I was traveling with Peter Galbraith, a frequent visitor to Iraq and the Kurdistan region in particular, and his son Andrew. Galbraith, a lawyer by training and a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, who had advised the Kurds during the negotiations on the Transitional Authority Law (TAL), which would describe a legal framework for relations between Iraq's different religious and ethnic groups and regions until the writing of a constitution. He had been in Iraq during the Kurdish uprising in 1991 and, while fleeing across the Tigris into Syria, was nearly captured by Saddam's forces. He had done much to document and publicize Saddam's attacks upon Kurdish cities and his systematic destruction of Kurdish villages through displacement, rape, and murder. Many considered him an honorary Kurd.
Overcrowded and muddy from a morning rain, the border was expected to close in forty-eight hours due to election security procedures, and people of all sorts were rushing to get in or out. For our taxi driver the fare represented a good payday, and the danger across the border had nothing to do with him. Clearly familiar with the process, he made a series of stops at anonymous office buildings into which he took our passports. Our final stop before starting procedures with Turkish officials was at a gas station that specialized in siphoning off gas from taxis. Having sold their gas at a premium in Turkey, the drivers would get a full tank at cheaper prices on the other side of the border.
Standing in puddles of gasoline, with cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths, the attendants lined up each waiting car, propped up one tire, and siphoned the tank until the empty light flashed on the dashboard. An old man wandered in front of our car and flicked his ash near half-empty gasoline barrels. It flitted off in a gust of wind that failed to clear the fumes around the car. The attendants paid the man no mind; I bolted from the car to a dirt hill some twenty yards off. My reaction quickly became a bit of comic relief for those around the station. In a tableau of the absurd—cars awkwardly half-aloft, gas flowing out of full tanks into barrels, old men flirting with self-immolation, young men interrupting prayer to answer cell phones—acting in what seemed to me a reasonable manner, I had made myself look foolish to the locals. I was learning to be a guest here, not simply relinquishing control but adapting.