The road ahead was blocked with slow moving vehicles. Smoke everywhere, people shouting, at the top of all the vehicles someone wearing their tribal keffiyah and waving a flag. Police with absolutely no control over the situation, tyres screech on the tarmac laid for the first time less than a decade ago. Smoke hangs over the procession. Bangs and flashes a dozen metres away. This is Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, a few weeks before the 2014 elections.
Actually this was a rally for the leading party in Sulaymaniyah. The atmosphere was joyous and festive, even our driver, a supporter of a different party couldn’t help joining in by pumping the clutch on his fake Chinese Nissan – Snoop Dogg style. The last couple of weeks we’d watched as the city sky was slowly obscured by flags and bunting; my colleague watched with some amusement as two lads tried to put up a large banner of their preferred leader in very high motorway winds. In fact it was impossible to actually go anywhere, save for our site (I’ll come to that presently), without being followed by the gaze of potential politicians from every available wall.
I asked a friend who worked at the museum whether there were any tensions between different party supporters “No not really, everyone is just happy to able to have democratic elections finally”. The long hours we spent in the office of the Director of Antiquities, smoking and waiting for someone to turn up or print some kind of document or another, were spent in front of various political broadcasts. Not speaking Kurdish we could only guess at what was actually was being said, but it was funny looking at the different vibes; the blue “Change” party, represented by a candle and smiling Mr Goran, were full of shouting, singing, enthusiastic and optimistic looking young men. The yellows were much more sombre; delivering choreographed speeches to an audience of serious looking folks in party ties. The greens (PUK; by far the most popular in the region we were staying), seemed mix of the two; not afraid to crack out some folk dances.
But every so often, switching channels, we would be presented with an image of burning buildings, young men with a handful of spent bullets yelling passionately in a language I don’t speak to whoever was behind the camera.
We left at the end of April, a few weeks later ISIS conducted public beheadings and took Mosul. The rest is history.
One of the more distressing side effects of travelling a lot, and into weird places, is that I tend to have a lot of friends near the epicentres of the most recent disaster. This makes Facebook chat much more interesting, from what I hear from Amanj, who was our fixer and representative from the museum, life is currently business as usual, though I suspect Kurdish peoples are somewhat more resilient when it comes to this kind of thing. Of people I know in Liverpool, at least one guy has disappeared then reappeared on Facebook, in military fatigues, off to join the resistance in the mountains.
It’s a shock, not least because the mood around spring time was so optimistic. The region was doing quite well thank you very much, probably the only part of Iraq where life has actually improved since the American-led invasion (mind you, it couldn’t have got much worse for the Kurds). We saw enough images of weeping widows and mothers crying over the bodies of the victims of Saddams gassing to know that any more conflict was the last thing on anybodies minds. Kurdistan, or the part that lay within Iraqs borders at least, seemed ready to take hold of self-determination and autonomy, something has been denied to them since the remodelling of the Middle East by the British at the end of the First World War.
But actually we hadn’t come for all that. I was attached to a small team of archaeologists from the University of Liverpool investigating the origins of agriculture, something which occurred in the Fertile Crescent, on the plains of Anatolia and hills below the Zagros mountains, from around 10 000BC (depending on who you talk to). The co-directors have been working in the Near East and Turkey for some time; the latter is getting somewhat harder in recent years, as the government introduces tougher fees and permits, people are beginning to look elsewhere; many of the people we met also had worked in Syria, but, well, yeah.
It looked like a lot of people were ready top take advantage of Iraq being open for business (and by that I mean the business of digging holes and musing over soil colour). Our aim was a reanalysis of a site dug by Robert Braidwood in the 50’s, long before the turmoil of the Saddam era and scientific archaeology. One of the greatest things about my chosen vocation is being able to visit areas of the world that aren’t on most peoples list of tourist destinations, finding myself perched precariously on a wadi cliff only accessible with a 4x4 was exhilarating, but as much as archaeologists like to see their practice as outside of political spheres we are constantly at the mercy of changing political tides. UK and Iranian relations have improved over the last few months; now some academics are looking to open trenches on the other side of the Zagros mountains.
The project was hoping to return to the area next year, to conduct more extensive research. I don’t know if that will happen now.