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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.

Grozny v Brazil WC Winners 2002 8 March 2011

President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya organised an improbable football match as a curtain raiser for the 2011 Russian Premier League campaign of Terek Grozny. He captained an invitation XI against the Bebeto/Romario/Dunga side that lifted the World Cup in 2002. Kadyrov succeeded his assassinated father as President of Chechnya some time before his 30th birthday; the youngest age permitted for the position under Federal law. He held the position de facto until he turned 30, and has remained in charge since. Kremlin approved, he is a favourite of Putin and an important ally in the unsettled region. There are often whispers about his methods, and Chechnya is returning slowly to its traditional Muslim values, a source of nervousness where just recently 3 tourists were killed in a fundamental attack on a nearby Caucus ski resort. Calls for an independent Caliphate in Dagestan to the north are backed up by Black Widow bombings and the recent atrocity at Moscow’s Domodedevo airport.

The rise of the capital’s football team, Terek Grozny, in the years since the conflict abated has been meteoric; now established in the top flight, Kadyrov has just installed Ruud Gullit as manager. Presumably he will have a larger squad to chose from for the first game of the season this weekend.

After an interminable few minutes of various anthems, the gold and green of Brazil kick off against the all red of Terek (although the president, playing up front with 10 on his back, has accessorised with the blue captain’s armband and black tracksuit bottoms tucked into his socks.) Brazil take the lead by walking the ball down the right wing, before the cross was met with a scoring header, unchallenged by Kadyrov who has inexplicably found himself at right back. Well, he raised his right leg someway short of a right angle, but ? (I think) took the header a good foot in the air. Denilson (I think) scored the next, inside 7 minutes, by strolling through the defence, and one has to wonder whether or not these guys are aware of the warrior nature of the locals; win by all means boys, but if you want to catch that flight home with your legs unencumbered by plaster I would recommend not humiliating the motley crew of Chechnya’s ‘great and good’.

Richard Keys and Andy Gray may have assumed the assistant was a woman, considering the distance offside the Terek player was for the penalty awarded a few minutes later. But today is International Women’s Day, and presumably the legions of women officials have the day off. Kadyrov steps up, and it’s clear that he is going to score tonight, by decree or otherwise. The squat former warlord hoofs a left foot shot at a good height and pace for the keeper to deal with it comfortably. I’m beginning to think the Brazilians were given the script written in Russian, as they are not humouring their hosts. However, after the pen, they start behaving, backing off attackers and conceding corners. The inevitable Terek goal comes in the 13th minute, and through the tears of mirth I see that the President’s shot was parried into the path of a grateful number 9 (aside from the number 10, I can’t name a single Terek player). A poacher’s goal, the type that Kuyt so happily put away at the weekend at Anfield.

The trouble that the Terek XI have is that the Old Boys From Brazil are just class; it really is permanent. They don’t move too fast, but their one touch passes are showing the opposition up for what they are – a sub-Hackney Marshes Sunday side, inelegant, clumsy and slow, save for three or four former players who prevent the whitewash. That said, Kadyrov WILL score, the tubby bugger has paid for the privilege……well, someone has. He miraculously finds acres of space without moving and favours passing (occasionally pretty well) with that widely worshipped left boot of his. His odd misdeed is in indulged by the referee, a handball here, late challenge there. All in all, the game is good natured, smiles all around, especially from the young leader who has a grin a mile wide. He wins a second penalty in the 18th minute, tumbling from a standstill. I thought Weebles merely wobbled. This time he doesn’t even trouble the ‘keeper, and his hooked shot flies high and right.

The TV station carrying the game, Rossia2, seems unclear how long a half lasts. According to their on screen clock, we’re one and a half minutes into injury time of a 20 minute half when Kadyrov scores the equaliser, several metres offside. Still grinning, but a slightly muted celebration suggests he could see what everyone aside from the assistant could. The injury time clock disappears, and the half looks to have been 25 minutes when the ref sends them in. During the interval, the camera scans a laughing crowd and a section of VIPs. Ruud is nowhere to be seen, and I can only speculate that he is enjoying a night out in “cosmopolitan” Grozny.

The second half, and Brazil still look, if you’ll excuse me, the nuts. Even Dunga, who now runs like a grandad who has just missed the bus. When Kadyrov receives the ball in the area, he freezes and stumbles. Brazil forget themselves in the 29th minute, moving the ball seamlessly along the centre length of the pitch to restore their lead. Again, they realise their mistake and defer to their hosts and after only half an hour or so, the pace of the game is that of one in its umpteenth minute of extra time. The referee’s assistant on the far side is the only person on the field who seems to have improved – new glasses at half time perhaps – because he is spotting some close “offsides” and Brazil can’t beat the trap. Surprising return to form for the lad, after he had such a dreadful first half, but I’m pleased for him.

Romario puts Brazil two up, just after some ancient Soviet hero of football has come on for Terek; whilst Dunga does an impression of a bow-legged Papa, this guy is the real deal, albeit with a deft touch. I’ve had enough by 36 minutes, but continue to watch – Brazil eventually have 5 (I think), whilst Kadyrov scores a penalty after telling the ‘keeper what to do.

