March 12, 2006

The Last Village in Iraq

TAWELA, IRAQ – The village of Biara sits right on top of the Iranian border. But you can keep going further up the road, still higher into the rugged Kurdistan mountains, to the village of Tawela where you can see the Iranian gate.

Road to Tawela.jpg

The Kurdish highlands feel so far away from the Mesopotamiam plains down below. Surely this is one of the reasons Iraqi Kurds and Arabs look at each across an enormous cultural divide. They share the same religion and they share the same passport. But they live in different worlds and they always have.

I didn’t go to Tawela for any particular reason. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time. There was one more village to go on the road to Iran, so I went. Why did the man climb the mountain? Because it was there.

The 20 Peshmerga soldiers the PUK’s minister of the interior sent with me on my day trip to Biara in the footsteps of Zarqawi had no idea we would also visit Tawela. But we went there and we went there because I said I wanted to go there. It felt weird all but ordering around 20 of my own Peshmerga. But no one complained. We stopped our convoy at the side of the road looking down into Iran to take pictures. I took photographs of the mountains. My Peshmerga buddies took photographs of themselves in front of the mountains with the cameras built into their cell phones.

Peshmerga Near Tawela.jpg

Iranian Mountains Between Biara and Tawela.jpg

The villagers of Tawela are walnut farmers. You can buy giant bags bursting with wallnuts in the shops for almost no money. There aren’t a lot of trees, walnut of otherwise, left in the region. Environmentalism arrived rather belatedly in these parts, but cutting down trees is now considered heinous and vile.

The town isn’t particularly attractive or striking. It doesn’t stand out in any way except for its location right next to the border on the open road into Iran. It’s just an average Kurdistan village in Northern Iraq, conservative and male-dominated as almost all Muslim villages are everywhere in the world.


Villagers in Tawela.jpg

Rain started coming down in a torrent. Waves of lashing water swept across the streets. I ducked into a tea shop with my translator Alan, partly to get out of the rain and partly to squeeze in just a few more minutes of conversation with people before it was time to head back to the city.

I found a seat next to an old man and ordered a glass of (what else?) Iraqi style tea.

It’s hard to describe what happened next without sounding arrogant or full of myself. I don’t mean it that way. The same thing would likely have happened to you if we had switched places. Almost everyone in that tea shop - and it was a crowded place - gathered around me and wanted to shake my hand as though I were a rock star.

People in the cities are used to seeing foreigners. Hardly anyone ever stared at me on the streets or paid me much mind. But American civilians in black leather jackets aren’t a common sight in Tawela. It’s the kind of village where hardly anything ever happens, where hardly anything ever changes, so just the act of my showing up was (apparently) a huge deal.

I couldn’t talk to everyone. It would be dark soon and we needed to get down the wet mountain roads before nightfall. But I asked the old man sitting next to me a few questions through my translator Alan.

His name is Osman Sadeq Hakim and he told me he is 64 years old.

Old Man in Tawela.jpg

What was the hardest time this village has seen?

“When the Iran/Iraq war was here,” he said. “That was the worst time. Before the war there were 800 families. Most were displaced. Mine was one of them. The Iraqi army didn’t allow us to enter the village. We had to sneak in through the orchards.”

What are you most afraid of right now?

“Islamists,” he said bluntly without a moment’s hesitation.

Did Ansar Al Islam occupy this village?

“Yes,” he said. “We didn’t want them to stay but they forced themselves on us. They were not as strong here as they were in Biara, but they were still able to impose their rules on us.”

Who belonged to Ansar Al Islam? Were they from around here?

“Indians, Kurds, Arabs, and Persians. The Iranian government supported them against us.”

What do you think of the Iranian government?

“It is not a good regime. We do visit people from there, but we don’t do it officially.”

Were you affected by the Kurdish civil war? (The PUK and the KDP fought a stupid low-level conflict in the mid 1990s.)

“No,” he said. “We were like one family. We did not allow that war to come here.”

Should Iraqi Kurdistan declare independence from Baghdad?

“We are a different people. We have our own history and culture. We will join with the Iranian Kurds, Inshallah.”

A young man who spoke perfect English pushed his way through the crowd that had gathered around. He wanted to make sure he had a chance to speak to me. He crouched down so he could look me in the eye while I sat.

Young Man in Tawela.jpg

What do you think? I asked him. Should Iraqi Kurdistan declare independence?

“If the West stands with us, we want independence for all the Kurds in the world. We are one people. Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iran, are exactly like us.”

I wanted to know: What’s the one best thing the West can do for the Kurds? He told me the same old answer that has been bouncing around in this part of the world for decades:

“We want Kurdistan to be the 51st American state.”


Postscript: This concludes my series on Iraqi Kurdistan. Now it’s time for me to hit the road again. I can’t say where I’m going for security reasons, but you’ll find out as soon as I’m back. And this time when I’m “back” I’ll be back in the United States.

A couple of guest bloggers will be filling in for me in the meantime. I will introduce them shortly.

