A Musafir in Iraqi Kurdistan

in potpurri

[We thank Professor Jyotsna Singh for contributing her Kurdistan Diary to CM, along with photos and captions. ]

A Musafir in Iraqi Kurdistan, May 2012

The murmuring mass of an unknown language constitutes a delicious protection, envelops the foreigner (provided the country is not hostile to him) in an auditory film which halts at his ears all the alienations of the mother tongue: the regional and social origins of whoever is speaking, his degree of culture, of intelligence, of taste, the image by which he constitutes himself as a person and which he asks you to recognize. Hence, in foreign countries, what a respite! Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality … I live in the interstice, delivered of any fulfilled meaning (Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs 9)

I

 Pleasures  of Unintelligibility

Oh the magic of unintelligibility!  To experience words only as sounds, which may evoke feelings and memories, and yet whose meaning escapes us!  As a way of  re-thinking the relationship between language, meaning, and human interaction, I recall my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan (Kurdish Autonomous Region) this past May. Barthes’ celebrations of an unknown language have a special resonance for me in my recollections!

Most strikingly, I remember a dinner among Iraqis, Kurds, and two American friends/colleagues on a recent visit to Dohuk, (one of the three major KAR cities).  We were among a dozen guests, all men, who were speaking a ready back-and-forth Arabic and Kurdish.  Gradually, I recognize the seemingly guttural more forceful sounds (from male voices) of Arabic and the softer, sibilant tones of Kurdish words.  Speaking Urdu myself, Kurdish holds the comfort of familiarity; many common nouns and adjectives from a family of languages:  Persian, Urdu, Kurdish, in turn infused by the Arabic from a common Qu’ranic source.  I catch some words: duniya (world); piyala (cup); mushkil (difficulty, also in Arabic).  This particular dinner came in the middle of our trip to the region on an educational project was hosted by a senior Professor, who had invited a cross-section of academics and administrators from the university to meet us.

I recall the dinner, as increasingly convivial, like a Fellini film in Kurdistan. Feeling a bit surreal and bizarre, being the only woman amidst this all-male geniality, seemingly commonplace and normal, yet “Fellini-esque” in the over-decorous, stylized manners of the men. Women seem prominent in the university (and in the city) in Dohuk — visible everywhere as students, teachers, and staff, a mingling between the sexes quite relaxed. Thus, this dinner is unusual in its all-male cast. When all the guests initially fill the room, my American friend whispers in my ear “have you been surrounded by so much testosterone before?” I guess this was not uncommon in so many Western boardrooms or even university committees!  But perhaps in societies where demarcations of public and private – male and female – are inflected with more distinct gender codes, such a gathering invests the only woman in the room with a heavier self-consciousness.  Someone mentions the complication being that since the host and several guests were Yezidi, a distinct faith different though with some echoes of Islam, alcohol was permitted at such social gatherings. So Muslim women from the university did not want to attend.  Throughout the city, restaurants entertained family, mixed-gender crowds, but were mostly alcohol free.  Restrictions and permissions (as we found out) — in many matters moral and practical seemed open to a range of interpretations.

As the guests settle gradually on arrival, all gazes face a large TV screen showing the evening news read by an attractive anchorwoman, distinctively not wearing a headscarf.  The news depicts a riot in Erbil outside the Parliament building where some supposedly Islamic group is shouting and gesticulating in Kurdish we are told.  Among these are women in burqas or hijab, along with young men. The consensus among our fellow guests is that this is an instigated event, the protestors screaming against some anti-Islamic writing by a journalist, who was in turn a plant of the Islamists.  What they tell us in English gets submerged in a cacophony of Kurdish and Arabic. Turning our heads, noting the animated faces of other guests, and following what they translate for us, we quickly recognize that the complicated and fraught politics of the post-Saddam Iraq find their way into all conversations in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Who has been behind the violence in a string of cities from Baghdad and other cities in the South — violence that sporadically spilled into northern cities like Kirkuk and Mosul, only a few hours away from Dohuk? One person said later, I recall, that the problem was that no one knows who is instigating the trouble anywhere. In Mosul, for instance, it was believed that Baathists were possibly some part of the problem, or that Iran always supposedly had a hand in controlling the country.

