Kurdistan is a region that covers parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, and where the population, culture and language is mostly Kurdish. Kurds are “the largest national, cultural group that has never been able to achieve a national territory”, says Noam Chomsky. I am still travelling with my Norwegian friends, Mats and Robert, and we are given a ten day visa-on-arrival for Iraqi Kurdistan.
Although not its own country, Kurdistan has its own regional government. The invasion of Iraq has had vastly different consequences for Kurdistan in comparison to the rest of the country. Whilst the majority of Iraq has faced devastation because of the invasion and occupation, Kurdistan has served a different purpose. In a 2008 interview, Noam Chomsky states that “the relatively autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq is providing support for the US goal of ensuring that Iraq remains a client state and a base for US forces in the region, and that it will privilege US investors…”
If your definition of a “developing” region is shopping centres, corporate capitalism, private investors, advertising and a growing gap between rich and poor, then Kurdistan certainly falls into this category. When we arrive in Sulaymaniyah, I am shocked to be suddenly surrounded by consumerism. I look back fondly at my time in Iran! But at the same time I am excited….I can now walk without a headscarf on. I can drink alcohol. I even guiltily eat chinese food! Sulaymaniyah is a mixture of traditional and modern, rich and poor. Its beautiful, old, crumbling bazaar, heaving with people, is just a few streets away from the brand new shopping centres visited by people in expensive 4×4 cars.
We visit Amna Suraka, a complex where Saddam Hussein’s regime incarcerated, tortured and murdered thousands of Kurdish people. We see old torture chambers and solitary-confinement cells. The complex was closed in 1991 when an uprising by Kurdish fighters forced out Hussein’s forces and took control of Amna Suraka.
We are also told about the Halabja massacre in 1988, which the US and Britain turned a blind eye to. “While [British politician David] Mellor was being entertained by Saddam Hussein, his host ordered the gassing of 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja.” (John Pilger). Between 1986 and 1989, up to 182,000 Kurds were killed by the Hussein regime in the Anfal genocide campaign.
Journalist John Pilger describes Hussein as a “thug whose Ba’athist Party was brought to power by the CIA in what the CIA official responsible described as “our favourite coup”. Moreover, he was sustained in power during the 1980s by Ronald Reagan, George Bush Senior and Margaret Thatcher, who gave him all the weapons he wanted, often clandestinely and illegally.”
Sulaymaniyah is a city of men. Men on the streets. Men in the parks. Men at the bazaar. There are literally no women anywhere! Because of this, I am happy to leave this city.
Hitchhiking is really easy in Kurdistan, and unlike in Iran, locals are not surprised when we want to travel without contributing any money. Like in Iran, Mats, Robert and I are local celebrities and everyone wants a photo with us. We are shown so much hospitality and generosity. One of our drivers, a policeman, even insists on paying for a two-bedroom apartment for us for a night! Another day, a military man insists on paying a small fortune for a taxi to drive us for one hour.
Being surrounded by consumerism, my urge to dumpster dive is awakened, and I find it easy to find good discarded vegetables. But locals are shocked when they see the only tourist around rummaging through the waste! They point and stare at me. They ask me, “what are you doing?!” I dumpster the food and Robert and Mats cook it in our hotel. We make a good team!
Iraqi Kurdistan is a region of uniformed men with guns, and there are checkpoints, checkpoints and more checkpoints. Our next stop is Arbil, which is a pleasant city with super-friendly locals. But once again, where are all the women??!
Arbil has a huge citadel which towers over the city. In 2007, 840 families were evicted from the citadel, and the project of restoration by UNESCO began. I send an email to UNESCO, asking why the evicted families can not move back into their homes once renovation is complete, and why a notice in the citadel states that some buildings have been promised to countries for cultural centres. I receive no reply.
We also visit Amadiyah, a beautiful town perched high on a mountain ridge. Within five minutes of arriving, we are pounced upon by a nineteen year old boy who tells us, “my name is GW. Grand Wolf”! Grand Wolf insists on giving us a guided tour of the town.
Vegetarians note that in some towns, I go from restaurant to restaurant, asking for veggie food. The conversation goes like this:
“Do you have rice?”
“No. We have Kebab.”
“I don’t eat meat.”
We aren’t brave enough to venture more south, where we would see the real effects of the invasion. We reach the Iraq/Turkey border and accidentally walk over to Turkey without being border-checked or stamped! We walk back again for our Iraq exit-stamp. Officially, no-one is allowed to walk across the border, and taxi is the only way to cross. We ignore this official advice and successfully walk over to Turkey (for the second time, but with official passport stamps!). We smugly laugh at the drivers who tell us, “by foot? Impossible! Taxi. 50 euros!!”