Category Archives: Travel

For Al Jazeera – “Iraqi Kurds Look To Erbil For Tourism Boost”

Erbil, Iraq – The citadel that looks out over Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region is often claimed to be the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in the world. The mound on which it sits has evidence from Assyrian and Sumerian times, and the structure is imagined to contain the Temple of Ishtar, deep below the ground.

The citadel was granted World Heritage status at the recent session of UNESCO in Doha, finally upgraded from the “tentative” list, where it had sat since 2010, a decision welcomed by Dara al-Yaqoobi, head of the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalisation (HCECR).

“The World Heritage Committee recognises that Erbil Citadel has met its conditions and criteria and the site has outstanding international value, it deserves to be inscribed. Being a UNESCO World Heritage site is very important,” Yaqoobi told Al Jazeera.

As increasingly troubled political realities plague the region, World Heritage status has been proclaimed as “a gift … to the people and all communities of Iraq”, by a member of the Iraqi delegation to UNESCO.

The citadel, which is being touted as a major tourist destination in Iraq, joins three other UNESCO sites in the country: Ashur, Hatra, and Samarra.

Dara al-Yaqoobi said $35m has been spent so far on revitalisation projects around the citadel [Luke Coleman/Al Jazeera]

The citadel is not the only structure undergoing preservation work in the area.

A large building near the north gate is being re-purposed as a visitor and information centre, and Yaqoobi said homes and businesses would also be built.

The project to revitalise the visitor centre is in the first five-year phase of a 15-year plan. Yaqoobi said that $35m had been spent by the Kurdistan Regional Government so far over the last three years, and that the HCECR was investigating the feasibility of public-private partnerships to raise more funds.

Another major project near completion is the reconstruction of the main gate. In the 1950s, the Ottoman-era gate was demolished as it was deemed unsafe. “They didn’t know how to conserve it,” Yaqoobi said, “so they did the easy thing and removed it”.

The area remained empty until 1979, when the municipality constructed a new gate. After a year of research by the HCECR – using photographs, first-person testimonies, and archaeological examinations of the original foundation – a decision was made to rebuild it using the previous design.

There is a large amount of construction, maintenance, and preservation taking place in the citadel itself. “It means bringing life back to the citadel. We have to have good conditions for residential and other activities,” Yaqoobi said.

In addition to being at the centre of the capital, the citadel is regarded as central to long-term tourism plans for the region, with discussions taking place about adding restaurants and shops to the textile museum which was recently opened within its walls.

Alongside UNESCO, the HCECR will undertake a study looking at a viable strategy for tourism development. The details of this new plan remain unknown at present.

But will international recognition have a positive effect on tourism?

Mohammed Yaseem Jamal, the proprietor of a shop selling honey, perfumes, and gifts at the base of the citadel, is unsure. He has been doing business in this area for 45 years.

I’m proud to have my shop here and happy about the UNESCO decision… But people don’t come because they are scared of the name Iraq, even though we know the [Kurdish] region is very safe.

“I’m proud to have my shop here and happy about the UNESCO decision. I think it is a bit late, because it’s important for people to know what life was like in the Citadel. But people don’t come because they are scared of the name Iraq, even though we know the [Kurdish] region is very safe,” he told Al Jazeera.

Heja Baban, co-founder of Meydan PR & Marketing which recently completed a project for the KRG Board of Tourism, said that recent violence across Iraq has negatively impacted perceptions among potential visitors.

“It affects how the rest of the world sees Iraq as a whole. The first thing you think as a tourist is ‘Am I going to be safe?’ And if that is not 100 percent clear, you will have second thoughts. Even though it is safe, it’s not considered as safe as it was two months ago, and that’s enough,” Baban told Al Jazeera.

According to figures from the KRG Board of Tourism, approximately 2.2 million people visited the region in the first eight months of 2013. Yaqoobi is unsure of the effect the current conflict will have on tourism, “because it is so recent we don’t have any clear statistics and we won’t know the effect for some time”.

So far, the citadel alone has not been enough to attract large numbers of tourists. “I hope this brings people, perhaps more will come when the museum is built,” said Jamal, referring to the proposed Kurdistan National Museum, which is designed by Daniel Libeskind.

This museum project has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the World Heritage inscription, as it is planned for an area within the protected buffer zone around the base of the citadel. But UNESCO-imposed restrictions, including building regulations which state that the structure cannot be taller than three-storeys, may make development around the citadel difficult.

The International Committee On Monuments and Sites, which advised UNESCO on the award of World Heritage status, made reference to the contrast of the museum’s very modern design and the citadel. Currently, the local government is considering whether to alter the design or move the proposed site.

Yaqoobi said: “If the museum doesn’t match those regulations or isn’t in harmony with the citadel, it may be modified a little.”

Fiddling While Rome Burns or Let Them Eat Cake

I have two phrases that I use when I find myself slightly confused by something Kurdish.

The first, “Zor Kurdi” (Very Kurdish) I used when a Kurdish friend of mine insisted that we enter the memorial museum in Halabja via the clearly unmanned security kiosk. It wasn’t a big diversion, but it seemed unnecessary and smacked of the kind of indoctrinated behaviour I naturally rail against. A small thing, we can agree, but so are the mosquitoes currently feasting upon me.

Secondly, “Bexerbet Kurdistan” (Welcome to Kurdistan) I use to illustrate something that feels unique to the region. On the roads, for example, when taxis creep to an almost imperceptible speed going over any crack in the road; a regular driver of mine once slowed for a shadow cast by election bunting. Or the honking at the lights, three seconds before they turn green – such patience for speed bumps, and glorious anxiety to get on the move elsewhere.

These oddities don’t annoy me; they almost always cause a wry smile. It’s a part of travelling and living abroad, to appreciate the differences. And as a guest here, I try to steer clear of criticising my hosts. I am sensitive to both the hard work that is being done to improve a young proto-state and to my own privilege of having been bought up in a country with a long-established (admittedly now creaking under successive self-interested governments, but enough of that) social and physical infrastructure.

