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    Tuesday, October 28, 2008

    Travellers' Index

    By bus from Gaziantep to Antakya, Turkey - Tuesday, Oct. 28

    Number of seats on the ancient white minibus I'm travelling in today across southwestern Turkey: 16

    Number of passengers on said bus: 20

    Number of people seated on plastic stools in the aisle: 3

    Number standing: one tall man bent in half but still hitting his head on the roof from time to time

    Number of over-sized bags of cotton in the aisle: 1

    Number of smelly canisters that earlier today contained either milk or yogurt: 3

    Distance between starting point, Gaziantep, and destination, Antakya: 200 kilometres

    Time journey is expected to take: four hours

    Cost of trip: 12 Turkish lira (about $7)

    Number of women on the bus: 9

    Number of headscarves: 7

    Number of people typing on their Blackberry right now: 1 (Hi Mom!)

    Number of people staring at said Blackberry user as though he were from Pluto: 19

    Three Turkeys

    By bus from Diyarbakir to Gaziantep, Turkey — Monday, Oct. 27

    Sebnem Duyar, 30-something Istanbul native, manager of the four-star Class Hotel in Diyarbakir

    Sebnem Duyar would probably stand out anywhere. With her giant mane of frizzy auburn hair, her easy, crooked smile and forearms coloured by Asian tattoos, she's never been one to blend easily into crowds.

    But of late, the attention she gets on the streets has made her increasingly uncomfortable.

    "My grandparents used to say that Diyarbakir is the Paris of Turkey," she said of the ancient walled city to that she has been relentlessly fighting to see added to the country's flourishing tourist trail. "But unfortunately, the situation is getting worse here in the southeast of Turkey."

    Especially for liberal, working women like her. While the city is very safe, the growth of political Islam in the country has increased the pressure on women like Sebnem to conform to conservative social norms. Staunchly secular, she won't wear the Islamic headscarf. Which means she either braves the stares or go straight from the hotel to home. Saturday night, she sat alone in the lobby bar of her own hotel, chatting with staff and guests long after it was necessary for her to be there.

    "I can go anywhere in Istanbul, not here. Most women in Diyarbakir are housewives, so people here look at me like I'm an alien. If I want to go some place with (male) friends who are not my boyfriend, that's not a very good idea."

    Like many secular Turks in this deeply divided state, she lays the blame on the ruling Justice and Development, or AK, party. "They will never represent me," she said.

    Abdullah Demirbas, 41, Kurdish leader and ousted mayor of the old city of Diyarbakir

    In another country, it would have been an innocent enough gesture. But Abdullah Demirbas knew he was courting trouble when he sent New Year's greeting cards to his constituents that were written in Turkish, English and Kurdish.

    The Kurdish language is banned from official use in Turkey, and Demirbas was unsurprised when he ended up before a judge to defend his actions. He says he has 20 outstanding cases against him - most of them for linguistic offenses he incurred by trying to offer services in Kurdish while he was mayor - that could put him behind bars for as long as 60 years.

    Demirbas says that when he appeared in court, the judge focused on his illicit use of the letter 'w' in the Kurdish new year's greeting of "sersala we piroz be." Turkish is the only official state language, Demirbas was sternly reminded, and there is no 'w' in the Turkish alphabet.

    Absurdly, it didn't seem to bother the court that there was also a 'w' in "Happy New Year" - the English greeting that was printed on the same cards.

    "The judge said we could use it in English, but we could not use a Kurdish 'w'," the ex-schoolteacher told me with a rueful smile when I visited him at the office of his Democratic Society Party (known by it Turkish acronym, DTP) in the old city of Diyarbakir. The DTP is the political wing of the outlawed PKK militia that has fought the Turkish army for 24 years, demanding independence for the country's estimated 12 million Kurds.

    Six months after he sent the trilingual New Year's greetings - and after further offending the higher authorities by polling Diyarbakir residents on which language they'd prefer to be served in (72 per cent said Kurdish) - Demirbas was removed from office.

    The fight for Kurdish rights in Turkey, however, is far from over. Nearly every day in the past week has seen fresh demonstrations in Diyarbakir and other cities, organized by the DTP to protest the alleged mistreatment of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

    Demirbas, who is investigating the legalities of running again in municipal elections next year, says Turkey's heavy handed attempts to suppress Kurdish nationalism will never succeed.

    "Turkish public policy, since 1923, is one people, one society, one language, one flag and one religion," he told me as a heavy rain pounded the stone roof of his office. "This policy is not suitable to the realities of the Turkish republic."

    Bayran, 42, part-time labourer and resident of the guest house attached to the Halilur Rahman mosque in Sanliurfa

    Bayran doesn't have a very sophisticated understanding of why the Turkish economy is in crisis these days. What he does know is some rich people in Istanbul and Ankara made mistakes, and now the amount of work available for an occasional labourer like him has dried up to perhaps one job a week.

    Bayran lives in the deeply conservative city of Sanliurfa, near the Syrian border. Most nights he sleeps in the spartan guesthouse attached to the giant mosque that marks the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham.

    (Abraham's stay here was apparently eventful. The story goes that a nefarious King Nimrod tried to have our Abraham immolated on a funeral pyre, but God cleverly intervened, turning the fire into water and the burning coals into fish. A thick school of bread crumb-craving fish inhabits the Lake of Abraham in Sanliurfa today.)

    Bayran wears tattered clothes, but a wide smile, as he leads a foreign visitor through the mosque complex. He empties his pocket to show he has only three Turkish lira - the cost of a bed for the nigh at the mosque guesthouse - but steadfastly refuses offered money at the end of his guided tour.

    This is his Turkey: poor, devout and conservative. The political concerns of Sebnem Duyar and Abdullah Demirbas have no connection to his reality.

    He's a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Tayyep Recep Erdogan and the AK Party. "Not just because they are religious, but because they are honest," he tells me earnestly. "They are on the path of righteousness."

    The Middle East Electoral College: Iraq results

    So colour Iraq neither red nor blue. Or rather, colour it either, depending on what part of the country you're talking about.

    During the course the week I spent in Northern Iraq, I asked more than two dozen Iraqis whether they'd prefer to see John McCain or Barrack Obama win the White House on Nov. 4.

    The results were split almost perfectly down the middle. Most Kurds preferred McCain, seeing him as more likely to support their dream of independence and less likely to withdraw American troops from the country. Kurds, who actually speak with affection of George W. Bush, fear that a U.S. withdrawal would plunge the country into a new civil war that they could not stay out of.

    The Arabs I met, however, were more likely to support Obama, believing that he is more likely to adopt different policies than Bush, the man they blame for destroying this country.

    Here's a taste of what some of the Iraqis I spoke to had to say on this question:

    “We cannot ask the U.S. troops to leave because that will lead to civil war… . Obama's policy is a rapid withdrawal of American troops. This will not benefit the Iraqi people in general.”

    – Rahman Gharib, 42, a journalist affiliated with the Communist Party of Kurdistan.

    “I prefer the black one. He will pay more attention to the situation in Iraq.”

    – Walid Chiad, 42, an Arab refugee from Baghdad currently living in Kirkuk.

    “I think America needs some change. People get sick and tired of a style, a face or a colour.”

    – Father Sabri al-Maqdessy, priest at St. Joseph's Church in Ainkawa.

    A third opinion which was shared by Arabs and Kurds alike is that it won't make much difference who wins and that Iraq will suffer under either man's leadership.