Among other quests at M–’s are some younger professors in history and philosophy some who only speak Kurdish. I try asking them simple questions interspersed with some Kurdish words, but they shrug, suggesting little understanding. This obviously all-male animation (I think they just factor in my minor presence after a while) is no doubt fuelled by Arak, the fragrant and intoxicating liqueur similar to the Greek Ouzo and Turkish Raki — and once again, an endless round of mezzes. I am curious about what they are talking about us or whether they consider me significant for comment? And I would never know.

***

This dinner celebration was the mid-point of our trip to Dohuk, and important in that brought home to us the warm hospitality that so distinctive of Muslim societies everywhere – and also our foreignness as honored guests – mehmaan in farsi.  My knowledge of the Kurds and Kurdish history and culture was extremely sketchy and anecdotal, perhaps knowing more about their struggle for autonomy, with an accompanying resistance or “terrorist” movement led by the PKK in Turkey Iraqi Kurdistan has surfaced in the news recently on and off as the “Other” Safe Iraq;” many of these stories about the development, construction projects and the obvious interest of multi-nationals in commercial opportunities, and the ever-ubiquitous accounts of the oil reserves. In these accounts, we hear of Erbil the capital as a hub of multi-national construction companies and immense construction projects. (See Reccia’s blog).

I was the ignorant traveler, a musafir, even though part of a so-called development project.  Yet in this journal I have attempted to record a “micro” history, unmoored from any development or global perspective, and revealing instead, the seemingly innocuous, textured experiences of our stay in the Kurdish areas of Iraq.  Here are a few fleeting vignettes of contemporary life around Dohuk — entangled in contingent histories of the scattered Kurdish diasporic communities over several geographical boundaries.  I try to “descend into the untranslatable” to “undo our (Western) reality” in terms set by Barthes, foreign travel as a dream: to know a “foreign (alien) language and not to understand it”

II

Night Journey to Dohuk

 Welcome to us three by our hosts from the University of Dohuk at an upscale family dining restaurant. Al Azaim was typical of a spacious, relaxed space with personal hospitality of menus that consisted of endless mezzo and kebab, among other dishes.  Most such places did not serve alcohol and were filled with families. We were treated to wonderful meals by our hosts at such restaurants almost every day!

Welcome to us three by our hosts from the University of Dohuk at an upscale family dining restaurant. Al Azaim was typical of a spacious, relaxed space with personal hospitality of menus that consisted of endless mezzo and kebab, among other dishes. Most such places did not serve alcohol and were filled with families. We were treated to wonderful meals by our hosts at such restaurants almost every day!

Arriving at airport at Erbil past midnight – the seat of government for the KAR: with clean grayish marble interiors, it offers no striking markers of Iraq or the Middle East. Later I hear this was all built from American money!  The drive at around 2 am to Dohuk: on one side the expanse of lights show Erbil to be a large sprawling city as we head out. A very bright full moon is ahead of us throughout this journey.  The land is flat and the road – a kind of single lane highway – is uneven though mostly smooth.  On the outskirts of the city, a single Coca Cola sign oddly appears under the headlights and from then onwards, no markers of global products.  Our journey is broken by far away lights and some roadside shops and parked trucks.  And the checkpoints, around six or seven of them appear at intervals of every half hour or so. Usually two men in uniform appear and peer into the car. Our friend/driver who is Kurdish speaks to them.  Twice he shows them his work ID and they sweep us through. They make a gesture of putting the hand on the forehead, a kind of welcome sign. Only once do they actually peer and look at us and our host mutters “Amreeki” and while we fumble for our passports, they sweep us through.

The genial military men do not create any confidence in us, however, that they could respond to some large terrorist incursion. Yet, it was telling that this ritual of check posts against the engulfing darkness (and with the knowledge that violence was a daily event in large parts of Iraq) was repeated daily at all hours as an enactment of Kurdish semi-sovereignty.

The Garden of another restaurant in Dohuk with a view of the hills and roses (everywhere) behind us (reminiscent of the American southwest) the city was colored in a palette of yellow/brownish hills shading into pink buildings.

