12 June, 2010

Mardin: Take my picture

Cizre to Mardin

backdate: 12 June

Piles of wheat and lentils are spread on tarpaulins while farmers tinker with a mid-sized threshing machine. Burning stubble dots the landscape and sends plames of black smoke to mix with the haze. From Cizre to Nusaybin, the highway parallels the Syrian border; then, nearing Mardin, it rises away from the rich Syrian plain into a series of mesa-topped hills. In the vertical rock faces, broad hollows - possibly still in use as sheepfolds - can be seen.

It had been a great ride with my seatmate Ahmet, a Cizre native studying in Diyarbakir. But Mardin looked just too lovely to simply pass through again without stopping. So i left the bus and began walking. Up through the old city, i passed a market. A rock band was tuning up, while across the crowded cobblestones a young man and toddler were riding a donkey (the latter is still quite common here). The sky above was crowded with kites, hexagonal affairs covered with all manner of scrounged materials. Dashing down a stairway from the narrow old-city streets towards the main highway, i came upon a boy making his kite out of a plastic garbage bag. It felt like stepping into "The Kite Runner"; everywhere i looked i saw boys on rooftops, strings straining into the hazy air. Mardin's position high above the Syrian plain, a kilometer above sea level, catches the evening breeze as air rises over the hill.

deep in the maze of the old city: construction

the Syrian plain, far below a soaring kite

I thought it would be awesome to sleep in one of those rock clefts about 4 km outside the city, so i set off back down the hill. Before i could make half way, though, darkness was upon me. Even with the lyric "i'll take my chances, every chance i get" running through my head, i wasn't ready to pay a dollar and place my bet on the comforts of a half-cave. If i could even find them. And there are some Large wasps here.

I had turned back to the city, and stopped to snap some pictures of the glowing lights when i met Max and Beat. They were from Isverige - Switerland - motorcycling their way across central Asia with $2,000 worth of visas: Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgizistan, Mongolia, Russia. So far they'd logged 2,600 kilometers from their doorstep to Mardin, island-hopping from Venice through Greece.

They asked where i was staying, and when i said i planned to check in at Başak (the cheapest hotel) they informed me there was one room left - "very basic," they said - and that everywhere else they'd checked was full. But they had heard of a nearby monastery where there might be beds. I asked if i could join them, climbed aboard Beat's motorcycle, and we set off.

The monastery was closed for the night, but the watchman (also caretaker, a friendly fellow whose name was Aydın Arkadaş) welcomed us to sleep among the rosebushes on the visitor center/cafe lawn. Aydın's son brought out a plate of bulgur and another of sauteed vegetables, and the customary round of çay, while we talked and passed around photographs of family until nearly midnight. Max had spent a few months in Turkiye, and his Turkish was coming back, so it was a conversation in three languages - counting English and their Swiss dialect of German. Then we lay back onto the grass. Our host lent me a blanket for cover, and in the light breeze of a perfect (high sixties, F scale) night we drifted off to the sound of crickets.

Seen in Cizre

Well, we didn't see the tomb. Just the sign. But i've been wanting to catch one of these great delivery bikes in action.


Lying by the Tigris at the juncture of Turkiye, Syria, and Iraq, Cizre is a small but vibrant city without the border town ethos of Silopi or Zaho. Actually, it's quite beautiful. Low hills rise behind the city, punctuated by the minarets and domes of its plentiful mosques, making it one of the most picturesque places i have visited thus far. A few midday hours is not enough for Cizre, and the city's panorama, best seen from the Tigris' opposite shore, is one of the many images that escaped me.

Last night, Metin introduced me to his friends, and this morning Cihan's brother Roni showed me the significant spots of Cizre. First we went to Birca Belek, once an Ottoman Castle, later a Turkish Army base, now an empty artifact. Roni was unsure if we'd be allowed inside - but playing the American student card, and knowing the local education minister Nuri an American and a Kurd once again made a winning team. A phone call from Nuri, and we (literally) had the keys.

Inside the fence, we made our way to a carpeted, shady shelter near the river where three older men sat drinking tea. Said keys were presented to them, and one fellow gave us a guided tour. The original 15meter-high walls were destroyed during the Ottoman fall, but their remains are still inspiring. Inside Birca Belek also lies a prison chamber where Mem, the a hero of Kurdish literature, was said to be imprisoned. (In the epic love poem of Mem and Zin, lovers from two different clans are separated by the conspiracy of Bakr, member of yet another clan. Read by some to represent the Kurdish people's separation from their land, the poem, written in 1692, has been the basis for two film adaptations.) This largely unknown prison chamber is perhaps the most interesting bit of architecture i have seen. Originally a room of the Ottoman castle, it is a circular chamber with arched ceilings in the outer circle. Four identical arched doors - one on each side - lead to a center, roofed with a domed spiral of bricks.

One of the first major actions of the Turkish Republic was the closing of the Medreses, religious schools which, during the Ottoman period, formed the backbone of the educational system. In Cizre there are two, recently restored. One, the Red Medrese has a stunning entrance and courtyard; the other is home to the tomb of Mem and Zin. The villain Bakr is buried beside them.

My picture of the region grows, a photomosaic with increasing resolution. On Cizre streets i saw a poster: The letters Q, X, and W tangled in a steel chain, the chain carried by an ascending dove. Q, X, and W are found in Kurdish, but not Turkish ("X" has a phlegmy "kh" sound). Outsiders may wonder how the Kurds are oppressed in modern Turkiye. The answer is simply this: Kurds had no say in the boundaries that were drawn at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. After a brief freedom they were subsumed into four nations, the artificial boundaries of all four intersecting between here and Van, at the heart of Kurdish territory. Their language was forbidden between 1980 and 1991 with a similar lack of consultation, and remains forbidden in certain contexts, such as education and government. As a result, numerous democratically elected politicians from eastern Turkiye have been removed or arrested and imprisoned by the state - including the current mayor of Cizre - simply for using their mother tongue in public office. (I was unable to find out whether or not he has been released since his arrest six months ago.) Pro-Kurdish political parties also face dramatic opposition.

