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This article appears in Volume 23: The Adventure Issue.
Sheikh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani, born sometime around 1077 AD, was most certainly a wanderer. In his early twenties and after an education in Islamic law, he left Baghdad to roam free across the deserts of Iraq. A quarter of a century passed until his return. He is now remembered as the founder of the Qadiriyya order of Sufism (a mystical form of Islam) and in early January, at a shrine to honour his son and family in the city of Akre, I enter a simple carpeted room within a concrete courtyard.
Perhaps a hundred men line the walls and at one end a young imam with the faintest hint of a beard leads a series of raucous chants through a tinny PA system dripping with reverb as an enthusiastic band beats out a furious, gut-shaking rhythm. It is the sound of movement and ecstasy and over the course of the next hour the tempo only gets faster. The men by the walls sway and sweat, some writhing in holy agony, and in the centre a cadre of closed-eyed mystics lead circular, looping, bouncing prayers of kinetic energy, heads tossing wild hair from the roof to the floor, feet and hips inseparable from the deep beat of the drum. With the commotion at its zenith, a man with laughter lines peeking out from behind a majestic moustache leans over and shouts in my ear, “Welcome! Welcome to Kurdistan!”
What is Kurdistan? It is not a country – at least not yet. It is the name given to a broad and vaguely de ned geo-political area in the Middle East where ethnic Kurds make up the majority and includes parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Kurds have a common language and shared heritage, but beyond that contemporary borders have kept their communities largely separated. This enforced partition has long been the cause of much suffering and instability.
It is in Iraq that the Kurds have found most freedom in recent times – the north of the country, officially designated Kurdistan Province, is a semi-autonomous proto-state that operates with a certain amount of independence from Baghdad. In 2016 I visited twice, mostly to report on the coalition offensive to liberate the city of Mosul from ISIS. Earlier this year I returned in the hope of seeing another reality – the one I’d heard about from Kurdish friends. One not defined by war.
The theme of my journey might loosely be defined as wandering – of using the prism of travelling on foot to look more closely at somewhere that has always been a thoroughfare and was once seen as the centre of the world. This is a complicated, beautiful and wild place and there is much of importance that speaks to the how and why of the circumstances of the wider region. I walk in search of humanity and, without seeking to downplay the complexities, hope that by focusing on sharing tales and trails with those who live along the ancient and modern pathways of Kurdistan I can get some contemporary insight into life in one of the Middle East’s most unique enclaves. Together with filmmaker Ben Sherlock and my Kurdish friends Laween Mohammed and Miran Diyazee, we cover hundreds of kilometres – Miran at the wheel, Laween singing in the passenger seat and Ben and I cramming last-minute research (and Kurdish treats) in the back.
We travel first to Akre, a one-time seat of kings encircled by mountains. Local legend has it that this is the oldest city in the world – that when the waters that once covered the earth began to recede, it was the first place to appear above the surface. After the Sufi festival we walk along an ancient water channel into the mountains behind the citadel and on to the fortress town of Amedi, where an iteration of the Silk Road used to run. Amedi sits high on a plateau, visible from all sides but easily approachable from none. In the past it was accessible by only two gates – the one on the western rock face, called variously the Badinan or Mosul gate, was the main entry point up until the paved road was built in the 1930s. Some villagers from the valley still use it, climbing the smooth, worn steps of old.
We wander along a little part of this road towards Mosul under clear skies and are soon swallowed into the folds of soft hills beneath tall, jagged mountains. Rarely have I walked anywhere more beautiful. Travelling on foot often creates a connection between walker and earth that is not present in other methods. It is purposefully slow and encourages thought and conversation. In Kurdistan there are so many lines drawn that divide up the land, but walking is a way to expand the fractured space, to make something small feel big once more.
In the east near the city of Sulaymaniyah I meet with Awat Darya, the official representative of the Zoroastrian religion in Kurdistan, who has invited me to a ceremony in a 3,500-year-old mountain tomb. Together we climb to an opening in the rock where a band plays, a fire burns and, under the auspices of the past, a new member is inducted into the community. As is common during my travels in this predominantly Islamic and often conservative wider region, I have not had the chance to speak freely with many women so I question Awat about the gender divide in Zoroastrianism. “There is no difference,” she says. “We see men and women as completely equal. There are no roles that men can have that women cannot.” I ask her to summarise some of the other pillars of her belief. “Zoroastrianism is based on three things – good thinking, good talking and good working,” she replies. “Get your mind right, say good things and act in the best way. This is our guidance.”
We visit another minority faith, the Yazidis, in their spiritual home of Lalish and walk along animal migration paths with a one-legged shepherd near the Iranian border, a sad reminder of the legacy of landmines left by Saddam Hussein’s destructive campaigns against the Kurds. We pitch our tents on an island in the vast Lake Dukan and by the Great Zab river near the Shanidar Cave, where Neanderthal remains have been found that further our understanding of how our ancestors lived.
On our last night on the road a man called Ahmad takes the four of us strangers into his house. He prepares blankets to sleep under, his wife makes tea and in the morning they cover the floor of the living room with bowls of honey, walnuts, bread and eggs. As we leave he brushes away our thanks with mild embarrassment. “To look after strangers is a Kurdish thing and a human thing,” he tells us. “There is no way that I or anyone else here would leave you in need.”
Kurdistan is an incredibly hospitable place – perhaps one of the most welcoming that I’ve been to – but it would be wrong to cast this as simply a cheerful journey through a beautiful landscape. While that is true, there is also currently a great deal of unease in the region. When I visited in 2016 there seemed to be a sense of optimism in Erbil and beyond – a feeling that, once ISIS were expelled from Mosul, the Kurds might finally be given a homeland. Now, under the shadow of a failed independence referendum, that hope has disintegrated into sadness and a deep concern for the future.
It is crucial that journeys like mine do not detract from these issues, but I also believe there is great benefit to exploring and celebrating shared humanity in places where the focus so often lasers in on their troubles. This is at the core of what the great walker Paul Salopek calls “slow journalism” – and in our fast-paced, helter-skelter world I’d argue it’s more beneficial than ever to make room for stories told at three miles per hour.
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