Destination Kurdistan

By Lucina Kathmann

 

Nestled in the Zagros mountains, surrounded on all sides by repressive neighbors, Kurdistan is the place where the Kurdish people, an ancient mideastern people who are not Arabic and who speak an Indo-European language, have finally had the chance to make their newly autonomous region a model republic. It’s a nice place to visit, and I had the opportunity to do so. The Kurdish Center of International PEN, the worldwide association of writers, invited me to travel with a group of Kurdish writers on a one-week trip in March, 2005, to see how International PEN can best serve writers in Kurdistan.

So far the rest of the world has not found out about Kurdistan. The information is in the public domain, but, like so much information that we have available, it has not yet registered in our minds.

Thirteen years ago, after a genocidal campaign in which Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villages, killing thousands of Kurds in just a few days and driving many others into exile, the international community finally forced him to cede three provinces in northern Iraq to the Kurds. For the first time, in one spot on the globe, the Kurds have peace and a place to call their own.

Though it’s called Kurdistan,  North Iraq is only a tiny fraction of greater Kurdistan, the ancestral homeland of the Kurdish people. All of greater Kurdistan is contiguous, but the borders of four modern states run through it, slicing it up haphazardly. It spans eastern Turkey, where most of the thirty million Kurds live, a slice of Syria, the north of Iraq and a section of western Iran. Until 13 years ago, the Kurdish people were cruelly marginalized and oppressed in all of these states. Even now there is only one exception, Iraqi Kurdistan, the only place in the world where ordinary directions like “Keep to the right” and “Speed limit” are written in Kurdish.

On the trip our group visited four cities, met with writers groups and media people everywhere, taught a university class, visited the Yezidi religion’s sacred city of Lalish. It was a very ambitious itinerary and very well organized.

For example, one time we were driving past a beautiful lake outside of Duhok, seeing families picnicking and thinking “Oh, how lovely.” Besides, we were hungry. Just then, we rounded a curve and, in a splendid spot above the water, we spied a very long table with about 20 chairs--our picnic, waiting for us.

I was the only person on the trip who didn’t speak Kurdish, so special arrangements were made for me. Translation was important for serious meetings, at which I usually spoke, but it was even more important for casual conversation on the bus. We didn’t have an English translator traveling with us. Berivan Dosky, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of the Kurdish PEN, who lives in London and speaks excellent English, served as the authority on translation matters, but the marathons of simultaneous translation, every day all day, were done by Syrian Kurdistan-born writer Kamal Sido, who sat next to me and whispered in my ear hour after hour, enabling me to keep the pace so well that I could almost always contribute to the discussions. In this way, I could discern people’s special styles, understand twists of language, even innuendos.

Kamal initially had reservations because, though he works in Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Russian and German, he said that English is not one of his languages. We settled on his translating to English if he could, and German if he could not. A great jokester who called himself “Personal Translator by Orders of Our President”, Kamal made sure I was involved in all joking and fun. My memories and stories of the trip often are related to jokes and my family has even started to tell Kurdish PEN jokes.

I found being the only non-Kurdish speaker on the trip inconvenient but not painful. By the trip’s end, every single traveler had come to talk to me, whether with German or English (or, in one case, Spanish, with a Kurd who had spent five weeks in Cuba decades ago), or by calling in Berivan or Kamal to translate. At the end of the trip, when some of the Kurdish colleagues left the bus early to join their relatives in one or another Kurdish city, I felt very sad to see each one leave.

My relationship with the Kurdish writers is both unlikely and wonderful. The Kurdish PEN center was established almost 20 years ago, just as my late husband and I were getting active in PEN. Charlie’s second language was German, and a lot of the Kurdish writers were in exile in Germany at that time. We both became friendly with them, but I always needed Charlie to be with me to translate.

When Charlie got cancer and died, I worried about whether I would lose my special relationship with the Kurds. It was a big challenge. In 1997 when I saw them at a PEN Congress I could not communicate one word with that particular delegation. I gave them some pieces of Mexican pottery and that was all.

