When I was a child my father taught me to respect the mountains. Waking up in the middle of the night to see the sunrise from the mountaintop seemed, at the time, like pointless suffering. We did not lose time having breakfast because “you don’t eat before exerting yourself,” my father explained. He would put a few pieces of chocolate in my pocket for when I got hungry. Even in summer it was still dark and cold. Along the first part of the path I slept on his shoulders. Halfway up, at first light, I’d jump down and start chattering. My father would remind me to be respectful, “you don’t shout in the mountains.”
“It is magnificent here” I tell Yousef. “Do you like it? It’s yours!” he answers. We are sitting in the shade of the apple trees in the garden where he and his family pick cherries, on the outskirts of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan. I am here to work on my long-term documentary photography project on the Kurdish mountainous areas of Greater Kurdistan (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey) and Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The city of Mahabad is famous for being the capital of the first Kurdish republic in 1946. Unfortunately, the experience of autonomy lasted less than a year. Iranian Kurdistan, called also Eastern Kurdistan, is an unofficial name for the north western part of Iran inhabited by Kurds, at the border with Iraq and Turkey. They make a living in the mountains mostly from agriculture and pastoralism since the region lacks the investment that goes to other areas of Iran. For over ten years, the Tehran government has been creating collective villages, modifying their traditional nature, to prevent people from moving in masses to the cities. Kurds, part of the Sunni minority in a Shiite country, are treated as second class citizens. “Kurdistan suffers from the highest unemployment rate in the country,” a psychologist told me. “Even those who have a degree like me are often unable to find a job and are forced to work seasonally as hired hands.”
But Yousef’s family is fortunate. They own their fields. They can divide the earnings and build a solid future for the younger generation. About twenty brothers, children, and grandchildren are gathered for their lunch break on mats and carpets in the shade under the trees. A fire is lit for tea. A delicate karkadè infusion is sipped before eating rice, fresh tomatoes, eggs, and boiled potatoes. They take turns to pray. Yousef is still lying down, cuddling his granddaughters, drinking tea, and smoking cigarettes when his daughters arrive. The youngest whispers something in his ear, he takes a knife and some chewing gum out of his pocket and cuts off a piece. She laughs and Yousef lovingly strokes her cheek.
Many dream of a better life in Europe where they can give their children freedom, work and different experiences. Faruq asks me to put him in contact with friends in the US with whom he could chat and practice his English. At twenty-three he already has regrets, the biggest being not studying enough. He would have liked to become a teacher. Aram is thirty and is married to Azar. He is a chemical engineer and works fifteen hours a day. He doesn’t see his eight-month-old son much but dreams of him becoming a soccer champion. He has filled the house with balls “so we’ll no longer have money problems,” he says.
These areas witnessed clashes in 1979 between the newly proclaimed Islamic Republic of Iran and Kurdish fighters of the PDKI (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan) before their exile to Iraqi Kurdistan. But fighting continues nowadays. “He is a shahid, a martyr,” Azar’s aunt tells me as she brandishes the pendant around her neck. The photo of her brother against a sky blue background is sad, like the memory the family has of him. As a young man he enlisted in the PJAK (Kurdistan Free Life Party). He lost his life two years ago fighting against ISIS in the Sinjar Mountains.
The countryside is a harmonious collage of colors that blend from intense green to straw yellow, to the almost white of the ears of wheat. “When the border was open, we never thought of ourselves as foreigners or distant,” Khelan muses, “but now that the pass with Bashur (Iraqi Kurdistan) has been closed, not even the traffickers attempt it.” Originally from a village near Penjwin, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Khelan is married to Adnan. Even though she has been living in Iran for fifteen years, she was given her identity card just a few weeks ago. She only speaks Kurdish and is happy that their three sons are taught to write in her language so that she can help them with their studies. From the terrace the light is soft as we watch the cows returning at the end of the day. A neighbour joins in the discussion. According to Khelan, travelling precludes motherhood, while her friend is enthusiastic to know that even foreign women can travel alone in Kurdistan. Just a moment before sunset, a tiny flock of white birds alights on the roof of the stable. “They say that these birds come from Iraq,” Khelan comments. “Maybe they too have relatives here,” jokes her neighbor.