One might think getting struck in the face by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan would end one’s life, or career as a war correspondent, or even one’s nerve, but that wasn’t how things played out with Carmen Gentile.   The grenade didn’t explode, but broke his skull and took out an eye, which left him wearing a swashbuckling leather eye patch when we interviewed him over Skype, along with his photojournalist partner Nish Nalbandian. Gentile recounts the whole story in his book ‘Kissed by the Taliban: My Unrequited Love of Reporting and the Wrong Woman.’

The engine block  that flew past Nish’s head, from an Islamic State car bomb. [Nish Nalbandian]
Nish Nalbandian had his own brush with a near-fatal attack not long ago in Mosul, when a suicide car bomb hurtled an engine block just past his head, killing an Iraqi Special Forces soldier instantly.  Before working in Iraq, Nish covered the Syrian civil war, publishing ‘A Whole World Blind: War and Life in Northern Syria’ (2016). He ultimately decided to leave Syria due to the increasing danger of kidnapping, and becoming a gruesome sideshow for the Islamic State. As you’ll read, Nish and Carmen aren’t typical war correspondents, but fell into the job sideways, after finding it was ‘something they could do.’

The first picture of the Ural sidecar outfit that Nish and Carmen saw…[Nish Nalbandian]
All this excellent journalism wasn’t the reason for our interview: it was ‘the caper’. The strangest current-interest war story involving a motorcycle in recent memory. It sounds straightforward in the abstract; two journalists working in a foreign country, both motorcyclists, decide to buy a motorcycle/sidecar rig for a little fun while they’re in town. That town happened to be Mosul, Iraq, and the time (Jan. 2017) was during a mighty street battle between combined Iraqi/American forces and Islamic State fighters for control of the city. The motorcycle – a Ural with sidecar – had itself been victim of a mortar attack, but like our heroes, had survived.

Firas’ nephew and friends push the Ural to Firas’ shop for repairs. [Nish Nalbandian]
We had to find out more, so arranged an Skype interview with Carmen Gentile and Nish Nalbandian.  They’re both highly accomplished, widely published journalists, covering complex and difficult armed conflicts.   They’re also dedicated motorcyclists, who see moto-journalism as a possible route out of war reporting, and their Mosul Moto Caper is a first step in a new direction for both men.

Firas removing the old gas tank that had been crushed by falling concrete during a mortar attack. [Nish Nalbandian]
The following is an edited transcript of our 4-way conversation, with Nish, Carmen, Paul d’Orléans and Jean-Philippe Defaut.

Paul d’Orléans: So, WTF guys, you’re war correspondents, and your day job is hanging out in gnarly areas of death and destruction. And you’re motorcyclists.

Carmen Gentile: That makes us sound way cooler than we are.

Pd’O: Oh no, you guys are pretty effing cool. Or crazy, I’m not sure. How many times have you been to Iraq, and how long were you there this time?

Carmen Gentile sits on the Ural for the first time, as a local Mosul men watch. In striped shirt is Talib, a mechanic who rode the bike out of Mosul, in order to get past the many military checkpoints (without any papers). [Nish Nalbandian]
CG: I’ve been going to Iraq since 2005, not steadily, but a month or two at a time; in the past 12 years I’ve probably been there 18 months total.

Pd’O: That’s a tour of duty.

CG: I’ve spent more time in Afghanistan than Iraq; we were only there for a couple of weeks last January.  Nish has been there a lot more than me, shadowing a Special Forces operation.

Pd’O: What were you doing, Nish?

Household members view the Ural in the courtyard of the owner’s home. [Nish Nalbandian]
NN: I was initially there for the Associated Press, then decided to follow a battalion of Iraqi Special Forces, in order to make a photo book about them.  I shot about enough to do a book, but things happened and I decided not to go back to the front lines.  An ISIS suicide car bomb went off right in front of me, about 25 meters away. There was 2 seconds warning, and it killed one guy beside me, wounded 3 others, and threw me into a wall.  

That’s when I said ‘I want to do motorcycle stuff.’

Pd’O: Is that when a car’s engine block flew through the air and hit an American soldier?

