Traveler in Kurdistan

Pointing a lens at one of the Middle East’s least understood groups.

Not as risky or adventurous as one might think: ‘Yehuda’ discusses his recent trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, at the Abraham Hostel (photo credit: YITZCHOK MEIR MALEK)
Not as risky or adventurous as one might think: ‘Yehuda’ discusses his recent trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, at the Abraham Hostel
(photo credit: YITZCHOK MEIR MALEK)
 Iraqi Kurdistan is a collage of cultures, dialects, ethnicities and religions. The Kurdish people are among the world’s most ancient and perhaps least understood.
At the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem, Yehuda, who goes by an alias to retain anonymity for future Middle Eastern adventures, spoke at length about his October trip to Kurdistan.
“It was not as risky or as adventurous as one might think,” Yehuda says.
“I can’t think of any group of people more trustworthy, more welcoming or sweeter than the Kurdish people. One of my hobbies is exploration of the Middle East. I find that every day in this region, there is another layer to uncover.”
Part of the reason for Yehuda’s fascination with the Kurds is their continual resistance against the ambitions of neighboring countries such as Turkey, Syria and Iran as they fight against ISIS in their land. Over the past century there have been numerous Kurdish attempts at independence, all of which were suppressed by every major power in the region. The Kurds are the largest nation in the world without a state of their own. Forty percent live in Turkey; the rest are spread out between northeastern Syria, northern Iraq and western Iran. Yet it is only in Iraq that they have some sense of autonomy.
“There is much chaos in the Middle East right now. There’s Turkey with [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan going crazy and all their issues, there is Syria which is a disaster of civil unrest, southern Iraq, which is a wreck – not to mention Iran,” Yehuda says.
“There is only one region where there is protection of minority rights and religious rights, where there is a stable security situation more or less, and that’s Kurdistan. I wanted to find out who these people are, what their history is and where they are going. As a Jew, I grew up with an intimate understanding of European Jewish history.
The Jews have a 3,000-year history with the region that is now Northern Iraq, so I wanted to explore these sites to delve into that layer of Jewish history.”
Yehuda chronicled his adventures, beginning in the capital city of Erbil, one of the oldest cities in the world, continuously inhabited for at least 7,000 years. Erbil is home to the Kurdish regional government, which was established in 1970, but didn’t achieve any actual authority until 1991, when a no-fly zone was established to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein.
“The Kurds have not engaged in terrorism or armed resistance against the US; they consider themselves an ally,” Yehuda explains.
“Generally, on the street, there is a lot of pro-American sentiment. I wanted to check how pro-Israel these people are because I had heard that they like the Jews. I told the first people I encountered that I had just come from Jerusalem.
They were so thrilled that they spent hours driving me around, looking for the Jewish representative in the Kurdish parliament.”
That a Middle Eastern region outside of Israel is known for its love of Jews is unusual to say the least. A law was passed recently in the Kurdish parliament stating that every religious minority is entitled to a representative and that their religious practice is protected. Kurdistan is one of the few Middle Eastern countries where this is enforced.
Yehuda explained that while there are many distinguishing features of the region, the main economic engine of the Kurdish infrastructure is oil, just like its neighboring countries. While there are about five million Kurds living in Kurdistan, there is also a surprisingly large number of refugees, or internally displaced people, living there as well, approximately a million. These refugees are Syrian Arabs, Syrian Kurds and Arabs from Southern Iraq fleeing the chaos of fighting between ISIS and Sunni militia.
Perhaps because of this diversity, as well as the tolerance for divergent beliefs exhibited in the parliament, Yehuda found the Kurdish people to be respectful of all backgrounds and ideologies.
“They were also honest,” Yehuda adds. “The dinar fluctuates drastically; there were many opportunities to take advantage of me, but I never experienced that.”
He emphasized the often conflicting emotions of feeling safe and taken care of amongst the Kurdish people, while simultaneously being unable to ignore the reality of moving through a war zone. The beautiful and ancient scenery was peppered with security checkpoints every few kilometers. Yehuda had multiple encounters with Peshmerga, the Kurdish military forces. These meetings began benignly and respectfully; he felt so comfortable with Peshmerga officers that he would ask them for help flagging down cars when hitchhiking. But his run-ins with security officials increased in severity as the trip progressed, escalating to an intense multi-hour interrogation in Sulaimani.
“Being a lone American of military age traveling through Kurdistan when a lot of Westerners are joining ISIS sometimes aroused suspicions, especially because the only language I could use was Arabic,” Yehuda states.
“Then an event happened that drastically altered the rest of my trip. ISIS sent 100 people into Kirkuk in northern Iraq who attacked police stations and party offices. They killed more than 100 Peshmerga soldiers and civilians. Suddenly I found that my freedom of movement was severely restricted.”
Yehuda was picked up by Asayish, the Kurdish security and intelligence agency in Sulaimani. He had his bag checked and was questioned in a detainment facility for an entire night. Despite the anxiety-producing interrogation, he speaks of the encounters with understanding and even a hint of humor. All in all, his trip spanned the region from the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, today called Mosul, to Al Qush, a neighboring Christian village, home to the grave of the Jewish prophet Nahum. He then traveled to Duhok, an oil city in the Northwest.
The next stop was Amedi. As Yehuda explains, the topography of the land changed from dry desert to beautiful mountains. He speaks of Amedi with almost mythical reverence.
“Sometimes when you travel, you get lucky and end up in little, lost corners of the world,” he says. “You have to pinch yourself because you can’t believe that it’s real. The city of Amedi is one of those places.”
Amedi is an ancient Assyrian city that has existed for more than 2,500 years. Yehuda describes it as a plateau surrounded by cliffs from all sides. With waterfalls, rivers, pomegranate orchards and lush greenery, Amedi is a perfectly fortified oasis. It was also home to a Jewish population for over 2,000 years until about 70 years ago. He was able to visit a Jewish cemetery there.
Next on his journey was Barzan, and then on to Sulaimani in the east near Iran. Sulaimani is the largest and most modern city in Kurdistan. Yehuda heard people speaking Sirani Kurdish there, with their second language Farsi instead of Arabic. He experienced a drastic cultural shift to a more Persian influence.
“Iran has a certain pull for me because I know I can never go there, at least not until there’s world peace, which I hope comes soon,” he says.
He desperately wanted to get to the Hawraman region to encounter some of the most ancient people on the planet, with roots going back almost 5,000 years. He did make it to Hawraman, despite many obstacles.
Besides hundreds of pictures, Yehuda has rich experiences of Kurdistan, providing stories and insight into a land of wonders and a people often overlooked.