Tales From The Road
issue 316 - September 1999
Everyone on the hair-raising coach ride through the
empty desert to Jordan has their own story to tell.
Nikki van der Gaag reports.
Tears drip down the woman’s face as the blue coach draws out of the central bus station in Baghdad. She waves to the small group seeing her off until even by craning her neck she can see them no longer. She is a large woman, mid-length brown hair pulled back into a pony tail, wearing a smart skirt and a patterned blouse with gold buttons.
Half an hour later, she is still crying as the bus crosses a blue canal – the Saddam River – and passes flat-roofed houses, palm trees, and sheep. Then we are in the desert; one of the drivers trying desperately to get a shaky TV set to show a video, everyone settling down for a long journey. The bus is full to bursting – two black-robed Shi’a women, possibly a mother, a grandmother and a small boy of about two with a bright plastic lorry, across the aisle; a sheikh in white with a goatee beard and glasses and another man in a red kuffyiah behind them; a tiny woman in a blue skirt with short hair and a neat scarf hiding the cross around her neck. A large man snores loudly, mouth wide open.
We stop for a short break at an Iraqi service station – where you can fill up a bus for 60 cents because Iraq’s unsaleable petrol costs less than water. There is a tanker letting off plumes of black smoke, a store selling big bags of dates and blue-and- white water-coolers, a cage with two tiny quail, a restaurant and a few other stalls selling sweets, water, sunflower seeds, apricots and enormous pale green watermelons.
In the quiet of the ladies’ toilet, I say hello to the two Shi’a women and the little boy. The older woman hesitates, her eyes full of pain, and tells me baldly and haltingly: ‘This is not his mother. She is dead. She was my daughter, only 20 years old. This is his aunt, my other daughter.’ The younger woman kisses the little boy’s hair and cuddles him to her.
The daughter was burnt to death. Cooking the children’s supper on the calor gas that most people have to use because of frequent power-cuts, she caught fire. I wonder if the little boy was a witness to this painful death; one more casualty of the sanctions regime.
I wash my hands silently as the three sweep out of the room, feeling that there is no consolation I can offer. The woman who had been crying earlier comes out and washes her hands and face. We speak of the anguish of the little family and then I ask her why she is leaving Iraq.
‘My husband runs the Meridian, [one of the hotels where we had seen the family silver on sale]. He has managed hotels in many parts of the world, including America and Italy. In America, I worked for the (she searched for the word in English) International Monetary Fund. Today, my husband earns 100,000 Iraqi dinar – about $45 – a month.
‘Quite simply, we cannot afford to live, so I am going to Amman to look for work. I’ll take anything and try to find an apartment so that my husband can join me. I have had to pay 400,000 dinars in order to get a visa to leave. My husband will have to pay the same. My sons would like to come too but one is a doctor and one an engineer – their exit visas cost three million dinars, so this is impossible.’
The Iraqi Government imposed the taxes on those wishing to leave the country some two years ago, when it became clear that many skilled professionals were going, often reluctantly, to try and earn a living elsewhere. Jordan is packed with Iraqi refugees, some desperate and penniless, most unable to leave and technically forbidden to work. Rumour has it that some Iraqi officer’s wives have been forced into prostitution, but no-one speaks of this openly.
The woman’s face is still puffy from crying as we walk out into the glare of the desert sunshine; she is eager to tell her story, to show how cosmopolitan her family had been and perhaps to stave off a little the loneliness of the coming months. In other circumstances she would be winding down, looking forward to retirement with her family around her. Instead she is setting off on her own, trying to start a new life in a strange city.
‘It is difficult for me to travel alone like this,’ she adds, as if reading my thoughts. ‘And even more difficult to stay by myself. In New York I had no problem but in the Middle East it is not considered acceptable for a woman to go unchaperoned. But what can I do?’
As we climb back into the coach she offers me some apple cake she has baked herself and then snuggles back into the pillow she has brought from home.
