Airport Security, Iraqi Style

Published Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ – Leavings and arrivings cannot be disconnected. My final hours in Iraq remind me first of where I had left (Eugene) before I arrived (Iraqi Kurdistan). I can’t help but make connections first, and contrasts second.

The approach to the airport starts like any trip to any airport beyond any metro area. It’s a long ribbon of asphalt wide enough to connote two lanes in each direction. There are no lines painted on the pavement. Billboards line both sides, but not an Oregon Duck in view. There must not be many Kurdish linebacker prospects, or UCLA’s head coach Rick Neuhiesel has already gotten letters of intent from entire villages.

About two miles from the airport, large concrete barriers block the road, forcing drivers to slow to a serpentine crawl — extreme traffic calming. It reminds me of 33rd Avenue in south Eugene, if residents were posted around the clock with rifles at the ready.

A short stretch of straight road follows, but only so we can be watched. Guards and guns fill a small shack beside the road. These small shacks are everywhere in Kurdistan, giving shade to soldiers, so the shack doesn’t surprise me. What I’ve never fully adjusted to are the smiles. Being smiled at and nodded to by men with guns is a strange experience. These Kurdish men are taking care of us from their roadside shacks, and they’re happy to do it. Take away the guns and add coffee with sipper-seals, and you’ve got Dutch Brothers Coffee kiosks — smaller and less stylish, but even more ubiquitous.

Then a second set of twisty-turny barricades.

A gaggle of soldiers await each vehicle as it emerges from this obstacle course. They aren’t waving and cheering, but they are paying careful attention to each vehicle — not unlike the stationary parade welcoming you to the Oregon Country Fair. Remember, tickets are not sold on the premises.

We stop. Passports are collected, counted, and checked. Mirrors are used to check the undercarriage for explosives, the same way California border guards often check for infested fruit or other pests. When they are satisfied we’re not stashing anything unsafe under the vehicle, we’re asked to step out and away.

Each of us is patted down. The procedure continues. All doors are opened, including the trunk and glove compartment. Sniffing dogs explore every inch. A guard feels between seat cushions, as if he’s sure there’s a dime that slipped down there.

With a smile and something just short of a wink, the soldiers return our passports and we are allowed back in our van. It’s hardly worth the trouble. No private vehicles are allowed within a half-mile of the airport terminal. No kiss-and-ride. We park.

We pass through a metal detector, then our bags are inspected by hand, sometimes twice, sometimes three times. It’s just like when the Cuthbert tried to outlaw picnics. Some of us are patted down again. We’re directed to the next step with a smile, out the back door of this temporary building.

Here two vehicles await us. One for people, a separate vehicle for baggage. These two busses take us to the airport proper, where the whole process can start again. Metal detectors, scanned luggage, yet another patting-down, always with a smile that isn’t at all patronizing.

Although their population is roughly equivalent to Portland’s, Suleimaniya’s airport is smaller than Eugene’s. Less stylish too. Instead of flying-people artwork, the walls are festooned with portraits of their leaders.

Passports are checked again, first by passport clerks, who take our picture like the DMV, then by ticket agents, who scan the tickets under a light like at Autzen. We snake down stairs from the gate to yet another bus, which takes us to the airplane, which seems to be in the middle of a flat concrete nowhere.

Before we board the plane, we’re asked to identify our luggage. Armed guards look on, slapping on each bag a blue sticker that indicates a person claiming the bag is also on the plane.

Stepping into the plane, I flash my boarding pass and smile, as if I’m entering a Bi-Mart. I’m heading home, but in my mind, I’m already there.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) will be home in time for the Eugene Celebration. His regular Friday columns resume tomorrow. All his essays from the Middle East are posted right here. Kahle will recap his experience at the City Club of Eugene’s Friday Forum on Sept. 19.