Once more I have paid a visit to the Autonomous Kurdistan Region – for short: Kurdistan – in northern Iraq. In this small aspiring (all but independent) country, people fight against ISIS/ISIL while at the same time in large parts of the country everyday life just goes on. In the major cities, you don’t have to be afraid of bombs exploding in your face; neither is there constant shooting at the front as it used to be in World War I.
On previous occasions I have simply contemplated this beautiful country, or I have concentrated on visiting particular sites such as refugee camps and Peshmerga army posts. I have talked to politicians of the major parties, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), and to a lot of army people from common soldiers to Special Forces and generals. One question that has always struck me is: How is it that these people are constantly fighting – first against Saddam, now against ISIS – and still manage to spend their weekends having fun at an amusement park?
But let’s start chronologically: How do you get there in the first place? That is pretty simple. You just book a flight, e.g. from Düsseldorf, Frankfurt or Berlin, and within four hours you arrive at a modern airport where you can purchase a SIM card or an LTE router while waiting for your luggage. In the major cities the mobile Internet connection is as fast as it is in Germany; in the countryside you only get the rather slow EDGE connection, but even so, mobile Internet is accessible from virtually every corner of the country. This time, in approaching landing, the aeroplane spiraled down like a roller coaster. If I hadn’t known this to be a civilian airport, it would have felt like „combat landing“. But in fact this is safe territory, miles and miles away from the combat zone.
Traveling with Kaka Hama
One thing I have learned about traveling to Kurdistan is not to make any plans in advance. You just go there and see what happens. During my previous visits I had made contact with Muhammad Haji Mahmoud, better known as Kaka Hama or „the Socialist Tank“. For the time of my recent visit he invited me into his home and allowed me to take part in his daily life.
From the 1970s to this day, Kaka Hama has always been fighting at the forefront – literally. A lot of the time there was nothing in front of him but unexplored territory – and then the enemy. To understand who the troops are that he leads into military operations, you will have to allow me a little digression.
By and large, the Peshmerga – the Kurdish army – consists of three fractions that belong to
different political parties. From a German point of view this may sound odd, but the historical causes for this aren’t that hard to understand. The Iraqi Kurds had already fought against Saddam before political parties were established. The parties developed out of different Kurdish troops whose leaders held slightly differing political views. Nowadays, even though there are political parties now, the soldiers still follow their respective military leaders. Thus, different parts of the army are closely tied to different parties, but on the whole all of them pursue the same goal: a peaceful life for the Kurdish people. Still, no Kurdish soldier would want to serve under the command of a party other than his own. To a certain degree, one might compare this to the federalist system of the German states. All of the federal states cooperate, but still each of them looks after preserving a certain degree of independence. A large fraction of the Kurdish army belongs to the KDP and is known as the ‚Barzani Peshmerga‘, another fraction belongs to the PUK and a notably smaller one to the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party (KSDP), a party founded by Kaka Hama who is also the military leader of the KSDP Peshmerga. His troops have a reputation of being the Kurdish army’s intrepid vanguard. I have repeatedly heard stories about Saddam’s soldiers taking to their heels as soon as they just saw Kaka Hama: They knew that they could only lose.
Even now, Kaka Hama always has his sniper rifle handy, and he has quite the appearance of a man who wouldn’t hesitate to use it as soon as he spotted ISIS fighters. Still, he is not a fanatical militarist, not a manhunter nor a hardliner. He has often engaged in diplomatic missions within the country as well as abroad. He is apt to pose inconvenient questions and to criticize the political and military leaders, yet he is well respected by everybody. It is hardly possible to characterize him in one line or even a paragraph. I have come to know him as a strict military leader, a skilled diplomat, caring father, reflective thinker, persistent journalist, hardworking farmer – and a genuinely funny guy.
He founded the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party in 1976. It has never participated in the
government and has never earned a large share of the popular vote, yet it is firmly established in Kurdistan’s political landscape. Around the same time that he founded his party, Kaka Hama joined the military struggle against Saddam and soon began leading his own troops.
