If you haven’t read Part 1 of this story, I would suggest starting there. Disclaimer: this story isn’t full of the cute narrative misadventures that I typically do. But nevertheless I was sure that there was a story here, somewhere buried beneath the facts, a considerably more important one. Some names have been altered to protect the identity of sources. “ کاروان.” reads as an insider guide who introduced me to his homeland.
Peshmerga soldiers furrowed their brows in skepticism when we presented them with our passports. “Tourists? . . . In Kurdistan?” They seemed surprised but waved us through each checkpoint. This particular checkpoint sat at a Peshmerga training camp where local men could walk right in and join. A few months of training at this camp, and poof, a villager automatically turned into a famed Pershmerga warrior. It was somewhat incredible that the government forces recruiting process ran more like a militia than a military. The checkpoints were dispersed all over the country’s roadways. Each time they stopped us the green-eyed men and I locked eyes for a second. I made sure to look away quickly so as to not let them think that I was “interested”. Some Kurdish women covered and some did not; I didn’t, unless I felt uncomfortable… and I hadn’t yet (nor would I for my entire stay). I reflected on my interactions with Kurdish men thus far. As a western woman I was treated as an honorary man, and even invited to sit with the men at tea while they discussed intellectual issues like the Islamic State and family histories.
I was jerked back into reality, totally surrounded by floodwater. کاروان ’s pendant of the Kurdish flag dangled from his rear-view to the sexy sound of tanbur music; it was also the outline of his country. I especially liked the song “Sebra Malan” by Rojin, not knowing at the time that I would bring it home with me, humming it for weeks. He pointed out at an oil and gas flame in the distance. “ATM”, he said laughing. “Taking money out of the ground”. I found his humor appropriate but unsettling while thinking about the conflict that oil had caused the region. This type of humor was a way that our guide seemed to cope with the frustrating situation in Kurdistan.
Our Ford Explorer jangled its way into Lalish, the center of the Yazidi faith. The streets were filled with Yazidi pilgrims, required to visit the holy city once in their lives. I’d never heard of the pre-Islamic Yazidi monotheistic religion of ancient Mesopotamia. Upon exiting the vehicle, shoes had to be removed to walk on holy ground. Everyone went around the village shoeless. The deep gray of the stones was amplified in the mist of the morning. My pale bare feet were unaware of each pebble that made its home in my flesh. We walked uphill to the temple, all eyes in the village were on us. Families, many comprised of several wives, stared and smiled at us. We were welcomed, but our guide reminded us that it was imperative to follow the customs here. We were all outsiders, even our guide. The minority Yazidids had been massacred and persecuted for generations, especially by Saddam and ISIS, and we were on their turf. At the temple young Yezidi men reclined at each doorway like plainclothes security guards to ensure that no feet touched the threshold. When stepping over I made sure to lift my legs all the way to my chest to show maximum effort because, well, soiling an ancient temple in accidental disrespect while tripping and falling on the holy threshold and pissing off the locals? Yeah, that’s something that would happen to gauche me. Inside of the temple we clambered through dark tunnels underground. A spring of living water reflected on the shadows of the cave-like temple where women tied cloth to the temple for life wishes. There was a secret tunnel, where only true believers were able to bathe in the spring. Pilgrims threw scarves at a ledge, and if the scarf caught on an alter in three tries, a wish came true. Centuries old olive oil handprints stuck to the tunnel walls as candles dripped for light. Each handprint was a woman’s wish to be with child. These people were strikingly superstitious. I wondered how these ancient superstitions had bled over into the newer religions of the region when I found a tree with ribbons and hair tied onto the branches at a Christian site. کاروان explained that these were also wishes of women who wanted to become pregnant.
