A Precious, Dwindling Pluralism: Exploring Iraqi Kurdistan’s North

by kfo290

The Kurds may be closing in on Mosul and desperately attempting to keep their economy afloat, but they have time for other stuff too. Many young Kurds espouse a passion for poetry or cinema or photography, and Kurdish music, art, textiles and handicrafts saturate city streets. The Duhok International Film Festival is perhaps the most illustrious event on Kurdistan’s cultural calendar, and it happened to take place while I was there. The main highways connecting Erbil to Duhok run through Mosul, so traffic between the two cities now diverts over slower roads to the east. We drove through golden foothills for a couple hours, before arriving in Duhok—a small city nestled in a valley—just in time for the premiere.

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We’re lucky the festival is happening at all, given the economic crisis. The organizers only just managed to scrape together the funding, and still came up with the lowest budget in the festival’s four-year history—a fact mentioned in the opening speeches. Ayoub Ramadhan, the festival’s president, stresses his pride at having made the 2016 event a reality, in light of the current unfortunate circumstances sweeping across the Kurdish world. “We’re in trouble,” Ramadhan says, gravely, “but this is a sacred thing to do.” The Minister of Culture and Youth chimes in, suggesting cultural and intellectual celebrations are particularly important now that the Kurds are fighting a “barbaric war” with ISIS. “The dark soldiers are being pushed back,” he announces. “We are a few kilometres away from the terrorists, but we are doing our festival and showing our films!”

It is the first time I’ve attended a film festival where the opening speeches are more about the military than anything else. The peshmerga are repeatedly invoked, not least when the director of the opening film takes to the stage. Hussein Hassan is presenting “The Dark Wind,” a dark romance set during the routing of Sinjar—home of the Yazidi minority—and its aftermath. The film was produced, he says, “on the art frontline,” and he gives his thanks to the soldiers battling Daesh. But his film, centering on a young Yazidi woman enslaved during the assault alongside thousands of others (up to 3,800 are believed to still be in captivity), commemorates a moment in history when the peshmerga arguably failed in their duty. When ISIS overran Sinjar in the summer of 2014, the peshmerga were nowhere to be seen. The Kurdish offensive began long after the initial atrocities.

“The Dark Wind” smooths over such infelicitous details. A drama with a rape survivor at its heart, the film traces the attempt to restore the traumatized woman, Pero, to her community and her beloved. Scenes of ISIS wreaking havoc on Yazidi villages are difficult to watch—their immediacy painfully apparent (although they are, apparently, not factually accurate). Pero says almost nothing throughout: simpering in the opening scenes, before the attack, she is almost catatonic for the remainder. This might be perceived as being an unflinching examination of the consequences of rape (a crucially important issue, given the despair, leading to suicide attempts, experienced by many of the women who survived this brutality), except for the unfortunate pervading feeling that she is merely a cipher, an object around which the action spins, an opportunity for masculine Yazidi—read: Kurdish—bravado.

Finally, after a botched abortion and several frustrated attempts to shake her out of her alternating apathy and agitation, Pero’s brother and father intervene. Dragging her out of the IDP camp and into the wild, she is left cowering at gunpoint. At this stage, the festival audience—packed into a cinema meant to hold far fewer people, with scores sitting in the aisles—erupted. “Hussein Hussan, we do not accept this film,” one man cried, in frantic Kurmanji. “Everything is a lie,” called another. People were standing, gesticulating. Shouts filled the theatre. My view of the screen was blocked when two gunshots rang out. Were people shooting inside the venue? I wondered in panic. People around me looked fearful, several ducked for the doors and I followed, only to be spun around as security forces rushed in. The director, red-faced, sweating, was escorted swiftly out. The shooting had been on the screen, I now realized.

Later, it became clear that the Yazidi audience members were outraged by the depiction of their community as backwards, conservative, filicidal. The Kurdish cast and crew, they felt, had misrepresented Yazidi practices, and particularly the community and religious leaders’ response to the Yazidi women against whom atrocities had been perpetrated. As early as late 2014, spiritual leader Baba Sheikh Khurto Hajji Ismail issued a statement calling on all Yazidis to help former captives re-integrate.

