Tag Archives: life

Life In Kurdistan, a piece for http://asfar.org.uk/


It’s over two years since I touched down in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), or if you prefer, Iraqi Kurdistan, Northern Iraq (Saddam’s moniker for the area, not a name which will win you many friends if used here, understandably) or increasingly, as tourism opens up, The Other Iraq. Amongst expats here, we refer to it simply as Kurdistan, or Iraqi Kurdistan when we’re explaining to friends and family just where in the world it is we’ve found ourselves.

It’s over two years since I arrived, seemingly by accident.

In November 2010, after a year of unemployment in the UK, I ploughed the end of my savings into taking a CELTA course, a month-long teacher-training program, qualifying me to teach English to adult speakers of other languages. I’d done a little unqualified teaching in Ukraine, where I lived for two years in the past, and had a hankering to return to a CIS country, utilising and improving upon the little Russian I’d picked up in that time. The first job for a newly qualified CELTA teacher is quite a tricky thing to find, with almost all positions advertised carrying a requirement of two years’ experience. Couple this with the time of year, and my email outbox betrays many applications made once a drink or two had been taken during the course of Christmas celebrations, that start early in the UK, and often end sometime into the second week of January. I remember that schools in Russia, Argentina, Columbia, Thailand, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, China and Palestine all received my particulars, juiced with experience in Kiev, working with children and an ambitious play that my late 30s made me the ideal candidate. As it was, I accepted an offer to work in Samara, central Russia. My meager earnings from delivering pizzas, with the lack of tipping typical to a depressed town in a depressed country, funded a one way ticket to the country and the attendant visa fees. I arrived a 3am on a bloody cold March morning (-22C to be precise, a personal record). My meeting with the boss the following morning confirmed the worst fears of a gamble – he was a Walter Mitty character, and it became clear that he had swindled many thousands of dollars from others in the city, and I made plans to make good my escape. And then, an email. “Do you still want to work in Iraq?” Hmm, I don’t remember ever wanting to work in Iraq, but after an interview and a promise to buy my ticket to freedom, I accepted. My connection to the internet was prohibitively slow, and I arrived in Erbil late April, with no real knowledge of where I was.

I was really green, as green as the unexpected mountains I was to see a week later, mountains that absolutely gave the lie to my preconceptions of deserts, dates and camels. I had just one day orientation at the headquarters of the school that had flown me over, and then I was left to my own devices in a run down hotel near the Citadel in the centre of Erbil. The Citadel (or Qalat in Sorani Kurdish, the most commonly spoken form of the language in KRG) purports to be the oldest continuously inhabited structure in the world, with one family remaining in the ancient walled community – evidence suggests that it has been settled for at least 7,000 years. I moved to Erbil from Sulaymaniyah at the beginning of 2013, and have struck up friendships with many archaeologists, this being the land of Assyria, Mesopotamia and Babylon – often forgotten in amongst the tragic violent history of the last 30 and more years.

During that week, I skulked around the immediate environs of the hotel, but was not assured by the guarantees of security that my colleagues had given me, and felt under threat (I was that ignorant). Each night, unadorned by beer (really, had I moved to a dry country? I hadn’t.), I watched a movie or three on one of the pirated satellite channels, only half-joking to myself that Al Qeada were to make me the next star in one of their grim broadcasts.

Happily, after a week, I got word that I was to travel to Sulaymaniyah (Suli) with my new manager, and start teaching. Along with a local teacher, Amjad, Omed duly arrived and we set off on the three hour car journey taking the route that winds over the mountains, commonly known as the Koya road. It takes a little longer than the Kirkuk road, but for obvious reasons, that is no hardship. The taxi route between Erbil and Suli skirts Kirkuk, and is safe at the moment, but you’ll have heard of the sporadic bombings in the city. Security of the city switches between Iraqi federal forces and the Peshmerga (literally, Those That Face Death), the once guerrilla Kurdish fighters who are now the de facto security force in KRG. Kirkuk is an Arab/Turkman/Kurdish mixed city, and a reporter friend of mine (again, there are still many here, so I’ve made many interesting contacts) tells me that ethnicity is not the root of trouble there, rather it is the desire to control the oil and gas deposits. Another large percentage of the expat community is involved in the oil and gas sector, with KRG having huge reserves. Fractious relations with Baghdad can be traced to the question of ownership of these reserves, with a substantial portion of the KRG budget still drawn from the federal capital. Naturally, the south wishes to share in the wealth being generated in KRG, and equally understandably, the semi-autonomous Kurds are keen to enjoy some financial security and independence.

