An Iraqi guard, dressed in sandals, army pants and a
button-up Hawaiian shirt, slung a machine gun over his shoulder and examined
Bob Keith’s passport. When the guard cocked his head and held the book upside
down, Keith realized no one was in charge.
Keith, a 52-year-old Whitewater native, is a self-proclaimed
cultural writer with an obsession to seek truth. His desire most recently led
him to Iraq, for the second time, where he spent over two weeks meandering from
one-room hotels to ancient temple ruins, nerve-racking taxi rides to after-dark
“The whole point of me going is to find out what no one knew
and piece it together for myself,” Keith said. “If you want to see the stories
about the people, you have to dig into PBS, and even then it’s not completely
accurate. We get this construct in our minds that someone was just pummeled by
a tank or machine gun — that’s why I was so surprised when I realized how
friendly the people actually were.”
To relay his information, Keith uploaded short reflections,
photographs and video clips to his travel blog, cooldadiomedia.com, hoping to
tell his story to anyone who would listen, he said.
With $2,000 in cash, his wife’s digital camera and a United
States passport, Keith flew into Ankara, Turkey Feb. 21 and crossed the Iraqi
border by cab four days later, traveling across the Kurdish northern region as
he did in 2006. He spoke no Arabic and had no itinerary or political agenda.
According to Heide Keith, Bob’s wife and a professional
photographer, he carried himself as an observer. He couldn’t say he was a
journalist because of the increasing number killed in the area, she said.
“Despite the amount of research he did, I was always very
concerned about the idea,” Heide said. “I always had in the back of my mind
that he would be pawned and used for some sort of statement.”
Brawny, full-bearded and pony-tailed, Keith prides himself on
starting college at 40 at UW-Whitewater, growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm
and working more than two dozen blue-collar jobs, a background which helped him
connect with people overseas.
“The language is different, but a hammer’s a hammer,” he
Keith crossed more than 100 checkpoints on his trip, none of
which detained him for more than a half hour. Most guards just wondered why he
was there, Keith said.
While he mostly traveled in the country’s northern region,
Keith said he could see clear contradictions with the American media’s
depiction of Iraq. Despite his constant fear — he even crafted two bungee cords
into locks for hotel rooms — he realized that most people wanted to protect
According to Keith, the “taxi mafia” found good publicity in
getting “the American” from point A to point B, as he used a travel mode most
big media companies ignore for “$300 a night hotels, $250,000 armored SUVs and
“Also, the media will say that democracy seems to be working
in northern Iraq, but it’s so much more complicated than that,” Keith said. “In
every little internet cafe over there, there’s a picture of their leader with a
machine gun. They say he’s dually elected, but if you don’t vote for him, it’s
Keith’s experience also allowed him to see differences between
the American and Iraqi people. According to Keith, everyone he met knew someone
who was shot or gassed under Saddam Hussein’s regime, a war-torn lifestyle most
Americans don’t experience. While on a visit to Halabja, a Kurdish city gassed in
1988 by Saddam, he met people still scarred from the attacks, though he chose
not to take photographs in the city as a sign of respect.
“I take pictures pretty arbitrarily, but there was this
picture of a 5-year-old Kurdish girl on the street sitting in a box of soap,”
Keith said. “She was just so cute, her hair was flowing, and she wore a
distinct ethnic leather dress. My guide at the time said, ‘She’s beautiful,
isn’t she?’ while she gave me this look like, ‘I have to be here and you’re
Keith said it’s important to realize the dangers of his
trip. One night during Ramadan, shopkeepers brought out juice carts and fruit
stands, blasted Kurdish rock music and danced in the streets under dangling
wires and boarded-up buildings.
“Nothing is what it seems; nothing seems what it is,” he
Another night, Keith contemplated diving out of his taxi,
scared the driver was kidnapping him.
“It’s not something I’d recommend anyone to do,” Heide said.
“But I have to say from what he’s shared, he did meet some kind people that
appreciate what he’s done to try to make things better while they’re just
trying to cope with living in a war zone.”
According to Heide, Keith still keeps in touch with a few
people overseas. She remembers answering the phone from a dead sleep, to a
foreign voice with loud music in the background. While her first reaction was
panic, a man from Sulaymaniyah was calling to check on Keith’s safe arrival
“It’s hard to tell how people will react to you unless you’ve
been to their country,” she said.
While Keith still considers himself patriotic, he said the
feeling now comes with a new perspective. He laughs when he hears the phrase
“Middle East solution” thrown about, recalling the crumbling streets,
illiterate border patrols and overall sense of fear.
Yet regardless of the danger, Keith said he has never denied
his American roots.
“If anyone’s going to kill me because I’m American, bring it
on,” Keith said. “I’m going to die some day of something. Every once in a while
you have to make a stand and ask yourself, ‘Is this something I want to die for