Two European-looking young men are sitting in the back of the minibus, which I boarded at a sprawling open-air taxi market in Erbil, Iraq. Slender and projecting exotic Western cool, Asin has thin, curly slick black hair and sports a lock of unshaven fuzz on his chin. He is tucked into the back right corner and is reading a Persian translation of Lolita. Sitting next to him, Ako, his traveling companion, looks absentmindedly out the window. With light hazel eyes and curly red hair, Ako wears casual mountaineering clothes and carries a BlackYak climbing backpack. He looks like a German ski bum.*
The minibus is bound for Sulaymaniyah, a three hour drive west counting stops for security screening at checkpoints and breaks to use restrooms and get chai. Although we would drive through Kirkuk, where one of the checkpoints we pass through would be attacked the next day, this trip is, thus far, uneventful and quiet. Then, as hospitable travelers are wont to do for their journeying compatriots, Ako smiles, gestures, and offers to buy me tea.
Now the trip gets more interesting.
“Where are you from?” I ask. We are sitting on plastic chairs underneath a canvas sun shade, enjoying our chai break on the mild sunny day. This is the first question every traveler asks when getting to know someone new. The answer reveals everything. If it is answered with a smile and shrug, your new friend does not know English but, since they bought you tea, sees you as someone they want to know anyway. Or maybe they will not answer truthfully, since travelers could have any number of reasons for masking the truth of their origins.
Ako smiles. “Iran. But I am Kurdish.” He and Asin, his brother are from neighboring Mahabad, a Kurdish city about four hours from Sulaymaniyah. Although they tell me they are tourists passing through, I sense there is more to the story. I wonder if our limited grasp of each other’s languages has reduced our capacity to connect. Ako speaks English slowly, and I cannot tell if that is because he does not know it well or if it is because he is sizing me up.
“What do you do?” Ako asks. “Why are you here?” I tell him I am a writer, and he smiles, and whispers something to Asin, who also smiles. “He is also a writer,” Ako says, pointing to Asin. “He likes… (‘How do you say?’)… romance.” Ako is 23 and says he is a baker, but he cannot or will not tell me where he works or what he bakes.
We shuffle back to the minibus. Asin returns to Lolita and Ako switches seats next to me. Ako’s English is good, as is his Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish and Persian (Farsi). He seems uncharacteristically athletic for a professional baker. “I am a mountain climber,” Ako says. We discuss his watch, his backpack, his gear. “I climbed Khustup in Armenia,” he says, referring to a 3000-meter peak, “but my dream is Everest. And K2.” Whenever he says a mountain’s name, Ako stops and goes into a small reverie, softly punctuating the mountain’s memory with a small phrase, like “beautiful” or “so good.”
But Ako’s dream is constrained by politics. “At 18, I had to go in the Iranian Army,” he says. “For two years, my life is nothing. I am a soldier for Iran. I cannot go home to see my father or mother. I want to go to college and be working.” Ako looks at me pointedly. “This is fucking my dream.”
Indeed it is. Because Ako is a former Iranian soldier, all the places he wants to visit are off limits to his visa applications. His military background also seems to be preventing him from getting an Iranian passport, although it appears he has made other regional visits—such as the one he and Asin are doing now—on local travel documents. Iraqi Kurdistan authorities have granted Ako and Asin 45-day tourist visas to visit Sulaymaniyah. It appears they have other plans besides tourism.
We are driving in the mountains now, and Ako is happy. He says he has been here before, and points to a rock face where I snap a picture. “I was climbing there and then the police came and said ‘You cannot climb here!’” Ako laughs, then gets quiet. “So good… so good.” I stop and imagine Ako at a base camp near Half-Dome at Yosemite National Park, or talking with Marines on a weekend leave from mountain warfare training at Lake Tahoe.
We are close to Sulaymaniyah now, and, suddenly, I realize Ako’s plan. Something connects with both of us, and he figures out that I get it. “They need workers here in Sulaymaniyah,” Ako says. “If I can get a work visa, and if I stay for three years, I may be able to get an Iraqi passport.” But it wouldn’t be just any passport: Ako could get an Iraqi Kurdistan passport. Ako knows this region is looked at favorably around the world, and, as such, it may be his only chance at the mountains. Although Ako may be the first person I’ve met who has coveted an Iraqi passport of any kind, it is clear to me that, like many Mexicans I have met planning to enter the United States, Ako intends to stay in Iraqi Kurdistan whether or not it is legal for him to do so.
Ako mentions another peak in Armenia. I ask if that is on his list. “I’ll tell you my list,” he says. “One: work for money. Two: go become a tourist.” What about your brother, I ask? “He will have to go back,” Ako jerks his head, gesturing towards authorities. “To keep up appearances.”
We arrive in Sulaymaniyah. In two hours, I’ve grown fond of Ako. I have appreciated him trusting me with his story, and tell him so. He nods and smiles. We exchange contact information, although Ako suggests I won’t hear from him for awhile. “I do not even have a girlfriend,” he says. “I am a climber.” I tell him maybe someday it will not be so difficult for him to travel. “Maybe someday there will be freedom in Iran,” Ako says. “Maybe, maybe. Always maybe.” We embrace and part ways.
I hail a taxi and look for the pair. They have disappeared. Somewhere, Ako has his BlackYak climbing backpack slung over his shoulder. And Asin carries his copy of Lolita.
* Given the risks to the article subjects, pseudonyms have been used for identity protection.