A street nearby in Ankawa has recently had the start of a sewerage system installed. My mind struggles to conceive of the enormity of this project, of the necessary chaos the groundworks will bring. It’s brilliant that it’s being done, and whilst I have very little knowledge of the intricacies of such an operation, I hope it’s being done with foresight and to the highest standard possible. These literal foundations are going to define the KRG, and a poor job is going to reflect laughably on a city irritatingly labelled the ‘new Dubai’ – Hawler has history Dubai can only dream of, and in the rush for riches must not forget its personality.

So when a headline as unlikely as “French firm to build small Eiffel-style tower in Iraq” pops up in my daily Google alerts, my heart sinks. Why in the world does any city in Kurdistan, let alone Sulaymaniyah with its skyline defining Grand Millennium, need a replica Eiffel tower? Under the headline, something more annoying becomes clear.

“In line with investment laws in Kurdistan, foreign investors are asked to carry out a tourism project in the city where they intend to invest,” according to Yousuf Yassin, director of Sulaymaniyah municipality.

I understand the focus on tourism, I see that it’s a pillar worth building the new Kurdistan on. It’s a beautiful country, with some good quality hiking in the areas safe from mines. And the 300 square kilometres that remain dangerous are being cleared, slowly. Perhaps the French firm should be required to make a substantial donation to MAG or one of the other organisations working in this arena?

The streets of the cities and towns in Kurdistan are regularly and well-maintained and in the capital there are moves to create more green spaces to compliment the parks that are already here – but what of the can and bottle strewn disasters on the mountains of Goizha and Azmaar? Why not have investors plunge their social responsibility funds into public education films and litter-pick initiatives? Perhaps a larger, more comprehensive education programme that addresses water scarcity and the folly of hosing down streets?

As I approach the end of my third year living here, I’m asked how long I intend to stay. My answer is that I will stay as long as I’m welcome. I use an idiom, ‘if it’s not broken, why fix it?’ to describe my situation. That doesn’t apply to the region though, and whilst measures are in place and initiatives have started, I can’t help but think that some of the foreign investment could be put to better use.

And then, something zor Kurdi will be most welcoming.

Eastern Turkey By Bus

For those of us who pay our own way in and out of the country, there is a common grumble about the cost of using Iraqi airspace. When I explain to friends back home that a straightforward return flight to the UK can set you back somewhere north of $1,200, they look at me blankly for a while. Then it dawns on them.

“Hold on,” one considered during my recent Newroz holiday in England, “I could fly to New Zealand and back for that money.” I could see the steam coming out of his ears as he bought up a mental world map. “Isn’t Iraq on the Turkish border? I flew to Bodrum last summer for about £100 return. No wonder you only come home once or twice a year.”

I try to explain that there’s probably some insurance issue, and that the airlines can afford to charge that because the majority of people flying in and out are doing so on business. But really, I find that I’m just kidding myself, and that I don’t know the real reason that the airlines are able to take such blistering liberties with the cost. And, after all, even if I did know, it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. My ignorance doesn’t mean I am missing out on deals. But, necessity being the mother of invention, the price has led me to finding alternatives.

Last month, I decided to trade a week at home for a week in Turkey, travelling overland to Istanbul from Erbil. I spent some time in Mardin, Sivas and Istanbul before flying to London on a cheap flight. I returned via Dusseldorf, having spent a couple of nights with friends in Amsterdam. In all, I saved around $400 and racked up some fun in other countries than my own.

So, I’d like to heartily recommend the less visited areas of Turkey, or Northern Kurdistan if you prefer. I’ve crossed the border at Ibrahim Khalil a few times now, into Silopi and then taking bus onwards. The crossing can be the most exhausting and infuriating part of any journey in that direction. I’ve once sailed through in an hour, but more often than not it takes around 6 hours. A good book, a full iPod and a packed lunch are essential. For this reason, booking any onwards travel in advance can be a little optimistic. Silopi bus station is the best thing about the town (in that it’s the quickest way out), and services most of the cities within a 12 hour ride, as well as Ankara and Istanbul. Depending on your luck, you can usually find something going your way within a few hours – whilst it’s not a very inspiring place to be stuck, there is a small shop, a fairly decent restaurant and the bus companies are happy to share their WiFi.

Mardin is forever a fantastic place to start a trip around this area. The old city, thought to have been settled as early as 4,000 BC, clings to a mountain looking south to Syria. In the spring the plain feels almost like some verdant sea as it disappears to the horizon. Madrassas, churches and mosques can be explored, whilst Turkish, Kurmanji, Syriac and Arabic are all spoken.

From here, heading west is the historic capital of Kurdistan, Diyabakir. The old city and its walls are a great way to lose a day, although if you suffer from vertigo, a walk along the top of those walls can be daunting. Yet further west is Ganziantep, a city on my list to visit, as are the ‘beehive’ houses of Urfa to the south.

East of Mardin is Hasankeyf. Simply put, you don’t have long to visit this town, seven times the capital of Mesopotamia. Over the next couple of years, once the Turkish government have finished damming the Tigris river upstream, it will be flooded. Byzantine bridges, ancient minarets and historic hammams are all set to be lost. The caves’ walls, deeply inscribed with cuneiform carvings, will be lost forever, whilst at the moment many of them are freely accessible. These caves have only recently been abandoned – in fact I know a shepherd who still lives in them, the final resident of a lifestyle set to disappear.

One final town I’d like to recommend is Van. Sometimes a place gets under your skin, and for what reason you don’t know. This happened to me when I visited Van last year. On a very high elevation, the ski resort is open for at least half the year. A mineral lake plays host to visiting flamingos in the summer. The breakfasts are amazing and the old fortress a treasure. You may remember that there was a devastating earthquake there in 2011, and it was impossible to avoid the evidence when I visited. That said, there was plenty of reconstruction to witness as well, and the place seemed determined to grow. As a border town with Iran, it has an edginess as well, a feeling that much of the money made springs from an illicit economy – certainly some of the cars I saw there were of a different class than those I’d seen elsewhere.

The thing that links the cities of Turkey is the excellent coach network. Every bus provides tea or coffee, makes regular rest stops and there are TVs on the headrests. Many now have WiFi as well, which for me meant I could listen to English radio as I didn’t understand any of the TV channels. Sure, this isn’t first class, but it’s a comfortable and economical way to explore one of the greatest areas on earth – and if there’s a cheap flight back to England at the end of it, I couldn’t be happier.