NN:  Yeah, it flew right by my head.

Pd’O: That sounds pretty intense.  How did you get into war correspondence?

The first military Ural Nish saw in Mosul, in January 2017, that piqued his interest in finding one of his own. [Nish Nalbandian]
CG:  By chance.  I was in Haiti in 2004 after the coup that ousted Aristide; I’d been based in Brazil and was asked to follow the collapse of the government and the chaos.  To this day, it’s some of the worst stuff I’ve ever seen; there were bodies in the street and close fighting, a lot of shooting.  I didn’t know what I was getting into.

It turned out to be something I was able to do.

I subsequently followed the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pd’O: Something you realized you were able to do – that’s interesting. Nish?

NN:  In 2011 I rode to Ushuiah [the southernmost tip of South America – ed], and treated the trip like I was photojournalist.  I’d also been in Syria for a motorcycle trip before the revolution, and I couldn’t find some of my friends, so I decided to visit the refugee camps in Turkey.  Sort of like Carmen said, it turned out to be something I could do, and was good at.

Firas hand-fabricating brackets and adapters, as there are few parts available off the shelf. Note the MZ ETZ250 in the background – exactly the bike Paul d’Orléans rode through the Eastern Bloc in 1987! [Nish Nalbandian]
Pd’O: Will you carry on war reporting?

CG: I won’t say I’ll never go back, but I don’t anticipate doing more.  My wife and I make grisly calculations at times; is this something that’s worth your life?  What do you sacrifice for your career?  What’s the price tag for your life?

Pd’O: I think we motorcyclists make those calculations as well; it’s an inherently dangerous activity.  Riding in a war zone certainly ramps up that danger!

CG:  Yeah, we caught some grief for not wearing helmets in our photos. We discussed this on the outskirts of Mosul; we wear helmets in combat situations but they won’t help in a motorcycle accident.

If we got into an accident on the bike in Mosul, that would be the least of our worries!

People don’t wear motorcycle helmets in Iraq.  We didn’t as we didn’t want to stick out too much, but folks back home, seeing our photos, give us grief.

Pd’O:  It seems to me those people are looking at the wrong risks you’re taking!

Taleb, our mechanic, and Ahmed, an off duty cop, ride the bike out of Mosul to get past military checkpoints. [Nish Nalbandian]
CG:  We’re always weighing the pros and cons of things, how risky they are.

NN:  We were thinking about ISIS sleeper cells! In the last 6 months in East Mosul they’ve had 60 bombings.  We purposely weren’t wearing helmets as we didn’t want anyone to notice us.  We already stand out enough, with tattoos on our arms, as Americans.

Pd’O: And which helmet would you wear – the one that protects against bullets or road rash?

CG:

We’re carving out new territory here, making it up as we go, and doing the best we can.

Pd’O:  So, is anyone riding a bike regularly in Mosul?

As soon as he started the Ural (first kick!), Firas surprised Nish and Carmen with a display of sidecar prowess on the busy streets outside his Mosul shop. [Nish Nalbandian]
NN:  Not for fun, but there are tons of bikes there, mostly small displacement ones, and scooters; the only big bikes are these Urals used by the military and police.  About two thousand of them were imported between 2000-2005 under the Oil For Food program.  Russia participated in the UN sanctions, and were allowed to import bikes.

Pd’O:  That wasn’t long before the American-led invasion.

CG:  The invasion was March 2003, and leave it to the Russians, they kept importing bikes for another 2 years during the war.

Pd’O:  Where’s the bike now, and is it officially yours?

Local Iraqis watch as one of Firas’ workers installs a new ignition coil.  The blue tank was a handy used spare. [Nish Nalbandian]
NN:  It’s at a friend’s house in Erbil in northern Iraq; we’re getting quotes to ship it to the States.

Pd’O: To the states?  Does either of you spend times in the US? Carmen aren’t you living in Croatia, and Nish you’re in Turkey?

NN: I’m thinking I’ll move back to the States; I’m in Denver for a month now.  It’s no problem to get the Ural to the US.

Pd’O: And there’s always White Power protests over here to cover – if you need action!