Once we’d left Erbil, small hills began to morph into far more impressive mountains, verdant and simply beautiful. I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing, and relief swept over me, especially as we drove into Suli, along the entry road that passes the new airport and the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah (AUI-S). Dominating the skyline, albeit against the mountains that hold the city in a crucible, is Iraq’s tallest building, still under construction now. It is a 5 star hotel and is part of the Farouq Holdings business empire that includes the leading mobile network, Asiacell and other interests including cement factories. Construction is rampant here, with ‘villages’ of high-rise residential buildings being concreted into available space in the major cities (Duhok is the third largest KRG city, near the Turkish border), and is especially prevalent in Erbil. Concrete is not the preserve of the cities though, and government grants mean that most new houses in the rural areas are also concrete, the traditional brick and mud structures becoming an ever rarer sight. The urban villages are often named after nationalities, and a great many businesses too, reflecting the countries that provided refuge for those that fled Saddam and subsequently the Kurdish civil war, before returning.

Saddam’s ‘Anfal’ campaign against the Kurds is one of the great rarely reported genocides of the twentieth century. Up to 180,000 Kurds lost their lives in the mid to late 80s, as many as 5,000 in the 1988 gas attack on Halabja. After a no-fly zone was established during the first American led war in the early 90s, the promise of Kurdish autonomy was derailed by a senseless internal conflict between the Barzani-led Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), under the control of former ally and current Iraqi president, ‘Mam’ Jalal Talabani. But for now, conflict resides in the past as the KRG government looks to cash in on its new found wealth and try to attract more tourists. Certainly this is a growth market; whilst there is little in the way of a mid-range option, there are many independent travellers passing through, and at the exclusive end of the market, tours cost $500 per day and more. Without doubt, spring is the time of year to visit, and the Newroz (‘new day’ literally, but Kurdish new year informally) festival on the equinox is a joyous celebration, lit with flaming torches and sustained by the picnics that are ubiquitous at that time of year; the summer becomes uncomfortably hot, with 50C not unusual in Erbil, whilst Suli is typically 3 or 4 degrees cooler.

The thing that gives me joy more than any thing else here; more than the excellent hiking through springs and rivers, more than the sweet tea and rich dolma, more, even, than the education I’m receiving, is the people. Kurds are extravagantly hospitable, and a simple offer of tea, when accepted, is sure to become at least a meal. Most families have a dark recent history, and in time you might find this tragedy shared, but more likely you’ll find yourself holding hands and jiggling your shoulders in a line as you (try to) dance away the last kebab, sun glinting from the silver and gold on the dresses. Just look at the Kurdish flag, and you’ll see that dawn is finally breaking for the Kurds in Iraq. With the ever-changing situations for Kurds to the west in Syria, north in Turkey and east in Iran, the future will be interesting, to say the least.

Brief Encounter


A stream of consciousness I needed to get out. It burped onto the page in just 40 minutes.

I’d touched down at Gatwick at around 6.30pm on the first day of August this year. I’d had a terrible flight, compounded by the lack of my usual medicine of a glass or six of something “fortifying”. Whether it was the start of Ramadan that meant there was nothing alcoholic on the plane, or just because it was an observant airline, I don’t know. But I was shattered, nerves frayed and body beaten by the journey that had got me there via Malmo, Sweden. All I wanted was to get on the train and share a meal with good friends in Bayswater, a not unreasonable target to end the day.

As I got to the platform, it was clear that not everything was as it should have been. The hordes, oh the hordes and hordes of pissed off travellers, unable to make good their escape. I forced calm to settle over me, as I saw a wait stretch before me. A conversation with a platform guard furnished me with the unwanted intelligence that a landslip further up the track had meddled the timetables and it was going to take some time. So I sat. 

And soon I saw fit to ask again, for any further information. Alongside me was an impossibly beautiful, willowy dark girl. She didn’t take my breath, but as someone who has never tried to chat up a stranger, she took words that were perhaps never there in the first place. She said something, and my mind whirred, “Luke, you’ve got good cards here. Think about it…..you’ve got stuff going on that might break the ice…”

“Well, ” I started falteringly, “I’d have thought my delays would’ve been at the other end.” Of course, she asked where I’d started the day’s journey. “Iraq.” I just left it there, feeling more as if I was playing poker than trying not to faint in her presence. “Oh, are you in the army?” I left the merest of beats before replying, “No, I’m a teacher….” And then a longer beat – I’m rebuilding a nation I laughed to myself. We got on, we got on well. She told me she’d been in Turkey for two weeks starting her third book (oh, you get better) and I mumbled something about trying to be a writer myself. I felt 12 years old. Sarah, for that is her name, decided to jump on a train, whilst I elected to await an Express. I took my phone from my pocket, but realised I didn’t have a number to give, no sim yet purchased. I couldn’t ask for hers, too forward. “Do you use Facebook?” she asked, and gave me her name. I added her as a friend just as soon as I could get access, a few hours later.

I woke up at my friends’ house and was pleased to see she’d written to me. A long, pleasant message, complimenting me on my clothes, and certainly giving me some signals. I wrote back. She wrote back. We swapped numbers. We started to text and email regularly.

