The story below was submitted by Zack Bazzi, the Field Operations Project Manager (Middle East) for Spirit of America, and the co-founder of TentEd, a project to advance the education of children displaced by war. We hope that it inspires you to submit your own personal ‘Story from Kurdistan.’
Shakespeare in Kurdistan
by Zack Bazzi
It’s Thursday evening, the official start of the weekend in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The dusty atmosphere is perfumed with a whiff of generator exhaust and whatever the breeze picked up between its place of origin and you. The pre-weekend excitement, a blend of end-of-work fatigue and anticipation, cuts through the air. The ladies take one extra look in the mirror to ensure their makeup, lots of it, is on just right. The men splash cologne, lots of it, on their faces and bodies. Friends with cars patiently wait outside the homes of friends without cars.
On a map, Erbil eerily resembles a spider web with a 5,000-year old citadel stubbornly occupying its center. Within a literal stone’s throw of the mound is a labyrinthine bazaar where cheap electronics compete with knockoff suits for shoppers’ eyes. Beyond that is an array of nouveau buildings housing government bureaucracies, hotels, and malls. I’ve been visiting and at times temporarily living here for over two years now. The region and its peoples have grown on me: one friend, one interaction, one shawarma, one near-death taxi ride at a time.
I’m with an eclectic troop of dear friends. We’re out at Shakespeare and Co, a British restaurant popular with the younger crowd. The atmosphere is particularly English. The setting is decidedly Kurdish. It’s a conflicted combination, and in many ways, a reflection of Kurdistan as a whole, an ancient land hurling itself full speed into an uncertain future.
Across from me is Shelan. A few years my senior, I call her “my girl.” Since we met two summers ago, we’ve established a close brother-sister dynamic. She is Chaldean, originally from the town of Shaklawa. I tease her that Assyrians, another type of Christians in the region are better. Often she responds seriously to my mischief and lectures me, “We are all Christian.” She does so with a most charming accent that inflates vowel sounds and butchers the clusters of consonants ever so common in English. This, of course, is expected since the Anglo-Saxon tongue stresses those unfriendly sounds while Semitic speech adores the musicality of vowels.
Perched comfortably on the couch next to Shelan, Marcelo checks his phone intently, on occasion jumping into the conversation with his full-throated laugh or to register a disagreement with something someone said. Marcelo is a Brazilian who like many Westerners, has caught the Middle East bug. He lived in Lebanon for several years. Now Erbil is home. As with many of us who have dwelled abroad, Marcelo can make a home of any place – gliding his way across cultures with the skill of a samba dancer.
A few minutes later, Mohammed bursts in. Born in the UK, he moved here with his wife in his early 30s. Mo, like me, is bicultural. He speaks, thinks and operates like a proper Brit, although his mischievous humor, which I adore, is anything but subtle. Mo is also Kurdish. His life is a continuous seesaw between the culture of his origins, British, and that of his blood, Kurdish. Mostly, though, I love his unrelenting self-confidence and his tendency to call things as he sees them.
Finally, Rami and Naji show up, late. Like Shelan, Rami is a Chaldean originally from Shaklawa. He is one of the most talented techies I know. I like giving him backhanded compliments, “You’re pretty smart … for a Shakalwi.” He usually responds by telling me to screw myself.
In any western country, Naji would fit the full definition of an urban metrosexual. Well-defined dark eyebrows and perfectly trimmed hair frame his angular face. His bright smile and calm demeanor compliment his sharp intellect and thoughtfulness. A Syrian Christian, Erbil’s Ainkawa neighborhood is now Naji’s home as a ruthless civil war ravages his country and its culture.
I enjoy arguing politics, but when I do, Shelan shoots me a stern look. She does not appreciate such things. Inevitably, our humor turns a tad sophomoric. If something is especially inappropriate, I yell out, “Shelan, ear muffs!”
The night passes into the early morning hours. Walking back to my hotel, I pass by the armed guard stationed outside its entrance. The sentry is a large man, with broad shoulders and a full mustache across his face. His soft smile, which he flashes generously, stands in stark contrast to the hard angles of the rifle slung around his neck– a warm demeanor masking a readiness to kill.
Perhaps, I think, the kind killer outside my hotel, whose presence and skills comfort me, serves as an apt metaphor for Kurdistan, a contested land fraught with beauty and brutality, whose peoples must forever carry the gun to keep the peace. It’s a land whose paradoxes are as massive as the mighty mountains that have always sheltered its residents from danger.
The Kurds are not the strongest nor the most advanced; they are the first to confess this to an outsider. And thanks to the war, their once booming economy has ground down to a near halt. Their politics is also a mess, plagued by the same hazards that afflict much of the Middle East: tribalism, factionalism, poverty, and organizational incompetence.
But when it comes to defending their lands, the Kurds are unlike anyone else in the tumultuous region. They do not bow nor do they retreat; instead, they stand and they fight, young and old alike. Their defensive force, now famous the world over, is known as peshmerga, “those who face death.” Perhaps no other modern fighters embody the Spartan motto of Molon labe (“come and take”) than the Kurds.
The next morning, as I rushed out of the hotel to a meeting, I passed the guard on duty. I smiled at him with appreciation. He smiled back gently, his hand firmly clutching a loaded rifle.