by Max Sawdayee


Friday Night, June 12, 1970

At four this morning, just before dawn, we continued our mule ride north-east.

Our guides, like us, begin to feel the exhaustion of this ordeal of a journey.  They didn’t imagine the road would be so long.  Changing direction from the very start, east to north, then north-east, lengthened the road by at least two days.  Too much for us, no doubt, and for them also.

At dawn, while I am gazing at the wonderful red gold of sunrise, my mule abruptly leaps upward and throws me down on the rocks.  I fall on my knees, awfully hurt in both of them, but I quickly manage to adjust myself on the mule again, quietly moaning the pain my innocent mule has caused me.

I discover I have lost my precious spare pullover which I have been keeping beside me, and which served to ward off the winds from me at night.  Wife, seeing me search for it, shouts laughingly that her own spare pullover also fell down accidently but she didn’t care so much as to get down from her mule and fetch it back.

Around seven in the morning we reach a very dangerous, rocky edge on the slope, overlooking a deep valley.  We are frightened how we are going to cross it on mules.  One by one we approach it with the utmost caution.  First Hamid and then Salman leading the line.  They do cross it, though with difficult manoeuvring.  Third comes my wife.  We all watch her attentively and impatiently wish her a successful crossing.  But the cruel moment would have it otherwise.  Just at the last and most dangerous part of the mountain edge, on some three or four rocks overlooking the valley right below but seemingly hanging in the air, her mule stumbles!  Wife, looking down, gives such a horrible, piercing scream that rends the valley with a thousand echoes!  I am not sure I won’t be haunted by the horror of those echoes for a long time to come.  Suddenly losing her balance on the back of her mule, she keeps leaning and leaning on its back, all but falling down to the bottom, no less than three thousand feet below, and with every bit of strength and unfaltering will hanging on the stumbling animal.  Nobody can go close enough to her lest her mule should get confused and fall down with her through emptiness and death.  We stand gazing in horrified silence at what is going to happen, while Hamid and Salman tightly put their hands on both our daughters’ mouths to prevent them from screaming.  Anything could startle the mule and make it commit another faulty move whose outcome would be definitely unfortunate.  However, the erring mule, endowed with natural, instinctive methods of coming safely through, chooses its own solution.  It no doubt realises how critical, how fateful, the situation is, and whether it is its sense of responsibility toward itself or its rider, or both, it does everything in its animal power and skill to live up to that sense of responsibility.  So it stands dead firm for a short moment, holding its ground fast. It does nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  It may sound funny to say that it is ‘thinking’, but I am sure it is.  The mule, not moving as much as one millimetre, assesses its position, smelling and feeling right and left.  Yet you do not see it turning its head.  Then it draws its own conclusion, and with the utmost precision decides what to do.  At this very moment Hamid whistles to my wife from a distance, beckoning her to be quiet and not move even a finger.  We all stand breathlessly and wait.  And now we see the tough, patient animal start to employ its stumbling foot gently, slowly, sending it only and inch or two to the right and to the left.  Readjusting itself on the rocks it jerks back a little, prepares to launch a step from a fresh springboard position, and then…pat!  With all its might the mule jumps in the air up to another rock, advances about three feet forward, and hangs firm to its new position.  It undoubtedly provides wife with a chance to regain her balance and reassert herself on the animal’s back.  I feel sure it was all the time thinking not only of its own safety but also of its rider’s, in full consideration of its responsibility toward her.

The mule, its eyes brightened, wears a look of delighted satisfaction and pride.  It takes a long breath, and leaps another step to safety.  Wife, who has passed an ordeal of extreme horror, falls fainting to the ground.  Once in safety, everyone alights from his mule and runs with excitement and joy to take care of her.  They pat the mule’s neck in congratulation and deep gratitude, while both daughters cry with fear mixed with happiness.  They still cannot believe that it is their mother, their beloved mother, not in dream but in reality, lying alive on the ground here beside them, whereas they thought for a long, hopeless while that she would disappear for good down in the valley.

