Ali Salami

Customs and Taxes By Jalal Al-e Ahmad

At the border checkpoint, the process was efficient. My identity was verified by comparing my photograph to my face, and upon presenting my recently acquired smallpox vaccination certificate from Khorramshahr, which cost two tomans, I was allowed entry. A diligent policeman took charge of my suitcase, escorting me to the riverbank a short distance away. There, long boats with elegantly curved prows awaited, manned by Arabs in keffiyehs who spoke Arabic and held sticks. One came forward, spoke briefly with the border guard, took my suitcase, and placed it in the boat, making room for us. We waited to depart until four more passengers arrived: a nimble, veiled woman, another policeman, and two elderly men. Only then did we set off.

This was my first experience on the water, and despite warnings about the possibility of seasickness, I felt a surge of confidence. The challenge of maintaining my balance near the smokestacks of an oil tanker, which caused a momentary wave of dizziness, tested me. The relentless heat and the sharp sting of the fog in my throat were constant companions. I had started my journey that morning from Khorramshahr to the Iraqi border, managing to negotiate a taxi fare down to twenty tomans after significant bargaining. By the time I arrived at the Iraqi post, it was nearly noon. My fellow travelers from Tehran to Ahvaz had recommended waiting to take a larger, twelve-person boat later in the day, but I was eager to move forward with all my documents in order, unwilling to delay or resort to moving under the cover of darkness like smugglers.

The taxi from Khorramshahr was shared with five other passengers, and I initially thought we had all paid the same fare. The group included three urban Arabs and two soldiers, each easily identified by their distinct features and sun helmets, which were whimsically personalized. I later discovered that the Arabs, being the car’s owners, did not pay for the ride, and the driver, with a dismissive shrug, did not expect payment from the soldiers, viewing their transport as his duty. Although I was initially amused by the driver’s accented Persian and his casual approach to fares, realizing that I had overpaid by eighteen tomans dampened my spirits.

During the boat ride, the boatman, with his robe tucked into his belt, adeptly steered the vessel using his pole or by pushing off the hulls of nearby boats in deeper waters. The quiet hum of a chant from afar gradually grew louder, originating from a large sailboat that appeared through the fog, its crew moving in sync with the rhythm. The journey lasted about half an hour, ending at the lively Ashar dock. Before I had a chance to get my bearings and find my suitcase, the other passengers had already dispersed. Their swiftness contrasted with their traditional dress, leaving me alone to reflect on the fare. The boatman’s request for half a dinar took me by surprise, as I had not yet exchanged my money.

“Half a dinar? But I don’t have any dinars,” I protested.

“Then four tomans,” he replied promptly.

Feeling a sense of relief, I realized that half a dinar was equivalent to about seven tomans and some change. But the question lingered: why four tomans? As I looked around for some guidance, the only response was the anxious gaze of a ragged boy on the dock, who watched us as we disembarked. The border policeman was idly standing on the dock. Catching his eye, I sought his intervention; he seemed indifferent. So, I paid the four tomans and disembarked to follow the policeman, with the boy hurriedly moving ahead.

“Do you want some liver, sir?” he asked.

Initially, I suspected he might be trying to pickpocket me, given my foreign appearance – lacking both a keffiyeh[1] and a dishdasha[2] – and perhaps saw me as an easy target, momentarily abandoning his liver sales that he had been conducting since morning. However, his anxious expression and the sweetness in his Persian, which was unexpectedly clear to my ears, corrected my assumption. I even recall the moment I handed the banknotes to the boatman; the boy became visibly upset, his cheeks tensing in anger as if he wanted to intervene but was silenced by a stern look from the border policeman, perhaps intimidated into silence, only to repeat his offer:

“Do you want some liver, sir?”

As I walked past him, I responded, “Not now.”

“Not now?” he echoed.

He seemed puzzled by my initial response. To clarify, as I continued to follow the policeman, I added, “After I get through customs…”

This time, the boy nodded in understanding. I hadn’t started smoking at that point, but I was still able to engage in a brief conversation with him. As I moved past, I reciprocated his grin, which brought dimples to his cheeks, with a smile of my own and proceeded, deep in thought about our brief interaction.

The boy was bareheaded, clad in just a worn and soiled sleeveless shirt and a pair of short khaki military trousers, a common sight during the war. Everything, from the walls around us to the cigarettes people smoked, was tinged with the essence of the conflict and bore the scent of American soldiers. The boy appeared to be around twelve, his black hair obscuring part of his face, which was surprisingly clean. He wore the strap of his box around his neck, holding the box close to his stomach with one hand while the other rested in the pocket of his shorts. His knees were covered in scabs, and I imagined that the soles of his bare feet had become immune to the scorching heat of Basra’s asphalt streets in the afternoon sun. As we neared the customs office, I glanced back a few times to see him trailing behind, maintaining a distance yet keeping his eyes on me. On the third look-back, as we entered through the garden gate of the customs office, we shared another smile before I turned away and entered the garden.

