Immediately after descending from the bus at the Malikiyeh mini-bus station, I was approached by a Syrian police officer. He gave me a stern look and asked in Arabic, "Where are you going?" I told him that I just wanted to go see Ain Diwar. "Come with me," he said and then decided that he also wanted the bus driver to come as well. We walked into an office and sat down. The man asked for my passport, looked at it, and then smiled. He explained that we had to go to the local police station to register. I asked where it was and if I could walk there. "No," he said, "I want him [the bus driver] to escort you." He then took the bus driver’s identity card and ushered us into the bus. Once we were in the bus, I immediately started apologizing. I was sorry to have dragged him into this and I didn’t realize that it was such a big deal to go to Ain Diwar. The driver looked at me and then let out a huge laugh, "Don’t worry at all," he shouted, "everybody has to do this. Me, you, everybody…They are just cautious about people visiting Ain Diwar."
You see, Ain Diwar is a small town on the Tigris River in the northeast extremity of Syria. This is the heart of Syrian Kurdistan and right on the border with Turkey and Iraq, and while the relationship between the Kurds and Syria has always been rather good, across the border in Turkey it has not. Back when the Kurdish independence movement was raging and Turkey was basically in a civil war, Turkey often accused Syria of harboring Kurdish rebels and allowing for arms to be funneled into Turkish Kurdistan from Syria. All of it came to the brink of war when Syria harbored Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the PKK and the most wanted man in Turkey. Although things have calmed down in Turkey and peace has been established, Syrian-Turkish relations, although better, have not been fully repaired and there is still plenty of distrust. Thus it is understandable that the Syrian government wants to keep track of just who comes and goes from this area.
At the Malikiyeh police station, the driver and I were seated in a room with the police chief and the questions began. None of it was harsh or intrusive and always done with a comforting smile. He explained that it’s just procedure and that it has nothing to do with me in particular. When he was satisfied with the information, he asked how I planned on getting to Ain Diwar. I told him I planned on hiring a taxi. "No," he said, "I’d rather have you go with the bus driver here."
So off we went towards Ain Diwar. Again I apologized for having accidentally dragged him along, but he wouldn’t have any of it. "This is great," he said, "I love showing people my home." His name was Fakhri and he was a Kurd. All along the way to Ain Diwar we had some good conversation about Kurdistan and the Kurdish people, then we came over a hill and two sets of large mountains came into view. The one to the east marked the Iraqi border and the one to the north was Cudi Dag, the most important mountain in Kurdish folklore and (along with Ararat) one of the mountains that claims to be the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. Flowing right beneath Cudi Dag was the Tigris River (Delijah in Arabic). The south bank marked Syria and the North, Turkey.
Upon arrival in Ain Diwar, we registered again with the border police and then headed down a steep dirt road into the Tigris valley and to the location of the old Roman bridge that used to span the river. The views coming down the road were the most spectacular, providing a view of the whole valley. All along the road to the valley are vast fields of cotton, the main product of this region, and we could see numerous farmers stuffing the cotton into large burlap sacks and placing them onto trucks.
Finally we arrived at the bridge at the edge of the river. Not much remains of the bridge, but it is still an impressive sight. We climbed atop the bridge to get a view of the whole valley and of the barbed wire and towers that marked the Turkish border. It was a bit weird to be standing atop the bridge looking out at Turkey, knowing that inside those towers are probably numerous guards peering right back at you through binoculars or the scope of a rifle. Supposedly during the more volatile times, the Turkish guards were known to shoot randomly across the border every once in a while, killing a few people a year, but those times are thankfully over.
When we had our fill of the bridge, we headed back to the river bank to dip our feet in the cold, clear water that flowing down from the mountains of Turkey. Sitting there amidst cotton fields and goats on the tranquil banks of the river, it’s a bit humbling to think that a few hundred miles down that river is Baghdad, the sight of so much strife today.
Upon returning to Ain Diwar, we stopped at a coffee shop for a brief cup of tea and to enjoy the view. It’s a truly spectacular view, but I was a bit disappointed that Cudi Dag wasn’t in its usual snowcapped state. Still, it was easy to see why the Kurds hold the land so dear to their hearts, as it’s a magical place. Fakhri confided that he hoped that one day the Kurds would have their own state, but he doubted that he would be alive to see it.
After tea, we headed back to Malikiyeh to inform the police that I hadn’t run across the border and to pick up a few passengers for the trip back to Qamishle. When we arrived in Qamishle I thanked Fakhri, paid him for his services, and said my goodbyes, but before I left, he gave me his phone number in case I had any friends that wanted to see Ain Diwar. It seems that Fakhri is eager to establish himself as the Ain Diwar guide.