Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I wanted to see Mar Mattai, the ancient monastery of St. Matthew. Now I asked my new friend and driver, as well as the hotel manager, as well as the small gaggle of curious Kurds who had by now gathered around me in the hotel lobby, whether it was safe to visit Mar Mattai at this juncture. After all, it lay only a short distance outside of Mosul.
No, the panel concluded, shaking their heads. It was now occupied by Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi, a primarily Shiite group of militias, after the Peshmerga left the area recently following pressure from the U.S. and the Baghdad government.
I went down my list of things I wanted to see for them to vote on. One by one they rejected them as potentially unsafe. Then I got to Saddam Hussein’s palace in the Gara Mountains. “Qasr Saddam,” the manager nodded, using the Arabic word for “castle.” “Yes,” she said, “he can take you. It is near Duhok.”
My new friend and I set off. Two hours later we reached the town of Duhok in the north of Iraqi Kurdistan, near Turkey. We began stopping to ask shopkeepers for directions to the Qasr. After several such stops I realized that he wasn’t only asking for directions but also for updates on the local security situation. As we got close to the Qasr, he also grew nervous, especially after we drove past some deserted broken walls on the side of the mountain road, presumably former defensive structures meant to keep civilians away from Saddam’s retreat. “There is no one here,” he observed.
“Is that a problem?” I asked.
“Maybe there is no one here because the PKK is here. You know PKK?” I did. PKK: the Kurdish nationalist organization that agitates for Kurdish independence in Turkey, which the Turkish government has deemed a terrorist group. “Sometimes PKK crosses the border to here. Then the Turkish army may cross the border as well and attack them.” Thankfully, immediately after he said this, we drove around another bend in the road and came across a shepherd boy, followed by a family. My friend visibly relaxed.
When we finally located the Qasr, there was no mistaking it. A bombed out shell of a house perched atop a mountain in such a commanding position as to immediately bring to mind the phrase “eagle’s nest.” With a skip and a hop we were in what might have been the ground floor living room. A short climb up the extant if battered staircase led us to the second floor and the patio. A metal cot with a blanket still on it had been left out to rust in the open, looking — ironically I thought — like it belonged in a dank prison instead of a dictator’s villa.
The views all around were remarkable. Clouds drifted in and out, now cloaking the mountaintops in a white veil, now uncovering them for the bright beams of the sun. Purple flowers grew out from the crags. Whatever one might say about Saddam, and one might say many things, the man knew where to build a house.
My friend and I started talking about Saddam. To my surprise, he admitted to me that he thought Saddam was better than the Iraqi political figures of today. “He killed my father and my uncle,” he said. “But I still think he was better than these men now.”
My friend’s family had been part of the failed Kurdish uprising in 1983 during the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam ordered the execution of some 8,000 Kurdish men, including my friend’s father and uncle. “I was six years old,” he recalled.
“And yet you still say that he was better than the leaders today,” I pointed out, still surprised.
“At least Saddam only killed the men and left the women and children alone. Today they kill women and children, too.” A low bar, then.
He drove me over to Barzan, where he was from, an area that might be called the Kurdish heartland. “Mustafa Barzani was from here,” he declared proudly. Disappointed that I was unfamiliar with Barzani, he launched into an explanation of the man commonly regarded as the father of the as yet unborn Kurdish nation.
Born in 1903 in Ottoman-ruled Kurdistan, at an early age Barzani lost his grandfather, father, and a brother when they joined an insurrection. Following the establishment of British control in modern Iraq after WWI, Barzani participated in several revolts. In 1946, he became the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party. For a time he was exiled to the USSR, and in the end he died in Washington, D.C. But he spent essentially the entirety of his life attempting revolt after revolt to establish an independent Kurdistan. He never succeeded. But as another great revolutionary once said, “In saving one’s country, one does not consider success or failure; one only considers right and wrong.” (I am, obviously, thinking of Sun Yatsen.) And so generation after generation of that tragic people, the Kurds, would continue to rage against the seemingly impossible odds arrayed against them — four regional powers, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, who might disagree on all manners of things but all agree that the Kurds must never have a state of their own.
My friend stopped the car in the shadow of a massive new memorial still under construction. “Come,” he said and led me to a small plot of land under a tree and enclosed by low stone walls. Four gravestones stood in the grass and crimson flowers. I was about to ask him if this was Barzani’s gravesite when I noticed that he was saying a quick but reverent prayer. So were two other men who happened to be visiting at the same time. When he finished he explained that here lay Barzani and his son. “A Kurdish grave has two stones,” he explained. “If the person is a man, then the stones run parallel. If a woman, then they are across from each other.” I pointed out that there were no inscriptions of any kind on the stones; they were tabulae rasae. “That’s right,” he nodded. “Blank.”
A short distance away was another graveyard. This one was much larger, a field of white gravestones, all parallel pairs. This was the final resting place of the 8,000 men massacred, including my friend’s family members. “But I don’t know which ones they are. No one knows.” The graveyard looked upon a magnificent view of the mountains and valleys, the natural beauty of Kurdistan. Afternoon sunbeams just happened to pierce, golden and bright, the wispy clouds that shrouded the surroundings, like a blessing from Allah.
The Middle East is a region of such complexity, of long histories and diverse races, of ancient enmities and modern bloodsheds, that the more I learn about it the more I despair of my own ignorance. Nevertheless, even keeping in mind the limits of my own understanding, it is difficult not to sympathize with the Kurds.
My friend had boasted repeatedly that the Kurds were the friendlies people on earth. Indeed I had found a warm welcome here that far exceeded my expectations. When we parked the car on the side of the road, a random shopkeeper gave me food unprompted. When we stopped for gas, the gas station attendant gifted me with bottled water. At the hotel I was automatically the VIP. “I tell you,” my friend said, “if you didn’t have money, and you just went up to a random Kurdish house and knocked on the door and said that you needed a place to sleep, they would invite you in.” I didn’t put his hypothesis to the test, but I’m inclined to believe it to be more often true than not.
Go then, my dear friends, to Iraqi Kurdistan. You shall find a land of remarkable beauty and a people with a generosity of spirit enough to surprise you. And you, too, will be able to boast, as I will surely do now, that you have been to Iraq. Just not the Iraqi part of Iraq.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."