March 21, 2009

Finding Kurdistan - By Ali Tawfik-Shukor'

Its 1.30 am in my east end London flat. I should be in bed, as a long day awaits tomorrow, but an irrevocable sense of restlessness keeps me up. Perhaps not so much restlessness as a re-ignited sense of passion and hope – a hope for a people neglected for too long, a people subjected to the most horrific evils mankind can inflict, a hope for peace and love in a region torn by so much hate and death.

Only a week ago, I was busy carrying on with my daily routine in London. After two grueling months of PhD fieldwork in The Netherlands, and only two weeks in London’s insanity, I had to get away. The only thing that kept me going was knowing that the next day I would be traveling to South Kurdistan (Iraqi Kurdistan).

Early the next morning, I boarded an Austrian Airlines flight to Erbil (‘Hawler’ in Kurdish), connecting through Vienna. My physical and mental exhaustion had not allowed me to realize the importance of this trip – I was just glad to be out of London and the madness of my daily routine. As clouds obstructed my window-seat view throughout Europe, I decided to nap. I woke up to the most incredible sight of my life. A sight I had waited a lifetime to see, and a feeling of overwhelming sadness took over. I saw Kurdistan – the snow-capped Zagros and Taurus mountains I had dreamed about and romanticized night after night, year after year. Kurds have a spiritual attachment to our land – we see God and creation in nature – in our mountains, valleys, rivers and springs. An immense sense of nostalgia had been fulfilled – a nostalgia for a land I had never seen in my life before. I had seen Kurdistan with my bare eyes – it is impossible to explain how important this moment was to me, to my sense of being and belonging. This was my country, my land – a land that does not exist on any maps, but exists in the hearts of nearly 40 million people. Jonathan Randal, in his epic book, ‘After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters With Kurdistan’, wrote that every Kurd cultivates a secret garden; a garden hidden from the eyes of the world, in the hopes that one day justice will prevail and the wrongs of the past will be righted, so they can see the beauty of this garden, and humanity can benefit from having saved one of the spectacularly resilient and beautiful cultures from destruction and extinction.

We landed in Hawler’s international airport – unthinkable just a few years ago. Kurds were always neglected and were never afforded the infrastructure other nations enjoyed. I stepped out of the plane and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. Any semblance of stress I had just a few hours earlier had disappeared. My heart was at ease – my wish to see my country, to smell its air and see its sky was fulfilled.

On the drive to the hotel we could barely believe my eyes. There was construction everywhere – new roads, bridges, underpasses, hotels, residential blocks and shopping malls. Not long ago, Kurdistan was a kill-zone for the Iraqi military. More than 4000 villages were destroyed by Saddam’s war machine, using everything at his disposal to rid the world of this poor ethnic group, including chemical weapons, MIG jets, and tanks – leaving in their tracks death, destruction, and mass graves. The genocide did not even spare the nature we so love – even the birds, animals and trees of Kurdistan were ‘legitimate targets’. Village springs were covered with concrete, and wells were poisoned. I will never understand how humans can be so incredibly cruel. For years Iraq’s army pillaged Kurdistan, destroying everything they could, with any means possible – while the international community sat idly, ignoring the plight of millions of Kurds fleeing Saddam’s army - starving and freezing to death on the mountains of Kurdistan.

After unpacking in the hotel, and were rushed towards the mountains for dinner, leaving behind the dry plains of Hawler. As we climbed the green hills of Maseef resort, we got a splendid view of the sunset over the ancient plains of Hawler. We suddenly entered the mountains I had seen so many times in my dreams – the temperature droppeddramatically and beautiful coniferous and fruit trees covered the landscape. We spent the evening in the green resortvillage of Shaklawa – literally meaning ‘the little tree saplings’ - nestled in a beautiful valley, populated by thousandsof pomegranate and fig trees, ice-cold springs fed by snow water, and some ofthe most stunning scenery I have ever seen. As we returned to the city later that evening, I could not peel my eyes off themountains – I wanted to return, to go back to the place that had instantly captivated my heart.