    “Bush destroyed Iraq. He took our oil and gave us nothing in return,” said Ayyad Manfi, the mukhtar, or leader, of a refugee camp near Sulaymaniyah for former Baghdad residents. “We don't believe in this election. Whatever they say, they will change their promises later.”

    So, how to award Iraq's 146 electors? My poll was obviously skewed by the fact I was in the Kurdish north of the country. The Arab refugees I spoke to were also uniformly Sunni, meaning this already unscientific poll takes almost no account of the feelings of the country's largest community, the Shiites.

    The good news is that not every U.S. state is winner-take-all – and you could argue that Iraq is hardly one country anymore – so I'm doling out the electors based on the most obvious line: McCain has won Iraqi Kurdistan, Obama takes Sunni and Shia Iraq (the latter judgment based on the fact Shia leaders have been nearly unanimous in calling for a speedy U.S. withdrawal from the country, which is closest to Obama's policy). Kurds make up roughly 20 per cent of Iraq's population, so McCain gets 20 per cent of the votes, or 29 electors. Obama gets the remaining 117.

    Arbitrary? Perhaps. But I'm the one battling to hold my insides in after eating at an Iraqi roadside diner and spending sleepless nights at the Simpan Hotel, so I get to make the call. You're at home surfing the Internet during a commercial break in Hockey Night in Canada, so you just get to complain about it in the comments section below.

    Our running total now shows Obama surging from behind to take the lead:

    Barack Obama (Dem.) – 147 votes
    John McCain (Rep.) – 65 votes

    Next up, Turkey, which has a dominant 175 votes in the 538-seat electoral college.

    If Obama wins it, he'll shoot past the 270 mark needed to secure victory, meaning my little polling project could effectively be over long before election day. If McCain wins it, we've got a race to the wire, with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan deciding who takes the prize.

    Follow the race at The Globe and Mail website.

    Spot the open society

    Websites banned in the Islamic Republic of Iran (aka. wacky Muslim theocracy, charter Axis of Evil member): (though you could sneak in the back door through if you're in Iran and craving your latest Road to Jerusalem fix…)

    BBC's Farsi language news service

    Most pornography websites (I hear)

    Websites banned in the Turkish Republic (aka. plucky Muslim democracy, trusted NATO member): (too many videos mocking Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) (the creationist upset some local imams) (actually, they tried to block the famous movie information site, but a typo has meant that got blocked instead)

    Most pornography (again, word on the street)


    Diyarbakir, Turkey — Saturday, Oct. 25

    When you travel across the Middle East, you cross cultural lines as well as geographical ones. One of the most obvious barometres of where you are in the region is how much fun you're allowed to have on a night out.

    So far this journey has taken me from the tip of Iran, where the country's cowed (but monied) liberal elites tried to have as much fun as they could, heading offshore to have listen to live music and chastely shimmy in their seats. Couples were welcome, so long as they were already married, but alcohol was strictly off limits, as everywhere in the Islamic Republic.

    The next stop was the Kurdish north of Iraq, where the Johnny Walker and Heineken flow relatively freely inside the hotels and restaurants of cities like Sulaymaniyah and Irbil. But the drink-ups were strictly same-sex affairs. Female foreign aid workers might occasionally be seen in these dens of little repute, but never an Iraqi woman. The men drink and smoke and watch channels like "Sexy Sat," but their wives and sisters aren't allowed in the door.

    Tonight I reached the southeastern corner of Turkey, also arguably the southeastern corner of what could loosely be termed the West. This is, after all, a NATO country, and what are all those guns and bombs for it not to spread "our values?"

    Exhausted after the long drive from Zakho, I nonetheless accepted an invitation to head out on the town with Yilmaz Akinci, the local correspondent for the al-Jazeera satellite television channel. He took me to Major, a live music club in the centre of Diyarbakir, where for the first time in two weeks I watched men and women dance, drink, sing, laugh and generally behave as they wished.

    If this is indeed a clash of civilizations that the world is in the middle of, it's my job as a journalist to try and understand all perspectives, and not to take sides. But between you and me, tonight at the Major, I couldn't help but smile.

    One war zone to another

    By taxi through southeastern Anatolia - Saturday, Oct. 25

    The most surprising thing about crossing from northern Iraq into southeastern Turkey, which in the Kurdish narrative are two parts of Greater Kurdistan, is that you still feel as though you're in occupied land. In fact, the Turkish military presence here is more obvious than the combined presence of the United States, the Iraqi army and the Kurdish militias in on the other side of the border.

    As we drove towards the city of Diyarbakir and into a gathering thunderstorm, Kemal and I were pulled over at a succession of checkpoints and twice made to get out of the car so my bags could be hand-searched. At each base, a makeshift machine-gun post had been constructed underneath Turkey's red-and-white crescent-moon flag. Armoured personnel carriers patrolled the highways.

    To an extent, the security measures are understandable. While it was quiet today, southeastern Turkey has effectively been a war zone for much of the past 30 years, a place where hostilities between the army and the Kurdistan Workers' Party can flare up at any time.

    The locals in this heavily rural part of Turkey are clearly resentful of the heavy handed military presence in their towns and villages. The residents are Kurds, many of them sympathetic to the PKK, while the soldiers are ethnic Turks.

    "Turkey. Problem," Kemal explained to me with a disgusted shrug after a soldier had given my dirty laundry a thorough examination. Kemal was stretching the limits of his early-career-Schwarzenegger English, but I got the point.

    Turkey most definitely does have a problem here.

    I am a Middle Eastern cigarette smuggler

    At the Iraq-Turkey border - Saturday, Oct. 25

    I left Iraq this morning, crossing into Turkey via the busy Ibrahim Khalil crossing that is landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan's main lifeline to the outside world (see lineup of trucks at left).

    I left Zakho, a dusty border town, and ascended into the jagged mountains of southeastern Anatolia in a Turkish taxi, a white Ford Focus driven by a gruff man named Kemal. It would cost me $150, he said, for the four-plus hour drive between the predominantly from Zakho to Diyarbakir in Turkey.

    With his bald skull, and shiny black shirt tucked into shiny grey slacks, Kemal looked like an extra on some Turkish version of the Sopranos. Not Paulie or Silvio, mind you, but one of those anonymous thugs they sent out to rough up the guys who inadvertently picked up the trash on one of Tony's routes.

    That's just me stereotyping of course. Or at least it was until Kemal pulled me aside at the border crossing and showed me a black garbage bag stuffed with several cartons of Gauloises cigarettes.

    "For you," he told me with a please-understand-this-or-we're-both-in-trouble look in his eyes. "Not for driver."

    I got the message. If anyone asked, I smoke six packs a day (despite my asthma) and came to Iraq for the cut-rate ciggies. Got it.

    Thankfully, the question never came up, and Kemal, the Gauloises and I glided through to the land of Ataturk. A Kurdish guard on the Iraqi side, however, did have some queries about my passport.

    "Kanada?" he said, eyebrows raised.



    "No, Canada."

    "Like Montana?" (For some reason, it's the U.S. state best known in these parts.)

    "No, different country."

    "Like Kurdistan and Iraq?" (This gave me pause. Perhaps we are indeed only semi-autonomous in the Stephen Harper era. But my patriotism was by now in full roar.)

    "No, like Jordan and Iraq."

    The guard furrowed his brow. Canada being an entirely separate entity didn't quite sound right to him, but he obviously he didn't want to insult me either. He offered a compromise.