The beliefs were what brought me here. A large cause for the the ethnoreligious group’s persecution was due to misinterpretation of their beliefs. Highly offensive to the Yazidis, was the misconception in the predominantly Muslim region, that they worshiped the devil. There was a peacock angel, head of all of God’s angels, who was thought to be Satan by local outsiders. These people had an intense connection to nature– the village valley was laced with no-hunting signs, the animals were spiritual. The Yazidi’s believed that the valley was the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. Each temple, which I soon began to sparsely spot on the Kursish horizon throughout my trip, was marked by a white cone spire. We were the only foreigners in town. کاروان explained that Yazidis were not allowed to marry outside of their religion. This became a defining issue when thousands of Yazidi women and girls were captured as sex slaves by the Islamic State. In an effort to wipe out their ethnicity, Yazidi women were forced to give birth to the children of Muslim men, a barbaric practice of cultural and ethnic genocide that can be seen in the wars of centuries past. Many women still remained missing, and those who returned were not allowed to keep the children they had birthed during the years of their abuse. The Kurdish government now cared for these Yazidi rape children. ISIS wanted a strictly Islamic ethnicity, no room for minorities. The Kurds and Yazidis didn’t always get along, but the Kurds had sheltered them from further genocide and lended a helping hand at Sinjar, when thousands were faced with “convert or die” in 2014. ISIS was gone in the Kurdish region, for now, but locals feared their potential return while these issues were still ongoing in nearby Syria. It was difficult to leave a place with such unresolved issues. Driving away from Lalish I wondered what would become of the Yazidis.
At Duhok we stopped for a meal at a prominent local cafe. The walls were covered wall to wall with faces of people who had been killed while fighting for the unification of the Kurds, for a Kurdish State, for freedom. The cafe was full of men talking to each other, only men. The breakfast conversations stopped for a moment when I entered. Ignoring the stares and repeatedly telling myself “They don’t get tourists here” we had a delightful but strange meal of breakfast lentils, flat doughy bread,eggs, yogurt, honey, olives and tahini while being watched by the eyes of the souls lost to conflict. There were a lot of them. Our guide proposed a moral question, “So if an ISIS man is captured . . . and he’s a guy who’s done a lot of killing . . . killing of villagers . . . men who leave behind a wife. . . and five children. . . when he is captured . . . should he be shot. . . or imprisoned?” Before my trip my husband and I had agreed that it was safer for us to not talk politics but I had begun to trust our guide and he seemed legitimately interested in my response. Looking around and judging the likelihood that any fellow cafe goers were listening? Yep, definitely listening. Or understood English? Nope, probably didn’t understand English. Thoughts of how Iraquis beheaded Americans in the streets of Baghdad a mere four years ago, a scant six hour drive from here, I weighed my words carefully. But this wasn’t Baghdad. “Imprisoned . . . I think”, my voice wavered “It seems that killing . . . wars . . . they are like a cycle . . . When does the killing stop?” An idealistic response. Our guide became quiet. Back in the car I tried to compensate for, at the time, what I thought might have been the wrong response: “You know . . . it’s really difficult for me to know what to do with that ISIS guy because I only have a small understanding of the situation . . . so I don’t want to pass judgement . . .”. The car moved on, as did our topic of conversation.
Saddam tried to extinguish the Yazidis and the Kurds. The stories that کاروان told were especially interesting. He told a story about a boy who went to school and when presented with a photo of Iraq’s leader, in his childish naivety, called him a donkey. Knowing that the boy had probably heard this from his father, Saddam had the entire family killed. Saddam particularly hated the Kurds and was guilty of killing hundreds of thousands during the Anfal campaigns. We were now pulling into his Duhok summer palace on Gara Mountain, one that he was reportedly particularly fond of. It lay in ruins surrounded by sheep pastures. Evidence of picnic goers laid amongst white marble and black and white victorian decorated tile. I wondered if Saddam had hand picked the designs himself. Soda bottles and liquor caps were strung about like corpses . . . or was it confetti? Kurdish families are particularly fond of their countryside picnics. To me it felt strange to celebrate death. کاروان mentioned that Saddam’s servants cooked three square meals a day, every day, whether Saddam was there or not, out of fear that he might show up with his notorious bad attitude. The palace was looted after Kurdish uprising in 91’. After the “Butcher of Bagdahd” was himself slain, one of his security officers from the summer palace was detained and questioned for intelligence. In an effort to save himself, the guard reported that he had helped Saddam bury a considerable amount of gold under the summer palace. The news instantly reported that the grounds were being excavated to search for “weapons of mass destruction”. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the gold, as did I. A glint caught my eye on the mountaintop across the valley. “P.K.K.” took that hilltop, an undisclosed informant told us.
