Euphorbia, tenacious and growing recklessly on the lower reaches of the steep hillsides by the side of the road, leaves glaring green in this dry, mountainous desert heat. Allium, like over-sized purple dandelion seed-heads, a border of color looking completely out of place in this forbidding landscape. Nothing left in shorn fields of recently cut wheat or grass but a golden stubble. Every so often our bus passed a field where people were cutting their crop with hand tools, entire family groups, the women mostly in full hijab. We were on our way from Iran to Iraq but I felt as if our trajectory, though ostensibly west, over the Zagros Mountains, had also taken us back in time.
So this was the Iran-Iraq border. The pleasant bucolic, agrarian scenes outside my bus window so totally at odds with the sadness and death I associated with this area. Half a million people were killed in a six year-long war over this very territory, something which still impacts people’s lives in this area, and indeed, global politics to this very day.
The bus pulled on to the actual border crossing. We climbed out, blinking in the sun, our feet squelching in the mud from the construction site where the new, multi-lane border post was being built. We followed our bus-mates to the current border checkpoint. Ah yes, another addition to the “101 Uses of a Shipping Container” series. There was a door, firmly closed, and a young man in uniform at the single window on one side.
Reviewing our current situation: here we were, in Somewhere, Iran, hoping to walk across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. We didn’t know if we needed visas. If we were turned back we didn’t know if we’d be able to get a bus back to Sanandaj. All four passports in hand, I joined the group of people crowding around the window, giving my husband one last “I can’t believe we’re doing this” eye-roll.
Murph was a minor celebrity among the jostling crew. There was a truck-driver from Azerbaijan who had some English and was full of questions about who we were and what we were doing right here, right now. Murph played to the crowd: “We’re just passing through. Yes, we’re backpacking, yes, those are our boys. Yes, we just spent a couple of weeks exploring Iran. No, we’re not on a tour.” I was too preoccupied watching the border guard puzzle over one of our passports, making multiple phone calls (to whom?) to pay my husband’s camaraderie with random truck-drivers much attention – but it was a handy distraction.
Then one by one the passports were handed back over the heads of waiting locals and we were waved on. We walked through the concrete arch of the in-progress new construction to another steel box – this time with three windows – to have our passports and bags checked by the Iraqis.
Some bright spark had decided to put a plexi-glass cover over the waiting area on this side, obviously not realizing that in doing so he had created a sauna in the desert. If my children could have stripped to their undies I think they probably would have done so.
For some reason the atmosphere on the Iraqi side of the border was positively relaxed. People commiserated about the heat and stood in orderly lines. My kids were beyond any jovial chatter so I made faces at a little kid waiting with his parents beside us. His Dad, who we learned was an English teacher and a translator, pointed out that since we were in Iraq I could take my headscarf off now. I nearly kissed him.