Photographs and narratives by ROBERT LEUTHEUSER from and of his travels through Kurdistan and the greater Middle East. Published in conjunction with his photographic website

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28 October 2010

Sampler II - 2010 Travel

Karacdag area, eastern Turkey
Sanliurfa, eastern Turkey
Sanliurfa's bazaar
Coppersmith, Sanliurfa
Re-tinning, Sanliurfa
Kurdish protest, Diyarbakir, eastern Turkey
Istikal Street, Istanbul
Serkeci Train Station, Istanbul

23 October 2010

"My Heart Did It"

Saturday, 16 October 2010

“ 'My Heart Did It,' thats what Kar Belaktus means” Linda said,explaining to me the name of the church. Linda? What a jolt of a name to hear on the high bluffs above the Tigris River. “We are Chaldeans.” She was short and plump with the eyes of an angel, and though her face should have been weathered, it was not.

After a planned visit to a Shabak community (a syncretic religion followed by a hyper-minority of Kurds) failed to materialize, I found myself racing across the tired autumnal landscape of upper Mesopotamia in northern Iraq to visit the village of Derabûn. Nazim, a young Yezidian, was at the wheel dodging the large transport trucks hauling goods and construction material from Turkey under a luminescent mid-day sky polished by the dust blowing from the south of Iraq. Eight-foot tall phragmites grasses huddled around the infrequent seeps and struggled to appear green in the hot wind. Gratefully Nazim kept the windows up and the air conditioning on as a radio station from Zahko serenaded us with class B American rap and hip-hop. We passed through a half dozen small settlements before reaching Derabûn, each of which was defined by religion – Muslim and not-Muslim. Christians and Yezidis found kinship with one another, both suffering from Islamic persecution intermittently throughout their histories, and intimately since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Derabûn is half Christian and half Yezidi, segregated only by the road.

Nazim and I first drove a kilometer past Derabûn to the ruins of what he said was an old fortress. It was an unremarkable collection of tall crumbling walls; the view of the Tigris on the other hand was anything but. Even now so late in the season, and in spite of Turkey's manic construction of a system of dams upstream, it flowed wide and shallow around intermittent islands. Soon the fall rains would come and briefly swell the Tigris with silt-laden water. Nazim came up behind me. It was not a fortress, he corrected himself after reading the bent roadside sign painted in white Arabic script, it was an old church – Mariam Adra. I suspected that during its history it had been both. As I walked back to the car against the wind, I picked the spikey burrs out of the socks that should have stayed home, while taking care not to step on broken glass.

Kar Belakrus' fresh white paint was as startling as Linda's name. It did more than reflect the filtered sunlight. Atop was a modest sized cross with clear light bulbs within its frame, and below it a sign colors yet faded with a literal image of Christ, his heart in flames on his chest. His skin was not weathered either.

Linda, in her blue flowered cotton shift, was sweeping under the portico when we arrived with her uncle, Zachary. She fetched the key and opened the side door. It was cool inside the simple church. The church had undergone a major restoration in the last 3 years Linda explained first in hesitant English then in soft song. She and Zachary showed us the improvements with quiet pride – the new ceiling 16 feet above, and the new rectory with the priests' and deacons' black cassocks with gold cuffs hung primly in the open armoire. (I couldn't help but think of their contrast to the thread-worn and dusty gray cassocks with red braiding that that I saw hanging on pegs in the bunker of the Armenian chapel in Diyarbakir, Turkey 9 years ago.)

Linda and her husband, the church's deacon, returned to Derabûn 5 years ago. It became too dangerous for Christians in Baghdad where some of her extended family had lived for some number of years. Her grandfather's house is right there, she pointed behind the church, next to which is the house that her brother now a Canadian citizen is rebuilding for occasional visits. And those olive trees next to the church, she told me, were planted by her grandfather and father. They will begin the modest harvest soon. And the six houses that lined the dirt lane next to the church were her family's.

We retreated to Zachary's garden, a small plot of grass that wasn't struggling to be green. His wife brought tall glasses of cold water, and then small cups of Turkish coffee that tasted so good that I almost suffered the dregs trying to get the last sip.

The wind wasn't blowing in the garden, but the sky was still burnished.

