Iraq, Iran and Dotted Lines

A year ago, I was in Suleimania, Iraq and Joshua Fattal was in Cottage Grove, working for Aprovecho, a do-gooder organization I wrote about on this page two weeks ago. Fattal and I have recently reversed places. Fattal and two friends were hiking in northern Iraq last week when they inadvertently crossed into Iran. They are currently being held by Iranian authorities, suspected of spying.

Almost every story we read in our newspaper about Iraq originates from Baghdad. Once in a great while, we read a story datelined Kirkuk or Erbil, large and fractious cities directly north of Baghdad. No stories have originated from Suleimania near the northeast corner of Iraq, until last Sunday. Memories of last summer came rushing back.

I remember ten of us sitting in the sweltering dark, squinting at a map on the wall, using what light a nearby window provided. Mid-afternoon electricity is a rarity in this Portland-sized city in northern Iraq, while the temperature regularly rises to 120F or above.

Our Kurdish neighbors had invited us to a picnic in the nearby hills the next day. We traced with our fingers on the map where we would be going. I imagine Fattal and his three friends did the same thing. Maps comfort Westerners. They represent an orderliness that isn’t evident on the ground in this region. Travel routes must be kept tentative, because roads can become paths can become dead ends. There is no AAA in Iraq. What started as a detour may soon become the new road. There’s no one enforcing anything.

We reached our destination for the day-long picnic with minimal confusion, thanks to our savvy neighbors as hosts. I expected to see chaos, and maybe I did, but it was overwhelmed with joy. Friday is the weekend for this Muslim country. Families commandeered tables, unless there were none left. Blankets claimed knolls or shaded areas. Open spaces were “claimed” for no one and filled with dancing. As we passed, each group invited us to share their food and sit with them. No one was in charge. No one saw the need.

Children ran free, screaming. Imagine a McDonald’s playground, only without fences or watchful parents. Water provides recreation and relief, but also a path. Winter flows carve a wider path than summer flows require, so hiking by the stream is easy. But here again, the “path” has not been sanctioned by people — weather, geology and gravity have provided it.

Fattal and his friends may have followed such a path into the hills above. The friendliness of the people and the lush generosity of nature — fruits grow wild — in this area can mislead.

Beyond the picnic-friendly open areas, the brush becomes thick and the hills become steep. But more importantly, borders between countries wend through these hills, Iran to the east and Turkey to the north. When the solid lines of roads have been so tentative, it’s a shock to find that dotted lines being strictly enforced.

I guarantee you there were no signs, no checkpoint, no real warning for hikers as they crossed from Iraq into Iran. Fattal and his friends could have known their mistake only after it was too late. We contemplated a hike just like Fattal took, but our hosts forbade it.

The lines between nation states can be traced on a map, but those lines aren’t meaningful to many who live near them. Iraqi Kurds often feel more strongly bound by their common ethnicity and heritage with their Kurdish Iranian neighbors. Religion, language, tribalism and even economics often trump national identity.

So soldiers are placed at the borders to compensate for the weaker connection people feel for their state. The dotted lines become erratically enforced, and more fiercely as the Kurds in Iraq inch toward independence from the Arab-led provinces in southern Iraq. Iranian and Turkish officials fear they’ll lose population, land and resources if their Kurdish citizens move to be annexed into their dreamt-for sovereign Kurdistan.

Each country is determined to protect its power and population, to the point of paranoia. Three hikers, one with roots in Cottage Grove, may have hiked from a jubilant picnic scene into that paranoia seven days ago. There but for the grace of God went I.


Don Kahle ( writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard. His dispatches from Iraq last summer can be read at