…After crossing the Georgian border from Turkey thanks to some errant hitchhiking I got spectacularly lost and ended up walking up a mountain pass for 3hrs in the snow before I got saved by the unlikely figure of an English 50yr old who looked like my Dad on holiday in a rental car. He then drove me through the snow to safety in the form of the lovely Black Sea city of Batumi in Georgia, where back in a Christian country we proceeded to get very drunk.
Although this email is actually about Kurdistan, where I wish they didn’t serve the tea in glasses- the normal serving is about 1-1.5 inches of sugar, I haven’t yet been able to stop myself from doing a double take and a frown as I begin to stir. And you have to drink quite a lot of tea here; if there’s one adjective I’d use to describe Kurds it’s ‘hospitable’- you can barely go past a tea shop without an offer of a glass and a cigarette. As with most Muslim countries it’s very much a man’s world so as you don’t see women in virtually any public spaces (restaurants, tea shops etc.) I can’t imagine how it would be like traveling as a girl in this part of the world. Aside from how much they like their sugar another very noticeable thing about Kurdish men is how they dress; in most parts of the world women tend to dress more colorfully/interestingly but not here. The standard Kurdish male outfit is composed of a very baggy boiler suit type of thing topped off by headscarves which can vary from Yasser Arafat style black and white ones to gorgeous lilac ones with gold tassels. It’s definitely a look which recommends oneself to grow a paunch and topped off with a thick moustache I’ve unwittingly found myself deeply admiring the fashion scene here.
Although the same can’t quite be said for the food; since leaving China food generally has been a big problem, partly in the unhealthy, often abysmal quality of it but mainly in just the sheer lack of variety on offer. Whilst in countries like India or China you basically don’t find anything but Indian/Chinese food, within those cuisines there’s a huge variety of dishes available so you never get bored. But Central Asia onwards you’ll be lucky to find a restaurant with more than a few things on a menu and bizarrely considering how rich it is Iraqi Kurdistan was maybe the low point. As far as I could tell there seemed to be only 2 food types in Kurdish cuisine: 1) sweets- in the form of literally hundreds and hundreds of sweet and pastry shops and 2) kebabs.
In a week there I never saw a restaurant/cafe which served anything but kebabs, literally nothing but kebabs, sliced onions and bread, some maybe offered a saucer of salad to go with it. Even in the centre of the capital Arbil, a city of 1 million people: nothing but kebabs. I’ve never seen a more limited diet, so after eating nothing but crisps and pomegranates for a while it was great crossing into Turkey and eating kahvalti, borek, and pide amongst others. Whilst my Mum will shortly be in tears at the prospect of my impact on the Xmas food bill, going home and being able to eat different (healthy) types of food is definitely something I’m looking forward to. But I’ve still got a bit more exploring to do first…
Before coming to Turkey I had another jaunt off the beaten track in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq; whilst the Sunni or Shiite Arabs continue their fratricide in the South, Kurdistan is a haven of calm in the region- it’s not just for the mountainous scenery that it’s known as ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’ and apparently US/UK forces used to go there for holidays during the 2nd Iraq war!
Unfortunately it wasn’t cheap to travel in and the polychromatic mountains aside there wasn’t too much in the way of sights but it’s sometimes nice to go somewhere a bit unknown and have no other foreigners around you. The people were really friendly too and maybe even outdid Persians in their hospitality. This is one part of the Muslim world where if you say you’re American or British, rather than a look of scorn and mutterings of ‘infidel’ you’ll get a handshake and almost guaranteed offer of chai as they see NATO as liberators.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s they tried repeatedly to gain independence unsuccessfully then really struggled under Saddam. During the mid ‘80s he conducted a genocidal policy killing some 200,000 Kurds and famously showed his sadistic streak in the chemical attack on Halabja in 1988. Therefore he was hated by Kurds even more than other Iraqis and when NATO won the first Gulf war their situation improved considerably.
As one of the conditions of the ceasefire at the end of the war, the UN established self-autonomy (own flag, parliament, leader, security force etc.) for the area and now it has seemingly next to nothing in common with the rest of the country, indeed I’m not sure I can really claim to have been to Iraq. Security is high but it was almost totally spared the 2nd war and never felt remotely unsafe; and whilst the Arabs fight over control of the post Saddam country, somewhat off the radar Kurdistan has been doing very well for itself.
As the frequent sightings of oil derricks and refineries in the desert testify it’s home to the worlds’ 6th largest oil reserves and the money that started to flow in from European/US investment is definitely visible in the Western standards of roads and other infrastructure that are being built everywhere, the future does look very positive. That said when the road gets close to the mixed (Arab/Kurd) cities of Kirkuk and Mosul you suddenly see heavily manned army bases as control of these cities are still being fought over so remain some of the most dangerous cities on earth. Both sides claim the cities belong to them and due to the oil deposits nearby it’s the main bone of contention between the 2 sides, their unresolved status is probably the only thing stopping Kurdistan from going fully independent.
As and when they do decide to form their own state it would be great because once you cross the border into Turkey things become very different as the status of the Kurds there remains arguably the most controversial issue in modern Turkey. As I was crossing into Turkey I told the immigration officer I’d come from Kurdistan and he immediately aggressively (gratuitous glare and pointed finger) corrected me that “It’s not ‘Kurdistan’, it’s ‘Iraq’” and that was a bit of a taster for this very ethnically divided country. Up until just a few years SE Turkey was firmly closed to Turks as well as foreigners, as depending on your terrorist vs. freedom fighter preference the area was terrorized by the PKK (armed Kurdish independence movement) or the Kurdish people rose up against the tyranny of Turkish rule to result in a 2 decade long civil war.
