent, asks me in broken English: "How much did you pay for the cobbies?". At first I don't understand what he means, so he repeats the question. I tell him that I didn't pay anything, that I found a captain in an office somewhere who made them for free. He looks at me with a slight look of amazement, then shrugs and turns back to the papers on his desk. It's four-thirty when I hop back on the bike. An hour and a half to cover 80km through Basrah and then to the Kuwaiti border at Safwan. Should be possible? I make my way across the border post, past the row of office containers, past the inspection area, and finally across another huge parking lot, at the end of which is another gate with another soldier. He takes my passport and the last set of copies that I have and hands me back the original, then wanders off to make a phone call. The canopy overhead is broken, so I sit on the bike in the blistering sun for several minutes while he speaks on the phone. After he finishes he nods gravely, hands me back my passport and tells me: "go". So I go.

As I'm doing 150kmh on the straight bit of highway into Basrah I wonder about the last question. How much did I pay for the copies? Nothing. Was this some sort of elaborate scam? Did they send me away to find someone who would make copies, but charge me for it? I have no idea. Captain was nice to me. His uniform was clean, his English was good. I hope he has a good life.

Once in Basrah I have to cross a giant bridge, which turns out to be closed for traffic. The sidewalk is being used by pedestrians and mopeds however, so instead of going all the way around to the next crossing I hop on the kerb to try and cross. Except the kerb is covered in sand, and my rear wheel slides off. I have no footing on the right hand side so I barely hold myself upright while looking around for help. Some of the moped riders passing by look at me curiously. Two of them get together and help push the heavy bike onto the kerb. "Shoukran", I yell at them over the sounds of the evening rush hour. Thank you. I carefully navigate my way across the narrow kerb over the insanely steep bridge. The road surface is entirely gravel and the kerb is at least a foot high, so falling off won't go over well. On the other side I hop off the kerb amidst a crowd of Iraqi boys on bicycles who yell at me enthusiastically. The sun is starting to set. On the opposite side of the traffic square sits an armoured personnel carrier amidst concrete barriers. A dozen soldiers mill about, but they don't pay me any attention as I drive off. Traffic is terribly busy, but thankfully the lanes are wide so I weave my way to the other side of the city. There are tanks and other armoured vehicles and loads of soldiers around, but they don't seem interested in me. As I'm about to enter the highway ramp out of the city, one officer walks into the road and motions for me to stop. "Passport?" he asks, so I hand it to him. He has a young face and no beard, which is rare for a muslim. I speak, nervously. "I'm from the Netherlands, I just came from Shalamcheh. I would like to go to Kuwait, but I don't know if I will make it in time so can I please go?". He smiles and hands me back my passport. "Don't worry, the border is open all night", he says. A huge weight slowly removes itself from my shoulders. I take a few deep breaths and reach for my last water bottle. The officer looks at me curiously. Some of his men are sitting on the kerb to my right, their helmets in a neat pile on the ground in front of them. They're scarcely more than high school kids, sipping tea from little cups while playing dominoes. I wipe my face, put the bottle back and wave at the men. They smile and wave back. Godspeed, I think to myself. I'm getting out of here, but I wish you guys all the best.

When I finally arrive at the Safwan border crossing it's almost six o'clock, and the daylight is rapidly fading. It looks much the same as Shalamcheh, except smaller and a little less disorganised. There's a large canopy with a little building marked "Immigration". They stamp my passport without much fuss, then tell me to park the bike next to a little booth. Inside sits an old man with a limp, and three younger guys smoking cigarettes. The old man takes out a cane and slowly walks around the bike. He doesn't speak any English but he nods approvingly, as if to say yes, this is the same vehicle as the paperwork claims. He speaks a few words with one of the younger men, and points off in the distance where several low buildings stand. I need to get a few more stamps it seems. One of them grabs my arm and we walk off. First we go to a little annex of the immigration building where a hugely fat man sits in a desk chair with an overflowing ash tray in front of him. He takes the paperwork and motions for us to sit down on the couch in the corner. He spends a few minutes wrapping up some other files, then takes the paperwork, and without saying a word flips through it at an agonizingly slow pace. I tell myself that he's only pretending to read any of it. After a few minutes of this he swivels his chair back in our direction and hands me back the documents. That would be all, apparently.

In one of the offices we find a neatly dressed customs officer who explains that I need to pay a small export fee for the motorcycle. Thirty-thousand Iraqi Dinar. But I don't have Dinars, I have Euro's, and some leftover Dollars. He thinks for a moment. No, it has to be Dinars. Can I perhaps exchange some of my Dollars? No, that is unfortunately not possible, since most of the other services are closed for the night. The young man glances in my wallet and takes out the last 20 Dollar bill. He speaks in hushed tones with the customs officer, and they work out a deal. He will take the twenty Dollars now, exchange it for Iraqi Dinars tomorrow, and then pay the customs fee on my behalf. The customs officer nods gravely, and actually agrees to this. He hands me a slip of paper with a signature, and a receipt for the Dinars, to be collected at a later moment. My tired hungry self shakes his hand and thanks him profusely. We step out of the office into a starry night sky, and make our way over to another office in the line. It's closed, and dark, and the men on the steps in front explain that everyone has gone home for the night. We will have to come back tomorrow.

I sit down next to them, almost in tears. I haven't eaten in more than twelve hours, and I've had more water than I can remember but somehow still feel thirsty. My bones ache, I'm slightly nauseous and I have absolutely no energy left in me, but most of all I really don't want to have to drive back into Basrah to find a hotel at this time of night. The young man sees my desperation, and grabs my arm. "No broblem, you come." he exclaims encouragingly. There it is again. The Iraqi 'b'. In retrospect I am deeply sorry that I didn't bother to ask his name. We walk back all the way to the canopy and the booth where the bike is parked. The old man is still there, and my companion speaks with him for a moment. There is pointing, and gesturing, and I hear the words "Kuwait" and "Hulanda". After some deliberation, the old man takes the paperwork, folds it carefully, and puts it in his breast pocket. He smiles at me, and motions for me to get along. I look at the young guy who is beaming with pride. "You, Kuwait", he tells me. He has somehow convinced his boss to take the paperwork and get the last signature tomorrow, and in the meantime, I can go. I fish around my wallet for the last five dollars and some remaining euro coins to give him.

The road across the no-mans land between the border posts here is perfect tarmac. A trail of lamp posts stretches out by the road side, and in the darkness in front of me I can see buildings, palm trees, and parked trucks. The evening air is cooling rapidly, and a tear rolls down my cheek. Far away on the horizon to my left is an enormous blob of light. Kuwait City.