Little by little wife regains consciousness and recounts to us what she felt in those fateful moments.  Jamal, well familiar with the road, says that two years ago at this very spot, a mule stumbled, fell behind against another mule, and another, drawing four men and their mules to their doom down to the bottom of the valley!  Now he can tell us this story!!!  We take an hour’s rest, eat one piece of sardine and fifty grams of cheese among the four of us.  For a change, we decide with the guides to continue the road on foot for some distance.  We trudge along in an amusing manner.  It is funny to see daughter Cordia in her Kurdish dress, a little torn out now because of the roughness of our journeying, her skin scratched and dirty, and carrying in her hand a long, long stick she picked up from the ground, and walking behind her mule, pretending with her newly-learned Kurdish, ‘Hary Cary’ to lead the animal on!

About two in the afternoon, reaching the end of this mountain chain, we again make a stop.  Here is a plain near a lovely, sweet-water stream flowing down from the mountain.  We all lie stretched on the fresh green grass under the hot sunshine, to revive our energy for the rest of the journey.  Here we eat our last, scanty provisions.  The children, having not eaten enough for a time now, begin to feel extremely hungry and ask to have something to eat by any means.  Hamid solves the problem by offering them the boiled egg he has kept from yesterday, and claims that tomorrow morning we may come across Kurdish camp villages where we can have something to eat! 


The guides prepare coffee on a small fire.  The mules take the liberty of rolling and rubbing themselves on the green grass and on the dust down a little slope, with our jute bags still on their backs, at some distance from us.  Meanwhile I squat on the ground, with a small stick in my hand, contemplating the gorgeous landscape, the stream flowing in front, the trees punctuating the view, and the high mountain peaks still covered with snow and jutting out above the trees in the horizon which extends before me.  Hamid says that the mountains lie in the Zouzan region at the Iraqi-Turkish-Iranian frontiers.

Wife, stretched on the ground, helplessly calls to stop the mules from rolling and rubbing themselves, sullying even more all our clothes and other belongings in the jute bags they carry.  Both daughters enjoy greatly the fun and amusement of the scene.  They come running close to me to inquire what those mules are doing and why.  The manner they watch the sporting animals makes me laugh even at this difficult time.  From their hair down to their ‘gaiwa’ shoes they look too dirty, their clothes torn out by the abundant thorns on the road.  I say to myself: ‘Don’t they look miserable?!  I hope we will get it over with very soon!’  But my little Belinda approaches me with a question and cuts the chain of my ponderous thoughts.  ‘Papi, isn’t it true that the mules are soiling our clothes deliberately because they’re tired of them?’  That makes me laugh the more, and reply: ‘Probably, my dear.  They’re tired and annoyed carrying our load all this way!’  Cordia intervenes to say: ‘Hey, Belinda!  From now on it’s us who will carry the mules on our backs!’  Small daughter is rather frightened by the new proposition.  And while their mother continues to call for help to stop the mules from rolling, the three of us go on watching the animals take their full liberty.  We joke and laugh over the manner they are rubbing themselves on the grass and on the dust. 

I am trying my best to express, or at least imagine, from a purely human point of view, our drama as a whole.  Our sufferings, our misfortunes, our fears, our hopes, our luck.  Our friends, the three gentle but tough Kurdish guides.  Our most helpful companions, the mules.  The fascinating, wild and changing landscape.  I am sure the great immortal Rimsky-Korsakov would have, far better than I, summed up the description of this entire drama in a remarkable musical masterpiece like his passionate ‘Scheherazade’.  I remember him now, and find myself short of expression.

At four in the afternoon, after a good long rest which is indeed well deserved, we ride our mules again, heading northeast on our way to those high mountains ahead.

At nine we stop for the night, just at the foot of the slopes leading up to the distant mountain tops.

Saturday June 13, 1970

It’s dawn.  A few minutes before the start of our next ordeal – climbing the steep slopes of these huge mountains on foot again.  A big thrill, though.

