We are in Exile on Both Sides of the Border
by Mohammed Fatih Mohammed
June 28, 2019
Mohammed Fatih Mohammed has been translating with Kashkul, the center for arts and culture at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani (AUIS), for over three years, bringing over half a dozen Kurdish poets into English for the first time. At Kashkul, Mohammed is leading a project called Crux that aims to understand how devotion becomes violent and how violent devotion can become peaceful.
My situation worsened minute by minute. Even my thoughts started to tire me. I harshly could breathe. My ear deafened and even more distressing was that it started to make a weird noise inside my brain, not to mention the thirst that dried my mouth like never before. I stopped walking and could not even utter it to my friends until they realized that I had lagged behind, so they returned and we all took a short rest and began walking again. (Mala Metin, 23, an Islamic Kurdish cleric from Iranian Kurdistan whose migration story to Iraqi Kurdistan this piece tells)
Living in a country hit by US sanctions, fatiguing an already exhausted economy and plummeting the purchasing power of its money, a Kurdish Mullah—Islamic Kurdish clerics, migrate from Iranian Kurdistan to Iraqi Kurdistan. Migration is not easy, and neither is being a Kurd.
A view of Biyara, where the mountains separating the Iraqi-Iranian border can be seen and where Mullah Metin and his friends stayed and hid in during Ramadan.
Before the story, a bit of background is necessary on the Kurds—estimated to represent the largest stateless population in the world. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, new artificial borders were drawn. Every nation had its own state and territory except for some minorities, such as the Kurds whose existence, the occupying French and British powers decided, was not worthy of earning them a state.
The fate they inflicted upon approximately forty million Kurds was to divide them over Turkey in the north, Syria in the west, Iraq in the south and Iran in the east.
The story of these Kurdish Mullah takes place on the border regions between Iranian Kurdistan on the east, and Iraqi Kurdistan on the south, where Kurds live on both sides of the border, but they have either Iraqi or Iranian passports. Male Kurds in Iran are eligible to have Iranian passports on the sole basis of military service. Kurds have a great map of Kurdistan that only exists on Google Maps, but not on the ground. None of the aforementioned states recognize the rights of Kurds except in the Iraqi region where Kurds were successful in achieving partial independence, commonly referred to as the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRG). One final highlight for the Kurds: the majority religion is Sunni Islam while Iran is a Shiite theocracy, and there is intrinsic enmity between the two sects. The protagonist of this story is a Kurdish Sunni Mullah, living in Iran and migrating to Iraqi Kurdistan, disappointed by the Iranian Shiite rule, which lately has been even more weakened by U.S sanctions.
I will take you to the very beginning where everything you are about to hear begins. Halfway through Ramadan on May 21, 2019 in Biyara—a Kurdish village located in a mountainous area in Iraqi Kurdistan, only hundreds of feet away from the Iranian soil where Kurds live on both sides of the border. I arrive at the grand mosque of Biyara which is also known as Khanaqa—a Sufi complex, where food is served to strangers, accomodation is available, and students of religion or so the called Faqes study Islam and practice Sufi spirituality. I enter the Khanaqa, right next to the pool from which worshippers take ablution; some ten faqes have gathered, discussing the security concerns of staying at the mosque as Iranians.
While listening I found certain things difficult to comprehend, but I could get the general concern—the security of Iraqi Kurdistan has asked those who lack papers or passports to immediately leave and go back to Iran no later than tomorrow, before sunrise. Most lacked passports and many did not have permission papers either; all were stuck and worried. They came before Ramadan but were told to leave only now when the Eid is near. “We have received an order from the Iraqi central security and we cannot do anything but to obey it,” one of the Mullahs said that the officer had claimed so.
During that same night, I came to know one of them, Mullah Metin, more closely. He is 22 from a village near the city of Sanandaj in Iranian Kurdistan. He left school to become a Mullah when he was fifteen. His father is a Mullah too and the Imam of a mosque. Becoming a Mullah is equal to unconventional Kurdish schooling. Kurdish Traditional Schooling is pretty much circling around the region for knowledge. From one village to another, one school to the next, Kurdish students, back then students of religion, who travelled with their Kashkul--Kurdish commonplace book, and a Sufi bowel and a backpack of one extra piece of clothing, would travel and learn the sciences of the time. After the fall of the Ottoman empire in the region, and as modern style of education was introduced, traditional schooling has been in decline, and has definitely become more blur in the scope. Mullah Metin, however, decides to take this path, the one that after seven years of being in it leaves him unsure of what to do next and how to carry on his life. “One option,” Mullah Metin said, “is to go back to conventional schools, finish high school, then earn an undergraduate degree, although even then, my field of interest is philosophy of ethics which will grant me no money and I would have a BA when I am thirty, no longer as young and you know, life isn’t only about learning anyways.”
“On both sides of the border, Kurdish speaking border security guards with two independent loyalties,” Mullah Metin reflects, “patrol the mountainous border, one loyal to Iran and the other to Iraq, respectively.” For the limited space of this piece, the following passages will only cover Mullah Metin’s migration through the Iranian border into Iraqi Kurdistan and are a liberal translation of Metin’s words on his last migration:
Crossing the border
We were six young Kurdish Mullahs blended in with the Kolbars—shoulderers of goods, who are smugglers who carry goods from Iranian Kurdistan into Iraqi Kurdistan and bring other goods back to Iran. We began the journey, mostly to collect some money, through accruing alms or working labor. To do whatever secures us some money. But also to preach for Islam. There isn’t a wall here that prevents us from crossing. There is a mountain filled with Pazdars--Iranian border securities, on its Iranian side and the Asayish—Kurdish security forces on its Iraqi Kurdish side. We are in exile on both sides by Iranian and Iraqi Kurdish securities on the border. We hit the road and arrive at Nowsud, a village on the Iranian side.