They understood my problem and took action. During the following year they sent me letters in English, and they found delegates with more English for the PEN Congress. We still have many language problems, but we understand each other better than most people. We write to each other all year long and we struggle together on Kurdish issues in International PEN with excellent results.

The present members of the Kurdish PEN are not the same as those Charlie and I knew years ago. This is a friendship between a person and a group. Unusual as that may be, it has inspired a great deal of mutual trust; in fact, enough trust for me to risk going on this trip, and over the objections of other members of my PEN center and my family, who were almost universally frightened.

Kurdistan is in a very difficult neighborhood. A few miles out of Kurdistan, in Mosul, terrorist groups are blowing things up without evident rhyme or reason. My interpreter Kamal talked to cab drivers at the border with Turkey, and they said they are always afraid a fare will ask them to drive to Mosul. However, no cab drivers are afraid of driving in Kurdistan. There are many new roads (not yet indicated on maps) that lie entirely within Kurdistan, part of a construction boom, in many cases thanks to the help of international organizations.

We entered Kurdistan from the north, through the border with Turkey. We had been in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Kurdish Turkey, attending a seminar on multiculturalism. The European Union has made it clear that Turkey will have no chance of entering the common market as long as the government represses the Kurdish language, so Turkey has been backing down by inches on the matter. Finally, for the first time this year, International PEN could sponsor a seminar in Turkey in which some writers spoke in Kurdish. Since twenty million Kurds live in Turkey, even a little loosening of the strictures brings relief to a lot of people.

But restrictions and harassment are still quite evident. We attended Diyarbakir’s celebration for Newroz, the biggest Kurdish holiday of the year. It was tightly controlled and restricted to one place 12 kilometers out of town. During our whole stay in Turkey, government officials, all of them Kurdish, addressed us in the Turkish language, though one or two ventured some words in Kurdish too. One morning the police arrived at our hotel at 5 am and took away a woman writer, Necmiye Alpay. They returned her at 9 am saying they were sorry, they thought there was a warrant out for her arrest. In fact, when my busload of Kurdish writers attempted to cross the border of Turkey into Kurdistan, Turkish officials took me out of the bus and into an interrogation room, where they asked irrelevant questions, such as my father’s first name.

These are old Turkish tactics, not the tactics of the Turkish people, nor necessarily the tactics of the government, because, as the mayor of Nusaybin put it succinctly during a beautiful picnic lunch, there are two Turkish authorities, the legal state and the illegal state. The legal state is the government, and ultimately, it is not in control. The illegal authority is the army. To date nothing has really challenged the power of the army, so it continues with its tactics of intimidation and repression, a bit mitigated here and there.

I’ve been in Turkey before as a dissenter, so I recognized this. Other Turkish women writers assured me that Necmiye Alpay was also very accustomed to these tactics. However, nothing stopped us from making our seminar a celebration of freedom of expression. But I think those of us who were going on the trip after the seminar were eager to start out and see what lay beyond the border, the border to freedom, to the place where Kurdish people’s dreams could be realized, to where nobody (Kurd and non-Kurd alike) had to apologize for his or her native language.

The first day we traveled through the Turkish part of Kurdistan. It is still illegal to refer to this area inside Turkey as “Kurdistan,” but I remember just a few years ago when it was illegal to refer to the Kurds at all. They were said not to exist, not to be an ethnically separate people, not to speak a linguistically unrelated language etc. They were supposedly just “mountain Turks.”

We traveled through Mardin, a beautiful city, where we saw an old Medresseh (Koranic school) and an old Christian monastery which is still in use. We had lunch in Kiziltepe, near Mardin. Since one of the writers traveling with us was from here, a town official had invited all of us to lunch. We ate Kurdish style. As we entered, we took off our shoes and sat on the floor on carpets lined up against the wall. Boys came in and put down cloths in the middle of the room. They put huge, steaming platters of food on them. We crept forward to reach for the food. We had our own plates but few implements. There was rice and couscous and sour salads and flat bread and a frothy yogurt drink the Kurds call dow. But the most arresting offering was the barely dismembered animal, a sheep.

