photo: Eddy van Wessel


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hooked on Korean soaps

Every evening, thousands of Kurds do not pick up their phones because they are too busy watching TV. An unexpectedly high number of Kurds of all ages and sexes are hooked on soaps that are made in Korea.

I cannot stop wondering about it. What do Kurdish people like about a soap that is situated in such a different culture as the Korean? With people who dress so differently, who react so foreign, who look so different and live in such completely different circumstances than the Kurds? With stories that have so little in common with daily life in Kurdistan? What do Kurds share with Asians?

Perhaps it is because of the Mongols, who also came to Kurdistan, centuries ago - a fact that can still be seen in some of the features of the Kurdish people. And I suppose they are still present in some of the Kurdish food and dishes, like bryani and naan, and in the language.

Yet I know most Kurds are more focused on Europe than on Asia. Young people who leave Kurdistan mostly want to live in the West, and few go to Asia. Even holidays in Malaysia, which do not require a visa, are not popular. Kurds look to the West for fashion, for fast food, for beautiful women, for football, for knowledge, for studies – and for most answers to difficult questions.

Yet the most popular TV is not American, British or Swedish. It is TV made to the taste of Korean audiences. Soaps that had to be synchronized into Kurdish, so every time someone opens his/her mouth, you can see he/she is saying something else than your ears are telling you.

It took me some asking around, until I found the probable cause. As part of the coalition of 2003 Korea was very active in Iraqi Kurdistan. It sent not only troops, but also aid in all kinds of shapes and forms. And it brought the first soap series from Korea – for free. 

When other Kurdish channels saw this, they wanted their very own Korean TV soap. And so it went on. By now the series are no longer free, nor are they cheap, I have been told.

So if the Americans had brought West Wing – a great series about daily happenings in the White House which can teach you a lot about politics, or if the British had brought one of the beautiful BBC detectives, now Kurdistan would be hooked to American or British series. Or am I badly mistaken?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Is that a kite, or a plastic bag?

The best friends of the Kurds are the mountains. It is a saying that is repeated over and over again, as it was so very true in the time of the Kurdish resistance. And now, every spring Kurds go out and enjoy those mountains. That means picnic, it means going to the mountains with the whole family, it means eating first yaprach and then tikka, it means enjoying the company and the nature.

But it also means a mountain of garbage. Plastic bags, bottles, tins, leftover food: all is left behind. Down goes the string of cars, from the mountains to the cities and villages, and left behind are the spoils of the day.

In the olden days, most products would be cleaned up by nature itself. The birds and the animals would eat what was eatable; the earth would digest the rest. But nowadays most of our garbage is made of plastics. And that takes many years to dissolve. If animals eat it, it will block their digestive system or poison them and they will get ill and die.

Every time I drive through Kurdistan, I see at least someone throwing an empty plastic water bottle, a coca cola tin, some Kleenex or a plastic bag from a car window. And all those plastic bottles and tins remain at the side of the road, as a growing mountain of rubbish. 

A month after I was so very happy to see the second Kurdish party PUK conduct a huge clean-up on the ring road of Kirkuk that I even stopped the car to get some pictures, now at least half of the rubbish appears to be back again.

Plastic bags fly in the air and get stuck in the trees, making trees look as if they have been filled with wishing knots as at the grave of a saint, but a lot less attractive. Sometimes I have to strain my eyes to make out whether I see a kite being flown by a child, or a plastic bag blown by the wind.

The authorities have started campaigns where they hand out rubbish bags and flyers to the picnic goers. Late in the day I then see the full bags at the side of the road waiting to be collected, but surely to be opened by hungry animals first. Why not take them home and dispose of them there? Or why don't the authorities put big, closed garbage bins in the area, and empty them regularly?

If the Kurds really consider the mountains their best friends,then they owe it to them to look better after their nature. Rubbish should be collected and destroyed. It should not be left to clutter the country side. It is not only caring for nature; it is also caring for the country our children inherit.

This blog was published before as a column in the Kurdish newspaper Kurdistani Nwe.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Noah's Ark not in Kurdistan

Some people say Noah’s Ark landed in Kurdistan. If it did, it left little in the communal memory about the value of animals, so I think every time I see another dead dog by the side of the road.

