The road curves up and down, sliding through the gigantic still waves of a never-ending sea of mountains, only occasionally interrupted by lonely checkpoints. Spread all the way from Zakho to Basrah these bastions representing shaky security resemble scarecrows fighting real and imaginary threats. In contrast to the rest of Iraq, though, around the checkpoints of the Kurdish region, one would need well-developed senses and a more than a pinch of wild imagination to feel any trace of nervous tension in the air. Instead of fresh converts to the army or police, unable to decide whether to swear allegiance to a corrupt regime installed by imperial powers or to revenge seeking tribal leaders collided with gangs of fanatics, the roads controlled by Erbil are guarded by friendly moustached men happily sheltered by brand new blue cabins, that display their latest western weapons, calmly drowsing next to traffic barriers. Hitchhiking through the spectacular landscapes of the Mesopotamian spring, we are heading south to Sulaymaniah, the second largest town in Southern Kurdistan. The end of the Nowrooz holidays has dispatched our international travelling team and we continue on our own, regretting that their work-break was not longer, while we try to use our half learnt Kurdish words in between confused looks and attacks of laughter. We might have been discussing anything of large of minimal importance while comfortably stretching in the red pick-up of a man dressed according to the local fashion, when he suddenly and unexpectedly pulls over. A sleepy checkpoint has turned half-awake and a dazzed-looking guard jumps off his chair, asks for our passports and runs away. Probably distressed by the appearance of two awkwardly smiling tourists at the back of a random local car he feels the call of duty and is quick to report to his boss. Foreigners might not be an uncommon sight around here, but they usually wear formal suits, drive their own vehicles and hand around oil companies business cards, instead of travelling like refugees with their homes in a backpack. The guard comes back shortly after and invites us to the nearby Peshmerga office. Mistrusted by some and praised by others, ‘peshmerga’ (those who confront death) are the armed Kurdish forces, generally regarded as the pillar of stability in the area. A man in a military uniform approaches us with a forbidding expression. He looks at our passports mumbling incomprehensibly and stares at us for a while.We mutely wonder what is wrong and unavoidably get to feel slightly irritated. In a moment the silence is struck by a most unexpected question: ‘Real Madrid or Barcelona?’ – the officer asks suspiciously. Directly confronted by the authorities, it seems pointless to lie in such important matters. ‘Barca!’ – Boris spits out in no time. The face of the armed men turns perceivably grimmer. The question certainly felt much more benign than ‘Sunni or Shia?’, but maybe we should have thought a bit more carefully before answering – football hooligans know no borders and find short hair and khaki coloured uniforms fashionable. ‘Marta is, actually, a big fan of Real Madrid….’ The correct answer breaks the ice and we receive back our passports, along with a smile, padding on the shoulder and a bonus – the guard will ‘request’ from a driver going all the way straight to Sulaymaniah to give us a ride. Most unfortunately, we did not solve the football test correctly the first time, so no tea and cookies while waiting. Back on the road, almost the same scenario repeats several times, letting us conclude safely that different Peshmerga officers cheer for different teams which potentially brings more adrenaline to El Clasico in Iraq.