A boy came in and began ladling out sheep brains with a spoon. He offered me the eyeball, at which point Zaradachet Hajo, the president of the Kurdish PEN center, waved him away. Later on I found that most of the Kurdish writers who had been living in exile in Europe were upset about how down-home this experience was, and they were afraid of what I might think of a sheep’s eye. They needn’t have worried. I am not upset by traditional gestures of respect. However, I did not regret passing up the sheep’s eye.

After the meal we washed our hands and then were offered lemon cologne to scent them. This custom is universal in Turkey but I never saw it again after we crossed the border.

After lunch, we continued toward the border, stopping only once, in Cizre (pronounced Jiz’-zuh-ruh) at a cemetery where we were told the “Kurdish Romeo and Juliet” are buried. The details of this classical love story are still to be revealed to me.  Near the graves were many pretty girls, all touching something on the wall said to bring love. One, a real beauty, was veiled. This is the only time, in all of Turkey and Kurdistan, that I ever saw a young beauty in a veil. Veiled women tend to be old and stooped

Young women usually wear blue jeans, though they might have Muslim headscarves as well.

At the border we endured control booth after control booth of intimidating Turkish soldiers until suddenly we were on the other side and the Kurdish militia appeared smiling, speaking Kurdish openly and offering us tea. The Kurdish media took Zaradachet and me onto the road near the control booth where we gave interviews. “International PEN has come to Kurdistan,” the TV announced that night.

Hasan Silevani, president of the Kurdish Writers Union in Duhok, had taken charge of most of the arrangements for the province of Duhok. He met us at the border with his own car, and the Kurdish PEN officers and I rode in style during the hour’s drive into Duhok, a beautiful modern city with broad avenues.  We were taken to a fine hotel at which there was an internet connection with an English keyboard, a great relief to me after battling Turkish keyboards for a couple of weeks.

The lieutenant governor of the province arrived to greet us. Many people told me with excitement that he is a Christian. This was my first experience of seeing how truly passionate the people in Kurdistan are about being a nation for everybody, especially all those groups that Saddam Hussein oppressed.

The lieutenant governor spoke about how little is known about Kurdistan in the world at large, which the Kurds regret, as they are eager for foreign visitors. He said that he thinks the Kurdistan media is partly to blame. In their excitement about finally being able to produce competent media in the Kurdish language, they have neglected producing  the information in international languages which might raise the country’s image abroad.

On the way into Duhok I had already seen a big neon cross on a Christian church. The lieutenant governor said that there are many governmental programs that care for their Christians (Assyrians, mostly). They hope to lure others back from exile. Wherever there are at least seven Christian families, the government builds a church.

By the end of this visit we were all very hungry. In our meeting place, a little nook in the hotel, they only brought us many rounds of tea. Across the hall in the dining room, the tables were loaded with wonderful things. And there was beer, wine or whatever you like. Raki, for example. I think of it as the Turkish national liquor, but the Kurds have another word for it and consider it theirs.The Kurds in Kurdistan are not interested in projecting a teetotaling Muslim image. There was a singer provided, but Kurdish PEN Vice-President Moustafa Rechid and other Kurdish writers sang too, as did a number of writers from Duhok who joined us. Everyone formed long lines and danced.  The Kurds are very much given to dancing and singing.

For some it was a literal homecoming; Hevi Berwari, chair of the Kurdish PEN’s Women Writers Committee, and Berivan Dosky both come from Duhok. Hevi told me this trip was her first chance to see her relatives in ten years. Some of Berivan’s relatives appeared at the hotel. One shy Duhok writer summoned his courage and approached me to say that he had known Hevi 20 years ago before she fled Saddam Hussein and went into exile, and even then she was outstanding as a pioneer in Kurdish women’s literature.

