Kurdistan minute by minute

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Kurdistan. Many existing and many only desired areas are called this, but the only one who has it as its official name is Kurdistan Province in the western mountain region of Iran, along the Iraqi border. This province, however, is only a quarter of the area inhabited by the Iranian Kurds, and less than a third of the roughly five million Iranian Kurds live here. The rest live mainly in the other provinces along the Iraqi and Turkish border, in West Azerbaijan above Kurdistan, as well as in Kermanshah and Ilam to the south. Furthermore, during the centuries of Ottoman-Persian warfare, the great powers resettled many independent Kurdish tribes from the border region inside the two countries to Central Anatolia and Northern Khorasan. From the latter, some groups later returned and settled around Shiraz, Isfahan and Hamadan, as the name of the provincial capital Shahr-e Kord, “Kurdish Town” near Isfahan shows. The map below marks in pale yellow the main Kurdish ethnic areas in Iran.

The Iranian Kurds diverge not only regionally, but also in religious persuasion. The map above shows only what they officially declare themselves: the majority Sunni, and the minority Shiite Muslims. At home, however, a good number of them practice the Alevi, Yarsan, Yazidi, Christian or Zoroastrian religion. On the basis of their historical experiences, they wisely keep this fact hidden, or they mix their faith with Islamic elements, and refer to it as a particular form of Islam.

Linguistically, like the English and the Americans, the various Kurdish groups are also separated by a common language. According to the 17th-c. Ottoman chronicler Evliya Çelebi, the Kurdish language was invented by Noah’s son, Melik Kürdim, for the province populated by his descendants, but “since Kurdistan is one endless mountainous region, therefore the Kurdish language has no less than twelve versions, which are so different both as to their pronunciation and vocabulary, that they need an interpreter to understand each other.” The majority of the Iranian Kurds, as well as the Iraqi villages along the border speak the Sorani or Central Kurdish dialect, in which they mutually do not understand each other with the twenty million Kurmanji, or Northern Kurdish speakers in Turkey, Northern Iran and Iraq, and with the three million Kurds who speak Pehlewani or Southern Kurdish dialect in Kermanshah and Ilam. The Iranian Kurds speaking the Sorani dialect are proud to have written their literary works since the Middle Ages in the Gorani dialect, which is considered the “most Kurdish” version of the language. However, linguists consider this an independent Iranian language rather than a Kurdish dialect. According to Kurdish consensus, the most beautiful Kurdish dialect is spoken in Hawraman, the most beautiful mountain region of Iran. But Hawramani is also considered by linguists to be an independent Iranian language. And finally, the Kurds living in Iran, who speak in Hawramani, Sorani or Pehlewani, traditionally write in Gorani, and since antiquity live a settled, urban form of life, despise the mainly Kurmanji-speaking nomadic Kurds grazing in the neighboring mountains, and instead share a historical identity with the Lors, who speak a completely different Iranian language.

So what makes one a Kurd? If neither a common area, nor religion, nor common language or social structure binds them together, then what do they have in common? What is typical of all Kurds, by which they recognize each other even in far away countries, and which arises feelings of kinship in their hearts? In my humble opinion, the shalwar, the Kurdish trousers. Kurd is he who wears Kurdish trousers. This forges them into a community both to each other and the outside world, this makes two bearers of Kurdish trousers embrace each other in the bazaar of Istanbul or Tabriz, and this makes the Persian passport controller laugh at the Tehran airport. Nevertheless, this is also no exclusive ethnic marker, since a small non-Kurdish ethnic minority also wears shalwar, namely me, for more than twenty years. And this can also cause problems in Kurdistan, as we shall see below.

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The great 19th-c. Hungarian traveler Ármin Vámbéry prepared for a decade to penetrate into Kurdistan, and he got through it at the risk of his life. Just a few years ago my Persian friends tried to convince me not to try to travel alone from the civilized Tehran to this far away and wild province. Nevertheless, since last year’s US-Iranian agreement, as it has become easier to obtain visas, a foreigner can also rent a car, and low-cost airlines have started operation. If at dawn I take the Germania flight from Berlin, and in the morning I sit down in a car at the Tehran airport, then in the evening I have dinner among the Kurdish mountains. Kurdistan is now at arm’s stretch. So to speak. Only the acquisition of the indispensable Persian language takes the same amount of time as in Vámbéry’s age.