The Garden of another restaurant in Dohuk with a view of the hills and roses (everywhere) behind us (reminiscent of the American southwest) the city was colored in a palette of yellow/brownish hills shading into pink buildings.

We arrive close to Dohuk in early dawn. The moon has gone and the city sprawls before us, the colors are mostly a blur of pinkish yellow and the mountains are not very high, but rugged, angular, reminiscent of the American southwest, New Mexico or perhaps South Dakota. We listen to Kurdish music in the car as we enter the city. (Kurdish, and sometimes Arabic, music weaves into all my recollections of our trip as it plays in every car ride, long or short).  Our host, a young Kurdish lecturer, is a friendly guide to the world we are entering: his family lived in Iran for many years during the Sadam Hussein years, as he recounts the history of his grandfather and uncles being killed in their village by Sadam forces in the 1980s. But as a counterpoint, his cousin, (who was accompanying us in the car) and also from his village, had more recently lost his father at the hands of the PKK the Kurdish breakaway rebels from Turkey, “terrorists” whose relations with the Iraqi Kurds was complicated, it seemed.  The fault lines of dissonant histories!!

III

Hijabi Chic: Kurdish Affect and Style

Young women in chic styles

Young women in chic styles

Typical classroom. These are young and vibrant youth full of plans and often talked of the future of the KAR, even though some among them were Arabs.

Typical classroom. These are young and vibrant youth full of plans and often talked of the future of the KAR, even though some among them were Arabs.

Another class of English literature, again wonderful images of Hijabi Chic!

Another class of English literature, again wonderful images of Hijabi Chic!

On arrival, mid-day May 6th,Sunday in Dohuk, a busy working day in many Muslim societies, with Friday being the main non-working day of the week. Late that day, we meet with the English faculty (University of Duhok) and observe the striking affect of student fashions: high heels, dresses of various combinations and bright colors, revealing and fitting. And some version of a hijab in at least 2/3rds of women, leaving flowing locks of hair falling on their faces, make up accentuating striking faces. The young men have a kind of James Dean sartorial fashion look, tight black pants/jeans and dark slick hair, slicked up into a tiny peak.  Strolling outside the building the young men often casually walk hand in hand, with a cool affective ease. But the young male and female students also display and ease of intermingling. Looking at the vibrant young people on campus, the energy, the sense of style, the gregarious friendliness, one is struck by the affective character of Kurdish culture.

Over several days, we attend various literature classes, based on a fairly canonical (mostly British) curriculum, but classes vary: some seem to follow a traditional pedagogy of memorization and formalist reading, others include students designing their own satiric skits based on “Alice in Wonderland.” We also go to the office of the head of the humanities in another building prior to the class visitations. We meet a young British teacher who tutors faculty and has been in Duhok for several months, a part of the move toward English immersion. During the trip and in later negotiations, we get a sense that they want to radically change their English, canonical, (“great books”) curriculum and include American works and literatures (in translation) that are more global, including Kurdish and Arabic texts. An elder Dean observes, “we need a new curriculum for a new nation.” Kurdology, or Kurdish studies, is a mandatory course in every department. There is a palpable sense of an autonomous Kurdish “nation” if not quite a free entity as yet.

Finally, all over the university and city, Mustapha Barzani's image (above the ubiquitous Kurdish map) looks over his people (so to speak).

In almost every room in official buildings, we see big photos of Mustapha Barzani the hero of the Peshmarga resistance to Saddam Hussein. All over the university and city, Mustapha Barzani’s image (above the ubiquitous Kurdish map) looks over his people (so to speak).

The next day in the University, we are caught in a wonderful hubbub of a graduation event in which all the graduating students wear their colorful ethnic clothes, especially Kurdish and Chaldean Christian, (instead of the typical academic regalia originating from Medieval Europe) with women wearing gold belts with coins, jeweled headdresses, and some men wearing feathered hats.   One girl tells us the gold is real, a family heirloom, the others disclose that their jewels are imitations, and would later see a profusion of such jeweled accessories in the traditional market, or Souk. Picture taking is customary and to our surprise students want to include us “Amreekis” in their graduation photos (how would they remember us strangers in their personal photos years later)?

