Archives for category: Kurdistan 2010-2011

Some may remember an early trip to invest in some stationary. Well, here are some of the scribblings that  have been produced over the last ten months. Maybe they will provide added of insight into my time in Kurdistan, then again, maybe not!


I am now writing as I make my way home, in a neighbouring country, and the experiences that were daily life a week ago are already stories and anecdotes that only capture a shadow of reality.  As I pondered this fact today, Ironically, I realised that one of the greatest effects of living cross culturally on me has been to increase my observational attentiveness.   The realness of experience is emphasised when that experience is alien, a trip to the shops is transformed from a mundane chore to an opportunity to explore and understand the different.  Sounds, smells and smiles are observed and savoured when an experience is novel, and I have enjoyed consuming some of the richness of experience on offer.

The effect of this observational attentiveness of the foreign and changed my experience of the familiar by creating a habit of noticing things that might easily be neglected. The way the air feels in between your fingers as you type, the coolness of kitchen tiles through threadbare socks, the round light fittings contrasting with the angles of a square room, the way clouds of steam rise from a kettle, water molecules making organic patterns as though they are making the most of their new found freedom. Infinite unnoticed incidents and unappreciated glimpses of beauty drench even the dullest of days, the sheer realness of experience has astounded me over the last year, and I am eager to preserve an attitude of attentiveness and to see the glory in the everyday weather at home or abroad.

Once upon a time there was a little girl with a big imagination.

Sometimes she would imagine small things.

She imagined that spoons had wings, she imagined they could pick up food and deliver it straight to your mouth.

But when she told her Dad about this idea, he replied:

Don’t be so silly, spoons don’t have wings.

Sometimes she would imagine medium things

She imagined that in school, every classroom led to a new country, she imagined having a Maths lesson in China and Art class in the Middle East.

But when she told her teacher about this idea, she replied:

Don’t be so silly, a classroom is just a classroom.

Sometimes she would imagine big things, she imagined that scientists found a way to move the world around the universe, so the sky would change colour every day and be filled with new planets and different stars every night.

But when she told her friends about this idea, they replied:

Don’t be so silly, the sky will always be blue.

Sometimes her imagination was so fantastic that as she walked around her village, she imagined that birds filled the skies and sang wonderful songs, and that the clouds were dancing along. She imagined that everyone would come out of their houses and join in the fun.

But she never told anyone.

When she imagined these now, things her own mind replied:

Don’t be so silly

Every day the little girl’s imagination got smaller.

And slowly her mind stopped thinking fantastic thoughts, and her world started to change.

The sky was only ever blue

Classrooms were only classrooms

And spoons  certainly never, ever had wings.

The little girl grew up and got used to this new world.

And it looked the same as everyone else’s.


One Day

When her imagination had almost disappeared

She saw some words written in chalk on the pavement

That said;

What colour is the sky?

When she thought about it she replied:

Don’t be so silly, the sky will always be blue

But the question stayed in her mind, and her imagination started, very slowly, to grow.

The question stayed in her mind all day and wouldn’t let her relax

And as the sun started to set, she looked at the sky

And it wasn’t blue at all

It was orange and red and pink and purple and gold.

When she saw the sky, her imagination grew a little bit more.

And the question stayed in her mind all night and wouldn’t let her sleep.

And as the sun started to rise, the birds started to sing

When she heard the birds, her imagination grew a little bit more.

Then, suddenly her imagination was on fire

She imagined

far off countries

and new discoveries

and stars

and planets

and songs

and people

and animals

and adventures

But instead of telling people

She wrote it all down in a book

And when people read the book they imagined:

far off countries

and new discoveries

and stars

and planets

and people

and animals

and adventures

And everyone said:

How Fantastic!

For the last couple of weeks, between the hours of two and five in the afternoon, our street is dead. Not a soul is outside, stranger still is the lack of life indicating sounds from behind gates and walls. Soon after midday it is very normal to hear the clanking of dishes as copious amounts or rice are eaten throughout Kurdistan, but after this midday meal all sounds of life disappear.

The heat causes a wave of inactivity as the sun’s effect is at a peak. Sleep is the most efficient use of the baking hours, giving energy for the still warm evening and night. It is a wonderful thing to see a country, culture and community to change in response to the overarching power of heat; it is humbling to recognise that productivity cannot be maintained in the height of summer, and that schedules must be adapted in recognition of human limitations.

