01 July 2015

If at First You Don’t Succeed...You’re Probably at Some Crappy Middle Eastern Border Crossing

The next few days passed in a blur of hopes raised and dashed, frustration and success. A brief chronology:


I parked El Guapo at the entrance to the Iraqi side of the Shalamcheh border crossing post. Didn’t have any proper camping equipment, but at least I had a cot to get me off the ground and safe from the ”cobras” the soldiers warned me about, which I set up alongside the vehicle. The first of many acts of kindness and generosity I was to receive from the personnel at this post in the coming 48 hours was having the police commander park his Ford F-150 on the other side of my cot, and put a barrier in front of me, so I was sheltered by vehicles on both sides, protected a bit from wind and shaded from the sodium vapour lights glaring at the entrance. Thankfully I still had a sandwich and some other food I brought with me from Doha, but despite the long day, I slept only fitfully, and was wide awake by 6:00.

Waiting for Major Saddam


Spent two long hours watching the empty and entirely uninteresting landscape around me slowly brighten. Finally the post commander, introduced to me as Major Lawa Saddam, arrived in his convoy, and his men at the entry post explained my situation. He welcomed me and promised what help he could provide.

First, of course, there was more waiting around to attend to. I followed the soldiers to their barracks, where they made me a surprisingly delicious breakfast, made all the more impressive by the fact that they were fasting and couldn’t join me. We waited around until 10:00, when the Major summoned us to his office. His translator was waiting, and I was asked to ”leave my firearms” at the entrance. We quickly sorted out the papers needed for exiting the vehicle, and these were handed over to the appropriate functionary. Next, I needed an exit stamp, and the Major assigned one of his men to escort me to the ”Hall of Going Away” for this purpose. However, the ”Going Away” team directed me to the arrivals hall, which directed me back to some more senior functionary on the Going Away side. Papers were signed and stamped, and taken back over to the Arrivals side. I was photographed and fingerprinted, and finally, given an Iraqi exit stamp. I returned to the vehicle and drove up to the crossing. The Iraqis removed the barrier so I could cross. I started into Iran. Four guys came out waving their hands madly and shouting in Farsi. I rolled down my window. The Iraqis tried to help. I rang my Iranian guide, who was waiting on the other side, for assistance. After a half-hour stalemate with El Guapo straddling the international border, it was established that I needed to go back to the Iranian Consulate in Basra and get my vehicle papers translated into Farsi. The Iranians insisted it would take ”only 15 minutes." I turned El Guapo around and headed back to Iraq.

Everyone's favourite part of visiting in Iraq – the "Going Away" facility

I was not thrilled at the prospect of leaving the border post, and I had no idea where in that chaotic city the Iranian consulate was. I tried to get one of the Major’s men to give me directions, but the Major instead directed one of them to escort me. First, however, I needed to get my exit stamp cancelled It was 10:20 by the time we left, and 11:00 by the time we reached the Consulate. We were admitted immediately, but then learned the Consul was in a meeting and would not be free for an hour. However, I was invited to meet with some other very friendly but irrelevant functionary; I think he was the Literary Attaché or something like that. Nice work if you can get it.

After waiting an hour, I was informed that no such document (e.g. vehicle information in Farsi) was required, and the that the Consul himself had spoken with the chief of border post and he had confirmed this. He advised me to leave the vehicle on the Iraqi side, cross on foot to Iran, sort our the paperwork, and then return to retrieve the vehicle.

I returned to the border post, this time being waved straight through to the Major’s office. I parked the vehicle, and got a new exit stamp. I again approached the Iranian side. I told them what had transpired at the Consulate. They refused to budge. I called my guide again and told him what was happening. He said he would come straight away. I waited on a bench about two meters inside Iranian territory for him to arrive. We argued with the border guards. Finally, they agreed to go let us talk to Iranian customs, so we were escorted through immigration and driven across the complex to the Customs Office where we were able to meet with the director. He referred us to Customs HQ in Abadan, about 7 km away. He examined my documents, assured me that all was in order and that there should be no problem; however, the office was closed for the day.

I crossed back over to Iraq. Major Saddam had left for the day but his men were under instruction to take care of me, so I was put up in the Major’s own office complex, which not only featured the Major’s huge office and majlis, but also a staff room with a giant map of Iraq where I could plan the decisive counter-strike against ISIS. The staff kept bringing me food and tea as I caught up on the news on the Major’s flat-screen TV, and finally I went to sleep, praying to Jesus, Mohammad, all the Angels and Saints, all the Buddhas and Bottisattvas, the spirits of my ancestors, and especially St. Christopher for success the following day.

One of the many luxuries in the commander's headquarters at the Shalamcheh border facility – a choice of soap colour


At 8:00 sharp I crossed over to Iran again, again met my guide and was escorted to the passport control office. My guide took all the paperwork, leaving me to watch TV in the Passport control office and catch up on the news of the nuclear negotiations in Geneva and Bree Newsome’s successful removal of the Confederate flag from a flagpole on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds. Two and half nail-biting hours later he returned with good news and bad news. First, apparently Americans are not actually permitted under Iranian regulations to travel to Iran in their own vehicles, and I was urged to consider leaving the vehicle in Iraq, visiting Iran, and then returning to my vehicle (what is it these people don’t understand about me taking the vehicle to Europe?). If I did so, I could enter Iran immediately. The good news — they would be willing to make the first ever exception (yay!), but I would have to begin the import process the following day (boo!). In the meantime, however, I could bring the vehicle over and park it at Customs.

I dashed back to Iraq. Went to say good-bye to Major Saddam and thanked him profusely again, and offered him my final tips on how to crush ISIS. Got Saturday’s exit stamp cancelled, and got a third Iraqi exit stamp for Sunday. Retrieved El Guapo and once again, drove up to the border post. The Iraqis removed the barrier on their side. The Iranians opened the gate on their side. I drove through the crossing and into Iranian territory.

Good-bye Iraq, Hello Iran



1 July 2015

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