You can feel the tension in the Iranian town of Piranshahr. Here the police are more alert and better armed than in the rest of the country. They maintain a larger buffer around themselves, keeping locals at arm’s length in the crowded market places and the chaotic streets.
This region contains a majority Kurdish population who have historically represented a potent internal threat to the Iranian state. This slow burn atmosphere is lost, however, as we ride on the winding road up the mountain just to the east of the town, turning the town into something completely different. Here individual flat roofs, each glowing in the sun’s reflection contract to form a single intricate plate on the valley floor beneath the morning mist.
Marty and I reach the apex. Looking at the valley floor to the mountain opposite is to see the border with Iraq. This is our second attempt in as many days at crossing into Iraqi Kurdistan, the first aborted when we were informed at 1pm (incorrectly as it would turn out) that it closed at midday. Today the crossing is no less gritty, a line of stationary trucks snake across the valley below and up the mountain’s side. Feral dogs trot around, sniffing wheels while drivers sit in the dust around smouldering fires eating flat bread, smoking and drinking tea.
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We drop down into the valley and take to the wrong side of the road to avoid the trucks. At the boomgate there is a glint of recognition in the guard’s eye as he waves us through. Inside, the great compound that is the border crossing is disorder warming up to chaos. Trucks are parked everywhere, men (nearly exclusively men) walk about with purpose, kicking up dust, clutching sheaves of paper. All under the watch of the stumpy guard towers that dot the surrounding high ground.
Marty and I park near the rear of the new customs building and wait. We are waiting for our contact from the trucking company to come and take us through the doubtlessly Byzantine exit procedure. We have our own sheaves of paper, covered in Farsi. They are stamped, signed in triplicate, stapled, sealed with wax and stamped again. It cost 500 euros each to bring these bikes into Iran, all sorted by a fixer called Hossein we had met through an internet forum. “You have to trust me,” he replied in an email when I asked him if he was sure he could get us in. It was a ridiculous answer to a ridiculous question.
But trust him we did, on the Iranian side of the border with Armenia he had met us, a slight man with a neckerchief, a fisherman’s hat and an emphatic manner. We had waited four hours, handed over the cash and were given this stack of unintelligible documents as a reward. “Please don’t leave without cancelling these documents otherwise they’ll skin me alive,” was the second last thing he had said, handing over the documents. The last thing was ““Now you must leave [Iran] into Kurdistan [Iraq]” this was about five minutes after we had decided to give Kurdistan a miss. It seemed too dangerous and too far. “We have nothing left to prove,” I’d said. Plus, we were not sure the border between Kurdistan and Turkey was open.
He sped off while I thought of spending Christmas in Iraq.
Ordinarily when arranging to meet someone amongst such disorder I would be anxious that we would not be found but, here at this border, just like everywhere in Iran, we are conspicuous. As we wait groups of men came in waves to look at the motorcycles. The questions are always the same and asked in the same order:
“Where are you from?”
“How much do they [motorcycles] cost?”
“How fast do they go?” one always asks, looking at the speedo as if that is an indication. I had a 1983 Toyota Corolla with a speedo that went up to 200km/h.
It is now 9.30am. The contact is half an hour late.
“Maybe they are out the front?” I suggest. We go around the building and park. Still nothing. A man approaches us. He is wearing a Goretex jacket and pin striped Kurdish pants (think MC Hammer or harem pants). “Where are you from?” he asks in perfect English, not a trace of an accent. “Australia. Why is your English is so good?”
“I used to live in London for six years. I work here in customs. What are you here for?” This man will henceforth be called Jacob. This is because neither Marty nor I ever found out his name. You will note that this omission is especially shameful given what follows.
Now Jacob is not working here in any official capability but decided to help us out anyway. We hand him our papers. He flicks through them. “OK come with me”.
“Should I go?” asks Marty.
“Yes” I reply.
I had been inside the customs hall the day before and knew what to expect. Imagine a large octagonal building, its floor shiny and new. Inside is a smaller concentric octagon, a bureaucratic inner sanctum formed by a perimeter of outwardly facing counters. Transactions are conducted over these counters between those crossing the border and bureaucrats.
It is difficult to overstate the amount of chaos I had seen here the day before. Six or seven deep clusters of men in front of each stone faced bureaucrat. They jostle, yell and wave sheets of paper. It was like the trading floor in the New York stock exchange.
Anyways I was not in the mood for locking horns with Iranian customs. Judging by the amount of paperwork required to get the bikes in it would take a while.
