March 7th - Clowning in Kurdistan
08 Mar 2004
Adventures in the Ministry and our first shows in Erbil and the villages around, playing parachute games in a cemetery.
The boys' orphanage looked better on Saturday morning: there was still broken glass and heaps of half-furniture but a woman with a mop was making Jihad against the dust. The dust was still in control, on the whole, but the grime from the floor had gone and there were more workers about, the morning shift already gone to school and the afternoon shift milling about hoping Peat was going to regurgitate more ping pong balls. Mr Dilshad said 2pm would be fine and we went on our way, still without a translator.

We found a fellow clown, though, in the Ministry of Culture. Anwar was brought in from his own department to help translate. Offered a sweet, he took the entire bag and stashed it in his jacket, chuckling. Many years a refugee in Iran, formerly a Peshmerga fighter against Saddam – "Our revolution started in 1961" - he walks with a stiff, short step, claims to be 93, but young at heart, claims to be 19 but mature for his years, laughs often.

All over the Ministries of Culture and Education are pictures of Mustafa Barzani, killed by the Baathists, father and predecessor of the current Kurdish Democratic Party leader and Governing Council member Masoud. The Culture Ministry's 2004 calendar features him on the front cover and, youngish, smiling, in January, as well as seated, in military uniform, in June, next to a picture of members voting in the Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly, the outside of which is on May's page.

Other photos of Kurdish beauty spots and musicians are interspersed with, in March, the bodies on the ground in the aftermath of the chemical attack on Halabja and, for December, a Kurdish man hanged by the neck. It's hard to imagine you would voluntarily look at it for a month.

Anwar said he was grateful to the US for finally getting rid of Saddam but angry as well, for all they did to keep him in power. "We had weapons from the First World War, old British rifles, and they had all the technology that America gave them."

He took us to meet the Minister of Education, begged us not to do any magic tricks or weird faces in the ministerial waiting lounge, a wish that was defeated by the boys' overwhelming need to flirt with the beautiful secretary. Still the Minister seemed to like us well enough because he not only permitted us to go into any schools we liked within the Erbil governorate but also gave us a guide, translator and tour bus from the Ministry. Result.

Hyperactive after a dozen or so Turkish coffees, for such was the hospitality of the Ministries, we made a scene outside the falafel shop. Now every child on our street in Erbil knows us as well, just like in Baghdad. They were all on their way home from school, buying falafel sandwiches with their lunch money – at 150 Dinars, 6p or 10 US cents, it's the cheapest ready food there is.

The crowd grew, each new child drawn in by another's gestures, a closed fist, an invisible item disappearing into it, the hand empty, the vanished item then miraculously popping out again. How? The first child would shrug and the new one would squeeze into the doorway to look. The girls were a bit reticent at first but couldn't resist and were even enticed into a street chorus of "Boomchucka"s.

Mr Dilshad having told us that 2pm would be fine, we turned up to find half the boys were at school and wouldn't be back till 4. We found this out after the remaining group were seated, waiting in the garden, and we were plastered with face paint, so the show had to go on.

The next challenge was playing parachute games with no translator. I somehow got the job of miming instructions, which worked surprisingly well. It helped having all four of us around the fabric as examples, no one filming or taking photos, and as well, when there are lots of kids, it's sometimes hard for them all to hear the instructions anyway but they could all see the clown in the middle of the parachute. We even managed to roll the football a few laps around the parachute.

I was teaching a few of the boys to do cartwheels after the games were over when I realised that one of them only had one and a half arms, so now there's a small band of one handed cartwheelers tumbling around the garden.

As Omran, one of the workers, was driving us home we met a school bus full of kids. We can't help ourselves. It happens every time. One or other of us starts, blowing bubbles, pulling faces, making things appear or disappear. All the kids pile against the windows. The boys selling stuff in the traffic queue are drawn in as well. Omran couldn't stop laughing. We couldn't hear the laughter of the kids in the bus, but we could see it and it made us completely high.

Then Omran started telling us about his only other experience of the British. "Uhuwye," he said, my brother. "Tiyara Biritanee", a British aeroplane. "Papapapapa." He gestured firing. "Mat" – dead. He was in his home. He wasn't with the army, wasn't with Saddam, just waiting it out at home. Somehow, and we didn't have the words between us to explain it, in Kurdish, Arabic or English, seeing us making the children laugh was important.

His foot has entry and exit scars from two bullets, courtesy of Saddam, whose prisons he spent two years in, 1988 to 1990. there are other torture wounds as well. I think it was because he was a member of a political party that opposed Saddam. His brother fled to Canada, married a Canadian woman, has a child. Tortured by Saddam, bombed by Britain, resisting oppressors armed by Britain, America and too many others, seems to sum up Kurdish history. The man at the front desk was a political prisoner for 17 years.

Shenoor is our translator, a young woman whose family was forced out of Kirkuk in 1989. They were driven from their home into another quarter of the city and later 'dismissed' from the entire area. They're settled here in Erbil now, working or in school and Kirkuk is still dangerous, so there are no plans to go home. Relations between Arabs are Kurds are no problem, she says, but there are still disputes over property that was seized.

It took almost an hour to get to Bistana, a village of 35 houses, about 300 people, 40 children attending the sand coloured primary school next to the sand coloured mosque. The village was burnt down six times by Saddam's forces between 1963 and 1991. Ahmed, the headmaster, and Daoud, our guide from the Directorate of Education, hugged each other like old Peshmerga comrades. All the village men and some of the women were Peshmerga, and if they weren't their fathers or older brothers were.

"The kids were shy at the beginning," Shenoor commented afterwards. "If you go back I think they will eat you." It was only 40 minutes before the end of their shift when we arrived so we dived straight in, finishing on the dot of 12 as the secondary pupils from all the surrounding villages arrived. Both shifts followed us on foot and a few on a noisy motorbike, up to the cemetery for parachute games.

It's the best grassy space in the village, free of mud, with plenty of space. Lots of the graves are Peshmerga. "One woman was burnt here," Shenoor told us, "for helping the Peshmerga." You can make the parachute into a dome by all lifting it up, pulling it down behind you and sitting on the edge. Jwan, next to me, in school blouse and skirt, gave me a huge grin, put out her hand to squeeze my arm in excitement.

We filled the hillside with laughter, the very thing, I suppose, that those people died fighting for, the men joining in as well, joyfully bouncing the football around the fabric, some unable to work because of wounds from their time in the resistance. They really needed to play like children.

Habitat – the UN agency, not the furniture chain – funded the rebuilding of the houses and they've been planting trees but still there's not enough electricity and the water isn't clean. What was it like in Baghdad, they wanted to know? How did things up here compare. I told them about people struggling to get on with things amid traffic jams, explosions, pollution and erratic electricity. There were some explosions here too, they said, in the city, at the political party's buildings. People were frightened in Erbil too, but not here in the villages. They think Al Qaeda or Ansar al-Islam were responsible for the February 1st bombings.

We took the scenic route home. Literally: I don't mean we were lost. We went the slow way, through the mountains, diving into landscapes of green slopes, clear streams, red flowers, still just buds, somewhere between a rose and a poppy, and Shenoor says when they open, it's spring; a mud hut by the water with a few ducks around, air you could breathe, really breathe, cool and soothing for lungs brutalised by the Baghdad atmosphere which assails them with a hailstorm of particles and ming.

I don't think I've ever been anywhere more beautiful in my life.