A dash of history, culture, language

I got my immigration card today – finally! It’s only valid for 2 months, though – the next time I’ll have to give blood, and they’ll hopefully issue me a year-long visa. The asaish, the “secret police” which are akin to the FBI, have children at our school and so the school director hopes they can expedite things. It used to be, you’d be issued a year-long visa at entrance to Kurdistan. But there was an issue at a foreign-run private school last year, and now the KRG is very wary of whom they let into the country.

So consequently, in the bureaucracy building, we satsatsatsatsat for 4 hours. Less shuttling about this time, but more waiting. And once again, there was so. much. complaining. I heard the phrase “waste of time” from the Canadian about every 10 minutes. And the Brit would not stop talking. It was like having an annoyed bee buzzing in my ear for hours.

You’d think, since they’d been through the process yesterday, they’d want to bring a book, and iPod or something. But some people love to complain. (and here I am complaining…)

Me, I finished “Candide” and made my way through a couple Sherlock stories. I haven’t gotten to read much since I’ve been here, so it was really nice to catch up with some English-speaking characters, even if they were speaking antiquated English.

There are SO MANY WAYS to speak English. And yet, it’s still one language. Isn’t that awesome?! One of my Classics profs told me that there was a point in the Middle Ages that the romance languages were identified by their speakers as Latin dialects. “Romance” just means Roman – so romance languages developed from Latin. So although we, as 21st-century citizens, could identify them at that point as Italian, Spanish, French, their own speakers would just say they were speaking Latin.

Awesome, right?

I wonder if English will ever split into dialects like that, to eventually become distinct languages.

I was told today that my pronunciation of Kurdish is “excellent.” Yes! Well, I’m moving in the right direction. People can understand the words I’m speaking.

I also learned a new word a few days ago – kaka. It’s a term of respect, like “sir.” It’s usually used to address men who are elderly, or men who are assisting you, like taxi drivers or waiters. Another expat told me it, but she wasn’t sure whether it was gaka or kaka, so she told me to say it really fast so no one could tell. I asked Mr. Karzan whether it was said with a “g” or a “k,” and he laughed. Apparently, while kaka is respectful, gaka means “bull.”

Ok, really good to know! This is why we ask native speakers. If I called a taxi driver “bull,” he’d probably charge me an extra 2 hizar.

Miran, a teacher, comes from a peshmurga family. The peshmurga are Kurdish freedom fighters, and were particularly active during Hussein’s reign. Although Miran was never a peshmurg, his father was, and so Miran’s family lived in the mountainous regions of Kurdistan and moved around every couple depending on where the fighting was. In the mid-eighties his family moved to Iran, where it was safer, until the Gulf War broke out in 1990. They then moved back to Sulay, one of the Kurdish cities liberated from Hussein (the others were Arbil and Duhok).

There’s a lot of history here. It isn’t obvious until you start to really talk with the locals. The two people who have talked to me, I’ve gotten to know them over the past week, they’ve taught me some Kurdish, they can see that I’m genuinely invested in Kurdistan. It seems to me that talking about Kurdistan’s past is like a bruise, or a scar. It’s sore, it’s not pretty, and you don’t show it to strangers. But, at times, you have to share its story.

Honestly, I think that I’m earning people’s trust through language. I am trying really hard to memorize people’s names and address them by name when I see them in the halls. Even the Bangladeshi custodians, whom the local Kurds treat rather poorly. I write down names along with Kurdish vocab in my reporter’s notebook. Vocab, names – it’s all language. And it’s their language, so by learning these words, I’m respecting them.

I had the problem, in the classroom, of romanticizing language, putting it on a pedestal. I’d respect language so much that I’d be embarrassed to speak a foreign language aloud for fear of messing up. But abroad, I see that language is just another tool. By learning Kurdish, I’m making life easier for myself – I have another tool in my bag to survive abroad. Communication is key. If I weren’t learning the local language, I’d essentially be nailing myself into a box, outside of which would be all these fascinating Kurds. And I’d be restricting my friendship circle to native English speakers.


I’m trying not to think poorly of those English teachers who have no intention of learning Kurdish, or have been here a while and haven’t tried to learn any. But, as you can tell, I’m having a hard time withholding judgment. Not trying – it just seems really disrespectful to me.


5 thoughts on “A dash of history, culture, language

  1. Your point about language as a tool is well taken. I remember when I was in Guatemala and speaking Spanish, even though I didn’t speak it well, people appreciated that I was trying. It was a gesture of interest and humility, I think, since it showed that I knew that my language wasn’t any “better” and I knew I was a guest. Your learning names and words and showing an interest in where you are and who’s there (and not just what *you* are doing) is going to make it a much richer experience.

    Keep on keepin’ on, Rachel! And know that I’m reading and sending you love even though I don’t often actually comment 😉

  2. This is what McKenzie experienced in Peru living there for 3 mos this summer…when the people discovered she spoke their language and was living in Cusco volunteering and was NOT a tourist they visibly relaxed and opened up to her..anxious to help her in any way. Language…so important to bringing the barriers down and understanding the culture…! Kudos to you Rachel!

  3. “One of my Classics profs told me that there was a point in the Middle Ages that the romance languages were identified by their speakers as Latin dialects.” This is the best.

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