On the road in the morning, the bus wound around the mountainous route to the holy city of Lalish, the most important pilgrimage site of the Yezidi religion. Before the Muslims came to Kurdistan (a very long time ago) and converted most of the Kurds by force, the Kurds were mostly Yezidis, and there is still a significant Yezidi minority, including my translator, Kamal.

Soon we began to see fluted, pointed towers. As we got closer, we could make out an enclosed complex, something like a miniature medieval walled city, with several of the distinctive towers integrated into it.  It seemed to beckon. When the bus parked we took off virtually running toward the sacred enclave. We took off our shoes and entered the sanctuary. Downstairs, a beautiful stream was running. “This is the holy water. Please drink it!”we were told.  It was delicious.

“Come up here and walk three times around the tomb of Sheik Adi!” we were told next. We followed, passing another underground spring, this one covered with a metal grate. “That is the evil water.” The guide said. “Nobody should drink it; that’s why we cover it.”

Sheik Adi’s tomb was covered with brightly colored cloths. We marched around three times and then went to a small cavern behind it where people were throwing pretty chiffon cloths. If it lands and sticks on one particular rock, you will get your wish, we were told. I made a wish for my daughter and mine stuck. The caverns were cool, and there was water everywhere. “What a nice Kurdish hajj!” people remarked.

We went outside to the patio and Yezidi officials talked to us about their religion. Sacred texts have been burned by oppressors. The few old people who remember something of them need their memories saved and codified.  Yezidism is not one of the three biblical religions protected by Muslim tradition, so the Yezidi have been considered fair game for any hostile Muslim group. Except for the last 13 years,  their lives as a community have been completely taken up with resistance and survival.

The Yezidis are monotheists; their religion  has a common root with Zoroastrianism. They have an important angel called Tawus Malik, symbolized by a peacock. In the 11th century Sheik Adi, a very important figure, established a caste system, and Yezidis are still divided into three castes. The system improved religious administration by assigning responsibility for religious functions. This is all of the Yezidi tradition that has been preserved. They are not sure what they believe. (I have since discovered several mutually inconsistent pieces of misinformation about Yezidism on the internet.)

When we returned to the bus, there was lively discussion. Some of us were positively attracted by the idea of a religion that doesn’t know for sure what it believes.  Many of the Kurds said they wished to return to the old religion, but Yezidism does not accept converts.

The next day, the bus snaked through wonderful mountains with frequent panoramas of nearly 360 degrees. Snowcapped mountains formed the background; waterfalls and rivers--the Tigris and its tributaries--alternated with almond trees bursting into bloom in the foreground. We saw a beautiful ancient walled city named Amedi up on a bluff. Later I found out that this was the very long way round to the capital, but I couldn’t possibly regret it. It has left me with the impression that one of the most beautiful sights on the planet is Kurdistan in the spring.

One reason for taking the long route was to pass by the grave of Moustafa Barzani, a military leader in the Kurdish fight for freedom. At this time another relative (The Barzanis are an important tribe in the state of Duhok.) had died, and there was a memorial celebration appropriate for the Kurdish travelers. When we arrived at Moustafa Barzani’s grave, simply marked with rustic stonework and bursting with irises, the Kurdish media were already there, following the day’s doings of International PEN in Kurdistan. (Often we turned on the television at night to see what we had been doing all day and how we looked doing it.)

At the memorial service they fed everyone who arrived, including us. A huge crowd of women in black was already eating. Someone found out that they had already served 5,000 people. A few miles down the road, the men from our bus stopped to pay their respects at the men’s congregation, and they reported that a huge crowd had eaten there too.

It was after nightfall when we arrived in Kurdistan’s bustling capital, Arbil. The Kurdish name for this city is Hawler, so in fact nobody calls it Arbil. This has happened to the Kurds in many places. I have a map of Kurdistan from the Kurdish Institute in Berlin. Very few place names coincide with those on other maps of the same area. Kurdish names are not used even for Kurdish cities. At first I couldn’t even tell if the Kurdish world and the regular world were on the same planet. I had to look at land forms and lakes and deduce.