Over a hurried lunch of Adana kebab, i learned more about my guide. Roni is the second youngest of twelve siblings. I've gotten used to meeting people from large families - but Roni springs something new on me: his father has two wives, a practice still found in this corner of Turkiye until it too was federally banned.

11 June, 2010

Border run

Metin is the local Ford dealer. With his friends, a doctor and a lawyer, we're strolling in a park beside the Tigris River. We're in a gym watching an amateur volleyball match. Driving to his place, we pass a cow in the middle of a narrow city street. Except for a few words here and there, and one English-speaking (coalition?) soldier outside Kirkuk, i've been using Turkish all day. Overload.


After two days without water in Suleymaniyah, last night the water came on at last.  To shower was a simple affair (and a chilly one, as the water came direct from a rooftop tank), but a blessing. And in Iraq, clothes dry on the line outdoors overnight; at nine AM they're as hot as if they just came out of the dryer, if a little dusty.

"It's Friday. Just come back if they're not running," Andy said as i headed out the door. But the Muslim holy day proved no obstacle to travel. Dust devils whipped by; at a recent looking rest stop the buildings were tile and glass, and relatively clean for Iraq. Under a canopy of galvanized pipe frames and woven reed mats two young boys washed cars. Beginning at ten AM, six taxi rides for a grand total of 49,000 IQD had me in Zaho by late afternoon (about a 400 km trip). In Dahok i had begun to worry. In need of a sticker visa, logic told me such things would be no problem - but approaching Friday night, i was in no mood to be stuck at the border with Couchsurfing hosts lined up fifty kilometers on the other side.

In the passport office i got my Iraqi Kurdistan exit stamp. A young man approached, asking if i wanted a taxi across the border. We waited and waited. Then, when we reached the car, the trunk was full with cartons of cigarettes in black plastic bags. The driver explained that when we reached customs, each of us should claim six cartons. "Problem yok, problem yok," he repeated in response to my refusals. The young man touting for the taxi service tried to explain, but my Turkish was shot, and already worried about the visa issue i didn't want to develop problems helping to smuggle cigarettes across without duty. Making things worse, the driver tried using my American passport as an excuse to cut in line, creating a chaos of yelling drivers and honking horns - just as the Turkish border officials left for dinner. We could do nothing but wait for another hour. 

Dusk was falling on the Zaho hills as we sat beneath the crossing station - like a massive tollboth, the size of a futbol field. Beside me two other taxi drivers, friends of my own taxici, kept up a lively conversation about the wonders of Antalya (read: women). Orhan, the guy from the backseat, stood silently, while i joked with the drivers. Viskey, pompa….. hayir, Ben iyi musluman…. ama ben musluman degil. Quiet Orhan and i made a dash to the restroom just to escape.

At last we were allowed through, one man's pockets and pants in general stuffed with cigarettes, which were also wedged in every possible cavity of the vehicle. As promised, a sticker visa cost $20 U.S., no questions asked, and just as the driver said, there were no problems. It seems that while in the U.S. people hate rules but follow them, here people love rules and bend (and allow them to be bent) left and right. As long as the car's total cargo, divided among the occupants, fell within the legal limit, all those cigarettes crossed the border duty free.

After we dropped of the cargo at a roadside tarpaulin shack, i found myself in a taxi with Orhan, both heading to Cizre. My companion was a willing helper - since my phone had no charge and his had no credit, we put my SIM card in his phone (you can't do that with American cellphones, but it is an indispensable trick to overcome such problems). Turned out both my CS prospects were out of town, but they arranged an alternate host, their friend - meanwhile Orhan wrote the key phrases of Islam on my battered, sacred scrap of paper full of contacts' names and numbers. He seemed assured if i recited them, i would become one of the faithful. I was disappointed to part ways.

And that brings us to overload. Multiple simultaneous conversations going on in a foreign language. The day was a success though - the trıp from Suleymanıyah to Cizre can be done in a day, and surfing in Cizre is a godsend.  

Suleymaniyah sunset

Suly 7 (flashback): watching NileSat in Andy's private K-stan

posted: 23 August

More than once as i made my way back from wandering about Suleymaniyah, i got lost on the way to my host's house. It was one of many sand-colored, two-story concrete dwellings on a gridwork of streets in the Kalahadji neighborhood, each with a wall dividing it from the street and an iron gate painted to match. At first i tried to remember it by the gate, but i had to count streets and houses just to get there.

near Kalahadji; note the lone skyscraper under construction

Inside, past a narrow, unkempt bank of greenery wedged against the wall, the house was cool as long as the swamp coolers were working. A sheer bluish curtain, with flowers embroidered along its edges, shaded the window above Andy's desk, turning the sand-hued buildings outside into a dreamy mirage.

The second half of this post's title is a reference to my American ex-pat host's radio show "Andy's Privat K-Stan", something he'd done before moving to Suly to facilitate English teaching and public affairs communication. Little by little i learned how much was hidden beneath the surface in Erbil (known in Kurdish as Hawler, "the place where the sun is worshipped"). With friction among the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in Erbil, rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) based in Suly, the Iraqi government, Kurdish ties to Iran and to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK, known internationally as a terrorist organization) in Turkiye, not to mention American, Russian, and other foreign interests in the region, Erbil/Hawler is quite the spy-central frontier town. (Check out this linked aerial image of Erbil.)

Despite the frenzy of reconstruction, Suly seemed far from such political chaos. In the evening, i found myself surfing through satellite channels with Andy. He showed me the number one channel in Iraqi Kurdistan - a Syrian channel that showed nothing but dancing girls. Fully clothed young women, that is, dancing with a fair amount of modesty - the sort of entertainment that sexually repressed males in the paradoxically sex-positive moderate Muslim culture eat up. That fact alone was entertaining.

[And not so entertaining. As fellow UMaine exchange student Sean Noyes found in Egypt and later related to me, that combination of sexual repression and sex-positive culture leads to high rates of sexual assault - Egyptian males, he said, may simply grab women in order to touch them, and then run away - and (to a lesser extent, as i observed in Turkiye as well) to common, clandestinely practiced male bisexuality within a culture where even participants publicly decry homosexuals and their acts.]

