Enter at Your Own Risk
Eight hours after starting out in Jordan, we finally arrived at the Iraqi border as signaled by a huge portrait of Saddam waving and welcoming back his people. A new addition alongside the painted Saddam was a larger than life sculpture of him on a horse with his spear shooting through the air.
Driving under the archways that separated the rest of the world from this isolated place gave me pause. I didn’t realize that I was holding my breath until a few seconds had passed. We knew we were entering a lawless country at our own risk. Anything could happen, and carrying an American passport or any other passport was no protection.
At the same time, I felt exhilarated. We had finally arrived. In a few moments everything would take on a different reality. As I sat in the back seat with my mother and sister, I heard myself echoing after my mother, “Bism Allah al Rahman al Raheim, in the name of God the merciful and the compassionate,” a phrase she says under her breath when she needs spiritual assistance. I would not think to say this on my own, but for some reason this time I whispered the same words. The words forged themselves into my consciousness; they were appropriate and comforting.
I looked over at my sister who grabbed my hand and held her breath. No amount of forewarning could prepare her for the strangeness of it all.
Noor was looking around, wide- eyed.
“Are you afraid?” I asked.
“No, I’m excited,” she said and followed quickly with, “why? Should I be afraid?
“No, everything will be fine.”
“I can’t believe we’re finally here,” she tried to force a smile.
Would the border officials overlook our American passports and admit us?
The Iraqi officials at the border were intimidating and unpredictable but polite and welcoming- a strange combination.
Mohammed drove up to the first checkpoint. The young guard ignored him, and looked directly at the three of us sitting in the back of the car.
He had a smiling face and carried a semi-automatic rifle.
“Asalaam Alaikum, peace be upon you.”
“Wa Alaikum Al Salaam, and upon you peace.” Mohammed answered.
“Yes.” My mother took over.
“All of you?”
“We are,” as she pointed to us sitting in the back.
“Can I see your passports?”
My sister held on to me tighter. Iraqis, but with American passports.
“These are my daughters. We’ve been living in America,” my mother told him.
He looked at each passport and then back to our faces to reconcile the faces with the photographs. I know why he looked confused- we look nothing alike and have different last names. My mother and sister use my stepfather’s name, and I’ve kept my father’s name. There was a pause, then he said, “Welcome home.” In unison, we thanked him.
I heard the accent and a natural connection immediately took place. It was like hearing my parents speak at home. The Iraqi vernacular is not like any other- endearing, unique and charming. It’s an enviable and often imitated accent, but it’s never perfected by non-Iraqis, preserving its allure. I wish I could speak it as easily as I had as a child.
We are Iraqis returning home, which is why we were allowed in the country. They say nothing about our American passports. We had to get a visa which is granted only to Iraqi Americans. That’s the only document they are concerned with, and the only one that gets processed.
Mohammed drove up to the main area. On one side lay a number of single story offices facing an open, large, rectangular middle area shielded from the sun in a few places. In the covered area, they thoroughly checked suitcases and cars, while on the other side of the open area were a few small abandoned buildings and the desert. Immediately, it’s noticeable that things are dirtier and more run down than on the Jordanian side that we just left.
Mohammed disappeared to take care of his own paperwork while we were left to wait our turn. We sat inside one of the main waiting areas, a large room with dirty walls, portraits of Saddam, and many people waiting to be admitted into Iraq.
The entry process was long and tedious. It can take up to four hours or more depending on how many people are there and how particular they want to be. When it’s our turn, we are called in but processed separately. I go in first and give my documents to a man sitting behind a metal desk.
“Marhaba, welcome back to Iraq.”
“So, you do speak Arabic?”
“Of course.” I smiled hoping to move this along quicker.
“How old are you?” He’s relatively young, so I guess he’s making conversation.
“Don’t you see it right there?” I’m making conversation back.
“Why can’t you tell me?” Now he’s flirting.
He looked at the year I was born and looks up at me. “You look very young.”
“Shukran, thank you.”
“Are you married?” more flirting.
“Why not?” They go there every time.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to marry an Iraqi man? Or do you prefer Americans now?”
“No, I want an Iraqi of course.” There’s no other answer.
“Are there Iraqis in America? Where do you live? How long have you been in Jordan?” On and on, the questions continue.