The entrance to the office bore the inscription “Customs and Taxes” in elevated Thuluth[3] script. I understood the concept of “customs” easily enough, but the term “al-makus” eluded me, no matter how much I pondered. Magi? Curved? Sunk? None of these interpretations fit. It likely was a term related to customs, intended to convey similar meanings. However, with my limited Arabic at the time, the precise meaning remained beyond my grasp.

My contemplation on the meaning of “taxes” was abruptly halted when the porter took my suitcase. I was mentally exploring the root “M.K.S” for clues when I was ushered into an office. A door to my left led to another room, and the office was serene. They placed my suitcase on a long, black table to the right and commenced the inspection. I had no contraband, so I anticipated a swift process. However, customs officials have a knack for identifying items in your possessions that, under some obscure regulation of their extensive customs code, are deemed inadmissible for import or export. From my belongings, they singled out several items: seven volumes of Persian books, which were to be forwarded to the Baghdad Ministry of Information for review by the Publishing and Propaganda Directorate to assess their admissibility. Twenty-four bars of laundry soap, a commodity I was informed was scarce in Iraq. A compact camera and two six-yard lengths of unsewn Qom cotton fabric, intended as my parents’ wedding gifts, which I planned to have blessed in the Euphrates and taken to the holy sites in Karbala and Najaf before returning. These few items from my travel gear were flagged for prohibition.

Initially, I wasn’t overly concerned, suspecting they might be contriving a reason to solicit a bribe. I remained composed. However, it wasn’t the pilgrimage season, which might have preoccupied them with processing pilgrims’ belongings more expediently. It was the peak of summer, a time when the harsh Iraqi heat deterred even the most devout from embarking on pilgrimages. The senior officer inspecting my luggage, who was quite loquacious, and his silent, recently graduated assistant, spoke in hushed Arabic tones I couldn’t decipher. Had they spoken louder, I might have grasped something. Yet, from their muted conversation, all I could discern was the movement of their Adam’s apples. They provided no explanation for the restriction on these items, but their silent extraction of them from my suitcase made their intentions clear.

After the inspection concluded, they repacked my suitcase, closed it, and set it aside. The officers’ conversation was now audible to me; they were no longer whispering. It seemed there was some disagreement regarding the customs duty for the cotton fabric, while the tariff for the soap was clear to them. The camera was categorically not allowed for import. Surprisingly, the same old man who had inspected my belongings, whom I had assumed did not understand Persian, discreetly suggested he could purchase the camera for twenty tomans.

The issue with the books was straightforward, but the cotton fabric presented a problem for them. Among their discussions, a particular Arabic term was frequently mentioned, which I later understood to be related to the customs tariff. After some searching, they seemed to have found the information they needed.

The heat was oppressive, and I was drenched in sweat, gradually losing my patience. It was well past noon, and thirst was adding to my discomfort. The old officer escorted me outside and pointed me towards the market at the entrance of the Customs and Taxes Office. Now conversing in Persian, he reiterated his offer for the camera as I headed towards the currency exchange market. I responded with a smile and continued on my way, unsure if I was amused by his broken Persian or disdainful of his evident greed.

The traffic was at a standstill, and the heat emanating from the asphalt was intense. The aroma of the sun-scorched leaves from the customs office garden lingered, and my thirst became unbearable. I started walking along the sidewalk in the direction he had indicated, feeling an immense pressure behind my eyes as if they were on the verge of popping out. Hatless and with my collar undone, I realized I had misplaced my handkerchief. The overwhelming thirst was becoming intolerable.

“Sir… Excuse me, sir…”

The unexpected memory of the boy selling liver by the shore brought a sudden shift in my mood. As I turned around, I saw him, barefoot and clutching his cigarette box to his chest, running towards me.

“Aha… I thought you had left,” he said, catching his breath.

“When did you come out that I didn’t see you? You’re probably heading to the money changers’ market, right?” he inquired.

“Yes, were you waiting for me?” I asked, surprised by his attentiveness.

“What else?!” he exclaimed with a wide grin.

In that moment, all my frustrations seemed to dissipate. The overwhelming thirst, the stifling heat, and my previous irritations vanished as if the sun had retreated behind a cloud. I felt an overwhelming urge to embrace the boy. This journey was a series of firsts for me: my first significant trip without my family, my first time traveling alone, and my first venture into an environment where I was the outsider, with language and cultural barriers evident at every turn.

In the car from Khorramshahr to Basra, I was surrounded by conversations in Arabic, with only the Australian soldiers and myself in silence. My foreign appearance made my purpose in the market obvious to everyone, drawing shopkeepers to invite me to trade with them, some even addressing Abdullah with the nickname “Vulak.”