Day Of The Dogs In Kangal, Turkey.

I said my latest goodbye to Mardin from the centre of the new part of the old city. The coach left at 5.30pm and got into Sivas at about 4am. I had this sub-conscious expectation of a run-down truck stop, dawn illuminating old men with white moustaches playing backgammon and drinking tea. I was fully aware that we were arriving at 4am, but my rose-tinted imagination had it that way. So when we pulled up to a modern otopark much like many of the others I’ve seen around the larger cities of Turkey, I was surprised and relieved – clearly I’m not as much of a romantic as my thoughts. Whilst I still feel this part of the world to be far safer and more respectful than Europe, carrying a large-ish amount of cash (spread across five currencies because I’m quite the jet, sorry, bus-setter) stops me from napping with ease. Even the overnight buses (honestly, so safe for a single man who growls rather than speaks the local language) find me watching the head rest TV rather than sleep. I laid down and watched the headlights of the arriving coaches dance through the semi-circular glass front of the station. The line of coach companies had yet to open for business, and I had a deep rumble in my gut. Cursing my choice of rice and spicy aubergine stew, or rather disappointed that I’d allowed my roadside appetite get the better of my golden rule, I donned my pack and searched resignedly for a crapper. Even in the most modern terminals, the squat drops are often a grim affair, at best wet from the buckets of water available for cleaning. Being so unpracticed, it’s difficult to shit without getting my trousers wet and then wondering. To my audible joy, there was a disabled toilet available in the men’s room and I sat down like a toddler as my feet couldn’t find the floor from the raised height. The Golden Rule to long distance bus travel in Turkey is always micturate when given the chance and grab a sit down defecation moment with both hands….well, you know, just take a shit when there’s a clean Western-style growler.

Moving on from what is excellent advice, I passed the next couple of hours reading a compelling but slightly nerdy fishing travelogue until a few of the agents sleepily appeared from the mirrored back offices. I’ve been warned not to rely on my limited Kurdish in this central region, and with no Turkish aside from ‘thanks’, I went from booth to booth inflecting ‘Kangal’ with a little accent and enquiry to no avail. Heavy-eyed clerks with weary dispositions seemed to implore me to give them a moment to adjust to waking up literally in the office. The open waiting area had fewer prostrate bodies now, all in need of tickets – north-west to Ankara and further to Istanbul, south to Gaziantep, back west to Van or Batman. One vendor indicated a bus to catch, but I missed it. My simple plan of grabbing a local bus to Kangal, just an hour away, was beginning to feel naive. Then another booth opened and I repeated my one word request. “Tamam” (ok) and he wrote me a ticket – 8 lira, 8 o’clock, bay 8. I have a numerologist friend, and I’ve no idea what he’d make of this, but I’m hopelessly superstitious when travelling and took it to be A Good Sign. A smaller bus arrived, and with the conductor looking at me askance as I puffed away on my e-cigarette, I stowed my rucksack and took my seat – 13, but I always let the darker omens go. I don’t remember leaving the station, I fell fast asleep. Woken by a pleading bladder and a slowing vehicle, I looked out of my window – a massive kangal, bushy tail coiled, standing like a show dog. It was a full two metres at the shoulder and cast from cheap concrete, but at least I knew I was in the right place. I did that confused panic thing that we all do when we’ve woken almost too late, only to be ushered back to wait until we were in the centre of the 11,000 strong town. It gave me time to get my bearings, take in a little of what is an unremarkable town, strung with the bunting that drapes the country at this time of local elections. Bunting, posters of men (in this town it appears to be a moustache competition, with at least two candidates who could represent Turkey at the world championships should their political ambitions stall) and cars blaring music rather than promises. In Mardin, with its heavily mixed population, I could understand this – Turkish music from the ethnically Turkish parties, and the reedier, faster Kurdish music from the BDP. In Kangal, a poorer town, tired amplifiers and speakers nestle in bungees atop older Renaults, and the distorted result grates somewhat.

When I did disembark onto the street, I was immediately tugged by a taxi driver. In his hands he held a ragged tourist information pamphlet and jabbed his nailless index finger almost through a photo of a spa. The type where little fish feed on your flaking skin. Should I be offended that he doesn’t see me as much of a man, or flattered that I’m clearly the type who takes care of himself. The truth is somewhere in between, and I wasn’t in Kangal for fish. There are pictures of the dogs absolutely everywhere, and given the chance I’d vote for them. But as they’re not standing and I’m not voting, I just pointed at one of the photos and looked at him. Now that I was in Kangal, my Turkish was down to zero words but he got hold of my intentions, so I trusted my gut. I pointed to a cheap looking hotel, he fetched the owner from the butcher’s below, I dumped my bag and we were off. Not even being able to ask the price, I pointed to my wallet and he just cheerfully said ‘meter, tamam!’ OK, whatever, he seemed a sure bet to find the dogs. A large man, he talked incessantly and his breath was not good. But he was friendly enough and locked into my use of hand signals to augment our chatter. 2km out of town, he swung right across the road and we parked at a kennels. The gates were locked and my corpulent ‘fixer’ snagged himself through a barbed wire fence, so I followed. There was a large poorly maintained house behind us to our left, but up ahead were 7 or 8 pens in which I could see the fawn bodies and dark masks of kangals. I motion-suggested to Yilmaz that we might like to ask first, but he just strode on and I followed for the second but not the last time that day.

I was slightly wary of the four or five large animals not in cages, stretching out in the sun of the spring morning. Aside from the puppies almost a year before, I have never met a pure kangal. Some friends have a kangal/German shepherd cross back in Erbil, a stately chap called Faisal. I’ve met him a couple of times, and love his temperament – gorgeous and enjoys a fuss, but not overly affectionate; just calm and the friendly side of brooding. However, research kangal online, and one finds the overwhelming amount of material is dedicated to their fearless nature. There is also a lot of material about them being amazing family pets, fantastic with children and coping with their place in a group of humans. However, to be faced with five untethered on their own patch as an introduction is a striking proposition. As it happened, they lifted their heads, barked their deep welcome and got back to the sunning themselves. The pens were about 2.5m wide and ten deep with shade and a kennel at the back. They needed a clean, but I’ve seen worse conditions. Each housed a dog and a bitch. In the first, an older dog lifted his shanks and stretched his fore legs, before yawning and pacing up to the thick wire between us. He was a dark fawn colour, a ginger tinge in the sun almost. Thick and powerful, his muscles were visible through his thick coat, and he stood at waist height. His face was jowly and black as soot, the looks that have gone on to be familiar in any number of mastiffs. His companion by contrast, was sleek and lighter in build and colour. Her face was tighter, the black hairs of her mask spread thinner. In short, she was a very pretty, elegant dog, whilst he was a handsome, confident beast. These differences aren’t based on the sex, but it’s rare to see a big bitch – or at least, that’s my observation on the basis of this day. Walking down the cages, we saw just one puppy, which sat back and eyed us with a head cocked in vague interest. Some dogs showed signs of having been in fights – whether for ‘sport’ or work, this is what they are breed for in these parts.

