Monday, March 26, 2012

Nawroz: Happy Spring and Happy New Year-2712

Last week Kurdish people joined together with Persian people (and many others around the world ) to celebrate the biggest holiday of the year- Nawroz. A friend I was visiting explained it to me. " There are 4  things you need to know about Nawroz and why it is so important. 1. It is the first day of Spring, 2. It is the first day of the New Year in the Iranian calendar, which is 2712 here. 3. It is a very ancient festival from the days of Zoroastrianism, a very ancient religion. 4. It is the time for Kurds to celebrate being Kurdish. Immediately after he told me this the local news station announced that Canadian Primeminister had spoken Kurdish and wished all those celebrating a Happy Nawroz!!


The celebration for Kurds has several facets: It is a time to dress up in traditional Kurdish clothes. Often the women get a brand new Kurdish dress for the celebration. It is a time to light fires in formal displays in the middle of towns and cities.  And it is a time for families to gather and go out of the towns and cities to have picnics. These feasts are most often made of dolma (rice and meat wrapped in vegetables), chicken breast skewered and roasted over a charcoal fire, bread and raw vegetables. Of course, the tea pot comes along too to provide many cups of sugary tea.

I was invited to join long time friends of CPT Iraqi Kurdistan who live in a smaller city about 1 1/2 hours by bus away. I stayed for 3 days and participated in all the busy preperation.
Nishtiman books bread for the next day so no one will have to stand in line early in the morning.

She bought the greens to eat at the picnic, green onions, parsley and other ones too.

Across the road from the bread baker these young men lit a simple hot air balloon.

Khalid and Nishtiman
Making tea at the picnic

Nishtiman with Khalid's aunt who was visiting from Iran.

The people from Raniya are fortunate to have an area that has been reforested with pine trees to have their picnics. Many families created simple swings from the tree branches.

All over the world, when there is meat and fire involved, the men do the cooking.

Lunch time with dolma and vegetables and chicken and bread.

Nishtiman's sisters lent me a Kurdish dress for the day. Lukasz wore our friend Ramyar's Kurdish suit and a traditional head covering.

A proud grandmother with her two month old grandson resting in the small tent.
Most of Nistiman's family

Even the cows came to the picnic. I don't think they ate the chicken though.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

the Eyes of 10,000 Were Watching

[Just in case you were wondering about my last post and how we got the cow out of the garage!! We don't have a garage and she was rummaging through the garbage!!]

I wrote this reflection for CPT Net. Our friend and  Muhammed has been (and is continuing to be) an integral part of our team here at CPT Iraqi Kurdistan [note our new name]. He has carried our coal and vegetables up the mountain on his back for a picnic and he has visited Chicago for the CPT 2011 Congress as a representative of our partners here in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Here is a storyI wrote with help from  Muhammed.


An activist friend of CPT Iraqi Kurdistan once said, “Kurdish families are very connected, but also everyone knows everyone in Kurdistan. When you become an activist you have to be concerned not only about your blood connections but you have to be concerned about 10,000 people who know about you and hear everything you say and watch everything you do.

Muhammed Salah Mahdi, our partner, translator and friend, met CPT in 2006. At that time he was a driver. He noticed quickly that driving for CPT put him into an unusual situation; the team  invited him  to sit together with them at meetings and asked for  his opinion and advice. He took the opportunity to increase his English proficiency which helped him in his other job, an elementary school English teacher. He engaged in discussions with the team: what brought CPT to Kurdistan, what was nonviolent  activism and how did it work.  Gradually he added to his job description- driver, translator, advisor, friend and activist.  The team began to appreciate more and more his ideas and wisdom on how to send out messages to the Kurdish people. He joined together with the team in those actions, such as dressing his truck in signs and an “injured” mannekin to illustrate the message about border bombing and shelling.

On 14 March, 2012 Muhammed  came to the CPT house with a plan. This was the day that the new prime minister of Kurdish Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani visited Suleimani. He came to discuss the split in the government with the opposition party, Gorran (change) List. When Muhammed heard of this visit he decided this was the day for him to become a lone activist without the safety net of saying he was working for CPT.  He knew the eyes of the region would be upon him. He expected the media would pick up his message. He hoped that Barzanni would see his lone figure through the tinted glass and think for a moment.  His hand written banner read, “Don’t be afraid of reform. Start with yourself. Make history for yourself.”

