Keeping Up with the Kurds
“By the way,” the Turkish travel agent says, with a kindly smile—as though humoring a favorite but dim-witted niece—“There’s no such thing as Kurdistan.” This is not an unusual sentiment in Turkey, a country that has re-engaged energetically in a long-running, lethal war again Kurdish guerrillas in its south-eastern provinces. But the Kurdistan I’ve just referred to is in Iraq, and has been a semi-autonomous zone since 1991 (gaining constitutional recognition in 2005); only moments before, the travel agent sold me a return ticket to Erbil, its capital. In the context, “There is no Kurdistan,” takes on the reality-defying properties of The Matrix’s mind-bending “There is no spoon.” I smile back at him—a man whose ancestors were Greek, whose Turkishness is absolute—“Mmmbhhggghhmm,” I say, before thanking him profusely and taking my exit, tickets to nowhere clutched in one hand.
I start telling people instead that I am going to Erbil. This has the added bonus that many Turks are somewhat unsure where that is. “Erbil?” one young man says, brow wrinkling subtly, as though racking his brains for the reason why these two syllables set off a distant warning bell. “It’s like Dubai,” his Moroccan friend helpfully supplies. “Everyone there is super rich.” Erbil, I confirm: “In Northern Iraq.” Iraqis I meet are less vague. “I’m going to Erbil,” I tell a young woman from Baghdad, whose family has fled and settled on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, and who now volunteers at a refugee aid organization in Istanbul. “It’s quite safe there, right?” Otherwise polite and friendly, at this she snorts derisively. “Because they don’t let in any Arabs,” she says, voice dripping quiet bitterness. “I hate them.”
A few days later, I catch a red-eye flight (the only kind that flies to Erbil) from Istanbul. The plane rattles alarmingly on take-off, a gentle voice-over advising me to turn off my cassette player. Not reassured, I slump into sleep over the ashtray-fitted armrest, and wake a few hours later on a runway of Erbil’s efficient new airport. An advertisement for spin class presides over baggage claim. “Welcome to the Cradle of Civilization!” my cell phone chirrups, inviting me to join a local network. Outside, an early morning sun beats relentlessly down on Iraq’s hazy yellow plains. A Turkish singer, in town to play a gig, lets me make a call from her phone, and soon I’m speeding away, with a friend of a friend’s boyfriend (this is the way Kurdish hospitality works) to an apartment on the northern reaches of the city—in a gated subdivision in the desert, bankrolled by a company with ties to an assassinated former prime minister of Lebanon.
It’s not the first time I’ve been in a Kurdish-majority region. The Kurds, some 35 million people, have been (perhaps erroneously) dubbed the world’s “largest ethnic group without a state”: their polyglot population is spread instead across a territory that incorporates sections of south-eastern Turkey, northern Syria, western Iran and northern Iraq. During the peace process that briefly quietened the now-raging war between the Turkey-based PKK (the militant wing of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP administration, I ventured into the Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakir in Turkey’s east—and was charmed by the city’s grim aspect, its black walls trapping savoury kebab smoke, the Kurds’ exuberant, toy-gun-slinging celebration of Seker Bayram (Eid al-Fitr), and their evident resilience after years of violence. A few years later, I found myself in Iran’s Kordestan region, hugging the eastern reaches of the Zagros—exploring mountain villages and the vibrant city of Sanandaj, astonished once again at the hospitality of the Kurds.
Both Diyarbakir and Sanandaj are, to a greater or lesser extent, cities under pressure, housing minority groups that the central governments of Turkey and Iran are eager to keep under control. Meanwhile, the Kurds of Rojava (Western Kurdistan, in Syria’s north) have established fledgling socialist-democratic cantons, a radical experiment in self-governance that has rattled Erdogan’s government, prompting Turkey to engage more actively in “anti-terrorism” operations in stretches of Syria along the Turkish border—operations essentially designed to undermine the Kurds’ dominance west of the Euphrates. Only the Kurds’ semi-autonomous region in Northern Iraq exists as an entity in its own right, relatively free of unwanted external interference. I wanted to see what a community comfortable in its Kurdishness might look like, how Kurdish society free from obvious political oppression might function.
Iraqi Kurdistan is in a pretty weird place right now, in many different senses. Physically the proto-country is wedged between a failed Syria to its west, a flailing Baghdad to the south, an increasingly anxious Turkey to the north, and an evolving Iran to the east. The Kurds’ frontline with Daesh-held regions is long, but currently stable—with Kurdish troops closing in around the stronghold of Mosul. As I arrive, preparations for the Mosul offensive—a siege likely to unleash one million additional refugees—are underway.
