This is the concluding part of a four-part series on Iraqi Kurdistan. If you haven’t read the preceding parts and would like to do so please click on the title of my blog to be referred to the archives. Alternatively you can just read this as a stand-alone piece.
‘Kirkuk! Kirkuk! Kirkuk!’
It was 7am and the air was cold. The bus conductors released clouds of vapour from their mouths, barking the names of their destinations. They were smoking slims and slurping sweet cardamom tea from saucers.
‘Baghdad! Baghdad! Baghdad!’
We were at a bus depot in northern Iraq. Neither Ciprian or I knew where to pick up the bus to Erbil and we couldn’t read the Kurdish signs.
‘We better not get on the wrong bus,’ I said, ‘the last thing we want to do is end up in Kirkuk or Baghdad.’
Ciprian laughed. ‘Yes, that would be the end of us. Anyway, I think you need a special visa to visit those cities so we probably wouldn’t get far if we got on the wrong bus.’
We asked around, got a few contradictory responses, waved off the taxi drivers offering to take us for 10,000 dinars each, and finally boarded the bus we hoped would take us where we wanted to go. We seated ourselves directly behind the driver and waited for the bus to fill up.
Once we were on our way the passengers started passing their fares to the driver seat-by-seat as is the norm on buses in Sulaymaniyah. 7,000 dinars (about £4) per person. Such a system works best if everyone hands over the exact amount – you wouldn’t want to test the driver’s multitasking skills by making him count out change while contending with the madness of the Iraqi roads.
In front of us, sitting next to the driver, was a man who looked a little like a hardened buccaneer, with long unkempt hair and a large scar extending from the corner of his mouth to his left ear. He was dressed in traditional Kurdish attire – a loose-fitting jacket, baggy trousers, a sash around the waist, and a cloth tied around the head. He was feeding prayer beads through his fingers, a habit embraced by a lot of Kurdish men more as a way of aiding blood circulation than out of a sense of religiosity (a habit similar to the Chinese practice of rubbing walnuts together in the palm).
The buccaneer sat silently at first, staring ahead, but eventually started conversing with the driver. The two of them talked with the tone of voice and mannerisms of a couple of intellectuals discussing politics. Every now and then we passed a mangled lump of road-kill and the buccaneer would shake his head and cluck. He looked like a man who’s been to the ends of the earth and seen it all.
It was only when we reached the first security checkpoint that we found out this man could speak English. A guard with a semiautomatic weapon slung over his shoulder opened the door and announced something in Kurdish. The buccaneer turned to Ciprian and myself and said ‘You need to give him your passport.’ We obliged and the guard beckoned for us to step out of the vehicle. ‘He wants you to go with him,’ our interpreter explained, ‘let me know if you have any problems. I will help you.’
Aside from Ciprian and myself two other passengers were required to get off the bus and walk to a nearby guard-post. I don’t know where these two passengers were from but evidently they didn’t have the ID cards which Iraqi Kurds carry. One of them could speak a little English.
‘So many police checks in this country,’ he said, as if apologising.
‘I don’t mind all the police if it means we don’t go bang,’ Ciprian replied, accompanying his words with appropriate hand motions.
The other passenger laughed. ‘Yes, bang not good.’
Once our documentation had been examined the bus continued heading west. The horizon was ridged with mountains but the terrain through which we passed was flat and mostly featureless. The road traversed the outskirts of Kirkuk, where a suicide bomb had gone off just the day before.
The residents of Kirkuk have the misfortune of being sat on top of a huge oilfield. Because of its abundance of black gold the city is one of the most disputed territories in Iraq, with the central government in Baghdad and the government of Kurdistan both laying claim to it. Historically the largest ethnic group in the city has been the Kurds, but when Saddam Hussein was in power he attempted to displace the Kurdish population and settle Arabs there. Today Kirkuk is a melting pot of different people groups, primarily Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. It is also home to both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. These groups have for years failed to coexist and yet their blood mingles in the streets as insurgents from all sides wage a campaign of indiscriminate killing.
As we came off the expressway to enter Kirkuk’s suburbs we passed an oilfield where a gas flare 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 statistic in one of the grim news reports which trickle out of Kirkuk with routine reliability. Just another casualty in a mounting death-toll that long ago exhausted my reserves of compassion and impoverished my powers of comprehension. How mad is the human race that it takes great care not to spill a drop of petroleum and yet liberally sprinkles the blood of its own kind! Every time I fill my car up I hate myself for my complicity in this wholesale slaughter of innocents.
We passed through ghostly neighbourhoods, motionless except for a few dust swirls. No vehicles except for our bus. But here and there groups of kids enlivened the atmosphere with their carefree play.
We spent no more than ten minutes in this city, where the very earth itself bleeds. Soon enough it was at our backs and I fell asleep.
I woke up to see the city of Erbil rising around us. Construction sites everywhere. Traffic coursing down the roads. Motion. Activity. Business. The journey had taken about two hours.
‘Welcome in Erbil!’ the buccaneer grinned.