In the course of his life he was often wounded, he bears the traces of bullet wounds to his arms and legs and of a graze shot to his head. „As soon as Allah is willing to take my life, he will. But the time hasn’t come yet.“ Over the last 40 years, some 1.000 people were killed at his side, 56 of them were his relatives. Nonetheless, he unmistakably doesn’t regard warfare as an end in itself, but merely as a last resort for cases when conflicts cannot be solved politically. Over dinner, he asks my opinion about the JCPOA agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and what I think about its possible longterm effects for various regions of the world. That’s a tough question after a long and exhausting day of traveling, but also a fascinating one. I must admit I hadn’t given the question much thought until then – but Kaka Hama had. Whenever our conversation reaches a point like this, he provides an extensive yet precise explanation of the complex political constellations behind the various decisions or agreements. Time and again I’m amazed by all the people he knows in all kinds of places.
The conversation permanently switches from one topic to another. The situation in Germany, the situation around here. Recent political and military developments in Kurdistan, Syria, Turkey, Iran. How’s the family, and do I know how to harvest cucumbers? It is all but impossible to even keep the most important turns of the conversation in mind without keeping notes all the time. And I keep asking myself: How exactly did this or that topic turn up right now?
More or less, though, the whole conversation centers around a single core: How does the current fight against ISIS compare to the fight against Saddam? What is similar, what is different?
One obvious thing that both situations have in common is that people are brutally killed for no reason. Families are torn apart, millions are dispossessed and expelled from their homes. Another similarity lies in the fact that the Kurds once again have to face an overly powerful enemy without much help from the international community. What makes a difference ist that the Kurds had a certain grace period in between. If this is helpful or harmful is a matter of perspective. From a military point of view, it actually causes some problems. Since the Iraqi Kurds hadn’t had to fight this hard in 20 years, the younger Peshmerga – those under 40 – are not used to war. They are unaccustomed to the anguish of battle, they lack experience in housetohouse fighting, and they don’t know how to approach unsecured terrain. This is why combat units have to be carefully composed of different age groups, and it is why experienced fighters such als Kaka Hama are still held in high esteem. His calm and composure in battle affect the other soldiers. He walks undauntedly through the combat zone, without protective vest or helmet. If you saw something like this in an action movie you would think it highly unrealistic.
Another difference is that this time Kurdish civilians do not flee; on the contrary, it is them that accomodate refugees. As of now, 2 million refugees have found shelter in Kurdistan, a country (or region) whose domestic population is only 4 million. Still, today’s stories are no less dreadful than those from Saddam’s days, yet they are dreadful in a different way. To make up for the bitter experiences of warfare, Kaka Hama applies himself to farming.
We spent hours in the fields and on the plantations where Kaka Hama loves to spend his time. Peaches, tomatoes, pomegranates, cucumbers, sweet peppers and all kinds of tasty crops I don’t know. Strawberries and eggplants as far as the eye can see. Right in the middle o fit, a construction site where a small assembly place is being built, including a swimming pool that is also meant for kids. In the future, this is supposed to serve for party meetings. – I’m not just supposed to look around, though: I’m supposed to join. Taste the fruit, help harvesting vegetables – and experience yet another surprise: The place is populated by ostrichs, a certain species of small deer and geese. Kaka Hama is familiar with all of this, has a story to tell about everything. This is a great place to relax – and yet it`s only a stone’s throw from Halabja, a place that gained notoriety in 1988 when Saddam bombed this and other towns with deadly chemicals. The other places are all but forgotten nowadays, there were no pictures of them in the news. Thousands of people died instantly, tens of thousands were injured and still suffer from after-effects. – Ten years earlier, there were already the first women fighting in the ranks of the Peshmerga. But they were very few, I am told – a dozen maybe. Kaka Hama’s wife was one of them; in fact, she was very likely the first female Peshmerga ever. A female friend of hers who travels with us joined the armed struggle shortly after her. Nowadays, her children can lead a simple life: study, work, live in peace. This ist he great reward for her lifetime achievement. She never earned any money for her service with the Peshmerga, nor does she now, in terms of a pension or anything like that. I interview everybody I meet about the times of their military service, all the while sitting in a vine arbour and eating fresh pomegranates. From the looks of it, it might have been a terrace in Spain.