Of course, as lives are affected by something much bigger and more powerful, desires in turn change. Ice cold water it preferred over sweet black tea, rest over rushing, and cool tiles over comfortable carpets. There is a kind of liberation that comes from adapting, although it means admitting limited control and greater influences, which is easier for some than for others.

A near constant reminder of the foreignness of Kurdistan is the Kurdish script that adorns shops, signposts and newspapers. Words and information that would usually be processed and appear in consciousness automatically in my mother script are now present in a code that must be unravelled letter by letter, each letter needing to be searched for in memory for the corresponding sound, in the hope that the word that slowly becomes clearer will be part of my limited Kurdish lexicon. While this process is much more effortful than the equivalent in my mother tongue, there is a certain satisfaction when you crack the code, but an occurrence that continues to bring a smile to my face and a flash of joy to my heart is when after a minute of staring at alien letters the word that appears is actually remarkably familiar, and phonetically belongs to my mother tongue.  This week, while scanning a Kurdish newspaper I came across this example:

It reads ‘Jon Mkkein’ or John McCain.  Indeed, Kurdistan had an American visitor in its midst this week.

I also enjoy the way that brand names are transformed through the use of looping script:

Coca cola (light) suddenly becomes wonderfully exotic,  and ‘ Quality street ‘ could suddenly be full of middle eastern charm;

But my personal favourite is my ‘Oxford’ Kurdish dictionary…

There is something about the mingling of the traditional Kurdish script and western culture that I find I can identify with, having invested time in attempting to understand and integrate, learning language to an almost passable level, there is certainly some mingling occurring. However, somehow the intermingling, while increasing understanding, somehow has the almost ironic effect of highlighting discontinuity without being able to bridge the gap. While  learning increases, so does the awareness that I am very much a product of my own, incredibly unkurdish culture. But there is much delight in those moments of  discontinuity, and contrast in cultures is the very thing that conjures curiosity.

As a team we went up into the Kurdish mountains, after a slightly bizarre and tiring day we sat down on some secluded rocks to avoid the blustery gusts of wind that were  sneaking their way through layers of clothing, and fought back with  hot tea and sandwiches.  As we sat, one of the most delightful events of my entire time in Kurdistan took place.First one goat came into view, then  a few more became clear and before we knew it we were engulfed by a cloud of goats, with a couple of sheep thrown in for good measure. Seemingly completely unaware, or unconcerned about the presence of a group of amused and enchanted Brits, they grazed and climbed and explored.

As the goats took over our little corner of Kurdistan, I began to feel left out, as humans we were definitely in the minority.  One more was added to our number  as the shepherd of the flock came into sight,  and it suddenly became apparent that what to us was a wonderful novelty of being completely surrounded by sheep and goats on a stunning mountain was the daily routine for this young man. I so easily make the mistake of assuming that my experience of life is the norm,  but at that moment it was so apparent that we were the oddity in this scene, that could have occurred in any number of countries, at almost any point in human history. It was us with thermos flasks and cucumber sandwiches that were alien among an ancient practice. It is me that is peculiar, being in the time I am, having grown up in the country and culture I consider normal ; I have become the strangest of creatures.

Summer has arrived suddenly, within a few weeks the temperature inside has gone from too cold to too hot, we have gone from sitting outside in the sun, enjoying its heat to taking refuge from the sun’s rays inside. Clothes have changed; Children have gone from wearing incalculable layers to t-shirts in the blink of an eye. It seems the winter kerosene heaters have been packed away just in time to dust the fans before they begin their summer job.

Last week a dust storm arrived, transforming the sky from pure, cloudless blue to a muddy, relentless cloud of burnt orange.  It covered the city in a layer of brown dirt, and in no time the enormous cloud that changed the colour of the sky had moved on, but the evidence of its presence covered every available surface, and the following day the entire city was united in cleansing their corner of the city.

But the summer will once more give way to winter, and the only evidence of a dust storm is that rare neglected car whose owner evidently enjoys not being able to see out of the windscreen.  The nature of the change that these events produce is fascinating. The coming of hotter weather is not permanent, but part of a process of seasons, cyclical and progressive, reliable and predictable. But the dust storm swept in and swept out leaving a mess for everyone else to clean-up.

In reflecting on these events, I have begun to think of my time in Kurdistan coming to a close, I am keen that the process of change be more like the coming of summer than the coming and going of a dust storm; part of a process and a pattern with continuing influence.