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An Odyssey through the Middle East

“You’re up!” Shalaw shouted this while he firmly placed an Ak-47 over my chest. I was nervous. As things unfolded, it seemed as though my life was becoming a modern sequel to Voltaire’s Candide.

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A few days earlier, I was in Istanbul. I was backpacking alone and had just finished two months of travelling in Europe and North Africa. The scenery in Turkey was a marvel handsome enough to captivate any audience. Fountains were illuminated by shifting red, blue, and green lights.  The water’s glow lightly pressed against the walls of the towering, ancient mosques, which were filled daily by thousands of tourists and locals.

 

As I sauntered down the promenade, the ground was shaken by a destabilizing “BOOM!” People scattered in all directions.  Parents were corralling their families inside—children were screaming. I ran for cover under a nearby bluff.  Most suspected a suicide bomber had ripped through a piece of the city.  But then the boom happened again. And again. Over our heads we saw fighter jets soaring. The booms, it turned out, were sonic booms.  Aircraft were tearing through the sound barrier, and, in the distance, I could hear the shredding of a chopper gunner as it unloaded its ammunition on a civilian population. Questions abounded. Was Russia getting its revenge on Turkey for shooting down its pilot? Had Bashir Assad finally reached a boiling point with his adversary in the north? No—the fight was coming from within.  The Turkish military perceived the ruling Islamist party, the AKP, as a threat to the country’s secular traditions.  President Tayyip Erdogan, they reasoned, had to go.

 

There was a television set in a nearby hotdog stand. As I and Turkish citizens stared transfixed at the screen, Erdogan came on a media network.  He was portrayed through Facetime on an iPhone. Narrowly he slipped away from capture and was headed toward Ataturk airport.  After landing, he urged the Turkish people to protest in the streets.  And they did.  Against every good judgement, I paid a cab driver $100 US to drive me through the crowds. Groups of men were flapping large Turkish flags. Chants of “Allahu Akbar” were refrained. When I opened the window, a flurry of national symbols poured into the car. Although I was neutral regarding the legitimacy of the rebellion, I was not leaving it up to the crowd to divine that. A story was circulating—only a few kilometers away a soldier had been beheaded by an angry mob. Without hesitation I began imitating their chants and waving the flag outside of the window. After the night’s horrors abated, and the last remnants of the military conspirators were rooted out in Ankara, I was consumed with exultation. I had just survived a historic military coup d’état.  And a botched one, at that.

 

This reminded me of the time I was in Tel Aviv, Israel. I was standing outside the Carmel Market with two other backpackers, waiting for a table on the patio. Although there were no “booms” shaking the earth beneath me, to my left there were reeling crowds, falling over tables in panic, with little girls’ faces gripped by terror as black tears fell down their cheeks. It was pandemonium. At this point, however, my instinct of self-preservation was arrested by my mounting sense of curiosity. Instead of running, as my comrades from the hostel had done, I turned on my cellphone and began recording. I was still unaware of whether the incident was a bombing, a stabbing, a hostage taking—or a hoax.  As I moved in slowly, I crept under tables, squatted behind impromptu parapets, and peeked through cracks. I could see squashed tomatoes and Turkish delight spattered on the ground. Eventually I broke from my furtive motions, and questioned the remaining shopkeepers. To my delight, they answered that no one had been hurt. There was no bombing, or stabbing. Rather, a man threatened a crowd with a knife, which provoked an American woman to scream “TERRORIST!” The media, for good reasons, had hardwired everyone in the Middle East, tourist or resident, to be explosively reactive to this nine-letter, three-syllable word.  Especially when bellowed at full exertion.

 

But I should return to the main thread of my story.  After the coup d’état ended, I spent a few more nights in Turkey. Just days before arriving to this part of the world, I was in Kosovo, dealing with “traveller’s burnout.” Fortunately, my time in Istanbul ended this moral drought. And my next destination was poised to do the same. As I was spinning a globe at my hostel, a fellow traveller joked that I should go to Iraq.  I had always been captivated by the “land of two rivers,” but I never saw it as a feasible option. After a night’s sleep, however, I felt a resolute desire to enter into the heart of ancient Mesopotamia, the land of Hammurabi—indeed, the home of human civilization.  By the day’s end, the ticket was booked.

 

For obvious reasons, the flight was less than half full, and within three hours I arrived in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Two days later I nervously travelled in a yellow cab to Sulaymaniyah through Kirkuk. A few kilometers to the west were Islamic State strongholds—I was fearful, but surprisingly relaxed. My mood that day was elevated by the car’s air-conditioning, as the low in Iraq that afternoon was forty-six Celsius, the high, fifty-two.  When I arrived to my hotel I tried to arrange a tour of Halabja, a city in which Saddam Hussein massacred eight thousand Kurds with mustard gas in 1988.  But there were no tour guides available that could speak English. Instead, a local at the hotel graciously agreed to drive me.

 

The next morning a fellow in a military uniform knocked on my door.  He was a pesh merga officer named Shalaw. During our first hour together he showed me the different gun shops in the city, where we purchased bullets for fifty cents apiece. He then handed me a pistol for protection. After we visited Halabja, we drove through serpentine mountains in Persia, climbed a waterfall at the border, then met with Iranian generals while we visited the leader of the Socialist Kurdish party.  To confirm that I was capable of using the gun, he drove us out to the barren desert.  At this point I was among several Kurdish fighters. All of them were friendly and surprisingly gentle, kind-looking men.  Shalaw shot the gun off into the hill which stood twenty feet ahead of us. Then he handed me the gun, encouraging me to do the same.

 

The dry, desert air had made my throat indistinguishable from sandpaper. I requested to shoot the pistol before I used the semi-automatic rifle: I needed to ensure that when I pulled the trigger, I was able to control my posture. And it was about time I started thinking about my safety. Luckily my use of the pistol succeeded—and even impressed my new comrades. Shalaw then slapped the Ak-47 into my arms with a reassuring physiognomy, and I turned to unload the clip into the hill. When I realized I was in control—handling a gun, in the desert, surrounded by Canadian allies in the war against IS—the nerves dissipated. Shalaw swung the Ak-47 on his back and asked if I would now like to see the frontline.  Of course I did.

 

We arrived at a derelict building. I had the pleasure of seeing the stereotypical image of Kurdish fighters giving each other massages and haircuts. Surrounding us was a yellow sea of desert and shrubs. There was hardly any furniture, food was scarce, and the heat was sweltering. In the distance I could see IS strongholds, fortified with fragile rocks and the threatening aura that attends every IS brigade. At any moment, I thought, they could fill their trucks with C4 and lay waste to the entire redoubt. Reality was beginning to set in, and my instincts began to reassert themselves. The fear of imminent death awakened my desire to live, and temporarily cured my fever for novelty.

 

I realized then that I had seen enough: it was time to go home.