My first instinct is to keep the mood light
by joking with the soldiers in camouflage uniforms who can keep our newly acquired motorcycle off the road and threaten our dream.
I tell them through our translator and driver, Sangar, that they better have beds for us in the small, shabby trailers at the checkpoint along the road connecting Iraq’s war-ravaged city of Mosul and the relatively gleaming, prosperous Erbil just 35 miles away. The soldiers laugh, though my comedic stylings aren’t changing their minds. “How about this,” I say, prefacing a Hail Mary proposal, “I’ll arm wrestle you all. If I beat you guys, you let us go.” Feats of strengths are popular among soldiers in Iraq, so I figure offering one as a condition for letting us pass is just crazy enough to work. They chuckle, shake their heads, and tell me they’ll get the biggest guy they have to take me on. So with the sun casting its golden, evening light over northern Iraq, rendering this troubled land breathtaking in its beauty, there sits on a dusty patch the bike we’d just procured from one of the most dangerous places on earth, going nowhere.
And while Sangar tries to figure out how we’re going to overcome this bureaucratic roadblock, I plop down on a nearby mound of dirt to watch the sky grow darker as the dream gets dimmer.
We’ve been cultivating this “Mission to Mosul” motorcycle caper for months, ever since my friend and photographer, Nish Nalbandian, first noticed the particularly unique brand of bike on the streets of the besieged city.
Nish has been chronicling the fighting in Mosul for almost a year, and, as a fellow moto enthusiast, he was practically giddy at the site of a Russian-made Ural, replete with trademark sidecar.
He and I joined forces a handful of times to report on the fighting in Mosul between Iraqi forces alongside Kurdish troops and Sunni militias against the dreaded Islamic State, which captured Iraq’s second-largest city in 2014 and subjugated its residents to countless horrors.
It’s been a difficult and dangerous story to cover. The last time Nish and I were in Mosul earlier this year we linked up with the elite Iraqi Special Operations Forces as they made their big push into the western half of the city after recapturing the east.
The fighting was fierce; casualties mounted on both sides. The bodies of soldiers, civilians, and Islamic State fighters were stacking up in Mosul. Extremists killed in the fighting were left in the streets, some with execution-style bullet wounds in their heads.