photo: Eddy van Wessel


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The rules of giving

What do you take with you for your hosts when you are invited to dinner? The answer is different in the different countries of the world. In some you even go home with gifts. In Holland you may take flowers or wine, in Kurdistan a box of chocolates or nuts is fine.

Giving presents is done for different reasons, and different rules apply. I have always been surprised by my staff in Kurdistan, who brought back presents when away on holiday. I had already seen it with Kurdish friends in Holland: suitcases full of stuff came back that would be presented to family and friends. When I travel with friends, I see them do shopping for friends and family at the airport. Coming back with presents is just not done.

Why? did I wonder. It is my holiday, why should I bother myself shopping around for friends and family? I finally understood it. It is meant for you to share a bit of your good luck and happiness with the ones around you. Next time I was in abroad I also went to buy little presents for my staff. And I was happy to see them happy.

Over the years, during working trips in the Middle East, I have often been offered presents. For journalists these are difficult issues, as you are supposed to remain independent, and how can you if you take people's presents? But in one instance I really found it hard to refuse. I had encountered a nice family, who was part of a problem that I was writing about. We spent some nice time together. They sent me home with a very nice perfume I could not refuse. I did feel a bit uneasy about it though. I make enough money to buy it myself. Why did they want to give it to me? When next time I saw them, they offered to have me some clothes made, but I did manage to refuse and stayed away from them not to feel guilty.

,,Come on'', an Iraqi friend of mine said, ,,they were just being nice. Giving presents also means people show you their respect, don't think too much about it.''

There are also presents that are given for religious reasons. I know people in Iraq who give money to beggars or children selling stuff at the traffic lights because they think they earn a place in heaven that way. And of course by giving the zakat, a percentage of your salary as one of the pillars of Islam, one also applies for a place there. But these gifts have much more to do with the giver than with the receiver. However much the latter may need it.

The choice of gifts in Iraqi Kurdistan is not too big though. That's why chocolates and nuts are popular. Or for women jewelry, which I consider as one of the most personal things to give. But that is not seen as such in Iraq, where cheap jewelry is for sale in many places. Now shops are opening with little trinkets, mostly Chinese made and not quite up to most Western tastes. But when looking for souvenirs to take home for your friends, I only found one shop that really offers nice ones, worth taking to Europe. Most souvenirs are very nationalistic and do not show much good taste. One of the reasons why hardly any souvenirs are to be found is that in Iraq hardly anything is produced any more, and people want foreign products - even the cheap Chinese ones.

Related to gifts are the rules about paying when out for a diner. In my homeland Holland we usually share costs after a meal out, unless the meal is for a special occasion. But in Iraq and most of the Middle East you always have to fight to be able to pay a bill. Usually the rule is that when you are visiting - outside town or outside the country - you are the guest. Meaning that when the return visit comes, you will be able to pay. Sure, you might be able to, but never without a fight, for politeness sake.

This might be because I am a woman, but I do not think so. As female friends do the same to me, and I may be able to pay for a man every now and again. So it is just part of the culture of hospitality. Yet it results in a fight over the bill that does not really make me happy.

In Iraqi Kurdistan there is still another rule one has to apply. Politeness forces people to decline when offered something, even though they want it and need it. You may have to offer money, service or food two and usually three times. If people still refuse your third offer, they usually really do not want it. The best way to be sure is to say in this last instance: ,,Look, this is yours, you have to have it. I do not take no for an answer.''

And then, the rules when receiving a gift. In my home country, you unwrap and admire. In the Middle East, you accept without unwrapping, saying many thanks. Next time you meet someone, you should tell him you really liked the present.

Gifts may also be given to authorities to get something in return. Even though in many countries it is considered as corruption, in Iraq it has become almost a rule. Gifts can be handed in cash, or in free services (fill up the car, get a night in a hotel, do not pay for your shopping, etcetera). Though of course the giving should be done too openly, without the gifts, there is no service or limited service. Which means people pay, and civil servants have gotten used to getting the extras on top of their salary.

Foreign companies with no-corruption rules find themselves caught up in this. They are not allowed to pay to smooth things out, yet they have to if they want to be able to work and compete in a country where competitors do not have their problem. Bakshish, as paying 'gifts' is called, is a system that is hard to beat as everybody in it is used to it and is profiting. Even the one paying, because he gets the service he wants, and often civil servants bend rules for him so he can get his work done.

In my own country we had scandals because of builders buying orders with trips and other gifts. In the Middle East this is just about the norm, however many of these countries are now said to be working to fight this. There are stories about the members of some anti-corruption committees who use the job to receive extra money. And there are stories about members who do try very hard to fight corruption, and then get accused of some crime because their actions are too painful for the pockets of some influential people.

