On the way from Sulaymaniyah to the Barzan Valley, an area that has been a center of Kurdish insurrection since the 1920's, there is a café by the Great Zab river. Fried fish is served under the oak trees, and canaries and nightingales sing through the sound of rapids downstream. In the evening there is a smell of hay in the valleys. If you walk in the hills above, the descent is like powder-skiing, with the daisies and the white-topped, thigh-high thistles gently brushing your legs.
In Barzan I spoke to an old man who basks in the name Abdulsalam Sheikh Sulaiman Sheikh Abdulsalam Barzani. On an acre near the center of town, he tends shady rows of figs, pomegranates, almonds, and apples. Around his plot were others—less profuse, but rich. Farther away there were sheep and cattle in pastures. All around us were hills where mountain oaks, which once blanketed the landscape, were coming back to a country denuded by Saddam with fire and chemicals. With the trees, birds and deer and wolves are also returning.
I wanted to walk for weeks in those hills, where the oaks made a pattern like leopard skin on the gold grass. But the mayor of nearby Mergasur, whose grandfather was hanged by the Ottomans in 1914 and who lost 37 cousins to Saddam, had warned me not to go too far or too high, or to spend time in the hills at night. The PKK—one of the deadliest guerrilla groups in the Middle East, Kurdish-Marxists, whose main struggle is in Turkey—is active in the high Iraqi border country from Syria to Iran. Other Kurds, who live near their camps in those lush valleys ringed by snow, are scared of them. Looking out at his own village and over the Barzan Valley, Abdulsalam said to me in English: "You see this beautiful place, so green and rich, the farmers, the merchants, all so full of optimism—yet every individual has a tragedy. Mothers, brothers, sisters killed. Torture, refugees." Barzan had been razed in 1983. Eight thousand Barzani men disappeared in a single night. Abdulsalam lost two brothers, an uncle, cousins.
"So much promise, so much pain," he said, as he sat cross-legged on the dark earth under one of his apricot trees, waving an arm over the valley. "This is Kurdistan."
BARTLE BULL has written about Iraq for the New York Times and the Financial Times.