Singing joyfully, half a dozen tough, full armed warriors of Al-Barazani who are credited with the special name of Pesh Murga (in Kurdish, ‘facing death’) approach us on mules.  Hamid advises us to keep silent.  Surprisingly enough, but happily too, the men get close to us to say good morning and to ask in Kurdish whether we require anything before we climb the slopes.  ‘Yes,’ Salman jumps at the idea, ‘some food.  We lack it so badly!’  The cheerful warriors gently explain that we shall find food and everything else we may need when we have proceeded two or three hours farther up, in a nearly small Kurdish camp village on our way.  Salman thanks them, and they bid us a cordial farewell.  They resume their singing.

About three hours later, in a very nice and rich Kurdish camp on the slopes, we are seated on a lovely, specially designed hand-made woollen carpet on the ground, in the midst of very gentle and amiable people.  They do their utmost to be helpful.  They offer us our first rich meal for days.  Plenty of milk, delicious cheese, butter and cream.  Hot, thin, flat loaves of read baked on metal sheets in incessant supply.  I have scarcely eaten so much all my life, and with such a voracious appetite!  Wife and children look satisfied, even happy.  They eat well.  Our three guides seated beside me also eat well, chatting and joking with our kind Kurdish hosts.

Then we are provided with plenty of fresh water to wash our faces and hands, and plenty more food for the road.  We mount our mules, and our hosts bid us a hearty farewell.

Now we resume our non-stop riding till seven in the evening.  Hamid comes to whisper in my ears that here is almost the frontier with Iran, but that it is advisable to proceed a little farther north towards the Turkish-Iranian mountain border before turning east and descending to Iran.  It is safer, he affirms.

Another Kurdish camp nearby kindly offers us shelter for the night.

Happily excited that the morning will find us on the Iranian frontier, I plunge into a deep, sound, well-deserved sleep.

Sunday Evening, June 14, 1970

Our Sixth Day on the Mountains

This morning I awoke at five, to discover that wife was missing!  Younger daughter Belinda was crying.  She suffered from high fever and continuous vomiting.  Poor child.  I gave her half a tablet of antibiotics, left her with her elder sister and ran around, perplexed, for half an hour to find out where my wife could be.  At last I saw her washing at a small stream far from the camp.  She couldn’t sleep.  She had been watchful all night, taking care of Belinda.

We took a lavish breakfast with our kind new hosts, and rode on mules all the way up, heading north to the Turkish-Iranian frontier, with little daughter in very bad shape. 

For six hours on end we climbed the highest and toughest mountain we have done since the start of our journey.  The top was entirely covered with a two-foot layer of snow, and we were obliged to continue the road on foot, leaving the mules to their own.

Cordia found it amusing, even fascinating, to walk on the snow!  Every now and then she bent down to take a handful and put it in her mouth, despite Hamid’s advice not to do so. At the same time she took care of her mule, walking behind the animal all along like a protecting angel.  About midday we stopped not too far from the snow-white peak, as our leader and guide Hamid decided it was time for him to return, alone, to Iraq, leaving Salman and Jamal to make the last part of the journey, the descent to Iran, together with us.

Hamid is tough and rude in appearance, but actually gentle and quiet.  He politely returned to Sa’ida the few gold belongings she had entrusted him with, warmly kiss both children on the cheeks, and also kissed my wife’s hand gently.  I came close to him, handed him an extra twenty dinars as a small gift and gave another ten dinars to each of the other two guides at the same time.

At the top of the Zouzan mountain, on over two feet of snow, overlooking Turkey to the west and Iran to the east, I drafted a quick message in Arabic to the Kurdish chief, so that Hamid might transmit it to him when they met back there in Iraq:  ‘Family and I are quite alright on our way to freedom.  Thank you for everything, Agha.  Your three guides Hamid, Salman and Jamal have been wonderful indeed.  With your assistance, Agha, you have extended us an unforgettable help and rendered a praiseworthy service to the cause of freedom all over the world.  Yours sincerely, (signed) Fouad.’