    "Maybe like Kuwait?" he said, referring to the tiny Gulf state that Saddam Hussein always claimed was a renegade Iraqi province.

    I took the offered olive branch. After all, the world had driven Saddam out of Kuwait when he invaded back in 1991. Not a bad precedent to establish for that inevitable day the Americans come seeking revenge for the War of 1812 and Celine Dion.

    "Like Kuwait," I agreed.

    Travel advisory

    Zakho, Iraq - Saturday, Oct. 25

    Travel advisory/Public service announcement: If you ever have the odd fortune to need to spend a night in the town of Zakho, Iraq, do avoid my residence of last night, the Sipan Hotel.

    The toilets don't work, every drain is clogged with human hair and the walls are covered with bug carcasses. The only thing missing was the chalk outlines of dead bodies on the floor. But that's probably just sloppy Iraqi police work.

    Iraq blackout

    Zakho, Iraq - Friday, Oct. 24

    In a fitting end to my latest spin through Iraq, the power has been out for the past half hour here in Zakho. Sitting in the dark is part of life in the new Iraq. (Thank Ataturk that I'm now close enough to the Turkish border to get Blackberry service...)

    While the security situation in the country deservedly gets most of the attention, the lack of basic services here is an under-reported crisis. Power outages are a regular occurrence in Baghdad, as well as here in the relatively stable north of the country.

    The electricity in Zakho comes on only after 5 p.m. each day. It's supposed to stay on until 9 a.m., but there have already been two cuts in the first six hours of that stretch.

    It's not just the electricity. Tap water remains undrinkable across Iraq and, judging by the state of my stomach, the recent cholera outbreak in the country may be more widespread than has been reported so far.

    Back in 2003, shortly after a wild-bearded Saddam Hussein was discovered in his spider-hole north of Baghdad, I went to a power plant in the capital to ask why electricty was in such short supply. The manager was short on answers, and embarassed to admit that despite the UN sanctions back then, the situation was better in Saddam's time. He blamed insurgent attacks on the infrastructure.

    I wonder what he'd say now. Because no matter how many U.S. soldiers leave or stay in Iraq, this oil-rich country won't be able to move on in the dark.

    Quote of the week

    "George Bush is our friend now. He is adopting Communist solutions to the financial crisis."
    - Rahman Gharib, journalist with the Communist Party of Kurdistan.

    In this car, we drink Coke, listen to Nancy and despair for the future

    By car from Irbil to Zakho, Iraq – Friday, Oct. 24

    Perhaps the greatest debate gripping the Middle East has nothing to do with either the future of Iraq or the Israel-Palestine peace process. What really gets the locals agitated is a discussion of the comparative merits of the two pop vixens of the Arab world. Think Britney versus Christina, without the K-Fed subplot and the public breakdowns.

    Nancy Ajram
    (the one on the left in the pic) is a 25-year-old pouty-lipped Lebanese singer who has won acclaim as the Madonna of the Arab world after a string of hit singles dating back seven years as well as racy (for this region) music videos. Her climb to fame accelerated a few years back when she became the Middle Eastern face of Coca-Cola. She sings and shimmies in almost every Coke ad broadcast on television in this region, and her face appears on every can.

    Nancy's nemesis is Haifa Wehbe, also from Lebanon, who became a sensation by out-sexing her rival on satellite music channels, triggering a series scandals in the Arab that have been exacerbated by the fact Haifa is Shia Muslim (unlike Nancy, who is Maronite Christian). In one notorious clip, Haifa appeared in a wet red bathing suit that clung revealingly to her curvaceous form. The 32-year-old's saucy image provoked the Islamist-dominated parliament of Bahrain to pass a motion earlier this year calling for her concert in the country to be cancelled.

    Her rivalry with Nancy is such that Haifa has been made the aluminum face of Pepsi, meaning the two stars stare lustily at each other inside convenience store refrigerators around the region.

    "Nancy can sing, Haifa's just a body," Sherzad, my cheerful translator offered when I asked which side of the great divide he fell on. There's some truth to that – Nancy shot to fame after singing in and winning a televised talent show. Haifa's big break was being named runner up in the Miss Lebanon contest and then being selected by People Magazine as one of the world's 50 most beautiful people.

    To be fair, Sherzad isn't really Haifa's type. She's made it clear she's not into nice guys like him, having made headlines in recent years by performing with rapper 50 Cent and endorsing Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah following the 2006 war with Israel.

    Nancy, meanwhile, stands on the other side of the great Lebanese divide (one that reflects the split across the entire Middle East) having written a song mourning the 2005 murder of the country's popular former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, and endorsing Lebanon's pro-Western "Cedar Revolution." Much more Sherzad's type, frankly.

    So we listened to Nancy Ajram as we plunged westward through Iraqi Kurdistan, heading for the Turkish border. But my impending departure was making Sherzad morose, despite the upbeat pop coming from the car stereo.

    “You're lucky. You get to leave tomorrow. We have to stay here,” he moaned. “Maybe God will punish me when I die for not having done anything with my life.”

    I told him that I hoped to come back in five years time and to see him happy, perhaps in an independent Kurdistan.

    “That needs to happen,” he said. “Either we separate from Baghdad, or there will be civil war with the Kurds fighting the Sunnis and Shiites.”

    I had no retort. We drove in silence for the next while, listening as Nancy cheerfully sing of love and hope.


    By car from Irbil to Zakho, Iraq – Friday, Oct. 24

    The question came naturally as our car approached a fork in the road during the drive today from Irbil to Zakho. If we took the left turn, we would be in Mosul, arguably the most violent city in Iraq. Happily, we veered to the right.

    "How much do you guys think I'm worth?" I asked as our blue Chevy Neon crossed the Great Zab River, a tributary of the Tigris. Kidnappings are common in Mosul, and a Western journalist would presumably be a lucrative target.

    My companions, Miran, the car's driver, and Sherzad, a translator I'd hired to accompany me on my trip through Northern Iraq, laughed uproariously. "I say $200,000," offered Sherzad. Though he doesn't have a mean bone in his body, the speed of his response suggested he'd previously turned the question over in his head.

    I was insulted. A paltry $200,000 seemed like nothing compared to the rumoured sums other kidnappees had fetched. Especially with the way the dollar has fallen lately. You can barely buy a foreclosed house in Detroit these days with 200 grand.

    "Don't worry Mark, I think you're worth a lot more," Miran said with a laugh that was probably meant to be reassuring.

    Iraq's only tourist

    Irbil, Iraq - Thursday, Oct. 23

    I spent today wandering around the semi-restored remains of the Irbil citadel, a UNESCO world heritage site that overlooks the modern city from atop a hill in the centre of town.

    Obviously once majestic – parts of it are believed to date back to the 6th Century B.C., making Irbil one of the oldest human settlements in the world – the vast citadel is unsurprisingly in desperate need of work. While the Kurdish Textiles Museum at its heart is worth a visit, there's little to see in large swathes of the ancient fortress beside graffiti-covered stones. The building that should be the citadel's centerpiece, the former Ottoman pasha's palace, looks like a hurricane blew through it, leaving behind only trash and a few walls for local teenagers to scrawl their names on.

    Which raises the question, does the citadel need to be restored in order for tourists to consider coming to Irbil (let's pretend Iraq's security situation isn't an issue here – it's relatively calm in the Kurdish north), or is it a sad fact that no on will rebuild it until they see the first trickle of tourists and the colour of their money?