On a lighter note, a few channels over i found Melody Hits TV, with top 20 Arabic pop. It's been fun to find the same music videos on Youtube - with a different flair than American productions: Arabic music videos feature credit rolls, and distinct narratives are quite common. This one, with an array of lone dancers, a bit of blacklight, and thoroughly typical, smug, suavely cheesy singer with a dark and enticing gaze... is just fun.

10 June, 2010

Suly 6: Travel as a second language, and other ramblings

The taxi driver - who knew a few words of English - rummaged among his collection of cassettes and pulled forth a bright yellow one with the title "Let's Speak English". He popped it into the deck. A radio-drama sort of scene, where a man was asking a woman (article by article) whose clothes these were by the side of the lake, and the woman replying they were not hers. Of course, when the hapless swimmer arrived…

Then a song started up, a catchy little thing with the chorus "whose can it be". The driver didn't understand the lyrics, but he certainly had the tune memorized.


Researching to develop the travel plan going forward, i ran into a series of roadblocks. Just 40 kilometers' hike eastward, and i'd end up in a Tehran prison. To the west, as of June 1, Syria began enforcing a previously ignored rule, and stopped issuing visas-on-arrival at the border for American travelers.  Traveling south to the Persian Gulf, or getting to Jordan or Israel overland through Iraq? I'd be turned back at the checkpoints leaving Kurdistan, since Baghdad remains a war zone. I looked into Cyprus, only to find that travelers entering through ports in the Turkish Cypriot occupied territories (the ports i could reach by ferry from Turkiye) are not permitted in the Republic of Cyprus. Could my path to Georgia lead through Armenia? Though it would make for a better route, no; Turkiye's border with Armenia remains closed, and according to news, attempts to normalize relations between the two countries recently took a step backwards. As we say in Maine, "you can't get theyuh from heyah, deah."


"Why would you want to come here?" Andy asks rhetorically. "There's nothing to do; nothing to see."

Why would you want to go anywhere, i ask myself? Souvenirs? Pictures? To stare at ruins? Lie on the beach, learn a language, climb the hills and look around? To taste the food? Can you know a place in three days? Should you even try? I sat in a park and thought on paper, reflecting on the past few days, and my lack of direction. Most people, i figure, manage to drown their lack of direction in doing and seeing, but with nothing to artificially fill the hours, what do you do with yourself?

I should head straight for Erbil, but i feel as though i have something left in Suly, that i haven't given it a fair shake yet. Could buy some dress pants in the Suly bazaar, where good quality clothes run about U.S. $8.50, but i have too much to carry, and i'd second-guess my style choices. A sense of futility had become the haze in my morning sky. Andy remarked how there's a spate of movies about the end of the world; zombies are "in", as is cannibalism ("The Road", "Book of Eli") and other doomsday scenarios. It seems that, on the brink of global economic collapse, the End is foremost in the human psyche. Maybe  we're programmed to self-destruct; maybe Armageddon's a self fulfilling prophecy, a tale whose cultural impetus enables its realization. But, i remind myself, these examples reflect largely the American (and European) psyche. The West is debt-ridden and idle, longing for a real  crisis to break the monotony of media-generated crises, to snap society out of its uroboric obsessions with C-Span, HGTV, and the rest. I scribbled, realizing as i wrote how much the texts of "Visual Technologies and Visual Narratives" have affected me:

This young guy working to start the sprinkler - other workers are wearing Kurdi pants but he wears jeans. His slim-fit shirt is brown with earth, torn at the shoulder, collar pulled up to meet his soft-brimmed hat. Let's work, man. Let's plant the wheat, plant the rice, side by side. There is no perfection save this one, the perfection of What Is. The anxious Spectacle devours itself, but we, having walked beyond its edge - though satellites overfly us, our psyches are not prey to their mathematical hopelessness. There are bricks to be laid, mortar to be mixed. We seek refuge in the Incalculable

People do not make war, prejudices make war. 


I wandered down the street, still not ready to leave, towards the skeleton of an infant skyscraper. To the left, a mosque which had no dome - only a flat roof - but the minaret was made of green glass. A picture would be nice, but this was a poor angle. A few meters ahead, under a tree, i stopped at a food cart. I could communicate only through gestures, but managed to indicate falafel in a wrap. The two men offered a chair and insisted i sit, also that i not pay for the food, and that i also drink a pepsi. I was abashed, but i've learned that it's no use arguing in body language and stutters (when you might be sneaky and leave the money somehow).

I sit in the shade, and it's really good falafel. Next thing i know, there are two teenagers ordering food. I thought i heard a word of English, no, that's Sorani i'm hearing....

"But you said you hate onions."

Wait - that is English! I clumsily point this out to the teens, and a conversation is born. Next thing i know i've met Rosa and Rusty, and the latter insists on paying for my food, which of course leads to a brief disagreement with the vendor, over exactly whose generosity will prevail. (Does this ever happen in America?) I pipe up that i really want to pay for my own food, and Rusty casually rebuffs me, saying "you're too kind."

These kids remind me of characters in an educational story, the sort of sweet, polite, role model teen you only find in pedantic literature, only they're real. It turns out they teach English at the building next door. Labeled "Center for Kurdish Documentary Heritage and (?)", the fourth floor houses a nascent English Institute. Suddenly i'm surrounded by children from 7 to 13 and their teachers in a chaos/chorus of eager speakers: "hello."

"Hello," the class echoes back.
"How are you?"
In loud unison: "Fine, thank you."
"I am nervous. We just started teaching."

Rosa and Rusty are sixteen, but the teachers range from 15 up to adults with small children of their own. They're one week into this summer job, worrying they will lose patience with the children, who don't seem to retain things. Twenty whirlwind minutes later, i'm in the office meeting their manager, who hopes i can come and talk to the students on a regular basis. Regretfully, i won't be here. But i wait through their staff meeting, hoping to chat more with Nur, who will go to America in July, and Rusty, who's headed for Istanbul next week.