20 October 2010

Heroes Arrive Unexpectantly

14 October, Bersirin, Rawanduz District - Iraqi Kurdistan

Bordumin poured a thick yellow-brown liquid on a rag tightly wound around the end of a stick. Crouching, he reached forward and dabbed the most putrid of open sores teaming with worms on the pathetically thin dog curled as in death near the oak tree. The dog did not protest; it only feintly acknowledged. Borduman repeated, then poured more of the potion of motor oil and salt over the dog's bared and festering shoulder and side of the head, swathing it around with the stick.

We were in deep in the Zagros Mountains east of Rawanduz, 15 kilometers from a major border crossing into Iran. Fully loaded transport trucks race down the narrow and winding road, one of which doubtless hit the shepherd's hapless dog days or weeks before. I had seen the dog from afar earlier in the afternoon, giving it only scant notice as the anarchic flurry of construction activities on Serwan's new house begged more attention. But after a new load of fresh and rotten cinder blocks had been dumped and tossed into unruly piles, Serwan and his makeshift crew of cousins turned to plotting out a grid where he would plant trees. It was then than Borduman and I saw the dog.

The name Bordumin means “bombardment.” He was born in the nearby village of Bersirini in 1974 during an aerial bombing of the village by Saddam Hussein's forces. Yet another of so many rebellions/armed conflicts/wars between the Kurds of northern Iraq and the Iraqi central government. This one followed a failed declaration of independence by the Kurds and preceded the orchestrated and unconscionable abandonment of support for the Kurdish military efforts by both Iran and the US. Once again, as during millennia past, the Kurds found themselves to pawns in greater politics. Sometimes blameless, sometimes not. This time not. Bordumin's next younger brother (7 brothers and 5 sisters in all) was named Shadamin, which means “happiness.” No bombs were falling when he was born.

When Bordumin showed me the dog my heart sank. After a few minutes of staring at it, I tolf him that if I were in America and found a dog like this in such misery with no seeming prospects for recovery, I would shoot it to put it out of his misery. Bordumin briefly considered what I said then walked off across the field. I thought he was going to get his gun, which of course he had as did most in this part of the world. I wandered off wallowing in the turn of events and didn't want to be anywhere near.

Twenty minutes later he came back and treated the dog. I was properly humbled. We watched in wonder as the dog slowly stood up, his rear left leg painfully useless. Bordumin nodded, then motioned for me to come with him. Far behind the dog followed. We went to the nearby roadside stop where Bordumin purloined a large fistful of bread scraps and an insecticide dust surely long outlawed in the States. The dog ate greedily and allowed Bordumin to dust him, then limped off to at least the hope of another day.

Heroes arrive unexpectedly.

April, 2012 Postscript:
I returned to Bersirini to visit Serwan, Bordumin, and other friends. The spring grasses were vibrant, seeming to grow on bare rock as well as on the steep and thinly soiled slopes. I asked Bordumin about the dog. He told me that he saw it again 3 months after his treatment and it seemed fine.

19 October 2010

Jema'iyye at Lalish, 2010 - A Small Portfolio

Yezidi'ism is a little known syncretic and monotheistic religion practiced by a hyper-minority of Kurds, mainly concentrated in northern Iraq (the semi-autonomous Kurdish Region, and Sinjar area to its west), but with a significant diaspora population in Europe. Other smaller regional populations are in Syria, Armenia, and Georgia. Lalish, in Iraqi Kurdistan, is the holy center of Yezidis - both in their cosmology and history.

Every autumn the Yezidis celebrate Jema'iyye, an 8-day long religious and social gathering. Thousands descend on this compact site, smothering both time and place. This was the third year I have attended. Below is a small portfolio of photographs I assembled for a documentary film being made by non-Yezidi Kurds from Arbil. With one exception,* identifiable faces are not included in these photos out of sensitivity to the Yezidis' precarious position both in Kurdistan Iraq, and the whole of Iraq. (*Sheikh Hadj is an already well-known Yezidi.)

For more information about the Yezidis see earlier posts on this site.

In the Baba Sheikh's "cupola"
In the main assembly hall
Leaving the main assembly hall

Sinjari Sheikhs

Youth next to car advertisement