Graduation in the English department was a special treat for us visitors. Students wore their traditional ethnic garb and jewels. Some told us the gold belts and necklaces were real gold borrowed from their grandmothers, others confessed they wore faux jewelry (which we later saw in the Souk)

Graduation in the English department was a special treat for us visitors. Students wore their traditional ethnic garb and jewels. Some told us the gold belts and necklaces were real gold borrowed from their grandmothers, others confessed they wore faux jewelry (which we later saw in the Souk)

Also graduation day, a young man who was a Syriac Christian described this as his ethnic garb.

Also graduation day, a young man who was a Syriac Christian described this as his ethnic garb.

IV

Journey to Amedia – Lessons in History and Geography

We could see these sweeping ranges near Amedia. Beyond the hills was the Turkish border. There seemed to be only small clusters of habitation we could spot in these areas.  During the Kurdish struggles with Saddam, this hilly terrain was useful to the Peshmarga fighters.

We could see these sweeping ranges near Amedia. Beyond the hills was the Turkish border. There seemed to be only small clusters of habitation we could spot in these areas. During the Kurdish struggles with Saddam, this hilly terrain was useful to the Peshmarga fighters.

 Driving on the highway to Amedia, the city on the Citadel. This Kurdish region seems to have well-maintained driving lanes.

Driving on the highway to Amedia, the city on the Citadel. This Kurdish region seems to have well-maintained driving lanes.

10th. May –Today our last day was the best in terms of getting away from the city, into the fresh air and expansive, green mountains, just imbibing the air, the scenery and hearing from our hosts fragments of their lives and the history of the nation and region. We will be leaving soon tonight in a taxi to the Erbil airport, the long haul back home. Outside the city, we drive up winding well-constructed roads to a broad expanse of mountains (probably 4-6000 feet). These offer a terrain strikingly different from the craggy, angular hills with sparse greenery that we had encountered on entering Dohuk. Our very articulate, genial hosts, professor A — at the university, and young man who also lectures there, intersperse our drive with a mixture of anecdotes drawn from both geography and history. Each mentions having a family village past some of these mountains. We drive by a huge winding wall over swathes of land, which she says belongs to a rich industrialist. She mentions that people went there for picnics earlier, but now such land enclosures are not uncommon. We also drive past far away construction of what seem like condos. Imagining ahead few years, these scenic hilly parts will be “developed” into overuse of land, rising prices and the attendant trappings that come with it.

We stop at a shuttered family style restaurant with a magnificent view; the building is shuttered and at the back, we run into a droll scene two garish, bedraggled sofas with a satin backdrop and pink satin hearts, probably a setting for a wedding, but which now looked like a decaying like a decaying movie set.

We stop at a shuttered family style restaurant with a magnificent view; the building is shuttered and at the back, we run into a droll scene two garish, bedraggled sofas with a satin backdrop and pink satin hearts, probably a setting for a wedding, but which now looked like a decaying movie set.

These Dohuk hills are also the site of two of Saddam Hussein’s palaces or getaways before the 1991 war… possibly when he still had direct control over Kurdistan. The first palace we drive by quite fast, but the second one on a hill surrounded by a long winding wall on the hillside, and we can glimpse a cluster of buildings.  Our host (like others during our trip) gives anecdotes of Saddam that show the generosities and cruelties of the man. She mentions that he used to keep deer in this palace and have them run races, but of course, if anything went wrong with the deer he would punish those in charge. Others we met – of the older generation– remember Baghdad before the 1991 war as a great, cosmopolitan city to which people from the Middle East flooded for cultural freedom and prosperity etc. So these stories are a part of the collective imagination of these people we met, and while perspectives on Saddam Hussein differ among Arabs and Kurds, they all seemed to be filled with a genial generosity. On the same route we also pass by an elegant sprawling villa, which we are told belonged to the former King of Iraq in the 1950s and was now a hospital.

 Kurdish Dancers on our journey to Amedia. We ran into busloads of young men, many in the traditional Kurdish Shalwar, stopping by the hillside engaging a wonderful rhythmic group dance with whom we "kind of" participated.

