A guitar sat alone by the desk where the bar owner loafed. Karduk and his friend, Joel, waved to me to join them in a corner, near the hooka, where we ordered Heineken Beer in Ankawa, Kurdistan on a Monday night. I was introduced by Karduk: "this is my America friend, Mr. Kirk, he is clever one, and you two are alike." I was always flattered by Karduk's assessment of me, regardless of how far off it was.
His real name wasn't Joel, but the bar noise was loud and I could've sworn he said "Joel," so I went with that. We spoke of politics immediately, as does everyone in Kurdistan, Iraq, the Middle East (and sometimes America). We spoke of what the country was like before a dictator and after. There was much mention of progress, dreams, ambitions, frustrations ... and beer. Joel spoke often of his angst, and his "not being able to sit still" in life or work, or in Iraq. He elaborated on his desire to travel to Syria or Turkey for education and "something more." Strangely enough, it reminded me of a Joel I knew from America who could not sit.
We sat and laughed and compared and contrasted our views versus our takes and our ability to give. We told awkward and hysterical stories of youth that sometimes we could relate to, but sometimes seemed so far apart. At some point, Joel suggested I play an American song, because I bragged I could. I should not have bragged -- the guitar in the corner I'd forgotten about soon sat dangling on my knee. While my fingers bounced around, awkwardly, I hummed the words of that famous Eagle's song in fast-forward. Searching for a way to put the out-of-tune, nylon-stringed beast to sleep, I began to sweat, and not because of the Arabian heat. Replaying all the chords in my head, I wondered if I should just say "screw it" and play something easy like Horse with no Name.
One Heineken later, I had strummed enough warm-up chords to fake my way through the first few bars of Hotel California even though none of us really remembered the song. For me it was simply because I forgot the words, and I was nervous. For them, it was because they didn't speak English very well and the words meant nothing to them. Regardless, we all hit the chorus perfectly, like a really annoying frat party. The kind of party where you all promise to meet again, ten years from now, at all costs. The kind of party I had assumed was "American" and there's just no way they could've had such an experience. And yet, they seemed to catch on quickly.
A few locals got up and walked out. They didn't look pissed, but embarrassed -- perhaps they'd been hoping to have a conversation rather than a "sing-a-long." I was slightly ashamed for that, but the people who stayed appeared pleased. I put the guitar down like a boy who'd broken his aunt's lamp, but the bar owner quickly put it back in my hands and said, "no, another song, please." Apparently he'd never heard Hotel California played correctly. So I murdered another tune, Out on the Weekend, by Neil Young. "Are you sure," I begged the bar owner after they applauded my lackluster rendition of one of my favorite songs and requested one more. "Yes, yes, play," both he and Karduk insisted. Karduk added, "playa like you mean it, bee-otch." (I had taught him some English, but I had not taught him that!)
More locals entered the bar and now I had a crowd. So, naturally, the performer in me came out to play, and I played one of my own numbers. But, feeling I should wrap it up, or shut up, I quickly turned it back on Karduk and Joel and said, "I will play and you make up words." And I'm not shitting you -- we actually jammed, right then and there!
Actual words came out and we sang them and they seemed to make sense to us all. We all sang the chorus like we knew the song from years ago, and for a moment we wondered what had brought us all there that night, each going his separate way tomorrow?
The night ended less poetically by finishing a beer and sharing one last story. "My friend in America, his name is Joel, he always wanted to go to Turkey just so he could say 'seeya later, ya turk.' I just thought of that ... but you're Kurdish ... he just liked the word 'Turk' ..." I paused as I realized that, though Turkey is on the border of Kurdistan, "Turk" is not exactly a compliment in some Kurds' eyes. But, Joel understood the sentiment and replied, "See you later, you crazy Canadian!" He was a clever one, too. We all realized it was probably too late to be out at night, so we said our goodbyes and good lucks.
None of us left that night thinking we'd changed the world, but Karduk's got proof of my idiotic staging of an American anthem on his cell phone video recorder. And, I've got a few poems in my head I couldn't burn from memory if I tried. We left really with nothing more than a slight buzz and about 25,000 Dinar less than we started. But, there was a confidence in the air we would meet again; "We," being representatives of a collective consciousness, random souls who meet at coffee shops across the globe.
The night was as hot as the day and the sun the next morning reminded us all that there is hope in Kurdistan. Not because the sun rose, or because there were no bombs going off, but because the flag of Kurdistan means something to Kurds. They're proud like no other people I've met and they speak in truths and bold, broad statements that set you back on your social-etiquette heels. They're content, happy and have hope. They're polite, curious and brave. And, I repeat, they're happier than the typical American.
Happiness is what happens when you come from having nothing to suddenly finding your freedom, at any price. Whether handed to you by a 'wrong' war or fought for by revolution, the eyes of a people who've received their freedom carry more delight than the eyes of those whom carry double mortgages, a filthy desire to own a Mercedes, and resentment at their buddies for calling them 'dicks' at bowling last week. Every Kurd I met mentioned something about their flag. It meant something to them, and that made me sad, because certainly my American flag means something to me, but how often do I discuss it with visitors to our country? Never before had the sun rising given me much pause. I was more of a sun set kind of fellow.