While the teachers and their manager talked, i scanned the curriculum materials. No wonder it's tough for the kids to connect with this. The lifestyles described in these books have no immediacy to them. Models, travelers, London, Paris, New York. What would it look like, i ask myself, if ESL teaching materials were designed to have cultural relevance to the students, describing lifestyles and values that bear some resemblance to their own, things within their reach? 

As a current second language learner, i've begun to realize that many traditional teaching approaches are inefficient when it comes to building the ability to self-teach - and peer-teach, a crucial skill for language learners which must overcome the desire to speak to friends and classmates in the mother-tongue - and fail to introduce words such as verbs in clouds of relatedness (emphasizing similarity and difference, which facilitates encoding and memorization in more natural ways than rote learning). It strikes me that language curriculums should be developed by language learners, not grammarians! To put it simply, prepositions are really useful. I leave thinking it would be a fascinating challenge to develop a program of culturally directed, speaking-partner-oriented instruction relevant to all ages.

And guess what? From the office, i had a great angle on that green glass minaret.

Suly 5: Ghosts

At 9:30 AM, two boys knock on the gate. My guide-in-training, Zewar, is sixteen, and he's brought fourteen year old Şıwanı along for the ride. Zewar speaks excellent English, a fact he attributes not to practice or homework - since he reports blowing those off - but to a laptop full of American music, among other cultural sources. We stop at the language institute two blocks away, for a brief tour.

Andrew explains that the KRG mandated that the language of instruction in Kurdistan should be English. Originally intended to bridge the gap between Kurdish-speaking pupils and primarily Arabic-speaking instructors, the measure did not prove so successful. The students have difficulty understanding English, a problem compounded teachers with strong non-English accents. Here at Brittania Institute, the students i meet from the morning class are part of an American Embassy-funded program to increase English language proficiency.

My guides hail a cab to our first destination, the Suleimaniye Museum. Zewar had been here a number of times and found very little of interest - so at first i suggested we skip it. But a few moments into our visit, i begin to be fascinated. This region was the point of convergence for ethnic groups dating back to the origins of humanity. There are bone scythes dating to the Neolithic period; arrowheads from the iron age. Clay urns, lamps, seals both stamped and rolling. Sumerians, Akkadians, Medes, Babylonians, Assyrians, Arabs... the artifacts spanned twelve thousand years of archeological heritage to be found only here in Iraq. Yet it was a small, bare-bones museum, a fact reflecting that even today, Suleymaniyah lies at a geopolitical fault line.

A second taxi ride took us to Anna Suraka, a prison during Saddam's era, where [hundreds?] of Kurds were tortured and killed. At first it didn't seem like we'd be allowed inside - although a memorial site of sorts, the inner chambers are not always open to visitors - but we were told to hurry, and catch up with three men ahead of us.

Stepping past the heavy, metal doors we moved from a world of harsh sun into a dark nightmare. We saw the cells where people were held awaiting torture, and a small room where over ninety women and children had once huddled. Throughout the prison thin blankets lay on the floor, some folded, others rumpled, and dishes for water lay beside them. Here and there life sized figures are posed - some in thought, some in torture, one looking hopefully toward a window. At the first one, standing in a narrow cell, the boys spook, on edge. To them, the place is full of ghosts. Zewar lost two uncles here at Anna Suraka: one as a prisoner in 1986, the other in the liberation struggle. Though growing up in Suleymaniyah, neither of the boys had been inside the prison before.

I am not sure if the tableaux add to or detract from the haunting power of the place. While they bring to life the atrocities that happened within the dark confines of this prison, they distract visitors from the silent emptiness, from the handwriting on its walls, messages of love in despair.

Outside, there were tanks and artillery, which the boys clambered excitedly over while an older fellow shook my hand and repeated "America f*cked Saddam Hussein," grinning. A playful mood masked, and gradually replaced, the boys' fear. They tried out every cannon, while i examined the bullet-riddled walls of the prison. Unfortunately, Anna Suraka is still wounding young Kurds - jumping from a tank, Şıwanı tore his pants, gashing his leg open, and it was a painful walk to a clinic - just around the corner.

Beating the heat...

…is a necessity here in Iraq. Summer haze is both a mood dampener and a saving grace. The thicker it is, the gentler the sun beats down. In Erbil, Andy tells me, there can be five day stretches of 120 degrees. But one does not see men working shirtless. Shorts and short sleeves are nearly absent; Islamic custom prescribes modest for men as well as women, so i wear jeans to feel more culturally comfortable, to respect the custom.

The secret to physical comfort is loose-fitting clothing. In Erbil, men can be seen in traditional Arab dress, one-piece white cotton garments - called "thoub" - that look and feel like a dress shirt, but extend to the ankles. Kurds wear traditional pants, a style we'd call "parachute pants". (The other thing i've seen a lot of here in Iraq are bell-bottoms, including bell-bottom dress pants.) I find that going "commando" dramatically reduces the sweat factor.  

Indoors can be just as oppressive as the open sun. Andrew has two low-tech units, a technology i've never seen before. He calls it the "poor man's air conditioner" (the units sell for about $50, while air conditioners cost $600, not to mention overwhelming the meager electricity supply). They operate a bit like a humidifier, relying on the energy lost during evaporation to remove heat from the air - simply water dripping on hay, a large surface area for evaporation - and then blowing this cooled air into the room.

Aside from the funky wet-hay smell, it works quite well - as long as there's water. There is not always water in Suly. Public water runs for about two hours most days, filling individual tanks that you'd run off during the day. But today, the water was never turned on. Brushing teeth, washing dishes, flushing an eastern-style toilet…hmm. There are no "austerity measures" to implement here, says my host. In Kurdistan, millenial living is something people do on a daily basis.