Ten years ago a private person could hardly get a visa to Iran. You paid at the embassy the hundred-dollar visa fee, and you waited for a month to get the rejection. “How is it then possible to get to Iran at all?”, I asked the embassy employee. “With a travel agency.” “Even with an Iranian one?” “Of course”, he said. All right. I looked for the addresses of a few travel agencies in Tehran, and I wrote them in Persian to ask how much it would cost if they enrolled me in one of their tours, but on which I would not participate, and therefore not be required to pay for it. The baksheesh was sixty euros in addition to the hundred-dollar visa fee, but for this price the Iranian foreign ministry even forwarded the visa directly to the Budapest embassy. I only had to go in to have it stuck into my passport. “How did you do it?”, the wonder-struck employee asked me. “I also have friends”, I said.

Nowadays there is no need for this any more. You can save sixty euros and two months of waiting, if you let them make your visa for you upon arrival at the Tehran airport. You need a fifteen-euro insurance fee, seventy-five euros for the visa, and to have led impeccable life from the regime’s point of view. After waiting thirty or forty minutes, I am already dictating to the sleepy border guard my father’s name, and where to look for Hungary in the Persian alphabet.

The direct route to the heart of Kurdistan leads through Hamadan, the ancient Ecbatana, the capital of the Medes, considered the ancestors of the Kurds. We, however, approach the province from the north, because we would like to use the road to add two world heritage sites, the mausoleum of Soltaniyeh and Solomon’s throne, that is, the fortress of Takht-e Soleyman, to our itinerary.

On the way out of Tehran, already at seven in the morning, the queue of cars is convulsing like in Godard’s Weekend. Even the burning cars on the roadside from the film are there: in the fast lane, accidents, and on the hard shoulder, smashed cars and trailers follow each other every few hundred meters, a shocking sight. The ingenuity of drivers has added two, and sometimes three extra lanes to the originally three-lane road, we can chat from the car window with those creeping alongside us. We do the sixty kilometers to Karaj in two hours. Here we rid ourselves of the agglomeration of Tehran, and hop onto the road leading through Qazvin to the west.

Soltaniyeh – the Sultan’s City – was intended by Öljeitü, the Mongol Great Khan of Persia, to build the world’s most beautiful city, after his ancestors destroyed so many cities of the world. In its center, there stood a huge church, which the Khan, who had been baptized as a child, then converted to Buddhism, then to Sunni and finally to Shia Islam, erected in honor of himself: this is Öljeitü’s mausoleum. At its time of building, between 1306 and 1312, the dome, covered by faience tiles, was the second largest dome of the world after the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Only a century later was it pushed to the third place by the cupolone erected by Brunelleschi in another most beautiful city of the world.

In contrast to Florence, from the Sultan’s City not a single brick was left. This shows that to a city more is needed than the mere will of a Great Khan. The huge green dome floats eerily above the plain, with the Kurdish mountains in the background. Surrounding it, half-finished industrial buildings rust, herds graze in front of it. That’s all that has survived from the culture of the Mongol conquerors, who tried to build a city on the ruins of an urban culture obliterated by them.

The mausoleum is under restoration, its interior is filled with a light-structure scaffolding. The scaffold forest gives it a very exciting post-modern look, at least as much as the rustic wooden structure of the Ukrainian Orthodox church. As much as the mausoleum will gain with the restoration, contemporary Persian art will lose, once they break down the scaffolding. This, however, is not a near threat, since there is no sign of any work. Only the dates of the surveyors’ markings stuck on the cracks show that they did not start yesterday. Beautiful Islamic ornamentation peers through the openings of the scaffolding. On the gallery we meet an applied art student from Tehran. Haadi collects old Islamic motifs in the mausoleum for his diploma work,  a silver table set. In the oratory, a randomly composed lapidary. A richly carved Armenian tombstone dated 1324, and an alabaster tomb with a Persian inscription, confiscated from smugglers. Who knows where the cemeteries from where they come were, what history was behind these communities, when they disappeared from under the Kurdish mountains together with the most beautiful city of the world?

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To be continued