The Kurds number some 30 million, so split across 4 countries (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran) they form one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without their own state. Whilst in Iraq things are now very good for them in the other countries their status is highly controversial to put it mildly; on my last night in Iran I literally didn’t have enough money to stay in the only hotel in the border town but after explaining the situation to a local guy, with customary Kurdish hospitality he invited me to stay at his house. As he plied me with booze he told me the fairly chilling story of how his Father had been imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed by the regime for the crime of being a member of an organization seeking greater autonomy for Kurds in Iran. Neither Iran nor Syria is prepared to listen to the idea of losing chunks of their territory to a new Kurdish state and will violently stop any moves towards it, but it’s in Turkey (where they’re most numerous) that the issue has gained most prominence.
The roots of the problem date back to the creation of the new Turkish Republic following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the 1st World War. With the aim of creating national unity, the Father of modern Turkey Kamal Ataturk refused to acknowledge Kurds as a separate people (which persists to this day) and amongst other things banned their language, national dress and even Kurdish names.
After 50years of repression the Kurds got a bit better organized and developed a ‘gun and ballot box’ strategy to try and get more rights. So from the mid ‘80s the army imposed martial law in fighting the PKK as SE Turkey became a virtual war zone, 30,000 people were killed and the area suffered massive depopulation as people left en masse to escape the violence.
The war ended in 1999 when the PKKs leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured by Mossad (this is when Israel and Turkey were friends) in Kenya and he’s now under a Spandau prison style regime with over a thousand guards to himself.
Since then things have got much better in the area, the security situation has been brought under control and much of the Turkish army has moved out though there’s still plenty of bases around. Furthermore in light of Turkeys long running membership bid the EU has put strong pressure on them to grant the Kurds more rights, so they cancelled Ocalans death sentence, to some extent can now speak and write their own language in schools and newspapers and they’ve even allowed Kurdish television channels. They also eventually released a group of Kurdish MPs who controversially spent 10years in jail for declaring allegiance to the ‘Turkish and Kurdish peoples’ in parliament. This violated Turkeys unusual law of ‘insulting Turkishness’ being a criminal offence and again the EU said either you release them or we stop negotiations. As a result the Kurds are very positive about the EU and whilst it would come 2nd to full independence a Turkey within the EU, and the extra protection it grants is seen as a more realistic goal. Whilst the government may now pay lip service to the Kurds position having officially improved, discrimination still definitely takes place on a ‘secondary level’ i.e. huge areas of employment are nearly off limits to Kurds (including teaching in most of the country) as Kurds have a significantly lower standard of living than Turks and a glance at Turkish television or the tabloids reveal that all the celebrities literally look more like me than the darker, Persian looking Kurds.
I only spoke to a couple of Turks about the issue and thanks to decades of negative propaganda about Kurds from the government and press they quickly launched into outright racist rants (most ironically by a taxi driver who’d just been deported from Germany) against Kurds and it’s quite obvious they see them as second class humans and won’t ever consider them as ‘Turkish’.
As you may have read in the last few days there’s been a massive outbreak of hostilities as a PKK attack killed 26 soldiers only for the Turkish army to respond with a huge 10,000 man deployment chasing the PKK into Turkish Kurdistan and even into Iraq. On a personal level I was delighted to miss the action by just a few days but it’s yet more evidence that despite the situation improving the conflict still seems set to run. Whilst in recent years the Turkish government has reluctantly made some small measures to increase Kurdish freedoms, until at the very least they give them autonomy, for me it’s inconceivable that Turkey could be allowed to join the EU whilst operating quasi fascist policies against its own citizens.
As with the Iranian and Syrian governments, the Turks have seen the success of Iraqi Kurdistan and are worried about the independence movement starting up again, flying the Kurdish flag and publicly stating that Kurdistan should be a separate country is still very illegal -a newspaper editor recently got 166 years in jail for that ‘crime’. Regardless of what state you’re in any Kurd will tell you that a unified Kurdistan is the dream they’re striving for and I found them such likable people I sincerely hope they make it. Whilst I wrote about it before in China(and several other countries), if there’s one issue that’s been a constant through my trip in Asia is that there simply isn’t ‘enough’ countries in Asia, too many people don’t have freedom and I stridently hope that the map becomes much more complicated in the years ahead.
Whilst the political situation is worse on the Turkish side the sights are much better, aside from some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world there are some beautiful mountain ranges with the huge Lake Van being something of a centerpiece for the region. It was warm enough that I could wear shorts for a bit longer than I expected and amidst spectacularly friendly people I can’t help feeling how much more enjoyable the traveling has been since leaving Central Asia.
I managed to climb 2 mountains called Nemrut Dagi, one a massive volcano with a huge crater lake and the other more famous one with giant moai like head statues at the summit and hatching to visit the remote ancient capital of Ani near the Armenian border was a fantastic experience. I also spent a few days at the base of mighty Mt Ararat, whilst it’s too expensive to climb, the 5137m high Fuji like peak is fairly beautiful and I felt spiritually richer to visit somewhere so important in the history of man. When the great flood took place in 2349BC Noahs Ark came to rest on the top of Mount Ararat whilst every other living thing on earth drowned (at this time no people or animals living in the Himalayas or Andes could go uphill). Then the waters receded, Noah lived to 950, invented wine and his family repopulated the entire earth as everyone else had died. You learn a lot from the Bible.