Suly 4: Andy

I spent the afternoon in a web cafe catching up on blog posts, and waiting until my CS host finished teaching for the evening. I took a taxi to the Kalahadji neighborhood, borrowed a greengrocer's phone, and he picked me up. Beginning on the short walk to his home, Andy told me about his work, the neighborhood, Kurdish cultural peculiarities, and a great many things throughout the evening.

Kalahadji is a middle class neighborhood, and Suly is the most developed and liberal place in Kurdistan. He tells me that different political parties control Suly and Erbil, hence liquor stores (which are absent in all but the Christian quarter of Erbil) can be found throughout town. Women in Suly dress more casually in general; i see fewer wearing black, and women with uncovered heads are quite common.

My host turns out to be another of those grand finds that only couchsurfing could lead you to. He's an American teaching English in startup programs, and he has piles of stories from his two years in Iraq, time at the American University of Afghanistan - in short, he's lived in tight-security conditions.

Suly 3: Take my picture

Though in many ways i blend in here, the backpack is a trigger for "hello" in English. Even if they can't say anything else. These guys were making bread in a traditional clay oven, and they called me over to chat. One pulled balls of dough from a larger lump; another was removing the finished flatbread. They gave me a tin bowl - too broad to call a cup - full of cold water, and as i drank it a policeman and a soldier  ambled over to say hello as well.

Down a side street i saw a jumble of construction, and stopped to take a picture of the workmen in their traditional clothes. This fellow saw me taking the picture, and when i turned around, he wanted his picture taken as well. He was slowly mixing cement, dipping water from these barrels, and looked so proud. This picture - this man - deserved a post all its own.

09 June, 2010

Suly 2: Feels like Asia

When i walked into Suly, i felt i'd traveled far more than a hundred kilometers east.

There are two major dialects of Kurdish, Sorani and Kurmanji. While Sorani, spoken in Turkiye and northwestern K-stan, is written with the roman alphabet, the Kurmanji dialect is written in Arabic script. Signage here, far more than Erbil, relies on Kurmanji, and thus where i could once guess at the names on a menu, i am now reduced to pointing. Where the script is increasingly stylized, it reminds me of Indian scripts. Font styles and graphic design choices also add to the increasing Asian twist.

It doesn't stop there. Perhaps due to the weak restrictions on foreign workers, - now open for eight weeks, the small, six story Kaso Mall near Suly's traditional bazaar was a joint venture with China. When i buy a chocolate covered ice cream bar i read the wrapper: it's made in Iran - which lies just the other side of these mountains.


Hawler, it turns out, is the Kurdi name for Erbil, Arbil, Irbil, whatever you want to call it (by the way, this site has a nifty interactive map of the region). As we head south toward Kirkuk, the wheat fields lay shorn and piled with straw. We pass a stretch of road lined with small fruit stands and hoses spurting water in arcs.

Kirkuk is not a recommended place to visit. It's considered "hot" - not to mention that the concrete block suburbs look rather like a prison, and the flames of burning oil can be seen in the distance. But after another security checkpoint, the road turns east, back toward the hills. Outside Chamchamal is a substantial greenhouse industry; i wish i knew what they were growing. Then, over a low pass, we enter a valley, and Suly sprawls before us into the haze.

There is apparently no correct or official way of spelling it. On signs you will see Sulaimaniah, Sulaymaniyah, Suleymaniyeh, Sulaimany, Slemani and Slemany. The bus driver deposits us at a dusty roadside, and i set off towards the city center.

08 June, 2010

Count to ten… in Kurdi

Yak, du, se, chuar, bench, shash, havt, hesht, ho, da...

There are, according to everyone i have asked thus far, no resources available to learn Kurdish as a second language - and it's complicated: two major dialects with broad differences (as in, they're written using different alphabets; is this unique among world languages?) and words have genders. The KRG has a primer page with basic phrases here. It's worth poking around the KRG website a bit - available in English, Sorani and Kurmanji, and Arabic.

Currency: IQD

Taxi rides here run 3-4000 Iraqi dinars, or about three dollars at the current exchange rate (1 USD = 1180 IQD). As i sat waiting in the minibus, i did some quick math to see how i'd fared. So far, i exchanged money with a shop owner (100 turkish lira for 100,000 dinars) and a young man with a stand on the street (80 YTL for 52,000 IQD). Pleasantly surprised, i came out overall a little on the plus side - but i don't recommend the street stand method.

For anyone who's dreamed of life without coins, my answer is: try having a wallet stuffed with a wad of low-value paper money. Bottled water is 250-500 dinars ($0.22-0.43), and once you've gotten a few 250 dinar bills you realize the jingle of coins is a rather nice sensation. Pennies, i will agree, are useless for the most part. In Turkiye the smallest coin is 5 kuruş, and that's a nice stopping point.

Regarding prices here: good quality men's dress shirts in the bazaar start at 10,000 to 15,000 ($8.50 and up). Regular gas 750/litre ($2.40/gallon), and Marlboros cost about $1.40 a pack. Decent fast food can be had for less than two dollars. So come to Kurdistan - but remember to bring a wad of cash; when i find (glory be!) a seller with New Balance sneakers to replace the tattered shoes i'm wearing, i discover merchants are not set up for plastic. 

Erbil: Moving on

I probably didn't need to set the alarm for four AM. But it was worth it to look out my window and see the citadel walls suffused with a soft glow in the predawn light. At four, the sky was just beginning to pale and the city looked soft, a study in sand-tones; though in the city center, i could hear roosters crowing nearby. I had been planning to climb the citadel and photograph the city in that light, but it was just too early. When i descended the hotel stairs at 7:30, the thick ceramic treads were being torn up.

Erbil Citadel is undergoing restoration, partly thanks to UNESCO, though it doesn't seem like there is much to restore. People still inhabit the place, though the tops of many of these brick walls are crumbling. The view out over the city, at least, is worth the short walk. Looking down, just left of the city center is a series of commercial streets (rather narrow, cluttered ones). The first one i wandered down i'll call Repair Shop street. There's a guy sitting at a desk right there in the street, and the desk is piled with DVD players. On the corner is a street vendor selling shish kebap, right next to a bakery where young men pull flatbreads out of a clay oven, and taking them from the huge tongs, throw them frisbee-like onto a table.