We spent the week exploring Hawler and it’s spectacular 4000 year old citadel, sitting atop a plateau overlooking the fertile plains and mountains of Kurdistan, making Hawler the oldest constantly-inhabited cities in the world. The citadel was in a sad state, completely neglected by the Iraqi government over its 80 year occupation of Kurdistan. We would have coffee with the locals wearing their traditional shalwar’s at the citadel’s ancient ‘chai-khana’s’, or tea houses; have beers and water-pipes in Ayn Kawa’s bars in Hawler’s Christian suburb until 2am, while watching weddings at the local church; or have ice creams across from the modern malls in Iskan, Hawler’s commercial district, where people enjoyed dinners at the outdoor cinemas and children played on the top floor of ‘New City’, a glitzy mall in the city center. A complete sense of normalcy, with Kurds and foreigners all mingling, living and working together. While sitting at ‘Min u To’ (‘Me & You’) – Hawler’s trendy ice cream bar, we could not help but laugh at how surreal the situation was. Not one Kurdish soldier was anywhere to be seen – only traffic police directing the chaos of the bustling city at 1am. We laughed that the most dangerous experience of our trip was crossing the highway at night to get to yet another one of Hawler’s flashy new malls. In all our travels throughout Kurdistan, we did not see a single American soldier.

The urge to return to the mountains did prove too strong. Over the next few days, we traveled to Dokan’s beautiful blue lakes and ice-cold rivers, Bikhal’s splendid canyons and springs, Gilly Ali Beg’s waterfall and Rawanduz’ massive mountain passes Saddam’s army could never penetrate. The sheer size of everything gave an incredible sense of freedom, while the colossal mountains made one feel so small and insignificant. We drove through the most beautifully romantic run-down villages – places untouched by time. Local villagers would rush to the car to give us local jams, figs and Rewas – a type of rhubarb that only grows on the mountains of Kurdistan in the spring. The people were desperately poor, but generous and kind – eager to show anyone willing to visit them that they exist, that the Kurdish way of life is alive and has never been crushed. They never accepted payment for any of their gifts – we were their guests and were welcome to share in their bounty. Every time we would leave the mountains and their splendid people, without knowing it, I would put my hands on the car window, like a child hoping to never let them go – they will be with me for the rest of my life and I will always love them with all my heart. I was left only wondering at the cruelty of Saddam’s Iraq, and why and how they could hate innocent people leading such a simple way of life. Those are the real Kurds – those are the people our Kurdish leadership should always think of. They are our pride, the crux of our existence. Without them, we are nothing.

It is now 4.30am. I can now perhaps rest for the night, knowing that I have poured my heart onto these pages. I now understand my restlessness. It is nothing new. It is a restlessness that has existed for more than 85 years, when the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, annulling the Treaty of Sevres that had promised a homeland for the Kurds - leading to the partition and occupation of Kurdistan by the modern-day states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Today Kurds are the single largest ethnic group in the world with no country of their own, and have been subjected to genocide, cultural and linguistic annihilation, and mass deportation.

I pour my heart onto those pages not to ask for anyone’s charity or pity - we do not need either. Nor do we need to prove to the world that we deserve a homeland. We fought for decades for the autonomy and freedom we have today. And we will continue to fight for our right to self-determination, freedom and dignity. The forgotten voices of Halabja, Dersim, Qamishlo, and Mahabad will be heard – the way we treat our past will define our future. The attempts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria to exterminate us and deny our existence will be met with a passion they will never be able to overcome. For those who say that we’re dreamers and idealists – well, I’d rather be a dreamer who has the dignity to hold his head high, for ours is an honorable cause.

While the rest of Iraq is embroiled in hate, violence and death, Kurdistan is in a hurry to rebuild and offer a better life to a people long subjected to racism and genocide. There is an old saying in Kurdistan: “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains”. I hope to never have to hear that saying ever again. Kurdistan is screaming potential – if only our Kurdish leaders would listen to the cries of their people, who have sacrificed so much. They deserve so much more than they’re getting. If left alone by the Iraqis and neighboring countries, South Kurdistan can and will be the most genuinely internationally-oriented, prosperous and progressive nation in the entire Middle East. I left Kurdistan with an immense sense of pride and hope for the future. The resilience of Kurds, their culture and way of life in the face of all odds is testament to the greatness of the human spirit - as written by Dildar, a Kurdish poet imprisoned in Iran in 1938:

The Kurdish nation is alive; its language is yet spoken
It shall not be defeated by the weapons of any age
Let no one say Kurds are dead
Kurds are living
Kurds are living, their flag will never fall
We are the children of Medes and Cyaxares
Both our faith and religion are our homeland
Let no one say Kurds are dead
Kurds are living
Kurds are living, their flag will never fall


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