Concrete and messy, at first glance, Sulaymaniah does not impress. It is probably the fault of Ali, our quiet and nostalgic friend from Birmingham, who insisted that his home town is a place we should not miss and inflated our expectations. The city, a capital of a few short-lived principalities, has buried its splendour under a set of homogenous half a century old two-storey buildings. People, though, seem not to be greatly affected by the changing faces of history and simply keep on living engaged with mastering the art of everyday routine. Busy with life Suleymaniah feels like a bee hive ready to burst at any moment. Walking blindly its confusing and curvy streets and under the gaze of hundreds of Kurdish suns flying in the flags on windows and balconies around, we unsuccesfully look for the market. Among its alleys we find tea served with chat, sex and politics, with two friendly young guys shedding some light on our endless questions. A conversation, initially focused on the drama of local male youth facing extreme difficulties in finding a girlfriend while avoiding the bondage of marriage, turns into a different direction and we are offered one possible explanation to why a minority comprising 1/4 of the Turkish population, big in numbers in Syria, Iraq and Iran and obviously nursing powerful national sentiments, fails to establish its own country in a world of nation-states. A car playing loud music passes by slowly. Rather than the usual show-off, the men inside look for another sort of attention. Flags and banners with the face of a smiling middle-aged man fly from the rooftop and a young Kurd enthusiastically chants on a megaphone. The date of the elections is approaching and different political parties parade mobilising their supporters. The lively music and the crowd following the car dressed in costumes matching their party colours resemble more a festival than a political campaign. ‘Useless boosting and a waste of time’ – mumbles Awara, a young university student, until that moment mainly preoccupied with the nature of love in the Middle East. ‘Nobody can secure a victory on the elections simply by people’s vote. Only weapons and the army support can help’. A little confused and intrigued we wait for more explanations. “Well, you see, the parties here are based on an ethnic principle and in their competition for domination often shoot at ech other’s offices. In Iraq there are three main Kurdish groups that speak different languages – Kurmanj who live in the north, Sorani here in Suleymaniah and Hawrami in the south. To put it most simple, each tribe votes for their own party and that guarantees a no-win situation. The funny thing is that each party speaks of greater autonomy and an independent Kurdish state, which, if by any chance happens, probably will cause a civil war.” Awara concludes his grim monologue and turns back to tea and more entertaining topics. To us it looks obvious that just like the Slavs or the Germanic people, the Kurds are a large and confusing mosaic of sub-groups united by a common name but differing slightly or greatly in culture, history or language. Their case simply exposes the limitations, flows and dangers of the nation-state idea, that for some unknown reason keeps on casting its dark shadow over the brains of people worldwide.
And while Kurdish politicians surf the wave of national sentiment, clashing one another in a political power struggle, just around the corner a failing state pants heavily under the weight of a civil war. Later that evening, in the company of an exiled Syrian, we hungrily delight in the flavours of chickpeas and carrot cake and speak of the ongoing disaster under a sweet culinary anesthetic. The arbitrary borders of the region , drawn long time ago by Europe, are fading and a new state is finding a shape in the desert stretching hands in all directions. Only few hundred km away from Damascus the war is a tangible reality and creeps its way into every conversation. ‘Dictators rule in iron oppression and when toppled leave only void. Guess who fills the vacuum.’ – calmly says Anas. Squeezed in between the Ba’ath regime brutal repressions and barrel bombs and the bloody barbarity of the armed opposition, many Syrians feel forced to search for a safer place. Ironically, some find it in Iraq. ‘Syria is in the transition period between oppression and void. If Assad survives the centralised tyranny will continue. otherwise, the bloodshed will go on decentralised. Just like here in Iraq. Deposing a dictator does not mean getting rid of his legacy.’ The picture drawn with nightmare shades made us shiver. Is it possible to choose in between a secular despotism in a religious environment or criminal fanaticism dressed in pious clothes? Is there a different option? The voice of Anas brings us back to this living-room in Suleymaniah. ‘Normality could hardly prevail in Syria. It does not serve any ‘strategic’ interests right now, so the how place is wreaked in havoc… But actually, what is normality? Live goes on in Damascus, Latakia, even in some neighbourhoods of Aleppo. People go to work or drink coffee, public transport runs from city to city, bakeries sell bread and sweets. War is just a ghost, a scary rumour, until it knocks on your own house.’ A sip of tea and the light goes off. A bomb blasts in Baghdad, Kirkuk or Raqqa. We fall asleep listening to the occasional roar of the engines of night taxis.