What should the Kurds do about this situation? If they insist on the name Hawler, no foreigners will know where it is, quite disastrous as it is the capital of their region. All maps say Arbil. I never even heard the word Hawler until I was in Kurdistan. I had seen telecasting from a TV station I knew to be in “Arbil.” The first few days I kept wondering why nobody ever referred to this city. The airport is here too. When they expand the airport and arrange more international flights, how will they refer to it? To what city will travel agents sell tickets? 

In the capital we had meetings with ministers who told us about government programs. Six years of education is available in the language of the people of every village, whether it be Kurdish, Arabic or Turkish. Also, the religious education class is taught about the Muslim, Yezidi or Christian religion, depending on the religion of the village. There are even tent schools for the nomads who fled into Kurdistan during Saddam Hussein’s repression. (We saw these tent people when we were traveling to Lalish.) Last year, the six years of education became mandatory. This is probably the most effective means of combatting a gender gap in education which persisted even after the region became autonomous.

We also toured government buildings. I admired the four meters high, fine portrait of Moustafa Barzani which dominates the ground floor of the the Parliament building. Guards in regional finery patrol at its sides, and there is a changing of the guard ceremony every 45 minutes. Beside them on both sides, staircases rise to the parliamentary chamber. When an American friend saw a photo of me seated in the parliamentary chamber, he said  “I know those green seats!” This room appears frequently on the Kurdish television newscasts he gets in Chicago by typing in www.kurdistantv.net on his computer.

We had a lot to do in Arbil/Hawler that day, and we still had to travel to  Suleimani that night. A writers’ meeting was the last event before we were whisked off in the bus. This meeting, like the one in Duhok, was conducted on the back lawn of the writers union building. There was a big audience, a lot of writers and a lot of reporters, plus all the friends we had met everywhere along the way. We always collected more people as we went along, some even traveled a way with us on the bus.

Zaradachet said I didn’t have to speak on this occasion, but as time went on, commentator after commentator referred to me, asking about what I, as an outsider, might be thinking of Kurdistan. I told Kamal I was going to ask for the floor. I was the last speaker. This is what I said, with the stops for Kamal’s translation. I scared everyone a little bit on purpose.

“Kurdistan is a secret. (Pause.) Some secrets are dark and shameful. (Kamal unhappy but urged to translate it. Terrible pause.) But Kurdistan is a wonderful secret! (Pause and cheering.)  People don’t know about it yet, but soon I will return home and tell the secret.”

Thus our stay in Arbil/Hawler ended with many people writing down the English word “secret,” in their notebooks and pronouncing it several times with great satisfaction.

As we were traveling to Suleimani on the bus, Zaradachet teased me about it. I have known him many years and this is the first time he has done this. First he mentioned the “secret.” Five minutes later he approached me with a grave expression, peering over the little glasses that slide down his long nose and saying, “Lucina, I know this trip may be difficult for you. We have a long way to travel together and you may find this very disagreeable…”

I burst into laughter. I also realized that this is what he has been talking about all these years when he says how unfortunate it is that we don’t share a language. It has little to do with PEN struggles and human rights. He can get a translator if it is a question of that. He wants to be able to tease me!

Maybe it is just as well that Zaradachet was able to joke with me then, because when we got to Suleimani, we ran into the only glitch in the entire trip. We arrived at midnight to learn that the hotel did not have our reservations. There were not enough rooms for all of us. Zaradachet was very unhappy.

A representative from the Ministry of Culture arrived at the hotel to apologize. There was a Kurdish music festival going on in Suleimani. The town was swollen with 20,000 extra people, mostly Kurdish families that had come across the Iranian border. Somehow our 15 writers got lost in the shuffle. He made phone calls and distributed us among three hotels.