Hamid and I warmly kiss each other a most friendly and emotional farewell, and I extol his noble mission.  He insists that I never mention my being a Jew till the first Iranian police station down the mountain.  I stand watching him for a good while, with great solemnity and respect, as he walks back behind his obedient mule, in the deep snow, back to Iraq.  Then he disappears.  Now I turn east, staring for a moment down the slopes in the direction of Iran.  I try to assess what I have brought along with me to freedom out of my entire existence in Iraq.  Not much.  All my fortune consists of three small items only:  my militant, nonetheless human, diary record of the real picture of my country today, for those interested in the fate of people everywhere; for my family’s own expenses in Iran my pocket can boast of no more than a meagre sum of sixty Iraqi Dinars; and to the friendly Iranians who know who the Iraqi Ba’athists are, I bring my scanty knowledge of Iranian which consists of two words – ‘Man Kalimi’ – meaning ‘I am a Jew’, and which my friend Joe taught me in Baghdad one day before I left.  But my family and myself are alive and free – and that is the greatest prize we could win!

I relish the satisfaction too, that, being the first Jew to leave Iraq amid the beastliest manhunt of recent months, I have achieved something of value by escaping from persecution, despite all the difficulties encountered.

Dead tired, worn out completely but free, I look tenderly upon everyone and everything.  I share the laughter of my wife and two daughters over the manner we all look, especially I, with my dirty shape, almost a week-old beard, my worn-out and torn-off Kurdish clothes, my ‘gaiwa’ shoes reduced to half and still glued to my feet, and my dagger planted in my belt!  I think I am like an exhausted horseman who has cut his way through tough, endless woods to reach his destination safely.

We go down the slopes again.  But to Iran this time!  Partly on mules, and partly on foot, until we arrive, at about eight in the evening, at an Iranian Kurdish village called Jassem, after its great, venerable Kurdish chief Jassem Agha.  Our two guides seem very familiar with the region.  Attempting a hide-and-seek game with the villagers at night, they take us directly to the Agha’s house, where with perfect innocence they tell one of his relatives that I am an Iraqi officer having fled illegally to Iran with my family!

About nine in the evening Jassem’s family, in the absence of their chief, agree that we pass the night in their house so that tomorrow morning we may travel to the nearest town.  The two guides, Salman and Jamal, take leave, shake hands with us, and bid us a hearty goodbye before returning with their mules to Iraq.

Sunday Night, June 14, 1970

A Warm Farewell!

Just before the Kurdish guides left us, I thought I might bid a sincere farewell to my faithful companion all during the journey to Iran – the mule!  Awfully tired, I could hardly stand on my feet.  Yet I wouldn’t omit to say a few words of appreciation and gratitude to my friend Mabrook!  He was a little tired himself, perhaps, but looked all the time fit for a mission he had undertaken: sturdy, tough, sincere, and quick to understand!

I took off my muffler, wrapped it around his neck, and addressed him in these words:  ‘Well, Mabrook, I give you this muffler as a souvenir.  You many need it, even more than I did, now that you will return to our dear country Iraq!  I wish to thank you cordially for all you have done on my behalf.  If my being a little heavy tired you on the road, I want to apologise.  But that wasn’t my fault, nor was it deliberate.  The arbitrary rulers of our country failed to estimate human feelings and to discern their sensitiveness.  They failed to respect individual freedom.  They failed to understand the loves, the passions, the hopes and the fears of men and women.  They pursued a harsh, made desire for power, through evil deeds, and turned people’s lives into a hell of suffering and torment.  You, Mabrook, had a healthy sense of responsibility, in spite of the poisoned atmosphere we lived in.  You know to love, not to hate.  You handled your job with obedience and precision.  With talent too.  No malice impaired your qualifications.  I feel sure you seek to live a decent life, a life of sincere, fruitful labour.  I will therefore remember you always.  You were a very faithful friend.’

And I left his neck wrapped with my muffler, patted him twice, and added:  ‘In our hard trial and accomplishment together, you were the hero, not I.  Now fare you well, and good luck!  Oh, by the way, be careful when you are back again in Iraq, as there you may be too gallant, too noble a creature, to remain alive long enough!’

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