Our first port-of-call after debussing was a tea shop. A well-dressed man with a shiny watch on his wrist spoke to us in English: ‘Can I help you? What are you looking for?’
‘Please have a seat. I’ll be right back.’
The man brought two steaming glasses of sweet tea and hung around to chat to us. After initial introductions he established that he had lived in Inverness for nine years. ‘Scotland is a beautiful country; beautiful mountains,’ he said, ‘we Kurds love mountains’.
‘Where have you travelled from today?’ he asked.
‘Ah. Then you passed through Kirkuk. You heard about the bombing yesterday? About 25 killed. Terrible! Terrible!’
This was the first I had heard about the January 16th bombing but sadly I was not in the least bit shocked. Every month there are reports of suicide attacks in Kirkuk. The reports are so frequent that they rarely elicit an emotional response. Sometimes they choke me up and make me ashamed to be human. Sometimes I feel intense anger and frustration. But more often than not I succumb to a sense of futility. And futility leads to apathy. And apathy is the worst thing of all because it is a non-feeling. What can one do except shake one’s head and say ‘Terrible! Terrible!’? And what is the point of that?
‘So what brings you to Erbil?’ our new friend enquired.
‘Well I need to get to the Ministry of Higher Education,’ Ciprian replied. ‘I am teaching at the University of Suleimani but I was told that I will not get paid unless I get some papers stamped at the ministry. Do you know how to get there?’
‘I will take you. It’s very close. No problem.’
‘Kaka, that’s very kind of you but it’s not necessary. If you tell us how to get there we will take a taxi.’
But our friend had made up his mind to take us and he had no time for any suggestion to the contrary. So that’s how we came to find ourselves in a brand-new car with the manufacturer’s plastic coverings still on the seats, heading into downtown Erbil.
To some this might seem incredibly foolhardy – hopping into a stranger’s car in Iraq. And I wholeheartedly agree. It was a reckless move and one which any sensible traveller should never undertake. But I am not a sensible traveller and I often only grasp the risk of a situation with hindsight.
Our friend, weaving through the traffic, started talking about football, a subject I have no interest in whatsoever. The most unfortunate thing about football, I find, is its omnipresence. It seems there is nowhere in the world where you can go to escape football fans and their insufferable banter about grown men who make a living out of knocking an inflatable sphere around a grassy rectangle.
‘What is your job?’ I asked him, to change the topic.
‘I’m in the Ministry of Peshmerga.’
‘Ah, you are a soldier!’
As I mentioned in the previous post, the Peshmerga started out as rebel fighters struggling to obtain autonomy for the Kurdish people. But in 2003 they fought alongside the US-led coalition forces in Iraqi Kurdistan, and since then they have been in charge of all security matters in the region. The Peshmerga have always sought to safeguard Kurdish interests. They are the sentinels of Kurdish lands, standing their ground against both foreign and domestic enemies. Not only did they take on the full might of Saddam’s army but they also stood up to fanatical Islamic groups such as the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan and Ansar al-Islam. The latter of these groups was an Iran-based affiliate of al-Qaeda which attacked the Kurdish people with suicide bombs and even swords and machetes.
Interestingly, the Peshmerga includes many female fighters in its ranks. Ever since the Kurdish uprising against Saddam in 1991 female Peshmerga fighters have faced the same combat scenarios as their male counterparts. Intrigued? Take a look at this video.
I wanted to ask our new friend more about the Peshmerga. The pictures I had seen of them portrayed them as a ragtag band of mountain-dwelling guerrillas brandishing rocket-propelled grenades and battered AK-47s. But here was a Peshmerga soldier cruising around in a nice new car with a big shiny dashboard embedded with glowing dials and LCD screens. Before I could ask any more questions, however, we had reached the Ministry of Higher Education.
Upon stepping out of the car we thanked him profusely: ‘Thank you so much kaka! You are so kind! Zor supas! Zor zor zor supas!’
‘Don’t mention it,’ he said. ‘I like you guys.’ And he disappeared into the seething city.
The Ministry of Higher Education presented us with a warren of corridors echoing with footfall. We found our way to the relevant department after approaching several official-looking people and showing them a text message which someone at the university had sent to Ciprian. We joined a queue in a room full of lockers. Well-thumbed directories of universities around the world were stacked on top of a table.
We waited at least half an hour before Ciprian was allowed into the office. From the doorway I watched him filling out some forms. This took at least another twenty minutes. But when Ciprian emerged from the office he looked crestfallen.
‘A waste of time,’ he sighed, ‘they’re telling me now that I have to get my papers stamped at the Iraqi embassies in London and Rome to prove that I completed my tertiary education in those places.’
Powerless, we retreated to the ministry’s canteen to lunch on falafels and drink sweet tea. Ciprian looked worn out. Bureaucratic rigmarole has been the bane of his life in Kurdistan. He told me several times throughout the trip that he feels drained. Without an income he lives a precarious life, trusting that God will throw him a financial lifeline when it is needed. After his travels around Europe he had less than £10 to his name. And it seems that whenever he has money he’s quick to give it away.