    As I wandered the deserted remains, I bumped into a lonely guard. He confessed that other than the occasional group of Kurdish schoolchildren, there wasn't much for him to do most days.

    "Sometimes the Americans come here on their day off. But sometimes there's nobody, or just one person," he said, giving me a sympathetic look.

    For dinner, I travelled to the nearby Christian town of Ainkawa where a German restaurant – Der Deutscher Haus – does booming business serving premium Bavarian beers and authentic goulash and schnitzels.

    Who says there's nothing for tourists in Iraq?

    Friday, October 24, 2008

    The plight, and flight, of Iraq's Christians

    Ainkawa, Iraq Thursday, Oct. 23

    Father Sabri al-Maqdessy is a man with a lot on his mind. A priest at St. Joseph's Chaldean Church in this Christian town in the north of Iraq, he's struggling to keep track of two equally disturbing trends: an influx of new families into his parrish and an outflow of longtime residents.

    Neither is a new phenomenon. Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Christian families have been fleeing to Ainkawa, chased from their homes in Baghdad and elsewhere by Sunni and Shia militants who bombed churches and demanded that Christian women adopt strict Islamic dress. The prewar population of this attractive little town doubled during the first four years of the war as 1,500 families arrived here looking for refuge.

    Just as the situation seemed to be stabilizing, a spate of murders in recent weeks targeting the Christian community of the nearby city of Mosul has sparked a new exodus. Another 1,500 families have fled Mosul in the past month, with many of those arriving at St. Josephs, looking for shelter and food.

    "Christians have always been targeted by different groups in the Middle East because we are the only people without a tribal system to protect us or the political power to give us security," the bald, soft-spoken priest said as we chatted inside the stone-walled compound of St. Joseph's, which from the street looks as much like a castle than a place of worship. "The church is weak. The Vatican does not have tanks."

    Just as worrying for Father Sabri are those who are leaving Ainkawa. Theyre not returning to their homes, but headed for new lives in the West, leaving Iraq behind. As much as half of Iraqs prewar Christian population of 800,000 is believed to have emigrated since 2003.

    "Everyone is leaving. If the situation continues the way it is for another 10 years, 20 at most, you won't see any Christians left here."

    Thursday, October 23, 2008


    By bus from Sulaymaniyah to Irbil, Iraq – Wednesday, Oct. 22

    A few things I spotted as I stared out the dirty window of our Reagan-era Toyota bus as we winded our way from Sulaymaniyah to Kirkuk to Irbil:

    - Iraq turns from green to brown as you leave the Kurdish north and head in the direction of Baghdad. As we left Sulaymaniyah, the forested mountains that surround that city were replaced by rocky brown hills which soon melted into the familiar desert of central Iraq.
    - While the peshmerga fighters who man checkpoints under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government carefully checked the identification of anyone entering or leaving their autonomous area, the regular Iraqi army soldiers who patrol Kirkuk barely peer in the windows as they wave us on.
    - Kirkuk still looks like the war zone it is – two bombs went off here as recently as Saturday – with some roads torn up by the tracks of tanks (likely American ones) and other streets barricaded to keep Arab and Kurd apart.
    - Three things in a row along the highway northwest from Kirkuk to Irbil: first was the rubble of a stone fortress that served as a base for Saddam Hussein’s army before it was destroyed by American air power back in 2003. Next came a (presumably empty) discarded oil tanker with the word “Allah” scrawled on the side in Arabic. After that was an unfinished home with the blue letters “USA” written on the outside.

    A short sojourn in Kirkuk

    Kirkuk, Iraq – Wednesday, Oct. 22

    I briefly ended up in the violent city of Kirkuk today, completely by accident.

    When I arrived in Sulaymaniyah this week, I casually asked Miran, The Globe and Mail’s genial longtime driver/fixer in Northern Iraq, whether it would be possible to visit the city that has become the frontline in the struggle between Kurdish and Iraqi nationalists. No, he chuckled, “there are still kidnappings and murders all the time there.” It was the same answer he had given me on my last two visits to the country.

    Even as a relative calm has returned to other parts of Iraq, Kirkuk has gotten worse as simmering, decades-old tensions over whether the city is Kurdish, Turkoman or Arab (Saddam Hussein forcibly tried to make it the latter during his reign) bubble towards a full boil.

    So the journey today was supposed to be along the safe route. My translator and I boarded the bus to Irbil thinking that it would take the northern road, avoiding the potential trouble on the southern one. Straight out of the station, it went south to Kirkuk, a city I hadn’t visited since the summer of 2003.

    Despite some nervousness among the other passengers about having to travel with a trouble-magnet foreigner (there was a long conversation between the driver and passengers before it was agreed that I could come along for the drive), nothing happened. The city I saw was one that divided and scarred by years of fighting – an oil-rich place where electricity is still a luxury that most homes experience for only a few hours a day – but one that was functioning, at least on the Kurdish side that we drove through.

    The roads were packed with cars and the shops were open, including a few Christian-owned stores in the city centre that openly advertised the Turkish and German beers they carried in stock (liquor stores have long since disappeared in Baghdad and the Shia south, chased away by the militants).

    As we drove through his hometown, Abbas Khorsheed, a 33-year-old dentist with neatly combed-back hair and dark, intense eyes, told me that, economically, the post-Saddam era has been good to Kirkuk. Where he was once paid a state salary of 3,000 Iraqi dinars – a paltry $1.50 (U.S.) – a month as a dentist, he said he now makes upwards of $12,000 a year.

    He’s taken some of that money and is studying on the side to become an orthodontist. He advised me that braces would straighten my crooked bottom teeth.

    But while most Kurds are big fans of the United States and President George W. Bush for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein, Mr. Khorsheed is less sure the sacrifices have been worth it. A pessimist, he sees either unending war, or unending American occupation in Iraq’s future. Kirkuk will remain a dangerous frontline city in whatever happens next, he predicted.

    “There is no agreement between the different groups, Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Christians. The situation has been like this for centuries. It will not get better,” he said, his quiet voice barely audible over the bus’s squealing engine. And while he’s thinking of leaving the city, he’s convinced the Americans will stay, no matter who wins next month’s U.S. presidential election.

    “Iraq will become like Japan. The Americans will stay forever, I think.”

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008

    By bus from Sulaymaniyah to Irbil, Iraq – Wednesday, Oct. 22

    When I lived in Canada, a road trip meant piling with friends into my green Ford Escort, the windows down and the radio loud as we set off from my hometown of Ottawa to Montreal or Toronto for the weekend. During the years I lived in Russia, a “road trip” usually meant taking the train, speeding between Moscow and St. Petersburg or rolling slowly across the awe-inspiring distances to the east.

    In the Middle East, a road trip means military checkpoints. Whether you’re driving between the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, heading to the scenic south of Lebanon, or doing what I did today – cutting across the north of war-torn Iraq by bus – hitting the road means spending a large chunk of your journey having your documents and belongings checked by nervous soldiers.

    For the three-plus hours the 17 other passengers and I sat crammed into a decades-old Toyota bus, we hit six checkpoints. Two of them were manned by Iraqi army soldiers, the other four by the pershmerga (ready-to-die) militia that is the de facto army of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north of Iraq. By the last of them – when I was asked to get out of the vehicle so that I could be more closely examined by a swarthy soldier with kebab breath – I was even thinking fondly of the Ontario Provincial Police and their nefarious speed traps. Yes, the checkpoints were that aggravating.