CG:  That’s funny – we’ve been talking about America-related stories, there are tons of stories to do on a motorcycle, getting to the heart of America as another journalism enterprise.

Pd’O:  What’s next for you, Nish?

NN: I’d like to move into moto-journalism, and make a niche in that industry.

I’d prefer not to go back into a war zone.

Pd’O:  You’re not planning to collect the bike in person?

Carmen getting the bike refuelled halfway to Erbil.  After being stuck at a checkpoint for three hours, they rode half the distance in the dark, a sketchy proposition given the bike’s crappy headlight. The arabic writing on the sidecar is a proverb that translates as: “Betraying me will not make me cry, being in the company of a coward will.”[Nish Nalbandian]
NN: I’d go back to Iraq, but to the north, where it’s stable.  I have friends there who invited me to go fishing and camping.

Pd’O:  That’s not how we think of Iraq – fishing and camping.

NN:  The reality is in all these places, people have to live, and if there’s not an actual war going on in your city, you can do these things.  The Kurdish areas are secure.

Pd’O: Ted Simon wrote in ‘Jupiter’s Travels’ that he preferred visiting countries at war – avoiding the conflict areas – as there were no tourists!  He’s changed his tune since then, as Western civilians are targets now.

Jean-Pierre Defaut: I like the notion of a normal life in countries at war.  What are the roads like in Iraq?

NN:  Some of Iraq is really nice, in the high desert, and the sunset the night we rode the Ural was really beautiful.  Around Erbil there are 4-lane highways in great shape.

CG:  Nish and I both grew up in Pennsylvania, he in East with nicer roads, me in West.

In western PA some of the roads are worse than in Iraq.

Carmen riding the Ural around Erbil in the twilight; the landscape is high desert, but he mountains are farther north and east. [Nish Nalbandian]

Pd’O:  So are some roads in rural California.  Are there places in Iraq that motorcyclists would want to ride through when things stabilize?

CG: I think you could definitely ride in the Kurdish areas, starting in Erbil and going east into Sulaymaniyah in the mountains where Nish is talking about going camping.  Absolutely, it’s a beautiful area.

I was there in 2008 in the height of the US-led war, and it was gorgeous; pine-covered mountain slopes, snow capped peaks, valleys with rivers running through them.

NN: And the food’s good!

Pd’O:  What do the Iraqis think about Americans now?  Nobody’s talking about anything but ISIS here. How are things 15 years after the invasion?

NN: There’s Iraqi political views, how they see our system and the invasion, but then there’s the personal situation.  They’ve watched a lot of American TV and movies, and people can differentiate between imperialist aggression and individual Americans.

CG:

I tend to stay away from broad questions about ‘what do all Iraqis think about Americans’ because I haven’t asked every Iraqi!

Pd’O: Touché!

CG:  Sometimes we’re trying to tell one person’s story, and from there the reader can extrapolate.  Nish and I have talked a lot about resilience – that people can survive the most indescribable horrors.  And they go on – after eastern Mosul was liberated, people were out on the street, drinking tea, shooting the shit with their friends. I’d be curled up in a ball on a therapists’ couch, but they keep going!

NN: And doing things like putting up billboards!

Pd’O: Really, what’s the option – do you stop living or carry on?

CG:  We had a really good fixer, Sangar, who helped us get through numerous checkpoints on the way from Mosul to Erbil; he had to talk us through with soldiers who were looking at us like WTF?  There’s nothing in the manual for this.

Pd’O: You had no papers for the bike at all?

CG: Nothing.

Pd’O: That’s what makes your Ural story a caper – find a bike in the chaos of a war zone.  How did this begin?

NN: I was there in January, and went to a police HQ and there was a Ural and sidecar parked.  It was in really good shape, so I talked to my fixer to see if I could buy one.  He said we could find one for $500.  That’s how it started.

Pd’O:  There’s no Craiglist in Mosul.  How did you find it?

NN: It’s easy to find a Ural, but they’re all owned by the police and military.  Finding a civilian model was like finding a needle in a haystack.  Even the one we found… if you scratch the surface you might find military paint underneath. We paid $300 for the bike, $100 to grease palms to make it happen, and $100 to get it fixed.  It wasn’t an exorbitant amount of money.