Walking back to the car, I felt a little deflated. This was a bloody long way to come to just visit a zoo for ten minutes. I reached into my bag and passed a note to Yilmaz. Written by my friend Rojda the day before, it read in Turkish, “I apologise for not speaking Turkish. I want to find working Kangal dogs. Would you please introduce me to a village mukhtar (mayor) so that he may show me a coban (shepherd) and his dogs? With great respect and gratitude.”

Back in the taxi, I noticed with alarm that the meter was up to 50 lira (over $20) already. He was on the phone as soon as we hit the tarmac and we drove further out of town. Hanging up laughing, he turned to me and explained, I think, that we were going to visit a mukhtar with the best dogs. He kept talking, which made me uncomfortable, and I cracked the window to allow his breath past me. It was around then that I became acutely aware of my own odour and admonished myself. Poor bastard was earning his money with me in the car, and I snuck a look at that relentless meter. 80 lira. This was close to what I had budgeted for this journey, and we weren’t on the return yet. We forged on in the gently rolling landscape, the mountains in the distance still capped with snow. The earth was brown from ploughing, and the fallow acres remained the dusty colour of the dogs, springs rain yet to weave its verdant magic. Eagles soared against the blue heavens. After about 10km I took a very obvious look at the meter and sighed. Over 100 lira, and he just tapped my hand as if to say “Don’t worry.” I didn’t fully trust him, but figured we must be close. But every time we turned a corner or breached a hill, there was nothing. We entered a village and I felt we must be there. But we ploughed through and took a dirt road, actually a smoother ride than the pot-holed asphalt over which he drove with abandon. 20 minutes after leaving the kennels, we arrived at a farm house in the middle of nowhere. Once at the end of the drive, in front of the house, I could see four dogs chained up. I went to get out of the door, but Yilmaz motioned for me to stay in and blew his horn for attention. I always exercise caution with any dog I don’t know, and these were large wearing steel spiked collars. Yep, I’ll wait for the big guy. And look at the meter. Shit, 150 lira.

The big guy was actually slight, wearing a beard and farming clothes, bottomed with amazing rubber shoes patterned like brogues. He waved us out with a smile, chattered away in Turkish and took us around the back of his house where we saw four more chained males. An older one, the grand old man, came down to us and Yilmaz hid behind me before the chain restricted his progress. I laughed a little, as I’ve been guilty of this, but our host’s ease around them and lack of instruction to us dispersed any worry. Then we double-backed down the driveway to a barn. Behind the barn, various poultry and fowl gobbled and squawked and there was a bitch and a dog, chained. In went the breeder, careful to close the gate behind him He released the chain from the concrete pile keeping this magnificent male in check. Up past his owner’s waist, he growled happily and trotted out in front of us. It reminded me of my teenage days when I would take our wolfhounds up onto the local common land – some wag would always ask, “Who’s taking who for a walk?” and if I’d known the Turkish, I might well have been unable to restrain myself from asking it. The dog marked his territory without breaking stride, keen to see his pals up the road.

The meeting between the dogs was tense. It was clear to me now, that these dogs were used mostly for fighting each other, the way they strained at their chains.


I hate dog-fighting, abhor it, but it wasn’t my place to pass judgement on this man’s choices. I was merely thrilled to be amongst them. 15 months ago, I saw my first picture of a Kangal, and here I was, seeing them in their home region. The alpha clipped to another concrete retainer, we were invited in. The small home is filled with trophies from shows (the alpha won the Turkish equivalent of Cruffs two years ago, as Best In Show. The runner-up was a Yorkshire terrier!). At the computer I was shown videos that confirmed my fears. Dogs set against each other, but mostly protected by their thick fur and trimmed ears (something else that turns my stomach). More upsetting was the video of four dogs slowly, incrementally ripping a boar apart. The noise was grim, but it was the lack of bite on the neck to kill the quarry that had me looking away. I was shown about 90 seconds of this footage, and would guess the animal struggled for several more minutes. Then I was shown photos of dead wolves held up next to the dog that had killed it – whether working to protect sheep or hunting for sport, I don’t know why these clashed. I hope it was for the former, but am realistic enough to surmise it was the later in all probability. Most disturbing of all was the picture of a small leopard, lifeless on the floor beside and behind a Kangal. It was difficult to estimate its size, but I’d hazard a guess at three feet from nose to tail. Perhaps the size of a large ocelot. In contrast, photos of the alpha being climbed on by the two young kids who found me intriguing, confirmed what I’d heard about temperament.

Worried that the meter might still be ticking, I got Yilmaz’s attention. Outside he still avoided the dogs, but I couldn’t leave without stroking the calmest of the pack, which lived under the front door steps. He was pretty, rather than fearsome, and loved the attention. Our host took my hand and led me up the hill to the alpha. He clearly meant for me to have a moment, so I did. It was amazing. This beast, clearly the strongest and most fearsome of the pack, turned into a puppy. Pawing at me, nuzzling, playfully taking my hand in his jaws. I tried to get him to ‘dance’ to get his paws on my shoulders, that iconic big dog pose, but he wouldn’t. I had some photos taken with him though, and I still curse the missed opportunity for an ‘epic selfie’.

We arrived back in town and I’d decided that I’d offer $50 for the ride and negotiate from there. It seemed fair for a couple of hours work in a town where the taxis don’t seem at all busy. The final reading was 285 lira – just shy of $130. Yilmaz didn’t seem offended by my opening offer, just shook his head with a smile. He made a chopping motion half way up his left forearm, indicating he’d accept half price. Another $10 and 20 lira satisfied us both. No need for a fight.

