Despite my best intentions, after a cancelled flight I found myself flying into Kurdistan in the dead of night, which is the only way I've ever arrived here, and at this point, almost feels normal -- as if the portal to Kurdistan is only open between the hours of 2 and 4 in the morning.
The cancelled flight left me with an unplanned ten hour layover in Istanbul, so I checked my bag at the airport for 20 lira and hopped on the metro, which wound through the sprawl of the city on a gray afternoon and dropped me at the center of the ancient Constantinople, where the Blue Mosque and Haga Sofia tower above a long square filled with vendors selling scorched corn and donut shaped breads rolled in sesame seeds, the same place where, two months ago, ten tourists were killed in a suicide bomb attack carried out by ISIS. This was a deliberate move on my part, in part because I've visited Istanbul three times in the past I feel a sympathy for and closeness to the city; in part maybe just international rubbernecking, the same reason so many people come to visit the 9/11 memorial, where it's hard to believe I walked through just this Monday.
The square was predictably empty, and the mood somber; the shops around the area deserted and cold. There were no visible memorials for the victims of the attack. I wound my way down, following the tramline to the water, where the call to prayer rung out across a busy square, and people queued up for ferries, and fishermen lined the bridge. Once I passed over the bridge and into Beygolu the mood brightened: young people out for coffee; people bustling up and down İstiklal street; street art everywhere. I passed by a group of seven young men who I thought were singing in Kurdish but couldn't confirm until I threw them a lira and they responded in Kurdish, supas!
Supas!? I asked, surprised because I've only heard how bad the situation is in Turkey between the Kurds and the Turks; how Turkey had just this week seized the largest independent newspaper; how there are cities in the Kurdish East that have been turned completely to rubble in the fighting between the Turkish military and the Kurdish independence forces. They laughed and told me they were Kurdish, and I surprised them by saying "me too!" which I'm not sure they really believed until I stumbled through some very broken Kurmançi.
Afterwards, a few of them asked me to get a cup of tea, and I followed them down a few side streets and into what seemed like an apartment building but on the top floor had a bustling rooftop tea shop with posters about Kurdish cultural events and Kurdish music drifting over the tables filled with men drinking tea and playing backgammon.
It was the kind of place I'd never wander into on my own, but I found, once I was there, that we'd all exhausted our shared vocabulary, and one of the singers, Yusuf, pulled out a Google Translate app and we passed it back and forth to communicate. It was like chatting with a stranger on the internet but face-to-face.
At the airport, the Turkish women behind the counter looked at me very strangely when I checked in for Erbil. Arbil, she corrected, in a very Turkish way, and then laughed to her colleague, saying something like, "why is an American going to Arbil?"
But the travels altogether, despite stretching on for 24 hours, were all in all so easy that I felt like I could do it again or twice more with no sweat. It felt like one long smooth bus ride. It made me wonder why I haven't been back to Kurdistan earlier.
Here, in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq, I'm staying with a friend, Ayub, a journalist and writer who I met seven years ago, who loves words as much as I do or more; he has been patiently teaching me word by word which I faithfully scribble down in my new lilac notebook: oyster is gawichka-masi, literally fish-ear. I also learned a really delightful Kurdish idiom: ba rish niya; ba isha which translates literally to "It's not about the beard, it's about what you do," -- oddly apt to modern life in Brooklyn, however ancient its Kurdish roots are.
We also invented a few new words of our own, modifying the family of Arabic words containing "Allah" to instead refer to Buddha:
-Insha-buddha (Buddha willing)
-Mashabuddha (praise be to Buddha)
-Buddha Akbar (Buddha is great)
This was all over dinner at Maly Daikum, or "My Mother's House," a restaurant with a fantastic Kurdish buffet and traditionally decorated basement with mud walls and natural wood tables and ice cold pitchers of mastaw (my favorite yogurt drink) which we drank from tin cups the size and shape of cereal bowls.
We ate with a colleauge of Ayub's and his friend, both of whom wanted badly to learn English but weren't able to speak much more than I could speak Kurdish. How long would it take me to learn English, one asked Ayub, who responded that you'll never learn if you look at it that way; that you have to love the language first; that he himself, who fell in love with the English he heard on the radio as a child and runs an English-language news site and went to Journalism school at Columbia is still learning English; still looks up a word every single day. So once again I've found myself mulling over language: language as path, as tool, as barrier, as wall. And I'm hungry to learn more.
My first day in Kurdistan ended somehow appropriately with a visit to German Bar, a crowded outdoor place with a bonfire and long yellow and red tables, full of expats and groups of young Kurdish men and women socializing together, which is still a generally rare site in Erbil. They were advertising German bacon in the bathroom and served German beers in steins and weizens. All of the servers were Indian or Bengali, and, well, it could have been Berlin or Brooklyn. Ayub and I broke into Spanish, and there we were: an American and a Kurd in a German Bar in what is still officially Iraq, bantering in Spanish.
The good news of the day was another announcement that the president of Kurdistan, Barzani, has again pledged to create an independent state: that all of the years of fighting have not been for nothing; that this May, he plans on holding on Independence Referendum -- appropriately, on the 100 year anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the ill-fated treaty that sliced up the region and left out the Kurds. More than ever before, there are dreams of a real Kurdish state with its own passports, its own currency. It's a good time to be here. And despite the recent proximity of ISIS, now that ISIS is out of Kurdish territory, no one here seems to be talking or worried about them.
I'm working on a bunch of topical poems -- a series about Saddam/re-imagining the Kurdish genocide; one about a female Peshmerga fighters -- but they are still drafts, so I'll send them out next time.
Up next: "the only hipster in Kurdistan" just kidding/not kidding