Presents are of all types and of all times. To show your love, your respect or the make things go more smoothly. And we Westerners may not like the last category, yet for the moment the fight against it is not going anywhere. Bakshish is a very old word, and very much part of the culture. One cannot erase a habit of centuries in just a few years. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Kurdistan stops when it snows

The TV news shows university students playing in the snow on Azmar, the mountain above Sulaymaniya. Snow balls are flying. 'Zohr gosha', they all shout at the reporter - great! I zap to another channel, and see more or less the same images: boys and girls are enjoying themselves in the winter scene.

Friends put pictures on Facebook of the wintery scene in their gardens, of the family playing in the snow. Snow is fun, is the message.

In Iraqi Kurdistan people like snow, just like they like the rain. Yet the country is quite unprepared for both - even though it does rain and snow every year. The same TV news has just spent most of the bulletin time showing the chaos on the Kurdish roads, cars that got stuck, accidents that happened because the roads hardly get cleaned. Some shovels are out, pushing the snow to the side, which is all the authorities use in the fight to keep the roads free and clear.

Salt to clean the ice and snow away? Never heard of it. I remember that in one of my first years in Kurdistan I brought kitchen salt to clean the icy entrance to the office, and my staff was really watching in awe.Does that work? Yes it does, we use it all over Europe to clean our roads.

رێژەیAnd then: what do you do with your car when it is snowed in? In Europe we have all kinds of gadgets that help us clean the windows and lamps. You have to, to be safe out there. And of course you have your gloves and warm clothes to make sure you do not freeze while doing this job. Yet in Kurdistan, I hardly see gloves, nor gadgets for car cleaning. Cars just venture out on the roads with the wipers only having cleaned some of the windows, but with hardly any side view and their headlights still covered. 

When it rains, it rains heavily, and roads get flooded, tunnels become swimming pools and big puddles make driving a dangerous hobby. The media report about it, people complain, yet every time it rains the same happens.

The consequence is, that when it rains or snows, the economy stops. Kurdistan is the gate to Iraq and it has become a consumption economy - and lots of lorries bringing in goods use the roads every day. Yet when the snow is blocking the roads, all this stops. When the rain floods the roads, all is delayed. That is money, that means shops and customers not getting their products, that is sales not happening - that is dollars and euro's and dinars being lost.

The TV-news shows images of snowed in trucks near the border of Haj Omran, on the road to Iran. The reporter tells us the snow has reached to a meter and a half. How he got there is not clear, as the road is clearly not fit for driving. Bulldozers are used to pull out some of the local trucks, but the big international lorries are abandoned and covered with snow.

I had an appointment on the day it snowed around Sulaymaniya, which had to be canceled because the roads were too slippery and dangerous. I am sure I was not the only one who had to stay put that day. I wanted to go out on a story, but that had to be postponed until the roads are clear again. I mind and fret about it, but many Kurds don't, they are happy to have an excuse to stay home.

And then the accidents, in a country where nobody has any car insurance. It is bad enough when it snows in Europe, but there at least you know you will get financial help with the repairs if you drive into the side of a slippery bridge. There will be a service you can phone to get your car towed away, and yourself transported to a warmer place. Here there is no such security. You just leave your car until the snow is melted.

I feel sorry for the guards at the check points, who are already into wearing ear warmers when the temperature drops to about 10 degrees. How do they manage when it snows, and freezes? Which brings me to the heating, in a country where air conditioners in the winter are turned into heaters. When everybody puts them on - and on 31 degrees - it costs a lot of electricity. And that leads to electricity failures, so people sitting in the cold or around smelly and extremely unhealthy kerosene fires.

Kurdistan has in the past few years changed enormously, but this did not follow the change. The concept of the economy having to keep moving to keep healthy, even in bad weather, has not caught on yet. But at the same time, a healthy economy has become more and more important for more and more people who live off the income from trade and investments. 

Moving forward means for the Kurdish authorities to recognize the problem and work on a policy to solve it. I know this winter we will have to accept the consequences of the cold, the rain and the snow. But please, let the change also reach here. To keep people warm and safe, and keep the economy running in the winter.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Driving without rules

,,Bexerbe, baresz, fermou!'' The security guard at the checkpoint waves me through with a surprised note in his voice. ,,Welcome, respected person, go ahead!'' I see him wonder: A woman, on her own, driving - and she is a Westerner!

This is my experience of three weeks of driving by myself, instead of being driven by a driver or a friend as before. After almost five years in Kurdistan I am now driving my own car, and traveling across the country. And at every checkpoint - and Kurdistan has quite a few - the guards almost salute. Quite a change from before, when my driver was always asked about my identity and reason for being on the road and we were far too often stopped for no apparent reason.

