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Turkeys Parade at the Border



n 1988, just before Thanksgiving, I

woke up screaming in a luxury hotel

in Kuwait City. For two days, we had

been trying to leave Kuwait. Trying

to get to Iraq, home as of two months


Travel was difficult for diplomats.

We neededMinistry of Foreign Affairs

approval to leave Baghdad. Approval

took a week. Everything we did and said

was observed by the government, even

in private moments. Colleagues advised

us to take regular trips out of country to


So we took a road trip to the closest

international outpost, Kuwait City, 10

hours south of Baghdad. We took orders

from colleagues for food and necessities.

Since it was right beforeThanksgiving, the

orders includedmany Butterball turkeys.

The drive to Kuwait City was liberating.

Our Suburban flew through the flat, khaki-

colored desert along a well-maintained

highway marked with clear signage in

both Arabic and English. Within an hour

of being welcomed to Kuwait, we were in a

five-star hotel near the U.S. embassy.

We spent the weekend buying sup-

plies. The turkeys came directly from the

importer (and straight into ice chests),

soda from the soda factory and long-life

milk from the Danish Dairy. A Safeway,

Victoria Hess lived in Bagh-

dad from September 1988

until Iraq invaded Kuwait in

August of 1990. Her husband

was a general services officer,

and Victoria kept the commissary stocked

with groceries fromKuwait and alcohol from


just like at home, filled other needs. Then

we started back.

At Iraq customs, we hit a roadblock. The

Iraqi customs officials wanted to search

our vehicle. We had been instructed that a

vehicle with diplomatic plates could not be

searched or detained by its host country.

Yet here we were, being told we could not

re-enter Iraq without a thorough search of

the Suburban.

Iraqis hate to say “no” (la). We spent

a lot of time that morning in a small dark

office, drinking many cups of sweet lem-

ony chai from tiny glass cups, being told

that of course we could drive to Baghdad,

but our vehicle had to be searched first.


had no trouble saying “no,” telling them

that our vehicle could not be searched.

They said everything but diplomatic

pouches could be searched. We saw a

European diplomat’s vehicle drive straight

through, and we knew that we were being

singled out. We asked to call our embassy,

and we were told that the phone lines

between the border and Baghdad were

down. A call was impossible.

Finally, we returned to Kuwait. From

the border, we called Embassy Baghdad

and were directed back to Kuwait City,

where we unloaded our perishables for

safekeeping by the defense attaché, whose

counterpart in Baghdad had orderedmany

of the turkeys. We were to try again the

next day.

We followed the Iraqis’ lead. Everything

in the vehicle except passports, water

and lunch, was sealed into diplomatic

pouches. Big diplomatic pouches: some

large enough to house four ice chests or a

St. Bernard or two.

We also learned that our mission

suspected we were being scapegoated

because the United States had just denied

a visa to Palestine Liberation Organization

leader Yasser Arafat, who had been invited

to talk at the United Nations. We were the

first American diplomats to try to cross the

border since that denial.

At the Iraqi crossing we pointed to the

sealed diplomatic pouches. The customs

officials objected. Making gestures the size

of a briefcase, one official said, “This is a

diplomatic pouch.”

Soon we were swimming in chai

again. As we drank and drank, we saw two

“suits”—MFA officials, we surmised—walk

up to observe. We returned to Kuwait, and

the Kuwaiti officials were amused.

The defense attaché took back the

groceries, and we went back to the lux-

ury hotel, where I woke the next morn-

ing screaming. We were told to sit tight

while things were worked out between

Embassy Baghdad and the MFA.

Finally, our entry was arranged. The

diplomatic pouches were gone. The

Iraqis had agreed that they would not

search our vehicle, as long as they were

allowed to search everything in it.

We unloaded the entire vehicle. Like

a parade, a dozen turkey-filled ice chests

stood in a row on the dusty pavement

followed by cases of long-life milk and

Pepsi. After a pro forma inspection, we

reloaded those American birds for their

final journey.

Then we drove home, very much pawns

in a political situation over which we had

no control. The turkeys made it to Baghdad

forThanksgiving dinner, and I wouldn’t be

surprised if the very men who ordered us

detained were invited.