Mud Season in Kurdistan

Now it’s my turn to write a letter while watching the snow fall from my bedroom window. The rest of the house — unheated, uninsulated concrete — is as cold as a a meat locker, but I’ve got a kerosene burner going, and and maybe another hour of town electricity before I have to go up on the roof and start our generator.

When I arrived in Irbil, on an expense-account assignment or Time, I immediately checked into the newly-built Sheraton, now the best hotel in Iraq. But the charm of rooms with key-card locks and public bathrooms with motion-sensor flush urinals wore off when I saw the pathetic security arrangements. Night duty at the front gate consisted of one sentry, sometimes armed, and a flock of geese. So I moved in with some freelance friends to this cold-water flat in a Christian suburb where there are liquor stores on every corner and beer gardens in the summer, and very little chance that a terrorist cell could set up shop without alerting the entire neighborhood.

For a while it was quite the hive of activity. One housemate, a reporter for Reuters, had two friends visiting, Kurdistan’s first British tourists, both girls, one an artist who had just finished her masters degree in London by building a replica of the spider hole in which Saddam Hussein was captured, and the other a yoga instructor who knows massage therapy. We set up Iraq’s only ashram in my room, and many an evening I’d return and find dinner made and waiting. My driver Mohammed put it best, “The girls are like flowers in the home.” Their replacements came a few days ago: another two guys from Reuters, an Arab photographer and his Kurdish fixer, taking a break from Mosul. They aren’t nearly as good-looking, and they can’t cook. But they did have some pretty shocking pictures from Mosul.

Now everyone has gone off on a field trip to Sulymania, Kurdistan’s second and far prettier city, to try and track down Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and possibly Iraq’s next president. I was thinking of going with them, but my assignment is finished — I’ve got a two-pager running this week, inshallah — and I’m just going to slink on back to Beirut this Friday. So it’s just me here by myself, except for an occasional visit from our housekeeper, Shawqat.

As I was writing this, he came in with a tray of coffee and hot chocolate. We sat at my desk, the heater behind us, and for the first time he told me about himself. He had been studying tourism management in Baghdad during the early eighties when he was drafted, along with everyone else, into the Iran-Iraq War. Eight army years later they let him return to civilian life, only to be dragged back for the invasion of Kuwait. He was eventually captured by the Americans, spent 10 months in a Saudi internment camp, refused political asylum because he wanted to see his family again, returned to Iraq only to be locked up in Abu Ghraib for two weeks, and finally made it home to Irbil to find it deserted in the face of Saddam’s onslaught against the Kurdish uprising. Now he makes breakfast and does laundry for the likes of me, surely no compensation for his troubles. Tomorrow he’s going to show me an English-language Bible that American soldiers gave him while he was a prisoner of war.

By then the snow will probably have melted, and the streets will turn to into the thin brown broth that in these parts passes as mud, but which is really just liquid dust that after even a few hours of dry weather returns quickly to its natural state. But for now, the house across the street has turned on the lights of their Christmas decorations, which, though it’s February, they haven’t yet taken down. The pine tree in their garden is the neighborhood Christmas tree, and tonight the electricity has stayed on longer than I expected.


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