by Max Sawdayee


Tuesday March 24, 1970

At five in the morning, still a little dark, and cloudy, I wake up and dress.  I begin the day with a cigarette, then continue chain-smoking.  Wife awakes, and asks:  ‘What are you doing?’  I’m leaving north’, I reply.  ‘What for?’ she asks.  ‘To find a way to flee the country illegally,’ I say.  ‘Oh yes!’  she exclaims.  ‘Since a long time I’ve known it would come some day, and I couldn’t stop it!  Are you aware of what you are doing?’  I am quite aware’, I answer.  ‘Darling, be careful. It could be too dangerous.  God bless you!’  she says.

I cast a look at the children in the next room, sip a cupful of coffee, and leave for my friend Joe’s.

What is worrying me most in this plan of mine is not the danger associated with the each step I am going to take, but rather the calculated, chilling and desperate method by which I am executing my presumptive design.  I feel as though a strange power is pushing me out to accomplish a job I know can claim no rosy prospects. That is indeed most astonishing to me myself. I do realise that it offers almost no promise of any kind.  But my attitude resembles that of a card player who has been drugged into a state of bottomless despair. This is the sort of despair that can allow only one way of thinking, the way of abysmal fatalism, in which nothing remains worthwhile, and life itself loses all its human value.

Joe is ready at the door.  Just when he gets to the car, his brother Dave leaps out from inside the house, opens the door and comes running to me.  ‘Please, Fouad,’ he says, ‘whatever you do, think of me and the family too.  We are leading here a suicidal existence!’  He looks at me with eyes full of hopes and fears.  I nod approvingly and make off. 

The crossing of the four checkpoints between Baghdad and the small Salah El-Din village five hundred kilometres to the mountainous north is very difficult and dangerous.  We need much luck and much caution to get through, as we are the first Jews to travel here since about three years. My perfect Muslim dialect coaches me on.

We arrive at Salah El-Din late in the afternoon, awfully tired and nervous after the long hours of strain and tension. Frankly, we are quite apprehensive too. To my wife, whom I ring through a Christian neighbour of ours in Baghdad, I say only that my friend and myself are all right, and ask her to convey the message to Joe’s brother Dave.

To an amazed Kurdish hotel receptionist in Salah El-Din who remarks:  ‘You are the first Jews to set foot here since three years!’  We hand over two extra dinars as a gratuity.  He kindly advises us to keep quiet and adopt other names instead, or make our names sound and read like Muslims’.

An early sleep after a hot bath is stage on of our visit to the village.  It is most welcome indeed!

Wednesday March 25, 1970

We feel frustrated.  We achieve nothing. Nothing at all.  We take long walks in the streets of the village, sit in the cafes, completely indifferent to the festive atmosphere reigning there, desperately trying to find somebody whom we know from past, but to no avail.  Then we drive to the nearby villages of Shaqlawa, Khan-Zad and Sari-Rasht, to discover someone we can recognise in the streets, shops or cafes.  No luck.  We go back to the hotel badly disappointed.

All the afternoon and evening we keep thinking what to do, and how to establish contact with somebody we do not know.  This is not easy.  It is too hazardous at the same time.  It could bring us headlong to our doom.

We pass most of the night in my room, cursing and deploring our bad luck.

Thursday March 26, 1970

Luck fails us today also.

An Armenian friend, a dealer in used cars whom we know from Baghdad, and whom we meet on the terrace at breakfast this morning, happens to be there.  He innocently suggests that we make a long trip to Kurdistan (well farther to the east) to see how things look now that there is peace between the Kurds and the Iraqi government.  This is an extremely dangerous attempt, as many Iraqi army camps undoubtedly control that region.  So much the worse!  But we do not care.  Our friend sits at the steering of my car, and we drive all the way to Kurdistan, not without particularly unwieldy difficulties as we cross the checkpoints of two Iraqi army camps, the second of which is at Rawanduz.  This checkpoint is most disturbing indeed even frightening. Nevertheless, our Armenian friend manages, with lots of tricks and shrewd manoeuvring, to handle the situation deftly enough.  We reach the small Kurdish village of Jindian, the one just before the last village of Haj Amran near the Iranian border, but all the way we cannot manage arriving at any kind of arrangement.  Even our Armenian friend, who by now guesses our intention and tries discreetly to help us, can do nothing either.  Kurds we meet there would not all consider such an idea at this time, claiming that their present good relations with the Iraqi government are liable to get damaged if they collaborate with Jewish families by helping them to escape through their region to Iran.  ‘You’re coming much too soon for such an enterprise!’ they exclaim in an admonishing tone.  We request them kindly to arrange for us a meeting with their leader Mulla Mustafa Al-Barazani or his son Idriss.  No avail.  They vehemently refuse.

So we make all the way back to our hotel, empty-handed, bemoaning our bad luck.  We conclude that we are not only torture and tormented human beings, but also unfortunate.

At night I keep writhing and lamenting:  ‘Hard luck, man!  You’re beaten down!’

Friday March 27, 1970

Bidding farewell to the majestic mountains which kiss the sky with their high, snow-covered peaks, standing there fast and forever, we fill our car petrol tank with fuel early in the morning and head south, like two frustrated soldiers of a routed army endeavouring to regain their foothold in life after a lost battle.

‘Hey, Joe!  Let’s buy cigarettes.  We may need them on the road.’ I suggest.  The cigarette shopkeeper, the only one open at this early hour, turns out to be an old acquaintance from this northern region, aged about forty, by the name of Daoud.  We buy our cigarettes, chat with the man a little, and tentatively invite him to a cup of coffee with us at the café adjacent to his shop.  The man gladly agrees, and we sit down talking with him on various subjects of the past while we settle for a delicious special Kurdish tea.  Feeling at ease with him, but impatient to comb the possibilities concerning our project, we abruptly break into the question of escape.  The man turns white, as though not a single trace of blood were left on his face.  He vehemently turns our proposition down and gets up to leave.  We ask him kindly to sit down, and we resume our conversation.  When we tell him how much money we are prepared to offer per person, he listens carefully, silently takes a deep breath and seems to regain confidence.  A while after, he says that he will think it over for a couple of weeks, but promises nothing.  We furnish him with our addresses in Baghdad, and ask him to be careful when he calls on either of us some day.  He gives us his address too, here and in Arbil, a main town nearly fifty kilometres from here, and urges us to ‘forget everything of our present meeting and discussion, please.’

Later, on the road down to Baghdad, we come to the conclusion that nothing will come out of this dead discussion.  The man does not appear sure of himself.  When he realises the dangers of such a project, he will truly forget about it entirely, and about us too!

So tense is the atmosphere in the car on our return journey that a stormy conversation could burst between me and Joe at any moment.  However, two Palestinian commandos, dressed in zebra battle fatigues and with machine guns in hand, are rushed into the car by an army patrol on the road with an order to give them a lift to the capital.  Their presence renders such a conversation impossible, and we keep dead silent all the way!

Back home, to everyone who is extremely keen to know where we have been the last four days, we simply say nothing specific.  We gave laconic, vague answers, refraining from divulging the slightest bit of information connected with our project or our trip to the north.  Any slip of the tongue may trail us through to serious, if not fatal consequences.  Even my wife, who requests a few more details about the trip, does not receive any response except, ‘Please forget all about it!’

So, the four days I spend in the north lead to nowhere.  Except for a trivial promise by somebody I hardly know and can hardly trust, all the rest is trash.  Nothing at all.  I admit I have utterly failed in my first attempt.