The Other Iraq (Part 1)

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Oh foes who watch us, the nation whose language is Kurdish is alive

It cannot be defeated by makers of weapons of any time

Let no one say the Kurds are dead, the Kurds are alive

The Kurds are alive and their flag will never fall

We are the sons of the red colour of revolution

Our history is one filled with blood

Let no one say the Kurds are dead, the Kurds are alive

The Kurds are alive and our flag will never fall

We are the sons of the Medes and Kai Khosrow

Our homeland is our faith and religion

-from the Kurdish national anthem Ey Reqîb

The above lines, I think, capture the spirit of the Kurdish people perfectly. They were penned in jail by a Kurdish poet and political activist called Dildar. It is appropriate that they were inspired by adversity because adversity seems to be the natural element of the Kurds. After spending just a week in their land I came to respect them immensely for their indomitable will in the face of extreme persecution. For millennia they have striven for independence, clashing with empires, and have managed to eke out a somewhat precarious existence in the mountains across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, surrounded by enemies (for a map and more info please see this previous post). Today the Kurds somehow thrive while the nations around them burn with revolutions and war. In Iraq they inhabit a semiautonomous region in the north. And because of its reputation for peace and liberalism this region has come to be known as The Other Iraq.

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Having not travelled much in the Middle East before I didn’t really know what I would find upon arriving in this Other Iraq. I didn’t really think about the trip much until suddenly it was time to go. I read a few articles. And I watched some short documentaries, including one from 2011 in which an American presenter made an ass of himself by travelling around Kurdistan in a bulletproof car, wearing a Kevlar vest and accompanied by an entourage of armed bodyguards trained in martial arts.

If he had done his homework this presenter would have realised that Americans are welcomed enthusiastically in the northern part of Iraq. This is because the Kurdish people are grateful to the Americans for helping them break free from Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime. Indeed, in Iraqi Kurdistan an American in military uniform is more likely to receive a free meal than a bullet in the chest.

Since Iraqi Kurdistan is situated at a high altitude I was warned to expect arctic conditions. But the weather reports turned out to be exaggerated, which is just as well because in the end I went wearing the exact same stuff I would wear in an English winter. The only bag I brought with me was the small backpack which I used to take to lectures as a university student. It’s true I had a suitcase also but it was full of audio equipment, music scores and clothes for my friend Ciprian who is teaching music there. I guess I sometimes tempt fate when I travel by bringing only the bare minimum of what I need to survive. One day I think I’ll attempt to scale Everest in flip-flops, just to see how far I can get.

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I was told it would take hours to get through immigration at Sulaymaniyah airport. To make the process as smooth as possible I obtained a new passport, figuring that the Israeli stamp in my previous one was not going to win me any friends out there. I expected to face some kind of interrogation by the border officials about my reasons for being in Iraq. But it turned out I was only asked my nationality and if this was my first visit to Kurdistan and required to scan my fingers.

I met up with Ciprian in Istanbul. After getting to Sulaymaniyah he urged me to avoid starting any political discussions with anybody. He felt it necessary to spell this out because of something I had said to the man sitting next to me on the flight from Istanbul. This man was a Kurdish expatriate traveling from his home in Austria (where he practises law) to visit relatives in his hometown Kirkuk (one of the most violent cities in Iraq). He speaks seven languages fluently – Sorani, German, Turkish, English, Persian, Arabic and another one which I can’t remember. I asked him, perhaps stupidly, if he saw himself primarily as an Iraqi or as a Kurd and if he thought Kurdistan would ever be a fully independent state. He gave me a sheepish look and said ‘Only when Kurdistan is independent I will say I am Kurdish’.

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Now let me tell you a bit about this Ciprian before I go any further, because any journey is only as good as the travel companions one journeys with. And as far as travel companions go Ciprian is up there with the best. Musician. Pilgrim. Philanthropist. He comes from Romania but I first got to know him when he was performing at the Glyndebourne Opera House just down the road from where I live in East Sussex, England. He is one of the anointed ones. Talented and soulful. But recently, at the age of 29, he walked away from a very promising career as an opera singer to be a tutor at the newly opened music faculty of Sulaymaniyah University in Kurdistan. The university owes him a salary but after about three months they still haven’t paid him. He plans to stay there for four years regardless of whether or not he ever gets paid. Perhaps unsurprisingly his mother and siblings think he’s foolhardy and have pleaded with him to reconsider his chosen path. He lives on the edge. He lives by faith. And I have never met a more generous or compassionate soul.

