Journalistic pissing match

ANKARA — Today started early: 5 a.m., when the call to prayer from the nearby mosque got cranked up. Just as well, as J. and I needed to get to the Syrian Embassy by 8:30 a.m.

ANKARA — Today started early: 5 a.m., when the call to prayer from the nearby mosque got cranked up. Just as well, as J. and I needed to get to the Syrian Embassy by 8:30 a.m.
After a quick breakfast, we headed over. A stop at the bank first, where I paid the $100 fee for the visa — and the teller creepily asked me if I was going to northern Iraq. Then we stood online outside the Embassy with the many travel agents dropping off packets of their clients’ passports.
While waiting, we met Rita and Beth, two obviously in-a-hurry journalists. Beth is American and Rita is Canadian. She chatted us up while Beth fretted about getting the proper forms to fill out. They’re trying to get into northern Iraq, too.
“You guys journalists?” asked Rita, sotto voce, as we waited in front of the Embassy and staffers paced back and forth nearby.
“What makes you say that?” I answered and glanced meaningfully over my shoulder.
“We’re on a tour,” J. added.
Rita got the hint and shut up.
At the window, the woman taking our forms quizzed me about my profession. I told her I was a teacher and a writer. (Both true.)
“What kind of writer?” she pressed. “Journalist?”
Last time I went into Syria, I found it useful not to advertise my status as a journalist, as that requires a press visa and takes much longer. I didn’t want to take any chances on delays.
“No, short stories,” I fibbed. “Fiction.” (Also true, just nothing published, mainly because they suck.)
She nodded, obviously not believing me, but unwilling to make an issue of it. She told me to come back at 1:30.
Up the street, at the corner, Beth joined us. She’s a reporter for U.S. News and World Report, while Rita is a freelance photographer. Beth and I exchanged gossip, and I found out that Rita has a contact on the Syrian/Iraqi Kurdistan border who will take her party across for $1,000 per person. I wondered aloud if J. and I could get in on that action. Beth didn’t know and worried that Rita’s smuggler wouldn’t like it if she showed up with two extra guys. I’m skeptical about this, since these guys are rarely in business to limit their income.
Beth asked me who I was with and I told her Back to, that I was an independent journalist, had been to Iraqi Kurdistan last year and that I am one of the Web’s first war reporters. Her demeanor immediately changed and the patronizing began.
“Back to!” she exclaimed in mock enthusiasm. “Neat!”
It’s an attitude I’m used to from “real” journalists, one that I can usually defuse by explaining my vision and my 13 years of experience and my stints at the Associated Press and the New York Daily News. But today I didn’t feel like swapping resumes. I just smiled and said, “Yeah, actually. It is.”
After a quick spin back to the hotel and a stop to the Internet cafe down the street, we picked up my visa. No problem, as they say here. We ran into Beth and her crew again. This time she was nicer and invited us to share the ride to Diyarbakir with them. Now there was a problem. The car had to fit five people (and their gear) in a space the size of a Ford Festiva. Also, we had to be ready in 10 minutes, Beth said. That was impossible for us, so we told them we’d fly tomorrow and catch up with them in that ancient Kurdish city.
We leave at 10 a.m. Saturday for Diyarbakir and then sprint for the border at Nusaybin/Qamishli. Getting into Syria should be no problem now that I have the visa, but the border with Iraqi Kurdistan is closed, a woman in the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s Ankara office told me. J. and I are hoping we can hook up with Beth and Rita’s friend who can get us across. Thankfully, the KDP said we would be welcome — if we can get across the border. I have talked J. out of a commando-style raid across the Tigris in an inflatable raft — madness — and instead we’ll try throwing some Yankee greenbacks around. That usually helps solve problems.
If things go very well, we could be in Duhok — or possibly even Erbil — by tomorrow night.
*Parting thought*
One of the problems of this endeavor is that I’ve lost that bird’s-eye view of what’s going on. I watch BBC in my hotel room and check the Web at the Internet cafe, but with limited access, I feel like I’m missing some major context. Beth told me that a Yemeni arrested in Somalia was briefly thought to be Osama bin Laden, but that turned out to be false. (This was why she was now looking to get into northern Iraq; she needed a new story.) I’d heard nothing about this at all! Turns out this broke yesterday, she said, while I was traveling. Very frustrating. My view has shrunk from a wide-angle lens to something resembling looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

A note about donations

Greetings from Turkey, all. A brief note about donations: I will not be able to reply personally to those sending them in. However, I am forwarding the PayPal notifications to Mike Hudack, who is adding the email addresses to the Back2Iraq-Dispatch listserv, so you will be gaining all the benefits of donating. I also am not updating the donor list until I get back. It’s just too much work on a slow line. You will be recognized later, if you wish. I hope you all understand.
Thanks very much for continuing to donate! The funds will come in very handy when I’m back in Turkey and I will have access to them then.
More updates later…