Muhammed drove his truck out to the gates of Gorran hill. He stood by himself and held the sign for all to see. Barzani’s cavalcade moved past him without any obvious acknowledgement.

But he was right,10,000 eyes were watching.  The television media spent more time on his story than Barzani’s visit. Photos and written releases were on many of the Kurdish internet news sites. Muhammed’s family was not very happy with his decision to become part of the limelight. Why did it have to be him to do this action? Why would he put himself into the eye of the government? Did he not remember that such activity can be very dangerous in this society?  People from across the region phoned to say they had seen him. Some of these were congratulatory, others wondered of his sanity.

Muhammed is not afraid. He wants a government who listens to the people, who treats them in a fair and wise way. This was a way for him to tell them that message, with the hope that someday corruption will end and real democracy will rule in Kurdistan.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Yipee, I had a real Kurdish conversation

I had the most unexpected visit today. I was heading out to the bazaar to go shopping. About 5 minutes from home (after passing a cow rummaging through the garage), I saw a mother sitting by the side of the road with her baby. I stopped to ask whether i could take their photo.

As I was speaking to her, an older woman came out of the house across the street. She walked over to us and asked me the usual questions-"where are you from etc". Then she asked if I would like to come in for tea. Scary moment, then my latent impulsiveness kicked in and I said -"bulay- yes". So we went in and met another woman. They seemed very thrilled that I was coming to have tea with them. (As it turned out I was the only one who had tea- but that was OK). We proceded to have a real conversation. All about children and where I live and what I work at. The grandmother told me that 3 of her children had been killed in 1988  in the chemical bombingt in Halabja. Of course there was a lot I did not get, but that was OK with me and them. We just worked at it and understood what we could. It was a little disconcerting when the husband who obviously did not know I was there came from the upstairs in his boxers and undershirt. But he seemed to take it into his stride and quickly went to get dressed. Then he took a photo of all us- 3 generations and me.

Eventually, I somehow told them that I needed to go shopping and they let me depart. On my way home from the bazaar I saw this row of men sitting on the wall beside the main road. They are street cleaners who  work throughout the city with a broom, shovel and a wheelie bin. Usually they wear a scarf tightly wrapped over their face to protect from the dust and car exhaust. I think of them as the invisible people as most people do not even acknowledge their presence (and essential work). Here they seemed to be taking a break and relished the thought that I wanted to take their photo. They thanked me greatly when I showed it to them.

IRAQ REFLECTION: A small miracle in Suleimaniya

I am reposting a reflection that I wrote for CPT Net. Apologies to those who have already seen it.

The news spread through the city of Suleimaniya so quickly.  Within an hour, Kurdish news outlets let the locals know that something bad had happened.  From there, it moved even more quickly across the ocean.  By the evening of 1 March, I was shocked to read it in myManitoba prairie city’s newspaper: “Iraqi student kills American teacher in Christians school murder-suicide. “ Along with the bare facts, the questions and rumours arose.  Why had the eighteen-year-old Kurdish boy carried a handgun to class in aChristian school in Suleimaniya and shot his teacher to death on 1 March?  Was this the consequence of religious disagreement?  Was there some other kind of conflict between the two of them?  How could a handgun have entered the classroom?

Some our Kurdish partners called a meeting to see if some sort of action should take place.  None of us had known either the teacher or the boy. Reports said that this type of shooting was not so unusual, that it happens in the USA all the time, but violence like this had never happened in a school in Kurdish Northern Iraq.  Kurds were reeling and asking themselves, what is it about their country that allows people to settle differences with a gun in a classroom?  They were sad, angry, and even embarrassed.  We all left the meeting with some ideas, but many of us had the feeling that if remembrance was done for the victim, than it had to be for the assailant as well.  Both were human beings that were equally loved by God.  Both of them were victims of the weapon.

The traditional three days of funeral for Bayar Sarwar were finished when the announcement was emailed notifying the community of the funeral of teacher Jeremiah Small.  However, this funeral was to be a time to remember both Jeremiah and Bayar.

On the morning of 6 March the large city cultural hall was almost full of students and their families, the expatriate community, religious leaders and many others.  The media was out in full force as well with bright lights and padded microphones. 