We look at loads of pictures and I listen to the sad stories behind them. Many of the people in the pictures are dead or missing. One of the stories I am told goes as follows:
In the days of fighting against Saddam, a man carrying a baby in his arms came from the mountains to a nearby village. He asked if anybody had something to drink. He had lost everything: his wife and children, all of his belongings – except for the baby in his arms. He didn’t even have anything to eat or drink and he didn’t know how to get the baby through the day. People helped him and a woman offered to take care of the baby. He moved on to keep up the fight, and as he left, he kept turning around to catch a glimpse of his last surviving family member. What became of him or the baby, no one can tell.
Stories like this used to be commonplace in the 1980’s and early ‘90’s. Every family has something like this to tell. This was around the same time that the Berlin Wall fell.
Meeting the Kakai
In Kurdistan there are many different religions living together in peace. I had already encountered different Muslim and Christian denominations and also Yezidi. This time we drove up to the front to meet men with thick moustaches and a faith I hadn’t heard of yet.
It is always important for me to see the last few miles bordering on ISIS territory. It gives you an impression of how dangerous or how secure the condition is at the moment. The Peshmerga think that far too few people do this – people who report about the region as well as people who have to decide on deliveries of arms. There are always many things to prepare and to consider: what vehicles to use, what to wear and where exactly to go. Armoured vehicles tend to be cumbersome, and the enemies might shoot at the front screen to obscure the driver’s view – but generally speaking, these vehicles offer a fair amount of protection. Or how about a big convoy with many soldiers and a lot of ammunition? – That may sound good, but the drawback is that it attracts a lot of attention. And what should you wear? A blue vest with big “PRESS” tags on it? Or would you prefer something more unobtrusive? There are a lot of issues to be taken into account, but having Kaka Hama’s second son Erin with me makes it a lot easier. Everybody in their family is well versed in these things. As the ISIS respects neither the Geneva Conventions nor unwritten law, and as the territory near the front is said to be rather insecure, it is advisable not to attract attention. I am given traditional Kurdish clothes, take a pass on too much equipment and confine myself to the essentials: one camera, two lenses, protective vest, helmet and a bottle of water. Up close, I look distinctly different from everybody else, but from a distance I blend in with the group of Peshmerga pretty well. We choose a rather inconspicuous-looking off-road vehicle, albeit equipped with a gun turret – this much fortification seems by all means necessary. We are accompanied by another vehicle with more soldiers. This is regarded as a rather small convoy and shouldn’t cause much trouble. Even so, the gun turret draws attention and we have to drive swiftly, especially at checkpoints. These are located on country roads and at city limits, and their purpose is to check vehicles at random. We are always allowed to pass, but we are not supposed to wait in line for too long – which means we just have to scramble through the queue somehow, even through the two-way-traffic if necessary.
We drive through Kirkuk and further south, down the road to Baghdad. The roads grow emptier as we drive on, but the queues at the checkpoints grow longer. We have long since passed the former border between Kurdistan and the remaining Iraq, but still the flagpoles at the checkpoints fly Kurdish instead of Iraqi colours. The Iraqi army had surrendered the area to the ISIS troops that were subsequently expelled by the Peshmerga. We press on, mile after mile. The Peshmerga in the car tell me about the fightings that have taken place here. Right in the middle of it, one of the Peshmerga asks me about the nuclear power phase-out in Germany. I keep being nonplussed by the turns of conversation.
The frontline runs about 30 kilometers south of Kirkuk – this particular segment of the frontline, that is. On the whole, it isn’t a straight line at all, no more so than the Berlin Wall used to be. First we drive to the base of the troops that occupy the several posts around here. The general is going to explain the on-site situation to me and answer all my questions. Additionally, the Kurdish news broadcaster Jamawar sent up a team to cover my visit to the front.