My sister is called next. I’m nervous for her because it’s her first time. I see her nodding her head, talking, and nervously smiling. I’m assuming he’s asking her the same questions and flirting just like he has just done with me. Next, we were asked to move to another building and bring out our bags.
Mohammed warned us that the bag inspectors are usually very thorough, and will go beyond the call of duty if there’s a manager around. I look around and spot a mustachioed man who carried himself with an obvious air of authority. With the manager around, this would take a while. We were asked to place our bags on a table in front of the inspectors. I began to perspire and feel nervous as if I had something to hide in my bags of mostly clothes, shoes, and gifts. Everyone was suddenly quiet and intently watching the bags.
A man in his early thirties asked, “Is this your bag?”
“Open it.” I could feel him looking at me as I fumbled with my keys to get my big black bag to open.
“There’s nothing in here but clothing, do you really want to see it?” I probably shouldn’t have said anything but I was already feeling embarrassed about him going through my things.
“Of course I have to see it. Do you have something to hide?” Now, he’s leery. He was sweating and swiping away real or imaginary flies. The atmosphere was becoming heavier, as if some barometric pressure of fear had risen with the humidity and temperature.
“Nothing at all.” I was regretting my earlier comment.
He opened my bag and looked inside zippers, compartments, gift and makeup bags. He didn’t miss a thing. I saw him touch my underwear and bras as he rummaged through. That’s when I heard myself say, “I told you nothing but clothes.”
He threw me a wink and said, “nice clothes.”
A body search was also part of the process with the women and men examined separately. The woman assigned to this task was non-threatening; in fact she seemed friendly and obviously bored by what she was doing. Wearing a hijab, head cover, with bit of hair peeking out to frame her face, she lets it be known that she was looking for a little bribe.
“Did you bring me something, a hadeya, a gift, anything to help pass the time here in the middle of nowhere?” She gestured to the desert beyond the platform with her right arm as her gold bangles clanked against each other.
“What are you in the mood for?” My mother asked.
“I like the smell of your perfume.” She was to the point.
My mother took her small bottle of perfume out of her bag and handed it to her. The lady was happy and thankful, but still checked us. We also were asked to take off our shoes in keeping with recent international practices.
Another office, more papers to fill out, and more scrutiny. Bribery helped, but it didn’t allow you to skip any of the steps. Even though we weren’t bringing in anything we shouldn’t and we had our complete paperwork, anything could halt or delay the process. I felt as if we were assumed to be guilty and would have to be given enough stamps and answer enough questions to prove our innocence.
We sat and waited our turn for yet another official to tell us where to go next. A man I saw earlier asked me to follow him and bring my handbag and the two smaller bags I was carrying.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Just over there, follow me.” He pointed at nothing in particular. I didn’t want to be separated from my mother and sister. I looked to the right at my mother who signaled to go. Why did he want to see me alone? I didn’t like it, but didn’t want to let on that I was nervous by asking too many questions. My heart started to beat fast and my breaths became shallow and faster as if I had been running. I followed him a few offices down from where my mother and sister were waiting; I didn’t enjoy being this far from the main area.
“Saidi, sir, you want to take a look at this one?” He led me to a medium sized room with dirty beige walls and a light bulb hanging down from the ceiling.
The younger official pointed at me before he walked out and closed the squeaky metal door behind him.
A deep-voiced man with a big head sat behind a beat-up desk. He looked to be in his mid-forties, with a thick moustache, and a hard-to-read face. He motioned for me to take the seat across from him. The chair almost toppled over as I sat on it; I looked down and saw it had a broken leg. I steadied it and looked around me.
There was a single bed in the room with a low pillow on one end and a blanket neatly folded at the other end. Two pictures of Saddam stared back at me, one on the wall, and another framed on the desk. The officer got up to shut the door. I was surprised to see he was wearing house slippers with his dressy black pants and white and blue striped shirt. I started to feel nervous, especially when he shut the door. What was this all about?
He started out by welcoming me to Iraq as he looked through my paperwork. “What’s your name?”
“What’s your family’s name?” In Iraq, you go by family’s names, not your grandfather’s name as I have.
“Why are you here?”
“To visit relatives.”
“You like Iraq? What made you remember us after all these years?”
“I’ve been busy, you know school and then work.” What did he mean,
“What made me remember Iraq after all these years?” As if I’ve forgotten. I’ve been hearing about Iraq my entire life.
“How long are you staying?”
