photo: Eddy van Wessel


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Activate the traffic police

How many games do policemen in Kurdistan have on their phones? I often wonder when I pass by a traffic policeman behind the speed control camera or at a crossing. Not caring about the traffic at all, too busy with his mobile.

When someone passes through red, he does not react, nor when drivers use their phone. Only when the electricity fails, he finally gets up to regulate the traffic.

Traffic policeman must be one of the lowest jobs in the police department. Yet with more and more cars around, the traffic in Kurdistan needs strict control to make sure it runs well.

Their colleagues in the West are often feared. They will stop you and fine you when you use a phone while driving, when you drive through a red light or go too fast. And there are regular checks on drinking and driving.

Patrols on the motorway make sure people get caught when driving dangerously, too near to each other, are flashing lights or carrying no light when needed.

Breaking rules costs money. The fines can add up to hundreds of euros, a system meant to give people an incentive to abide by the rules.

In some countries, a point system is used. Every time you get caught breaking the traffic rules, points are added, which may lead to a (temporary) suspension of the driving license.

In the West drivers on the motorway are advised to put on their lights even in the daytime, to make sure they are seen in time. Badly informed Kurdish traffic police asked me even to turn off my head lights during a grey day.

I have not seen traffic policemen in Kurdistan write any fines or address any bad drivers.

If you do get caught speeding, the bill only gets to you when you go to the traffic police office for some other reason. Then you will be presented with the accumulation of fines.

People will then be careful for a while, but forget about it soon enough. If you fine drivers every time they exceed the rules, it might work as a preventive measure.

I fear that Kurdistan is on its way to copying Lebanon, where nobody cares about the traffic police, and fines will go away after a phone call at the right place. We don’t want that to happen, so we want the respect back for these policemen.

Kurdistan is one of the most unsafe places on earth when it comes to the traffic situation. The police can and should play a role in changing that. It starts with them getting more active, and making sure traffic rules are applied. Let’s end the chaos, and make the streets safer.

This blog was published in Kurdish in the daily Kurdistani Nwe

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