 On the stage stood two large photographs, one of tall, strong Jeremiah and one of a smiling younger man, Bayar.  There were prayers, hymns, and eulogies from students who loved the teacher and messages from officials.  There were mentions of Bayar by fellow students who were obviously struggling to come to terms with a comrade who had caused this tragedy but now was dead.  Bayar’s father stood and spoke with emotion about knowing that there was conflict between the two, but having no idea that it would lead to this tragedy.  He apologized to the Small family and said,  “The shooting was a painful thing to us also.”

After Mr. Small stood with his family on the stage, a bit of a miracle happened.  We saw a Christian family who had traveled from Washington State to bury their son in Kurdistan,because Jeremiah had no insurance coverage for transporting his body and because he had lived here for seven years and loved it.  We saw a Muslim family grieving the loss of a son who had committed murder and then ended his own life.  But Mr. Small said to the gathered crowd,  “The killing of our son should be turned into an event to call for peace and coexistence.  We do not have any hatred for the family of the student who killed our son.”  Then, they filed down from the stage.  Instead of returning directly to their seats, they moved down the aisle to  Bayar’s family.  They reached out their arms and invited them to join in their mutual grief.  The Kurdish family accepted the invitation and they hugged and cried together.  Something very small, but something also very big.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Aro's first bowling game

The last couple of blog posts have been somewhat sombre. So I decided to lighten this one up and introduce you to 5 year old Aro and to tell the story of his first bowling game.

Our wonderful friend, partner, and translator, Mohammed,  had his 35th birthday two weeks ago. We made cookies for him and then told him that his gift was an evening of bowling with us and his family. There is one bowling alley in Suleymania, The Bowling Centre. (In the same complex as the "Scary Cinema", that we have not attended). So, a couple of evenings later we all piled into his 6 seater truck along with Mohammed, sons Alan, Aro and his wife, Hershu. Mohammed had bowled once before but the boys had not. Alan tried to figure out how to bowl with 3 fingers in the holes but Aro developed his own technique!!

Aro discovers the bowling balls.

I am sure that I can lift one of these.
Mohammed tried to give him some pointers on how to get the ball down the long alley.

First try. It made it down... very slowly.

Bud tried to give him some pointers too- 1/2 way down the alley. The proprietor's did not make any comment until Aro tried to walk all the way down to the pins carrying the ball.

He enjoyed the gme so much that he wanted to take everyone's turns.
Mohammed and his family

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Kurdish Northern Iraq first school shooting

I have observed and listened ever since Thursday when our friend Mohammed arrived at the house to tell us that something bad had happened. In a local private school a highschool student had shot his American teacher and then committed suicide. I think I am hardened. It did not really make an impact on me. (And later the director of education was reported to have said, "this is normal. It happens in America all the time".)

I was shocked 3 hours later to find an article on the Winnipeg Free Press website .  I wondered if the story had flown so quickly because the victim was an American. Would it have done so if a Kurdish boy had killed a Kurdish teacher?

Any way it is now 3 days since it happened and we are finding that the city is extremely shocked and is reeling from the situation. Teacher Jeremiah Small who had been teaching at a private school here apparently was involved in an argument with the 18 year old student and in the middle of class the boy had taken out a handgun. Reports from the students are not consistent. Some say it was about religion, others say it was nothing to do with religion. Nobody seems to know why the boy was provoked to do the act and then to turn the gun onto himself.

It is known that he is from a very influential family- one that could have worked probably very easily to smooth over the crime. It is also said that Mr Small was careful not to preach Christianity. It is a Christian school but parents know this when their students are enrolled.

Today, we were asked by a group of our partners if we would help them to plan some sort of action with regard to the death of Jeremiah Small. We felt uncomfortable with this. We did not know the man or the boy but we consider that there are two victims in this. The boy of a  society that seems to consider handguns to be an Ok thing to carry around (we have been told by our partners that members of the goverment leadership have given gifts of over 25,000 handguns that don't have to be registered because they have a special exemption seal on them). The man is obviously a victim of this ideology as well as of a boy who seems to have been disturbed for some reason.

We suggested that an action had to be done to remember that both were victims, but the Kurds we know are not ready for this. They are very angry at the boy- some even spoke of hate. We hope that sometime they will be able to move out of this. We hope that someday the handgun will not be a typical piece of apparel-- here and in America.