Economically, Kurdistan has been thrust into crisis: once supported with funds from Baghdad, the region lost this fiscal bulwark in 2014 and has since been relying on oil revenues—a risky proposition at the best of times and even less ideal given the plunging price of oil, and the legal and political wrangles the Kurds face in exporting the commodity. For months, state workers have been functioning with reduced hours and salaries. The peshmerga (“those who face death,” Kurdistan’s military forces) are currently being bankrolled by the US government. The Kurds, as of this moment, are a valued allied in the struggle against ISIS—but they have been betrayed by friends before. As they push further out from the official borders of Kurdistan, their territorial integrity in flux; how the region will look in a decade becomes less and less certain.
Politically, Kurdistan (majority Sunni but reflexively anti-Arab) has shown a Machiavellian diplomatic expediency, striking up counter-intuitive friendships—with Turkey, for example, a country that has dedicated itself for years to a careful containment of their Kurdish minority, but whom the Iraqi Kurds currently rely on for the export of oil. Or, for another intriguing alliance, one can look to the Kurdish love for Israel: an unlikely infatuation in this part of the world, but one built on the back of mutual antipathies (to the Arabs), economics (the Israeli government is happy to buy ostensibly illegal Kurdish oil), respect (military pride runs strong in both camps) and fellow feeling (ethnic nationalism, grievances over longstanding oppression, etc.). The nascent Kurdish state for now depends on a complex web of international understandings.
Domestic politics, too, and internal social relations, are far more complex than one might think from a glance at news reports that skim across the attractive surface of the Kurdish world. The media has exported a fairly consistent idea of the Kurds—urbane, egalitarian, democratic, efficient: a Western bastion of stability, secularism and military might in a collapsing region—using sensationalist tropes (the beautiful, deadly female peshmerga; the radical democratic vision of Rojava) that serve to obscure the messier, more human reality. Kurdistan plays host to a generally conservative community, clinging to patriarchal tradition in the midst of upheaval, and incorporating a multitude of identities, cultures, religions, languages. Syriac Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Arabs, Mandeans, Shabaks, Armenians live alongside the Kurds in a polyglot, fractious, heterogeneous political community, rife with conspiracy theories and discontents, governed primarily along divisive tribal lines by arguably inexperienced and corrupt officials.
This, at least, is how I came to see it. If the complexity of Kurdistan’s current situation makes the “semi-autonomous zone” something of a mess, it also makes it a fascinating place to explore—although three weeks, I soon discovered, is far from ample time to do so.
I spent the first seven days in and around Erbil, known to the Kurds as “Hawler” (which struck me as sounding, unlike it’s rodent-y Sumerian moniker, like some kind of war machine). Erbil, like many modern capitals, seems to have been built in a rush in the centre of the country—a sprawling, dusty city, radiating charmlessly out from the ancient citadel at its heart. This mud-brick structure, built on a tell emerging from the featureless landscape, lays claim to being potentially the world’s oldest continually inhabited city, with human settlement possibly dating back to 5000 BCE. The citadel is currently being “renovated”—a process that involves a far more vigorous re-doing than one might imagine, the Kurdish approach to revamping ancient sites having something of the frenetic energy of an overzealous plastic surgeon. One family have been left to languish amidst the construction, in an attempt to retain the “oldest continually inhabited” claim. A museum in the citadel displays an array of Kurdish textiles, vibrantly colored with natural dyes.
Below, a network of bazaars snakes around the base of the enclosed ancient city: one covered area includes gold shops and spice traders, baklava purveyors and natural pharmacies; on another side of the citadel, household goods stores conduct a roaring trade; nearby, a long stretch of road is taken over by a produce market, vendors jammed together, selling bushels of fresh herbs, tumbling golden pyramids of fresh dates, punnets of green figs, oversize pumpkins, pale pomegranates bursting with red or white seeds, the ubiquitous cucumbers and tomatoes and eggplants, little golden Kurdish pears and fuzzy pink peaches. Water flicks from big tanks swarming with fat farmed carp—the key ingredient in the Iraqi “mazgouf,” in which the fish are split open and grilled over a wooden fire.
