Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Iraqi Question

On Thursday I had a plan to ride my motorbike to my sister's birthday dinner in Epping. It had been raining earlier but eventually it cleared with a strong wind that dried everything and made the air crackle. I rolled my bike outside the back gate, into the alley behind my house. No sooner had I switched it on when a torrent of petrol began spurting out of the bike all over the road. A man who seemed to come out of nowhere stopped his bicycle and said "Yeah I could smell it from down the street". Then as if I'd called him to come and work on the bike, he got off and began to look inspect it closely. "Ahh you have a bike, right?" I inquired. He told me he was a courier and he lived up the road. He had white hair, yellow teeth and the darkly highlighted features of a long time smoker. When he spied my learner plates, he said "The cops are much more lenient on you if you've got those - keep em for as long as you can".

We traced the dampness upward to a busted fuel line "only two bucks to fix". I thanked him and as he rode off I asked him why he was riding a bicycle "...because I lost my license!" he yelled back.

My lot, therefore, was public transport from here on in. Luckily I had an audio version of Arguably by Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant series of essays and feature articles that he had written for various meaty magazines, mostly from the last half decade. I had reached the "Offshore accounts" section - which contains his accounts of travelling to many places that I had considered for this trip - North Korea and Iran for example.

Iran had been on my mind and in the news all week after headlines about how crowds ransacked offices of the English embassy in Tehran. The English then responded by expelling all Iranian diplomats. M having both a UK and an Australian passport (both members of the same Commonwealth) the chance of getting a visas for Iran seemed increasingly remote. It's such a shame because everything I have heard about Northern Iran says that it is aesthetically beautiful, the locals are hospitable in the extreme - Muslim hospitality is almost a cliche. My interest had peaked when I had been walking home before the fuel line incident and was listening to Hitchen's describing the bridge in city of Esfahan (the city itself is described as "a miracle of proportion") in his essay "Iran’s Waiting Game" as:

Many fine bridges span its river, one with 33 arches in which slits have been carved through three walls. When you stand back and view them from the right angle, they give the perfect outline of a candle, while allowing you to see through to the other side. This miracle of perspective—such ingenuity for such a slight but pleasing effect—is seconded, if you like, by the tower which will convey the merest whisper from one stone corner to another.

The combination of this deep interest and the knowledge that my chances of seeing Esfahan were dwindling, poised on events far outside my control, brought about a longing in me. But I remembered that when travelling one had to be versatile and I began to search for a contingency plan. Luckily enough my expulsion from the motorcycling world for that afternoon meant that sitting by the window and looking out into the sepia afternoon sun, at the rust coloured warehouses of the train depot, like slumped empty overcoats I had the time to get to an essay about nine later in the collection which discussed Hitchen's trip in Kurdistan, Iraq. The Kurdistan have made an attempt to differentiate themselves from the rest of Iraq with a tourist campaign, the Other Iraq, which seeks to bring the western tourist dollar to their autonomous region. He spoke of it as a safe place, free of the sectarian violence that plagued, and still plagues, the rest of the country.

Iraqi Kurdistan is in the North of Iraq and has been autonomous since 1970. It is home of the ethnic Kurds who were repressed under Saddam (he tried out chemical weapons on them) - then betrayed by the West, when the US invaded the first time one of the pretexts was to save the Kurds - but they pulled out before the job was done. Despite this they seemed eager to show their independence from the rest of Iraq, both with regards to character and autonomy, and encourage Western investment. They have even built their own version of McDonalds, MaDonal. There are parts of the essay which strike a particularly melancholy but inspiring chord. That a people whose homeland overlaps the nexus of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria could ever hope for any form of unity. How they have been constantly repressed while falling from the international worthy-causes spotlight. Despite this they have had the tenacity and courage to rise up, make a grasp global involvement and relevance. Sounds like somewhere that I might want to visit.

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