Iraq: Rolling the barrel

Going to war can be thirsty work, especially when you're holed up on the border with a small but desperate army of fellow hacks for company.

As gambles for gateways to the war in Iraq went, the ghost town of Silopi on the north border seemed at times like a serious mistake.
Days before the first bomb hit Baghdad the Turkish military sealed off the only passage through the mountains to everyone including aid workers. No matter who you were or where you came from there was going to be no war for those in Silopi.

The mood amongst the assembly of hacks there was best described as "emotional" as we listened to reports from colleagues who had successfully entered via Iran, Syria and Kuwait.

Tensions ran high, foul filterless fags sold like hot cakes and the slowly shaking heads of café proprietors signalled that this was in no uncertain terms "an alcohol-free town."

The combination transformed cool-headed, professional men used to living under intense pressure into acute sufferers of Tourette's syndrome at a snap.

Salvation, however, was at hand…

Word spread in hushed tones of a place that warmly welcomed lovers of drink, partially clad dancing girls and live Kurdish crooning.

The entrance to the mystical "Esnaflar Lokali" (Merchant’s Home) club was cautiously tucked out the way of Islamic religious leaders’ disapproving eyes.

The blood-curdling cries of a Kurdish Frank Sinatra could be heard from the bottom of a crumbling stairwell and exploded into life as I reached the final step and the club doors swung open.

A tall dark-eyed, dusky-skinned hostess led me to the bar. If the beer had been carbonated tea with two parts petrol I would still have been grateful.

Another hostess who had applied foundation with a spatula and lipstick with a broad brush attempted to chat with me in broken English over the deafening roar of Haluk Kerim: the club’s live entertainer.

His enthusiasm for heartfelt renditions of such Kurdish folk classics as “Urfanin Etrafi” and “Guz Gulleri”, not to mention “Bu Dag Gelir Bu Dag Gider” (The roses of the fall) - "modernised" by synthesiser - battled with the club’s modest sound system to produce a noise akin to playing back some shouting on a dictaphone and amplifying the noise through festival speakers with a Fisher Price microphone.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell, noisy fucker ain't he!” a cheery, pot-bellied London news agency proprietor guffawed behind me.

“Indeed,” I replied, joining the bar's locals in watching the rest of the British rat pack fall in behind him. Of course, it did not take long for trouble to start.

The alcohol had been flowing hard and the packed room had been whipped into a frenzy by dancing girls trying to relieve newspaper expense accounts’ less than prudent trustees of their Liras.

Reporters steadied themselves onto their feet to watch an escalating row develop between two photographers – one a British tabloid snapper - the other a guest on the local chief of police’s table a few meters away.

Both had been trying to capture potentially valuable images of each other enjoying the club’s various sights and sensations.

Before the night was out we had not only escaped incarceration but also narrowly avoided the wrath of the local Kurdish guerrilla commander.

He had popped in for birthday celebrations with his friends who were packing an obligatory array of live semi-automatic weaponry.

The opportunity to commandeer the arsenal and run around the place playing cowboys and Indians simply proved too much for some.

Haluk’s background music was an inspiration throughout.