CG: The bike did have a piece of a concrete wall fall on the original gas tank, after a mortar blast! The house had been taken over by ISIS and was a target.  I don’t know if any of your bikes have taken that kind of a hit?  Our mechanic Firas Assadi rustled up another tank from a junk pile.  It’s really cool, because with that blue tank and the rest of the bike red…

It almost looks like a Russian version of Captain America’s bike!

Carmen riding the Ural around Erbil.  With its blue tank and red bodywork, he thinks “it almost looks like a Russian version of  Captain America’s bike!’ [Nish Nalbandian]

Pd’O: That certainly resonates with American politics this week!  I’m intrigued by your mechanic; what’s his story?

CG: Firas knew the bike well, as he knew the previous owner, and had been riding it for years.  It took him less than 3 hours to get the Ural running; then he started doing sidecar wheelies up and down this really busy street in Mosul! He knew the bike like the back of his hand.  He’d been riding them for years, his father and grandfather owned Urals.  If you’d taken the bike to a shop in the US and asked them to get it running in 3 hours, they’d have laughed.

NN:  He found some other carbs to adapt to make the bike run, made spacers so they fit, and it started first kick!

Pd’O:  Sounds like the impromptu mechanicing  you’d find in India – old guys with dirt floor shops who’ll rebuild your bike in a day.  Without the veneer of professionalism, you can find true mechanics who can fix anything. Is there any kind of pleasure riding in Iraq, now or in the past?

CG: Oh yeah, during my time in Baghdad I’ve seen Harleys, there are even riders with tricked-out bikes.  There’s a drift-car culture in Baghdad, and along with that goes a sportbike culture.

NN:  There’s a Harley club in Baghdad.

The object for their affection; a 2004 Ural sidecar outfit, slightly damaged by the war.[Nish Nalbandian]
JP: What’ the price of fuel?

CG:  Oh its super cheap, 50,000dinars per gallon!  Pennies on the dollar compared to the US.

It’s a petrol state – don’t drop a match on the ground!

Pd’O: What’s your plan now, gents?

CG: Now we’ve got a taste for this kind of storytelling, combining our work as journalists with stories about motorcycles and places to ride.  Next we’ll tour through the Balkans as journalists; 20 years ago, the area was in a war similar to what Iraq’s is going through, and people haven’t heard much about it since then.

NN: The idea is choosing places that have current affairs significance, with good riding roads too.

Pd’O: I have a friend, Doug Wothke, with a motorcycle hotel in Bulgaria; he speaks highly of the Balkans for riding.

CG: It’s really quite incredible. I don’t know everything about the region, even though my wife is Croatian; she says I should do more work around here than the Middle East! There are places you can rent bikes, and tour companies, and we’ve picked out spots with great riding terrain, and spots pertaining to recent history (the war between Serbia and Croatia, and then in Bosnia).  That will make a good story, the terrain is stunning and varied in the Balkans.

It was only 20 years ago these guys were at each other’s throats.

Pd’O: It gives hope for places like Iraq – that it’s possible to recover.

Paul d’Orléans interviewing Carmen Gentile and Nish Nalbandian over Skype. [JP Defaut]
CG: The course of history is long and winding, we’re in a period of civility in the USA, but their history goes back thousands of years, and there’ve been periods of bloodshed.

Pd’O: That sounds like everywhere actually.

CG: I’d like this story to make the world seem more accessible to riders, that all over the world you can find a place to rent bikes, like El Salvador, New Zealand, here in the Balkans.  It’s not difficult.

Pd’O: In 1987, I rode with my girlfriend, Denise Leitzel, from London to the Soviet border on MZ 250s, and I found going places people (at least Americans) don’t know can be really rewarding.  It’s kind of special – doing the other thing – and feels fresh.  Americans don’t travel that easily, we barely even travel through Mexico, because we hear stories of violence.

NN: But the food is good!

Pd’O: And that’s a priority!  The roads might be crap, but as long as the scenery and the food are good, I’ll go!

 

 

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