by Rob Ferguson
Summer vacation over, I flew back to Kurdistan from Toronto, stopping for eight hours in Istanbul. Little did I know as I wandered the bustling but now riot-less streets around Taksim Square, stopping for beer and kebabs, that a terrorist attack was going on in Erbil. Cars were blown up, six people killed and dozens wounded. While information in the media on the incident was fleeting – just imagine if this had happened in Dayton or Tucson – it was blamed on spillover from the war in Syria. In Kurdistan there hasn’t been a significant terrorist attack since 2007, and all’s been quiet since I got here. But I take no chances: I wear my bullet-proof vest and gas mask wherever I go. (Ha! Not really.)
Fall term at SABIS University got underway in our new cavernous building, a giant four-story structure built as a shopping mall. As I’ve mentioned before, Erbil is a city under unrestrained construction. Buildings are going up everywhere, but as someone with a keen eye for progress, and a handy master’s degree in city planning, I’ve discerned that many of the projects are stalled. Frozen concrete skeletons dot the horizon. There’s a building across from a popular night spot called Skybar that’s been vacant so long it’s now been covered over with 20-storey tall advertisements for a local cell phone company. My theory is that developers round up money to get things started, but then investors pull out or jump to some other development they deem worthier as there are so many projects to choose from. There are half-constructed buildings everywhere, and our new SABIS U was one of them, and actually still looks like it mostly is.
In 5-meter high classrooms my voice bounces off the bare drywall: “Good afternoon, SABIS shoppers! We’re happy to announce a two-for-one special on ancient civilizations!”
I’m teaching three history courses, so it seems I am the history department. This is fine with me as have always believed you can never not know enough about history. When I expounded on this theme, double negative and all, to one of my new classes, I used the example of George Bush starting the Iraq War without knowing anything about the Iraq’s history. One of the keener students threw in that when the President was asked to name the country’s capital, he couldn’t, instantly garnering him full marks for class participation.
“Yes, capitals! Don’t get me started on geography!” I shouted, my voice echoing. “You can never not know enough geography!”
After a week of chaotic course scheduling and rescheduling, we got an undeserved week of vacation. Kurdistan must rank #1 for most holidays in the world, while Canada is without doubt at the very bottom of the list. Despite the abundance of time off, there are just two official holidays for Islam: Eid Al-Fitr is celebrated at the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting that we went through last July, and Eid Al-Adha is when Muslims traditionally sacrifice an animal and distribute its meat among family, friends and the poor. Both holidays move forward a week or so each year as they follow the Muslim (lunar) calendar.
A number of years ago I was in Morocco when Eid Al-Adha was happening. We were walking through the ancient streets around the medina of Marrakesh when a throng of young men and boys suddenly rounded a corner chasing a goat. They were laughing and screaming and, thinking this was the Moroccan version of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, we joined in. We caught up to them as they grabbed the poor animal, held it down and slit its throat. My friend Jill was sickened and disgusted while Dave and I were intrigued. We asked them what they were going to do with it, and they pointed down the alley at a fire where another group were roasting their hapless goat on a spit. Ah, how the charming old traditions persevere.
I saw no running of goats or sheep or even chickens in Erbil and feeling restless, I booked myself into a hostel in the ancient and reportedly delightful city of Mardin, just a few hours across the border in Turkey. But when I went to buy a bus ticket, the three companies offering service were all completely sold out for the holiday. I was naturally disappointed but also alarmed. I’d heard the planes were all booked as well, which meant for the week long holiday we were absolutely grounded in Kurdistan. What if there was another terrorist attack? What if we felt a dire need to go skiing at the indoor ski resort in Dubai? Suddenly nothing seemed possible.
To lighten this contrived anxiety a group of us headed for the mountains. At Rawanduz, we took a cable car to the top of one, and the panoramic views were encouraging. Turkey was just over there somewhere. Goofing around and having fun soon made me forget my grim entrapment. Along with some teacher friends, my buddy Mohammed brought his two cousins, Ahmed, a musician, & Hori, a hairdresser living in Zurich.
Hori said, “I am hairdresser and not gay although everyone think I am gay because hairdresser in Europe usually gay.” He regaled us with stories of how he and his older brother escaped over these mountains into Turkey during one of the wars in Iraq. They were only teenagers and had no money. Somehow they made it to Germany, where his older brother, now married with kids, works as a tattoo artist. He went on to Zurich and now owns his own hair salon.
“I miss Switzerland,” he sighed several times during the day. “Everything is so perfect there.”
His story is not atypical. Many Kurds escaped this way and endured sleeping outside in snowbanks and regular harassment from officials wherever they went as they lacked proper documents. A few European countries offered them asylum and impressively most seemed to have managed to settle down and adapt successfully to European ways. But many have returned, or are returning, to Kurdistan, opening businesses, upsetting the status quo with more liberal social attitudes and erecting huge uncompleted buildings.
I asked Hori if in his heart he didn’t want to return and live in Kurdistan.
“My heart says yes, but my head says no,” he said. “And my head is running my business.”
I’ve signed up to run 10 kilometers in the Erbil Marathon on October 25. In order to train and lose the 10 kilos I gained in two months of binge eating in Canada, I joined a local gym called the Ainkawa Youth Social Club – it’s a room in an unpretentious community center crammed with weights and Nautilus machines and young Kurds anxious to emulate the posters of freakish bodybuilders on the pale green walls. I’ve also have been running daily. So far my knees have seized several times and the once dormant herniated disc in my lower back has revived triggering tingling and painful sciatica.
Rob Ferguson has worked in communications and as a trainer in his native Canada, Vanuatu, Mongolia, Central Asia, the Caribbean island of Montserrat, Colombia and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He has also worked as a freelance journalist, editor and instructor of English, creative writing and journalism. He is the author of *Dancing with the Vodka Terrorists: Misadventures in the 'Stans*, available from here. He currently lives and works in Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq. This blog originated here. Contact Rob Ferguson at: FaceBook: Robert W Ferguson. Instagram & Twitter: robertissimmo
More by Rob FergusonThe Jihadists are Coming!
I’m in Kurdistan!
Life in Erbil, the New Dubai!
Into the Zagros Mountains!
Christmas in Gali Ali Beg!
Spring in Kurdistan!
Sex and Booze in Kurdistan!
Culture in Kurdistan!
I Kiss Your Eyes, Habibi!
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