I turn from that onto Blanket street, merging into Kitchenette Avenue, a small section of which i dubbed Locking File Alley. Next i pass a cross between a junkyard and flea market - think Watto, from Star Wars Episode I. Here in Iraq, Tattoine feels just around the corner, but as i pass a statue of a horse turning a grist wheel i'm reminded that this is not some alien planet, it's Mesopotamia. It isn't only the sights that shape a perception of this place. It's also an olfactory experience. On Repair Shop street, the aroma of motor oil; passing a trash truck, a sweet, almost fruity scent with sickly topnotes.

seen on Repair Shop Street

Wondering if could find an ATM, and unable to communicate with a taxi driver, i asked at a hotel to use their phone, and called my next destination - a couch surfer in Suleymaniyah. Andrew said the best bet was to go to the Sheraton in Hawler - the only commonly known place in Iraqi Kurdistan to use an ATM. So i took a taxi to Hawler, had my bag searched by the security guards, walked into a luxurious lobby, used the cash machine, and left. The place is actually called the Erbil International Hotel, but locals know it as the Shee-rah-ton, pronouncing that last syllable as if it were French.

Then it was another short ride to the Suleymaniyah garage. At the garages - there's one for each direction out of town, basically - there are several lines of taxis under a long corrugated roof. You find a taxi and wait for other folks to share it (as i did coming from Zaho to Erbil) for anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 dinars. Thankfully, there was also a minibus to Suleymaniyah - same plan. I sat waiting for nearly an hour, then the ride was a bit slow, but only 8,000 dinars.

at Suleymaniyeh Garaj - that's our driver next to the dried fruit guy, 
and the sort of minibus you'll find in northern Iraq

Night in Erbil

Erbil: Neighbors who (almost) speak English

I've heard it said that for a Turk, traveling in Iran is cheap because you don't need to buy food; people will give it to you to show their good will. I am beginning to think the same is true for an American in Kurdistan.

In the city center, i walked the base of the citadel in search of the elusive cheap hotel. Along the way, i took in the magnificent fountains. Erbil is a place of juxtapositions: these modern fountains, punctuated by little piers where men stand and take pictures of each other, are right next to a row of crumbling buildings that house hardware shops. Young men sweep the sidewalks in this park, but a few feet away the curbside is cluttered with empty cardboard boxes.

street vendor and curbside trash

A room with three beds in Zheen Hotel, just below the Citadel, costs 45,000 dinars but i get it for 40,000. I'm standing on the balcony, taking pictures, when i hear a voice from next door. A moment later three Arab guys in underwear emerge onto their balcony. They all speak just a few words of English - far less than my Turkish, to give you a sense of things. Next thing i know, i'm taking their picture, then sitting on a bed in their room exchanging photos, then discussing the relationship between alcohol consumption and something of a particularly masculine nature, using mostly gestures. They ask what it's called in English, and i learn the Arabic for it.

me, with Nassir, Bassam, and Ali

I say i should leave and get some food, and Bassam says he's hungry too. Falafel? Together we walk in search of a place to eat. After nine, the city center is largely closed (just as Ainkawa comes to life). A block from our hotel, next to a traditional cafe where men are playing dominos, there's a falafel stand. We each eat two - served in real Iraqi pita bread, add your own onions and cukes out of an uncovered, communal bowl. The guy who tends the stand is cleaning the tiled floor with a hose. On a table is a bowl of thick yellow curry sauce. We sit on a long bench, backs to the street, eating falafel and then drinking sweet çay. In Turkiye, there is only cube sugar with tea; in Iraq, only granulated - and a lot of it. Of course Bassam won't let me pay. At the hotel room, he showed me pictures of their trip to the famous falls near Shaqlawa; tomorrow he and his friends are headed back home to Karbala - but he wants me to call him from America. He keeps delightedly telling passersby i'm an American.

tea glasses, and domino players

Back at the hotel, i'm exhausted. Midnight, but the sound of a circular saw drifts up every few minutes.

07 June, 2010

Erbil 3: Ainkawa

A morning's walk around the city center turned up plenty of places to buy construction supplies, but the one thing i needed - an internet cafe - was nowhere to be found. So when i left Minaret Park i hailed a cab. The cabbie spoke no English or Turkish; i repeated internet cafe? webcafe? to no avail. Finally i said "Ainkawa" - the Christian quarter of the city. Rumor has it there's more nightlife and cosmopolitan culture in Ainkawa, and that seemed to be the case. Early on a Monday afternoon, more than half the businesses and restaurants were closed.

Trying to interact here is a game. A language guessing game. What does this person speak? English? Far out! Turkish? If yes, make halting conversation. Kurdish? If yes, use polite phrases recently memorized. If Arabic, or something else, feel bewildered, and begin to gesture.

I asked at a liquor store and got something resembling directions. It's small, he said. A coffee shop. For another hour i wandered, asking. I saw a building labeled "Kurdish Human Rights Watch", a couple churches, nicer cars by the curb, fewer buildings under construction. Restaurants showed the Syrian and Lebanese influence - signs emblazoned with the cypress tree. On one street i asked at a shiny new lunch joint and found only more directions. "But it doesn't open until 7 PM," the fellow told me. Night life, i guess.

construction in Ainkawa

Across the street was "Antalya Ice Cream". From inside, i could hear Turkish TV and as i passed, a young man hailed me. He was the delivery boy for that shiny lunch joint, but spent his time hanging with three other young men. One of whom was scooping out ice cream. Fıstık mı? i asked. It was, and instead of the delivery boy who had selected it, the scooper handed the ice cream to me and started to scoop out a second helping. When i offered to pay, the delivery boy smiled and said it was on him - but the scooper said no, it's on the house. The delivery boy disappeared for a minute; just left his ice cream, after a quick inspection, in the backup freezer.  Meanwhile the scooper asked if i would like some water, and proceeded to fetch some from the shop next door. He sat down next to me and we chatted in Turkish for a while. The water still had chunks of ice in it - and that was the best darned pistachio ice cream i have ever tasted.