From what is alleged, this may be the least corrupt match in the recent history of Terek Grozny.

Arriving At Volgograd Station

Arriving Volgograd

Nic leaned out of the window feeling the air fresher on his face than he expected. The Baku “Express” was about halfway to its ultimate destination and he’d had none of the trouble warily predicted by those that had never used the train. The Azeri train guards, truly Caucasian with clipped moustaches, who had regarded him with amusement throughout the journey, grinned and nodded when he pointed to the floor and asked, “Volgograd?” He sought further confirmation with the childish Cyrillic scrawl that he had copied from his guidebook which made them laugh from their bellies. A little embarrassed that he had not just shown them the book, he stuffed the paper into his pocket and set about readying his backpack. The late morning sun was bright through the coupe window and Nic felt like a pioneer. There was a true sense of some inspiring adventure before him. It bathed him with new found peaceful anticipation instead of the bile that had leeched into him during much of the journey so far and he was surprised to note that he was not at all worried about finding the driver who was to take him directly south to Elista, the city home of City Chess.

The train slowed to oil tanker rate, and during the last 200 metres it was difficult to notice that it was moving at all. This served to maintain the calm, and with a surprising lightness Nic bounded from the train and onto Russian soil, the door held open for him. He reached up behind him and shook hands with the two still smiling guards leaning to meet him halfway. It had been a tiny education for all. He fished his cheap sunglasses from his pocket and threw his head back to take the sun on his face. Then he just stood. He didn’t know where to go and really didn’t care.

He dropped the ‘pack to the floor and perched on it, the weight of his body taken more on his haunches and flat feet. Ignoring the no smoking signs, he licked the microscopic holes on the speckled brown filter of a Marlboro Light to marginally increase the strength. Once the end was glowing he sucked in deeply, imagining the cloud filling his lungs and blew out with the satisfaction of a deep breath rather than a nicotine hit. In fact he gained satisfaction from expelling the noxious fumes, but that did not stop him from poisoning himself once more. He stared at the carriage, 3 metres from him. Looking at all the parts, he went back to the time when a friend of his, a train driver, took him on an illicit journey.

Kenton referred to himself as a “basher”, and as far as Nic could work out, he was essentially an extreme trainspotter. The extreme part was that to tick the engine from his list, Kenton had to ride up front. Nic wasn’t sure whether Kenton had become a driver because of this obsession or whether the obsession had overcome him once he had begun his career. In either event, Kenton had been travelling through Nic’s local station late one evening, and had promised to call to see whether he had wanted to make the three hour round trip with him. Nic decided to give it a go and he and another friend, Bruce, had jumped on the Class 38 train as Kenton slid it through the station at about the same pace as the Baku Express had docked minutes before. It was dark, sometime after midnight and once the diesel engine had got its full head of steam back up, or whatever it was that diesel engine’s had to do to get to a decent pace, Kenton had let Nic drive. There was nothing to it, the most demanding act was to sound the horn before entering the tunnel (against the rule book at that time of night, but this was once-in-a-lifetime stuff), an act which in itself elicited child-like excitement. The fun of the horn was replaced with the horror of an alarm ringing directly behind him. It was a full 1960s fire alarm and it wrenched Nic from reverie and planted him firmly in terror. Kenton responded by coolly stuffing a canvas glove between the bell and the hammer and explained that “this old thing is forever doing that.” The adrenalin breaking down in Nic’s system was making him nervous and after Bruce had declined taking the controls, muttering something about the Titanic, Kenton took over once more.

“Why don’t you two look at the engine?” he suggested above the roar, and with a nod the two of them had headed out of the door behind them and into the engine. Directly into the engine. The noise was incredible, really louder than anything either of them had heard. Bruce punched Nic on the shoulder to get his attention, and although he was clearly shouting from just a metre away, Nic could hear nothing but the din. He turned away from Nic and motioned to the other end of the roaring lump of iron, encouraging Nic to follow. He instinctively knew that this was because he knew he wouldn’t follow and now he felt compelled. With great cloaks of claustrophobia enveloping him, Nic made his way along the chamber, back pressed against the wall as if it offered some protection and arrived at the back where Bruce had already opened the back door. It was like a Bond movie, looking out over the roofless carriages that carried the cargo, a bright moon behind them slightly to the right. They just stood there for a while, appreciating the wind, the terrific feeling of movement and the receding countryside. It was exhilarating and calm all at once.

And that was what Nic felt now. The peace of just sitting and smoking belied the knots in his stomach. He was pinching the end of his smoke and flicked it at the gears and gauges underneath the carriage, and it landed perfectly still on some horizontal bracing between wheels. Pleased with this exceptional omen, the knot slipped straight and he got up, wrestling the backpack happily into place as he did. The driver that he had managed to arrange should be easy enough to spot, a Kalmyk with his distinctive Mongol features amongst a crowd of Russians. He could not make out the size or design of the place as he strode across the tracks, but walking through the building he was impressed by the high ceilings and marble walls. It was lighter than Lviv and less modern than Kyiv, but typically Russian. It seemed that everyone was travelling with a plastic, gingham, zip-up case, of the type used for laundry back home, but used for pretty much everything here. He kept up his determined pace to the front of the station and at the top of the stairs outside took some water from his bottle and settled on his haunches to have another cigarette and see if he could spot someone. Resting back against his pack, against the wall, Nic surveyed the crowd and judged that it should be simple. The sun was on his face and he thumbed the half smoked stick into a crack in the pavement before tossing the butt into the bin. As he stood up, someone was in front of him, speaking to him in Russian.

