This article was originally posted in The Mountain- Ear Newspaper, Nederland Colorado. The author lays claim to all original intellectual property here in thereof.
Nomads Who Want A Home
Our preconceived expectations of what northern Iraq might have been like couldn’t have been more wrong. Kurdistan, one of the most controversial “countries” in the world, lays in the heart of the Middle East, north of the Fertile Crescent, sandwiched between the hotbed of Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. The Kurds, 35 million strong, are an ethnically homogenous population dispersed throughout the four countries; the largest stateless group in the world. Neither the U.N. nor the U.S. recognize Kurdistan as a country, but as a non-state ally. The descendants of tribal nomads who followed their domestic animals, I assumed that the Kurds had known for centuries what it was like to be without a home.
Fighting to Preserve their Cultural Identity
Early our first morning our guide picked us up in Erbil in his Ford Explorer. We took the road toward Mosul which fell to ISIS in 2014. I’d expected Kurdistan to look like Desert Storm, barren. کاروان, our guide, said that Americans were always surprised to find rolling green hills. We stopped at the Bardarash IDP Camp, empty but once full of refugees from Mosul. “So bloody” were his concluding words about the ISIS occupation of Mosul from January 2014 to June 2017. We passed by military Peshmerga bases and checkpoints. Sixteen miles before entering Mosul, now controlled by the Republic of Iraq, we turned off the main road through a Christian village and up a massive set of switchbacks to one of the world’s oldest Christian monasteries, Mar Mattai, St. Matthew. The Syriac Orthodox monastery sat on the cliff like a shelf, just like it had for 1,656 years. Fog engulfed the mountain as کاروان told us that ISIS ravaged the land surrounding the monastery but left its only monk untouched.
Ancient Assyrian site of Khanis, near Dohuk
Preserving History and Rejecting Extremism
During one of the rainiest times in recent Kurdish history, کاروان forged seasonal rivers with strong currents that ran over the roads. Concerned, I periodically looked at the floorboard expecting my feet to be covered with water. The Gomel Su River raged as we approached the ancient Assyrian site of Khanis which UNESCO has been unable to declare an official World Heritage site due to political turbulence in the area . Man made caves and carvings were presented to us by a man whose family had tended to the historical site for several generations. The local historian pointed with his laser at reliefs of deities and Lamassus, mythical winged beasts with beards. The Assyrian king Sennacherib was famous for his public works campaigns, this one diverted drinking water 50 miles to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, and had been dug by hand. The local elder/historian extended an invitation to stay for tea. He shared how his father moved the entire contents of his home, walking piece by piece, to the safety of the mountains when religious extremists entered the area. His faithful dog sat guarding the door of the old home until every piece of furniture was removed.. The dog only accompanied the father to the mountains when the last piece had been removed. Hearing the story reminded me of the common saying that “The mountains are the Kurds’ only friends”. Kurdish lands had been coveted and fought over for centuries. Listening to the story over tea, the gorge raging beside us, I couldn’t help but think that religious extremism wasn’t the only threat to Khanis, nor the wars that had persisted for centuries that often extinguished cultural artifacts, but that the site would soon be overrun with turbulent water if measures to preserve its history were not taken soon.
The natural beauty of the landscape surrounding Amedi village
Hope for Peace
Looking out into the beautiful mountains on the border with Iran, I realized that I had forgotten that I was in Iraq. Green? Rainy? Snow-capped mountains? Friendly locals who wanted us there? Originally we’d planned to keep our mouths shut about international relations, the war, and tribal history. But everywhere we went villagers wanted to tell us their stories and to hear our opinions. They wanted us to know that they despised religious extremism, and that outsiders were welcome and safe. The Kurds wanted us to know that they craved peace in their home that had been fought over for thousands of years. At the end of the trip I’d decided that I wasn’t in Iraq after all; it was the unrecognized but nevertheless existing country of Kurdistan.