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.

Advertisements

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.

As you move to a new country, strange culture and alien environment the most salient experiences are those that a different from that which you are used to. In Kurdistan the old men, clad in voluminous trousers, crouch in the middle of a central reservation, slowly and thoughtlessly inhaling cigarette smoke just because they can. Young boys skilfully flick marbles on rubble covered roads, avoiding the exposed gutter which runs with water because the women seem to delight in drenching the concrete surrounding their house every morning.

But daily exposure to these sights lessens their impact, and as these differences become normality comes the ability to see and delight in those universal human traits that were always present. Nowhere is clearer than within the family. Kids having a sulk, faces scrunched and eyes glaring, because they didn’t get their way is evidently something of a cultural universal, along with the melting effect that the prospect of missing out on delicious home cooking. Teens try the classic of requesting and then pleading with one parent, and when unsuccessful, seeking out the other and repeating their negotiation strategies.

At a friends end of year school party, the giggling atmosphere as girls applied make up and attempted to make their clothing more provocative was precisely that of teenage girls the world over. As dancing commenced, there was the extrovert leading the way and introducing an air of competition to events, while those whose mothers had provided stronger guidance on clothing sat in the corner looking on.

While being wise to those cultural differences that go deep, it is very evident that in many ways similarities go deeper still, often it is seems that it is in those behaviours that reveal our desires that these resemblances are most clear, even if packaged up slightly differently.

The 21st of March was Nawroz, Kurdish New Year, so of course in true Kurdish style everyone took the entire week off to go on picnics in the countryside. The desire to be outside the city is strong as the usual swathes of yellow brown countryside are transformed into lush green meadows, the stunning mountains of almost emerald grandeur join the magnificent rays of sun in looking on with immense pride as their people enjoy their beauty.

Multiple bodies far exceeding the number of seats pile into vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and the preference for white is clear as you see the lines of cars attempting to leave the city. Journey times are doubled and tripled because of the mass exodus, but even in travelling there is a festival feel in the air; flags waving, songs blaring, faces smiling.

Reaching a destination, we head off road to find a suitable spot and set up camp. Kurdish picnics involve bringing everything but the kitchen sink. No slightly soggy sandwiches accompanied by a couple of packets of crisps eaten sitting on an old blanket, rather mounds of rice and meat and vegetables and soup appear still hot from their cooking in the early hours, and are eaten on brightly coloured carpets adorned with middle eastern patterns, and long cushions for added comfort.

After lunch, fuelled by hot sweet tea and inspired by energetic picnicking neighbours, the dancing begins. A line of ladies wearing translucent dresses and glittering waistcoats move back and forth to a Kurdish beat, they sparkle in the sunlight whilst rows of men attempt more complicated steps and wave Kurdish flag, looking the very picture of national pride.

When dusk draws near, and the heat begins to waver, and thoughts turn to heading home. But there is a stop to be made along the way. The road is more crowded than the early morning as every family has the same idea of heading closer to home for the next meal of the day. Rather than rows of white cars, in the dark it is the red lights on the back of cars which create patterns of lines up and down hills as far as the eye can see.

The atmosphere is different, tired from hours outdoors and an early start, young children’s eyes droop, and adults become agitated by the never ending stream of traffic. But another break accompanied by a glowing fire and the smell of cooking kebabs provides comfort and sustenance for the remainder of the journey. Once we are on the road again there is palpable relief when the familiar lights and buildings first of the city, and then our neighbourhood, signal the imminent opportunity to collapse happily into bed after a day much enjoyed.

As I walked in a park dripping with glorious rays of sunshine, I started to tell some Kurdish friends about some of the activities of my week, carefully constructed by my brain before production. I was very quickly interrupted with a ‘دەزانم (I know)’. I hadn’t seen my companions for at least a week, so I wasn’t repeating myself, but it was quickly obvious that my housemate had spoken to one of their relatives and so the fascinating news of my mundane week of events had reached their ears even without the effort of my faltering language.

I have found there is a very communal nature to communication in Kurdistan; at least between women, news shared becomes common property. It’s a very interesting process because it means that when people get an impression of your character, your personality and your behaviour, much of their information is likely to come from another source, and not only from the direct relationship you have. It’s interesting how this kind of shared knowledge demands a greater consistency of behaviour between those you interact with, because inconsistency would be quickly noticed.

I have also found relationships are less distinct, maybe partly a function of my relatively short time in Kurdistan, but also because time is rarely spent with just one other person. More often than not, sisters, relatives, neighbours, children, and any other Kurd who wants to join in might be present, even if your intention might be to see a specific person. In some ways this may dilute relationship with individuals, for example, it’s more difficult to find out someone’s ideas when there are others listening in or giving theirs. But a more communal identity also gives a more accurate relationship as well; the truth is that we have families, friends and neighbours who are integral to identity, why not make them integral to relationship too?

Living in Iraqi Kurdistan at this moment in time, it’s very easy to take for granted the relative stability of the region, but there remains a tension. As I sat watching television with a local family there we two very nationalistic presentations during the ad-break, The first displayed pictures of growing cities and impressive buildings with words such as Development, Hope and Nation moving across the screen. The second showed images of Kurds in Turkey, with inspiring shots of those struggling for Kurdish independence, these portraits faded to a picture of a Kurdish flag which was ripped into four, representing those parts of the countries that some would love to see together as part of a United Kurdistan.

These two short productions taken together represent something of the tension that exists within many Kurds. I have heard great pride in the existence of this Kurdish region, along with the relative freedom and stability. There are many who remember much more difficult circumstances and are hopeful for the future of the Kurdistan region. And yet, even within this country there are cities that the Kurds would love to claim as theirs, the government is by no means perfect, and there are Kurds who do not have the privileges and freedoms of those in Northern Iraq. This week there have been protests for change, and demonstrations of support for the government.

In thinking about this tension, I realise it symbolizes something of everybody’s experience. I am often thankful for the present state of things. Today I was in awe of the glorious sunlight on my balcony, and also very impressed by a brief spell of an excellent internet connection! And yet even with those things in mind, we cry out for more. I just read that Wales has the highest proportion of children in severe poverty in the UK, and my soul ached for change. Our tension is recognise and enjoy the good things we have, and to deeply desire more.