K For Krakow

I’d walked into the bathroom, and there were my new pals, nonchanantly carding powder into small thin lines. There were three or four of them, rolling zloty notes, sniffing the dust, holding their heads back. It’d been a while, but it looked tempting. I chanced it with this group that I’d know less than an hour, “Any chance of a bump?” “Sure, but it’s only speed, easier to bring over than coke.” “Fine by me, cheers man” and I took the proffered note. “Want another?” It was the older guy, one of the Outlaws. I accepted and he tapped a larger quatity out. It was fine and dusty already, and the preparation took only a few seconds. I bent over the sink and snorted greedily. It felt like glass granules. It felt like ketamine. I knew this because two months earlier, just before I’d set off on my trip, I found myself polluting a Friday night that had been dedicated to sobriety at the house of a friend’s parents with the same substance. Said parents returned from the theatre and offered us a line, with the caveat, “It’s not coke….” It altered me considerably.

It was late March in 2007, the trip to Kalmykia. After a depressing couple of days in Warsaw, I found myself in Krakow. I was staying in an empty hostel which was being run, through tragic circumstances, by a lovely girl, Agnieska. We struck up a friendship quickly, and she showed me around the city on my first night. One bar we visited, The Irish Embassy, was decked out with quite a few flat screens showing the cricket world cup – not everyone’s idea of fun, but they were loving it as the Irish had just recently scored their famous victory over Pakistan (that game being the highlight of my time in Warsaw). And as for me, well, I devised a nifty strategy of sightseeing in the mornings and then pulling up a stool and watching a match most evenings. I got friendly with the bar staff, and The Embassy became a second home.

Agnieska was very welcoming, and I was often invited over to the flat she shared with some EFL teachers for dinner. During one of these dinners, I discovered a very common attitude to drugs in eastern Europe – anything, pot, mushrooms, coke, E, anything is as bad as heroin. I just agreed, as I didn’t want to be rude or have a poitnless discussion. I’d been flirting with drugs, or rather, had been involved in something of a dirty, destructive affair with them, before I left England, and I had no desire to talk about it.

The clientele of The Embassy was as you would expect. Transient, and I would rarely see the same faces twice. Weekends were busiest, naturally, with stag parties and weekenders taking advantage of the cheap flights that service John Paull II airport. On the Friday in question, I was sat in front of the big screen upstairs and the rowdy early evening crowds were mostly uninterested in the match. I was male multi-tasking – watching the game, watching the people, reading my book, drinking beer and smoking fags. I was at a large table, alone until an Irishman asked to join, with his party of pals over from Dublin. Happy to have the company we started talking about the usual, and it turned out that this was a birthday party away from the judging eyes of girlfriends and wives.

They bought over a pint of Zywiec lager for me and I explained my journey, they showed polite interest. In amongst the usual shuffle of a busy table, I found myself sitting next to two fellas wearing leather and patches – members of the Dublin chapter of The Outlaws Motorcycle Club. In my youth, a friend’s sister had dated a couple of members of The Cheltenham Wolves MC that were “over-patched” (I’ve only got this parlance from Sons Of Anarchy recently, it could be way off) by The Outlaws during the few months some of us spent hanging out in the clubhouse and The Nightowl club in Cheltenham. It was a world of speed, prospects and the faintest smell of criminality and violence that we chose to ignore.

With a lubricated tongue I shared my limited experience with these almost comically stereotypical bikers. I say almost comically, because they were every inch the calm-before-the-storm violence that one might expect. Facing limited conversation with them, I turned to some others in the party and after three pints, I was ready to break the seal. And that’s when I foolishly accepted the offers.

I walked out of the bathroom and dialled Agnieska’s number. Could I come over? I needed to get out of the bar before a reapeat of the evening in the Cotswolds took hold, where I was convinced, for over an hour, that my left hand operated a digger control for my right arm. It was the only way I could get the tea I’d been given that night, and I was worried how a much larger dose might react with the beer I’d had.

Much of the rest of the night disappeared. I came to, although I hadn’t been unconscious, in the living room of Agnieska’s flat, watching Kill Bill Volume II, dubbed in Polish. I was drinking tea. She turned to me and said, “Wow, you were really drunk.”

I Lit A Candle & Made A Wish

Over four years ago, I took a few months out – sold the house I jointly owned with a friend and used some of the profit to travel overland to Kalmykia, a Russian republic four hours south of Volgograd. I’d read about this 400 year-old Mongolian Oirat diaspora in The Guardian, reporting on the FIDE World Chess Championship that had taken place there in 2007, on account of the then President of FIDE also being President of Kalmykia. I was fascinated, I wanted to take a look.

A trip through Denmark, Germany, Poland and Ukraine before crossing into Russia is bound to throw up a few tales, but the strangest moment for this agnostic happened in Elista, Kalmykia’s steppe-bound capital. Speaking no Russian at the time (not that I speak much now), I had arranged for an interpreter, Lena, to help me with the neccessities and guide me during my week there. I was asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to see, I made clear my interest in going to the steppes, where tulips, orchids and irises naturally bloomed in late April, in the days around my late father’s birthday. Lena is a lovely person, but perhaps not the best guide, and by the last two days of my visit a trip out to the vast plains had yet to be arranged. On that penultimate day, Lena phoned and asked if I would like to visit the new Orthodox “Cathedral”, that serves the 50% of the population that is Christian Slav. The other half are the Kalmyks, who follow their own branch of Buddhism.

Whenever abroad, I try to take time to light a candle in memory of my father. A moment to think of him, and his curiously English xenophobia that saw him work abroad for a significant portion of his adult life. We took a long time to be close, but thankfully we found respect and love for one another a couple of years before he died at the age of 65. And so it was that Lena and I found ourselves knocking at the heavy wooden doors of the newly built Cathedral, about the size of an English village chapel, but wonderfully opulent, magnificently designed in the equilateral cross configuration common to Russian Orthodox places of worship.

