Tiare's Notebook

Currently dispatching from Iraqi Kurdistan

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Denver Displaced

About 100 miles outside of Denver we suddenly made a sharp left turn and landed in Chicago, where I've spent the past two nights. Thankfully, I wasn't one of the travelers who wound up on the airport floor. Lufthansa said they felt badly for us and it was Christmas, so they paid for a hotel room for all 300 of us for one night and arranged for us to pay their (very) reduced rate for the second night. Considering the storm was an "act of God," they were not obliged to help us. Lufthansa was not only professional but also kind, and kept us well-informed about when we would fly. British Airways also kindly put their stranded travelers up in hotels. (Service counts! I'll definitely fly Lufthansa again!)

Being stranded and not knowing when you'll leave a city you don't really want to be in can be depressing. But actually it wasn't that bad. The passengers on our flight really bonded, and there were many very interesting, nice and smart folks who work all over the world. We jokingly called ourselves The Denver Displaced, but several people from our group also commented on how difficult it must be for those who are truly displaced. We were flying in from Frankfurt, which is a privilege in itself that requires travelers hold certain passports, and we were inconvenienced for only two days. Just imagine what it's like to flee your home, family, work -- your life -- without knowing if you can ever return.

All of us wanted to get somewhere, or more importantly to certain people, for Christmas. I've only spent one Christmas away and it was painful: I missed the traditions and my family. I don't think I'll ever do it again. But spending time with The Denver Displaced was a great experience as well. When we resigned ourselves to the fact that Mother Nature would determine our travel date and time, and that we had no control over the situation, we sat back and enjoyed one another. We told stories, talked politics and created a pseudo support system. We took turns calling Lufthansa for the latest updates and let everyone else know what was going on. Some of us stuck together like glue through all of the airport chaos.

It wasn't like being home for Christmas, of course, and we were all eager to leave. We're currently en route to Denver (literally -- I'm writing from the plane again) and will soon say our good-byes. As frustrating, overwhelming and long as this experience has been, I'm a little sad to leave The Denver Displaced. We needed the Christmas spirit to make it easier, and we found it in one another.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Flying Into A Blizzard, Live

Somewhere over North Dakota ...

OK, this is bizarre. Usually when you're in the air you're in a bubble. Not this time.

No one has told us that we're flying into or over a major storm, but I read online -- thanks to this handy internet-on-the-plane service -- that a blizzard has hit Colorado and pretty much closed the airport. So I'm wondering where exactly we're going and when they'll announce it. Maybe they're waiting for Mother Nature to take pity and allow planes to land.

It's ironic that I spent so much time and energy trying to get out of Iraq, and now it looks like I may come up slightly short in getting home in the final leg. I might land in the wrong state. Or if we do land in Colorado the highways are shut and apparently the buses aren't running, and this Hawaii/California girl ain't driving in a blizzard. The airport is nice and warm, at least.

This really wasn't supposed to be a blog about my travels (at least not literally about my travels) but heck, I've been on a plane for ten hours, I've been traveling for 36 hours, and I'm bored. Shoot me an email if you have time.

P.S. I asked the staff, and the stewardess says we're going to try to land or circle and wait for the storm to pass. Turbulence is fun already.

Dispatching From Somewhere Over Greenland

This is just cool. I'm on my way home to a snowstorm (brrr!!) and I'm able to get online, even though we're flying somewhere over Greenland.
Kurdistan Airlines put me on a Lufthansa flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt and then on to the U.S. -- it was a complete nightmare, very difficult, but I'm glad to be coming home. And I loved the Christmas-y feel of the little I saw of Amsterdam during my overnight stay.
Unfortunately, Boeing plans to discontinue its internet service on Lufthansa flights (and perhaps others if it's offered -- not sure?) as of January 1, 2007. Bummer. It's a great way to kill time and/or get some work done. And it's free. Boeing, what are you thinking?!?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

I'll Get Out of Here -- Eventually

No shocker here: My flight is taking off 12 hours late. I got the bad news yesterday, shortly after purchasing several Kurdish rugs that would certainly make a trip across the Turkish border difficult.

I'll miss my connection back to the U.S., which ain't going to be fun to change. Kurdistan Airlines has promised to take care of me, and I will keep them to that. I still plan on being in California by Christmas, though that may take some work.

I'm not 100% certain that the problem is still with the Turkish government not allowing Kurdish planes to use its airspace. At this point, I don't really care. My flight was originally supposed to take off on Monday -- now it's Tuesday; the time for last week's flight to Frankfurt was bumped forward by about 14 hours, and still didn't take off on time; the week before, the flight was bumped forward by a day and still flew about 12 hours late.

Two weeks ago, the flight from Sulaimaniyah to Munich (on another airline) was cancelled. No one knows what's going on, and the local press isn't covering it because, well, Iraqis aren't exactly welcome in other parts of the world so they're not boarding planes. If they travel they're doing so overland -- to Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Kurds are actually fleeing to Turkey (not their favorite country, please see below) because their quality of life isn't exactly improving. (Freedom, sure, but little electricity, low-paying jobs, skyrocketing inflation, etc.)

As I indicated earlier, airlines in Iraq aren't exactly reliable. When my boyfriend traveled to Jordan last summer, the Iraqi Airways flight made a detour to another airport -- to pick up some Kurdish officials who were on their way to South America. The flight of course arrived several hours late in Amman.

At this point, the best I can hope for is to board a plane that will actually fly.

The Lone Woman

I've been out of the house most of this trip, which was a sharply different experience from the 10 months I lived here. At that time, I was an editor, stuck in the office that was also my home.

