A visit to a Kurdish village
In Iraq, every type of automobile has a name. There is the Dolphin (Mercedes C class, named for the tail fins), the phantom (Mercedes convertible, named for the black one that Uday, Saddam’s son, used to drive at high speeds throughout Baghdad, “like a phantom”), the octopus (Mitsubishi, named after what the trademark looks like to Iraqis), and, my old car when I lived here, the butterfly (Daewoo Prince, named again after the trademark). To go to the Kurdish village where my father in law ran a school in his younger years, however, we needed a larger car, a huge one capable of ferrying my entire wife’s family and me (a total of six people) with a large rear load to hold all of the bags. Thus we rented the Toyota Landcruiser, known in Iraq as the Monica (as in Lewinsky).
Cruel as it is, this has rapidly become the staple name for the Landcruiser, replacing the more accurate if more banal term “Landcrooz” that was common earlier, when the Ba’ath used them to ferry around their dreaded security services. Even today when televised testimonies are taken of abductions that happened during the Ba’ath era, one can hear an elderly sheikh begin to recite the tragedy of the death of his family with something along the lines of “and then our blackest of days came, when two Monicas showed up at our door, and from their rear poured out seven Ba’athist officers.” The frightening imagery that the sheikh was trying to project was replaced in my mind with farce.
In any event, we boarded our Monica and took our trip to the Kurdish village of Herow, on the Iranian border. The rest of the family was excited about the trip and the promise of it, mainly because it seems like Kurds tend to look on their villages like Americans look on their farms. Not many live in villages, a fair number would be ready to commit suicide if they actually had to for more than a week, but still, they hold a hallowed place in the Kurdish imagination, the authentic home of the people, where self-reliance, honest living and simplicity reign supreme, free of the machinations and the artificiality of city life.
Personally, I never went in for the claptrap, not when it was Emerson sitting in some finely furnished home in Concord rusing on the authenticity of the Man on the Farm, and not when it’s my brother in law the computer geek extolling the wonders of the village life where nobody had a computer or had much need for the internet. But still I did look forward to the trip for a different reason, I had never seen an Iraqi village close up, Kurdish or Arab. As an Arab, I can say we certainly did not view our peasants with the same degree of romanticism as the Kurds seemed to; contempt was more like it. The urban elite classes, from where I hail (in case it wasn’t blatantly obvious, not many law professors grew up as peasants) think of themselves as somehow superior, more enlightened than the rural population. The urban man married one wife, the peasant had three. The urban woman married at 25 or thereabouts, for the peasant it was a decade younger. The urban father educated his daughters, the rural father was lucky to have sons who could read.
And so the stereotypes went, not unlike those that perhaps Manhattanites would have of the people of Appalachia I suppose. But of course we in the city never saw peasants, except when they came into the city in their funny looking clothes and their dirty hands to register property or something, or sometimes when we passed their villages on the highway on the way to somewhere. Certainly we never stopped in, I don’t think anyone would dream of it. There wasn’t hatred, nobody thought the peasants should be exterminated, but there was only thinly disguised contempt, people to be dealt with as necessary but mostly avoided.
It would be pretty to say that I had no similar stereotypes in my mind, but in fact I did. This was obvious as soon as I arrived in the village, and found a village chief fluent in Arabic, Kurdish and pretty decent English, certainly far better than the English of any professor in any Iraqi law school I have met. No child marriages, no polygamy, a school that all children attended to 18, at which point the better students, boys and girls, went to college. Clearly this was not what I was expecting. These were educated and intelligent people, not the bumpkins I had assumed.
What they were not, however, was cosmopolitan or particularly socialized into the rest of Iraqi society, as isolated from us, it seems, as we from them. I had barely closed the door to the car when a question came that startled me, one I had barely imagined possible in Iraq today.
“Are you Sunni or Shi’a?” the village chief asked. Not quite chief, but head of the school and therefore the authority in the place.
I had no idea what to say, the question was shocking. This is not the kind of thing we talk about in Iraq. Everyone might think it, obviously it matters a great deal, but nobody would dare express it this openly. There has been too much savagery and barbarity associated with that question to ask it in polite company, the people who ask you are the ones who are about to throw you out of your home, or kidnap you, or kill you. It therefore felt almost like an assault. I tried to deflect the question.
“We’re all Muslims,” I said.
“Yes, of course, to me I don’t see Sunni or Shi’a, the difference means nothing, an Iraqi is an Iraqi as far as I am concerned, but which one are you?”
“So it does matter to you,” I replied.
“I just said it didn’t.”
“That’s what you said, that can’t be what you meant. If you meant it, you wouldn’t ask.” I was swiftly reverting to my legal realist mode.
“I don’t care, I’m just curious. To me it makes no difference.”
“That makes no sense,” I exclaim, my voice rising. “If it made no difference, say the way my wife’s clan makes no difference, you wouldn’t be curious about it. It matters to you.”
“No, it doesn’t, but which are you?”