We were met at the airport by a friend of Ciprian’s called Kak Amanj (the word Kak, meaning Mr, should always be prefixed to the name of an adult male as a matter of respect in this part of Kurdistan). It was about 5am. Kak Amanj showed up in a beat-up old saloon with a cracked windscreen. But it turned out that he had also arranged to pick up another friend besides Ciprian and myself. This complicated things. It was not possible to close the boot with Ciprian’s two large suitcases jammed in there so we just drove off with the thing flapping open. The third passenger sat in the back next to me with his own suitcase bouncing on his lap, his chin barely poking over the top.

But the cramped backseat and overflowing boot didn’t discourage Kak Amanj from taking off like a getaway driver. He seemed to be on the run from something. Later I found out that he’s an avid fan of car-chase films. He was heavy on the accelerator and used the brake very sparingly, not bothering to slow down for speed-bumps and potholes. ‘Only women slow down for speed-bumps,’ he says. There were no seatbelts in the back so with each jolt my head made contact with the ceiling. There was a bizarre moment when Kak Amanj needed directions. He flashed his headlights at an oncoming truck, which obligingly pulled over, and the two drivers rolled their windows down and conversed across the gap between their vehicles.

We were trying to find an apartment where our unnamed companion was supposed to meet his friends. It turned out this guy had been running a business in London for about a year. But I was mystified as to how this was possible because he could barely string a sentence together in English. With Kak Amanj interpreting for me I asked the fellow what he thought of London. ‘I don’t like the northern part – too many Arabs,’ he said bluntly.

We eventually reached the residential area we’d been looking for – a cluster of bland apartment blocks. Kak Amanj informed me that you wouldn’t be able to get an apartment there for under $600,000. It seemed an astronomical sum for what appeared to be very ordinary and not very large apartments.

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Iraqi Kurdistan’s property market is currently experiencing severe inflation. Many local residents can’t afford to buy a house. There is a lot of money around but it seems to be concentrated in the hands of a few elite families. The region is actually experiencing an economic boom but there has been an influx of foreign businessmen and all the major construction projects are being contracted out to foreign companies. This means that the man on the street has yet to benefit from all the investment which is being pumped into his homeland. As a result there is a lot of resentment seething through the population. Protests regularly take place outside the mosque in the centre of Sulaymaniyah’s bazaar. I came close to witnessing one such outburst of public unrest. When I was walking past the mosque one day I could see a crowd getting restless and about four or five truckloads of police armed with Kalashnikovs rolled up to impose order.

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As Kak Amanj raced his car through the night he gave us the lowdown on the state of Kurdish society. The picture he painted was not very flattering. The rich, he says, are squandering their wealth through illicit poker games. And there is a problem with illegal prostitution. Girls are trafficked mainly from China and Iran, it seems. And, although Kurdistan seems to be a relatively egalitarian society compared with much of the Middle East, women still have very little protection. Parents don’t allow their daughters to go out alone because a lot of the men can’t be trusted to keep their hands to themselves. In fact Kak Amanj did not speak very favourably about Kurdish male youth at all. He says it is not uncommon for boys to resort to force when their romantic advances fail. What intrigued me was his pseudo-scientific explanation for why this happens. He spoke rapidly and in broken English but he seemed to be implying a link between circumcision and increased libido. ‘In Western countries the boys don’t have such strong sexual feelings as Kurdish boys because they don’t cut the skin of the penis,’ he said. Make of that what you will.