“Where are you staying?”
“I have family in Baghdad.”
He offered me a tissue when he took a few to wipe his sweating face.
He proceeded to ask me, “Where exactly?” and “Who will be responsible for you while in Iraq? There has to be a sponsor.” He took down the name, address, and phone number of my aunt’s husband, who would be the contact.
I was not sure what he was after. Why was he asking me what seemed like routine questions but in this out-of-the-way room behind closed doors? He motioned for me to hand over my handbag. I didn’t move at first, I just looked at him to gauge if he was serious and gave him a look with my raised eyebrows. He asked me again for my purse and returned the same puzzled look. I placed my bag on his desk. His fat fingers gently moved my things this way and that without taking anything out of my bag. He asked for the other bag, a tote I was carrying containing design magazines and architecture books sent from a friend in New York to be given to her relatives in Baghdad.
“What’s all this?” He asked as he dumped all the contents of the second bag on his desk.
“A letter and some books and magazines for a friend’s family in Baghdad.”
“What’s the friend’s name?”
“Mona who? Where does she live?”
As I go on to tell him, he tore open her letter to her aunt. In it, she has sent a few pictures of herself. He only reads the first few lines of the letter and was more interested in the pictures. He put on his glasses and looked at them.
“Is she this pretty in real life?” From all the questions I’ve endured so far, this one really stung. This was beyond making conversation. My instinct was to grab her picture, walk out and slam the door. Instead, I forced myself to say, “You can see for yourself.”
“How do you know her?”
“I met her through a friend.”
“Does she live with her family?” I know where he is going with this; he wants to know how conservatively, or not, we are living back in New York.
“Are there other Iraqis in New York?”
“I don’t know of any other than her.”
“Do they come to visit?”
“When did they come last?” I guess I should be glad the questions weren’t about me anymore.
“About six months ago.”
More questions. I was sweating at this point from being nervous, from being irritated and from the heat in the airless room. I was grateful for the tissue he handed me earlier. I wanted to be back with my mother and sister and still couldn’t figure out what he was after. I wasn’t bringing anything prohibited with me. He put my friend’s letter and pictures to the side and turned his attention to the books.
“What are these books about?” Before I could answer, he warned, “Don’t lie to me, I read English too.” As he says this, he is holding one of the books upside down. Suddenly, I felt stronger. I wanted to laugh, but held back.
“Architecture, design stuff.” There were also a few Charles Dickens novels.
“You must make good money in America.” Was this about a bribe? I didn’t dare make one at this point.
I say, “Alhamdulillah.”
“We don’t make anything here, we live here at this site and work and work and make nothing.” So it was about a bribe.
“Allah Karim, God is generous”
“When will you come again?”
“Inshallah, soon. I love Iraq and love visiting with my relatives.” He liked that. After a few other questions, he again welcomed me back, wished me a nice stay, and personally escorted me back to the main area.
I saw my mother, who looked nervous.
“Where have you been?”
“Just over there,” I said nonchalantly in Arabic not wanting to frighten her.
“The chief wants to know if you have something, a hadeya for him?” The younger man who led me there appeared again and said. I was familiar with this by now. Why didn’t he just ask for the hadeya in the first place instead of scaring me like that?
“Of course.” Conspicuously, I pulled a $20 bill and sent it his way.
We were finally done with all the personal inspections and it was the car’s turn to be investigated. We watched as Mohammed drove his car on top of a ditch-like area they have built especially for cars and buses. A clerk in green uniform climbed down into the ditch with a flashlight and checked the undercarriage. He took the side stairs back up and looked through places in our car that I had never thought could be used for hiding stuff. The insides of doors came off, floor mats were lifted, the inside roof was checked, seats were moved, and the trunk was thoroughly inspected. He then clambered on top of the car, and finally jumped off and declared that the SUV had passed his rigorous examination.
At last, Mohammed’s car was inspected, but we were still waiting. I was tempted to write something in the suggestion box. Yes, there is a suggestion box in every office but my mother didn’t think it was a good idea. We went through the rest of the required motions; we had to declare all the money we were bringing in as there’s an Iraqi restriction which forces you to leave with less money than with which you entered. Finally, there didn’t seem to be anything left but the unavoidable and dreaded AIDS test.