This area is inhibited by the Kakai (also known as Yaresan or Ahl-e Haqq), a religious minority of about a million members worldwide. The men are easily distinguished by their thick moustaches that are part of their culture. After the ISIS had committed the 74th genocide against the Yezidi in the Shingal Mountains, the Kakai feared that they might become the next victims. From the ISIS’ point of view, they are “infidels”, and they don’t have an army of their own. So they turned to Kaka Hama for help, and he conveyed their plea to his old comrade-in-arms Masoud Barzani who is now president of the Kurdistan region and also commander-in-chief of the Kurdish armed forces. Barzani sent several hundreds of Peshmerga for the protection of the Kakai, though their settlements are scattered all over the country. The area we were just visiting was a territory from which Saddam had tried to expel the Kakai back in the 1970’s: He had relocated Arab families there in the hopes that this would force the Kakai to leave. A number of them stayed, however, and so did the Arabs. Now they live here peacefully as neighbours.
After all this had been explained to me, I was shown on a map where exactly the single posts were located and which areas we would be able to drive through. Since we would be within eyeshot of the ISIS troops as soon as we left the base, we were advised to take no more than one or two vehicles and keep our heads down. The latest skirmish had only been hours ago and there were snipers on the other side for whom 200 or 250 meters wouldn’t be an impregnable distance. Soon I was able to spot the ISIS flags and their fighters with the naked eye. They moved in the flickering air as black silhouettes. To film with a hand-held 500 millimeter telephoto lens was nothing I had practiced in advance, but to use a tripod would have attracted too much attention. So I lay behind an earth mound trying to record in non-wobbly images what could be so easily seen with the naked eye. Everything around was extremely quiet and I think that it must have looked strange from an outside perspective: A handful of people cowering on an old carpet on the ground behind an earth mound in the middle of nowhere, and nothing happening. Nobody fires, nobody calls, hardly anything in the surroundings even moves. But this is exactly what war is like at the front for most of the time. You just wait. The security team seems calm, but still you can feel the tension. We are advised not to film from one single position for too long, but rather keep moving behind the cover, and soon change our position altogether. The runway on which we drive on is said to be safe, but to the left of us the ground may be mined, so we are not allowed to dismount there. Even though we have a pretty good overview, our convoy’s movements are conveyed to the nearest posts by radio. The people at the posts are supposed to monitor the terrain for us, so they always have to know where exactly we are (and with which vehicles). At the nearest post there are about 30 Peshmerga who observe the surroundings in turns. At night it is most dangerous. There is hardly any electricity and there are only a few searchlights. On the other hand, by using searchlights and lamps you give away your exact position; without them, you are merely a shadow. There are no nightscopes and so the Peshmerga are taken by surprise by ISIS fighters every so often. “Last time they were so close that we could hear their ‘Allahu akbar’ yells”, the commander tells me and shows me a video on his phone. Still, up to now they have always been able to repel the attacks. In case of heavier attacks they can always request rocket launchers or air strikes, but obviously it would be better if they had heavy armaments right here at the front so that they could be applied at any time.
There is no shift schedule for guard duty, no fixed daily routine. Those who are tired go to sleep. Those who have some spare time do the cooking and cleaning. The others just stare into the landscape. Which is much more exhausting than you might think. You have to stare into plain nothingness for 12 to 16 hours a day, but you are expected to notice in an instant when there is anything unusual. I am supposed to stay inside the post and only film through the loopholes. When they want to show me something on the outside, I just hold the camera out and watch the display from within. Usually nothing happens in the daytime, they say, but still it’s better to lose your hand than your head. For them it’s much easier. If and when their god – whatever he is called according to their respective faiths – wants to take their lives, he will. I haven’t had much to do with God, Allah etc. so far. I have to put my trust in Kevlar and ceramic plates. Every now and then I wonder if it might be a good idea to commit myself to some kind of religion so I could spare the heavy protective vest and the helmet. My thoughts are interrupted by a warning that I should keep my head down. I had unwittingly turned to the side and my helmet had show above the edge of the wall.