            It took a while to get it sorted out. Zaradachet said maybe it was just as well that no other foreigners had decided to come on the trip. The next morning he and Berivan both apologized to me at length. It was unnecessary. In my town and state, things like this happen all the time. If they had the power to ruin our events we would never think we had succeeded at anything.

The hotel where Moustefa and I ended up was new; in fact it had been ordered to open before it was finished because of the festival. However, it did not meet his standards. Moustefa was in charge of logistics for this trip; he had even traveled to Kurdistan months before to check arrangements, but his recommendations were not being carried out. How could it be, he said, that in a new construction they would install Arabic toilets [i.e. without commodes]? Then the hotel did not provide coffee at breakfast, and he was ready to breathe fire.

I didn’t care about this. I had found an internet café next door and I was happy. Except for the issue of the towel. There was no towel in my room. I asked what the word for towel was and was told “hawlî.” I went to the desk and said this word several times. Later in the day there was still no towel and people kept talking to me about changing my room. Finally I brought Berivan with me to the desk to intervene. She reported that they were convinced, no matter what I said, that I was complaining that my room was too small. I told her to tell them in no uncertain terms that the issue was not small rooms, it was a towel, and I would be certain to keep complaining until I got one.

That produced  some sort of scramble but still no towel. I was truly mystified until about an hour later when they brought me, still wrapped from the market, a pristine, thick, new cream-and-white colored towel. A towel of towels. I still laugh whenever I think of it. The Kurdish people coddled me preposterously, and the ones I didn’t even know were just as extreme as those I did!

In Suleimani I participated in teaching a university class. That was great fun. We were invited to interrupt an interesting poetry class (about the Ottoman-era poet Kanih, from the Iranian part of Kurdistan) to talk about human rights, non-governmental organizations and International PEN to a group of very receptive young people. Berivan and I did the talking. I was gratified that girls, who comprised at least half the class, as well as boys were forthright in their questions. Maybe they were especially encouraged by seeing Berivan and me on the podium.“To be active internationally is my dream,” one girl in a Muslim headscarf told me in English.

At a writers meeting in Suleimani we met a Kurdish woman poet, Arhawan, whose life had been threatened in a Suleimani-based Arabic language newspaper because of a poem she wrote. Her poem was about Halabja, a nearby town almost on the border with Iran. Since it was the site of a particularly horrible gas attack by Saddam Hussein; its name is now almost synonymous with the massacre of Kurds. The poem was written  for an anniversary commemoration of the Halabja attack. It evidently offended some extremist Arab, who wrote to the newspaper threatening to kill her for writing it. Since this threat, she said, her children are frightened when they see her writing poetry. We asked for details and copies of the newspaper for International PEN. This sort of threat indicates a hostile and dangerous situation for Kurdish writers.

While we were in  Suleimani, writers asked us to visit the writers in Kerkuk (Kirkük on our maps). Since Kerkuk is the one place in Kurdistan where there are significant incidents that threaten peace, government officials who live in the city themselves offered several guarantees of our safety. They would travel in the bus with us, as would armed guards; we would enter only the Kurdish area of the city, where the Writers Union had moved their offices for safety; and we would not stay over two hours.

Many of the writers were frightened. We credit the information that responsible Kurdish people give us; our trip would have been impossible if we did not. Our intention from the beginning was to reach as many Kurdish writers everywhere as we could. Nonetheless, our families in Europe (and Mexico in my case) would be upset. Zaradachet considered sending me to Arbil/Hawler separately ahead in a car. He said, “What if  International PEN says I have taken you into dangerous places?”

I chose to go with the bus, and I  informed my family as soon as we finished our visit in Kerkuk and reached Hawler again, three or four hours later. We never saw any evidence of any problems, as we were assured.

In Kerkuk, we ate lunch with the writers and met with them for about an hour. We learned that the problems in Kerkuk, which evidently only affect the Arabic part of the city, come from a border dispute. Kerkuk, though always a part of greater Kurdistan, was not part of the original area of Kurdistan which Saddam Hussein agreed to give to the Kurds. It has only been taken into Kurdistan since the fall of Saddam Hussein two years ago. We were shown the old border on the way into the city, just meters outside it.