When I look around me, it is clear to me that I must be considered a rare species in Kurdistan. I see hardly any women driving cars on the motorway, let alone on their own. The few women that do drive by themselves, stay mainly in the cities, it seems. People are always telling me not to let anyone in the car, not to take hitch hikers - the message being that it would not be safe and possibly even dangerous for a woman on her own. But I do not feel unsafe, not in that sense.

In Europe I used to like driving. I had my driving license when I was 18, and have owned a number of cars until parking in Amsterdam became too expensive for me. But in Kurdistan driving is not so much fun - it is rather stressful. First of all because of the way people drive. Driving is Europe is organised, even though people break rules and make their own. In Kurdistan nobody seems to know there are rules, and people can make the most unexpected moves in their cars. So you do not know what to expect, apart from that you should expect everything.

Nobody seems to watch his/her mirror, so anyone can move in front of you, without of course signaling where he/she is going. Because of that, people honk when they feel the driver next to them has not noticed there is someone driving there. People have no problem at all overtaking on the right hand side, so you might have cars shooting by on both sides. Cars are stopped just about anywhere, so you might just almost drive into someone who is stopped in your lane.

With my driver we used to comment on the bad drivers - they were donkeys, are had no brains. Car drivers shout at each other, when they get irritated by the behavior of others - and they do not seem to realise they do not behave much better themselves.

Making a neat line at the traffic light, or at the checkpoints is something almost unheard of. Drivers try to overtake, to be first, so often at the checkpoints two lines have to melt into one - and that is the place where the big cars show they are not just big but also bigger than your car. And when traffic jams happen, Kurdish drivers make it all worse by trying to fill up any free space and overtaking on all sides. I have seen jams which were knotted so tightly they could hardly be solved when the initial reason had been resolved.

On the motorway drivers behind you tend to flash their lights at you when they want to pass. But they do not consider the fact that you are behind someone that you want to pass too, and that this car also, etc. The feeling on the highways in Kurdistan is that everybody wants to be there first - and I find it feels sometimes really like a big racing track.

But then imagine a racing track with holes, and with tarmac that is badly damaged by many heavy lorries. For that reason often the right hand lane is not really fit for driving a car at a speed of  100 km per hour or more. So most cars stick to the left hand lane, which usually is of better quality. Here you can really get stuck behind people who cling to this lane with a speed of 80 km an hour. Impatient Kurdish drivers will then overtake on the right, if lights and horns do not have any effect.

And then, because of the bad state of some parts of the roads, there are the stones. I remember the adds on Dutch TV about repairing the 'star' in your car window in the event of a little stone hitting it. Well, this repair is very much needed in Kurdistan where almost no cars have front windows that have been saved from the flying stones. I have been driving around now for just a few weeks and already had my first hit with a little stone.

There is a connection between the fact that there are so many of this stones, and the bad driving. 
They fly around because impatient drivers use the hard shoulder to overtake, not caring about the stones they catapult into the air in this way. And because of drivers, also lorries, making U-turns where that is not allowed, again loosening the stones.

And then there are the traffic bumps. Yes, speed bumps on the motorway - can you imagine it? And even worse: mostly without warning signs. Just image that in the dark. It is a good thing that I have driven from Sulaymaniya to Erbil hundreds of times with my driver, so I know where the bumps are. Because you have to slow down to an almost stop, if you want to keep your car suspension healthy. And then you have to warn the drivers behind you by putting on the alarm lights, so they will not smash into you. 

Driving in Kurdistan is such an adventure, that I realise I hardly have time to see the beautiful countryside anymore. I need my eyes on the road, in the mirror, on anything that can happen and needs my reaction to it. Like the dogs, that cross the road in two's or three's. Many of them do not survive these moves, and the sides of the roads are littered with their bodies. Or like cows and donkeys, that cross highways by themselves on their way home after a day of walking and eating, and like sheep and goats that are shepherded by the side of the road, but also across the road when the shepherd wants them to.

In the middle of all these adventures, the checkpoints are almost little sanctuaries. Slow down, wind your window down, say ,,bashi brakam'' to the guards. Those poor guys who stand there all day looking into cars and waving them through. They are so happy with anything that is out of the ordinary. Like a Western woman on her own, mastering the Kurdistan roads. They smile, I smile. And I am sure the guards have discussed me between themselves - this rare phenomenon.

I have seen a lot of change in Kurdistan in the past five years. But I have not seen it become less of a man's world. I wonder how long it will take until Kurdish women will have become more independent and brave, and more of them will have dared to leave the cities driving their cars. Like elsewhere in the world, they might have a good influence on the behavior on the Kurdish roads. Not to mention all the other reasons why that would be a good development.