We drove through the bazaar. It was still early morning so all the shops were shut and the streets were deserted. Kak Amanj casually pointed out a place where he saw two people get killed in a protest. He is accustomed to violence. He grew up in a house full of guns and learned to shoot when he was only seven years old. Several members of his extended family fought in the civil war which raged between 2006 and 2008. However, his parents kept him out of the fighting because he is their only son. His father, an educated man, brought him up to abhor violence. He is now an observant Muslim and a man of peace. He hates extremism and is disgusted with the way in which his religion has been politicized. Yet even he did not attempt to disguise his dislike of the Jews, suggesting at times that they are responsible for much of the unrest in the Middle East.

Kak Amanj was supposed to be invigilating an exam in a few hours. He’d given up nearly a whole night of sleep to fetch us from the airport. But he’s the kind of guy who willingly puts himself at discomfort and inconvenience to help his friends. A noble character and a hard worker. He teaches English full-time at a high school but when each school day is over he goes off to teach evening classes. He works six days a week. And on top of that he is the key-keeper for a dorm full of college students. When he was seventeen he worked as an interpreter for US soldiers and now he wants to interpret for one of the many foreign companies which have set up in Kurdistan.

Driving like there was a devil inside him he waxed political. He said he thinks Kurdistan has become a lab rat for political and social experiments. I’m still not entirely sure what he meant by that. But they do have a strange set-up there. Although Iraqi Kurdistan is subject to the central Iraqi government in Baghdad it has its own parliament. Leadership is shared between the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. These two parties govern alternately in two-year terms.

As it happens Kak Amanj is a card-carrying member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. He was awarded membership because he was a team leader at the school where he works. He says some people use their membership as a license to disobey the law but he would never dream of doing such a thing.

Finally we got to the dorm where Kak Amanj and Ciprian live. But we couldn’t get into the suite where Ciprian’s room is because his neighbour Kak Salim had locked the outer door from the inside and he was still in bed. Kak Amanj, always happy to do a favour, invited us to sleep in his room for the remainder of the night. We thanked him sincerely but said we would not take up any more of his time. But he insisted. ‘It is my duty to serve great gentlemen like you,’ he said.

His room was in a glorious state of disorder – dirty plates and cups on the table-tops, items of clothing strewn on the floor, tangled phone and laptop chargers, teetering stacks of tattered school books, pieces of dismembered computer hardware, and a faint smell of kerosene on account of the two large kerosene heaters which were warming the place. The room had two bunk-beds which Kak Amanj insisted we use. He, meanwhile, rolled out his prayer mat and prostrated himself several times. Then he cleared a space on the floor, spread out a blanket and stretched himself out on it. ‘See you tomorrow, insh’allah,’ he said.

I was exhausted. I had only been in Iraqi Kurdistan for a few hours and I had already learnt so much. My head was brimming with new information and I had a hectic week ahead of me.

***

More posts on Iraqi Kurdistan coming soon.

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6 comments

  1. Only if I could write like you, Sam. Do you offer crash course on how to write blog posts well? What is this, we were in the same English class and compare the outcome…My writing skills are quite embarrassing : S

    1. You’re too kind Esther. And you’re too hard on yourself! I have been to your blog and can see that you write well. Also, you can write in two languages, I can only write in one!

  2. Oh LOL. I always enjoyed reading your piece of work, even from when I was in high school lol. I used to write very well, especially in Korean, won many competitions and published articles in magazines. I am just too lazy to write a longer blog posts hehe. Once I’m back to graduate school, my English will polish up more. I should write about my travels too, having lived in 5 countries, I think I can write some funny stuff about where I’ve been to. Enjoy your travels! Keep writing!

  3. […] shootings are relatively rare in Sulaymaniyah. But, as I said in my previous post, political demonstrations are common and sometimes things can get ugly. If you want to read about […]

  4. Reblogged this on beautiful absurdity and commented:
    I’m Kurdish, born and bred in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was the worst Public Relations agent (to say the least) for the country that stands on my passport as my birthplace, Iraq, and the other country that I call my birthplace, Kurdistan.

    Read this and find out about that small safe haven in the middle of chaos: Kurdistan.

  5. […] was spouting flames several tens of meters into the air. I thought of the guy I had met on the flight from Istanbul. It hit me that this man who I’d spoken to and exchanged jokes with could so easily end up a […]

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