I can think of no place where I feel more vulnerable, no place where I feel more at ease, no place where I would rather be. There is something about the unknown that is thrilling.
I have spent the afternoon with a young Iraqi soldier who speaks not a word of English and can barely write. Yet like myself and like so many other people here, he just wants to learn about that which is new and foreign to him. So this afternoon we sent away our entourage and set off with Soran Ali Raza to explore the city. Heading into the unknown we eventually wondered if perhaps he was taking us to sell (westerners are worth a lot of money here). Suddenly though we turned into a park and realised that all he wanted was to take pictures among the flowerbeds. Never before have I been more surprised, never before have I been so relieved.
On Soran’s left forearm was a large heart shaped tattoo bearing his initial and the initial of the girl he once loved – she has left him recently. In this culture that is punishable by death. Coming from the countryside both of them risk having their throats slit by protective fathers or brothers: honour killings are very much a way of life here, though barely talked about.
This highlights a theme that I have been watching closely. Earlier in the day I spoke to a young Iraqi from Kirkuk. We were sitting in a ruined 12th century fort overlooking Dukan lake, and I asked him what his dreams were and what his fears were. His answer to both questions was “love”. This is no exaggeration – it is for them a matter of life or death.
Yesterday we spoke to a local friend who we met a few days ago, Juuan. He also spoke to us about honour killings and the need to respect women; the extent to which couples must honour their families and above all how they must abide by strict Islamic law. He then went on to talk happily about tits, sex and alcohol.
Just 10 minutes ago we were speaking to a Swedish / Iranian mercenary who had come from Baghdad to see his very beautiful Kurdish wife. The commander of the local unit, an old peshmerga, drooled openly over her then gave some pelvic thrusts as she left. I guarantee he looks down on sex before marriage however has adopted such crass western behaviour. (Prison Break and 24 among others, are both big over here- Jack Bauer is spoken of as a real person)
All of these cases point to one of the many paradoxes within in the country. Society in many ways is at odds with itself. Many people we have met (excluding the old guard) lives one way, yet dreams another. I would say western influence is forcing a restoration on this country that it is not ready for. The cities are moving at a pace that the rural areas cannot, and do not want to keep up with.
I have been looking closely at western influences here and can see both positives and negatives – people struggling between the two to find their new identity. It is not a new story; in many ways it is like post war Japan and their struggle to cope with occupation.
Today was very laid back. We went to Dukan Lake to see how families spent their days together. We sat and talked to them surrounded by landscapes the likes of which I have rarely seen. It is stunning - this country is stunning. High on a mountaintop was Talabani’s new palace and this brought our conversation round to his accumulated wealth. Rumours of multi billion dollar corruption, of private oil wells and of a move away from the values that made him great, abound. Most think he is no longer in touch with the people and that their needs come second to his. I was told by one person that you can judge corruption here by the size of an entourage; I didn't see Talabani but I have heard his entourage is regal.
Corruption in the country is rife and most new buildings in the city remain unfinished. The government does not even have plans for many of them; they have simply been built and left empty as statements of modernization and westernisation. It seems to be a case of, if you build it, they will come.