Before moving any further, I have to explain Mullah Ramadani. It is made up of two words, first Mullah—an Islamic cleric who studies and preaches Islam, and Ramadani—an adjective ascribing Ramadan to a noun, together meaning a preacher for Ramadan. The cultural definition is that a Mullah would contact a village and sees if they are willing to host a cleric for the duration of Ramadan preaching them Islam and leading the prayers for them in exchange for collecting the villagers’ alms and generous charities.
This time, the purpose of our migration was to make money, be it from Mullah Ramadani, through collecting alms and labor or from the sweat of our arms, or preaching some Islam. Iran is in a very severe economic crisis. If I speak in US dollar terms, the Iranian government pays us five dollars per month which buys us two sandwiches, unlike Shiite clerics who get paid like ministers, not to mention all the support they get from Shiite devotees. I have very little money. My friends didn’t have much money either. Now I have 300,000 Rials in my pocket; all the money in the world I have. God, it was one of the moments when I realized how cheap our money the Iranian money is compared to Iraqi Dinars or American dollars. 300,000 Iranian Rials by which we could take a taxi and drive us across the entire of Iran is equal to 6 dollars, which in Iraq could get us from one town to another, only half an hour distance in between. Several people advised us to not cross the borders by ourselves, we should accompany the Kolbars because they know the safe routes. The goods they smuggled was Iranian benzene. Why not making some money on our way across the border? We thought. Why not become a Kolbar too and make some money as we cross the border? We didn’t know that it isn’t that easy. The six of us neared the border town on Iran’s side called Nowsud, sat on its outskirts and met the Kolbars who were waiting for more Kolbars to arrive. Sixty liters per person, which were inside three containers with the size of each equal to my entire back.
Each one of us carried three containers, only later we realized how unbearable they were to carry for hours and hours while climbing up and down mountains. The moment we started walking, an intense dread seized me. Ahead of us was one full night, nonstop hike while carrying weighty goods on our back. Some of us decided to be Kolabars for one night and if we don’t find a job on the other side of the border, to do it again. It was such a dreadful, long night. We were extremely fearful of the border securities—anyone they capture will either be beaten up or get shot as they have done so many times before. It was our first time making such a journey. And few days before, some of our friends were captured and hit very cruelly. That kept coming to my mind. A renewed terror has filled my entire existence.
While carrying these containers on my back, I held onto my thoughts that were taking me back to existential questions like what am I doing here? Did I make the right choice when I departed from public school to join sharia schools, which has no future? I recalled that this was the first time in my life working after spending the past seven years only studying Sharia. I have always being given money, not in exchange for work I did but as financial support to continue my study at the sharia schools. Together with the Kolbars we were about sixty people. The Kolbars were used to the harsh atmosphere and their bodies were strong while I am a very thin, muscleless young Mullah. All I was looking forward was seeing the town of Tawela--the village on the Iraqi side we were supposed to arrive at. It is intensely dark, nothing and no one is visible to sight and we are climbing unable to see our footsteps. Kolbars were chatting and seemed to have no problem at all for they were in the habit of this going and coming on a daily basis.
We would have been left behind and so we found ourselves in a constant catch-up mode. At one point, my guts felt like coming out of my mouth at any moment. I would literally vomit and then hold it and eat it back to my stomach. My situation worsened minute by minute. Even my thoughts started to tire me. I harshly could breathe. My ears deafened and even more distressing, started to make a weird noise inside my brain, let alone the thirst that dried my mouth like never before. I stopped walking and could not even utter it to my friends until they realized that I had been lagged behind, so they returned back and we all took a short rest and began walking again.
We crossed one mountain only to see there is another one to climb. That is when no thought of relief could rescue me from the dread of keeping on with no end in sight. Right as we were climbing the next mountain, a group of Pazdars shouted, “Iyist (halt).” Everyone stopped moving. My body liked it because I could take some rest but also frightful of a sudden attack or any unexpected terrible thing to happen. We stopped climbing for a while till we heard one of the Kolbars shout, “don’t take it away from me, I beg you!” As soon as we heard the shout, we all scurried downward to flee, but we could hear leaders among the Kolbars staying to negotiate the captured release. The Pazdars, as soon as they capture one, they let the others go. They would beat him until he speaks names and addresses of the real owners of the goods. They, then, go after the owners.
The concept of Kurdishness becomes especially trivial when you see the Kurdish Kolbars begging for the release of their fellow captured from the Kurdish Pazdars who spoke in Kurdish but loyal to the Iranian government. In my experience living on both sides of the border, I came to believe that I am not living in Kurdistan for being mistreated by my fellow Kurds who have been in a better position than I am, in the position of power. In the case of the Pazdars, all the time the Kolbars begged the Pazdars who spoke the same mother language, Kurdish, as the Kolbars didn’t attract a sting of pity. The definition of Kurdishness is something on TV with no reference on the ground. Mohammed, he called me, let's talk again afterwards. I want to stop telling you the hideous plight we faced on the mountain later on and the hardships we encountered till arrived at Biyara’s Naqshbandi mosque. I will unfold to you bits of my time in the city as well. At Biyara village, three of us (out of six) decided to go to the city of Sulaimani hoping we will find a job, better jobs than doing Kolbari. Mullah Ayyub and I, and mullah Khalid who has just gotten married and was desperate to make money, hit the road again. All three of us very unsure what to expect and where to stay in the city. We spent a quarter of the money we had, about 4 dollars, on the bus that got us to Sulaimani. It's a book on its own.
Mullah Metin’s time in the city should wait till another chance to write that too. If this story tells you anything, it should tell you what it can look like to live under “maximum pressure campaigns” in Iran.