The desert continues to flash past, monotonous and unbroken save for the occasional herd of sheep, probably heading for the border where they can be smuggled over and sold for a good price.
Then we are nearly at the border ourselves. We fill up with Iraq’s worthless petrol once again; the driver collects all the passports, and we lug our bags to a queue. It is around 8.00pm. So far the journey has taken six hours.
While we are waiting the sheikh comes up and asks where I am from. ‘Welcome,’ he says solemnly. ‘I lived in Kuwait for 30 years. I worked for the airline company there. But then during the War I fled to Iraq. My sisters are in Kuwait and I haven’t seen them for nine years. We can’t phone Kuwait from Iraq (forbidden under UN sanctions) so I try to come every few months and phone from Amman. An expensive phone call, wouldn’t you say, with the exit visa it costs 500,000 dinars a time. But how else can I speak with my family?’
Bags thoroughly searched, we get back on the bus. And wait... and wait... and wait. People exchange gossip, jokes and pistachio nuts. ‘They have found some gold bracelets...’ The whisper goes around.
At around 2.00am the small woman I noticed earlier struggles onto the bus, looking exhausted, and we are off, past the posters of the President and into no-man’s land. We are in Jordan; posters this time of the late King Hussein of Jordan and his successor, King Abdullah. Separate body and handbag searches for men and women. I go off to get a Jordanian visa – $40 for Brits, $53 for Americans, $58 for Russians, $20 for Irish, $15 for French. Each person has their price.
Then into a small hall crowded with people. Passports handed in again – and another long wait. I find myself standing next to Hassana, the small woman with the gold problem. She speaks good English. She is from Basra, and explains matter-of-factly that she has breast cancer, which she suspects is a consequence of the radiation from the bombs dropped during the Gulf War. She is visiting her sister, a British-qualified gynaecologist living in Portland, Oregon, who is going to help her get treatment. ‘I am very angry with my other sister in Basra. She hid two gold bangles in my luggage without telling me. They were for my nieces in the US, given to them when they were babies. Now they have been confiscated and I will never see them again and what is more all the people on the coach are angry with me.’ She is clearly distressed.
At that point my name is called to collect my passport and I then go off to find the coach and a cup of hot tea from a cafe with a mangy cat and not much else.
Some of the passengers are already sleeping on the coach so I get in and try to doze. Time passes, and I realize that everyone has arrived except the woman with cancer. She finally staggers on at 4.00am; she was so distressed that she thought she had lost her passport and all her papers when in fact she had hidden them in her handbag, but it took more than two hours to find them.
We finally set off, stopping at 7.00am for the drivers to have breakfast. Whenever I wake from a restless doze, I see the current driver (one is thin, one is fat) looking as though he is nodding off. We have several stomach-churning near-misses. At the side of the road is the grim evidence of those who have not been so lucky; shredded tyres, bits of broken metal and occasionally a huge dark stain next to a crippled tanker; the driver presumably engulfed in flames. The lack of spare parts is another effect of the sanctions, causing untold numbers of accidents.
The Jordanian desert here is extraordinary; it looks like a moonscape, or a scene from a long-dead volcanic eruption. The contrast with the outskirts of Amman is stark; but perhaps less shocking than the feeling that here at last is a ‘normal’ place’; there are factories, cars, students heading for university – things are new, not patched and shabby. And, strangely, there are smartly dressed soldiers everywhere; in trucks, exercising and drilling in camps on the roadside. This feels much more of a military state than Iraq ever did.
By the time we arrive at the coach station, the journey has taken 22 hours. There is just time to catch the plane. Stiff and exhausted, I drag my bag off the coach.
There is a tune ringing irritatingly in my muddled head and it takes me a while to work out what it is. It is the music from the video shown on the bus. The film? The Titanic. It seems an apt metaphor for a sinking country; the waves caused by the deliberate wilfulness of the world’s leaders. And a symbol too of the people of Iraq, drowning through no fault of their own.