First Impressions

Jonathan Dworkin, formerly of the blog Aspasia, is a medical student in his final year at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. For the past year he has organized a collaboration between Kurdish and American doctors with the twin goals of better defining the long-term consequences of Baathist chemical attacks on the Kurdish civilian population of Halabja and advocating for increased access to resources for the survivors. Jonathan is travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan from January to March of 2006 and will be sending occasional dispatches about his travels to the Washington Monthly. Here’s his first one.


FIRST IMPRESSIONS….What?s the Kurdish word for chutzpah? I want to know after arriving at my window seat on Air Kurdistan and finding an old woman resting comfortably in my chair. I point to my ticket and act confused, but she just smiles serenely. ?It?s ok,? she says, indicating the middle chair. The game repeats itself throughout the airplane, with arguments breaking out in a few places. Midway through the flight, when the woman starts vomiting, she refuses to surrender her window seat. Instead she climbs over her neighbors and carries plastic bags to and from the bathroom. It?s rudeness taken to an almost spiritual level.

When we land in Erbil there is clapping and a few shouts of ?Kurdistan!? from the passengers. Customs is a mess, with a mass of people and luggage bottlenecked behind two army checkpoints. Despite the pushiness, people are helpful and direct me to the right place. It?s not until I?m outside the airport that the emptiness of the place strikes me. Instead of our industrial zones there are concrete security perimeters. Instead of fences I see barbed wire sprawling around like confetti. Men with Kalashnikovs, many without uniform, greet individual passengers and race off in SUVs. Were they peshmerga, a private security detail, or just family members? The security system is a recurrent topic throughout my first day.

A driver from the Ministry of Health greets me at the airport and packs my bags into his car. As we drive I notice improvised concrete buildings everywhere. In the post-Anfal Kurdistan, this is affordable housing. We pass the regional bank, hit last year by RPG fire, and then a patch of green called Sammy Abdul Rahman Park. This is named after a KDP official who died in a suicide bombing, one of the few large incidents in the Kurdish region. When we reach Erbil International Hotel, I am struck by how out-of-place it looks. It is glass and steel on stone columns, and it looks like a toy skyscraper stuck in the mud. Dr. Ali Sindi, a Harvard educated physician at the health ministry, insists that I am safe here. But safe from what? It?s a question no one seems able to answer.

In the hotel lounge there?s a Kurdish version of The West Wing unfolding. Officials from political parties meet and then head to the restaurant for shisha. Wedding receptions gather, with the Kurdish men in stocky suits and bulging pink ties. The women embody modern Islam, with arms and legs covered but hair flowing. A few women use elements from the dishdasha (a colorful traditional dress), but most wear western style pants and shirts. Peshmerga search and frisk everyone who enters.

Later in the day I get bored and walk outside to the peshmerga checkpoint. I bring a book of pictures from New York and a Hershey?s chocolate bar. The soldiers politely turn down the chocolate, but they are excited by the pictures of New York. Chinatown takes a minute to explain, but then there are fast exchanges in Kurdish and everyone nods approvingly. ?Demoway bizanum Kurdi (I want to learn Kurdish),? I say. They teach me a few phrases and each shakes my hand.

It?s my first day. I am exhausted, and the details of the Halabja work begin to fill my mind with petty anxieties. One thing alone seems clear: The Kurds are a people under siege. In the United States we are not. It?s a distinction that will color every aspect of life here.

Jonathan Dworkin

Jonathan Dworkin Dworkin is an infectious diseases doctor. He’s the author of the first medical study to investigate the long-term social impact of chemical weapons on the people of Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan. His more recent work has focused on typhoid fever in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimania. He has written several articles on Kurdish culture, Kurdish politics, and relations with America.