November 19th, 2003 - Suleimania (1)
20 Nov 2003
An evening with a Kurdish family.
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The Kurdish zone in northern Iraq is like another country. It has its own language, even its own alphabet which is different from Arabic, as well as quite separate culture, dress, sweets and, since 1991, its own economy. My friend Salam announced, on our arrival in Suleimania, that he would acquire a guide. He stepped into the barber’s shop next to which we were dithering and a young man flung his arms around him.

This is not just the extraordinary friendliness of the Kurdish people – they’d met before and Heyman took it upon himself to make us welcome. His family’s home is warm and busy with four sisters and two brothers, Heyman and his parents. A fourth son is in Britain and photos of him are all over the house. The youngest brother, Rawish, is only three and the family’s joy and comic.

The girls dressed me up in Kurdish costume, as worn on special occasions. Underneath were loose trousers and a sleeveless smock which came just below the hips, in a bright red, sequined fabric, with a sheer, flowing gown over the top, black with deep red leaf and flower patterns. A short waistcoat went over that, black with a jangling fringe and a jeweled collar which fastened at the throat. The sleeves on the gown were way longer than your arms, widening at the ends and they were tied and draped around the back. They’re loose enough not to restrict your movement at all. The head dress was a sort of skull cap, also fringed, with a sash tied around and hanging down the back. I wasn’t into this last bit – it made me look like I had a pot on my head, but the rest was good.

Rawish joined in with his own national costume, hugging the bits in glee as they were brought out of their bag. A lot of Kurdish men dress this way on an everyday basis: enormously baggy trousers, gathered in at the ankles, with a loose collarless jacket in the same fabric, which tucks into the trousers, with a waist sash around the join so it looks like a single garment. There’s a shirt under the jacket, whose collar is worn outside the jacket. Rawish strutted like a king in his finery.

In the 1920s, when Heyman’s grandfather was two years old, his mother and uncle were killed by bombs dropped by British aeroplanes, supporting the Arab regimes’ war against the Kurds.

Heyman’s dad, now 55, described how throughout his childhood, “Every once in a while we had to escape and take refuge up in the mountains. They used to arrest a lot of us all the time. Some families got buried in a place called Hamia which is now a high school. They were buried alive and then they threw dirt on top.

“In the mountains it was very cold and we didn’t have any food or any of our things but we wouldn’t care because the enemy was far away. The Kurds are very active people. We are not lazy. We used to work a lot, eat plants and fruits, some of us even went to other states for work and provided for the family. In 1974 they used to get pens and toys for the children and when the children picked them up off the floor they would blow up. Where is this stuff from? Does Saddam know how to manufacture it? No. He doesn’t know how.”

Heyman added his own memories: “When I was about 12 and started wanting to move around, my mum and dad would tell me no, you can’t go there, this street is dangerous, this area is not safe – they were scared of the Baathists. We couldn’t say anything, even as children. I remember my friend’s friend who was 11 when he got arrested by the Baathists and until today we still know nothing of him. It was terrifying.

“In the 80s my dad ran away from military service and we had to flee up north to our village. Life up there was much better than here. I also remember when we fled Suleimania in 1991 and we went up to the Iraqi – Iranian borders. It was very hard. I was about 12 – 13 years old. We were better off than other families – we had a car, while most of the families did not. I saw an old man walking with no shoes and falling down on the way. We were able to stay in a friend’s house but some families had no shelter.”

Abu Heyman went on: “The Baathists were totally nasty to the people, they were criminals, beasts. This war was in the best interests of the US but Saddam gave them an excuse to attack Iraq. He launched a war on Iran and then on Kuwait. He spent 35 years in power without doing anything good for Iraq. He was supported by the US, Britain, France, Germany and Russia. All the chemical weapons were from those countries.

“Then under the sanctions 1kg of flour was worth 10 dinars while now it’s a quarter dinar. Everything was very expensive.

“The Kurds own land that contains loads of oil and Saddam didn’t want us to be in control of that and didn’t allow us to have our own government nor any kind of freedom or liberties. They would send a Kurdish man to do military service far in the south. This is all because of greed. Why would anyone take anybody’s freedom.

“But still there is no freedom. It’s better than when Saddam was in charge but it’s not freedom. Saddam didn’t even give freedom to the Arabs: they had to hang Saddam’s pictures and sing about him, all singers sang about him. Even architects had to praise Saddam. In Iraq under Saddam no one had freedom. It wasn’t only the Kurds.

“ If the Kurds living in Iraq got their freedom, Turkey, Iran or Syria would be afraid that Kurds in their states would demand their freedom as well. The Kurds are oppressed by Turkey, which has a very strong army, supported by other countries.

“If Britain had our interests in mind they never would have created such differences between Arabs and Kurds under the British mandate. It would have been Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds all living together, but making difficulties among us makes it easier to control us. Now America is the ruler of the world and if we were good people, the Kurds, the Turkmen, the Arabs, all living in Iraq, we would have never allowed the US to interfere.”

Heyman echoed both the former and the latter point. He first quoted a Kurdish saying, that if two fish were fighting in the sea, it would be because Britain fuelled the conflict between them. “They are the origin of the problem. They don’t solve the problem. In the first place they were the ones who created the problem, so how can they claim to have solved it now? They need this problem in the region to justify their presence.”

But he went on to talk about Gandhi. In looking for his enemy, Gandhi realized that it was not the civil servant in the administrative buildings of India, nor the British soldier on her streets, nor the British man or woman on the streets in the UK. To find his enemy he would have to look within himself. With this he backed his dad’s point about the need for the Kurds, the Turkmen, the Arabs and other Iraqis to unify, to defy the divide and rule tactics of successive powers.

“We want a separate state, an independent state with the Kurds of Syria, Turkey and Iran, but our best interest nowadays is being with the Iraqi people due to our economic and political situation.

“All we need is stability, peace and freedom.”