There was no answer, but some passing babushkas invited us into the scout shed-like building next door. Some Russian was exchanged and Lena said that this was the place for me to light a candle. Expecting little, I was stunned by the golden icons and images of Mary, Jesus and the crew once inside. A nun beckoned me to remove my hat and sold me a candle for a few roubles. The kindly babushkas directed me to a sand-filled stand where people light their remembrances for the departed. I stood there, two old ladies and the considerably younger Lena at my shoulders, trying to find the silence I am usually accustomed to at these moments. I couldn’t find it, so I just thought to light the flame and be done with it – not every occasion can be how one would wish, after all. Then something strange happened. I dropped into a meditative state and felt like I was communicating with Dad, asking him to show me what I’d come here for. Brilliant, a hotline to the afterlife and I ask for a jolly trip.

I arose from the trance as quickly as I’d fallen into it. I felt weird. Lena and I left and said our thankyous, before bumping into a group of eight tourists outside, just as they were entering the Cathedral. We were invited in by the priest/monk/bishop man. We followed and Lena whispered how strange it was to have other tourists in town – I was the first in years, apparently. We stood and listened to the Russian history of the icons, and before long I felt a pressing need to leave. We turned, but were called back by the monk (that’s what he most resembled), who was keen to hear of my English faith. Once he had finished his talk, and the visitors had left, I was questioned about C of E and did my best to provide honest answers. Thinking this was purgatory, that we would never leave, the other tourists, some Russians from the Black Sea coast I was to discover later (one of whom was married to a Kalmyk, hence the trip), came back in, and through Lena I learned we had been invited to the steppe.

I can’t recall the names of the party, they are written down in notes somewhere in England, but they consisted of the Kalmyk woman and her husband, his brother and sister-in-law and several grown up children. We were taken in one of their two cars to the wild green that surrounds the small capital. We saw the flowers. The steppes were dotted with reds, yellows and purples. With horse skulls and burrows. Life and death all around. The husband, a spritely, balding gent in his early fifties, cat-wheeled and rolled around. I took out my Sunderland “We’re Back” flag, optimistically packed for the trip, hoping Roy Keane would return us to top flight football – an achievement secured that very morning. They laughed at the idiot Englishman. A farmer locked away his dog, a fearsome looking beast who eyed us calmly whilst we walked among the horses bred for meat and milk. The lead horse, Maria, had a bell around her neck. When the farmer called her, she obeyed, the herd following her tinkling command. A hoopoe flew above us, identified some weeks later by a twitcher friend in England. Do you know, it was just what I’d asked for an hour or so earlier.

Our springtime frivolity over, we headed back to town, and Lena and I were invited to lunch. Naturally we accepted, and I presumed a shashlik (Russian open grill) was on the cards. We drove to a supermarket to buy beer (I remember being impressed to find Heineken), and then on to a residential area, where concrete blocks of Soviet housing managed to remain upright against the azure sky. Unsure of where we were, I just followed. Into a block, up some stairs, into an apartment. It was the home of Kalmyk wife’s parents, Papa Boris and Mama Olga. Beautiful septuagenarians, hosts of incredible generosity. We sat, and spread before us were chicken livers flash fried in sheep’s stomach fat with spring onion, the sheep’s stomach stuffed with cuts from the animal, pelmeni, vegetables, beer and of course Ghengis Vodka, bottles and bottles of the stuff. We drank, we ate, we swapped stories through the indefatigable Lena. Boris seemed quiet, but I put that down to humilty. And then, in broken English, he declared,

“Luke! I have for you must see.” A speechless table watched as he he led me to his bookcase and pulled out a 1940s textbook, that he used to study English when exiled to Siberia with the rest of the Kamlyks, by Uncle Joe. Amazing.

And so to the toasts. Many were made, and I was presented with a small statue of the Kamlyk white man myth. I was encouraged to make a speech to accept. With Lena translating, I told my new friends of the odd experience in the ramshackle church earlier in the day. I sat down exhausted, with tears in my eyes.

Swimming In Iraqi Kurdistan – The Full Version

I’ve always been at home in the water. Diving in is my forte – backwards when depth allows, it’s a huge crowd pleaser. I’m not a strong swimmer (the triathlon became another Bucket List entry), but I’m enthusiastic and competent. At gatherings where there is a pool, I’m in like Flynn. This has happened twice in the last decade, as I live in England. Or rather, I used to live in England. I now reside somewhere altogether hotter, somewhere where a dip is required. Somewhere where the food is a little on the fatty side and I could probably do with putting some of that triathlon training into practice. I’m in Iraq.

The power of those three little words. They’re a contrivance to shock readers of my Facebook status and emails to friends unaware of my sudden and necessary decision to move here. The truth is that I’m teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan, the friendly, safe part of this beautiful country. Merely saying I am living in Iraq serves as a geographical locator and, of course, sounds like I’ve got clockweights of titanium nestling in my boxers.

I arrived at the end of spring, which at a cool 37 degrees was already close to the edge of my frame of reference. Take a look at a map of Iraq. Can you see that bit of coast? The tiny, no doubt polluted to all buggery, bit in the south. I’m a long way away from that. There is a lake where people swim, but that’s an hour or so away. In my early days here I was neither blessed with friends to take me there, nor confident enough to go alone. But I desperately wanted to jump in some water, cold showers weren’t slaking the thirst of my skin. So I asked one of the few people I knew, a student, where I could go for a dip. As luck would have it, there’s a pool in the mall just along Salim Street, and Hazhir agreed to hold my hand. Figuratively speaking of course, although with such a strict division of the sexes (even in this town, regarded as extremely liberal), it isn’t unusual to see young men walking arm in arm or holding hands. We all need human contact. This division extends to swimming pools which are strictly single-sex places.

After a lesson one day, we grabbed our kit and went to the pool. As I’m still a little stuttery at Sorani, the local Kurdish dialect, Hazhir took control of the transaction. I was amazed to see that it cost almost $10 each to use this pool, the changing facilities of which were clearly visible to anyone passing on the street by the open door. This provides one with a problem – how to get changed in such a conservative culture. So, I waddled and wibbled my lower garments down my legs, under the cover of my towel, and jumped and pumped my swimming shorts the other way., all the time praying “Don’t let my towel fall and my dick be left waving about over the band of my shorts.” I got away with it.