While I nod and smile my way through waves of Iranian Kurds that approach, Marty and Jacob wrestle with the Iranian bureaucratic juggernaut. Jacob takes the role of hero in this story and here is why:
Firstly, today there is a customs strike at this particular crossing and as such the bureaucrat drones would not sign on the dotted line nor rubber stamp our documents. Jacob was there to successfully plead our case, having to win over these drones time and time again.
Secondly, we had originally been told by Hossein that we would have to pay US$20 for each day we would spend in Iran after four days. This turned out to be every day after two ays. Jacob cajoled the drones to let us through on $10 per day. He concocted a story that our bikes had broken down working his way up the chain of command until at one point telling one official:
“Where is your self-respect? Where is your Iranian pride? These guys are tourists. It’s not fair they are being charged so much.” He had said, his finger jabbing the official’s shoulder.
It is worth unpacking this statement a little bit as it is a telling strain that I discovered in Iranian psyche. But first let me preface this by talking of my treatment at the hands of Iranian locals in general. In terms of warmth or eagerness to help it was unprecedented. People would approach us in the street and offer to pay for our meals or to take us around or even to provide a place to stay at their houses:
“Everything is free. You will be my guests,” one man had said when we were filling up our bikes at a service station outside Tehran.
Now back to Jacob. His “where is your Iranian pride?” demand is not an attempt bto cajole the official to overlook the fee, nor is he allowing the official to act out of petty self-interest by bribing him. Instead Jacob offers an ethically charged entreaty; he requests the official to put his self-respect and national pride above his legal duty. This is profoundly subversive as the request engages with the ethics of the law thereby undermining the law’s legitimacy and stripping the government of moral authority.
We came across many such acts of small scale subversion in Iran: a one fingered salute to a picture of Khomeini in a hotel lobby when he saw us or a man lapsing into profanity when discussing the government by a tearoom. Even though Jacob’s act was by far the most overt (and particularly courageous when considering it was in a government building) the message was always the same — “I have a need to go on the record and say ‘I vehemently disagree with this government’”
Furthermore the hospitality that was extended to us was extreme even by the standard of the region. This must be, in part at least, because Iranians are eager to provide a counter-image to the un-nuanced way they are so often presented in the mainstream Western media.
At midday, three hours late, and when the border is supposed to have long been closed, two men from the trucking company eventually find us. One we will call Piggy because of his porcine, rosy cheeks and thin eyes. He is wearing burgundy shirt is open one button too many. The other we will call Greasy because has his hair gelled hard which is dust free incidentally, indicating they had just arrived. Jacob spoke to Greasy and then to us. “He [Greasy] said you have to pay them $80 and if you don’t then I have to pay because no one was supposed to do business with you except for them.”
It is a tough position to be in. On one hand I don’t want to give Piggy and Greasy who are a day and three hours late $80 for doing nothing. On the other hand it would not be fair if Jacob had to pay for spending an entire day helping us out. Marty passes me the phone. It is Hossein. I state my strong disapproval with this situation but he washes his hands of it: “What can I do if they get greedy?” he asks. I pass my $40 into Piggy’s fat hoof and they leave.
We are now right by the exit. A tourist bus to our left rolls through a muddy puddle while to our right is an enclosed section surrounded by a high metal fence. Inside old Kurdish men and women and children are all packed as tight as cattle waiting in an unmoving pack to get their passports stamped, so they can cross. Jacob points us to a friend who we follow down a corridor to get our passports stamped.
When we return to our bikes. Jacob has gone. Marty goes to look for him. Later Marty tells me that Piggy and Greasy had taken Jacob aside. They had told him they wanted to charge us $25 per day (instead of $10) and pocket the difference. They offer Jacob some hush money saying “you did all the work” to which Jacob replies “you keep your fucking money”.
In a move that I will later regret as tacky I try to press $20 into Jacob’s hand for his work. “You keep your money,” he says refusing to take it. “Spend it on yourself. Never fucking come back here. Now go!” we wave goodbye to him and go through the checkpoint and into Iraq.
The Iraqi Kurdistan side is far more relaxed. The guards and locals are less intense. Hospitality is casually offered not urgently pressed as with Iran. We are still a novelty. Everyone says “welcome” as soon as they find out where we are from. Officials give us tea and soft drinks in a tearoom that looks and feels like a 70s police station the day before everyone breaks for Christmas (minus decorations of course). It takes hours but it does not feel nearly as long as the Iranian side. It is 3pm by the time we roll out into the sheer mountains and valleys of Kurdistan.
K Johnson is blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run.