Abdullah, however, seemed unfazed by their calls. He claimed to have a non-Jewish friend who would offer better rates, although I saw no visible signs that the shopkeepers were Jewish. Nonetheless, Abdullah was adamant that all money changers there were Jewish. The one we ended up dealing with offered rates not much different from the others. He was a young, plump man with fair skin, speaking Persian fluently, more resembling someone from the northern regions of Iran than a typical money changer from Basra’s markets.

I found amusement in the situation, especially when the money changer urged me to do more business with him and to seek out his partner in Baghdad for better rates, providing his address repeatedly. He seemed incredulous that I planned to travel across Iraq with a mere eighty-six tomans. After exchanging my money, I was left with a mix of dinar notes and coins, feeling somewhat richer for the slightly better exchange rate Abdullah had negotiated for me.

As we made our way back, Abdullah’s satisfaction with the deal was evident, and it was then I finally broached the subject that had been on my mind:

“Say, Abdullah, don’t you want to go back?”

“Go back? Where? Oh! Why not? Of course, I do!”

“Do you want to come with me?” I said.

Abdullah’s immediate, enthusiastic response suggested he was ready to abandon his current life and join me on the spot. “Why wouldn’t I come?!” he exclaimed.

I had to clarify, “Not now. I’m off to Diwaniyah and Baghdad. Maybe I won’t come back this way. But if I do, will you come with me?”

“I’ll come with you wherever you say.” His initial excitement seemed to wane, the lines on his face softening into a look of disappointment. It was clear that my proposition, while momentarily uplifting, didn’t fully assuage his longing for something more.

Our conversation continued as we made our way back to the customs office, and it was then I realized I had missed lunch. Abdullah informed me that there were no eateries nearby and that we should have considered this earlier at the market. I resigned myself to skipping lunch, hoping to find something to eat at the train station or on the train itself. It was already past three-thirty, but I remembered the garmak[4] in my travel bag and some remaining items from my travel food pack. I asked Abdullah to wait for me while I dealt with customs, then I’d return.

The customs office was quieter than in the morning, the atmosphere subdued. The old man and the young officer were still there, engaged in conversation. The old man offered a smile, but the young man’s frown and restraint made me hold back my response. I paid the fees for the confiscated items with a mix of resignation and frustration, tossing the money on the table rather than handing it over.

But the young officer hesitated to give me the receipt, exacerbating my irritation. In a moment of anger, I insulted him, which nearly escalated into a physical altercation had the older man not intervened. My anger was palpable, my body tensed with rage, but the young man’s muttered curses in Arabic didn’t provoke any outward reaction from me. I was boiling with fury on the inside.

Eventually, the situation cooled down, and the old man, in an attempt to defuse the tension, suggested in a low voice that just a small additional fee of half a dinar was needed.

The old man’s broken Persian, once a source of mild amusement, now grated on my nerves. I felt an overwhelming urge to shout, to summon the support of everyone in the office, the entire city even, against the injustice of being coerced into paying a bribe. Why should I, who had led a life without conflict with the law or personal disputes, be subjected to this? Why should I, with only six dinars to my name, have to part with half a dinar in bribery? My frustration poured out in a torrent of curses, incomprehensible to them, which was a small consolation. Yet, as my voice dwindled, a desolate silence seemed to envelop the office, as if it were afflicted by a plague. The commotion we had caused seemed to have driven life itself away; no sound of movement, not even the echo of a janitor’s broom, could be heard.

Resigned, I quelled my urge to scream and, striving for calm, inquired of the old man, “But why half a dinar? Isn’t that unfair?”

His response, hinting at the release of my camera, made it clear they had no intention of letting it pass without this additional ‘fee’. Time was against me; without further thought, I threw another note on the table, my words laced with further insults. The clock was inching past four, a dull ache gnawed at my stomach, my mouth parched, and the train was due at five. Upon my return from the currency exchange, the location of the taxis and the calls of a taxi apprentice for “Al-Muqil” were fresh in my mind, yet Abdullah had completely slipped my thoughts. It was as though I had forgotten everything amidst the chaos. Even now, the reason for my forgetfulness eludes me. In haste, I dashed towards the taxis, silently cursing every customs official I could think of, regretting not having arranged my ticket sooner as time relentlessly ticked away.

Carrying only the essentials due to the sweltering heat, I hurried through the high-roofed market of Basra, feeling the oppressive warmth even in the shaded alleys. The close-set high walls seemed to amplify the heat, making my brisk walk through them a sweaty endeavor. My hands, clenching the suitcase handle, ached, but I barely noticed, so consumed was I with my own frustrated thoughts.