I was taught by my parents and teachers that we share the planet with the animals and the plants, and that as we got the brains in this deal, we are responsible for looking after them. At home, we had a dog, and since I have been living on my own I have had cats. I took my two Siamese cats with me to Kurdistan, creating excitement at the airport of Sulaymaniya – they had never seen anything like it.

My Kurdish friends wanted their children to see my cats, the vet who vaccinated them wanted a picture for his kids. Yet people would stay away because they were scared of cats. That is unimaginable in my country: everybody likes pets, and most people have at least one. It might be a cat, a dog, a bird, a rabbit or even a mouse or a rat.

Animals are men’s companion, it is said. Zina and Banu have been with me these past years in Kurdistan, hating me because they cannot play in a garden anymore and yet always happy with my company. And they confront me time and time again with the completely different way people in my new country look at animals.

The kittens we had at the media centre, my staff liked until they got bigger. Then suddenly they were dirty, and scary. They had to go. What can you do? We found a farm to send them to, but of course these town cats were badly equipped for the farm life.

Only occasionally, we see dogs and then mainly wild, outside the city. But mostly I see those killed on the roads. Dogs in Kurdistan have no life, because few people like them. They may work with a shepherd, or as a guard dog at the airport. But generally Kurds seem to think dogs do not deserve a place in our world.

In one of the animal shops in Sulaymaniya a baby lion was sold, probably caught after his mother was killed. Why kill such a precious animal, and what will happen to the lion cub? Birds of prey are also caught, to be sold for hunting. Beers are hunted and killed, the same goes for birds, of which there are already too few in Kurdistan.

And when you visit the local little zoos, you will find the situation of the animals there is really bad. Cages that are too small, as in the picture, which is taken in Erbil. In no way the needs of the animals are addressed in these zoo's. I felt horrible having visited them. At the end one is even supposed to give some money to feed them. So why start a zoo if you cannot look after these animals?

Animals are part of our world, as they are creatures of God like we are. It hurts to see how they are treated in Kurdistan. Changing this starts with parents and teachers understanding that our world can only be whole with humans and animals living together. Let’s teach that to our next generation - please.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Unlocked bicycles

The bicycle is standing outside the door. I find myself looking for the lock. There is none. I know, and yet I am surprised. In Kurdistan you can leave things unlocked, and they will not be stolen. So why put a lock on a bicycle?

I lost a number of bikes in Amsterdam, even though they were tied with a chain to a lamppost. For us it is a second nature never to leave a bike unlocked, because then it will be gone. Who steals bicycles? Not those who need a bike, but usually people who need money, drug addicts for instance, or jobless youth. They sell the bike at the first possible opportunity for up to 100 euro’s.

Kurdistan is safe, even for your personal properties. None of my Kurdish friends hesitate leaving laptops and cameras in their cars, and I have started following their example. Do the same in Amsterdam, or most European cities, and your car will be broken into. Leaving you with the damage to the car (a broken window or lock) plus the loss of the goods. So you just do not leave anything in the car. For a long time, we would even remove our car radio to make sure it would not get stolen.

I only know a couple of incidents with stolen goods in Kurdistan. A colleague left an I-phone on the table in a restaurant. It was gone by the time he realized where he left it. I lost some gold earrings in a hotel room in Sulaymaniya. But when I reported the theft, the owner saw reason to sack the cleaning staff, even though my earrings were never recovered.

It is great, to be able to say to guests who worry about theft and criminals when visiting Kurdistan: ,,Ah, that does not happen here!’’ I see people have a hard time believing me. Why not, they ask. Because of the rules of hospitality and feelings of honor, I try to explain. As a foreigner, you are a respected guest and nothing bad should happen to you. And in a society where honor is as important as it is in Kurdistan, nobody wants be caught stealing as it will rub off very badly even on his/her family.

But it works only on the personal level. Because on the professional level, many are taking money that they do not earn in an honest way. It is hard to understand, that on the one hand criminality is almost non-existent, and on the other, it is only growing.

I cannot explain that in any way to my foreign friends. We can only agree that we hope petty crime will not increase with the growing prosperity in Kurdistan, and that perhaps at the same time this prosperity will end the greedy corruption that is causing so much anger in the society, and a bad name for Kurdistan in the outside world too.

This column was published in Kurdish in the daily Kurdistani Nwe