Though Kerkuk has a population of at least a million people and the great majority are Kurds, there are 200,000 Arabs living there. There is responsible Arabic media working for peaceful multiethnic coexistence, but there are also some violent separatists. The Kurdish militia is working at it, but two years have not been long enough to secure the new border completely.

On the way out of the city, on the road to Arbil/Hawler, we saw the fires that burn away natural gas from the oil fields. They were close, maybe 150 meters from the road, out the left windows of the bus. Everybody crowded to the windows to look. Immediately afterward, we were back within Saddam Hussein’s boundary of Kurdistan and safely launched on our return.

That night the television announced, “International PEN visited Kerkuk.” The modest meeting had significance. One Kurdish writer told me, “Thank you for coming to Kerkuk with us. Though Diyarbakir might be considered the mind of Kurdistan, Kerkuk is its heart.”

We went through Hawler that night and continued to Duhok. We were on our way home. Hevi and Berivan stayed in Duhok with their relatives, but quite a few of us were crossing the border back into Turkey the next day.

The border crossing back into Turkey took all day. We were stuck on a bridge over the Khabour river for hours and hours, then we went through many inspections. The soldiers were none too polite either.

As I was watching the horrible mess of cars on the Khabour, it occurred to me that I had once seen a similar mess in Tijuana at the border with the US. This is not only a Turkish phenomenon; other arrogant nations cause a lot of unnecessary grief too.

Though we started in the morning, it was about 4 pm when we finally cleared the frontier and headed for Nusaybin, where the mayor had invited us for lunch. (I still wonder if he really waited to eat until we arrived. If so, he was a very hungry mayor.) Nusaybin is really the same city as Qamishle, which is on the Syrian side of the border. Zaradachet was born near Qamishle; the mayor knew him from there.

            This border is one of the everyday tragedies that the Kurdish people live with. Getting across it depends on the whim of the Turkish army. Even the mayor of Nusaybin cannot get across it unless the army decides to let him. Though the Syrian side is only a stone’s throw away, that border is sown with land mines and cannot be crossed.

            I am disgusted with the use of land mines in Kurdistan. Oppressive governments have sown them in many places in North Iraq as well as on the border between Turkey and Syria. The mines kill and maim children in particular. Every Kurdish writer that I talked to had lost children in their own families to land mines, members of Kurdish PEN as well as those I just met. Children’s magazines and comic books that I picked up included sections on recognizing land mines. This disgraceful situation has not been publicized sufficiently.

            After the extremely late picnic lunch in Nusaybin, we went directly back to Diyarbakir. One or two lived in Diyarbakir; the rest of us had to catch a plane for Istanbul and beyond in the morning. Our trip was almost over.

            In Diyarbakir, we finally had a chance to stay in a hotel that Moustefa had chosen, the Miroglu, nicely ordained and a good value, as he pointed out. When I went up to my room, I was very sad. It was hard to think that the trip was over. I thought, “ I really should get a nice night’s sleep before traveling back to America.”

            The phone rang. It was my Kurdish writer friends. “We’re going out to shop. Do you want to come along?”

            I abandoned any notion of a good night’s sleep and ran out into the night with my friends. We went to an upscale shopping area and entered a candy store. In 2000, after a Kurdish PEN conference, Kurdish writers bought candy for my children. This time they could offer Kurdish candy. We deliberated and ended up with benî, a delicious candy threaded on a string, made of hazelnuts covered with pounded grape leather. It looks something like tamarind. I might have seen it before and not understood what it was.  They fought over who should pay for it and Kamal won.

            Eventually we had to separate and return to our homes; it could not last forever. But I’ll tell you, “Destination Kurdistan” comes highly recommended. I would do it again in a second.

 

 

 

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