Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Camping in Kurdistan: A Road Trip and some Perspectives, Iraqi-Kurdistan, July 9th, 2011

"Is easy to see the remarkable beauty of this country and forget all the atrocities that are still happening, I can get lost in the immensity of its mountains in the north, the Mesopotamian Marshes in the south, swim on its rivers; Furat and Dicle and enjoy the simplicity of its people....but then I hear its name: Iraq.... I recall I'm on this journey deep into the strugle.....still the magic prevails-in my heart and I smile" Johanna

In the beginning of July, I went on a road trip with two of my Iraqi friends. It was something we had been planning, but I had been postponing it because my injured foot. We started our adventure in Erbil, driving north into Duhok. We were going to camp somewhere, past the ancient city of Amedi, which sits beautifully on a hill, one hour past Duhok. I was really excited about the whole camping idea.

Our first challenge was in one of the literally thousand checkpoints that are all over the place in Kurdistan. I am not sure which; surely it was after we left Erbil. We showed our ID’s, and my two friends went out of the car. The Kurdish soldier asked to open the trunk, which my friend did, and all of a sudden, I saw the soldier checking my bag and taking out some of my medicines. Right, so maybe a Kurdish an Arab guy with an American girl could be suspicious. For sure we could be carrying some kind of bomb to disturb free and peaceful Kurdistan! After the guy slowly and meticulously looked through my medications -anti-inflammatory and thyroid medication- he was convinced that there was nothing wrong in our trunk.

He proceeded to ask me-in Arabic- where I worked. I said I worked in a human rights organization. Then he asked my Arab friend, who said he was my bodyguard!!!! But of course, his papers said otherwise. Luckily, the soldier did not inquire about that contradiction. They asked my Kurdish friend to come with them. I was surprised because I expected they would take my other friend, who was from Baghdad. After a while, when he came back, he said that they were looking for another guy with his name. Fortunately, everything was solved without major inconveniences.

We continued our road trip. Sunflower fields were covering both sides of the road. I asked my friend to stop to take some pictures. On an improvised tent, there were three young guys who were taking care of the fields. We were out for about 10-15 minutes, but it was hot as hell! When we were leaving, one of the guys called us back and gave us like 8 melons, which were also from the same field. That was nice of them, but we had enough melons for dinner and breakfast.

We made it into Duhok around noon, prayer time, but also lunch time. It was the first time that my Arab friend visited Duhok, despite he had been in Kurdistan for 6 years, always working and trying to survive. We stopped at a restaurant, and I was happy to get off the car and be in a cooler place. We went upstairs into the family section which obviously was full of families. As we ordered, in the midst of lunchtime chaos, I noticed a conversation between a waiter and a man; the man seemed to be asking for a prayer rug, something available everywhere, from restaurants to shops, anywhere there are people. The man got his rug and went to a corner to pray. It is one of those scenes that does not cease to amaze me, reminding me that Islam permeates all aspects of daily life. Is something very normal and I am used to it now, but is one of those things that could impress one who is not familiar with this culture.

We drove through a small dam, just on top of the city. It was a small, man-made dam, to collect water. It was in the middle of a beautiful landscape, and to me, it fitted perfectly as if meant to be there. We continued our journey, passing Amedi and into another city called Deralok. There were several Assyrian villages and a couple of churches on the way. My two friends that just met today, talked about politics, religion and about life in Iraq. I was sitting in the back, listening and smiling. These were two people that generally would not come together spontaneously. Arabs and Kurds are not naturally attracted to each other, due to historical reasons, mainly because of the genocide of the Kurds orchestrated by Saddam. Only when people think beyond history and realize that what happened was a result of people in power doing things that did not necessarily represent the will of all, only then they can start reaching to each other.

I was glad that they were talking and making jokes; I knew both of them had been through a lot. The Kurds had the genocide and the uprising of 1991 that made millions refugees flee to Iran and three wars, plus sanctions that had destroyed a country and its people: the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war and lately in 2003 which made millions of Arabs flee to the north. The [American] war in the south had brought many Arabs into Kurdistan, which is autonomous, but yet, still part of Iraq. Many Arabs had come to escape violence and many more in search of employment given that war destroyed their source of income. The reality is that there is a lot of discrimination towards Arabs and because they come not speaking Kurdish, they can only get odd jobs which offer no stability. These jobs pay very little despite the long working shifts and oftentimes have no days off [=exploitation??].

We passed another checkpoint where a soldier again asked for our ID’s. When he came to check mine, he asked me where I am from, and he was smiling and exclaiming that my name is Kurdish. My name also exists in Kurdish but it is spelled differently: Jwana≠ Johanna. He thought I am originally Kurdish. People often say that I have Kurdish features, and many times people talk to me in Kurdish only to realize that I have no clue of what they are saying. He returned our ID’s and exclaimed: “Welcome Mister Johanna!”

After a long day on the car, looking for the perfect spot for the camping, we finally arrived to a beautiful and quiet place by the river. It almost felt like we arrived to the end of the world, away from people, from the government, just nature and beauty in front of us. It almost felt like being in another planet. We mounted our tent, looked for some wood for fire, and grilled some chicken Iraqi-style-tomato juice and salt.

We sat and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the night, listening to the soothing sound of the river and overlooking the moon sometimes wanting to hide from us behind the clouds. Enjoying this little moment but knowing that tomorrow we would wake up to the same Iraq we just escaped a couple of hours ago!
Beautiful sunflower fields on our way to Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan

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