    The bumpy, 205-kilometre drive from Sulaymaniyah to Irbil was nonetheless as exhilarating in its own way as those weekend rips to Montreal. For the past five years, reporters like me have had to skulk around this country, fearing car bombs and kidnappings. The last time I was in Baghdad (back in March), a colleague and I used four cars between us, hoping that switching vehicles often enough would keep the anonymous bad guys from tracking our movements too closely. Other journalists travel with their own security detachments.

    But today my translator and I simply headed down to the main Sulaymaniyah bus station, found a driver who was hollering out “Hawler! Hawler!” (the Kurdish name for Irbil) and hopped aboard. I grabbed a seat between a gregarious 22-year-old peshmerga fighter heading home to Kirkuk and an intense 26-year-old economics graduate going to Irbil. We sat back and chatted the afternoon away as though we were travelling through a completely normal country somewhere else on this planet.

    But this wasn’t that other country, as the jolts to our spine that we experienced each time the bus bounced off a pothole reminded us. Saifeddin Shamseddin, the recent economics grad, was bordering on depressed. His degree, he said, meant nothing in a country where there was no work of any kind for young people like him. He had been in Sulaymaniyah filling out the necessary documentation to go to police college – another Iraqi intellectual forced to pick up a gun because there’s nothing else to do.

    “No one is happy here. There are thousands of young students who have just graduated and are now sitting at home jobless” he said, his long legs curled up almost to his chin because the bus seats were so close together.

    Mohammed Amin, the young peshmerga fighter, nodded in agreement. He confessed that he was saving up money to pay a smuggler to take him, along with his wife and infant daughter, out of Iraq, to London if they could manage it. “It will continue to get worse here day after day,” he predicted. “I’ve lived here 22 years and I have yet to see one happy day in Iraq."

    Forty-eight hours in Iraq

    Sulaymaniyah, Iraq – Tuesday, October 21

    Iraq, unquestionably, is a safer place now than it was a year or 18 months ago, when the worst of the inter-communal fighting was raging. But what does “safer” mean in the Iraqi context?

    To give you an idea, I thought I’d resurrect a feature from the blog I did during my last visit to Iraq, and treat you to a short summary of the violence around the country in the 48 hours since I’ve arrived in this comparatively calm corner of it.

    While most of the shootings and explosion are considered to minor for the media to report on anymore, the overall picture is far from pretty. Even though the main Sunni and Shia militias are largely holding their fire for now, this is still arguably the most dangerous country on earth, with the northern city of Mosul (which has a mixed Sunni Arab and Kurdish population) now rivaling Baghdad as the centre of the chaos.

    (The incidents were not confirmed by me. The reports are courtesy of the folks at Iraq Today and McClatchy newspapers)

    Today (as of 6 p.m. local):

    - Three electricity workers and an Iraqi army soldier were wounded when an improvised explosive device (IED) went off in eastern Baghdad.
    - A bomb targeting a police patrol exploded in eastern Baghdad, wounding two civilians, Iraqi police said.
    - Fifteen people were killed and 40 others were injured in fierce clashes that erupted overnight and continued sporadically till noon in an area southwest of Iraq. The deadly clashes occurred when people from the city of Ramadi, capital of western Anbar province, attacked people from Babel province near the Jurf al-Sakhar area, some 60 km southwest of Baghdad. The battle erupted due to a dispute between the two sides over the ownership of farmland.
    - Gunmen blew up a drinking water station east of the district of al-Dalouiya, near the Tigris River.
    - Clashes broke out between armed gunmen and Iraqi army soldiers in the al-Siddiq neighborhood in the east of Mosul.


    - A roadside bomb struck a double-decker bus in eastern Baghdad, killing two people and injuring seven. Iraqi police and hospital officials said the bus was carrying employees of Iraq's Housing Ministry through the Shiite-dominated neighborhood of Mashtal when the blast occurred.
    - Nine decomposed bodies were found in Latifiya, 40 km south of Baghdad, police said. The victims had been buried for more than a year.
    - The Iraqi army killed two militants and arrested 51 others on Sunday in different areas across Iraq, the Defence Ministry said in a statement.
    - A roadside bomb planted near a school for girls in central Baghdad.
    - A bomb placed under a taxi exploded at Maysaloun Square in east Baghdad, police said. Police and health officials said two people were killed and two injured.
    - A roadside bomb detonated on Palestine Street (east Baghdad) targeting a police patrol. Four people were injured, including a policeman.
    - In two separate incidents, individual dead bodies were discovered in eastern Baghdad.
    - Three insurgent gunmen were killed near the city of Baquba when an improvised explosive device they were planting exploded.
    - Police accidentally shot and killed a civilian during a raid on the town of Muqdadiyah, north east of Baquba.
    - Police shot and killed three gunmen during clashes in the town of Mandli, east of Baquba.
    - A civilian was killed by a roadside bomb that exploded near his home in the town of Khanaqeen.
    - One man was killed and another injured by a roadside bomb that exploded in the northern city Mosul.
    - Gunmen assassinated a member of the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP) in Mosul.
    - A sniper shot and killed a policeman in Borsa neighborhood in Mosul.
    - Six people, all members of one family, were injured when a roadside bomb exploded near there car in Mosul.

    Barrack Obama wants to start withdrawing U.S. soldiers from this country, something those Iraqis I’ve spoken to in the past two days believe will lead to even more violence. But at least that’s a new policy. John McCain thinks America is “winning” something here.

    Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    Dreams, and nightmares, of Baghdad

    Sulaymaniyah, Iraq – Monday, Oct. 20

    The situation in Iraq is getting better, the statistics say (though the daily blow-by-blow is still mind-numbing to read). By most accounts, Baghdad, an all-out war zone for most of the past five years, is becoming almost livable again.

    But don't try telling that to the 300-plus people - almost all of them former Baghdad residents - living in miserable conditions in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah. Such rosy talk is nonsense, they say. Returning to their old homes in Baghdad, for them, remains an impossibility.

    The stories they tell paint a very different picture than the one emerging of late in the Western media. They don't see an Iraq that's beginning to heal, but instead one where the divisions have become irreparable.

    All of the refugees here are Sunni Arabs (Sulaymaniyah is in the Kurdish autonomous region, the majority Kurds are Sunnis) and most of them were driven from their homes by Shia militias during the worst of the sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007.

    It's safe to go back to Baghdad, they say, if it is in a Sunni neighbourhood. If your old home was in a Shia area, there's still no going back.

    “I will never go back to Baghdad, It’s impossible for me,” said, Layla Shalan, a widowed 48-year-old mother of six. Wrapped in a head-to-toe black abaya, she told me how she remained in the mixed Dora neighbourhood of Baghdad even after her husband disappeared in 2004, leaving for work one morning and never coming home. She finally fled Dora with her children after Shia gunmen came to her door shortly afterwards and kidnapped her one-year-old daughter Nora, saying they'd return her only when Ms. Shalan and her family vacated their house.

    There are dozens of stories like hers in this ramshackle collection of tents in the eastern corner of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. This is a place where optimism is even scarcer than decent food or shelter. Despite the steady stream of good news coming from Baghdad in recent months, the tent city remains home to more than 60 families – making it slightly larger than it was when I last visited here in early 2007.

