Initial Impressions and Thoughts

When you initially tell people that you are going to Iraq, regardless of the difference between Iraq proper and Iraqi Kurdistan, there is a look of bewilderment that comes over their faces.  The response is often one of two things: Are you in the military? or Why on Earth would you go there?  At first it bothered me that no one seemed to recognize the importance of a project like this and my interest in going to this exotic place.  For most people exotic means palm trees and pina coladas; for me, and I can surmise that my fellow students here would reflect this sentiment, exotic means being in a faraway place where we have removed any sense of comfort and familiarity.

At this point, dissatisfaction over the responses to my going to Iraq has turned into a sense of amusement.  I even told some friends I was coming here to help to train Iraqi Special Forces (obviously total bullshit), and that I was carrying ninja throwing stars for my protection.  Perhaps others worry too much, or perhaps I worry too little…we’ll have to wait a few more trips before rendering judgment.  Regardless of the responses or my reaction to them, this is no doubt an exciting opportunity that not many people will ever get to experience.  For this very reason, I am completely satisfied and happy to be here.

I could probably take the next paragraph to lament about how long the trip was and how tired we are with jetlag, even three days after our arrival.  However, this should be a given as I am now 7 time zones away and a world apart from the American way of life.  In many ways, this brings me peace.  Western influence has become so pervasive throughout the world that it is becoming increasingly difficult to escape it.  Some readers might ask, “Why would you want to escape this way of life that has brought us so much?”  In many respects, they would be correct to ask this.  If the American/Western way of life did not prove fruitful people would not be mimicking it.  However, just like any other culture and society, our own has proven to have its faults as well as successes.  While we should no doubt look internally for answers, I tend to want to look outside our realm of existence for inspiration.  I came here with an open mind and an honest desire to learn, perhaps even more so than my desire to consult for NGOs.

My experience thus far has been a positive one.  There has not been one person who has not treated us with the utmost respect and kindness.  We have certainly had our fair share of looks, but I cannot complain about this as Paige, the only female member of our team, has taken the brunt of them.  Blondes are quite popular in this region of the world.  The people here, English speakers or not, have tried to accommodate us in whatever way that they can.  Our hotel manager brought us breakfast to the room, a cake, and has consistently tried to go out of his way to make us happy.  On numerous occasions speaking with strangers we have heard the phrase, “I love America!”  With many people there is an obvious barrier of communication, but the Kurdish people have really tried to welcome us.

Our experience here has been made even better by our hosts at the University of Duhok.  They have not only been accommodating, but they have often put their own lives on hold to make sure that we are enjoying our experience.  Reving Mizory, our main contact, served in the Kurdish military and was the first Kurd to work with the US military in the region.  He was a translator and also served with the Special Forces…pretty badass stuff.  He has excellent English, is light hearted and fun, and is incredibly open to our barrages of questions.  I don’t think we could have asked for a better point of contact for our stay here.

How many plates can they fit on a table?

At our first lunch in Kurdistan two of our contacts from the University of Duhok took us all out to a nice restaurant.  After having several items from the menu explained and placing our orders the waiters began to bring us food.  But lots of it: soup, salad, humus, olives, pieces of fruit in some sort of yogurt, and any number of things I didn’t recognize.  What I learned though is this is just the norm and there isn’t a charge for it.  When the four of us students go out to eat dinner or lunch we can easily expect to end up with 15 plates of varying size on the table before our meal comes.  More often than not when the meal does come, we have to play a Tetris-like game to get these new plates on the table.  All of this is in addition to the free bottled water, chai tea, and dessert-related items (yogurty ice cream things, watermelon, other stuff).  I feel like the only free things I get at restaurants in the US are fortune cookies and after dinner mints.

 

Kurdish nationalism and Iraqi relations

Having just written a paper on conflict between Kurds and Iraqis I took the opportunity at lunch one day to ask our primary University of Duhok contact some questions and I felt like some of his responses were definitely worth noting:

How do people in Kurdistan feel about the UN:

The UN is not popular here, do not ask.  When Kurdistan wanted to build a power plant the UN said we will only support it if Baghdad agrees and Baghdad would never agree.

How do you feel about Paul Bremer:

Paul Bremer was not good for the whole of Iraq.

How do you feel about Ryan Crocker:

Ryan Crocker is a good man and I know him, he is a friend.

Do you think there will be a drive for Kurdish independence?

Without the Kurdish portion of Turkey there will not be.  But Turkey will not give away the Kurdish portion.  This portion would give us water and access to the sea.  Water, access to the sea, and the oil already in Kurdistan would make us the strongest country in the Middle East, why would Iraq or Iran or Turkey want this?

Is there a difference in sentiment between age groups regarding an independent Kurdistan?

It is a dream for everyone.

On relations between Kurdistan and Iraq:

Right now things are good because Iraq is weak, but we do not trust them.  There have been times in the past where relations were good but when Iraq was strong again, they would come back and break our trust.  Kurdistan has had its trust broken too many times to continue trusting Iraq; its like we are brothers and we will always be brothers but even a brother can lose trust in members of his own family.

