The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Mountains and plains (21)

November 24, 2006

It was just such a classic Baghdad return. The sky was hazy and overcast as we drove back from the airport. The traffic was bad, a convoy of SUVs featuring guys with assault rifles hanging out of the window came blaring past. And then back at the office a bombing that killed 25 people in a Shiite neighborhood soon mushroomed into stunning death toll of over 200.

Soon I was scribbling away, updating stories, answering calls from radio stations describing the latest "brutal" attack in Baghdad and the ongoing "civil war" or was it just a "sectarian conflict" as bombs "rip apart" the neighborhood in a city "convulsed" by violence as the "fabric of society frays" or whatever other cliché I've gotten so used to using to describe the nasty situation here.

And there, barely, at the edge of it all, are the memories of the mountains I had been in just that morning. I want to go back to the northern Iraq, the border with Iran. To the clean, crisp air, the rugged terrain, snow-capped mountains, and idealistic young guerillas in the baggy Kurdish trousers and vests of their revolutionary uniform.

The only car there is a battered pickup driven by a taciturn fellow named Abdallah who wears a stocking cap with a patch of Che Guevera sewn on it. He navigates the rutted mountain trails between villages, recently shredded by a heavy downpour, alternately giving rides to Kurdish school children on their way home or a pair of women wearing bandanas and carrying assault rifles on their way from one camp to another.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been fighting Turkey for a Kurdish state for the last 30 years, during which time tens of thousands of civilians have died and now they are holed up in the mountains of northern Iraq – which Turkey is threatening to invade to root them out.

The Turks say they are terrorists, the Kurds say they've changed and they are just looking for a "democratic, peaceful, political solution" to the Kurdish question – I know that because they told me... several times.

Supposedly, somewhere along the line the movement left behind its Marxist-Leninst thing and is now just one more democratically-minded bunch of people seeking promote civil society... yet they still come across as doctrinaire as any college student wearing black turtlenecks, sipping coffee, chain smoking and having too many intense conversations.

But really they are lovely.

It's an ideal. It's a vision. The military camp we lived in for about four days was like a slightly intense summer camp where everyone was armed. They chopped wood, they took hikes, and then everyone plays volleyball.

When we arrived, everyone lined up in formation, and we walked down the line, shaking everyone's hand – official greetings done, we sat and had tea. The first of probably, 3,000 cups I had on that trip.

There was a bit of a mixup, so they couldn't provide the English interpreter at first, so there was a bit of an impasse, since we didn't speak any of the multiple Kurdish dialects, Turkish, or Iranian, but luckily the movement includes a lot of Syrians. So soon it was all conversations in Kurdish translated into Arabic, that I then related to Dave, the photographer.

It was such a relief to hear Syrian Arabic after all that Iraqi – it's just so much more comprehensible to me, I suddenly felt as that I could actually speak the language after a year of feeling incompetent.

So we went on patrols, watched a military exercise they put on for our benefit – tossing grenades, firing the rocket launcher and popping off plenty of AK-47 rounds – and listened to a few ideological discussions where everyone seemed to be reading from the same cue card.

I sat and talked with them a bit, at least the ones who spoke Arabic, and many had joined the movement when they were just 15, because they felt the oppression or maybe just moved by the words of the "leader" – their version of the Middle East's cult of personality curse is a fellow named Abdallah Ocalan – and they were all so young and just sweet.

Our plates were always full, glasses of tea refilled. I woke up one frigid morning, because the fire had burned out in the mountain hut we shared, to see the guerilla commander draping another blanket over me.

It was a weird utopian place that would just wither under the proper cynical scrutiny, but then why would you want to do that? They are training to fight for the just cause. They chop wood, cook food, haul water, play volleyball and stride around mountains – and generally appear to be really healthy and happy.

They are also totally celibate, which is really weird. If you consider a camp, equally men and women, that consists entirely of 15 to 25 year olds. But as one rebel commander (a matronly 26) told me, "we have higher aims".

It was weird, but after a while we ran with it, and got into the groove – putting our watches to Turkish time as they do. Eating breakfast at 6am, lunch at 11am and dinner at 4pm. We never really got into the 5am assembling on the parade ground to swear allegiance to the leader thing, however.

And on the last day, we actually joined them for one of their games of volleyball. And it was good.

As so we said goodbye, once more moving down the line shaking everyone's hand, trying out our new words of Kurdish. One girl, showed her own language skills with an English "bye bye", followed by a heartfelt "long live Abdallah Ocalan". Which was cool, I mean, we understood.

Across that stunningly beautiful valley, was one of the PKK's women's academies where political cadres and the female guerilla commanders come for further education to take back to their units.

When we arrived, they were on their last day of a week-long set of courses and we sat in for the lecture. The English interpreter had found us by this time, so he translated bits for me. Apparently this was the week-long culmination of the history of women in the world and the gradual restriction of their rights through the ages.

"You have to know the questions before you can find the solutions," explained one of the academy's teachers to me, yet another Syrian. This crew were a bit older, a bit harder, and a lot better at volleyball, as it turned out.

They were a bit more wary of us, but just as hospitable, and we had a hut to sleep in, and a wood stove to keep us warm as it only seemed to get colder on those crisp mountain sides.

I interviewed several of them, and they told me about the struggle – the struggle for Kurdish identity, to be able to just speak your own language and the double struggle of women in a society that is just as tribal and feudal as the rest of the Middle East.

They used the word "feudal" a lot, actually, usually when explaining to me the stages that societies pass through. I got a little tired of it, but soon found myself using the same language when asking questions ("but how do you combat these same feudal mentalities among your own comrades?").

That's another thing, they all call each other comrade. "Rafiq" in Arabic, "havel" in Kurdish, as far as I could make out. At first I just thought everyone had the same first name, until they started referring to us as Comrade David and Comrade Paul.

And how do they deal with the male-dominated attitudes among fellow comrades? It is a struggle, a long struggle within us all, they explained to me – though apparently showing up in a village dressed in fatigues carrying a Kalashnikov goes a long way in getting the male elders' attention.

And from their fellow fighters? "The martyrdoms really helped," one eager activist to me. The women dying for the cause earned them the men's respect, and she told me about one woman, a doctor, a psychologist, who had strapped explosives onto herself and walked into a Turkish army base and blew herself killing 50 of them. "Fifty soldiers dead, and countless wounded, that is no small thing."

Between 1995 and 1999, the PKK conducted 15 suicide bombings, 11 of them by women.

There was this sick twisting feeling, in my stomach. Feminism through suicide. Through suicide bombing. It was kind of like, nooooo, wait, don't do that. I like you people, don't say things like that. I like your kooky utopianism on a mountain-side, I like the way you think men and women and live side by side and by equal together... I mean I want it all to work out for you.

On the walls of most of their office is a fuzzy black and white image of a pretty, blank-faced young woman, Vian Jaf, who earlier this year set herself on fire on the Turkish-Iraqi border in protest of the plight of the Kurds.

I asked one of the movement's founders how they could condone this kind of stuff, and they said no they didn't, they condemned it. There was just this popular emotional response to the plight and it was out of their hands. Later as warmed ourselves by the stove in the sitting room, before he gave us dinner, I saw above his head, another poster of Vian.

It's a bit disappointing, but I think there is still something there. The other Kurdish parties have grown fat and corrupt since coming to power, and these ascetic mountain guerillas with their emphasis on women's rights and education might still have a thing or two to tell them all.

And anyway, it's got to be better then this mess in Baghdad where the suicide bomber are male and the nights ring to the sound of rival neighborhoods dropping mortars on each other.

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