From Pop to Politics

“The Other Iraq” | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 10, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Published on GNN – Mon, 18 Jun 2007 14:53:29

Location: Slemaniya, Iraq.

The terrain in Northern Iraq.

Beige mountains, colossal and sage, sit quietly on the horizon, their peaks sprinkled with pine trees and patches of green. Nevermind the Barzanis and Talabinis, Kurdistan’s mountains are in charge.

So here I am, 29 years of age and my feet firmly planted on Iraqi soil for the first time in my adult life- or are they? I flew from Dubai to Slemaniya’s modest ‘Porta-Potty’ style airport with anticipation. I’ve traveled across to Irbil and PKK strongholds in the Qandeel mountains over the past week. Car bombings aside, this doesn’t feel like Iraq. Most Kurds don’t speak Arabic, especially the younger generation of the 90s, and the men roam the streets in high-waist grey sherwals, bright worry beads in hand. Despite the relative stability in the northern provinces of Iraq, there’s still a lot to worry about. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) are acting up and sporadic violence is just a car ride way, in Kirkuk and Mosul. The Kurdish government has succeeded in keeping extremists out thanks to their tremendous security apparatus and the Kurdish community’s deep sense of unity and cooperation. However, some of the locals I spoke to are still concerned about the influx of Arab refugees from the center and the south, and the violent fundy vibes they might bring with them. The internal refugee crisis in Iraq is visible, but more on that later…

I’m staying with a Christian family in Slemaniya and in typical Iraqi style, their home is inhabited by 4 generations, from a giggly newborn baby boy to his feisty 83 year-old great grandmother. The nucleus of the family are Mr. Jamal, a Christian man from Basra, and his wife Alya, a prominent architect in the Slemaniya community, who designed their home after she graduated from the University of Baghdad in the late 70s. The hallmarks of that era’s structural design is clear from the outside.

As soon as I finish unpacking we move into the kitchen and I watched her prepare lunch. Alya is a towering lady with piercing wide-set eyes. Her tough stance and sharp features conjured up images of a past life as a fierce warrior woman.  We talk politics (of course): “Even though I’m Kurdish and although I despised Saddam, I hate the Americans. They’ve destroyed Iraq”, she tells me sternly as the electricity goes out for the fourth time since the morning. “Khaled! The generator!” she yells to her son upstairs. She’s laboriously preparing a feast of ‘dolma’ (vine leaves stuffed with rice, meat and herbs) in her colorful overcrowded kitchen and she’s worried that the civil war will spill over to Kurdistan.

A common sight in Iraq: A technicolor tangled mess of cables wrapped around an electricity pole in a Kurdish neighborhood. Each wire leads to a different house.

Later, her youngest daughter, 25 year-old Dalia, joins me on the rooftop as I smoke a cigarette and we watch in the dusk sky blanket the mountains in the distance. “We used to go down to Baghdad all the time. It used to be the trip we’d all look forward to, Baghdad was the center of the world for us,” she tells me as she adjusts the rollers in her cherry red hair. “The shops, the restaurants, the scenery, the people. We’d take boat rides on the Tigris at night and all you’d see is the oil lamps from other boats floating by… music everywhere. We’re all so sad about what’s happening.”

Mr. Jamal is sitting on the couch watching the movie Gladiator, for the 5th time he says, on Dubai’s satellite channel. He changes the channel and we watch the news. The minarets of the Mosque in Samarra have been blown up. Another day in the new Iraq. We both shake our heads. He tells me about the good old days and how Iraqis were considered the most cultured people in the Middle East up to just a couple of decades ago- almost 95% literacy rate at one point. He pushes a sigh: “You know, there was a saying: ‘Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads’… Look at where we are now.”

After lunch, the family prepares to go to church for Sunday mass and I tag along. They introduce me to some of their friends there, many of them Christians who fled Baghdad. The priest begins his sermon in Arabic and everyone stands up. Although I was born Muslim, I bow my head down as the worshippers cross their hearts, and pray for peace… for my country to be free.

A nun I met at the Chaldean Church.

A nun I met at the Chaldean Church.

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