We paddled through one of those shallow feet wash pool entrances – and upon seeing the pool I wondered whether washing my feet had been necessary. The water was slightly milky, opaque. Not very inviting, but I took the same attitude as I do with street food. This surely is not going to kill you, so enjoy it. The pool was big, at least 30 metres in length. Understanding this area as I now do, I would bet it is an arbitrary length, something like 34.67 metres. I stepped in the shallow end and set off for the poorly lit internal horizon. I got my head down and freestyled, concentrating on getting my breathing just so. And then I was bombed. In the UK we used to have quaint posters on the walls of local baths that point out, with the help of cartoons, what is not allowed. No Smoking (not a sign one comes across in Iraq too often, it’s almost mandatory), No Heavy Petting (again not a sign likely to be seen here, but for the opposite reason) and No Bombing (the less said the better, I think). But here swimming pools are a new delight, and as we’ve established, there’s no coast to speak of. So the concept of areas of water where one can do more than wash in the cities is alien. And what’s the first thing you do when you learn to swim? You jump in, dive in, spash about and generally act the fool. And that is what was happening in the deep end of this place. Fair enough, you might say, it’s good for the kids to let off a bit of steam. But these were no children – this was a group of about ten fifty-something men, squealing and giggling like young girls. This was not a pool for exercise, despite its appearance, this was a pool for FUN. After 15 minutes, I clambered out and fretted about changing back into my clothes.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I’d made a few friends. One quiet Friday afternoon I was invited to Dukhan lake (a resevoir behind a 1930s dam). This is more like it. There were families, and yes, the western girls I was with did raise a few eyebrows as they took to the water, but it was generally friendly. If you wanted to just have fun, then you could jump in from the sides – this flood area is in mountains, so it deepens very quickly. If you want to have a serious swim, just push out a few metres for miles of uninterupted water. The surface metre or so of the water is quite warm, but if one dives down the refreshing chill of deep water envelopes you. And there hasn’t been any bombing in this area of the country for many years, long may it last.

The Race

I’ve recently reconnected with an acquaintance – a friend to many of my friends, but someone I’ve met only on one messy weekend. It was a festival last year, and whilst bonding occurs, depth is rarely found – especially when, on the first night, you steal that person’s bed. She’s called Emma.

I’ve also recently started running. This was at the behest of a Swiss friend, Lucie, who like so many in this city, works for an NGO. It was a habit she wished to regain, but the mountains can be home to feral dogs or lonely farmers and shepherds, and a chaperone is required. An unlikely role for a 20-a-day idiot like myself, especially when it means a 6.20am start, but ever the hero, I stepped up. We’ve found a route along the side of one of the mountains that suits us fine, which drops on the way to the end of the track, but seems to rise mercilessly on the return. It takes 20 minutes, determination and all my breath. Today, I walked for only 5 yards before breaking back into my PB-setting pace.

And so to the final part of my triptych. Tom is an ex-con building an adventure playground in Halabja, a city 60 kilometres east of Suli, the setting for the chemical gas attack launched by Saddam in 1988. Tom’s reasons for being there are many and varied, and the project is of too great a scope to squash into here. I mention that Tom has done time for a reason. After spending the afternoon with him and the kids on the site that is slowly being transformed into the kind of playground we’d all love to have had access to as a child, we retired to his quarters and sat chatting on thin mattresses on the floor. Tom stretched and lit incense but this was just part of a routine for him, not a showy flirtation with Buddhism and yoga. He’s very open about his past, and after talking for a few hours, I feel I could have written his memoir for him. As one of a very small community of expats in Halabja, I got the sense that Tom doesn’t get the chance to unload his thoughts often. He has a keen mind, speaks enough Kurdish to get by, and seems to know almost everyone in the city. But that mind, last Friday evening at least, needed to express itself, so I learnt of his family, his motivations, and of course his time in prison. It was how he dealt with his time that left an impression on me.

I often have the feeling of “what next?” When will I finish this course with the students? When am I next returning to England? What am I doing after lessons today? I can’t wait to go to Burning Man next year. There is a concrete part of my psyche that is always thinking ahead, like the lure of an angler fish, or the carrot dangling just in front of the donkey – I’m driven to think forward and that of course leads to the end of the road.

A lot of prisoners, as Tom pointed out to me, live in the past. Inside it must be easy to reflect on past glories, past lovers. Equally it is tempting, even at the start of a long stretch, to dream of that first night in the pub, the first shag, a decent meal. Talking about all this, I mentioned that I try to live in the present. Probably, I was trying to emulate my new friend who had learnt to do this through necessity, but wasn’t trying to guide me (at least not with the directness of those who enjoy starting sentences, “As a Buddhist….”).

Emma got in touch with me after reading my scribbles about “Sarah” a couple of weeks ago. She, like a lot of people, appreciated my openness. We’ve thrown some emails back and forth, and we came to the subject of her art. I took to her life model watercolours and confessed a desire to be a model at some stage – it appeals to the vain naturist in me. Her next email was subject-headed “Do you think you have what it takes….?” and described it as “a pursuit for people happy to be with their thoughts”. Of course, was my reaction, of course I am. I could sit or stand there for an hour or two, not moving, just being. That was at 6.00am this morning, as I prepared to go for a run. I wrote some bleary-eyed nonsense, but promised to think on during the jog and to return with an answer of sorts. This is that answer.

Lucie and I were joined by our friend Kamaran today, and as we parked up at our usual spot, I looked out to the end of the track. It snakes around the ripples in the mountain, so you never truly know how much further there is to run, but you can see the end, which marks the half way point. We stretched and set off and I tried to force my internal dialogue to get onto the subject of life modelling. Much like trying to recapture a dream after waking up, I couldn’t focus on it. I just kept thinking about getting this 20 minutes of torture out of the way – “around four more turns, I’ll be halfway without having stopped, then I can turn and start getting back to the car.” I settled into my run, got my breath going how I like it and thought about how I managed to keep going on the return leg last time. I’d read an article about the siege of Leningrad, and how those poor bastards hadn’t given up. For some reason that managed to get me through the slight incline back to the car. Maybe I’d use the same tactic. And then it just occurred to me. Feel my breath, feel my lungs, feel my heart, feel my legs. Recognise these feelings separately and together and just those feelings. Just that instant. And for the most part, I lived in the moment for twenty minutes and felt better than ever before when I finished.

