photo: Eddy van Wessel


Friday, February 28, 2014

Cold under blue plastic

Blue plastic on the roofs are token for Iraqi Kurdistan. On the roofs of the buildings that are being repaired in the citadel of Erbil. On the roofs in the villages that you pass by when driving through Kurdistan. Covering houses in the bazaar of Sulaymaniya, the centre of Koya. Blue plastic is everywhere. 

When the first rains hit Kurdistan, there is a run on the plastic shops in the bazaar to buy new sheets to cover the leaking roofs. Stones are placed on the corners to make sure the plastic stays in place.

It is fitting for a third world country, or for a developing country. For villages full of mud houses. But is it still fitting for Iraqi Kurdistan, that has moved on during the economic boom of the past years? That has built houses reminiscent to palaces?

Roofs leak because they need repairs, or simply because they have not been well made. Because that did not seem important. Houses in Kurdistan are built for the summer, but how about the four to five months when rain, cold and even snow visit the country?

When the cold comes in January and February, people group together around all kinds of heaters. Kerosene heaters slowly poison children and give them asthma. Electric heaters are often not safe enough. So when the electricity allows, air-conditioning units are turned on to heat; put on the highest temperature possible and still not heating the room. Yet the electricity that is used is enormous.

 When I moved to Pak City in Sulaymaniya some five years ago, I was happy to notice the radiators in my apartment. How disappointed I was, when winter came and they did not work. People did not want to pay extra for the fuel needed to run the central heating, I was told.

How short sighted! Not only do they spend more on electricity bills, central heating means the whole house can be heated with less energy. When I go back to Amsterdam, that’s what I enjoy most: a well heated house, with no cracks in windows for the pipes of the AC that let in the cold wind.

Perhaps it is the next step for Kurdistan. But it needs vision and planning. It needs architects and builders to build houses with central heating. It needs companies that deliver the right fuel for it’s engines. It needs people to realize that they can enjoy a warm atmosphere in winter.

And then, as people will be using less electricity, the national grid could provide enough for 24 hours a day coverage. But for this to happen, a lot has to happen. How much longer will we huddle around a kerosene heater under blue plastic?

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

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Too many days off

“Do we have a day off tomorrow?” people asked each other, on the phone, on Facebook and at work. By the afternoon, most had agreed that it must be a day off. Meetings were moved, appointments changed and evenings out arranged.

Yet the same evening, Kurdish TV announced that tomorrow would be a normal working day.

How is it possible, that a day before, there still is uncertainty about a day off? And that in a country that with 22 official public holidays should be in the Guinness Book of Records.

And extra days still crop up. A week earlier, an extra day off was declared, as part of the registration process for coming elections. This second day surprised many. How did it come about?

On Facebook people blame the Kurdish media, for announcing something without checking. They could be right. But wasn’t the eagerness for yet another day off equally to blame?

Every day, every hour that is not worked, that does not lead to production, means that money is lost. That is a rule of economics that is applied in most of the world. When the office stops, the factory, the school – people still get their salary while they do not produce anything. So money is spent, and none comes in.

Already, Kurdistan with its many public holidays must be behind on production compared to countries with less unproductive days.

My home country, the Netherlands, has nine official public holidays in 2014. Next to that, people individually have about twenty days off a year, which they have to organize in such a way that their work will not suffer. The show must go on. And everybody knows that after the holidays there is a lot of catching up to do.

In Kurdistan, when someone is off, everybody is off and the society slows down completely. Apart from food shops and supermarkets, which stay open most of the holidays, although they do not get restocked. And the guards, who stay vigilant.

I have often wondered why the Kurdish government allows its civil servants to skip work so often. Perhaps because there are too many of them? There must be delays in all kinds of processes.

And how about the school children, who already have too little time for all they should learn. Do policy makers understand that they are even affecting their level and thus their future?

And more generally: if you are allowed time off so often, it affects to your work attitude. Work cannot be important if you can leave it so easily. It affects the way people feel about their work, and how they function. Kurdistan as a fast developing region needs dedicated people. So it’s time to rethink its holiday strategies.

