Iraq is green. Picturesque waves of blooming mountains disintegrate our cliched sandy image of the country. Foamy creeks run through fresh meadows overlooked by imposing rocky peaks. Perching on the fields and by the road, just like spring sprouts, colourful tents celebrate the first days of the Kurdish New year. Nature is awake again and everybody runs outdoors to meet her in her own kingdom. It is a festival of life where shiny clothed women and moustached men in baggy trousers spend their days in tiny movable castles dotting a fairy land. Enchanted, our team of five hitchhikers, slides through a cheerful hilly garden instead of a desolate yellow desert.
‘Beautiful Kurdistan!’ – the nostalgic exclamation of Ali, a Kurdish immigrant in Birmingham and one of our flatmates in a funny expats house, acquires shape and meaning. His words resonate in the air and we can almost see his face through a blurry rainy window of a red-bricked home. Probably now, a few thousand kilometres west, in a place where Nowrooz sounds as exotic notion as the Chinese New year, he silently sips Earl grey with milk from a ceramic mug maybe imagining it is a small glass, half sugar half tea, instead. In England, a place he dreamt of while living in the Iraqi mountains, now he dreams of landscapes and faces he used to know, but may not have the chance see again. A passport is way too expensive for somebody who lives from odd jobs and benefits in a system that hardly lets him any other choice. More than a year ago, while sharing a roof and in mouldy and carpeted small rooms, we lived through the dreams of nine immigrants in the UK. Mud-brick houses dried under the sun, narrow shadowy alleys, the smell of spices, fruits and soap – an idyllic or romanticized picture of realities that exist shadowed by criminality, poverty and fear. A second Ali still remembers a Somalia that no longer exists, Bedri and Abdul think of Yemen free of kidnappings and drones, Adam hopes that one day we will meet him in Sudan and go to the market of Khartum with wallets instead of knives in the pockets. They all know what forced them leave their homes and risk a long journey in shabby wooden boats or hidden underneath trucks. But still, with their naive dreams of luxurious life exposed, paying for somebody else’s faults, they slumber colourful chimeras under a rainy melody.
As we merge with the happy Iraqi crowd, care-free and waving from the back of new fancy cars bought with petrol money, we wonder if immigration is always the best solution. Often self-marginalized, the refugees and better life seekers fight bureaucracies and cultural environments too different from their own, slowly sinking in isolation and into a deadlock. But maybe Kurdistan is just a newly emerging oasis in a nightmarish social desert, a lucky exception built on shaky foundations and the aftermath of a global political gamble. We cannot imagine and certainly do not want to experience the cruel rules of existence under the mantle of lurking atrocities which paralyze many other places in the world, some of which are just across an uncertain border. So could it be that the issues which immigrants who slip through the iron curtain into Europe face in their new homes are in a way negligible and trivial? The riddle remains unanswered and we soon find ourselves overtaken by a set of new and probably more prosaic questions. Do the Kurds wear their traditional clothes in everyday life or only for celebrations? What shapes does the tea ritual acquire in these lands? How do they support their seemingly high living standard? Are they concerned with gaining independence and how come, in a crumbling state, they have not done it yet? And, following us since the border the key question remains, how are they so sure to insist that this place is safe? Observing and inquisitive, planning to use Mostafa’s language skills, Gosia’s charm, and Hassan’s good vibes we surf into the countryside roads, without a tent and without a plan, but intending to get a better insight into the local life.
A few hours of hitch-hiking competition across breath-taking landscapes eventually re-unites five of us in the car of Rauf from Ducan. A brief ride uphill and we end up conversing with his relatives over cups of tea. ‘Do not even think of getting ready to leave after the first cup – Gosia instructively explains – there is always a second round!’. Fantastic…Several months around here and with the combination of appalling sugar levels and number of teas drunk per day, we will inevitably get a souvenir – a golden teeth or two following the odontological fashion that has been chasing us since Georgia eastwards. As time flies, the glasses of tea multiply and eventually fruits spring on the table followed shortly by lunch. The “table” is, of course, just a common designation for a place to eat that, since we crossed towards Eastern Turkeyhas been gradually getting shorter and shorter, until taking the shape of a piece of cloth on a soft carpet. As we sit around on the floor, Boris struggling to bend his knees, we are reminded how in many Middle Eastern cultures guests are undeservedly sacred and, in Rauf’s house, we benefit from our status munching happily a tasty portion of rice with a special type of root that we will unsuccessfully try to find in the markets in the coming days. After lunch, the program of wonders continues uninterrupted – Marta and Gosia get to unveil the layers of Kurdish traditional clothes and get dressed to pose like princesses for a photo session. Meanwhile the hostess, like a considerate mother, explains Marta that she will put her in contact with a very good doctor. After a consultation with him she herself conceived 7 times! Clearly, the fact that a 30 years old does not have children yet is surprising, but there is nothing to worry about. Kids could still flow in abundance (If it is Allah’s will).
Finally at the doorstep, we wave goodbye, still unaware that Mohamed, a family relative and friend, has been summoned to take us for a night walk around town. It turns out that Dukan is the provincial version of Ankawa and beer flows undisturbed just like the waters of the beautiful lake adding charm to the anyway scenic town. Next to an undated ruined fortress, we enjoy the view of twinkling lights in an evening that reminds us of a gathering with friends in a park at home. Somewhere underneath, the waters of a dam hide more than 30 ancient archeological sites. Apparently, Ducan is like a model for Hasankeyf, an ancient bridge and fortress in Turkish Kurdistan, which is destined soon to join the Atlantida-like fate of its Iraqi cousin. In the cradle of civilisation historical monuments are numerous and sometimes mean as much as human life. Calmly smiling, Mohamed gulps his beer, enjoying the window of peace and normality that has somehow made its way into Kurdistan. Nearby, a group that has not ‘earned’ its way to mainstream Western media yet, plots and works on the establishment of a ‘clean Muslim’ society. Beheadings, executions, public whippings and the rule of fear stretch their hungry hands in all directions fighting for power, money and a caliphate. How many Mohameds do they want to purify? How many of Mohamed’s neighbours would bury their beer cans in the yard and out of terror or conviction point at each other bringing to light the ‘criminal’? In the company of our Dukan nightlife guide, the shadow of ISIS feels distant and transparent. Two Iranians celebrating the triumph of small personal liberties and three Europeans surprised to find their manifestation in the Kurdish mountains head willingly to the home of an Iraqi in the middle of the night.
Note to independent travellers: We travelled in Iraqi Kurdistan during March 2014, when IS was still ISIS and the conflict had not fully escalated yet. While we truly can say that we felt well and safe amongst the people we met – in their cities, at their homes, anywhere we went, we do recommend other travellers to check the current situation and take conscious and well-informed travel decisions. It’s not down to everyday good people to guarantee our security when conflict is near. Also, we believe that in August 2014 the border Silopi – Zakho is not as safe as when we went through.