photo: Eddy van Wessel


Friday, April 11, 2014

Tying the knot

When I pass a church somewhere in the world, I stop and burn a candle. Usually to the memory of my long gone mother, but sometimes to ask for a blessing for something new I am going to do.

It is a Catholic ritual, and I have adopted it even though I am a Protestant by birth. And I know I am not the only non-Catholic who is using this, because the ritual soothes the heart.

Lovers who want to declare their loyalty to each other, can attach a padlock to a bridge in Paris and throw the key away. So many have already done this, that the bridge is covered by locks. Just like Kurdish lovers might visit the grave of Mem u Zin in Cizre for their love to be eternal.

Rituals are international, and Kurdistan has some that are very old. Like the knots that people tie, to make a wish come true. The interesting feature of this, is that it must be something regional rather than religious, as it is seen throughout all religions.

Go to the remains of Iraq’s last synagogue in Al Qosh, and you will find wish ribbons that have been tied to the gate around the grave of the prophet Nahum. The ritual is supposed to be combined with circling the grave, and must stem from the days that this was a place of pilgrimage for Jews in Iraq.

At the Yazidi temple of Lalesh, you will be invited to tie a knot and make a wish. Lalesh also is a place of pilgrimage for the Yazidi community from all over the world.

And at the little chapel of Rabban Hormizd, in the mountains high above Al Qosh, white bands are tied into a tree by women who ask for the blessing of God to conceive a child. Recently I have seen the same white ribbons at a mountain chapel in Lebanon.

In the West we use often ribbons to show our solidarity. A pink ribbon on the lapel of your jacket for cancer patients, a red one for Aids patients, a green one for those who suffer kidney cancer.

But in America, family members and friends of those fighting abroad or those kept hostage, would tie yellow ribbons onto trees wishing for their safe return.

The culture of empowering your wish by making a knot is a way of communicating with your God, or just trying to influence your fate. That’s why it is so old and international. We all want to do that, where ever we are and for whatever reason.

And that is why this ritual stays, even in modernity when many old habits are disposed of. Because there will always be something to wish for. So tie the knot! 

This blog was first published in Kurdish in the daily Kurdistani Nwe

Monday, March 31, 2014

Kurds like Westerners

‘You know that I am a blond too and I dyed my hair because people said it would be safer?’

The American lady shakes her head in disbelief. “And what for? We move around without any problem.”

The American has moved with her husband for a year to Duhok. Their move caused unrest amongst friends and family, who think ‘Iraq, that is where the bombs explode’.

There is a lot of misconceptions about Iraqi Kurdistan around. The first is, that as the rest of Iraq, it is not safe. Foreigners can be targeted and kidnapped. This American lady was told she would be too recognizable as a foreigner if she kept her own hair color.

This is even a triple misconception. Although Kurdistan is not completely free of attacks, foreigners are safe enough. Kidnapping them is unheard of, and the society would not accept it.

The Kurds have a liking for Westerners. Happy that they are here, and can tell the world how much fun that is.

Perhaps for that reason foreigners will be recognized, if only by the way they move, eat, talk. A change of hair color will not make much difference. Up to a couple of years ago my blond hair would attract a lot of eyes on the street, but that was partly because there were so few Westerners about then.

Now there are expats from all over the world living in Kurdistan. Complaining about the same things people complain about everywhere: weather, behaviour of others, bad drivers, harassment.

Most of the West has woken up to the realities of Kurdistan. But the Americans have not yet opened their eyes for it. Even though the Kurds have for long considered the Americans as their best friends, their companies are cautious about coming over to do business. For the sake of the safety, and because of the misconceptions.

But they are catching on. Pizza Hut opened, so Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s might get the message too. The Kurds love American products, the American Consul General told me. I did not want to contradict him, but I think the Kurds are happy to be open up to the world after many years of isolation. It’s not just about America.

Opening up also brings bad influences. The expat community was shocked when a couple of Kurds, posing as members of assaish, raided an office and molested the staff member present.

And there are stories now about stolen passports, phones and money. Kurdistan has always been one of the safest places on earth, with taxi drivers returning thousands of dollars that were left by passengers. Let’s work hard to keep those bad influences out. If only to convince others how special Kurdistan is.

This blog was first published in Kurdish in the daily Kurdistani Nwe

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hoot, hoot! Why?

“They start hooting two seconds before the light turns green”, I predict to my visitor from Europe. 

“Never”, she says, and keeps her eye on the traffic light at the busy crossing in the center of Erbil.

The timer drops to four, three, two… Hoot, hoot! Impatient drivers must think all the others are color blind. Or sleeping, or whatever. My friends laughs a surprised laugh. “They are crazy!”

Even when a traffic light does not have a timer, the drivers around you know when the light will become green, and blow their horn. I almost admire them for the knowledge; how do they know?

When you live in Kurdistan, you get used to all this hooting, and start using the horn yourself too. But that’s because you know drivers do not use their mirrors. He’s moving, where is he going, does he see me? Hoot! But never in front of the traffic light. We’re all waiting, aren’t we?

When I get back to Amsterdam, the silence usually hits me. What? People do not use their horn! Because they are asked not to, as it is considered a very disturbing noise. And also because they only have to do so in case of an emergency.

Silence is treasured. Many people complain about music in the shopping malls, and planes cannot depart or land at night because their noise would keep too many people out of their sleep.

In Kurdistan, police and ambulances drive around with their emergency horns blaring. Nobody moves for them, because everybody is used to the noise. As they use it constantly, nobody knows anymore when it is an emergency and they should make way to help save lives.

The hooting is particularly bad in Erbil; drivers in Sulaymaniya seem less impatient at the traffic lights. Yet it seems part of the fact that Kurdistan is a noisy place, and everybody is used to that. People speak loudly, and argue even more loudly. Televisions are on, even when nobody is watching. Cars drive around with the music blaring out of open windows, or even with the sound of the bass penetrating closed ones.

Why the noise, I often wonder. Perhaps it became a habit in the years of suppression when only those who raise their voice were heard? Or is it that people are so happy that they are free, they want to celebrate it without caring about those around them? Or are Kurds too used to being in the open, where all sound is eaten by the enormity of mountains and hills?

Whatever the reason, for westerners the noisy environment needs some getting used to. We associate loud voices usually with quarrels, and we jump when someone blows his horn at us. Please understand us; we cherish the silence.

This blog was published in Kurdish in the daily Kurdistani Nwe