A night in the barracks
We set off for Iraq the following day, crossing the first pass on the Turkish side, picking our way across pale scree slopes and scabs of snow, with Suleiman and his mule bringing up the rear. As we walked Jelal talked about his life in Mosul before the Intifada:
“The world knew more about what is happening to us than we did ourselves. There in Iraq we were in exile from the world. We knew nothing at all. We had no news.”
“We’d tune in to the BBC. Rak‑rak-rak. Voice of America. Rak‑rak‑rak. They were all jammed. All we heard was Saddam. And Saddam and Saddam again. It was Saddam or Shakespeare.”
“In the camp now we have nothing to do but listen to the radio all day. We know everything. We know the worst, but we cannot act. We are powerless. We are not human.”
Jelal liked walking; it made him feel free, although he was still weak from his first journey out of Iraq. We stopped at the head of the first pass for Suleiman to say his prayers. There was no grass for the mule to graze on. After Suleiman had finished praying Jelal recited some verses, in Arabic and in Persian. They were by Ahmadi Khoni, the most celebrated of Kurdish poets.
“Arabic is too rhetorical, though,” Jelal declared, “Things take too long to say. English is quicker.”
Under the rock, looking south across the valley, towards Mecca, an old man sat, motionless, beneath a shelter of parachute silk. He was blind. Someone had collected wood for a fire; the old man’s hands were stretched towards it. But the fire had gone out.
We spent the night, though not by our wish, in a Turkish army barracks on the border. The young commander, who had been trained in Germany, pressed us to stop there. His manner brooked no refusal. I explained that we were working for a medical charity. We were then asked to tend to a man with a head wound, which we cleaned and dressed. Luckily Jelal had first aid training. I was anxious to leave before our medical knowledge was tested further. That night the commander kept me up late in ardent conversation about the beauties of soldiery and the rise and fall of empires, ancient and modern—the Hittite empire, the Ottoman empire, the British and Austro-Hungarian empires. He was an enthusiast of imperialism, a connoisseur of conquest. And he insisted that I spend the night with him in his quarters, dispatching Jelal to the smoke-filled dormitory where conscript soldiers were whiling away the time watching cartoons on TV.
Early in the morning Jelal sent me word that while we had been with the Commander, the muleteer, Suleiman, who had been separated from us, had been beaten by soldiers in the barracks and interrogated concerning our true intentions in travelling to Iraq. So the three of us left quickly, very early in the morning, walking confidently past the sentries, before any order came through to restrain us. Suleiman rode on the mule. Two soldiers came after us with a message demanding that we turn back. By that time, though, we were on the Iraqi side of the border, so we kept going.
Here, lower down the escarpment, beyond the snowdrifts and the concrete border markers, was the Valley of the Zab, a fierce river that rages through Anatolia in deep limestone gorges, joining the Tigris south of Mosul on the Mesopotamian plain. Below us, as we began the descent, a great rock stood. Under the rock, looking south across the valley, towards Mecca, an old man sat, motionless, beneath a shelter of parachute silk. He was blind. Someone had collected wood for a fire; the old man’s hands were stretched towards it. But the fire had gone out. He was quite still. Jelal looked away.
“He is waiting for the Angel Israfel to catch his soul,” he said.
Peshmergas in a cave
“None sing so wildly well /As the angel Israfel,” wrote Edgar Allen Poe in his poem about the angel of the last trump. The sweet-voiced Israfel was having a busy time there in the Zab Valley. There were clusters of new graves in the ruined villages where the refugees camped. Some died the day they arrived. A lone woman, not so old, lay by the roadside; she had died within the hour; her skin was still soft, her flesh malleable. Some passers by took the body and washed and wrapped it and buried her there.
We continued walking for another day. We spent that night with a band of Peshmergas in a cave. They were in a bad way, physically, and requested antibiotics from us. We were fortunate that this was all they wanted—or maybe Jelal had connections that I did not know about. Later I learned that the only other foreigners in northern Iraq at that time, two Italian journalists, had been murdered by another group of Peshmergas in the next valley.
Then, suddenly, there were no more refugees.
As we descended to the plain we saw a field of light below us. It was the sun glinting on the windows of parked cars, hundreds of them, abandoned at the end of the last road in Iraq. From here the refugees had been forced to take to the footpaths that led through the mountains to Turkey. The cars were all empty; there were no more people on the way. The few refugees remaining told us they were heading eastwards to Iran.
The present continuous tense
Once the flow of refugees stopped our work in Iraq was done. So early in the morning we set out along the same path we had come on, back up the valley of the Zab. The path was almost empty of people now. We passed the night in an empty cave. Under the big rock at the head of the valley the old blind man was no longer there. The woman’s grave was filled and covered with stones. Those who buried her had moved on. The weather was changing: crocuses showed through the snow; and the sky was clear of clouds.
“The sun is just uprising,” said Jelal, returning to his role as a student of the English language. “Present continuous tense.”
“The sun also uprises,” he added. “Present tense. Is that correct?”
“That’s quite correct,” I said.
A man coming towards us on the road called out a greeting. He was from Jelal’s home village, one of the villages from which the Kurds were expelled by the Iraqi government in the 1980s. Since the intifada began he had been separated from his family. Jelal told him he had seen his father alive, three or four days before. The man wept; Jelal kissed him tenderly.
“I used to sit and talk with that man in the apple orchard by our house in the village,” he said. “But the army burnt the orchard in 1988. They burned our land. They drove us out and burned everything.”
Jelal fell silent then, but as we came over the last pass he began to sing. He sang the Fool’s song from Twelfth Night.
When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day…
“Past tense and present tense,” said Jelal. He sang to the mule. He asked Suleiman the mule’s name. It was Khamu.
“That name means One Who Carries Sadness”, said Jelal. And he laughed.
“At least I have all my limbs,” he declared as we approached the displaced camp on the border once more. “I have not stepped on a landmine.” Then he started to sing again, in the present tense, an English children’s song he had learned in Mosul.
For everything under the sun
There is a remedy or there is none.
If there is remedy try to find it
If there is none never mind it.
That evening we reached the border. Suleiman set off home with Khamu. I went with Jelal to the entrance of the camp. He looked at me and smiled. We bid each other goodbye. Then I walked down the hill to the town, and he walked towards the tent of his brothers. ✭
Thanks to Professor Lenn E. Goodman of the University of Hawaii for a correction regarding the angel Israfel, incorporated into this version.