A couple of days later, I was with friends. I showed them Facebook pictures of Sarah. Jane spotted that the dust jacket of her debut memoir was in amongst the pictures. “An honest memoir of a coke-addicted call girl in London” was about the long and short of it.

I wasn’t appalled. I didn’t think anything. There was no judgement, merely a “hmmm, she’s lived” and an unchanged desire to meet, which we soon agreed to do. On my birthday, 12th August. We met around the corner from the London Palladium and kissed long and passionately. We sat for food which we didn’t eat, kissing and looking at each other instead. She gave me a card which read “From This Day Forward” on the front. I gave her a book I thought she might enjoy, that I’d read a year ago. And I tried to take it back. I had only then remembered that the main character, as well as being a werewolf, was a prostitute. I was mortified. She laughed, she was easy with it. She gave me two books; Delta Of Venus by Anais Nin, as an erotic work as is possibly acceptable on a first date, if at all; and a Paul Smith notebook, “I have one too. When you are in Iraq and you see something you want to share with me, write it down. I will do the same here, and when we see each other next we will swap.” As we left, she said she was going to do something she hadn’t done for ages tonight.

“A massive line of coke?” I suggested with a straight face. “No, I’m going to suck off a sweaty businessman for £300,” she deadpanned back. Funny, intelligent, beautiful…undeniably a bit fucked up, but aren’t we all? She was, in fact, attending NA.

After a weekend in Brighton, we agreed to meet the following Sunday. She picked me up at the station and we went back to her flat. We spent 10 glorious hours discovering a near-perfect erotic match. And with that, we awoke on Monday morning and she went to work. I left a little later and returned to Stroud….I missed her almost immediately.

On the Tuesday morning, I woke up and checked Facebook. Sarah had written on her wall (it’s a fan page really, as I discovered, where people talk about recovery and prostitution) “Why can’t I just be normal, why isn’t this going to work?” Of course, I texted her. Of course, she told me that this wasn’t going to work. 

My mother picked me up from the friend’s pub where I was staying. I was distraught but keeping it below the surface, but mothers know. When she asked me what was wrong, I dissolved into floods of tears. I felt I’d had a chance, no matter how weak the foundations, pulled from me. A feeling had been aroused in me, connected undoubtedly with sex and with the fuck-it-all hyper-speed that we’d developed, that I hadn’t had for years. I wanted to give it a go with Sarah, and I told mum about her history. To my surprise (but on reflection I should have expected nothing less from a wonderfully caring woman such as her), she said, “Everyone has history, and it’s who she is now that is important.” A platitude, almost certainly, but thoughtful. Mind you, I was driving and I’m pretty sure mum was a bit fucking nervous about my fitness to do so.

Over the next few days, I tried to not think of Sarah. But a supernova, that burns so bright and so fast, is hot as well, and the burn wouldn’t be salved. I relented and sent her a text. Her reply was breezy and we agreed to keep in touch. 

My last weekend in England, I spent with the friends that I’d stayed with the night after I met Sarah. On the Monday, before I left on the Tuesday, Sarah suggested meeting for coffee. Like a fly to a purple fluorescent strip, I went and we clicked again. She had a royalty cheque on the way, and was going to use some of it to visit me in Kurdistan in September. The distance might be good for a couple of romantic dreamers like ourselves. She apologised for upsetting me in the past week, I was so delirious I told her it was nothing. Promises were made on both sides, and we parted with tearing eyes and happy hearts.

We kept in close contact until my flight, texts, phone calls and further promises. I texted when I landed, as promised. I received no reply, but messages often don’t reach here from the UK. 

I didn’t hear from her for a day, so I sent her an email, telling her I missed her already, being a soppy sod. She sent one back suggesting I find someone in Iraq to fill her place. Yep, that’s what it said. I read it a few times, and then replied, “Does this mean you’re not coming out to visit, then?” “No.” “But, what about what we said? Why did you say those things and make those promises on Monday?”

I got this in reply:

because i actually GENUINELY LIKE you. that’s why. its simple.
but you know something – some people say things at specific times, that they mean intensely at the time, and then maybe that alters. So what??

i like you Luke, but i don’t want daily contact – i don’t want to feel that you are my ‘betrothed’, i don’t want to feel that I must reply to every single email i get from you.
I don’t want to think that you are thinking about me lots, or missing me.
i don’t want to feel trapped.
i don’t want to feel any sense of re4sponsibility for how you feel.
I don’t want to feel any of this stuff.
I just don’t.
and i won’t.

don’t hold me to ransom for any of what ive said or done.
we owe each other nothing.

and now I’m getting angry

There has been some contact since, but after a promise to write me a good catch up email a few weeks ago, I’ve heard nothing. We all know that logically, I’m a fool to think any more about it. We’re also all aware that the heart doesn’t work like that.