(Almost) Moving to Kurdistan
After another cancelled flight -- my flight home -- I seriously considered extending my trip here indefinitely. I'm at home here with my family and enamored with the mountains and endless cups of sugary tea and the daily puzzle of picking up Kurdish. But, as it does, reason got the best of me and last night I booked a flight out of here. I do see myself applying to teaching jobs here, though, after I finish my MFA.
My cousin dug up an old first grade Kurdish reader and I've been making slow headway through it's nonsensical, alphabetic passages, which translate to things like: Sheep. Sheep of Amar. Amar's sheep. Sheep baas a lot. Go, take the sheep away.
But the best thing I've decoded so far is the word "heen," which means thing/something/anything. As in, I'm going to the heen, or, Did you do the heen? or, Where's the heen? Once I knew what it meant, I realized it was used constantly -- the invisible is made visible
It's so embedded into the language here that it isn't elided when my cousins and her friends are speaking in English, as they do for a majority of the time when they are speaking to each other (having attended either an American University, American secondary school, or both). So it becomes like this island of Kurdish even in a stream of English. The little word seems like evidence that the language you speak does shape the way you think. Its existence also bodes well for me, because it means I can replace basically any object or place I don't know the word for with this ultra-flexible gem.
Posing as a Journalist
This past week, all of the bigwigs and hotshots of Kurdish politics were joined in Sulaimaniya by the foreign ilk: ambassadors and policy wonks from American think tanks and Thomas Friedman, yada yada yada. The annual conference was hosted by my cousins' school, the American University, and I desperately wanted to go, but the guest lists were long full and security was snipers-surrounding-the-school tight. My in came by way of Facebook Message from friends at Rudaw, asking if I wanted to cover the event for them, and obviously, I did. So that's how I would up with a press pass around my neck, translation device in my ears, pen in my mouth, and laptop, phone, and notebook balanced on my lap, just like old times. I was glad I had some business-casual-passing tops in my big old backpack, and I just counted on not many people looking down to notice my 4-year-old Doc Martens, which did not exactly blend in. Not that anything about me blends in here. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Like, Dislike, & Honor Kill
Just over the mountains that make a big bowl around Sulaimaniyah, there is a magical place called Sitak where the brown hills roll all the way to Iran, offering views of snowcapped mountains beneath blue skies in three directions. It's a special place to me because the first summer I spent in Kurdistan, nearly seven years ago, I taught an English class to all the kids living in the village there. Since I saw it last, a tunnel through the mountains opened and along with it, hundreds of summer homes and ugly, barrack-like apartments have been built on the ridges. But somehow the beauty is unmarred.
This is where I found myself on Friday, having tagged along with a group of friends who I'd met in Erbil. To give you a sense of how small Kurdistan is, the group included by chance two people who'd gone to high school with my cousins, and another who goes to college with them currently.
Everyone's mother had cooked a dish, and we unwrapped the half dozen pots and pans to reveal biryaniand kofta as well as the more familiar chicken-potato casserole (quite Minnesotan, in fact). The temperature drops about 10 degrees once you're over the mountains, and after we filled ourselves with quickly cooling food, we built a fire with some cut down trees and nestled two teapots in the coals. By the time the tea was hot, so were we, and between the sun and snowcaps and just-budding fruit trees, I was completely blissed out (even before we took out the shisha and the red wine).
But most interesting was the conversation, which I couldn't help observing with a journalistic curiosity.
>>"I'm a senior," explained one girl to another. "So I'll graduate this year, as long as the university reopens, which I hope it does soon!"
(The context here is that the local public university has been closed for more than two months following protests over unpaid salaries: in fact, the government hasn't paid salaries for 6 months because of the oil crash and resulting financial crisis. So in reality it's highly unlikely that she or any of the students who planned to graduate this spring will in fact be able to graduate.)
>>"There's Tinder in Kurdistan?" (I ask this, after someone brings it up)
>>"Who goes on it? If a girl was on it, wouldn't she be, like, killed?"
>>"Yeah, there's three options: like, dislike, or kill."
And we laugh, because I guess that's the kind of grim joke you make when you live in a place where women are still killed by their own family for breaking the social order. Azheen's friends made more or less the same joke two days earlier while we were out for drinks and dinner at a place named Titanic, a dimly lit marble ballroom off a hotel lobby filled with low leather chairs; a pool table and darts, where they serve decent Mexican food (even if the guacamole is made from powder, it's good). The subject of conversation was that I should be the one facing the door, in case the wrong group of people walked into the place (empty except for us) and saw them drinking and smoking; what would happen if they did. Hashtag Honor Killing, someone chimed in with a mock-Cali accent (a running shtick). The joke was short lived, as it was deemed (understandably) "not funny" -- but the sentiment is uncannily apt and has been echoing in my head, capturing somehow the Frankenstein mishmash of ISIS's 7th century values and 21st century strategies.
Tomorrow is Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, and the best time of year to be in Kurdistan. There wasn't time to get new clothes made before the holiday, so this afternoon I dug through Azheen's two suitcases full of jili Kurdi (Kurdish clothes) to find some to borrow, which I donned along with a jamah, or scarf, that I recently required at the bazaar, in both a nod to tradition and a rebellion against it -- the turban is traditionally worn by men.
In the afternoon, the main street in town closes to cars and fills with families and groups of friends walking in traditional dress, waving flags and stopping at the food carts to get shwarma, plastic trays of big steamed beans covered in red and green powders, neon cotton candy and tea and chickpea sandwiches. Little boys ran about blowing into plastic horns, and fireworks clattered overhead. As soon as I stepped out of the car an old man told me my outfit was very traditional and welcomed me to Kurdistan. The weather was cold and gray, but the mood was festive and by evening the sky turned brilliant pink.
Tomorrow morning, I'll head to Kirkuk for two days to celebrate Newroz with my cousins' family of 50 with a picnic in the countryside.
Newroz Pirozbet! (Happy Newroz!)