Next month Turkish Airlines will convey me via Istanbul to the mountains of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
I’ve got to admit I didn’t see this coming; never anticipated I’d be starting off the year 2013 deep in one of the most politically volatile countries on the planet.
You’ll notice that I’ve already exposed my ignorance within those first two sentences. To me the defining characteristic of Iraq (and the Middle East in general) is its political instability. It is that characteristic which is emphasized above all others by the sensationalist media in my country and consequently it is the characteristic most firmly lodged in the collective consciousness of the society I live in. The mental picture I have of Iraq is a hastily cobbled together montage of dimly remembered news reports about car bombs and kidnappings. It is a pathetic picture which can’t possibly do justice to the rich cultural heritage of that vast, ancient land which in the Bronze Age was part of the so-called Cradle of Civilisation.
So I welcome the opportunity to venture into Iraq and see the place for myself. I’m ready to get educated and scrap my useless preconceptions.
Until a few months ago I knew nothing about Kurdistan. Not a thing. I had heard the name and had read about Saddam Hussein’s campaign of genocide against the Kurdish people but I wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the region on a map. It existed on the extreme peripheries of my field of global awareness. It was only when my friend Ciprian – an opera singer from Romania – went out there to teach music that I learned more about the region. This same friend told me at a barbeque in England back in the summer that I should visit him at his new home in Kurdistan. I said I’d love to, not actually believing that I’d ever have the opportunity, certainly not within a few months of that casual invitation.
I still don’t quite know what to expect from the trip. I know I’ll be flying in to a city called Sulaymaniyah, which lies not far from the Iraq-Iran border. I’ll be staying in Ciprian’s dormitory. The two of us will arrive at the airport at 3.45am but will have to stay there until 6am because the dorm is locked until then. At some point I’ll be teaching a class about Great Expectations, a book I have never read, at the high school where Ciprian works. We may travel to Erbil, the fourth largest city in Iraq and the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
That vague itinerary is all I’ve got right now. Not that this is unusual for me. I very rarely make detailed plans when I travel. I never really bother to research my destination thoroughly. Don’t buy guidebooks. Mostly because I’m lazy but also because I’ve tended to travel mainly around Southeast Asia which is a region I am already quite familiar with, having spent the majority of my life there.
This time things are different. I’m going to a place which is totally alien to me. Until now the only Middle Eastern countries I’ve visited are Israel and the United Arab Emirates, neither of which I expect to bear much similarity to Iraq. So I’m investing time into learning something about Kurdistan and specifically Sulaymaniyah.
What I now know is this:
Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region which stretches over parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. During the Iraq War of 2003-2011 the Iraqi part of Kurdistan was a relatively peaceful enclave in a country that was being ripped apart by seemingly endless sectarian violence. To the powers-that-be in Western nations it was a bastion of democracy and a model for the rest of Iraq.
According to news broadcaster Al Jazeera Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed de facto autonomy since 1991. It set up its own parliament, adopted its own flag and took responsibility for its own security. It has attracted investment and become a favourite tourist destination for Iraqi and Iranian people.
Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, rules as a dictator, controlling the media and enforcing control with a heavy police presence. But his advocates argue that a strong leader is needed to impose order in an unstable region.
On the Turkish side of Kurdistan tensions are high. A militant group called the Kurdish Workers Party (commonly referred to as PKK) has been inciting armed struggle to gain complete secession from Turkey.
As for Sulaymaniyah, it is located in a mountainous area and in the winter it is brutally cold. It is known as the cultural capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, being home to several popular Kurdish poets in the 19th Century and the birthplace of modern Kurdish music. Modernisation and consumerism is rife and Iranian tourists flock there because it is more liberal than their homeland. Just a few days ago the Federal Aviation Authority permitted US airlines to fly to and from Erbil and Sulaymaniyah for the first time in 16 years. This could mean that Kurdistan will soon become more accessible to Western travellers (although no US carriers have yet indicated any interest in starting services there).
All that being said, let’s not forget that bloodshed is never far away in this part of the world. Just last month a single day (the 27th) saw eight car bombs claim the lives of 29 people and injure 126 others across Iraq (full CNN report available here). Three of those bombs went off in Kirkuk, a city little more than an hour’s drive from Sulaymaniyah, killing four and wounding 41. It turns out Kirkuk is an area of contention between the regional government of Kurdistan and the federal government in Baghdad because it is rich in oil. Tension is further aggravated by the fact that it is an ethnically mixed area, containing Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. I’ve also realised that I may have to pass through this place to get to Erbil.
Yet, there are many places around the world where humans can’t seem to live in peace. In that sense Iraq is not unique. In fact, I’d say strife and turmoil are fundamental aspects of the human condition. My home country, this tiny corner of the world known as England, is unusually quiet. Its residents exist in a bubble, shielded from the harsher realities of the wider world, under the illusion of security and order. This is in stark contrast to many communities across the globe. I’ll never forget visiting a kibbutz on the Israel-Lebanon border where people calmly went about their business constantly under the threat of rocket strikes. The people living there are well acquainted with war but you wouldn’t know it to look at them. It was surreal to witness apparently normal life going on amid buildings scarred with scud missile impacts and bunkers dug into the earth.
As far as possible I want to understand what life is really like for those people whose daily experiences are completely different to mine. I want to know: what does the world look like to the Kurds of Iraq?
Have any of my readers been to Sulaymaniyah or anywhere else in Kurdistan? If so would you care to share your insights or recommend any good sources of information about the place to get me warmed up?
Perhaps you have never been to Kurdistan but have specific questions about what life is like there. If so let me know and I’ll try to address those questions when I get back from my trip.
Stay tuned for further reports on Iraqi Kurdistan.
And in the meantime: peace, salaam, shalom to all.