Michael Totten's Weekend in Kurdistan
I've written about Michael Totten's adventures in Iraqi Kurdistan before. While visiting Turkey with a friend recently, he decided to spend another weekend there. He tells the story in one, two, three, four, five, six parts.
“Remember, Sean,” I said. “This country borders Greece and Bulgaria. But it also borders Iraq.”I still want to go there.
I could all but hear the gears turn in his head.
“That’s right,” he said and put his hand over his mouth. “Holy shit, we could drive to Iraq.”
I knew the instant he said it that we would, indeed, drive to Iraq. Who cares about Troy when we could drive to Iraq?
It's hard to convey what it's actually like meeting Iraqi Kurds. Fleshing out the dialogue doesn't capture the feel of it. Americans and Kurds don't just get along because we're temporary allies of convenience in the Middle East. The connection is deeper and personal. Kurdish culture and American culture might as well be from different planets. But somehow, oddly enough, Kurds think much like Americans do. Let me rephrase that: Americans think like the Kurds. We have similar values despite our extraordinarily different cultural backgrounds. I find it easier to develop a rapport with Iraqi Kurds than with people from any other country I have ever been to. It's instant, powerful, and totally unexpected.
It’s hard to write about Dohok because the place is so normal. Getting there is an adventure, but there is little adventure to be found after arrival. The most remarkable thing about the city is how unremarkable it is.
The first time I went there on a day trip from Erbil it seemed like such an innocent place. After seeing the rough hell of Turkish Kurdistan, though, and realizing that the Kurds in Iraq had it even worse under Saddam, it did not seem so innocent to me anymore. Iraqi Kurds struck me as deeply, profoundly, mature. It took so much work, blood, and sacrifice to build what they have. And they built it from nothing.
Iraq is the only country in the world where Kurds wield any power. They're ground down under the majoritarian boot everywhere else. For the most part they wield their power responsibly. Government corruption is still just atrocious, and they haven’t yet fully emerged from a traditional society into a completely liberal and modern one. A Kurdish journalist was recently thrown in prison after a fifteen minute show trial for blasting the KDP in a newspaper column. He was later released, but he’s not yet out of trouble. The Kurdish quasi-state wants to be liberal, but still doesn’t quite understand how or what that means.
Even so, they’ve made more progress in the region than anyone else except, perhaps, for the Lebanese and the Israelis. And they started a mere fifteen years ago from the bottom of Saddam’s mass graves. From the Mouth of Hell to…the Utah of the Middle East. By force of sheer will against extraordinarily long odds.