Even around here people are still in good spirits, are happy about my visit and readily share information about everything I am eager to know. They show me pictures of their families on their phones and tell me they want their children to be better off some day. It’s the same as anywhere in the world. All that people really want is to have a family and to live in peace. In Germany, we tend to take that for granted after 70 years of peace. But around here it is still a dream.
Before leaving, you always have to take a picture with everybody. They tell me that no journalist had ever been here before and that they wanted to show the pictures of my visit to their friends on Facebook.
At one of the posts an excavating machine has heaped up a hill that is almost ten meters high. From one side you can go up there on a ramp. On top of it, old carpets lie on the ground and you can hide behind an earth mound. Up there, I have an extensive interview with the general. What is the situation like in this place? What does he need? They feel relatively safe, they thank for the help they have received from Germany. As often before, I’m asked to deliver thanks and regards to German politicians. As always, I will. Last time, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and defense secretary Ursula von der Leyen were sursprised but pleased. It is not often that they get this kind of immediate feedback from such a place. For chancellor Angela Merkel I’ve had to make a list, since I haven’t been able to meet her yet.
I ask the Arab neighbours how they are. No better or worse than anybody, they say; but they are glad that the ISIS is kept at the other side of the frontline. I ask them if they have any difficulties with the Kurds or the Kakai. No, they say. They simply live alongside each other and don’t have an awful lot to do with one another, but there are no real conflicts to speak of. Since there have been reports in German media that the Peshmerga had allegedly blown up Arabs’ houses, I ask them if they had heard anything about that. They don’t understand. Words fly to and fro, they keep asking: ISIS? Peshmerga? They think I must have confused things. It’s the ISIS that blow up houses, whereas the Peshmerga help people. They are eager to set that straight. They haven’t heard about blown-up houses or the like from neighbouring villages as well. In fact, they look at me as if there must be something wrong with me because I ask this kind of apparently nonsensical questions. There isn’t, of course. The reason why I had posed these questions was that there had been an extensive broadcast on the German news radio station “Deutschlandfunk” that claimed Arabs’ houses had been destroyed by Peshmerga troops. The US news site “Foreign Policy” had also spread these allegations. The Arabs I spoke to remarked that there were all kinds of stories circulating on the Internet and you just had to be careful which sources to trust.
We drive back to the base and carefully discuss all the questions that keep coming up in my mind. Here, too, we take some farewell photos. On the way back, the driver gets a little nervous any time he sees young men standing by the side of the road on their own without so much as a bicycle around. This close to ISIS territory, the fear of suicide bombers is ever-present.
Back home, my visit to the front is already on the evening news. I’m surprised that this is such a big deal around here. But apparently only very few Europeans with cameras find their way to the Yezidi or the Kakai, to Mosul or other places I have visited.
During a traffic control he was arbitrarily pulled out of his car and tortured by Assad’s people. The man shows me a video on his phone so I can see what he looked like after they had finally let him go. They had tortured and beaten him for 13 hours until some friends paid a ransom for him. On the video, there are purple and black marks all over his body, as well as purple and green strangulation marks from a rope around his neck. He had lived in Damascus and worked as an artisan, cutting marble to adorn buildings with it. He had been doing well, his family had led a decent life. At least they weren’t worse off than most people. Until he experienced that even Arabs are tortured by the regime for no reason, that is. After that, they decided to flee. They drove up to the frontier, then walked. Carrying as much of their belongings as they had been able to preserve, they had to march 15 kilometers through the desert-like plains until they encountered the Peshmerga. They tentatively accommodated them, but they demanded every detail of their story and checked if any people that fitted their description were sought after. First, the family was brought to a detention center, then they were sent all across the country to a camp that is located 30 kilometers from the Iran border. They have been living there since 2013 now. The family shares a house that is merely 15 m² small, are provided with necessaries and are allowed to work. Since the father of the family expects that he can never go home again, he tries to make the best of a situation. He doesn’t believe any more that Assad will ever be deposed. He gets occasional jobs from time to time, but no well-paid regular job, so the family stays in the camp. Life there is bearable and with the money he earns he can afford the modest luxury of a mobile phone, a TV and candy for his kids.