American forces had worked closely with the P.K.K. in the past to defeat the Islamic State. The P.K.K. was now deemed a terrorist organization by my country’s government. We drove to Amedi, the City in the Sky, which could easily be the next movie set for Game of Thrones. Stunning. `
We were on our way to a “secret spot”. Which peaked my curiosity as I had begun to trust the Kurdish locals and their incredible hospitality. We arrived at a vacation house property in the mountains, which overlooked the City in the Sky. I began to helplessly slide down the hill in a muddy landslide area. کاروان grabbed my arm and held my hand as he said “I am responsible for you”. I had never touched a Muslim man before and it was somewhat illicit for him to touch me. “I would want something to happen to me before it happens to you”. He walked along the outside edge as he tried to prevent me from the fall. That spoke wonders of Kurdish hospitality.
A picturesque proud Kurdish flag flapped in the wind.
کاروان pointed to a valley road, sandwiched between two high mountains. “The P.K.K. are down that road”. “They hide on the mountainsides”. The road went to P.K.K. territory, the group often fought with Turkey over the disputed land. “What would happen if we went down that road?” I asked. They would stop us, question us. Question us? I wanted to question them. Interview them. But that would have been against my better judgement. They could shoot. Or bomb. There were sometimes bystander casualties.
This month, June of 2019, three months after my visit,the Turkish military bombed the exact roadside spot where I stopped to buy a hand painted Iranian souvenir.
I thought again of how the (still friendly) Peshmerga and (now non supported terrorist labeled) P.K.K. had fought with American Forces, allies in eliminating ISIS. Kurdish militant groups continue fighting with American forces in Syria. Tensions continue to rise with neighboring Iran. Our labeling of these former friends, some now foes, as “terrorist organizations” further supports the phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. And if we had allied ourselves with these “terrorists” in the past, then what did that make us? Despite some extreme views, despite tit-for-tat battles, all of the groups across Kurdistan were fighting for Kurdish freedom, a Kurdish state. Freedom, a word that my country uses in propaganda campaigns throughout the oil laden Middle East. Freedom, a word that I wished that we would metaphorically carry back to U.S. soil to stop playing world police. Local Kurds were happy that we helped them oust extremists in the area, but we could tell that they were ready for the American Colonist Brigades to go home. Some didn’t trust American policy. The general consensus? We flip. Then flop. We make friends and use whichever groups we can use to our advantage at the time. Peace can be patriotic. I love my country, but I was ashamed of the whispers of American caused civilian casualties and American informant torture that I heard while I was there. Kurdish civilians were still scared to speak of it. “What hope do you have for the future?” I asked کاروان. He hoped that future generations would learn to live in peace. And the moral is, always the same in these political lessons learned, that the world is never black and white. No one is ever really always the good guy. There’s room for a lot of gray. Nevertheless, the Kurds welcomed us, American civilians, to learn about their ethnic groups, politics, history, culture, and hospitality with open arms.
[…] This is an up and coming backpacking destination. Let’s face it, generally speaking, backpackers are the first to enter unsavory places with bad boy reputations. Over eager hand-wave– hey– that’s me. Or as a new pilot friend recently said, “You’ll pretty much go anywhere where the bullets aren’t flying at you won’t you?” Why yes, yes I will. Insert a long pause here. Iraq was one of my very favorite trips. […]