At last i found the cafe, which you would indeed hardly notice. Iraq is not so Mac-friendly; the owner kindly lent me his Dell for over an hour. With evening rapidly approaching, i hailed another cab to head for the Citadel, determined to find a cheaper hotel. This cabbie - his name was Beras - spoke a few words of Turkish. He'd changed out the radio for a snazzy Pioneer CD player, and popped away the faceplate* to insert a disc: Akon. As we slowed to meet another speed bump (all the major roads in Erbil have them), he shuffled his CD collection like a deck of cards. I'd heard that 50 Cent is really popular here and it's true. This is a CD that says "50 Cent" in Arabic.

Beras pointed out the girls on every side street, and as we sat waiting at a stoplight, pumped the brakes in time with the rap beat. Then he accelerated like a demon, and nearly took out a small boy. Kurdistan, contrary to popular belief, is a safe and friendly place. The only dangerous thing here are the taxi drivers - and then only if you're crossing the street. After driving me halfway across the city, Beras at first refused payment.

Note to self - don't write when exhausted. Originally "pooped away the faceplate".


Erbil 2

Generators. Traffic. The bass lines of a hopeful symphony.

As i walk, i wonder how to describe this place, so different from anything i've seen before. In the city center, shop after open-fronted shop hold home furnishings, plumbing fixtures, ceramic tiles, wallpaper, pipes, chandeliers. Imagine taking a Home Depot and performing the loaves and fishes miracle on it, shattering it into a kaleidoscope of narrow storefronts. That's the center of Erbil in a nutshell. Exposed re-bar erupts from unfinished foundations. Vacant lots are filled with litter - water bottles, cigarette cartons - while handsome modern buildings are rising, glass and steel, from a chaos of reconstruction. In some corners of town, electrical wiring is a dangling mess. The place feels naked; people proceed seemingly without regard for electrical codes, if those even exist. Yet at the same time, light fixtures and tiles on display everywhere reflect a taste for lavish ornament common to Arabic and Central Asian cultures.

The place breathes an aura of fierce determination to succeed. Billboard slogans i see - things like "the future is here" - might actually mean something to the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. It strikes me as i walk, a lone traveler in a place owned by the working man, that it would be tough to be a nihilist here. Quite literally, you can feel the hope.

A Bangladeshi man walks up to me and says hello in perfect English. He's curious what i'm doing here; asks if i need help with anything, then returns to his work. Throughout the city reception is similar. Whatever language they speak, people start conversations with this passerby. Only the taxi drivers, who honk as they drive by, seem aggressive about their services, and here far less than Ankara. Down a side street i find a bazaar; stall-keepers see my camera and ask me to take their pictures. They ask "where are you from?". Then come the hearty handshakes - America! Whatever reservations i had about the American occupation of Iraq, they have been softened by Erbil. While Islamist radicals continue to violently contest the U.S. presence just a few hundred kilometers away, for the Kurds of northern Iraq, American intervention was true to its ideological packaging of liberation and democracy. In this city, i am not ashamed to say i am an American*.

One man, tucked behind a green shade of vegetation, sits in the door of his shop. He invites me over, offers a chair and asks me to stay. He's learning English, but not such a clever student, he tells me, and he's eager for someone to talk with. He gives me his mobile numbers; asks me to stay for lunch, but i need to keep moving.


*If that comment requires any explanation, think of it this way: in the Middle East, America can be seen many ways. I myself often think of my country as the perpetrator of Guantanamo Bay, the country with the most nukes, Abu Ghraib, Valerie Plame, Coca Cola, refusing to sign the Kyoto Accord, and a host of other things, not to mention the profligacy of American culture and its adverse impacts on rich cultures around the globe. Here in Erbil, for example, among the clever topiaries and classical columns in Minaret park stands a glass-encased, meter-tall replica of one of the mice from Disney's "Dumbo". Entirely out of context - hardly even a major character - this animated mouse is the sort of thing you'll find anywhere America is unsuccessfully imitated. Meanwhile, as a character in Orhan Pamuk's novel "Snow" points out, such evidence of the legendary characters in Middle Eastern literature is hard to find.

06 June, 2010

Erbil: Night at Ardil Hotel

After eighteen hours on two buses, and another 240 kilometers in two taxis - 23 hours in total - i  arrived safe and sound in Erbil, though a bit nervous. To be honest, the feeling that i had no idea where i was going or what i was doing - largely true - began to scare me. The second passenger that left our taxi got out inside a fenced camp; the place was guarded by young Kurds wearing "U.S. ARMY" shirts and carrying automatics. Unable to pay for the ride at that moment, he left his passport as collateral, which further annoyed the already irritable driver. (It was at this moments i realized our driver had been one of the agonists in a heated argument at the garage in Zaho. Heated arguments are quite common here.)

Binyamin, the remaining fellow passenger was a somewhat saintly, if wearied, man who pitied my cluelessness and directed me to a hotel. I knew the hotel where my friends had stayed (10,000 dinars, or about $8 per night) was close to the citadel - but with dusk rapidly falling on a Sunday evening, and things closing, it would be tough to find. Weary enough to give in, i spent 79,000 dinars (50 USD), and winced my way up to the room.

After a while i was grateful, 79,000 dinars or not. In the lobby, one of the employees sat down and conversed with me for over half an hour in Turkish. I could understand a little of what he said; he must have sensed that all i'd eaten since Ankara was one simit and a packet of crackers, because he told the other worker to make me up a breakfast plate now, at eleven pm, and insisted i eat even when i politely refused (putting true hospitality in "hospitality industry"). As we sat eating and talking together, the electricity flickered off and on again a couple of times. Just part of life in Erbil.