Thanks to everyone who donated money and helped make non-corporate writing financially viable. If you haven’t yet hit my tip jar, now would be a good time. Without reader donations, this kind of blogging wouldn’t be possible.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 12, 2006 09:55 PM

Yeah!!!!!!! I get the first comment!

I guess I'd better say something intelligent...

God Bless Kurdistan!!!!!!!!!!

It was a great article, just dont get too full of yourself. I should know, its too late for me.


Posted by: Freedom Now at March 12, 2006 10:22 PM

“We want Kurdistan to be the 51st American state.”

God bless the people of Kurdistan, and God bless America.

Posted by: Carlos at March 12, 2006 10:30 PM

Seriously, a book!

Posted by: Andrew Brehm at March 13, 2006 01:43 AM

These are fabulous reports; what blogs are meant to be. I look forward to each report. Contrary to what the MSM wants us to believe, the whole world doesn't hate us. Maybe we aren't the bad guys after all.

I'll hit the tip jar so you can keep up the superb writing. Bravo!

Posted by: JeffB at March 13, 2006 05:56 AM

Michael, your posts on Kurdistan were wonderful. I know I'll return in the future to read them again. A book would be a great idea.

“We want Kurdistan to be the 51st American state.”

What a strange thing to hear now days. I wish that for them too.

God bless you Kurdistan! We love you...

Posted by: MANDY at March 13, 2006 06:51 AM

No, we don't need a new state on the other side of the world. I would like to see them get their country, though, and become one of our best allies.

Posted by: Ardsgaine at March 13, 2006 08:40 AM

This is the sentiment in more parts of the world that you might think. It's mostly dreamy Europeans and entrenched elites in other countries who feel they can afford the luxury of sneering at the US. The ordinary people they don't give a damn about often feel very differently, as you show here.

The MSM of course recoil in horror from stories like this. They have no idea how to practice journalism in a world in which stories like this can be true.

Posted by: ZF at March 13, 2006 09:01 AM

cream always rises to the top - thank you for sharing these moments.

Posted by: nanc at March 13, 2006 09:53 AM

"The MSM of course recoil in horror from stories like this."

Yeah, if you went by the MSM, you would get the impression the Kurds didn't like or were indifferent to the U.S. /sarcasm.

Posted by: Dustin R. Ridgeway at March 13, 2006 10:11 AM

I thought Israel was the 51st state. Best of luck to Iraq, Kurdish or otherwise.

Posted by: Mike #3or4 at March 13, 2006 11:33 AM

I can´t give you money, but I give you a hug. So near yet so far (I am on the other side of the Blue Line). Take care, Michael, and congratulations for a job well done.

Posted by: Fabian at March 13, 2006 12:21 PM

Yes Sir a book is in order. Excellent writing and perspective. A book and sevceral TV appearances on Fox, my favorite and CNN, and the broadcast nets. Great keep up this excellent work!

Posted by: Duncan Harvey at March 13, 2006 01:42 PM

Great reporting Michael.
I wonder if you visited Ahmedawa waterfall just before Biara.
Well if you didn't then let me tell you about it. On the mountain range where Biara is nestled and just before the road leaves the plains and start climbing-up, there is a side turn to the left and it goes up to the valley. its not visible from the plains but once up high in the valley(the road gets very close to it) and a mile or so high on the side of the mountain a river of water gushes out of a little cave and makes a spectacular waterfall. A river, literally, comming out from a huge rock. It is a wonder
well I hope you did. during the hot summer months its packed with people barbecuing,picnic, singing and playing music and drinking alcoholic beverages all day and well into the night. even at the hight of summer the water is ice cold.
And if you didn't have a small army of fierce peshmergas sightseeing with you and indulging themselves in a bit of digital photography, then knowing Hawrami people you most probably would have got invited home for some lunch and tasted some dilicious cusine, man they have tasty food. But they couldn't feed 22 of you. Well, may be next time.
All those mountains in the pictures you call Iran, will they are eastern kurdistan for miles and much different from other iranian parts. They are just like the people and places you visited but unfortunately under iranian occupation.
All the best in your future travels. Being far away I very much enjoyed watching my local from your site.

I agree with you 100%
Americans and all democratic countries need to realise there is a stratigic and like minded ally in the kurdish people and kurdistan that needs to be supported.
God help free independent Kurdistan.

Posted by: A-Y at March 13, 2006 01:47 PM

Inspiring--well said. BTW, I saw your photojournal from your travels through Libya a few years ago (forgiveness if I am confusing you with somebody else). I never had a forum to say "WOW, what an incredible eye-opener" until now.
Anyhow, keep up the good work--you do a good service to your country and humanity in general.

Posted by: Jrod at March 13, 2006 01:53 PM

So the countries that do NOT want to be an American state are France, Russia, and China. And I'll bet if you asked the Chinese people, they'd think it was a neat idea.

Good. I don't want France or Russia in my country, either.

Posted by: NahnCee at March 13, 2006 07:22 PM

Kurdistan, like Poland, would be a lovely ally. Thank you Michael, for your amazing reporting. Your courageous work is changing the way news is gathered.

