Destination Kurdistan

By | 26 November 2005

The next day, the bus snaked through the Zagros mountains all day, through spectacular panoramas. Snowcapped mountains formed the background; waterfalls and rivers–the Tigris and its tributaries–alternated with almond trees bursting into bloom in the foreground. We saw an ancient walled city up on a bluff. This was the long way round to the capital, but I couldn't possibly regret it. It has left me with the impression that one of the most beautiful sights on the planet is Kurdistan in the spring.

It was after nightfall when we arrived in Kurdistan's bustling capital, Arbil. (The Kurdish name for this city is Hawler, nobody there calls it Arbil.)

In meetings with ministers we learned that six years of education is available in the language of the people of every village, whether it be Kurdish, Arabic or Turkish. Also, the religious education class is taught about the Muslim, Yezidi or Christian religion, depending on the religion of the village. There are even tent schools for the nomads who fled into Kurdistan during Saddam Hussein's repression. Last year, the six years of education became mandatory. This may combat a gender gap in education which persisted even after the region became autonomous.

I admired the four meters high, fine portrait of Moustafa Barzani which dominates the ground floor of the the Parliament building. Guards in regional finery patrol at its sides, and there is a changing of the guard ceremony every 45 minutes.

A writers' meeting was the last event in Hawler before we were whisked off in the bus to travel to Suleimani. There was a big audience, a lot of writers and reporters, plus all the friends we had met everywhere along the way. We always collected more people as we went along, some even traveled a way with us on the bus. I wasn't planning to speak on this occasion, but as time went on, commentator after commentator referred to me, wondering what I though of Kurdistan. I told Kamal I was going to ask for the floor. I was the last speaker. This is what I said, with the stops for Kamal's translation. I scared everyone a little bit on purpose.

“Kurdistan is a secret. (Pause.) Some secrets are dark and shameful. (Kamal unhappy but urged to translate it. Terrible pause.) But Kurdistan is a wonderful secret! (Pause and cheering.) People don't know about it yet, but soon I will return home and tell the secret.”

Thus our stay in Arbil/Hawler ended with many people writing down the English word “secret,” in their notebooks and pronouncing it several times.

We arrived in Suleimani at midnight to encounter the only glitch on the whole trip. The hotel had lost our reservations and there were not enough rooms for all of us.

A representative from the Ministry of Culture arrived at the hotel to help. There was a Kurdish music festival going on in Suleimani. The town was swollen with 20,000 extra people and our 15 writers got lost in the shuffle. He made phone calls and distributed us among three hotels. It took a while to get it sorted out. Kurdish PEN officials apologized to me, but I take this as normal for such an ambitious undertaking.

The hotel where I ended up was new; in fact it had been ordered to open before it was finished because of the festival. However, it did not meet Kurdish PEN Vice-President Moustafa Rechid's standards. He was in charge of logistics for this trip; he had even traveled to Kurdistan months before to check arrangements. How could it be, he said, that in a new construction they would install Arabic toilets [i.e. without commodes]? When they failed to produce coffee at breakfast, he was quite disgusted.

I didn't care about this. I had found an internet cafe next door and I was happy. Except for the issue of the towel. There was no towel in my room. I asked what the word for towel was and was told “hawle.” I went to the desk and said this word several times. Later in the day there was still no towel and people kept talking to me about changing my room. Finally I brought a Kurdish writer with me to the desk to intervene. She reported that they were convinced, no matter what I said, that I was complaining that my room was too small. I said that the issue was not small rooms, but a towel, and I would be certain to keep complaining until I got one.

That produced some sort of scramble but still no towel. I was truly mystified until about an hour later when they brought me, still wrapped from the market, a pristine, thick, new cream-and-white colored towel. A towel of towels. I still laugh whenever I think of it. The Kurdish people coddled me preposterously, and the ones I didn't even know were just as extreme as those I did!

In Suleimani, Kurdish woman writer Berivan Dosky and were invited to interrupt a poetry class to talk about International PEN. I was gratified that girls, who comprised at least half the class, as well as boys were forthright in their questions. Maybe they were encouraged by seeing Berivan and me on the podium.”To be active internationally is my dream,” one girl in a Muslim headscarf told me in English.

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