You can get stories like this one from anybody around here. Those who are lucky still have their families with them. The others do not like to talk about their getaway. In the camp there are Kurds and Arabs from all parts of Syria, Yezidi from Kurdistan and Kurd and Arabs from Iraq. Each group lives in one corner of the camp, none of them has difficulties with the others. The Arabs only complain that the Kurds find work more easily and especially single male young Arabs are regarded with skepticism. Still, they praise the people in the neighbourhood. Whenever a refugee wants to buy something, the vendors offer extremely low prices without bargaining. It doesn’t even upset the other customers who have to pay more despite extensive haggling. People keep up their humanity in all this chaos. When will ISIS be defeated, when will they be able to return to their homes? “Next month, hopefully”. It is always “next month, hopefully” – it’s been like this for years.
The number of refugees in Kurdistan is constantly on the rise. The country is on the verge of collapsing. Yet it is no option for anybody to close the borders. It is a matter of course for everybody to help their Kurdish “brothers”. And all Muslims. And the minorities too. That sums up to helping practically everybody in the vicinity. Is it even affordable? No, not really. It hasn’t been affordable in a long time. But what are you supposed to do about it?
Economic state and Baghdad
Baghdad is unapproachable overland. It has been this way for months. This describes the situation in Iraq pretty well. The central government has lost control and the country plunges into chaos. This year’s upcoming elections are practically insignificant. The government’s actual authority is restricted to some parts of Baghdad – even the so-called “green zone” isn’t really secure any more. Kurdistan keeps up public safety and order in its territory, but it needs more financial support from the central government – which is nearly bankrupt and pays the Kurdish civil servants and the Peshmerga either not at all or months behind. The one big leverage that Kurdistan has is oil. Large parts of the oil fields are on Kurdish territory. There have been quarrels about the distribution of money. Kurdistan began to change the payments for its own benefit. Conversely, Baghdad denied paying wages. Kurdish companies refused to pay taxes to Baghdad and Baghdad complained to the media. The conflict escalated. When last month BP wanted to remove the oil that Iraq had sold them from the port, they were left out in the cold: The tanks were empty. Kurdistan hadn’t filled them but had sold the oil otherwise instead. The BP executives were furious, and so was Baghdad, but there was nothing anybody could do about it. Since July 1st, Kurdistan has stopped cooperating with Iraq’s central government in terms of exporting oil. All the oil from Kurdistan is sold directly by the regional government. The legality of this practice is questionable, but who’ll be the judge? In addition to that, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) borrows money from Turkish and German banks.
Thanks to these measures, the economic situation in Kurdistan slightly improves at the moment, but still it’s far from what you would call solid conditions. Thus, the next item on the agenda is an independent Kurdish state within the current borders of the autonomous Kurdistan Region. But where exactly are these borders located? The answers to this question vary. What’s more, a constitution has to be elaborated, and then a referendum is to be held (which is expected to come off successfully). I have been told that Kurdistan seeks to become independent by 2020. Then there would be no more quarrel with Baghdad over responsibilities, no more difficulties with purchasing arms legally, and a solid state of political affairs.
By now it is Friday noon – the Muslim equivalent to our Sunday. Since the whole country is resting, I make use of the time to complete my report in Kaka Hama’s office. I regard his complaisance as very generous and I feel obliged to give thanks all the time. But he just stops me with a wave of his hand. This is what Kurdistan is like: You are simply hospitable towards your guests.