Small boys duck in and out of the fray, trying to sell shoppers a sturdy plastic bag, or their services with a wheelbarrow. In the poultry section, a headless chicken is stuffed upside-down in an inverted traffic cone, the blood slowly draining from his neck as his scrawny legs scrabble in the empty air. Nearby, a boy blowtorches a pale, plucked carcass, the skin shriveling as we watch. A man is weighing intestines, scooping heaping handfuls of slippery, white-fatted tubes onto the scales. Bakeries are churning out different types of bread: round, flat naan and the puffier, eye-shaped samun—into which counter boys at sandwich shops across the city are stuffing felafel and fries and veggies and pickles. Corn on the cob is being blanched and grilled, while fruit is pulverized into multicolored juices. Each store hums with energy from a generator.
In the city parks, white busts of illustrious Kurds gaze watchfully from pedestals. Women in colorful, sequin-spangled outfits, with black robes thrown over top, scout for groceries, while men in the Kurdish pantsuit (wide-legged, drop-crotched trousers built for bad-assery, worn with a thick knotted cummerbund and a vest or jacket), with scarves wrapped carefully around a traditional knitted cap, pick up some new prayer beads. A more Arab-style dishdasha is also seen, most often with accompanying egal-shemagh combo (the red and white keffiyah, held in place with a black band). More exotically, three ginger-haired heavies are strolling the central Qaysari bazaar, looking like particularly alert, straight-backed, muscle-bound tourists—volunteer peshmerga, perhaps, on leave from their stationary units?
Nearby, in the “Erbil Civilization Museum,” evocative black-and-white photographs of Kurds (as well as could-be-Kurds, such as the Lurs of the Western Iranian highlands) preside over the atrium. A map labelled “Kurdistan,” displays a territory that stretches from Elam, in south-western Iran, to Kars, in north-eastern Turkey, and across northern Syria all the way to the Mediterranean Sea at Iskenderum. The museum houses a motley assortment of pottery and sculpture in a series of small, sepia-toned rooms: curious Sumerian, Assyrian, Seleucid and Luri artefacts pulled from across millennia.
Despite these finds, Kurdistan remains a relatively unexplored archaeologist’s paradise—a fact evidenced by the recently unearthed treasures almost blocking the museum entrance. Plastic bags and boxes—marked with the name of the tell, as well as sector and box number—tumble across the floor: pottery shards, human remains, cracked ceramic grave eggs (for unfortunate babies). An excited blonde American man bounds in from the carpark, carrying a carefully swaddled clay pot. “So we have pictures of people drinking beer from these!” he is saying, enthusiastically, to his companion.
Walk from here towards the citadel, and you’ll pass shops selling peshmerga outfits before coming to a modern mall, outside of which stands a semi-circle of Kurdish women: larger-than-life statues commemorating the valor and sacrifice of the figures they represent. Margaret George is there—an Assyrian guerrilla fighter who helped the peshmerga in their struggle against the central government in the 1960s, and who is here celebrated as a “Symbol of religious tolerance and the strife for Kurdistan”—as is Mastoureh Erdalan, a poetess and historian who wrote in Hawrami Kurdish. Several women identified chiefly as being mothers or wives of martyrs inevitably join the throng.
To the north, the Christian neighborhood of Ankawa perches like a head on the rotund body of the city that takes the citadel as its heart. Short sleeves and Syriac signage proliferate. The slender limbs of crucifixes punch above the skyline. “Christian?” curious local passers-by enquire, kindly, of the new arrival, nodding approvingly at the affirmative response. At night, after the sun has sunk across the plains in a haze of orange glory, behind nondescript gates, people relax in water-cooled courtyards; enclosed from the outside world, NGO workers sip wine and beer, and talk about the heat of the Kurdish summer, the minutiae of their contracts, the upcoming carnage into which the siege of Mosul will undoubtedly devolve.
A few hours away by minivan, the village of Shaqlawa is wedged between two mountains. Scrambling up a small gully brings the weary pilgrim to the shrine of Raban Boya. The cave-retreat of a spiritual ascetic who lived two millennia ago, the shrine has become a place of veneration for Muslims and Christians alike. Candles flicker in a corner, lit by those making wishes as they visit the sanctuary. Nearby, a large stone, smooth with time and use, sits at a sharp diagonal to the ground. Particularly desperate pilgrims slide down the stone on their stomachs, as a kind of guarantee, willing the wish into being.
A Kurdish family—women and young boys—make the toil with me. One of their number, in a bright yellow tunic and skin-tight white pants, white-framed sunglasses set against bronzed skin, introduces herself as Tez. She lives in London and is here visiting family in Suleymaniyah. “They’re Christian, I’m Muslim, but it’s all the same, innit,” she says, in her strong cockney twang, before rushing to light a candle. One of the boys gives me one too, and I wedge it into hot wax on a protected ledge. Laughing uproariously, the family take turns to slide down the stone head first, each crown dipped dutifully to the ground, before the pilgrim is flipped upright once again. I must, they insist, make the gesture as well—and they dutifully clasp my limbs, dropping my head gently, before restoring me to my feet.
