Last year, around these times, I was in Kirkuk. In fact, a few more days after 12.12.11, precisely on 15.12.11.
The plane carrying me from Baghdad to Kirkuk would leave the airstrip minutes before the American troops would hand over the command to the Iraqi forces, and possibly right around the time VP Hashemi’s residence was being raided by the government forces.
None of these hot news stories really mattered to me at the time. I was finally undertaking a much-longed-for visit. Being on assignment in Iraq for almost a year, I had not been able to travel to Kirkuk until the end of my assignment, and with it my departure from the country crept close. Mostly due to security reasons, with kidnappings and shootings on the rise more than ever, as well as the occasional car bomb, I was “advised” not to travel there until the situation stabled somewhat. Almost a year passed and the only difference in “the situation” was that it deteriorated further. Kirkuk often ranked somewhere in top 5 in number of monthly attacks. As I was getting no where except frustrated with the security reports and the limitations on my mobility, the chance arose. It was like a miracle, sort of an early end-of-year present. I would travel to Kirkuk, spend a little more than a week there, and then travel to Erbil from where I would say a long goodbye to Iraq.
Ever since I first arrived in the country, I had heard and read a lot about the city – its history, its people. Everytime something came up in the news related to Kirkuk, I was all ears. What intrigued me most was not the fact that it was merely beautiful – which I would soon find out that it was, worn down, but beautiful – but rather that it was one of the last strongholds of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual Iraq that, if left alone, would be the best example of plurality and peace. Seeing was believing, and I was in desperate need of believing after daily car bombs, violence, deaths and all the grim news that came out of this country, as if in the grip of an eternal curse since the days of Babylon.
I had met many Kirkukis during my stay in Iraq and they all would tell me the same thing: with peace we will show the world how we managed to live side by side all this time. Once in Kirkuk, I would soon confirm this first hand sitting at a generous (with not only food but culture) lunch table, where English, Turkoman, Kurdish, Arabic was being spoken at the same time – everyone except me Kirkuki, everyone with a distinct accent, all of them understanding each other. I remember sitting and watching the same scene unfold many a times for as long as I stayed there.
As I left Kirkuk, I left with the distinct feeling that Kirkuki hospitality couldn’t be put into words without doing it injustice. The sincerity, the openness of the people was one to be cherished. More so from a journalistic perspective: the willingness to have their story told, the way it should be told, directly in their own words.