‘Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here,’ he mused. ‘All I want to do is find a nice Romanian girl, get married and have ten kids. I want a simple life. But Richard Wurmbrand was tortured in prison for more than 20 years. My hardships are nothing in comparison.’
After lunch we made our way to the citadel in the center of Erbil. We asked a couple of youths for directions. They hailed a taxi for us and not only told the driver where to go but attempted to pay the fare for us. I was taken aback by the generosity of these complete strangers but we insisted that we would pay for ourselves.
In a few minutes we reached the citadel. The ancient walls of this fortress, which have been dated as far back as 2000 BC, crown a hill which looms above a bustling bazaar. It stands in stark contrast to the rapid modernisation taking place around it.
Erbil is one of the hubs of Kurdistan’s recent economic boom. Some optimists have touted it as ‘the New Dubai’. Having been to the actual Dubai I can confidently say that Erbil has a lot of work to do before it deserves such a title. But considering that Dubai itself grew from a relatively obscure desert town into a thriving metropolis in a matter of decades it is not too difficult to imagine something similar happening in Erbil if the conditions are right.
We had one last mission to complete while in this city. Ciprian wanted to buy a guitar. In all of Sulaymaniyah he had not found one that measured up to his standards, despite that city’s reputation as Kurdistan’s ‘Capital of Culture’. So we looked around Erbil’s bazaar until we came to a shop full of stringed instruments – lutes, ukuleles and guitars – all covered in a thin film of dust. The shopkeeper was watching an episode of WWE in which a ripped antagonist was taunting The Rock in front of a bloodthirsty audience. Ciprian selected a guitar and proceeded to tune it while the two knuckleheads on TV hurled insults at each other.
Having acquired a new guitar our business in Erbil was concluded. We had a quick look inside the citadel before heading back to the bus station. But there was nothing much to see inside. The newly-listed UNESCO World Heritage Site is undergoing some serious renovations so most sections were out-of-bounds to visitors. Nonetheless we had a great view of the sun setting over Erbil from the main gate.
We were too late to catch the last bus back to Sulaymaniyah so we had to take a taxi. But the driver wouldn’t go anywhere until his car was full. While waiting for two other passengers to turn up he got his prayer mat out of the boot, rolled it out on the tarmac facing Mecca and proceeded to prostrate himself.
It was pitch dark when we got going. The only traffic on the road seemed to be convoys of huge oil trucks with black crude dribbling down their sides. At a military checkpoint a soldier rummaged through our boot with a flashlight while a demented stray dog barked and chased any vehicle that moved. After we’d been driving about an hour the driver seemed to grow impatient – he started talking aggressively in Kurdish, pushing the car to speeds in excess of 80 miles an hour. He tailgated the big oil trucks, weaving recklessly through the convoys, swerving in and out of impossibly tight gaps.
It was late when we finally reached the dorm. I showered for one hour. Then we cracked open bottles of Istak, an Iranian ‘non-alcoholic malt beverage’ which tastes suspiciously like Sprite. I reflected on the events of the day. Next door Kak Salim was watching Shawshank Redemption on full volume. Morgan Freeman delivered his classic line: ‘Get busy living or get busy dying’. And with Morgan Freeman’s voice ringing in my ears I went to bed.
The following day was my last in Kurdistan. But I had one last surprise on my way to the airport in Kak Amanj’s car. I was asking Kak Amanj how his day had been.
‘Morning I went up the mountain behind the dorm to meditate. There is snow up there.’
‘Must be very peaceful,’ I said.
‘Yes. But lots of people go there to get drunk on vodka also,’ he laughed.
‘What about the afternoon?’
‘Afternoon my parents came to visit for about an hour.’
‘Yes, today I got engaged. My father came to speak with me and the imam, to give his blessing to the marriage.’
‘Kak Amanj! You’re engaged! But all this time you never even mentioned that you had a girlfriend!’
‘Haha. You have met her actually. She is one of my students. Do you remember the one in the red coat?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t. I met so many students that day, it’s hard to remember everyone.’
‘Yes, she is shy. Anyway we will get married next month and move to my hometown, where I have an apartment. In your country I think it would be strange for a teacher to marry one of his students, yes? But here in Kurdistan it is very common.’
It made sense. Kak Amanj spends nearly all his time with his students so where else is he going to meet a girl?
‘You hear that Ciprian? There’s hope for you,’ I said, ‘you could hook up with one of your students.’
Ciprian laughed. ‘Wow, I’m so happy for you Kak Amanj. Your life is going great right now. You work so hard and have so many responsibilities. Wow. You are making great progress in your career, you have your own apartment and now you are engaged. Congratulations Kak Amanj!’
‘Yes, God is great.’
Thus concludes my tales of Iraqi Kurdistan. Again, thank you everyone who has been following this series. I continue to be surprised that people take the time to read these long-winded articles. I have received some very interesting and constructive comments. Thank you.