If I ever life model, or go to prison, that presence will be grand.

Shaving Part 1

At the age of thirteen I was obsessed with my late flourishing puberty. For most boys, the “hairing up” process can be private, inspected and willed on in the safety of his bedroom or the family bathroom – for me, it was in the glare of 50 or more other boys, in the communal showers and dormitory “ends” of a British public school (ah, it that why they are so-called?). At one end of the scale a 12 year old in another house, who could already convert a rugby penalty from the half-way line, was in possession of an extraordinary five o’clock shadow, his pink phyisog carpeted from shirt collar to cheek bones in thick, no doubt coarse stubble. At the other, a boy in the year below was rumoured to have been put back several years in his physical development due to an operation on his testicles. Some boys refused to shower without swimming trunks on (creepily teased for this by a school master, as I recall) whilst others stood proud in the shower, thickets of pubes sprouting. I have a clear memory of finding my first armpit hair under intense examination in the mirror – the joy! I was on my way.

The beard is the last to arrive, of course, and so desperate was I to feel roughness as I stroked my chin, that I resorted to shaving bum fluff. I was not the first child to do so, I won’t be the last. Now, as back in the puberty days, I am pretty average – I’ve got an average covering of face fuzz, not the permabeard of my college friend Bob, nor the sparse smoothness of school friend Steve. It is Steve I envy now; Bob I wonder how he manages. I don’t enjoy shaving and didn’t once take a razor to my face in 2010, preferring to wear a closely clipped beard. But I don’t mind being shaved, in fact surrendering my neck to a stranger with a cut-throat is one of my great pleasures.

My first experience of this was in 1996; I can even recall the address, Lebu Chuliya, Georgetown, Pulau Penang in Malaysia. The street was dotted with backpacker cafes in which myself and my companions, Bella and Andy, started each morning with banana pancakes and tea. Whilst they perused the travellers’ tips books that littered hostels and cafes in the pre-internet world, I wandered off one morning. I watched a rat, of which there are many in the town, scurry under a cabin just off the street. Looking up I saw two Indian gents lathering faces and wielding their blades. The sheaths into which the blades are folded when unused were at right angles, sticking up like the pinky of lady taking afternoon tea. I’d like to decorate the description with sun glinting from the metal, but it probably didn’t, it was quite gloomy in there.

Without hesitation, I took my place in the queue, reading my book until I was called up. The brush was dipped and vigorously circled my face, which was fresh from a few minutes under a hot, damp towel. My barber scraped through my short beard in a few minutes, before rubbing a camphor, menthol and eucalyptus oil all over my head, massing my scalp and shoulders. Then, quite unexpectedly, he placed one hand on my left temple, the other on the right hand side of my neck, briskly turning my head to face the open door of his shack. The crunch was incredible, if a little surprising – I’d hardly digested it, before he repeated the process in the opposite direction. My neck felt free, and not broken and useless as I worried it might be, the result of too many action films in my youth.

On my return to breakfast, I was asked where I’d been. I explained, and said that in all likelihood I’d be returning in a couple of days. Andy jumped aboard the idea, and a quite different idea formed in my mind. I happily explained the process to him, forgoing one or two minor details. When we arrived Andy was shown directly to his seat, whilst I sat outside. Andy was rather sweetly excited, and when the chance arose he turned to me outside with a huge grin and gave me the thumbs up. Head repositioned by his barber, I smoked and watched. The barbers were quick, and it was easy to imagine cartoon swirls of the Tazmanian Devil variety accenting their flourishes. The mix of oils was splashed into the barber’s hand, from a greasy cafe sauce bottle. He clapped his palms together and then massaged it into Andy’s grinning chops from behind him. I could see my friend’s eyes closed in the sheer luxury of it all, even in these incongruous surroundings. Slowly the face massage rose to the scalp and Andy tilted his head back – half bliss, half sleep, still all smiles. I watched with a tight, nasty little smirk on my face and the hands took the position and I whispered to myself, “Please, please…”

Andy’s head was twisted with measured violence from left to right, and his wide eyes stared directly into my laughing ones, his mouth open in silent shock. I collapsed on my haunches, wiping tears away with the heel of my palm.

Sexism In Iraqi Kurdistan – Part 1

Following on from last week’s musings….

Considerably less “refreshed” than I was when I wrote my initial post on this subject, I’ve been mulling over the evening that started me thinking about the role and rights of women in Kurdistan. Whilst there are still reports of female genital mutilation and honour killings, I wanted to focus on the surface of the issue to begin with. What I have seen so far. I’m sure as I learn more about the place I will learn about the darker side to Iraqi Kurdistan, just as there is a darker side to all countries and regions of the world. However, until I see those goblins, I won’t try to imagine them.

I made the comment “I’d wager women are treated better here” in the Intro piece. I’m pleased no bookies took my money, because it was a statement of ignorance – I don’t know if women are treated better or worse than in the UK. Besides the cultures are very different, and I’m sure misogyny wears incomparable masks.

I met with Tony, a Baghdadi Christian, for a few drinks in the Sulemani Palace Hotel bar. He had a nargila, whilst I stuck to my Gauloises. We had a few beers, and after he’d twisted my (very maleable) arm into having a tequila, he said that he wanted to show me a place in Sarchenar, a well-off district 15 minutes away by taxi. “What sort of place?” “Somewhere where they have live singing, we can have a beer or two,” was his reply. And that is exactly what is was.

A three storey Chinese establishment, filled entirely with men, excepting the female singer on each floor and the waitresses.

We sat at a table next to a group of four men, two in a high state of excitement. The entertainment was provided by a man on keyboards, sometimes vocally backing an undeniably beautiful singer. There were about 30 men in the room, and to begin with it was mostly calm. As the tempo began to rise, so did the spirits of the audience. It was around this time that men started beckoning the singer to their tables, and requesting a “shout-out” for the price of 5,000 dinars (about £3). Pretty raunchy behaviour in this conservative society – in my mind at the time I was thinking of parallels in the UK. Specifically, lap dances. My pissed reasoning was that women are treated with greater respect here, in this case at least. I’m still not straight in my mind about this….any thoughts?