 

Very accommodating… possibly too accommodating

As mentioned before, when we got to our hotel around 4AM the front deskman brought us several cold waters.  This was not the last time he would bring us things.  Our first morning in Duhok brought hunger and heat and, unfortunately, in order to satisfy the hunger, you have to brave the heat.  Thus, we headed out into the downtown area of Duhok where our hotel is located but found the restaurants hadn’t opened and came back to our hotel.  We stopped to talk with the front deskman from the night before (he is, we believe, a fan of the German national soccer team) and hoped he could tell us somewhere nearby where we could go and buy food.  Through his little English and our zero Arabic or Kurdish he seemed to understand we were asking about food and told us to go back upstairs.  Within a few minutes, he arrived at our room with a small bag of bread, cheese, “butter,” and something that seemed a cross between sour cream, cream cheese, and cottage cheese (it was yummy).  He asked if we wanted any coffee, tea, or juice (“Orange” as he called it) and not waiting anything to do with hot beverages we asked for the “Orange” and he, again, took off only to return several minutes later with a small jug of orange juice and four individual carrot and orange juice bottles.  Based on the black plastic bags he pulled everything out of and the time between his departures and arrivals, I think he was running to a nearby store and buying us the food and drinks.  The best part though was the cake that appeared later…

After eating our breakfast and having our 10AM meeting delayed until 1PM the four of us returned to our beds and promptly fell asleep again.  Some time later I woke to what I thought was the door of our hotel suite closing.  Peeking out of my room, I very quickly noticed a large cake (missing one slice) on the coffee table that wasn’t there when we fell asleep.  As we suspected, and shortly thereafter confirmed, the front deskman had brought us the cake.

Day 1 in Duhok ended with a quick trip out to find dinner and a drink… the background for this story requires you to look up the “sexy saxophonist” video on YouTube that I watched while in California.  The sexy saxophonist has a very distinct set of notes he plays in public locations throughout Los Angeles before, without fail, being escorted off the premises; if you watched the video, congratulations, the song will be stuck in your head for days (please forgive me, I know the song the sexy saxophonist plays is real but I can’t remember who it is by but if I had to guess I would say Kenny G).  Walking into a small, we assumed, restaurant we had seen earlier in the day with a hookah on the window we were instructed to sit down at any table.  Shortly after being served, we noticed the music in the restaurant had changed and the sexy saxophonist song was now serenading us.  Sexy saxophonist song was followed by the Celine Dion “I’m your lady” song and that was followed by a litany of what can only be described as 80s and early 90s romantic slow jams.  The man from behind the bar who appeared to be in charge ultimately came by and asked if we were enjoying the music and we assured him that we were indeed.

Lord I was born a rambling man…

Having finished my first year of graduate school in May, I very promptly celebrated by taking a three week long summer school class on ethnic violence and nationalism that, looking backwards, seems to have only been a momentary blur that occurred ages ago.  This feeling is due largely to the fact that I don’t know if I have stopped moving and traveling since its end.  I completed my final paper (not coincidentally on Kurdish Iraqi nationalism) on June 4th and very promptly packed my truck and loaded my dog, Rocko, then headed west towards California and home.  Over the course of four days and three nights I drove across the US on I80 making pit stops in South Bend, Indiana, Sidney, Nebraska, Elko, Nevada, and, finally, Fresno.  After staying in Fresno for several days, I started moving up and down the state and then flew back to South Orange on June 20th only to leave again on June 23rd for Kurdistan.

The trip to Kurdistan was smooth and flew right by (ß flew by… as in timely and literally; get it??).  Our seven-hour layover in Istanbul was punctuated by trips to the food court, where it seemed no matter what you ordered the price was going to be about US$5.  Milkshake?  $5.50.  Coffee-flavored ice cream thing $5.  Large Pepsi $5.50.

Our last flight into Erbil, Kurdistan was a very quick one and was immediately followed by a short road trip to Duhok, some 150 kilometers away.  The drive to Duhok I found very interesting.  In the course of 2, 2.5 hours we didn’t come across a single stoplight but also never appeared to be on much of anything I’d recognize as a freeway.  The way to Duhok felt much more like a long series of back roads than anything else and the dark night served to only confirm the desolateness of our trip.  Luckily, our driver, Mevan (spelling is a guess), knew exactly where he was going and we only stopped for momentary checkpoints and one bathroom/smoking break.  However, having no comprehension of where we were going or when we would be stopping, the bathroom and smoke break worried us in a “the hills have eyes” kind of way as the only thing around were two buildings (one of which with two men laying on the porch) and the howl of coyotes.  Surely this wasn’t Duhok, a city of 250,000 people?  Neva ushered us back in the car and we were on the road again before we could ask any questions.

We arrived in Duhok and our hotel at about 4AM local time and met our primary contact, Reving.  Our on campus housing wasn’t ready yet, so we’d be spending the first several nights here he informed us and got us upstairs before heading home himself.  The man from the front desk brought us a few cold waters (in little plastic containers that resemble pudding cups) and then also let himself out.  After only a few minutes of unpacking and changing clothes, it was finally time to sleep.