Backstory: On the road (literally) again

Stalled at the Iraqi-Turkish border, a truck becomes home.

Sulaiman Dakh will call it a good day if his oil tanker clears a full quarter mile of blacktop by nightfall. But this is The Line - the miles-long queue of trucks waiting to cross the Iraqi-Turkish border - and Mr. Dakh has learned to be patient.

He cooks couscous and chicken on a propane stove in the shadow of his rig. He squats with other drivers and the occasional stray cow on the dusty median strip and grouses about trucking tariffs and red tape. He calls his wife, Fatima, back home in southeastern Turkey, and asks after their eight children.

But mostly, he waits. And waits. And waits.

Dakh has been in The Line in Iraq now for 12 days. He doesn't expect to cross the border into Turkey, a tantalizing four miles away, for another week.

"I pass the time by looking at my hair in the rearview mirror," Dakh, rumpled, sunburnt, and due for a shave, said on a recent Friday, outside the open door of his rented Ford Cargo 2520, which was in park. "Because of the time I spend in this big line, I can watch it change."

Change how? someone inquired.

"To gray," said Dakh. He grinned as he scratched his chin, all salt-and-pepper stubble.

The Habur Border Gate, at the northern fringe of this fast-growing Kurdish city, is a magnet for truckers for a simple reason: it is the safest way in and out of Iraq. But The Line, or, in Turkish, Kuyruk, also reflects a bitter irony of postwar Iraq: One of the world's most oil-rich nations has so few working refineries and pipelines that it has to truck crude oil out, only to truck it back in as gasoline, propane, and other fuel.

Iraq imports at least a third of the 5.5 million gallons of gasoline it consumes daily, and has set aside $2.4 billion for the import of petroleum products this year, says Ehsan Ulhaq, head of research at PVM Oil Associates, an energy consulting firm in Vienna.

Anyone who has waited in line at an Iraqi gas pump is happy to offer an opinion on the efficiency of this system.

Petrol trucks are hardly the only ones inching toward the gauntlet of security and customs checks on each side of the border. On a recent Monday, rigs in a seven-mile-long column on the Turkish side were hauling in cement bags, drainage pipes, rebar, and other materials for Iraq's limping reconstruction effort.

Hamid Ali Ibrahim, general manager of the Ibraheem Khaleel Border Complex in Zakho, estimated that 1,000 trucks enter Iraq here each day, and as many as 500 leave. But the tankers rule. Their paint jobs - psychedelic violet, tangerine orange, and other candy colors - are a silent scream against days of unrelieved boredom.

***

The Line is a squatters camp on slow-turning wheels, with its own culture and rituals. Weary drivers gather on blankets beside their trucks to sip tea or play cards. In the torpor of a late spring afternoon, men slide cardboard under their rigs and stretch out for a nap. Drivers hang wet laundry on fenders. Others tweak their engines, or buy eggs and "My Love" caramel candies from the packs of boys who push carts down the unending line. Many just kick their legs up on the dash and stare at the haze-streaked horizon.

They're a ragged tribe, mainly poor Kurds, like Dakh, from remote southeastern Turkey. Most seem to subscribe to the code inked in calligraphy across their hoods: "Masaallah" - as God wishes.

***

Sulaiman Dakh was shuffling along the median of Ibraheem Khaleel Road here earlier this month, looking at the weeds, when this American reporter approached with a Kurdish translator. Dakh opened his passport. A blue-and-red stamp showed he'd crossed into Iraq on May 1. He'd filled his tanker with 4,500 gallons of crude at an oil storage park here that same day. Nearly two weeks later, he was still in The Line.

Other truckers join US military convoys for white-knuckled trips to Baghdad and Mosul, where insurgents have set tankers on fire and murdered drivers. But Dakh is a family man. He doesn't pick up or deliver outside Iraq's relatively stable Kurdish region. "I am afraid," he explained.

Some of the younger truckers kill time with drink and games of chance, he said. But his routine is more ascetic. He listens to the radio for news about the political struggle of Turkey's restive Kurdish population. He lowers a flap on the side of his tanker and reaches for a packet of Klassno 3-in-1 instant coffee mix - a timesaving blend of coffee crystals, nondairy creamer, and sugar for a man with nothing but time. He unfurls a rug on the roadway shoulder to kneel in prayer. ("If it rains I pray in the truck.") And twice a day, he picks up his cellphone and calls his family back in Midyat, a two-hour drive northwest of the border. The eldest of his children is 25, the youngest, 6. The questions on the phone are always the same.

"They ask why I'm so late, why I'm not coming," he said. "My wife asks, 'How long will you be gone?'" His children are growing up fast. Muhammadshareen, 19, is in high school and wants to be a teacher. Shafeeq, 20, is about to join the army. Leila is just 12, but Dakh already worries about finding her a husband. Others have dropped out of school. Had he been home more, hesaid, he'd have had more time to be a father. For every month on the road, most of it in The Line on either side of the border, Dakh spends just two days with his family. "The youngest ones, don't even really know me," he said.

It's a devil's bargain, this choice between being with family and providing for them. Good work is hard to find in Turkey's impoverished southeast. Dakh quit a painting job in 1993. He has worked The Line ever since. He earns $400 in a good month, enough for food, clothes, and the children's schoolbooks, but few frills.

He is hauling this load of crude to Iskenderun, a busy port on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, a quick day's drive away. He'll probably return to Iraq with propane, gasoline, or benzene.

The workday is an edgy mix of dead time and watchfulness. Even sleep is fitful. The border is always open, and The Line creeps forward unpredictably. If Dakh is dreaming about his children at 3 a.m. and the column advances, the engine rumble of trucks will rouse him. He must move, or risk losing his place in line.

An hour into the interview, a space of two truck-lengths opened before him, offering a rare glimpse of open road. Dakh hoisted himself into his cab. The inside was spartan: A water cooler was wedged under the center console. Wool blankets were heaped at one end of a mattress behind the seat bench. Three plastic flowers were taped to the windshield. And along the dash were two tissue boxes, a hairbrush, and a cracked hand mirror. Dakh gripped the wheel and turned the key. The engine made a hungry growl. The seats shook. He shifted. He drove his tanker 25 yards. He stopped.

No one could say how long it would be before The Line would move again.

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