A group of Yazidi lawyers are now reportedly working on a lawsuit against Hussein Hassan, attempting to claim restitution for the discrepancies found in his film. Although a majority of Yazidis consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, they have suffered religious persecution by the Kurds in the past—and this cooptation and perceived misrepresentation of their story, in the wake of the latest genocide (considered by Yezidis to be the 73rd genocidal campaign waged against their community), has clearly hit a sore spot.

We leave the theatre shaken but relieved after this demonstration of the very obvious tensions regarding questions of identity, representation, agency that the Kurdish project is fraught with. Our festival contact takes the bus out with us, shaking his head in disappointment at the disorder. “Those protestors will be taken by Asayish,” he says, darkly, predicting that the Yazidis will be given a strongly worded warning not to cause trouble. Our contact’s cousin, a journalist, was recently killed after repeated questionings by intelligence agencies, and he has little doubt who was to blame. “There is no freedom of expression in Kurdistan,” he says, with a shrug.

 

The following day, we venture to the spiritual centre of the Yazidi faith: Lalish, a small complex of tombs and temples southeast of Duhok. Distinctive fluted conical rooves thrust upwards from the desiccated landscape as we approach the settlement, tucked into a narrow gully amidst the hills. Shoes are not permitted within the sanctuary, so we slip ours off at the entrance, watched by a scrappy pair of young Yazidi girls, presumably displaced from Sinjar like many others. The flagstones are smooth and hot under foot. Outside the main shrine, which contains the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir (an early Yazidi leader and saint), a carved black snake undulates upwards, flanking the entranceway. In Yazidi custom, thresholds are to be avoided, stepped over carefully—something I forget the first time, to a sharp intake of breath by our young guides.

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Many elements of the faith and its physical manifestations are arcane, difficult to understand, even with eager explanations in broken English. Shattered eggshells and daubs of color, sometimes accompanied by dried flowers, are placed carefully over lintels. Small piles of Iraqi dinars, like drifts of dead leaves, nestle next to doorways. Colorful pieces of cloth adorn walls and columns, each knot representing a pilgrim’s prayer. Light is a central element of Yazidi worship: candles crop up all over (366 in all), and several rooms of the main shrine are filled with great vats of the olive oil that is made here and burnt during ceremonies. The ground is thick black with it.

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Peacock images—a nod to Melek Taus, the fallen and redeemed angel at the centre of the religion (and the reason why Yazidis are routinely maligned as “devil worshippers”)—recur. A large mural on one wall depicts Noah’s ark, with a snake emerging from a hole in the prow. According to Yazidi tradition, which combines elements of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Zoroastrianism, the snake used its body to block the hole and is thus deserving of gratitude.

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An elderly man—his face worn and lined, beard scraggly, in baggy dark green pants and a tightly wound red keffiyeh—strikes up conversation. He is from Shengal (Sinjar), he tells us, and lost many members of his family in the Daesh offensive. “Muslims, very bad,” he says, fiercely, in pain. His eyes redden with tears, and he ducks out of sight to recover. Returning with clear cheeks and a generous offer to show us around, he bounds up hill, laughing uproariously at my slow progress on the scorching rock. Bored-looking soldiers, stationed on a vantage point above the holy village, greet us easily, quick to impress upon my Jewish American companion their utmost respect for both the US and Israel (the distinction between Jews and Israelis generally being lost in Kurdistan).

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Up on a small plateau of Mt Arafat, our guide tells us, eyes sparkling, that he’d like to move to America. Since, he reasoned, it would be easiest to get the visa through marriage, he wondered whether we might have any nice American women in mind. He wanted a fat wife, he said, gesturing the desired girth: a fat black American wife, who could smoke and drink as much as she liked, as long as she would have him. We spluttered in surprise at this attempt to make light of the pain of exile: his criteria were exacting, but they were also novel coming from a man whose religion does not accept converts and strongly discourages exogamy.

Contrary to the picture painted by “The Dark Wind,” for some Yazidis, just as for members of other faiths, precise elements of ritual and rite have become somewhat distant from everyday life. Down in the center of Lalish once again, we meet a large family who have come to visit for the day—not for religious reasons, the father is quick to point out, but simply for the peaceful atmosphere. A young man who shows us a shrine shrugs his shoulders when we ask what a small door leads to. “I don’t know. Ooooh!” he says, with a little shimmy to suggest mystery.

