Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure, Part 1, “Sulimaniyah 90210”

Early last year, I began writing about The AUIS Voice, the first independent student newspaper in post-Saddam Iraq.  Started by a scrappy band of Iraqi students and an impassioned ex-Washington Post reporter, the Voice’s spirit of innovation is ironically its adherence to the oldest principles of the craft: objectivity, editorial freedom, and the search for truth (rarities among Iraqi media).  In mid-May, via a university grant, I traveled to the northern Kurdish region of Iraq to interview and observe the student staffers in action– along with gaining a glimpse of the university and region where their unfolding story is set.  This series is centered on my trip.

Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure

A quick shot taken during a mid-May hike outside Halabja, Iraq. Apparently, it's near the spot where those hikers recently became lost and wandered into Iran. (Photo by Arez Hussen Ahmed, Voice editor-in-chief and my traveling companion that day. More details later in this series, like why I'm wearing dress pants for a hike.) :)

Part 1: “Sulimaniyah 90210”

You do not need a visa to enter Iraq.  On spec, I found that hard to believe.  Elia Boggia, communications director at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), said he once dealt with a foreign journalist who became obnoxiously angry over email at Boggia’s insistence that he could fly in without a crazy amount of paperwork or governmental clearance.  The journalist simply refused to believe it was that easy to get into the country.

I trusted Boggia.  And he was right.  In mid-May, I flew from Tampa to New York City to Dubai to Sulimaniyah, Iraq, sans visa.  (Other suggested fly-into-Iraq spots– Amman, Jordan and Istanbul, Turkey.)

I highly recommend Air Emirates– amenities galore.  My AE flight from NYC to UAE even had electric plugs in the seatbacks!  For a laptop-cuddling workaholic, this was heaven.  (Only movie nerds will appreciate this: I first watched “Next Three Days” via the seatback screen while I worked and then watched a not-so-legally-downloaded version of “The Fugitive” on my laptop.  I prefer the latter.)

At JFK in New York, the Air Emirates ticket agent at the counter asked me about my final connecting flight into Iraq.  I told him the airline’s name: Fly Dubai.  He giggled, asking, “Is that a real airline?”  I landed in Sulimaniyah (affectionately dubbed Suli by the locals) via a very-late-night flight.  It was the size of a typical domestic plane.  A couple dozen people were on board.  At least by sight, I was the only Caucasian.  I had the vibe I was also the only Westerner.  The only women I spotted were the flight attendants.

The city’s airport is tiny.  The best way to describe it: It’s like the ‘other’ airport in many cities.  You know, the one that no major airlines are based at, mostly catering to private planes, and with one main building.

Suli greeted me with silence.  The airport is not too far from the city center, but it definitely exists in a quiet bubble, at least in the dead of night.  After the silence came slight nervousness.  The driver arranged by AUIS to pick me up did not show.  This became clear about 45 minutes after my flight, when I was the only one in the airport building besides a couple security staffers.  There was not a computer in sight.  It was far too late to call a university number and reach anyone.  My iPhone– which had admirably come through in other international situations– was, alas, wireless-impaired.  I waited at an empty taxi stand for a few minutes, capturing the video below out of boredom/scrapbook obsession.

This is the epitome of random video. It is nothing but a barebones glimpse of my view from the airport taxi stand around 2 a.m. I'm narrating the video for no apparent reason, which eventually makes me laugh at myself.

I eventually decided more proactive measures needed to be taken. I awkwardly finagled a kindly, mustachioed, somewhat-bilingual soldier (in actual fatigues) to call for a taxi on my behalf.

I was staying at the Hotel Dilan on Salim Street, the city’s main drag.  The taxi driver spoke Kurdish.  I do not.  The next five minutes of my life, more or less: “Hotel Dilan.  DILAN.  No?  Hotel, guests, sleep.  D-I-L-A-N.”  At one point, out of exasperation and personal amusement, I said, “Dilan.  You know, Dylan. 90210.  Beverly Hills 90210.  You know Dylan?  Luke Perry?”

Fortunately, my savior/soldier again happened by and stepped in to translate.  The driver nodded as he told him the hotel name in Kurdish.  The driver then suddenly started speaking quite fast for 30 seconds or so.  The soldier directed his attention back at me.  “He has a recommendation,” he said.  “He wants to know if you would like to stay somewhere else.”

Admittedly blah video of my taxi ride from the Suli airport to the hotel. Main theme: empty road, dusty window.

I laughed, hard.  (Was this his plan all along??)  Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the hotel.  There was no metered fare.  I had no idea what to pay.  I gave him $15 USD.  He seemed satisfied.  In the hotel lounge, I grabbed a Dilan business card– English on the front, Kurdish on the back. 

Yes, I eventually made it to the hotel. This is an award-winning self-portrait, "Dan, It's 3 a.m., Iraq Time." I then sweatily passed out (the AC was not working).

The view from the front of Suli's Hotel Dilan, taken the morning of my arrival.

To Be Continued ||| Part 2: “Speed Bumps & Family Sections: Things That Surprised Me About Suli”

Read about the Voice’s founding in my exclusive six-part CMM series, originally posted in April-May 2010.

Part One || Part Two || Part Three || Part Four || Part Five || Part Six

2 Responses to “Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure, Part 1, “Sulimaniyah 90210””
  1. Well looks like the taxi driver had a good night because you should have paid him a max of $5 .. :)

  2. I love all about it and would like to know more can I contact you?