Lessons from a Kurdish-Swede rapper about Kurdistan, and finally getting my hands on an AK-47

 

bdpAfter hitching into Kurdistan and camping for a few days around Lake Van, we set off to visit the mountain town of Bahçesaray en route to Mardin. We also hitched there, but waiting took a little longer since there were not many cars and the sun was pretty strong. We got a few nice rides, took a pause on a mountain pass still covered with snow, and eventually made it there in the late morning.

It was pleasant enough, with a strong river flowing through the nicely wooded center. We were called in to drink tea by everyone that saw us and eventually sat with a store owner for some difficult, yet jovial, conversation due to the language barrier.

One of the Kurdish militia came in to the store to stow his AK-47 while in town, and I gathered up the courage to ask him to have a look at it. He gladly obliged, and fondling the well-lubricated Kalishnikov in the household supplies store led me to wonder how many people had been at the receiving end of it (I hoped none). It was much smaller than I expected.

I wanted to buy a scarf to cover my neck, and the shop owner sold me one with the Kurdish colors of red, green, and yellow. I didn’t know it at the time, but wearing it as a foreigner would quickly gain me goodwill and plenty of freebies from just about everyone we came across. It was actually the colors of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which according to Wikipedia is considered a terrorist organization in the United States.

 

According to the map, there was a road south towards Mardin, but everyone said it was closed (likely due to increased alert by the Turkish military before the election) so we had to return all the way to Lake Van and take a different route. That day we were only able to hitchhike to Bitlis on the southeastern corner of Lake Van, and continued to Mardin the next day.

Around this area the climate started to get significantly hotter and desert-like, and it definitely felt like we were in the Middle East. Even a short walk in the sun was draining, and we were downing water constantly. People were incredibly friendly though, and when we stopped to buy a watermelon in a small town, the owners had us sit down and personally cut the watermelon for us to eat. It actually turned into a small get-together and people brought bread and tea as a small crowd of people gathered around. Great fun.

On the way to Mardin, only about 20 kilometers from town where our last ride stopped, we were picked up by what turned out to be the most famous, and really only, Kurdish rapper (he would later tell me it was because of the Kurdish scarf I was wearing). Seriously, here's one of his videos:

 

 

Serhado was born in Sweden and grew up there, his mom having emigrated from Kurdistan in the 70s to make money after Serhado’s dad died. There were actually quite a few immigrants in Sweden from this part of the world, with more Assyrians living in Sweden than in the traditional Assyrian areas of the Middle East.

He said he was going to Midyat, a city beyond Mardin, and he was fun to talk to so we joined him the whole way. We were initially a bit skeptical about his rap credentials, but after parking and walking a bit around Midyat it was clear he was a local celebrity. Many people walked up to him and shook his hand and wanted pictures, and we didn’t have to pay to see a local museum since we were with him.

He also had some interesting tidbits about an atrophying mafia in Midyat with only five people left, but still conjured fear among the people there. He didn’t quite fit in though, since he had the soft demeanor of a Scandinavian and lacked the bravado characteristic of the area. In fact, I had a hard time seeing him rap since he was so soft-spoken and had a hunched, diminutive frame. He said he was struggling to figure out where he fit, since he wasn’t completely accepted as Swedish, but wasn’t culturally grounded in Kurdistan either.

He was in the middle of a break from university, and was taking the opportunity to come to Kurdistan and reconnect with his second home. He was concerned with the situation there since, according to him, the government purposely keeps the Kurdish areas underdeveloped so the population becomes dependent on government assistance. That way, if there is an uprising, the Kurdish people would be left with minimal industries, education, and resources independent of the larger Turkish state, which would keep them subdued. If they prospered independently, they would be more able to rebel (he predicted another bout of fighting would break out soon). Of course, issues like womens’ rights and such would also hinder development, but he reckoned the main drag on the Kurds was the Turkish. The Turkish government also forces Kurds to fight against their own people as part of the formal Turkish police, with orders to shoot any militia/commandos they see lest face severe consequences. That is too much of a burden for most, so they end up moving to other parts of Turkey to avoid the conflict (click here to read more about the Turkish-Kurdish conflict).

He noted that foreigners have been kidnapped by the Kurdish militia, but they end up treating their captives like royalty and just use the opportunity to lecture about the Kurdish situation (some kidnap-ees have actually returned to visit the militia).

He rapped mostly about issues concerning gaining rights for the Kurdish people, but still said there were many aspects that were “backwards” about the culture and had to change. He said he was still hassled by the Turkish authorities since he didn’t speak Turkish, but had a level of protection since he wasn’t a Turkish citizen. He claimed he likely would have been imprisoned if he were a Turkish citizen due to the heated rhetoric he used in his concerts, some of which drew crowds of a million plus people.

Talking with Serhado was fascinating, and he got us a large discount on the small hotel near the BDP (Kurdish political party) headquarters in Midyat. That night was the election for parliament seats, and the headquarters was bustling with activity and all TVs around the town were tuned to the election results.

As night fell, young boys and men gathered in a central square and started celebrations as election results came. More and more people gathered during the night, including women, and fireworks served as backdrop to a huge dance party in the central square of Midyat. Dancing went until midnight (no one stopped for evening prayer), at which point the crowd dispersed.

Although the Kurdish party had the least amount of seats of the five parties, they were still excited since it represented a growing number of members over the previous year. I am also pretty sure that they were going to celebrate regardless.

The next day we hitchhiked to Mardin, the only difficult part being the strong sun, and spent a day and night there. We found a small hotel in the old district of town that let us sleep on the rooftop, and wandered through town to see an ancient church and madrasa. Mardin was uneventful, but sitting on the rooftop and looking over the scorched Mesopotamian plain toward Syria was actually quite gripping.

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