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The Colonel leaned back against the sofa and orchestrated conversation around the large living room. During his thirty years of service in Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army this man had within my lifetime twice been the enemy of my country. But sat in his house sipping tea served by one of his sons it was difficult not to see anything other than a courteous and respected man happy to have retired to his beloved Kurdistan.
Though Iraq has survived the fragmentation presented by two Allied invasions, the northern Kurdish region is independent in all but name. The Kurdish flag is everywhere whereas it wasn’t until we were crossing the Tigris into Turkey that we saw the black, white and red representing Iraq hanging under a yellow sky at the border.
Up to ten Kurdish men listened when he spoke and interjected with their own opinions and thoughts on the subjects of the day. The conversation was in Kurdish but from the translated snippets passed on to us was clearly about politics, setting the world to rights and, possibly, who is this Englishman and Irish woman and why are they in my house?
We were very welcome there but if blame were to be attributed to our presence – if for instance we were to do the Kurdish equivalent of passing the port to the right – it would belong to the Colonel’s brother in law, Rashid.
Rashid and I had something in common: we both travelled on British passports. Mine was presented after exiting the right birth canal, Rashid got his from five years of jumping through Home Office hoops after fleeing from Saddam to the protection of the UK.
Rashid had since returned home to sell electrical appliances and commuted between Erbil, the nation’s capital, and his home in a small village near Akre. We found out we were passport buddies during our second conversation. The first words that passed between us were to translate the answer from our taxi driver that we weren’t going to leave the safety of Kurdistan’s internal border.
We had worried the road via Mosul, a thoroughly dangerous place, looked the shortest route on the map. The throat slitting motions of our driver suggested he had no intention of leaving Kurdish protection either. Rashid articulated a translation sensing we preferred having a potentially life or death situation spelled out in our own language than through the medium of mime.
We hadn’t met many English speakers in Kurdistan. Negotiations for goods and services had so far been conducted in a mixture of Tarzan Turkish and Arabic numbers preceded by the greeting of Chani Boshi; the only two Kurdish words we knew.
Rashid, I suspect, viewed his passport as a little bit of a status symbol and this combined with the generosity that comes naturally in this region led him to extend an invitation to his countryman to spend the night at his house and meet his family.
We can be wary of accepting hospitality in this way. Aside from the cultural strangeness as a Westerner in inviting a stranger into your home on such brief acquaintance, we had been burned before.
In our early days of travelling, before we learned successfully to recognise genuine invitations, we had at best had token efforts to get to know us quickly turn into sales pitches for tourist tat; at worst into attempts to lure us down dark alleyways.
Ten years of martyr videos and hostage beheadings beamed into our homes via the TV news should have warned us to expect the latter but after half an hour in (the Kurdish part of) the country this didn’t cross our minds.
Aside from the abnormally large numbers of combat fatigues worn by the other passengers on our airplane to Erbil, Kurdish Iraq had been unusual in how normal it seemed.
Airport taxi drivers are as obnoxious to new arrivals as they are in any other country, armed checkpoints were rare and, though we met or spotted only a couple of other external tourists in our ten days in the region, we encountered few stares and no ‘special prices for you’.
Among all this normality it seemed both a privilege and an everyday affair to take Rashid up on his offer, meet his four boys and enjoy his wife’s cooking.
We sat on cushions arranged around the walls of the living room, small talked with the boys and watched Arab’s Got Talent on television before we headed around to the Colonel’s house.
The Colonel’s house seemed to fill the same role the local pub would in Britain. Unlike a similar invitation in small town Jordan, where I felt people were arriving especially to meet us and practice a few words of English, here our presence didn’t seem to change the normal rhythm of the household. Visitors were coming and going as they normally would, popping round to the ‘in’ place to exchange conversation and enjoy a glass of tea before setting off home.
Unlike his brother in law the Colonel had western furniture in his living room upon which his many guests sat though he preferred the Kurdish way of sitting on the floor, on a cushion or mat. Drinks and small snacks were served by the smallest of his many sons. A small bell would ring from behind a curtained doorway to summon the boy into, I assume, the kitchen. He would then emerge with a tray and proffer the contents around the room.
The drinks tray also gave the answer to where the Colonel’s wife was. We never saw her or any other women in the house but assume she was holding her own parallel court hosting the wives of the male guests that chatted with us.
Every so often a question was directed our way, mostly regarding our opinions of Kurdistan but sometimes delving deeper into the politics of the region with particular regard to Turkey.
It is now I should point out that I only had one real worry in visiting Kurdistan. Namely, that the Kurdistan visa stamp in our passport would attract unwanted attention every time we crossed into Turkey. Turkey doesn’t use the K word. To them we spent ten days in northern Iraq. We did not visit Kurdistan because it does not exist and we were not keen to have our passport shout the K word at every Turkish airport, port or border post we visit within its ten year lifetime.
To most visitors to Turkey this would be no concern but we live there. Turkey does a lot of business in Kurdistan but also occasionally launches cross border air raids to target PKK bases in the mountainous border region.
To Turks (and the USA and the EU) the PKK are terrorists but it was apparent our hosts regarded the same organisation as freedom fighters and defenders of Kurdish rights. Though no longer an enemy of my homeland many of the people I now live amongst would view him as such.
The Colonel and his guests wanted us to come away from our visit to Kurdistan with a good impression of his land and to tell people it is a safe and welcoming place to visit.
We did and it is.
Nonetheless, if anyone in Turkey asks where we went last spring, we say we went to Iraq.
Kurdistan? Never heard of the place.