As it turns out, there are two ways to reach Dohuk from the south. The first road to the city is the slower but safer route, winding through Kurdistan’s sun-bleached hills and skirting small mudbrick villages as it makes its way towards the mountains. The second road passes through the outer suburbs of Mosul, a crater-pocked city of rubble and dust where machine-gun-toting soldiers man checkpoints at regular intervals along the potholed way. This northern Iraqi city is branded one of the most dangerous on Earth, with more than 300 bombings, kidnappings, murders and other attacks reported weekly during some months of 2010. It is also the fastest route north, which is why our taxi driver took it.
If James and I had known we had a choice, we would have insisted on the more sedate road. Yet I’m glad we got to pass through this war zone. It is easy to tire of the media’s coverage of Iraq. Those early reports of the Baghdad invasion were like a piece of Disney-styled theatre for grown-ups. Nowadays, in an echo of Vietnam, Iraq has become one of those tedious stories that won’t go away – the never-ending violence one dutifully skims through on the way to fresher news.
It is good to be reminded that there are real people, attempting to get on with their lives, amid the tales of carnage that filter through. This is what the taxi ride achieved. As we approached Mosul, our driver instructed us to put our cameras away, gesturing at a soldier crouching behind a sandbag blockade, his mounted machine-gun trained on the road. “Don’t draw attention to yourselves,” he seemed to be saying.
Everything was in ugly shades of grey and brown – the camouflage uniforms, the concrete-block houses surrounded by trenches of dirt, the twisted wrecks of cars and the mounds of shattered construction. Worse was the greyness of people’s faces. Inching our way down the heavily patrolled road, we watched black-clad women struggle across seas of fallen concrete with their groceries. Groups of unsmiling men were gathered outside shattered buildings. A young girl with an old hard face lugged a bottle of vegetable oil along the road.
The sense of bleakness and desolation permeated the car, filling it with silence. Slowing for yet another checkpoint, our driver pointed across a wasteland of rubble in which a sole garage stood. “Lorry,” he said, before making a noise of explosion. Frustrated at our inability to comprehend him, he jabbed numbers into his cellphone. 250. Locals killed in a lorry bombing, here, in a suburb filled with regular people, not insurgents, or terrorists, or any other label so favoured by Western media.
As we inched past the wreckage, I saw an old man standing with a young boy. The old man held a pottle of detergent and was teaching the child how to blow bubbles through the plastic device. In front of us, plain-clothed soldiers were stopping each car to search it. For the umpteenth time, someone demanded to see our passports. Behind us, from the car’s rear window, I watched the old man’s fragile bubbles glinting in the sun as they floated up from the broken world and I thought of the resilience of the human spirit.
We reached Dohuk in the late afternoon and couldn’t find a single hotel. It was Eid – the Islamic world’s equivalent of Christmas. Few countries grant tourist visas to Iraqis, so it is here, in the mountains of autonomous Kurdistan, that many of this nation’s people come for their holidays. Built in a valley encircled by vast uninhabited mountain ranges, Dohuk is a jumble of power lines, flat-topped houses and horn-tooting traffic. It has a warren-like market filled with spangled fabric, plastic shoes and fake gold jewellery as well as numerous juice bars and, for some strange reason, dozens of stationery shops.
Having found a place willing to throw a mattress on a floor where we could spend the night, we entered a restaurant and were again reminded of how unusual Western tourists are in these parts as several hundred eyes surveyed us. The sudden silence felt more of surprise than hostility, later reinforced by the curious diners who visited our table to say hello. Thanks to Eid, Dohuk’s population had swelled by 20,000, we were later informed. The throngs of men, women and children walking the two main roads were mostly visiting from Baghdad and Mosul, anxious to spend a few days away from the violence of the south.
For strangers to bloodshed, it is hard to comprehend the daily stress of living with random bombs, but the air of festivity in Dohuk on that hot, still night gave some idea of the relief holidaymakers were feeling as they relaxed in a peace zone.
The next day, we decided to move on in search of a place we’d discovered on the internet. “Lalish,” we said patiently to taxi driver after taxi driver. But they all shook their heads. Whether it was the distance or our pronunciation, nobody seemed up to ferrying us to the centre of one of the world’s oldest religions, and it wasn’t until we’d wandered to the very edge of the city with our backpacks that we got a lift.
It was the usual pulse-quickening ride that taxi drivers in foreign countries specialise in, with overtaking restricted to blind corners and the horn hammered to scatter donkeys, motorcyclists and village children from our path. Biblical landscapes blurred past as we wound our way east for several hours before we were deposited at the top of a hot, dry valley flanked by white buildings.
A little uncertain, we wandered into a large stone courtyard where a group of excited children came screaming to greet us. A young man with a little English followed, welcoming us to the temple of the Yazidis. Maligned as a devil-worshipping mob, the Yazidi people, scattered across Europe as well as the Middle East, regard the serpent as the world’s most powerful force. Fire and the peacock are other important symbols in their mysterious religion, which one can only be born into.
According to the priest who came out to greet us, they believe they are the direct descendants of Adam. We were led into their underground chambers, through dark stone passages into rooms whose purpose eluded translation. There were underground streams, a horned head over a doorway, fire pots, captive peacocks and a black serpent emblazoned on the main door.
Above ground, we were invited to join a family picnic. Nobody lives at the temple, but it is an important place of pilgrimage for Yazidi people and a family from a nearby village had come for the day. The father wept a little as he told us of the bounty on Yazidi heads in Mosul. He’d lost a son and twin grandsons to it, their net worth bringing some murderer US$9000, although he couldn’t tell us who was footing the bill. He pointed at a forlorn little girl hovering nearby. An orphan, he said. Both parents slain in their home.
We were guests of honour at the picnic feast, seated outdoors on rugs amid many smiling cries of welcome. While the women and children hovered at a distance for the leftovers, we dined with the men, eating rotund stuffed peppers, chicken, rice and beans in a rich tomato sauce. Between mouthfuls, we were pumped for information, which was translated by the English-speaking man to the eager audience. The father’s words were translated back. He didn’t judge by religion. He only wanted peace. For everyone.