I relented and told him my father’s family was from Kerrada, my mother’s from Kadhum, which signals Shi’ism. I still couldn’t bring myself to say something like this so openly, it’s positively taboo. He then responded,
“I have a criticism of the Shi’a, which is that they place Ali over all other people. But like I said, it makes no difference.”
I cannot I think convey to an English speaking audience what type of social and cultural lines this fellow was crossing, at least among urban Iraqis. I suppose the best analogy would be to ask someone if they were black or white, to follow the question doggedly to its end, and then when told black, respond with some sort of criticism explaining what’s wrong with black people. I was absolutely dumbfounded, but my father in law, this fellow’s former school teacher (and therefore an authority over him) forced a changing of the subject immediately. We mevertheless moved back to this terribly uncomfortable line of questioning when a second villager came and asked within ten minutes again, the same question regarding sect. It was a village denied knowledge of the most basic of social graces, it seemed to me.
My wife told me not to get offended, these fellows probably thought I had lived so long in America, Iraqi mores didn’t mean much to me. She had barely finished her sentence when the village chief began to explain how Americans were a tough, bitter and cruel people. So much for that theory. The guy, I concluded, just didn’t know how to talk to people. He never met any that weren’t Kurdish villagers. And so he continued on in this vein.
“To me, the greatest leader in the past century was Adolf Hitler,” he later said. We still hadn’t been in this village an hour, and we’d moved from Shi’i doctrine to American culture and now to Adolf Hitler. This trip was swiftly becoming a disaster. But I couldn’t help it, I had to hear this thought to its end.
“Why?” I asked.
“Four reasons,” he said, as if he had his answer memorized. “First, he never hurt any Kurds.”
Perhaps, but neither did Charles Manson, I thought.
Secondly, he stood up for the Aryan race. That race is people like Western Europe, Kurds and Iranians.
Yes, where would the world be if nobody stood up for the white people.
Also, he hated the Jews, and I hate them too, I consider them the most vile and disgusting race on this planet, they are a despicable people.
The sad part of this one is it’s not even a surprise, I’m so used to this horrible nonsense it just washes over me now. The surprise is when you hear the opposite, which in the new Iraq one hears more often. Not everywhere, but often enough to be encouraging.
Finally, and most importantly, he stood strong against the Imperialism of England and America. That is why they had to destroy him, he was threatening their hegemony. And when we fight them in the Muslim world, we fight with Hitler against these same forces.”
And this, I thought, is the farce that our noble, Islamic resistance to the West has become. We’re so eager to fight the West and its imperialism, we’ll take anyone who’ll advance the cause, even another Western imperialist. In this guy, I thought, the resistance has met its logical end. It’s now resisting itself.
Needless to say, I had been in the village two hours, and was now quite ready to leave. Unfortunately, however, there was another full day left, and my in laws seemed to be enjoying this place far more than I. Whether that was because of a different perspective or not having to deal with the village chief, who was preoccupied with me, I cannot say. Yet the gulf between us was immense. They praised the cooler air, I noted it was still well over 100F, even if a bit cooler than the city, and unlike the city, we had no air conditioner. They extolled the virtues of the fresh meat, to me the lamb tasted like rubber, which given the hills the poor animal had to climb every day to find food, made entire sense. These sheep were training for the Olympics, not being preparing to be eaten. They described the air as fresh, I would describe it as the inhalation of pollution free. dirt Finally, as my father in law lamented that he no longer taught here nd how wonderful a year in a village would be like, I wondered what trespass I had committed against the Almighty God that He would punish me thus.
The only thing I think we could agree on were the magnificent mountain vista. Herow was located on the gentle slope of a sweeping mountain, affording it wonderful views of a valley beneath it, and even better views of mountains around it. I therefore spent the balance of my time in that village walking everywhere I could. I hiked to the front where the Iraqi army resisted an Iranian advance late in the war. From there, nearly half a mile away, I could see the border, and an Iranian police center in the hills. Getting any closer was impossible, the land in between was reportedly heavily mined. I looked around. For a place where thousands of people had died, there was a strange peace. Nobody was within earshot, the stifling heat deadened any sound that was made. There was no wind. There were only a few birds, and no other animals that I could see. Just trees, a great many trees, and an awful hush that only intensified the power of the experience. So many dead on both sides, for such a worthless cause. At least nature, with her silence, would pay them their due respect.
I turned around and walked back down, and across to a spot where I had a wonderful view of the valley beneath me. I stared at the valley below. It was dotted with copses of trees, farmland, and in the distance, a river. The sun hung low, just above a mountain that dominated the horizon. A little boy drove his sheep in front of me, screaming at them to move one way or another. I had no idea whether they were following his Kurdish commands, certainly they did not appear to be paying him very much attention, at least until he threw rocks at the stragglers.. I felt badly for these sheep. Of all the countries to be raised in, they are in the one where they get berated for being sheep, and thrown rocks at for merely taking the time to eat. Even sheep can do little worse than the new Iraq, it seems.
The sun soon set, and I retired for the evening, returning back to Suleymania the next day.