Kurdish Dancers on our journey to Amedia.
We ran into busloads of young men, many in the traditional Kurdish Shalwar, stopping by the hillside engaging a wonderful rhythmic group dance with whom we “kind of” participated.

Close to Amedia, which we glimpse on high natural mountain ridge, as we turn a corner, we are suddenly accosted by a group of men in a circle dancing to loud Kurdish music from buses parked close by. Our hosts inform us that this was the beginning of the summer break for all students. The men seem in carefree spirits and we get off and my American companion joins them in the circle with ease; and the men seem to think that entry as most natural.  Later they want to pose for pictures with us, the ubiquitous photo taking of our trip.

Bahdinan Gate Plaque -- Before us lay the expanse of mountains bordering Turkey, and below us grew a profusion of blood-red poppies, history, geography, and myth came together.

Bahdinan Gate Plaque — Before us lay the expanse of mountains bordering Turkey, and below us grew a profusion of blood-red poppies, history, geography, and myth came together.

From this turn in the highway, we can see Amedia, the town perched on a jutting mountain ridge, which makes a striking image as a natural fortress. We learn that formerly it was only accessible by a narrow passage.  The town is not distinctive, except 1-2 formal government buildings, one housing the police station, where we have to pay a fine for forgetting to wear a seatbelt. An ancient minaret tower marks the middle of the town square, but we head to Bahdinian Gate, the archaeological find with competing histories on the edge of the town. The plaque at the entrance reads that it is not clear “to which period it belongs” since pre-Islamic images of figures and symbols such as the snake and sun mix with Islamic charts.  The history of Amedia as a kingdom goes back 3000 years B.C. when it was a part of ancient Assyria, and later it was ruled by a prince who broke away from the Caliphate and was from the Ahmad family; it was a part of the Bahdinan emirate from the 14th century onward.  Even today it is known as a Kurdish and Assyrian town, with a mixed population.

Picking some Poppies below the Bahdinan Gate

Picking some Poppies below the Bahdinan Gate

A gate and crumbled stairway hanging on to a steep hillside, with an archway of some shapes of figures constitutes the Bahdinan Gate, as it stands today. Part of the gate has a stone frieze. We go gingerly down the crumbling steps and out of the gate emerges a spectacular view of the sweeping mountains before us. Growing around these steps are clusters of poppies, which remind me of the Adonis story – of being killed on steps where poppies spring up every year, symbolizing his blood.  We see the highest mountain from there I think with swirls of mist.  Amedia is only 10 miles from Turkey, which lies behind this mountain range, though the main border crossing is about 50 miles away. Of course, I also think of the broader sweep of history, before the British carved out the boundaries of modern Iraq in the early 20th century, the Ottomans administration held sway over all this and large swathes of territory now known as the “middle east.”

We sat by the Gate with sweeping vistas and no tourists!

We sat by the Gate with sweeping vistas and no tourists!

Then oddly, almost uncannily, suddenly few men follow behind us through the gate, one of them is an American lawyer, a big portly man from Los Angeles with two of his local Kurdish friends. We chat and share our reasons for being there – on this outpost of perhaps America’s current neo-colonial empire – and he tells us he had helped his friend with a law case dealing with American army or contractors during the Iraq war — and this visit was his friend’s reciprocal hospitality. He is the first and only American we had met during our trip. His friend the Kurd mutters something in halting English about times now being better, about hope for the Kurdish region. I would have liked to have a more sustained conversation with him or others we saw or encountered in these hill villages and towns — in these small cafes and kebab restaurants, in shops selling trinkets, some shopkeepers in Kurdish shalwars, others in the Arab head dress, the kaffieh.  But on the other hand, did it matter that we sought, extracted, or acquired empirical knowledge that could predict the outcomes of development? Or could we know whether these Kurdish cities would remain relatively safe and violence free? In a way, it was more enriching just to take in all the affective impressions and experiences and listen to all the individual stories.

Our trip was a part of a university exchange that is organized by a non-Profit company, Irex, supported by the US State Department. http://irex.org/. The experiences of this journey were shared by my two colleagues, Salah Hassan and David Stowe. My thanks to David Stowe for his constant encouragement in the genesis of this journal and article.

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