Blood of the rooster
On the road to the northern Iraqi city of Erbil
By Kevin Sites
In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and newsmakers around the world.
TABRIZ, Iran (CNN) -- This morning we will leave Tehran, and set out for the border with Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. It should take about 10 hours.
An Iranian contact told me that, a few months ago, it would cost thousands of dollars to make the crossing.
Now, apparently, journalists stream across by the dozens -- as many as 200 so far -- to cover a possible northern front in a war against Iraq.
Eight of us from CNN are making this trip to the city of Erbil. We are a mix of camera shooters, satellite engineers, producers and reporters. We will ride in a 12-passenger tour bus. A small blue pickup, jam-packed, will carry most of our 50 cases of television equipment and personal belongings.
As we pack up our gear, I cross the street to film our truck and bus in front of the small apartment building where we are staying.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a man come out of a small convenience store, carrying a beautiful black rooster. He gently places it next to the curb on the busy street. And then, using a box razor, he cuts off its head.
Its body pulsates like a heart for a few moments as a puddle of crimson spreads across the pebbled asphalt. The rooster's cockscomb rests close by.
With his hand, the man then wipes some of the rooster's blood on the front panel of his white car -- a smear of red with a few feathers.
Our local producer tells me that Iranians sometimes perform this ritual when they buy a car -- a blood christening, he says, for road safety, for good luck. "Not very lucky, however, for the rooster," I say.
So we ask the man to smear a little blood on our blue pickup. As we begin our journey, we think, maybe we should have smeared a little on our bus as well.
We're moving slowly. The over-packed pickup is miles behind us. It's 4 in the afternoon and we're not even halfway there. We decide to try to make it only as far as the Iranian city of Tabriz tonight, near the Turkish border.
We stop to eat at a roadside restaurant. One of our drivers speaks a little English. He tells the owner -- a stocky, balding man with 3-day-old stubble and wearing a gray suit coat -- that we'd all like the chicken kebabs with rice.
The place is the size of a small cafeteria and we're the only ones here. Posters of the frowning Ayatollah Khomeini adorn the glass entrance doors.
In a few minutes, our food arrives. Hot platters are filled with chicken cubes and stacked high with white rice, dusted with yellow saffron.
We are about to dig in when CNN Correspondent Jane Arraf pulls apart a piece of chicken with her fork. She doesn't like what she sees.
I do the same. It's pink enough that I think maybe we could rub it on the outside of our bus for good luck.
Jane tells the owner she would like hers cooked a bit more. The others and I ask the same. Our driver is not with us. He is in a side room, praying. The owner doesn't understand.
He thinks we don't like the food and shows us other items on the menu. I grab a platter and walk with him back into the kitchen. In the back, there's a rectangular charcoal pit where the meat is cooked on long metal skewers.
I show him that we want the chicken put back on the grill. He smiles in recognition: "OK, OK," he says, waving me off and smiling. Everything is fine. Then one by one, the rest of the table starts bringing in their platters.
The cook looks angry. There's a traffic jam in his kitchen. Our driver has finished his prayers and is now horrified that we've created an international incident. He looks at the pink chicken, picks it up with his fingers, shrugs and says: "It's OK, it's OK."
"No," I tell him. "We all want it cooked more. Tell him it's a cultural thing: Westerners like their chicken black."
Our driver's English is limited, but he's able to get my point across. All the chicken goes back on the grill. When the platters come back out, the owner is no longer smiling. We eat quietly, pay our bill, get back on the bus and go on our way.
The road is getting narrower as the hills close in to meet us.
For latest developments, see CNN.com's Iraq Tracker.