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We are invited for chai with a group of men, and sit sipping with them, watching the visitors go by. Girls dressed in traditional white skip past in little gaggles, preening slightly in their best clothes. Three women kneel next to a broad tree trunk, gnawing at the wood. It’s the tree of sleep, we’re told: place a shard of bark under your baby’s pillow and he is sure to sleep soundly—but only if the bark has been harvested with the teeth. A sheikha (member of one of the clerical “castes” according to the Yazidis’ complicated social organization) walks past, her pregnant belly swathed in white, and is greeted with respect by the assembled men.

Our companions hand out candies, and ask questions. One pulls out his cell phone to display pictures of himself on the frontline, dressed in peshmerga gear and holding a semi-automatic rifle. Another joins in, flicking through images of weapons and explosions. By the time I’m eagerly presenting with a video of a pre-teen child firing a rocket launcher at enemy lines, I’ve had enough. We wend through more shrines before taking our leave. A man at the entrance has—with the unfailing kindness all Yazidis have so far shown us—stowed our shoes safely out of the way. We slip them on, and catch a ride down from the mountain.

On our way back to Duhok we stop at Ain Sifni (known in Kurdish as Shekhan), a Yazidi village with a small minority of Assyrian Christians—its population now swollen by the exodus from Sinjar. A hillside cemetery predominates over one side of town, and we stop there briefly as the sun dips towards the horizon, sending slanting golden light and long shadows across the sepia landscape. Women are chanting and weeping beside a grave. Another proceeds slowly up the steps, bearing a pot of smoking incense aloft.

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On our way out of town, we catch a lift in a black truck, with a large, friendly man who asks repeatedly whether we’d like some alcohol, and keeps an M16 assault rifle stowed handily next to the driver’s seat.

 

Our next mission is thwarted before it’s even properly begun. It’s the first day of Eid al-Adha (the festival of the sacrifice), and we’re hoping to make our way in a loose circle from Duhok, heading first to Zakho, close to the Turkish border, before striking out to the east on the hunt for historic Jewish settlements and interesting villages, and then slowly wending our way home. This is not to be. We reach Zakho fine, with a fairly cheap taxi ride, and clamber over its famous bridge; the stone arch of the Pira Delal, spanning a skinny branch of the Tigris, was reputedly built by the Romans. Having climbed its fairly acute sides, and wandered through the deserted city center, we figure we might be done with sleepy Zakho.

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At the checkpoint, trying to hitchhike east, we run into trouble. The Asayish, while waving through busloads of Baghdadi tourists, are confused by what three people, obviously foreigners (one in shorts!), are doing here on foot. They beckon us over and take our passports, radioing in to central command. We have to go to the Asayish headquarters, they decide, impervious to my petulant complaints, and quickly flag down a passing car to take us there. Having been dropped off outside a low-slung bunker of a building, it emerges that we’re at the wrong Asayish offices. We’re corralled into a taxi, and taken to a much larger building, where we’re waved through into the office of a higher-up.

Sugary chai is immediately provided, and our captor/host smiles warmly around the room, as though quite pleased with the interruption. He simply cannot authorize our journey east, he tells us apologetically. PKK are in the mountains, he says, and could possibly attempt a kidnapping. To my knowledge, PKK fighters in Iraq have never kidnapped foreign nationals; we were aware of their presence before setting out, but thought the only potential threat was from Turkish bombing raids, which are generally carried out at night. But our Asayish friend is adamant, so we drink our chai in polite silence while the commander expounds on the beauties of Zakho that we can spend the day discovering instead.

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Released at last, we wander through town—the streets somewhat revived now, after the quiet of the morning. Having heard of our enthusiasm for Jewish sites, the commander had eagerly told us of Zakho’s old Jewish population, effusively noting his nostalgia for the days when Jews lived beside Muslims and Christians in the town (although this would have been long before his birth, Zakho’s Jews being among the first to relocate to Palestine in the 1920s after violent persecution in the 1800s, with the rest following soon after the establishment of Israel). Of this exiled community, we saw no trace.

But we did manage to stumble on the old castle, a falling-down pile of stones close to the river. Seven families from Mosul are currently living in the ruin (just a fraction of the perhaps 12,000 IDP households living outside of camps in the district). They happily welcomed us in and showed us around, proudly pointing out the building that was once Zakho’s first school.

