Monday, January 10, 2011

Land Of Surprises

I had no idea of what to expect from Iraqi Kurdistan. I had done some research and knew that it was relatively safe for travelling (the biggest danger being the reckless drivers who have little regard for safety, either theirs or other peoples'). Other than that I was totally unsure about what to expect. I tried to leave my preconceptions at the door and let the country do the talking. First of all Iraq is effectively split into two countries: the Kurdish northeast and the Arab rest. The Arab part is riven with sectarianism and violence and travelling there is akin to Russian roulette, whereas the Kurdish part is safe and peaceful. The Kurds have their own government, border and security controls and even their own flag which can be seen flying everywhere (I only saw a single Iraqi flag in my whole time there, at the border with Turkey and very much dwarfed by the Kurdish one - they didn't even bother with it at the Iranian border). Actually it's a remarkably ordinary place. Apart from regular checkpoints on the roads it resembles the other Arab countries of the Levant. My initial impression was one of muddiness. Although much of the country is desert the Kurdish part is mountainous and consists of fertile farm and pastureland and winter is more rainy than snowy. Poor drainage means that much of the place is covered in a varying layer of brown sludge that has a propensity for caking the soles of your shoes.

Ehm, maybe I won't go that way.

Iraq is one of the cradles of human civilisation, but most of the really impressive archaeological sites (Ur, Nineveh, Babylon, etc.) are firmly off limits. The major historical site is the Arbil (alternatively spelt Erbil or Irbil, but known to Kurds as Hawler) citadel. As one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world the citadel rises above the rest of the city on a 30m mound composed entirely of layers upon layers of historical detritus. Unfortunately the place had been sorely neglected for years and now there is a big effort to protect, renovate and restore what is left as well as carrying out systematic digs. Consequently all the families have been evicted (bar one, so as not to lose the "continually inhabited" status) and much of the place has been cordoned off so there's not much to see. But that didn't bother me as I found the contemporary life far more fascinating. Perhaps my favourite experience was to go to a local shopping mall. The bland normality of the place is a stark contrast to the media image of the country. Carrefour and other international high street names jostled for space as locals spent the evening promenading in the agreeable, air-conditioned environment. Everyone is there: families as well as groups of young men or women, hanging out or perhaps looking for opportunities to court. Shopping is incidental. In fact most of the shops I saw were empty. Most people were at the small skating rink. Not actually skating, but crowded round, up to 3 deep, observing the few courageous souls who wanted to give it a shot. Cheers went up if anyone wobbled slightly, and if the actually did fall down the applause was deafening.

Ice-skating in an Arbil mall is a spectator sport.

The Christian quarter of Ainkawa is also a reminder of the ethnic and religious diversity that once characterised Iraq. It is here that the liquor shops and bars are found and that the Muslim Kurds go to stock up on booze from their Chaldean neighbours. Though despite the obviously better societal conditions than the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan has also become more sectarian. Ainkawa is protected by its own checkpoints and laws have been put in place forbidding non-Christians from buying property there. Perhaps even more targeted than the Christians though, are the Yazidis.

Yazidism is an ancient religion (as old as Judaism and Zoroastrianism) that originated in the Kurdish homelands (actually there are 3, related, originally Kurdish religions: Yazidism, practised mainly in Iraq; Alawism, with its heartland in Turkey; and Yarsanism practiced mostly in Iran. For some more detail check out this link). They are a small minority even amongst the Kurds and are ostracised by their Muslim neighbours for being perceived as devil worshippers. During the Saddam years they lived quite peacefully amongst their peers but since then have been targeted by several bombings that have killed large numbers of them. Because of this Yazidis are particularly ambivalent about the American Invasion. As Kurds they are grateful for the removal of Saddam, but they also remember the days when they could travel in safety to Mosul and Baghdad, or even when their Kurdish Muslim counterparts wouldn't mind sitting down to drink tea with them or invite them over for dinner. I found this out when I visited the holy centre of the Yazidi faith at Lalish. The small settlement is hidden in a remote valley (which seems to be the norm amongst religious sites) and houses the temple complex that contains the tomb of Sheikh Adi, a prophet of theirs from 1000 years ago. And although they are reluctant about Muslim visitors they were very friendly to me, showing me around, even into the sanctum sanctorum, a small cave where a natural spring gushes out of the mountain where they hold their most important ceremonies. When I asked if I could stay the night that was also no problem - I was fed until I could eat no more and then shown my room: a huge hall used for gatherings with plush sofas and carpets. Though I was particularly glad for the opportunity it afforded me to be able to talk with the family (there is only one, extended, family that lives in Lalish and takes care of the temple) and get their views on Iraq, Kurdistan and life before and after Saddam.

View of Lalish and its temple with its characteristic conical roofs.

Luckily some of them could speak some English. Otherwise communication in Kurdistan has been a strange journey. In Zakho, the first town I went to on the Turkish border, I was a little confused. People there speak Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish. My Turkish and Arabic are rudimentary at best, and my Kurdish nonexistent, however the latter is closely related to Farsi, which I speak pretty well. So I ended up speaking a garbled mish-mash of all three, yet somehow managed to get my message across. When I got to Arbil I was generally able to find someone who spoke good Farsi, and by the time I got to Soran, the last major town before the Iranian border, everyone spoke Farsi. The Iranian influence is very visible, from the merchandise in shops to transport connections. It's quite understandable as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds sought refuge in Iran during the Saddam years, and Iran's regime is the only one in the region to deal with the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) directly, on a peer to peer basis.

A good number of Kurds also became refugees in Europe, most notably in Sweden and Germany (despite the howls of protests from jingoistic Europeans, apart from Germany, there is no EU country in the top 35 countries by refugee population), and some of these have returned due to the improved security situation. So on a few occasions I was accosted in the street by locals who wanted to practice their Swedish or German on me, a somewhat surreal situation. Another indicator of the decent situation is the visible affluence and general consumer prices. The number of shiny new cars, usually Japanese or Korean, generally white (with a variable caking of mud), and sometimes still with their wrapping on, is astonishing. The symbol of international corruption, the white Toyota Landcruiser, is also a common sight on Arbil's streets. Prices for ordinary consumer goods were far higher than I expected, sometimes ridiculously so: a small cup of tea, with a Lipton tea-bag (a disappointment, as I find the local, Middle Eastern tea far nicer), at the mall cost €3, a price I wouldn't even pay back in the UK. There are no bargain basement hotels either and I had to spend some €13 for a room, more than I had spent anywhere else, and the cheapest transport is by shared taxi which is not easy on the pocket either (though I did manage to hitch to Lalish, which was surprisingly easy: despite needing 4 separate rides I never waited more than a couple of minutes).

All in all Kurdistan threw up many surprises that, even for someone like myself who has been around a bit, took me unawares. My most abiding impression will have to be the normality and simple, everyday life that continues and thrives in a place that has been subjected to some of the most unfortunate events of recent history. It's a testament to the resilience of humanity to carry on regardless of adversities. I'm certainly glad, and lucky, to have been able to see it.

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