    “If they gave me all of Baghdad, I wouldn’t return. People who say it is getting better are media liars,” Iyad Manfi, the camp's leader, or mukhtar. He moved into one of the shoddy tarps-and-wooden-pole tents here in 2006 after his house near the infamous Abu Ghraib prison was hit by a mysterious explosion. He says he returned to Baghdad once already, believing the security situation had improved, but returned here shortly afterwards after receiving more threats.

    Mr. Manfi, whose tense face makes him far older than his 32 years, says returning was a mistake he won’t make again. “When I leave this camp, it will not be to go home. It will be to leave this country.”

    That sentiment is common across this battered country. Unsurprising new statistics released by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees today show that while the number of Iraqis seeking asylum in the West has dropped by more than 10 per cent since the same time last year, Iraqis still lodge far more asylum applications than any other nationality.

    Monday, October 20, 2008

    My own Iraq war

    Sulaymaniyah, Iraq - Monday, Oct. 20

    This morning, after five years of covering the war here in Iraq – and managing to largely stay clear of the fighting – I finally became a participant in the violence. Upon arriving in my hotel room here in Sulaymaniyah, exhausted after a journey from Kish Island that included two flights and a long drive, I was confronted by a real live terrorist. A cockroach almost the size of my closed fist. The Osama bin Laden of the insect world.

    I won’t drive you off the website with all the gory details, but suffice it to say that this was a real this-room-isn’t-big-enough-for-both-of-us battle that lasted upwards of half an hour. The fall of Baghdad didn’t take this long.

    The plastic slipper I found in the bathroom did nothing but tickle this behemoth of a bug. I swear he was giggling as I slapped him with it repeatedly. Next up, I tried a shock-and-awe campaign using the sole of my shoe that at least managed to irritate my many-legged nemesis. Finally, borrowing from the U.S. Army’s overkill playbook (think air strikes and wedding parties), I lifted up the minibar fridge and dropped it on the offending roach, ending his one-bug intifada against my occupation of room 207.

    Surely there’s some metaphor for the entire “war on terror” somewhere in that story.

    The Battle of Room 207 was a bloody end to an exhausting journey from Kish Island in southern Iran to the eastern corner of northern Iraq. The plan had been to get from there to here overland across the Islamic Republic, but after the mullahs decided I wasn’t worthy of even a transit visa across their country, I had to abandon that plan and travel to Sulaymaniyah – the next stop on my itinerary – the long way (answering the question posed by Dion Nissenbaum over at McClatchey newspapers). Two flights and a three-hour drive later, I was face-to-face with Osama the Cockroach.

    More geopolitically relevant than my discovery of new uses for a minibar was the reception I got upon landing in Northern Iraq. Walking into the pre-fabricated airport at Irbil, the effective capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is always a reminder of how detached from the rest of Iraq this place has become.

    The fact that I had no Iraqi visa didn’t matter to the blue-uniformed guard who marked page 17 of my passport with a red-and-blue “Kurdistan Regional Government” stamp. There was no sign of the Iraqi flag anywhere inside the terminal – in fact, Arabs from the rest of Iraq were the only people on my flight who received serious scrutiny when they landed in Irbil.

    The growing independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is fraught with problems. The Kurds aren’t content with the three northern provinces they currently control, and a conflict with Baghdad is looming over the future of oil-rich Kirkuk, a city Iraqi Kurds refer to as their “Jerusalem.” An independent Kurdistan of any size is also anathema to neighbouring Iran and Turkey, who each have their own large and restive Kurdish populations. Fighting between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has escalated along the Turkish-Iraqi border again in recent days, and Iran has also taken to shelling Northern Iraq, targeting Iranian Kurdish groups who use Iraqi Kurdistan as a rear base.

    But being here and seeing the determination with which the Kurds have gone about building their own mini-state over the past five years, it’s clear that a point of no return has been passed somewhere along the way. The Kurds will never accept the return of Baghdad’s authority over this land they’ve fought so long to call their own.

    Sunday, October 19, 2008

    The Middle East Electoral College

    Among the questions I’ll be asking people – Iranians, Iraqis, Turks, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians – as I travel overland across this region over the next three weeks is how they feel about the upcoming presidential election in the United States.

    Outside of the U.S. itself, it’s safe to say that the Middle East is the region most affected by this faraway vote that they have absolutely no control over. The George W. Bush era brought them the (failed) Road Map to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the invasion of Iraq, the rise of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in Iran, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the election (and international rejection) of Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and the now-stalled Annapolis peace process. All were considerably affected by the man who sat thousands of kilometres away in the White House.

    So what next? Would a President Obama keep his promise to negotiate with Iran, and rapidly reduce the number of American soldiers in Iraq? Would he be a better mediator in the Middle East peace process? Or perhaps a President McCain would be a better pick for Israelis, who fear being pressured into a peace agreement with the Palestinians, or those pro-Western Lebanese who want U.S. support in facing down Hezbollah? Who do Turks, polarized into camps of secularists and Islamists, with the Iraq war lapping at the country’s southeastern fringe, want to see win the election?

    To keep track of this project, I’ve come up with a system based on the U.S. Electoral College and its 538 members. I’ve distributed those 538 votes among the eight countries that I’m going to visit, according to their populations. The winner of this completely unscientific exercise will be known by election morning, Tuesday, Nov. 4.

    Here’s the breakdown:

    Kish Island, Iran – 8 electors
    Iraq – 146 electors
    Turkey – 175 electors
    Syria – 98 electors
    Lebanon – 21 electors
    Jordan – 34 electors
    Israel – 36 electors
    Palestinian Authority – 20 electors

    A few footnotes: I based Kish’s population on the one million Iranian tourists who visit Kish each year rather than the 16,500 who actually live on the island. I also allocated Turkey only half the electors its population of 70 million should receive, mostly just to keep the election from being decided solely by the Turkish vote.

    Some early results are already in. Barack Obama had the support of 100 per cent of the Iranians I met during my week on Kish Island giving him all 12 Electoral College votes from there.

    I won’t arrive in Israel or the Palestinian Territories until after the Nov. 4 election, but after living in Jerusalem for the past three-and-a-half years, I feel comfortable awarding the 36 Israeli votes to Senator John McCain. While polls of Israeli opinion on the election have returned mixed results, even the left-wing Haaretz newspaper has concluded that McCain will be better for Israel’s interests than that other guy with the Muslim-sounding middle name.

    Similarly, the Palestinian Authority’s 20 Electoral College votes go to Obama for almost the complete opposite reasons. In fact, some Palestinians have gone so far as to run phone banks for Obama, dialing up unsuspecting voters in the U.S. to ask them to vote for Barack.

    So, with 16 days to go – and five countries to travel through – before Election Day, the Middle East Electoral College looks like this:

    John McCain (Rep.) – 36 votes
    Barack Obama (Dem.) – 28 votes

    Colour Iran and the Palestinian territories blue, and Israel red.

    Next stop, Iraq. Stay tuned.

    Next year in Tehran?

    Kish Island, Iran - Thursday, Oct. 16

    Over the years, I have been turned down on three separate occasions when I applied for a visa to visit Iran. The first two attempts were via the Iranian Embassy in my old home of Moscow, and once I was even approved for a journalist visa by the Foreign Ministry in Tehran only to have it revoked when I went to pick it up at the Tsarist-era building that housed the embassy on Moscow’s tree-lined Pokrovsky Boulevard.