On the way back to Duhok, our driver—a young Kurdish man who splits his time between Zakho and the bigger city—complained bitterly of the narrow-mindedness of the Kurds. One of his friends, he explained angrily, had been gay; when the friend’s father discovered this, he killed his son. Our driver shook his head in anger. He was gay himself, he told us, and understandably found such social conservatism suffocating, not to mention scary. Homosexual acts are no longer criminalized in Iraq, and by extension Kurdistan, but being gay is still taboo; exploitation, persecution, “honor” killings and lynchings are not unusual.

 

The next day, we loiter for a while on a highway outside Duhok (faced with competition from a group of boys, dressed in their Eid best, our pick-up time increases) before catching a lift east. Our driver insists on taking us first to his garden—a small patch of land where he grows copious amounts of apples and peaches, and keeps a pond to farm carp. By the time he drops us off again, we are laden down with grapes and pomegranates, and are quickly scooped up by another vehicle.

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Amedi (or Amadiyah), our destination, is a small town perched on the top of a rocky outcropping, overlooking a beautiful valley. Before we catch sight of the town, we pass beneath one of Saddam’s palaces: a mammoth structure built, like an evil dwelling in a fairy tale, at the top of a tall, jagged mountain. The despot planned to build some kind of epic cable car from the dark palace to the quaint little town—and even began construction—but the Baathist regime crumbled before the project could be completed.

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Amedi itself is a tangle of lanes, overrun—on this festival day—with notably cheeky kids in their best clothes. Just inside the craggy gates of the ancient Assyrian citadel, a small group of tween girls are busting out American pop songs for each others’ entertainment and delight. Small walled gardens overflow with gangly pomegranate-laden branches and lush fig trees. A tall minaret, constructed from honey-colored stone, lances into the air from the garden of the town’s main mosque, like a particularly sturdy palm tree. Once St George’s Church, the mosque’s whitewashed interior is cool and quiet, accented with gold. Roses grow in the beds outside.

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We are hunting, once again, for an obscure Jewish tomb, but our small self-appointed guides lead us instead to a Syriac church, before scampering off again. When we enter, the church is empty: a hastily constructed stone and cement cube, upholstered in red velvet and furnished with plastic chairs. When the priest enters, I’m leafing through the Bible, marvelling at the Syriac script. Father Emmanuel doesn’t seem to mind; he’s just happy to see anyone here at all. The congregation has shrunk to almost nothing, he says, and life has become very hard. He is sceptical about the efficacy and integrity of Kurdish politicians and not hopeful about the future of religious minorities in the Middle East. When he speaks about Iraq’s Christians, his voice takes on an elegiac tone, as if recalling a community that is already gone.

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The Father, as it turns out, knows—or knew once—where the Jewish tomb is. He leads us in a roundabout fashion, apologizing for his poor memory, to a rickety gate, before leaving us to go about his day. The shrine is small, unremarkable. Trees are tied with green fabric; the tomb itself is protected with a corrugated iron roof. Local families, it seems, have been tending to the grave: plastic lilies and burnt-down candles flank the headstone. By the time we catch a ride out of the city, the sun is setting across the valley.

 

Passing through the picturesque mountain town of Akre the next day, I am lucky enough to chance upon a Sufi ritual. Men, their dark hair flowing well past their shoulders, stand in concentric circles, whipping their heads forwards and back, in time to rhythmic chanting. They are reciting the 99 names of God, a companion tells me. It’s not really Islam, another observer sniffs. Mostly, he says, the Sufis come here from surrounding villagers. After the chanting ends, the dervishes sit down, and listen while the sheikh—an elderly man in golden robes and white headgear—speaks.

The Zoroastrian fire temples in Akre’s mountains are long abandoned, and religious minorities across the Middle East are slowly being squeezed out. In this context, to stumble across a Sufi order carrying out their mystical rites unmolested, free to find their own “right path” in an increasingly homogenous Iraq, feels like a little gift. The region’s pluralism may be rapidly diminishing, but vestiges of the old diversity remain.

My shared taxi back to Erbil is packed to bursting, and a small girl snoozes on my lap as we bump over back-roads en route to the big city.

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