Welcome to (Iraqi) Kurdistan

This is the raw stuff the world is made of. Where the air smells like petrol, and you can't tell where the dust and smoke end and the haze begins. The sun traces a long, thoughtless arc over a browned landscape. A single road winds among the low rolling hills; there are no lines to speak of, and if there are, no one pays attention to them. Passing, in the taxi drivers' rule book, does not require a clear line of sight, and thank God the road is just wide enough for three vehicles. As the land flattens out, wheat fields stretch to a line of distant hills all but lost in the haze. On occasion there is a field of cotton, green and newly emerging, and even more rarely, squashes and melons. The faintest blue breaks directly overhead.

After a hundred kilometers or so, we stop at a place called Walaat Rest. Inside, tables are set but mostly empty. I stand, looking completely lost, for what seems like way too long. I sit down next to the driver, and a waiter comes. I think he said kofte… or pilav? But i'm not sure. Yes. I'm hungry. Whatever; food. But somehow he thinks i only want a drink, and directs me outside to a small market. I walk out, confused and embarrassed. A dove - white except for her coal-black tail - flies to the roof of the market.

All i have are Turkish lira, so when one of my fellow passengers sees me reaching for a water, he nods in body language it's on me. We find a shady spot - me, the dark, self-assured one from Diyarbakir, and the helpful, pained one in sunglasses who just bailed me out. He asks me questions in Turkish, curious to find out what i'm doing here. He realizes i know nothing. And when i say nothing, i mean it. Aside from that conversation, the 205 kilometers from Zaho to Erbil passed with only the sound of Arabesque music, punctuated by five routine security checkpoints. Roll the window down, exchange a few words with the soldier, and move on.

The 2006 edition of Lonely Planet guide to the middle east, which i pirated shortly before departure, is nearly mute on the subject of Iraq. Under the heading of solo travel, there's a single line: "you'd have to be mad." Iraqi Kurdistan has come a long way since 2006, but silly me didn't pay fifty lira for the updated LP guide (which actually has travel recommendations). Still, for a solo traveler who knows a total of ten words in Kurdish and is traveling without a guidebook, this feels somewhere between ballsy and utterly foolish.


In Silopi we leave the bus, and are immediately surrounded by a pack of taxi drivers. These guys are the ferry service: they do the talking, handle the passport issue, and drive you to Zaho, on the Iraqi side of the border. It seems all the windshields around here are cracked.

I had no idea what to expect. And that phrase "expect the unexpected" comes to mind. You see, i can be fairly blind at times to little details, like the print on my Turkish visa - and when i presented my passport to the Turkish exit official he grew upset. Where's your visa? he asked loudly. Right there, isn't it? i'm thinking. He makes a couple phone calls, stamps the passport and fairly throws it at me.

When he hands it back, i look closely: STUDENT VISA. SINGLE ENTRY. VALID: 16.12.2009 to 04.06.2010. [Expletive deleted], my Turkish visa expired yesterday! Thankfully, I discovered one can get a sticker visa at the border for $20 US.

Entering Iraqi Kurdistan was as simple as that last realization was painful. The border official asked a few simple questions - you're a student? Where are you from? Why are you coming? How long will you stay? and, with a chuckle at my innocent answers, welcomed me. No less than fifteen minutes later i had been issued at no cost a tourist visa from the Kurdistan Regional Government.

While we whisked through the border in about an hour, two lines of tractor trailers over a kilometer long waited; men squatted beside them passing time.

One of my companions on the taxi ride was a boy of about twelve, whose name i definitely can't spell. He leafed curiously through my passport, looking at the images on each page. Ironic; after two crossings into Canada and entry to Turkiye at Esenboğa airport, i have only crossed national borders three times to date. This boy is a professional.

The taxi drivers all know each other, and at times i think it's a friendly game to see who can get their passengers across more quickly. I'm fascinated by the unique culture that springs up among these crossers. Like many on both sides of this border, they speak at least Turkish and Kurdish (and on the Iraqi side, Arabic). As we approach the shacks of Zaho, i feel as though young men in these border towns have a unique coming of age experience.

It's a long, long road to Silopi

The landscape that flows by is one alternately barren and rich. Low hills studded with boulders are broken by rare stream beds, choked green with small trees. A wide expanse of wheat fields stretches between tiny villages. I see boys herding goats; one pulls stubbornly at its halter. A woman is nearly obscured by the bales of hay on her back and head. A man and woman rake hay, piling it high above their heads on a horse-drawn cart. Dağyanıç Çamlidere. I write these places' names, hoping to see them better.

Desperate to begin my journey and not to let a friend's well-meaning concern hold me back, i had weighed the options and - at the last minute - bought a bus ticket from Ankara straight to Silopi. Straight to the border crossing. With just three Kurdish phrases under my belt and nothing but the notes compiled by my acquaintance Steven Bartus on his April trip, i hardly felt prepared. During the night the rough road kept me awake. My seatmate, a kindly hazelnut grower from Adapazari on the way to Urfa to visit his sons in the military, offered snacks but i wasn't in a mood to eat. I tried to sleep, and after the stop in Aksaray i slept almost to Adana.

But it's a long way from Adana to Urfa. And from Urfa to Mardin. Even in the predawn darkness i could see the landscape had changed, and it made me apprehensive. When we reached Urfa the sun had risen high, and still it was only nine AM. By the time we get to Mardin it's after 11. The bus windshield is cracked, and with only a handful of passengers left we're told to disbark. The remainder of the ride is with a different bus company; we switch flanks and descend the steep flank of Mardin.

I'm still nervous, but strike up conversation with a fellow passenger. Yasin is from Kirkuk, though he fled in 1987. He tried to seek asylum in Turkiye four times unsuceesfully; the fifth time he escaped deportation. In what little English he speaks, and with my rudimentary Turkish, he explains that in those days the Kurdish language was a no-no in Turkiye. Thanks to the pressure, he learned Turkish in 45 days. (When h refers to Kurdish, he mimes cutting off his tongue. If speaking English were politically incorrect i might learn faster too!) Together with his wife and four sons, Yasin is returning to Kirkuk for the first time in eight years. Mohammed, the eldest, is fourteen. I ask if he's excited.

I have no need to see Kansas after this: what i am entering is the original grain belt. The place where grain agriculture originated. The fertile crescent.