Nighttime air strikes
During the night of July 25th someone apparently attacked somebody with fighter aircrafts – this, more or less, was the state of the news in the morning. Either the Turkish or the Iranian air force had attacked either the PKK or the Peshmerga near Dohuk or in the Kandil Mountains. By degrees, things started to straighten out. My current state of information is that the Turkish air force had sent two or four F16 fighter aircrafts to the Kandil Mountains to bomb PKK posts. They flew one attack and then returned to Turkey. I picked up all kinds of rumours about Turkish or Iranian troops invading Kurdistan, and was Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Region, going to support the fight against the PKK? The relationship between the Peshmerga and the PKK is tense and polarized. If necessary, they cooperate. Otherwise they leave each other alone. They don’t blame one another, they maintain a kind of mutual respect. If you read the Internet, you get quite a different picture. That is because people who post comments to social media usually don’t belong to the fighting troops but prefer staying at home and bashing or denigrating other people. That is really annoying because it makes it almost impossible to lead a civilized discussion about the relationship between different Kurdish troops. At any rate, the Kurdish Regional Government and the Peshmerga certainly don’t support Turkey’s fight against the PKK. When it comes down to it, Peshmerga and PKK basically share the same goal.
As I happened to be rather close to the Iran border, I decided to move closer. No sign of war anywhere. I talked to people who lived along the border – they hadn’t heard anything about it. The Peshmerga ministry, too, reassured me that there had been one single operation during the night, and that was that. An official reaction by the Kurdish Regional Government is yet to come; even they first have to find out for sure who has bombed whom, and where, and why.
Convention of the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party
Actually I had been on my way to attend a convention of the Socialist Party. To attend such a meeting is not without complications when you’re a stranger who doesn’t speak the language. I know party conventions, I know military meetings, and I have at least some knowledge about worship services; but this was like nothing I had ever experienced. Whereas in Germany a person I either a clergyman or a politician or a military officer, around here it is not uncommon for a person to hold two or three of these positions at once. In Germany it is rather easy to find one’s bearings: The most important people are always up front, on the stage. The others keep their mouths shut. You stand up when everybody stands up, and when people leave the hall this either means that the convention is over or that it’s time for lunch. And if there’s anything else I need to know I can ask the people next to me without anybody taking offense.
Here, by contrast, I entered a room where sofas and armchairs were standing in a wide circle. You’ll find this kind of furniture in every larger office around here. The rules are relatively simple: The host and his most important guest occupy the seats up front, next to the flag. The other important people usually sit in the armchairs, the less important ones on the sofas. But you cannot rely absolutely on this seating arrangement. Whatever. I sort of stumbled into the room, was welcomed cordially by Kaka Hama and occupied an empty seat pretty much up front. Everybody looked at me. Did that mean I did something wrong, or were they just being curious? Some of the people I had met before. I was introduced as a journalist from Germany, and everybody greeted me warmly in German and English. Next up there was a Muslim chant performed by three young men. My seatmate explained to me that although they were not, by definition, an Islamic party, practically everybody here was Muslim and so a certain religious element to the meeting was regarded as totally normal – just like a political party in Germany would host an Easter celebration without necessarily being a party of Christian fundamentalists.
One thing that strikes me is that all the politicians and clerics have smartphones – and actually use them. They take pictures, show each other videos and check their Facebook timeline in between. I mention that this would be rather unusual for a German politician, at least if he’s 60 years or older. Kaka Hama says that for him the Internet is a relatively new thing as well: He has been using it since 1996, at first via satellite. At the time when smartphones became popular, Kurdistan was peaceful and prospering, so he new technology spread very fast.
As always, we get absorbed in long conversations about cultural differences and similarities – and about the fact that Kurdistan would actually still be a great place for people to spend their holidays – if only people knew. I promise to do my best to convince people in Germany to come to Kurdistan for their holidays. And then it’s about time for me to say goodbye.
It has been a fascinating week during which I have, again, learned a lot about this region and have become acquainted with another impressive person, Kaka Hama, whose knowledge, commitment, charm and generosity, among other things, have amazed me over and over again. I cannot help but check my calendar when I will be able to return here.
A video about this trip I coming up.