The one thing I've noticed about being at government offices or out on the street is that, at least after dark, I'm the lone woman. The sun sets at about 4.30 or 5pm these days, and I was often reporting until that time. The other day I walked through the bazaar with my friend/translator after finishing up some interviews. The normally traffic-clogged streets were dead, except for a few men with carts selling boiled turnips and men in barber shops. They open at night because that's when the government gives a few hours of power.

The Kurds pride themselves on their female Peshmarga fighters, but in reality, Kurdish women don't hold a lot of power in the public sphere. The Kurdish government appointed a 33-member cabinet (that would be for a population of 4 million) with just three women, two of whom are ministers of state (general ministers.) The power structure may be different in the home, but that of course depends on the family.

I am often the only woman I see out at night, except at the more expensive restaurants. There isn't a lot to do here, so women's patterns are usually home-work-visit family. The secular men drink, a lot, at bad bars. Being out at night as a woman feels like being in another world, but I actually have a pass as a foreigner -- no one much cares what I do and there's no honor to defend. During the day, there are also all-male spots: at the teahouses, or one of Sulaimaniyah's lunch spots. Women often work in civil service jobs that end at 2pm.

It would be easy to blame this all on the men, but women don't always push to be in public spaces. For example, I offered to take two of M's sisters to a coffee at a new cafe that opened up in the popular Zagros supermarket, but this was an entirely foreign -- apparently too foreign -- concept. We went back and forth on it for a while, until they insisted on meeting in a house. We finally ended up at an office and had a brief, and somewhat uncomfortable, chat, which was entirely different from our time in Halabja.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Is Iraqi Kurdistan Really Iraq?

Iraqi flags aren't allowed to fly in Iraqi Kurdistan. You can't hear Arabic on the streets or see it written on signs in government buildings. Kurdistan has its own military force (Peshmarga) and schoolchildren start their days by singing a Kurdish national anthem. When Iraqi Kurds say "my country" (which they do often) they mean Kurdistan -- not Iraq.

Is Iraqi Kurdistan actually part of Iraq?

Technically, yes, but it's seriously debatable. Most Iraqi Kurds want to create an independent state from Iraq, even though Saddam's days of oppressing Kurds are over. Iraqi president Jalal Talabani is a Kurd, but does that really matter if only a few Kurds feel any connection to Baghdad or care about what happens there?

Aimee pointed out that the NY Times ran an article indicating Kurdish forces would be sent to Baghdad to help manage the conflict there. Both Talabani and Kurdistan Regional Government president Masood Barzani have rejected sending Kurdish forces outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. There are Kurdish soldiers in the Iraqi army, but according to the leaders Kurdistan's Peshmarga won't go south.

The Kurds don't want to get involved in Iraq's sectarian mess. The prevalent attitude in Iraqi Kurdistan? That's their problem -- not ours.

The (Nearly) Impossible Task: Getting Out of Iraqi Kurdistan

I found out shortly after I arrived that Kurdistan Airlines changed its flight schedule, so my flight back to Frankfurt would be leaving 24 hours later than originally scheduled. The schedule change meant I would miss my flight from Frankfurt to the U.S., and because there isn't high traffic in and out of northern Iraq, I couldn't just hop another flight from here. I wasn't excited about giving up the ticket, either: It costs $1,000 to fly round-trip from Germany to Erbil, and I had already paid. It's a three-plus hour flight.

After spending several days fretting over how to get to Germany, Kurdistan Airlines kindly offered to put me on a flight to Amsterdam on my original day of departure and buy me a ticket from Amsterdam to Germany.

Problem solved? Not quite.

Flights from Erbil and Sulaimaniyah haven't been taking off for the past several weeks, or if they have, they're extraordinarily (as in 14 hours) late. I called to find out what the problem was, and I was told that Turkey wasn't letting Kurdistan Airlines (and possibly other Kurdish airlines) fly over Turkish air space.

It must be noted that Iraqi and Kurdish airlines are generally unreliable and their problems extend beyond the Turkish restrictions. I have flown out of Erbil twice and didn't have problems either time, but sometimes the planes take off (very) late, sometimes they change their schedules, sometimes they change their arrival airport. Sulaimaniyah airport has also proved unreliable; it's supposed to be getting better, but I've only known one person who successfully took off or landed there on time. I met some foreign correspondents last year who couldn't get back to Baghdad from Sulaimaniyah; they tried four times to fly, even got off the ground once, until the plane turned around. One staged a protest by lying on the tarmac.

But I wasn't entirely surprised to hear that Turkey would let the airlines pass through its airspace. The other option for leaving Iraqi Kurdistan is to drive to the Ibrahim Khalil crossing at the Iraqi-Turkish border (which is five hours from Sulaimaniyah), drive another three to four hours to the town of Diyarbakir, fly from Diyarbakir to Istanbul, and then fly on to your next destination. It is a serious pain, and the worst part can be the border.

The only time I left Iraq through Turkey I spent about five hours at the border. The Turkish authorities were checking every car and every bag. They weren't happy when they found Kurdish rugs in my suitcase and wanted to seize them. I was told I should only be buying Turkish rugs and was asked if any of my books were in Kurdish or if I supported any Kurdish groups like the PKK (which the U.S. and Turkey have labeled a terrorist organization.) No, I said, I just want to get home for Christmas and take my rugs with me! They probably knew that seizing Kurdish rugs from an American would be bad PR, so they let me go.

Why do the Turks care about Kurdish rugs? Turkey is having problems getting into the EU in part because of its oppression of the 20 million Kurds within its borders. The government is as obsessed with minimizing Kurdish culture as it is with eliminating groups like the PKK.

Needless to say, I can't bring myself to drive an additional eight hours and taking two additional flights to get to Frankfurt. I fear my flight will be canceled or take off late, but I have to take a leap of faith that this time, things will run smoothly.