This is a historic cradle of humanity, and the local people lay active claim to its heritage. Mount Ararat, the supposed resting spot of Noah's ark, lies to the northeast, and to the southwest is Harran, the village in which Abraham first heard the voice of God. Taxi drivers, hoteliers, and soldiers alike tell tales linking them to millennia past as well as to stories common to the Koran, the Torah, and the Bible. A legend of Abraham's birth is juxtaposed with a spotting of the ark by Russian pilots during the First World War. In places one can make out the train track that in better times carried people into Syria; now it is obscured amid the rocks and weedy growth of the border no-man's-land. As one continues toward the border, the decaying past figures less prominently than the present checkpoints, and the minefields are more relevant to the future than stories. Like the dust, the roadside rubbish, and abandoned, broken-down vehicles, tokens of politics are ubiquitous; the overwhelming sense of nowhere is countered by reminders of geopolitics past and present. Every couple of hundred yards, there is evidence of stifled declarations of power and sovereignty, empty guard towers rising up from barren land.
In Silopi, a few miles before one officially crosses over into Iraq, an indiscriminate row of dirty shops stands apart from the road, fronted by a parking lot—an arrangement reminiscent of American strip malls. In the space where a sidewalk might have existed, a car, bombed out and half missing, is mounted on blocks. In the bustling chaos, one could easily miss the wreck; but if one happens to look out one's left-side window, the image is not easily forgotten. The rear tires are raised an extra two feet to give a full view of the ruined undercarriage. The car is a symbol, a menacing signpost to the wayward pilgrim. The bombing may well have been the work of a Kurdish separatist group, but whoever the agent, the act was meant to encourage some and deter others. It is, in fact, an advertisement of violence on the route into Iraq initially favored by American military planners, before the war started in March 2003. With Jordan and Syria unwilling to grant passage to American troops, and the Saudi government increasingly riven by violent internal struggle over, in part, relations with America, only three potentially feasible routes could be imagined for an American invasion. The Kuwait-Iraq border was a likely one. Iraq's own short seacoast provided only limited access. The third way was through Turkey. Turkey had cooperated in the first Gulf War, and it was hoped the promise of six billion dollars in aid would inspire a similarly friendly attitude the second time around; thus planners had assumed a significant portion of American troops would enter Iraq, as I was doing, from the north. Barely three weeks before the invasion, however, in what may have proved to be a blessing in disguise for the American effort—the terms of one American offer would have allowed Turkish troops into northern Iraq, which might well have ignited a separate Turkish-Kurdish conflict there—Turkey's Grand National Assembly voted against allowing the Fourth Infantry Division passage through Turkey into Iraq.