TAWELA, IRAQ — The village of Biara sits right on top of the Iranian border. But you can keep going further up the road, still higher into the rugged Kurdistan mountains, to the village of Tawela where you can see the Iranian gate.
The Kurdish highlands feel so far away from the Mesopotamiam plains down below. Surely this is one of the reasons Iraqi Kurds and Arabs look at each across an enormous cultural divide. They share the same religion and they share the same passport. But they live in different worlds and they always have.
I didn’t go to Tawela for any particular reason. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time. There was one more village to go on the road to Iran, so I went. Why did the man climb the mountain? Because it was there.
The 20 Peshmerga soldiers the PUK’s minister of the interior sent with me on my day trip to Biara in the footsteps of Zarqawi had no idea we would also visit Tawela. But we went there and we went there because I said I wanted to go there. It felt weird all but ordering around 20 of my own Peshmerga. But no one complained. We stopped our convoy at the side of the road looking down into Iran to take pictures. I took photographs of the mountains. My Peshmerga buddies took photographs of themselves in front of the mountains with the cameras built into their cell phones.
The villagers of Tawela are walnut farmers. You can buy giant bags bursting with wallnuts in the shops for almost no money. There aren’t a lot of trees, walnut of otherwise, left in the region. Environmentalism arrived rather belatedly in these parts, but cutting down trees is now considered heinous and vile.
The town isn’t particularly attractive or striking. It doesn’t stand out in any way except for its location right next to the border on the open road into Iran. It’s just an average Kurdistan village in Northern Iraq, conservative and male-dominated as almost all Muslim villages are everywhere in the world.
Rain started coming down in a torrent. Waves of lashing water swept across the streets. I ducked into a tea shop with my translator Alan, partly to get out of the rain and partly to squeeze in just a few more minutes of conversation with people before it was time to head back to the city.
I found a seat next to an old man and ordered a glass of (what else?) Iraqi style tea.
It’s hard to describe what happened next without sounding arrogant or full of myself. I don’t mean it that way. The same thing would likely have happened to you if we had switched places. Almost everyone in that tea shop – and it was a crowded place – gathered around me and wanted to shake my hand as though I were a rock star.
People in the cities are used to seeing foreigners. Hardly anyone ever stared at me on the streets or paid me much mind. But American civilians in black leather jackets aren’t a common sight in Tawela. It’s the kind of village where hardly anything ever happens, where hardly anything ever changes, so just the act of my showing up was (apparently) a huge deal.
I couldn’t talk to everyone. It would be dark soon and we needed to get down the wet mountain roads before nightfall. But I asked the old man sitting next to me a few questions through my translator Alan.
His name is Osman Sadeq Hakim and he told me he is 64 years old.
What was the hardest time this village has seen?
“When the Iran/Iraq war was here,” he said. “That was the worst time. Before the war there were 800 families. Most were displaced. Mine was one of them. The Iraqi army didn’t allow us to enter the village. We had to sneak in through the orchards.”
What are you most afraid of right now?
“Islamists,” he said bluntly without a moment’s hesitation.
Did Ansar Al Islam occupy this village?
“Yes,” he said. “We didn’t want them to stay but they forced themselves on us. They were not as strong here as they were in Biara, but they were still able to impose their rules on us.”
Who belonged to Ansar Al Islam? Were they from around here?
“Indians, Kurds, Arabs, and Persians. The Iranian government supported them against us.”
What do you think of the Iranian government?
“It is not a good regime. We do visit people from there, but we don’t do it officially.”
Were you affected by the Kurdish civil war? (The PUK and the KDP fought a stupid low-level conflict in the mid 1990s.)
“No,” he said. “We were like one family. We did not allow that war to come here.”
Should Iraqi Kurdistan declare independence from Baghdad?
“We are a different people. We have our own history and culture. We will join with the Iranian Kurds, Inshallah.”
A young man who spoke perfect English pushed his way through the crowd that had gathered around. He wanted to make sure he had a chance to speak to me. He crouched down so he could look me in the eye while I sat.
What do you think? I asked him. Should Iraqi Kurdistan declare independence?
“If the West stands with us, we want independence for all the Kurds in the world. We are one people. Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iran, are exactly like us.”
I wanted to know: What’s the one best thing the West can do for the Kurds? He told me the same old answer that has been bouncing around in this part of the world for decades:
“We want Kurdistan to be the 51st American state.”
Postscript: This concludes my series on Iraqi Kurdistan. Now it’s time for me to hit the road again. I can’t say where I’m going for security reasons, but you’ll find out as soon as I’m back. And this time when I’m “back” I’ll be back in the United States.
A couple of guest bloggers will be filling in for me in the meantime. I will introduce them shortly.
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