This blog was published first as column in the daily Kurdistani Nwe

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A guard with a mission

“Are you Muslim or Christian?” the guard at the checkpoint into Erbil asks me. Behind me the lines of cars are long, it has taken me a quarter of an hour to reach him.

He is looking at my iqama, or residency card, and has already asked where I come from and where I live. This latest question does not shock me anymore, as it might have done a couple of years ago.

In the secular country of the Netherlands where I spent most of my life, religion is a private matter. Whether you are Christian, and whatever sect, is not public knowledge, unless the person involved chooses it should be.

Of many of my acquaintances I do not know what their faith is. It is not an issue people discuss, unless there is a reason for that. If someone has left the church is an equally private matter. Our passports and identity cards therefore do not mention the religion of the bearer.

In Kurdistan, that is different. When you register with the asaish, the security police, for your residency, the question about your faith pops up almost immediately. And although I still feel it is none of the business of the police or the state, I have no choice but to answer that I am a Christian.

In Kurdistan you need to have a religion, as without it you are considered a kafar, someone without a faith, and considered as worthless. Of course I’d rather be a member of the ‘people of the book’, the title for Christians in the Qur'an, than a kafar.

The guard at the checkpoint smiles when I say that I am a Christian. I think he will let me go now, but he has a mission. “Why are you not a Muslim?” he asks. I point out that in my country most people are Christians. “But Islam is better!” he exclaims. “Don’t you think?”

The conversation strains my little knowledge of Kurdish, but I understand him perfectly well. I swallow my answer that as far as I know not even extremist Christians will explode bombs and think this will get them to heaven, so why would being a Christian be a bad thing? I smile instead. He hands me back my iqama. “You should be Muslim!”
When I drive away, all the concerns I discussed recently with equally concerned friends flood back to me. About the fact that many young people are more conservatively religious than the older generation. That most of the girls at university now wear scarves, and all over Kurdistan. About the TV channels that bring in conservative imams, without anyone daring to question their words even if they are out of line and endangering the fabric of the society.

And I cannot stop wondering, how someone like this guard will ever be able to stop his comrades in faith bringing in explosives. Are his bosses aware of it? Can someone point them to this danger? Please?

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

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Scared of my cat

A teenager girl is walking a tiny dog in the gardens in front of my house. It’s a young animal, and it is playing with the leash. Two young boys have walked up to the girl. Somehow I know they are asking her about this cute little dog.

But when the playful dog makes a move towards them, I see both boys step back. I cannot help but smile, and yet I feel sorry for them. To be afraid of such a small and cute animal… How did this happen?

“When we were small we were told the cat would eat us”, a friend tells me when I urge her again and again to come and visit me. “That was the threat that worked the best when we would not eat our food, or did something naughty.”

She does not visit my home, because I have a cat. A quiet and shy cat, but the thought of being in one room with a cat scares my otherwise so brave friend. And she is far from the only one. I do not even have to ask the boys in the garden why they are afraid: it is because of their parent’s stories.

I know of kids throwing stones at dogs, hitting puppies with sticks. I know of neighbours poisoning the dog next door. I do not let my cat outside because of what people might do to her. This is for me the very dark side of Kurdistan.

It’s not only that parents withhold the possibility for their children to experience the special friendship of animals. It is also that they scar them for life in their attitude towards creatures that are part of our world.

The simple excuse is: we are Muslims, and we consider dogs as dirty. But at the same time the Prophet showed he cared for animals, by leaving his coat behind instead of waking the cat that was sleeping on it.

Why are we all happy that the dogs at the airports are keeping us safe, as it has been proven that they are much better at finding dangerous substances than any machine? Does this not show us that dogs are worthy of our friendship?

I can understand that parents want to keep their kids away from wild dogs and cats, as they might indeed carry diseases. But dogs and cats are not dirty if you look after them. If you make sure they are vaccinated, and give them a wash when needed.

So why make kids scared for them? Why ignore the century old bond between man and animal? Let’s tell children the truth. Animals can be the most loyal friend that you will ever have. And probably the only ones in your life that do not judge you.

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