Sunday, September 11, 2011

Weekends in Kurdistan

With Muhamad and Omer
One of the things that people in Northern Iraq love to do on weekends is to have picnics.  It's a time to be together with family and friends, to enjoy food, dancing, music and the cooler climate outside of the city.  Jim and I were treated to this experience on Friday, and what a lovely and remarkable day it was.  Jim has made friends with two men, Muhamad and Omer, helping them perfect their English skills.  During Ramadan they took their “coach” and me to a lovely “iftar” dinner (the meal that breaks the fast) and this weekend they took us into the Kurdish countryside for a typical weekend picnic. 
Muhamad, Jim and Omer unpacking the picnic
We were picked up in the afternoon and drove about a half hour or so into the mountains outside of Sulaimaniyah to a park where there were hundreds of Kurds, as well as Arabs who drove up from the south to enjoy the cool weather.  Like them, Omer and Muhamad had brought a picnic that was absolutely delicious – chicken, dolma (grape leaves, eggplant, tomatoes, onions and peppers stuffed with a marvelous rice mixture), bread, greens and a plate with cucumbers, diced apple, carrots, etc.  We stopped on the way for fruit and I brought a thermos of iced tea (although Kurds LOVE their hot chai – very sweet – this cold tea was something new to them).  Omer’s mother and sister had put the feast together and it was enough for about 12 people (Jim and I were the grateful recipients of the leftovers which will serve as several great lunches and dinners).  
Enjoying chai
After eating our picnic, we walked around the park gazing at the scenery that was very reminiscent of the American Southwest (spectacular mountains, cliffs, trees and a waterfall), watching people dance in the typical Kurdish style, listened to the accompanying music and enjoying observing families take donkey and horse rides and just relaxing together.   We then left the park, drove a short distance, parked the car near a river and started climbing to the caves which dotted the mountainside.

Hiking in the mountains
As we were making our way up the mountain toward the caves, we met three men who also had been climbing, one of whom was a former Peshmerga.  During the time of the Anfal he had lived in similar caves in Qaradakh, another mountainous region outside of Suly.  Peshmerga means “those who face death” in Kurdish and they are the fierce Kurdish guerrilla fighters who, among other things, helped defeat Saddam Hussein’s army in 2003.  Prior to that, they also fought with US and NATO troops during the first Gulf War in 1991. 
Peshmerga in the mountains during the Anfal
The Anfal, which occurred in 1988-89, refers to the period when Hussein launched a mass genocide against Iraqi Kurds.  They were forced to flee their villages, some of which —the most famous being Halabja -- were the targets of chemical warfare; in all, about 4500 villages were destroyed and 182,000 Kurdish killed.  The Peshmerga took to the mountains, living in caves, in an attempt to defend their villages to the extent they could. 
Our Peshmerga guide
Our Peshmerga guide, who had two Peshmerga brothers killed during the Anfal by Hussein’s army, took us inside the caves, the largest of which was occupied by Jallal Talibani (the current Iraqi president, head of the PUK party and Kurdish hero) and his men.  He showed us where weapons were hid, food cooked, etc.  It was a remarkable experience seeing this dark chapter in Iraqi history through his eyes. 

Wedding dance
As it turns out, one of our guides was a relative of Muhamad and after our tour of the caves, we accompanied them to a wedding celebration that was taking place in the valley.  Hundreds of traditionally dressed men in sharwal and women in diaphanous brightly colored gowns covered in sequins and gold were in attendance.  Many were dancing in the typical Kurdish style -- a type of line dance similar to the hora -- and they pulled me into the circle of dancers and welcomed me as if I were a relative or neighbour.  After several pictures, smiles and hugs, we said good bye and went to our final stop – a 6000 year old cave carved by an ancient people into the mountain in the style of Petra.   It was a remarkable place to watch the sun set and the almost full moon rise over the mountains.  
Qezqapan (or Qizkapan) Cave
One of the things I will always remember about my experience here in Iraq is the friendliness, warmth and generosity of the people. Notwithstanding the suffering and hardship they have endured during the Anfal, their own civil war, two gulf wars and the current post-war conflict, they remain resilient as well as resigned to both their tumultuous past and to an uncertain future which may bring positive changes but which may also destroy some of their traditional ways of life.
New friends
On a sadder note, today is the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  There are certain days one never forgets -- the day Kennedy was shot (I know I'm dating myself), the day the spaceship Challenger blew up and more recently, 9/11.  My thoughts are with friends and family in America and my hope is that some day there will be peace around the world so that events like the Anfal, 9/11, the holocaust and all acts of violence which cause people to live in fear and destroy innocent lives cease forever.