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