    With over-the-top ceremony and politeness, the ambassador treated me to half-a-dozen cups of tea and a plate of cookies as he rolled out a lengthy explanation of why I wouldn’t be allowed to board my flight to Tehran the next morning. “Iran loves Canada,” he told me earnestly. “But Canada does not love Iran.” I had no retort. After that much tea, all I could think of was my bladder and what level of diplomatic faux-pas it would be to relieve myself in the snowbank outside the embassy.
    The ambassador didn’t say it out loud, but he didn’t need to. The visa had been revoked because of the diplomatic brouhaha over Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who was raped, tortured and beaten to death in 2003 inside Evin Prison, in northern Tehran. No Canadian journalist, the Iranian authorities correctly surmised, could travel to the country without making an effort to investigate what had happened to Ms. Kazemi.

    During the nearly four years I lived in Jerusalem, an Iranian visa was an effective impossibility. In fact, you're forbidden from travelling to the Islamic Republic if you've even set foot inside Israel/the Zionist Entity. Though there were a few intrepid correspondents who did the occasional Jerusalem-Tehran commute, they were generally old Iran hands who had contacts inside the regime in Tehran who could be trusted to look the other way when their visa applications arrived. So when I finally convinced my editor to let me drive across the Middle East to mark the end of the Bush era, I knew that the biggest hurdle would actually be in reaching the starting point of my journey.

    There were two routes I could try. First I sent in an application for a tourist visa via an online service that promised Iranian visas “in 7 easy steps.” I was so enticed that I didn’t notice the chart on the same webpage which suggested Canadians are more likely to be turned down for Iranian visas than any other nationality, including Americans. I gamely sent in the 72-euro application fee, only to get the predictably negative reply a few weeks later.

    So Kish Island represented a last, desperate chance to see Iran before I ended my tour of duty in the Middle East. And today, I was told – again – that I was not welcome in the Islamic Republic. “There is a problem with your visa,” the shy desk clerk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office told me. The office is one of the few places on the island where photographs of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Ali Khameini are displayed.

    After a week of battling with the bureaucrats and being repeatedly promised a visa, I was as grumpy as the two ayatollahs looked in their official portraits. I demanded to know what the "problem" with my visa was. I got a one word answer: "Politics."

    In Canada, we call these places “gay hangouts”

    Kish Island, Iran - Wednesday, Oct. 15

    I can’t believe I’m still on Kish Island. I’d hoped to have a visa to head onwards to mainland Iran by now, but that’s starting to seem an increasingly distant prospect. When I went to the Foreign Affairs office today, I was told only that there was “a problem” with my application. This doesn’t look good. I’m terrified that the only corner of Iran I’ll be allowed to see is this bizarre Disneyland of the Persian Gulf.

    I’ve already visited the local Dolphinarium, toured the 92-square-kilometre island by bicycle and had dinner aboard a catamaran. Those are all the activities the guide book lists for Kish. This scenic place is starting to feel like my own personal Alcatraz, although I suspect it’s easier to find a drink, and some decent television, inside the actual prison.

    I spent the afternoon today at the island’s men-only beach, a place that’s fenced off from the rest of Kish so that nobody in a chador gets lustful at sight of my unsculpted furry chest.

    The beach is white sand and the water is wonderfully warm, and clear enough that you can see the marine life swimming around you. But somehow the absence of women and children makes even this stunning place feel like a failed house party, where lots of invitations went out, lots of preparations were made, but no one showed up.

    A quartet of young guys from Tehran jump and dive after a volleyball, but no one watches or cheers their feats of athleticism. Men swim alone or in pairs, but no one splashes the water at anyone else or plays tag or even laughs too loudly. It’s serene, it’s beautiful, but it’s no fun at all.


    Kish Island, Iran - Tuesday, Oct. 14

    I can’t claim credit for the title of this entry. Used to describe the Muslim world’s delight at seeing the financial meltdown in the West, it first appeared in a New York Times blog written by my friend and colleague Stephen Farrell, that paper’s Baghdad correspondent.

    Nonetheless, I thought I’d chip in with a few examples from The Tehran Times, the turgid government-run newspaper that is the only English reading I’ve come across on this island.

    “The U.S. is slowly but surely being ravaged by demons of its own design,” correspondent Randeep Ramesh reported in a recent edition. “The U.S. has been gobbling up the world's resources – be it labor, capital or minerals – so that Americans can live beyond their means. That these might run out has never bothered U.S. leaders.”

    In today’s edition, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini chipped in with a few thoughts of his own. “Liberal democracy, with all its political, economic and military power has been knocked to the ground before the eyes of all the world,” the Times quoted him as saying. “Today, the false bubble of money has popped in the Western world… and they themselves say that the era of U.S. hegemony has come to an end.”

    Ayatollah Khameini would have you all know that “the ideology of Islamic thought” will gain from democracy’s downfall.

    Counting ayatollahs

    Kish Island, Iran - Monday, Oct. 13

    As of today, I am an Iranian multimillionaire.

    At dusk – nearly everything closes during the afternoon because of the 40C heat – I plunged into the thick and sweaty crowd at a currency exchange office inside one of Kish’s myriad duty-free shopping malls (which sell mostly cheap Chinese-made electronics and what appear to be knock-offs of Western-brand clothing) and emerged with an armful of Iranian rials.

    Three hundred US dollars bought me nearly three million Iranian rials, most of them in crisp orange 50,000-rial notes. For those of you who like to view things from a geopolitical standpoint, it seems three Benjamin Franklins are worth a giant pile of Ayatollah Khomeinis.

    After years of travelling through the Middle East with almost exclusively US currency in my wallet, I finally found a place that wouldn’t accept the greenback when I went to go pay the fee for my mainland Iranian visa today. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it seems, is unwilling to accept the Great Satan’s money, a currency even Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe had no trouble filling their coffers with.

    An apologetic teller at the bank informed me that the payment could only be made in Euros or Iranian rials. Dropping his voice, he then proceeded to warn me that even though America was in financial crisis, I shouldn’t change too much of my dollars into Iranian money. “When you get to Tehran, people on the streets will take dollars, no problem,” he said conspiratorially. “Thank God for the US dollar.”

    If I can’t wear knee breaches, I’m outta here.

    Kish Island, Iran - Sunday, Oct. 12

    Since arriving on Kish, I’d heard whispers of the Dariush Grand Hotel. If you walk out to the end of the long dock that stretches out into the crystal-clear waters of the Persian Gulf and look back at the island, the five-floor Dariush dominates the skyline.

    Built by Iranian businessman Hussein Sabet, who made his fortune in the hotel business in Europe, the 200-room, $125-million Dariush is reputed to be the best hotel in Iran. It’s definitely the most audacious, with giant marble columns and statues built to recall the glory of ancient Persia, the empire that in 500 BC stretched across most of the modern Middle East, to North Africa and what is now Istanbul. The hotel is named after Darius, the man who ruled over the Persian Empire at its height, and the building’s entrance is modeled on the Gate of All Nations at Persepolis, the ancient imperial capital. The door is guarded by a pair of giant stone soldiers, accompanied by fantastical creatures that have the torsos of lions, eagles’ wings, and human heads.

    The hotel’s architecture is actually a small act of defiance. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, references to the country’s pre-Islamic history (Islam came to Iran in the 7th Century AD) fell out of favour, with one prominent cleric even going so far as to suggest that the ruins at Persepolis, a United Nations World Heritage site on a desert plateau some 440 kilometres south of Tehran, should be razed.