In Kurdistan, they say "No friends, but the mountains." I spent a couple months prior to my trip trying to dissect the meaning, and in about eight days through said mountains I probably only got a peek at what this must mean to a people who've lived in the mountains for nearly 1,000 years. The Peshmerga are often seen along the side of hilltops near roads and, like the flag (they are often standing near a flag), they are spoken of highly and often by the locals. "Willing to die," is the loose translation ("those who face death," may be a tad more literal), but I got the sense it meant something much deeper to them than either translation. A very real comparison could be made to what American Revolutionary hero Nathan Hale said, "I regret I have but one life to lose for my country." Heck, even John F. Kennedy declared something similar, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
The morning after the night with Joel and Karduk, we spent one last day breathing in Kurdish air. I quizzed the group I was with intensely as we visited villages gassed by Saddam Hussein, met locals who told us of getting cell phones, water towers, libraries and 24-hour a day electricity with dial-up internet, and ate one last amazing meal of stuffed vegetables, kabob and truffles. At one point, we stopped for tea and an 88-year old woman across the street waived to us and cried out some words I didn't understand. At the same time, she smiled and showed me a magazine for some reason. From what I could see, it was simply a magazine, nothing special, but she wanted to show it to me. A Kurdish-American friend of mine, Kawa, turned and said, "They die for these little things..." I said, "Peshmerga?" He replied, "Yes, but not only them, they are good, but everyone is Peshmerga now. I tell you today, if we are invaded, or if we are controlled again by a bad dictator, every 88-year old woman will take up arms and defend Kurdistan, I guarantee." "Wow," was all I could muster. Kawa continued, "I am not joking my friend, we truly love this country and to us it is our home and we deserve it."
A plane left Kurdistan that day at 4 p.m. Supposedly, I was on it, wondering if Vienna would look the same. I wondered what would be the first shockingly horrible and tragic news I would hear on the media in the West that day, and how I would yell at the TV for telling me that "all was lost in Iraq." (Turned out that very night would bring the largest car-bombing in five years, killing 180 people in Kirkuk, a city we circumvented on our travels to see Lake Dohuk.) I wondered if when I returned to my sofa in Fargo I would once again become numb to it all and find myself sitting somewhere between the extremes of Bill O'Reilley and Bill Maher, ice cream at midnight, and the NFL on Sundays. Within minutes of the flight taking off, I again heard Joel's voice, direct from Ankawa, telling me how he loved Turkish leather shoes. I admired the pair I had bought myself that were tightening quickly, cutting off circulation from the pressure of the plane at 30,000 feet. I could hear Karduk telling me about his father, and his respect for his "many good businesses" and I saw the 88-year old woman's face in a passenger across from me, speaking in Kurdish, and I was excited I understood a few things she said, including something about the video on the TV screens above us.
At 30,000 feet, the understanding that time would fly by quickly after I returned was already creeping into my head. I started excusing myself, thinking "Well, it happens. I must make sure we don't fall out of touch." Will I, though? Will Karduk make contact with me, three years from now when he's in San Francisco interning at some major institution and speaking perfect English? Will Joel write of his night in Ankawa, with me and the Americans, as I have? Though we have little of each other's language, I'm sure we hit a few of the right chords that night. And the next day, when they dropped us off at the airport, Karduk taught me sincerity when he said, "I'm never forgetting you." Eight days earlier he could smile and nod and tell me which direction to walk and say things like "cell phone," or "soda" or "hotel," and now he was putting together sentences that meant something common, but went straight to the heart. It was a greater gift to receive than the perfumes and ties I'd brought along to share with my new friends. I can only hope I left him something equal in trade.
Somewhere over the mountains of Turkey, near where the Black Sea connects to Romania, I imagined what life would be like had I let my fears from TV images I've been force-fed about a conflict I can neither object to one hundred percent nor defend determine my travels and goals. I wanted to sleep until I arrived in Fargo, 30-hours later. Ahead of me was bigger drama than a brief visit to a war-torn country. Ahead of me was the type of domestic crap we all deal with, but for some reason I couldn't imagine Karduk ever facing, (that lucky Kurd). I said a brief and rare prayer about family and friends and my daughter.
As I tried to close my eyes for a brief nap, I thought about what Joel said the night before in Ankawa, "We do not know, my friend, at the end of the day, whether there is a God or not, or if he likes our religion or yours, or why there is infinite points between A and B, but let me tell you, if we cannot know these very simple things, how can we know the answers to the questions religion poses? We can't. So, move on." It reminded me of past discussions with the American Joel, Jason, David J., Calvin, Bob, Joe, Gene Curtiss, Pepe in Venice Beach, and people in college who sit around and talk about that stuff and say "we should tape record this conversation right now!" The plane landed and I drifted through Europe for a day and I don't remember much after that.
A few weeks after we returned, a female Kurdish-American friend of mine called and said, "I saw some video you shot -- did you know what the old woman yelled to you? Long Live America!" After I hung up the phone and told one or two friends about the call, I went back to my drive-to-work, get-a-coffee, watch-the-news life, hoping that I could for one day experience the hope and pride of a Kurd.
Last night, on the news, I saw Kurdistan. I saw Sulyamania, where I had been. In the video clips I saw a familiar hotel, and I looked for that woman, Joel, Karduk and anything (or anyone) I could recognize. I felt pride, oddly enough. It suddenly hit me. "I've been there!" I was like a kid after being to Disneyland, Universal Studios or a Dallas Cowboy's game recognizing the destination in a TV commercial. Though it also brought me sadness, because it wasn't a destination of tourism, it was a war-torn country where my friends live. The news story went on to say the border with Iran might soon be shut down, and how this would affect the local Kurds whose livelihood depends upon trade across the border. I wondered about Joel. I hope he is alive and well, in Syria or Turkey. I hope Karduk is doing well in school and practicing his English and would soon write.
Really, I just hoped in general, and it felt pretty damn good.