Posted by: Melissa at March 13, 2006 07:40 PM

Keep yourself safe Michael! I've been promoting your blog to as many folks as I can. I look forward to your next adventure with glee! :) Will hit the jar as soon as possible.

Oh...and p.s. that last guy in the photo is HOT. :) shhh...don't tell my husband I said that!

Posted by: Megs at March 13, 2006 07:48 PM

"The MSM of course recoil in horror from stories like this."

The alternate press even more so.

I once got in a shouting match with a very alternative-press reporter over the Iraq war. It was John Gorenfeld a Berkeley Journalism school graduate who's a bit cracked - he's extremely paranoid about conservative Christians and Moonies(???), but worrying about Al Qa'eda hasn't entered his mind even once. Anyway for supporting the overthrow of Saddam, I was called a Nazi a bunch of times, then he sent me a nasty email that just read "You're hideous."

You know back when I was a kid there was a hedonistic counter culture - now the "alternates" are all sanctimonious disillusioned Marxists who are convinced that they're, each and every one, a secular Gandhi and Jesus Christ rolled into one.

Posted by: Joshua Scholar at March 13, 2006 10:56 PM

“We want Kurdistan to be the 51st American state.”

that is a good idea, better is

"United Provinces of Kurdistan"

Biji Kurd o Kurdistan,
Biji Peshmergajati the main power in kurdish tradition

Posted by: diaqo at March 13, 2006 11:24 PM

please read in this link about Kurds and Peshmergajati:

Posted by: diaqo at March 13, 2006 11:29 PM

After World War I, in 1922, The League of Nations gave France a mandate over Syria and Lebanon, United Kingdom over Iraq, Palastine and Jordan. In that times, the citizen of these nations where in a mood that they will be a state of France and UK. But, they weren't more than a tool for imperialist strategic aims.

History is repeating itself.

Posted by: Ulus at March 14, 2006 07:14 AM

The UN had better budget for another flagpole, because the Kurdish flag is going up, even if the Iraqi flag has to come down.

Posted by: Laurence Simon at March 14, 2006 11:18 AM

The MSM here says a lot about unreliable electricity in Iraq.

What is the situation like in the Kurdistan region?

Posted by: Laurence Simon at March 15, 2006 12:35 PM

Ulus, don't be silly. As Mark Twain observed, "History doesn't repeat itself - at best it sometimes rhymes."

Posted by: Citizen Grim at March 15, 2006 12:41 PM

Citizen Grim,

Make you feel anxious, confirms that I've hit the right head. Feel anxious at most for using slang to me.

Posted by: Ulus at March 16, 2006 05:50 AM

Ulus, I was merely pointing out that your line of reasoning was flawed.

Just because France and Britain had quasi-"imperial" protectorates (coincidentally in the same region of the world), does not demonstrate anything about the motives of the U.S., and people who extrapolate such are doing themselves a disservice.

In fact, Iraq already has way more autonomy than any of the postbellum League of Nations mandates ever enjoyed.

Posted by: Citizen Grim at March 16, 2006 06:43 AM
One of the ways in which the police in repressive societies intimidate people is by turning up at protest meetings and taking pictures of them. What, then, are we supposed to make of this behaviour in London yesterday? Note that this is the same Metropolitan Police that did nothing about demonstrators who incited to violence in May 2005 and then only responded in February 2006 after a public outcry. Many thanks to Nordishblog.

From reading the links you included in the post I have the impression that since the outcry after the anti cartoon protests the police decided they need to be able to prosecute people for inciting violence. To get a conviction they have to have evidence such a photographs or videotapes of offenders. So, probably they have instituted a policy of collecting evidence. Maybe there were no offences committed during the freedom of expression demonstration but I think the quote above is somewhat paranoid. People ask for change and then complain when it is instituted.

Posted by: anonymous at March 26, 2006 06:12 AM

Maybe we aren't the bad guys after all.
This is the sentiment in more parts of the world that you might think. It's mostly dreamy Europeans and entrenched elites in other countries who feel they can afford the luxury of sneering at the US.
To both you guys, and any other American patriots reading, who sometimes feel the pressure of those foolish anti-American sentiments, I'd like to say there are JUST AS MANY who respect and admire America, and value it's place in the scheme of things, who stand with you and support you.
God bless America. May the best of America triumph over the weak and treacherous.
From an Australian, who has read some history! (and who admires your 2nd Ammendment!)
Michael. Wow, mate, what a great blog!

Posted by: PETER at May 22, 2006 05:24 AM

Great blog!

Posted by: Mikhah at July 25, 2006 02:47 PM

Hooooa. Biji Kurdistan, God bless the states. USA freed more than 27Million people. Evereyone there apprecheates that. the ones who dont are arabian propaganda victims.

Posted by: Peshmerga at June 12, 2007 05:41 AM

kurdistan is a beautiful place in the world i like it very mouch and God bless the all people of kurdistan

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