A couple of days later, after a short retreat in the green meadows of the mountains guarding Sulaymaniyah, we get to Halabja. The city, a synonym of yet another disaster, is a kingdom of man. No woman roams the stalls of the bazaar and spotting one on the streets seems a rare and unusual event. Halabja is a lively and busy open air teahouse where turbaned man drink tea, eat flat bread with cheese, laugh, argue and play backgammon or cards. Known for its conservative spirit, Halabja is home of the Hawrami Kurds. Divided between Iraq and Iran, for centuries they have been living in the Hawraman mountains which are the natural border diving Persia from the Arab world. Some thirty years ago, fed up with Saddam Hussein’s treatment of minorities, the Kurds took up arms during the Iraqi-Iranian war in the late 80’s , hoping to gain autonomy or independence. As a punishment the regime turned Halabja and the surrounding villages into a horror scene. Huge amount of chemical weapons struck the area and turned it into a graveyard. Statements from the Iraqi army generals responsible for the slaughter suggest it was a deliberate attack indiscriminately targeting civilians and militants. On that occasion the US sided with Saddam and blamed the usual villain Iran – a fact that still lingers in the collective memory of the Iraqi Kurds, who although now enjoy a considerable support from the other side of the Atlantic, stay suspicious and hardly trust the West. A controversial and clumsy memorial site at the end of Halabja, pays tribute to the victims of the 1988 genocide. The monument and the attached museum focus exclusively on the visual side of the suffering of the chemical attack victims, and tourists take photos in between the disturbing real-size sculptures, murals and photographs of cocking and dying humans. Its sensationalism and lack of factual information on such a crucial topic enrages Marta as much as it probably annoyed part of the local residents who stormed and burned the site a few years ago, only to see it quickly restored by the Kurdish regional government. Memory
Noses down and with a ball in the throats, we walk back from the memorial to the city center, in the company of our Polish friend Gosia, part of our Iraqi hitchhiking troupe. It is her, but not a fetish to disaster tourism that brought us to Halabja. Gosia works as an English teacher in the building of an independent local radio that tries to focus on non-mainstream media topics and to give voice to the local youth and women. The place, for us, is a gate to another Halabja – one that is too difficult to see on streets. Qaesar, a survivor of Saddam’s chemical attack, is an active local citizen and the founder of the radio station, his wife works in an educational project for women’s health in the surrounding villages – trying to combat the still present practice of female circumscision. A few days with their family and friends allow us to glimpse the inner-working of a reality hidden under chadors and turbans. A beautiful underground world, reserved mainly to family and friends, that hopes to undermine the predominant conservative, patriarchal social system. He lives in what is considered the ‘liberal’ neighborhood of Halabja, tagged by the rest of the city as different, mainly because it has fewer mosques than the average, and because of the Kakai religion professed by many of its residents – one more example of the diverse religion-scape of Middle east, whose followers hide their practices, maybe due to historically founded superstition. Qaesar and his friends try to live a normal secular live, with fewer taboos, less religion oppression and tea occasionally giving place to beer – all of these little, everyday actions that would pass unnoticed in most parts of the world, but are here contoured out by the environment, in a way that they appear almost as brave rebellion.
Walking down the green paths of Hawraman and heading for a picnic day with Gosia and the radio crew families, we wonder how long does it take for social change to happen, for new realities to be constructed and built into everyday life, or even, is true change possible at all. “We are not pessimistic” – Zakharia, a friend of Qaesar and epitome of the cultural Kurdish hospitality explains – “Only 10-15 years ago, nor me, neither especially you, would be able to walk around the villages in this mountain. The Kurdish branch of Al-Qaeda established strict Shari’a in the area for a while. No music, no sports, no girls at school. Today, we are all gonna have a barbecue, have a chat in English and drink a bottle of beer, right?’ We feel unable to suggest that things might change in any direction in any moment. Stability is anyway a word, that probably has acquired a different meaning in all the languages of the region.
Early next morning, the solemnly sad chant rises to the sky. Soon, its song is joint by hundred different voices reaching for the stars and the crescent from their tiny minaret towers. Halabja, the city where we can almost count more mosques than houses waves us goodbye, and with it we close our short adventure in Iraqi Kurdistan. We are heading to Persia, happily thumbing up the Hawarawman mountains, enjoying the puddles of peace in times of war, while wrinkled and cracked, the ever thirsty ground of the Middle East keeps on demanding its favourite drink – the blood of the infidels.
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.