Birds of prey wheel below. On my way down, a nun invites me to eat lunch with her family, pressing me to accept at least a water bottle as I apologize and move on.
Another day, another journey—this time to Rawanduz, far to the east, the packed minibus racing along the British-built Hamilton Road (engineered by a New Zealander), which connects Kurdistan to Iran. Parched fields give way to craggy mountains, deep valleys. One of Saddam’s abandoned tanks sits high above the road. Sinuous, striated rock curves around the highway. From the small city of Soran—populated primarily by refugees who only recently returned from Iran, where they had fled during Saddam’s era—we wind our way higher into the hills, passing a peshmerga memorial and a political party HQ on the outskirts of Rawanduz. Once the bustling capital of an Emirate (and occupied in the interim by Russians, Turks and the British), the city is now more of a sleepy village. To one side, the Rawanduz canyon drops off steeply, its dramatic ledges undulating into the distance.
Curious faces peek out from what at first glance looks like an abandoned building. A woman swathed in black gestures for us to come, drink. Children spill out onto the otherwise empty street, chattering in Arabic. They are from Fallujah, they tell us, and have been holed up here, far from the fighting, for several months. They are keen to show us a large abandoned building they have taken over, with a view out over the gorge. This past June, ISIS had been driven from Fallujah by the Iraqi army. “Soon, perhaps, you can go home?” we ask the young men who have joined the gathering. “Inshallah, inshallah,” they murmur. Sure enough, in mid-September, the first families were allowed to re-enter the rubble that was Fallujah. But the devastated city can hardly offer a happy homecoming.
Just outside of Rawanduz, a tourist resort offers Ferris wheel views across the rugged landscape and an alpine coaster ride for thrill-seekers. Below, at the bottom of the gorge, local tourists cool down at the Bekhal waterfall—a natural feature that (like many others across the region) has been transformed into a labyrinthine resort, complete with bazaar, restaurants and teahouses, and walkways that run into the heart of the falls. Families sit amidst the spray, shouting and laughing in pleasure, as we sip chai cushioned by the water’s roar. Over the day, we have spoken a broken mixture of Arabic, Sorani and Farsi. Hitch-hiking home, we catch a lift with three young Iraqis: our driver a Syriac Ankawan who had spent the day showing two Shi’a friends from Baghdad the local sights.
These scenes—laughing families, Ferris wheels, vacationing young men—seem incongruous in context. Just over an hour’s drive from Erbil, in Mosul, Daesh are burning recalcitrant Yezidi slave girls. In Tuz Khormato, an ethnically mixed village near Kirkuk, Kurdish forces sporadically clash with Shiite militia. The Asayish (Kurdistan’s intelligence agency) have clearly not forgotten these existential threats. Checkpoints crop up along inter-city highways with the regularity of gas stations, IDs demanded by Kalashnikov-toting, khaki-uniformed intelligence agents. Travelling by minibus, the Kurdish driver will often simply direct his Arab passengers to step off the bus—aware that their processing may take some time, he’d rather cut his losses and cut the Arabs lose.
But ostentatious security measures and a veneer of normal life can’t entirely dissolve the ambient fear—the awareness that not so far from here, a black-clad group with an apocalyptic vision have taken root.
One night, sleeping on the living room floor in an Erbil apartment complex, urgent knocking wakes me. Someone has come for us, I think, frozen on my back. I can hear screams, people yelling. I scramble to my feet and lurch across the room—half-asleep, driven by habit, I go to open the door. Before I can do so, my host lunges out, smashing it shut and driving the lock home. So it begins, the doomsday Hollywood-trailer voice in my head continues. Here, on the outskirts of the city, ISIS fighters are making a push for Erbil. The scenario is ludicrous, but it’s the first explanation my groggy brain latches on to.
Peering out from the balcony, we can see people in pyjamas pointing up at our building, smell something faintly acrid on the breeze. It’s a fire, we realise, and pile out of the house—inadvisably pausing to scoop up belongings as we go—sheepish and relieved that flames are the only current threat.
On the street, watching the orange burn brighter, hot tongues licking from a high window, we make friends with a young Pakistani man. The last evacuation he experienced was from Taiz in Yemen, he tells us: his company gave him a week to get out when the Saudi bombing campaign intensified. This is relaxing in comparison, he says, with a quiet chuckle. Fire fighters slowly begin to arrive, and we go back to watching the flames.