“Ya ne govoryu po-russkiĭ,” he spluttered under his breath. As it fell from his lips, he confused himself wondering whether he had just lied, by explaining he didn’t speak Russian in Russian. Before the thought could take hold the stranger was speaking English no better to him.

Ladies and Gentlemen, introducing Walter Knowles

Walter Knowles left the Red Star building, pleased that he had finally finished his project watch. It had been just over a month since the factory had been renamed in honour of S.M. Kirov and Walter had taken the chance to furnish and cover the mechanism with one of the new faces. He stood patiently for the route taxicab in the dry cold. His hands appreciated the little warmth and protection afforded by the deep pockets in his coat, and the fingers of his left toyed with the crown winder whilst in the right hand he clutched at a packet of cigarettes. It was too cold to remove his hand, and too cold to pull down his scarf. Hence it was too cold to smoke, no matter how much his chest implored him. His ushanka kept his balding head and small ears away from the worst of the weather, but his eyes stung and cheeks were red.

Looking along the street in anticipation of the shared car, a new and welcome addition to the paved streets of Moscow, Walter took in the scene. Not much had changed, aside from the structure of the factory, since he arrived almost 6 years ago. He remained in the same apartment which was visible just 150 yards away in the direction he was looking, on the second floor above Andrei the cobbler’s shop, identifiable by its weathered blue awning. Andrei had at first taken exception to the “inostranets” that had been presented with the tidy three rooms above the shop on arrival. He had coveted the space for his own family, but once he had discovered that this couple had come to help with the construction of a watch factory further along Voronczovskaja, he appreciated them as artisans. And whilst repairing shoes was seen by many as an important, yet simple vocation, Andrei saw it as nothing less than craftsmanship and took great pride in work that was (in his mind) amongst the best in Moscow, if not the whole Soviet Union. It was only a few weeks after they had arrived in 1930 that Andrei had first spoken to them. His wife, Lana had insisted he take borscht and vodka to them. They could spare no more than a little of the red soup for them, and just enough vodka for the three to toast their arrival in Moscow. Andrei was immediately impressed by the few words that Walter was able to speak in Russian, with formal grammar; at home at the Kremlin perhaps but too correct for the streets outside of the centre.

Over the coming months and years, Walter and his wife Ruth got to grips with the everyday language, both in the factory and with the limited circle of friends they had made, which included Andrei and Lana. The decision to stay after so many of the other workers from Ohio had returned to the Buckeye State wasn’t easy, but in the summer of 1932 Ruth had finally conceived. Without family to speak of back in the States, and the terrible unemployment still cast a shadow over the country. There was job security in Moscow and Walter was respected and in the factory.

The taxi arrived. Walter took a look down the street as he ducked into the back seat with one other passenger. He let his mind wander, staring directly ahead. Moscow was a large, large city compared to Canton, but it was merely a magnified mirror. The poverty that they had left behind was here too, and even as they motored down Pushkinskaya towards the centre, old women and men scavenged. He hoped that by following his head, Russia was the right place in which to bring up little Peter. He had no idealistic leaning towards Communism, but he had a comfortable apartment, was able to provide for his family, and was able to indulge himself and his wife. She wanted the occasional dress, which he could easily afford, and he had been able to afford to build a small camera, now hanging from his neck under his coat. As well as being able to customise his own pocket watch over the years, Walter was satisfied with the small scale engineering that he could take part in. With both his projects he was now heading in to the centre of Moscow, to take photographs of the landmark buildings.

His scarf was still around his lower face and his hands still firmly in his pockets, still no warmer. His eyes had begun to thaw and the veins in his cheeks felt crystallised. He turned a cigarette tip around in his pocket, mistaking it for the crown of the watch. Beneath the scarf he grinned at his idiocy as the car halted near Red Square.

His hand came out of his pockets for the first time in half an hour before he disembarked, to rattle some roubles into the demanding mittened palm of the driver. He closed the door with his hips, and dug into coat to free the camera. As he did so, a young man, a boy really, walked towards him with pleading etched on his Slavic features.

“Izvini, droog?” he said.
“Da?” replied Walter, feeling for the cigarette he was certain he was about to be begged of.
“Do you have a cigarette, pozhaluista?”
“Da” and he reached into his pocket, pulling out his watch by mistake.

In an instant, Walter lost his watch and his camera. The camera was torn from his neck, the watch easily rested from his cold grasp. The boy ran and unencumbered by a great coat, easily made away from the strange American, screaming after him in his native tongue. It was enough to attract attention from the politsiya, and by the time he had explained his loss, in tear soaked Russian, the formal kind that he still had occasion to use, he understood that he would not see the items again.