Reaching the taxi stand, I found it nearly deserted except for one remaining taxi, its apprentice calling out for passengers to Al-Muqil. Ignoring the discomfort and the weight of my suitcase, I quickened my pace, driven by the urgency of catching the last taxi. As I arrived, the Arabs inside shuffled to make room, and I was just squeezed in when Abdullah appeared, out of breath and evidently having run to catch up.

His arrival caught me off guard, and a flood of memories and emotions from our brief interaction overwhelmed me. I wanted to ask the driver to wait for him, but the taxi was already pulling away. Abdullah, in his effort to catch up, was rebuffed by the apprentice still on the running board and left standing there, trying to maintain a smile despite his evident exhaustion and disappointment.

I was dithering, unsure how to respond to this unexpected situation. What could I possibly offer Abdullah, this kind soul who had been a comforting presence in my otherwise unfamiliar journey through Basra? Would a gesture of money be appropriate, or should I promise to return for him? Or should I have inquired about his missing cigarette box? The moment for action slipped away as the taxi drove off, leaving Abdullah’s strained smile fading into the distance.

Regret washed over me. I hadn’t even waved goodbye or offered a reassuring smile. The feeling of helplessness and self-disgust was overwhelming. I wished I could leap from the taxi, return to Abdullah, and offer the comfort and acknowledgment he deserved. To apologize for the abrupt departure and perhaps reconsider my travel plans entirely, choosing instead to return with Abdullah by my side. But the taxi sped on, quickly reaching Al-Muqil Station.

The long journey to the station seemed to compress time and space, leaving behind only fragmented memories: the pungent aroma of a fellow passenger’s cigarette, the fleeting images of tree-lined avenues, and the comically shaped hats of traffic policemen. As I settled into the station’s café, the full realization of the distance covered in such a brief span dawned on me amidst my fatigue.

The café’s structure was unpretentious and utilitarian, a spacious, elongated hall topped with a corrugated iron roof, absent of any ceiling below, where shafts of sunlight turned the interior into a sweltering haven. The heat was palpable, intensifying the wooden bench’s warmth beneath me. The place buzzed with the low murmur of conversations, punctuated by the distinct aroma of Arab tobacco and the sight of hookahs, their many hoses a focal point for groups of Arabs seated around them, adding to the stifling atmosphere. An unexpected sight near the entrance—a stack of three coffins, two shrouded in black and one in an Arab rug, all oriented towards the qibla—added a solemn note to the surroundings.

With the ticket booths yet to open and the crowd surprisingly thin, I felt a surge of confidence about securing my passage. However, as I sipped my tea, a sense of unease settled in. My appetite had vanished, and even the thought of unwrapping my garmak failed to entice me. A lump formed in my throat, making each swallow an effort. The sight of others around me, enjoying their bitter coffee with apparent relish, offered no comfort. Everything around me, every sensation and observation, seemed to drain me further, leaving me enveloped in an overwhelming sense of weariness.

The environment around me felt oppressively heavy, each sight and sound adding to a sense of burden. The thought of joining others in their consumption of thick, bitter coffee seemed impossible, a trivial concern overshadowed by the lingering memory of my brief interaction with Abdullah near the Basra customs. The brief connection had offered a fleeting moment of solace, yet the manner of our parting left a deep ache within me. Abdullah, a boy I had known for merely a couple of hours, had perhaps seen in our interaction a glimmer of hope, a potential kindness from a stranger in a world so vast and indifferent. My inability to offer even a simple farewell, to acknowledge his presence with the warmth he deserved, haunted me. The regret for the affection and apology I failed to express felt like a physical weight, stifling my breath, urging tears to surface.

Securing my ticket and settling into the Basra-Baghdad train did little to ease my mind. As I arranged my belongings and tried to find some comfort on the hard seat, Abdullah’s image persisted, an ineffaceable imprint on my conscience. His hopeful smile, marred by the effort and subsequent resignation, played over in my mind, a stark reminder of the human connections we forge and sometimes, carelessly, fail to honor. The memory of his strained expression, a mix of hope and disappointment, served as a poignant reflection on the fleeting nature of our interactions and the lasting impact they can leave, a reminder of the opportunities for kindness that, once missed, weigh heavily on our hearts.


© Ali Salami 2024

[1] Keffiyeh is a traditional Middle Eastern headdress typically worn by Arab men. It is a square scarf, usually made of cotton, folded and wrapped around the head.

[2] Dishdasha is a traditional garment worn in many Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf region. It is a long, loose-fitting robe, typically made of cotton or other lightweight fabrics, designed to provide comfort in hot climates

[3] Thuluth is a style of Arabic calligraphy widely used in artistic and decorative writing. It is characterized by its elegant and proportioned forms, with curved and rounded lines. Thuluth stands out for its beauty and is commonly used in writing Quranic verses, famous quotes, and architectural decorations in the Islamic world.

[4] A kind of snack

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