    It wasn’t, and the mullah’s have recently started to embrace Iran’s pre-Islamic history, understanding above all the tourist dollars that sites such as Persepolis can bring in. Now comes Mr. Sabet’s masterpiece, built on the half-finished shell of an unfinished hotel that started construction back when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi ruled here. The shah famously decided to turn the backwater fishing outpost into a playground for the country’s wealthy elite. A luxury hotel and a grand casino were built, as was an airport big enough to handle the shah’s private Concorde jet, which legendarily would fly in planeloads of prostitutes, and meals prepared at Paris restaurants.

    Tempted by the fact the Dariush sports a pool table and no overt ban on knee breaches (as well as the fact as it cost the same as the military bunker I've been staying in up until now), I'm definitely switching digs.

    The prisoners of Kish Island

    Kish Island, Iran - Sunday, Oct. 12

    It turns out that, besides me, the only other obvious foreigners on Kish Island are some 1,000 Filipinos. I’m the only one pretending to holiday. The frustrated Filipinos have been trapped here for weeks on end by a change in visa rules in the United Arab Emirates, where they work.

    The UAE’s impressive economic boom has been fuelled by a very dark side, the abuse and exploitation of foreign labourers, most of them from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Many of the foreign workers never get official status in the UAE, but choose to stay illegally, knowing that the money they can earn in Dubai and Abu Dhabi – whatever the atrocious conditions – is far better than what they can earn back home. Most visitors to the UAE are given two-month tourist visas on landing, which theoretically prohibit work, but which can be simply renewed by leaving the UAE for a day.

    Because of its visa-free status, and because it’s relatively cheap compared to the rest of the Persian Gulf, Kish was a favoured destination for employers looking to send workers on one-day “visa runs.” And when the UAE’s visa rules changed this summer – requiring one-month gaps between entries for travelers of certain nationalities – news didn’t trickle down until hundreds of Filipinos were already in Kish, suddenly prevented from returning to their jobs in the UAE.

    They’re a bedraggled lot, lining up each day at the Kish Airlines office, begging for a rare seat on one of the 26-seat Fokker F-50s that jet between Dubai and Kish several times a day. Some tell wild stories about needing to pick up corpses in Dubai that will decompose if they don’t get embalmed within 24 hours. Others just plead with the ticket saleswoman, telling her they’re about to lose their livelihoods if they can’t get back to the UAE soon.

    “I just need to get off this godforsaken island!” a nearly crying man with a Pakistani accent shouted before storming out of the office, ticketless.

    For the record, the UAE is far from alone in the Arab world in its treatment of foreign workers. Human Rights Watch recently did a very thorough report on the conditions some labourers live in, naming and shaming Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Morocco alongside the UAE as the worst abusers.

    Ali Reza

    Kish Island, Iran - Saturday, Oct. 18

    At dinner tonight, I found myself thanking the higher power, my foreign editor, that been allowed to study Arabic long enough to at least be able to sound out the Persian-only menu in the hotel restaurant. Arabic and Persian use the same right-to-left script and, even more mercifully, a kebab is still spelled “kebab” in Farsi. A "Beebsee," or Pepsi, was as exciting beverage as I could find to wash it down with (there is no letter P in traditional Arabic script).

    I’d been warned beforehand that many Iranians consider it odd to see someone dining alone, so I was only mildly surprised when a balding middle-aged man soon took one of the empty chairs at my underutilized table for four. In halting English that he’d learned two decades ago while working at a tourist hotel in his home city of Esfahan, he asked me where I came from, and then solemnly introduced himself as Ali Reza, a 50-year-old civil engineer. He was unmarried, and had no children. He liked to ride his bicycle and didn’t smoke. I didn’t ask him about any of this, he just told me one personal fact after another as if he wanted to use every English word he knew right there and then before he forgot any of them.

    Ali is one of the estimated one million Iranian tourists who visit Kish each year, looking for sun and sand and a rare break from the strict Islamic laws in the rest of the country. It’s hardly Sodom or Gomorrah, but Kish is a place where Iranians can breathe a little easier without the religious police monitoring their every action. After dark, young couples cuddle together on the beach in contravention of the mullahs’ restrictions on socializing between unmarried couples. Headscarves are worn often only loosely, and it at least one case I saw, not at all.

    Later, as Ali and I strolled around the hotel gardens past the empty swimming pool, Ali told me that he thought George W. Bush was “a good man” while “our president” (he didn’t name Mr. Ahmedinejad) “is crazy.”

    When I prodded him to explain why, he switched the topic. We were coming to the end of the small path we’d been following and were about to join the much busier boardwalk along the gulf coast. “The weather is very good here,” Ali said loudly and to no one in particular. “No rain.”

    Not without my dateline

    Kish Island, Iran - Saturday, Oct. 11

    After seven years of covering the Middle East and the ever-expanding “war on terror,” I finally set foot in Iran today. Yes, that place. The one with the crazed nuke-hungry mullahs and the crowds wishing death to America. The geographical centre of George W. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil.”

    Following repeated efforts to secure a visa to travel to Tehran – and repeatedly rejections on the basis of both my nationality and my profession – I finally discovered a way into the Islamic Republic, or at least a corner of it, while flipping through an old copy of a Lonely Planet guide to the Middle East that has sat, to my wife’s chagrin, in the bathroom for most of the past three years. It was on page 228 that I had my revelation. That’s where I learned of the existence of Kish Island.

    Kish Island, the well-thumbed book told me, was the only part of Iran that foreigners – even Canadian journalists – can enter without a visa. Then came the even more tantalizing part: once in Kish “head down to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where they can grant you a full tourist visa within 48 hours.”

    So here I am. On Kish Island, a place that at once poses as both the Hawaii and the Hong Kong of the Islamic Republic, staying in a grey concrete block that looks more like a military bunker than the four-star hotel it alleges to be (that's the interior of my hotel room, top left). In the name of finally getting a visa to Iran, I’m pretending to be that rare breed of Western tourist who prefers destinations where alcohol is illegal and men and women must swim and sunbathe at separate, fenced-off beaches.

    The swimming pool at the Shayan Hotel is as dry as the minibar, having been emptied many years ago to make sure no one swam where the opposite sex might catch an illicit glimpse of flesh.

    Nonetheless, a green card in the room promises “Happy Day’s (sic) For You.” Inside the card are a set of nine rules. Rule No. 1: “Ladies are requested to respect Islamic covering.” Rule No. 2: “Gentlemen are requested not to wear knee breaches.”

    I promise not to leave this island, dear reader, until I find out what a knee breach is.

    The Road to Jerusalem

    OK. So until now this was a Russia blog. But for the next three weeks it's going to dramatically change in character and become - wait for it - a travel blog.

    That's right, I'm travelling across the Middle East for The Globe and Mail, which will be running my Road to Jerusalem blog on its website as well.

    After spending much of the past seven years reporting from the region (I first landed here on Sept. 12, 2001) and covering not only the fall of Baghdad and the real war that followed, but the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the rise of Hamas, the various failed peace processes and the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah - not to mention living in Jerusalem for the past 3 1/2 years and Beirut before that - I'm driving across the region to take stock of how people here were affected by the George W. Bush era and how they view an Obama or McCain presidency.

    I'm starting in the southern corner of Iran, and will head from there via Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank to Jerusalem, the city that's arguably at the centre of it all.

    I hope you enjoy this change of pace. Let me know what you think as I go along. And please check out my first newspaper report of the journey, which appeared yesterday.