Being wary of needles (are they disposable, new or sterile?), my sister and I try to get out of taking the test by flirting with the officer in charge. The young doctor wearing a white robe and holding a cotton pad in his hand, flirted back, but was still ready to take our blood.
I started, “We would be happy to pay the $50 you charge for the test, but, let’s just forget about actually drawing blood, OK?”
My sister, seeing all the bribery going on, added, “We’ll even pay more than the $50, anything you want as long you don’t have to use a needle.” He smiled from her to me and back to her again.
“These are rules and regulations. I can’t ignore them, I wish I could, but I can’t. If there’s anyone I could ignore them for, it would be you two lovely sisters.” It was clear he wasn’t going to be bribed.
We persisted, “It’s not that you actually check the blood? Isn’t this just a way to get hard currency?” I asked.
My sister chimed in, “You don’t have a lab here, so why can’t we just forget this?”
“Shame on you,” he answered, “You are just like the Americans, everything is money with you people…of course we check it, our country is still dear to us.” He went on to tell us they had a van waiting outside should any results turn out positive, to collect and deport the unfortunate HIV-positive person as soon as they arrived at their final destination within the country.
“Thank God, we’ve only used the van a couple of times. As a result, there’s no HIV or AIDS in Iraq at all; but we have all the other deadly diseases though. Cancer is on the rise, heart attacks are common, and everyone seems to be diabetic or have blood pressure problems, mostly from stress.”
I knew the latter was true; all my older relatives were taking either diabetes or blood pressure medicines. There was no way around it, he drew blood using new, sterile needles and a gentle touch.
Finally, we were back in the car and speeding towards Baghdad. It had taken us close to four hours to get through the border proceedings.
Once you crossed the border into Iraq, everything was noticeably much cheaper. The Jordanian drivers fill up on gas from Iraq to sell on their side. The restaurants that we came upon on the Iraqi side were just as clean and friendly, serving tastier and cheaper food, but with even dirtier bathrooms. On this side we felt compelled to sit in the family area. It didn’t seem appropriate to sit anywhere else. Even in these highway towns where people are more accustomed to seeing western foreigners or other Arab visitors, I started to feel how isolated Iraq had become. People stare not out of hostility or rudeness, but because there is something different to look at.
We attracted their looks while dressed conservatively, but not wearing the hijab. A hijab-wearing woman is pious and God-fearing and should elicit a bit of guilt by the unscrupulous onlooker whereas I don’t think the same applies to non-covered women. The word for non-hijab wearers, safour, stems from the word uncovered, unprotected. In our case, there is another dissimilarity, slight to some but more noticeable to others. It’s the nuances that come from living more than twenty plus years abroad. Whether it is as subtle as a look, like a rolling of the eyes, a stare back, or a body gesture, like the shrugging of the shoulders or as obvious as clothing or accessories, it certainly comes across and beckons to be noted.
The highway on the Iraqi side is two lanes, freshly paved, and more prone to faster driving. The desert is just the same; an endless expanse that seems to go to infinitely. As when you look out at an ocean, there is no end in sight.
My eyes play tricks on me; I think I see a shifting blueness, a watery-like haze in the distance. The wind was loud, a furious lapping against the windows that won’t let up. Mohammed decides to turn off the air conditioning for a while so his car ‘can rest.’ We are forced to have the windows down to let in some badly needed air; what we get instead is sand that settles in our hair, clothes and teeth. We put towels on the windows to shield us from the sun’s rays. We were sitting too closely together in the back of the car, and becoming even more overheated. With the wind blowing in our face, it’s sound alone made it hard to talk, we sat inhaling Mohammed’s cigarette smoke and suffering.
Every once in a while, we saw Bedouin tents surrounded by camels and goats, scattered throughout the desert. I can’t imagine how the Bedouins live, dealing with these sand storms and heat all the time. I saw them dressed in layers of clothing and tending to their herd on this very hot afternoon. They didn’t even bother with the passing cars, only occasionally glancing to look from a distance. Parked next to some of the tents were modern pick-up trucks that seemed out of place in this setting. I was curious to peek into a tent, to see what it looked like, how it’s divided, where they sleep, cook and sit. Half-jokingly I asked Mohammed if we could stop and visit.
He was quick to answer, “They aren’t museum pieces you know, and they wouldn’t like it.” Looking at us through his rear view mirror, he added, “Plus they are hostile to strangers.”
Part of the journey is over and the greater part is yet to begin.