Destination Kurdistan

By | 26 November 2005

The Kurdish Center of International PEN, the worldwide association of writers, invited me, as an International Vice-president of PEN, to travel with a group of Kurdish writers on a one-week bus trip through Kurdistan in March, 2005. Nestled in the Zagros mountains, surrounded on all sides by repressive neighbors, Kurdistan is the place where the Kurdish people, an ancient mideastern people who are not Arabic and who speak an Indo-European language, have finally had the chance to make their newly autonomous region a model republic.

Thirteen years ago, after a genocidal campaign in which Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villages, killing thousands of Kurds in just a few days and driving many others into exile, the international community finally forced him to cede three provinces in northern Iraq to the Kurds. For the first time, in one spot on the globe, the Kurds have peace and a place to call their own.

Though it's called Kurdistan, North Iraq is only a tiny fraction of greater Kurdistan, the ancestral homeland of the Kurdish people.

All of greater Kurdistan is contiguous, but the borders of four modern states run through it, slicing it up haphazardly. It spans eastern Turkey, where most of the thirty million Kurds live, a slice of Syria, the north of Iraq and a section of western Iran. Until 13 years ago, the Kurdish people were cruelly marginalized and oppressed in all of these states. Even now there is only one exception, Iraqi Kurdistan, the only place in the world where ordinary directions like “Keep to the right” and “Speed limit” are written in Kurdish.

I was the only person on the trip who didn't speak Kurdish. Translation was important for me for serious meetings, but it was even more important for casual conversation on the bus. Syrian Kurdistan-born writer Kamal Sido did marathons of simultaneous translation for me, whispering in my ear hour after hour, enabling me to keep the pace so well that I could always contribute to the discussions. A great jokester who called himself “Personal Translator by Orders of Our President”, Kamal made sure I was involved in all joking and fun.

I went on this trip over the objections of other members of my PEN center and my family, who were all frightened. Kurdistan is in a very difficult neighborhood.

A few miles out of Kurdistan, in Mosul, terrorist groups are blowing things up without evident rhyme or reason. My interpreter Kamal talked to cab drivers at the border with Turkey, and they said they are always afraid a fare will ask them to drive to Mosul. However, no cab drivers are afraid of driving in Kurdistan. There are many new roads (not yet indicated on maps) that lie entirely within Kurdistan, part of a construction boom, in many cases thanks to the help of international organizations.

We entered Kurdistan from the north, through the border with Turkey. We had been in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Kurdish Turkey, attending a seminar on multiculturalism. The European Union has made it clear that to enter the common market, Turkey must stop repressing the Kurdish language, so Turkey has been backing down by inches on the matter. For the first time this year, International PEN could sponsor a seminar in Turkey in which some writers spoke in Kurdish.

It is still illegal, inside of Turkey, to refer to this area as “Kurdistan.” Just a few years ago it was illegal to refer to the Kurds at all. They were said not to exist, not to be an ethnically separate people, not to speak a linguistically unrelated language etc. They were supposedly just “mountain Turks.” Restrictions and harassment are still quite evident.

The first day on the bus, we traveled through the Turkish part of Kurdistan, through Mardin, a beautiful city, where we saw an old Medresseh (Koranic school) and an old Christian monastery which is still in use. Since one of the writers traveling with us was from Kiziltepe, near Mardin, a town official invited us to lunch. We ate Kurdish style. As we entered, we took off our shoes and sat on the floor on carpets lined up against the wall. Boys came in and put down cloths in the middle of the room. They put huge, steaming platters of food on them. We crept forward to reach for the food. We had plates but few implements. There was rice and couscous and sour salads and flat bread and a frothy yogurt drink the Kurds call dow. The most arresting offering was the barely dismembered animal, a sheep.

A boy came in and began ladling out sheep brains with a spoon. He offered me the eyeball, at which point Zaradachet Hajo, the president of the Kurdish PEN center, waved him away. I enjoyed the experience, but I have to admit I didn't regret passing up the sheep's eye.

We continued toward the border, where we endured control booth after control booth of intimidating Turkish soldiers until suddenly we were on the other side and the Kurdish militia appeared smiling, speaking Kurdish openly and offering us tea. The Kurdish media took Zaradachet and me onto the road near the control booth where we gave interviews. “International PEN has come to Kurdistan,” the TV announced that night.

In one hour more, we arrived in Duhok, a beautiful modern city with broad avenues. We were taken to a fine hotel at which there was an internet connection with an English keyboard, a great relief to me after battling Turkish keyboards for a couple of weeks.

The lieutenant governor of the province arrived to greet us. Many people told me with excitement that he is a Christian. This was my first experience of seeing how truly passionate the people in Kurdistan are about being a nation for everybody, especially all those groups that Saddam Hussein oppressed.

The lieutenant governor spoke about how little is known about Kurdistan in the world at large, which the Kurds regret, as they are eager for foreign visitors. He said that he thinks the Kurdistan media is partly to blame. In their excitement about finally being able to produce competent media in the Kurdish language, they have neglected producing the information in international languages which might raise the country's image abroad.

On the way into Duhok I had already seen a big neon cross on a Christian church. The lieutenant governor said that there are many governmental programs that care for their Christians (Assyrians, mostly). Wherever there are at least seven Christian families, the government builds a church.

By the end of this visit we were all very hungry. In our meeting place, a little nook in the hotel, they only brought us many rounds of tea. Across the hall in the dining room, the tables were loaded with wonderful things. And there was beer, wine or whatever you like. The Kurds in Kurdistan are not interested in projecting a teetotaling Muslim image. There was a singer provided, but several Kurdish writers sang too, and everyone formed long lines and danced.

On the road in the morning, the bus wound around the mountainous route to the holy city of Lalish, the most important pilgrimage site of the Yezidi religion. Before the Muslims came to Kurdistan (a very long time ago) and converted most of the Kurds by force, the Kurds were mostly Yezidis, and there is still a significant Yezidi minority, including my translator, Kamal.

Soon we began to see fluted, pointed towers. As we got closer, we could make out an enclosed complex, something like a miniature medieval walled city, with several of the distinctive towers integrated into it. The bus parked and ran toward the sacred enclave. We took off our shoes and entered the sanctuary. Downstairs, a beautiful stream was running. “This is the holy water. Please drink it!” we were told. It was delicious.

“Come up here and walk three times around the tomb of Sheik Adi!” We followed, passing another underground spring, this one covered with a metal grate. “That is the evil water.” The guide said. “Nobody should drink it; that's why we cover it.”

The caverns were cool, and there was water everywhere. “What a nice Kurdish pilgrimage!” people remarked. Many Kurds said they wished to return to the old religion, but Yezidism does not accept converts.

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