Reporters on the Job: In Uncle Jalal's Kurdistan

Jerusalem Post reporters shed light on their experiences in bringing you the headlines.

reporters on the job (photo credit: )
reporters on the job
(photo credit: )
The other day, the deputy commander of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, explained in his wistful Kurdish that "the Kurds and the Arabs are as different as the mountains and the stones." I had three-and-a-half hours to think about that as I drove through Piramagrun Mountains from the dusty and polluted Kurdish city of Irbil to the equally dusty town of Sulemaniya. The road winds past ruins of an ancient civilization. Kurds will remind you that civilization started here, and that the mud-colored citadel of Irbil is the longest continuously inhabited settlement in the world - some 8,000 years. The car: A 1990 Chevy Caprice locals call "Dolphin" due to its porpoise-shape and perhaps due to its reliability. There was a glut of these cars just before the 1991 Gulf War, and the V8 beasts chug on. The narrow roads, considered fair-to-good by Iraqi standards, are cluttered with oil tankers heading into Iraq from Turkey or Iran. They either smuggle oil one way or another or bring back gasoline after it is refined in Turkey. Insurgents have badly damaged Iraq's oil refinery capacity. And Iraqis are left wondering how it is that a country with 12% of the world's oil has spotty electricity and interminable lines at the fuel pump. Our "Dolphin" dodges a lazy flock of goats, several exhausted donkeys and beat up cars crawling along the road. We loop north and then head east to avoid Kirkuk, a mixed Arab and Kurdish city now in the gun sights of insurgents. The Kurds want it, partly because the oil fields in its environs spurt out 30% of Iraq's oil. The rest of the country wants to keep it as part of Iraq. Kurdish guards hold key checkpoints flipping through passports they can't read. After a good long peruse they ask the driver "what nationality." The answer: "America." Camouflage caps pressed on heads, and vests filled with AK-47 magazines corseted around their midsection, they grunt a greeting and wave us on. The moonscape that scorches most of Iraq, deadly boring stretches of tan dirt, is broken by the sweep of hills. This is my fifth time to Iraq and this is the first hill worth the name. They grow into huge steeples, massive cathedrals of geology for which the Kurds are so thankful and prideful. The mountains, with their caves and streams, have sheltered them over the generations. Those mountains are likely the reason the Kurds - the world's largest stateless people - have survived. The road and the scenery are a relief from the rest of Iraq. Kurdistan is known as Iraq's paradise and there are still Christian missionaries here that hope to find the Garden of Eden tucked among these hills. The dun colored hills become craggier the farther east we trek. Spiny scrubgrass gives way to scrub trees, and an occasional grapevine. We pass a dam, and leafy oaks beside the castle of Jalal Talabani, president of Iraq, and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan at the quaint village of Kala Chualan. He had expropriated one of Saddam's many palaces. On the banks of the river, into which men take their cars to wash as if they were dirty beasts of burden, hotels boast modular homes offering views of the river for Iraq's rich. "They cost $70 per night," my driver says and then whistles. Most Iraqis make about $250 a month. Both places are unique in the world. Kurdistan is the only place in the world that I've been in since the start of the war, where saying one is American is rewarded with a toothy grin and sometimes a: "I love Gorge Booosh." Coalition troops are rarely seen in either city. Kurdish Peshmerga or members of the Kurdish internal security service, the Asa'ish, line the streets. During the mass celebrations throughout the week, in the honking snarl of SUVs and sedans charging through Sulimaniya streets, some of the vehicles bore something unusual: American flags. It is a romp through this city that makes foreigners wonder: All this for elections they haven't even won? In many ways Kurdistan represents the future of Iraq and some of its unbearable past. A nation of people with few exports, save for massive amounts of oil, living in relative security under a strongman leader; in the case of Sulimaniya, Jalal Talabani, who is also head of the PUK, which controls the eastern part of Kurdistan and is president of Iraq. (It all sounds very complicated, but the Kurds have been living with the internal disunity for decades. It is said that the British wanted to grant them a state after WWI, but instead handed it to the Sunni Arabs, who for the time being were able to organize themselves instead of squabble.) Tellingly, Talabani is called "Mum Jalal," (Uncle Jalal) by his people. Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the strong man leader of the western part of Kurdistan, ruled by the KDP, is called "Kak Massoud," (Big Brother Massoud.) But in fairness, every man in Kurdistan calls comrades "Kak." Photographs or posters of the leaders adorn every shop, every public institution and much empty wall space. One wonders if they were pasted into the same picture frames or bare wall spaces once occupied by Saddam with his Cheshire grin. It is a place in which for now, these people, who have spent the better part of a century hiding and running, fighting and dying in these hills, are simply happy to speak their language, listen to their music and daydream about their legendary fighters in peace. In one of the cacophonic celebrations ahead of the polls, one man who might have had a drink or two in him - in Sulimaniya one can buy booze on the street in broad daylight - marveled that children were out, enjoying, celebrating their freedom from tyranny. For the Kurds, especially those in the relatively affluent city of Sulimaniya, rejoicing is in vogue. They even got a six-day holiday to properly celebrate the elections. As opposed to other parts of Iraq, people here are free to criticize the government. Aram Rabia, 20, from Sulimaniya, gaped at the procession of flags, SUV's and posters of "Mum Jalal." "What is all this, what is it for?" he asked. With hundreds of Kurds around him he openly criticized the government, knowing he would be safe doing so. Under Saddam's regime, children ratted on parents. My translator once joked that Iraqis were so used to getting governmental permission for the smallest things, that some wondered if they needed it to sleep with their wives. Young Aram did not think the elections deserved such a celebration. And he didn't vote. In the new Iraq, in these mountains, that's his right.