To the north of the city of Slemani, sits a town on top of a hill in-between two rivers called Qaladze. Just like many other towns in Kurdistan, Qaladze is surrounded by intimidating yet beautiful mountains that overlook the Iranian border. The name ‘Qaladze’ or ‘Qala Diza’ translates into “castle of two rivers” – in Kurdish: ‘Qala- du-ze’.
I don’t come across many individuals in my generation who are aware that Qaladze exists within the province of Slemani or the hardship this town and its community have survived through in the past. The truth is, the town of Qaladze has endured more than most of us are actually aware of, its people have survived through hardship that isn’t dwelled upon in history books – Qaladze is one of those suffered smaller towns in Bashur that is often overlooked and brushed aside.
At 9.15am on Wednesday 24th April 1974, Qaladze fell victim to Saddam Hussein first airstrike against the Kurds. It was rumoured that the town attracted the eye of Saddam Hussein because the University of Slemani* had temporarily relocated to Qaladze on the 1st April 1974 – under the command of leader Mustafa Barzani who led the Kurdish revolution. More than 425 students and teachers re-located to Qaladze as a show of solidarity to Mustafa Barzani’s decision which angered the Ba’athi government. Bomber planes, rockets and internationally prohibited cannon fires set alight the town of Qaladze, the Ba’athist government had demolished the town of Qaladze and although we will never know an exact figure of fallen victims, it is said that more than 132 children and students alone were killed during the attacks, with over 400 Kurds injured or missing. Two days after the Iraqi government’s first airstrike on the Kurds, attentions were turned to the town of Halabja – the second victim of Saddam Hussein’s airstrikes.
It was my personal experience in this town that motivated me to commence my character photography of the Kurds, this is my short introduction of where my journey began.
I first began exploring Qalazde just under five years ago, when my roots paved the way for my curiosity. I didn’t know much about this town but what I did know, was that half of my roots now laid 6 feet beneath the soil that I was standing upon. It was loss that brought me to this town and somehow within my loss I began to ask myself how much I knew about where I was, a question I had minimal answers to. It was then that I realised that I could walk away from this town empty handed and mope about how unfair life was for the remainder of my days or I could take a timeframe so negative and appreciate the tiny specs of positivity that still remained for me. We always seem to value something or someone more when we don’t have them in the firm grips of our hands, it’s only when we experience loss that we remind ourselves of the many things we should have said or done. For me, in the midst of my loss lay the regret of having so many invisible answers to questions of my heritage I had never bothered with asking– all I knew was that one half of me belonged to the town of Qaladze. I had been left with a gaping hole that I knew I would struggle to close had I not allowed myself to explore and engage with my unfamiliar environment. Before I envisioned allowing my mind to set alight my insides, I needed distraction of a specific kind that encouraged discovery and fulfilment. Not every one of life’s beatings will defeat us unless we allow it to, sometimes we win and sometimes…we can learn.
There’s a positive uncertainty about discovery that leaves the mind-set with a subtle sense of comfort. To engage on a journey that you begin with minimal information with, defies the expectations which leaves minimal room for disappointment. All you know when you commence in a search is that any findings you will obtain, is one more than what you had started with. Not prepared to leave this town empty handed, I began to absorb as much as I possibly could from every encounter I made. Like a sponge, I was soaking in every possible detail I found whilst in Qaladze; the salient landscapes, the characteristics of the community and striking sunsets over the rivers. It was only when my mind began capturing stories as I gazed at interactions amongst the Kurds with each other, with their livelihoods and amongst the earth they walked that I picked up my instrument and aimed to capture in still frames what I had observed and grown to admire.
One prominent influence in this town was the wear of traditional Kurdish attire as opposed to modern civilian clothing. – a nice change having spent so long residing in the major cities nearby where traditional clothing was a far cry from every day wear. It was comforting to be in an environment that had yet to show signs of western cultural imperialism; the Kurdish identity I had explored here had a raw essence to it that at times came across very vulnerable yet also endearing. Known for its hospitability, there are no local hotels within Qaladze, if you need a place to stay for the night – the locals provide you with shelter; it’s the idea of not being left on your own that I found humbling to say the least. I remember finding myself stumbling across a funeral that was being catered for by the women of the neighbourhood which the grieving family resided in; every house gate was open for guests to feel at home. The one characteristic I adapted from my time in this small town, was the ability to give and share at free will; regardless of how empty we feel especially when dealing with a loss, there will always be a kindness that is permanently imprinted within us to use accordingly.
The town of Qaladze kept me company during a personal exploration of my heritage; a discovery of where a part of me belonged to. I left this town with more than I had entered with – a sense of home grown realism that most Kurds, who like myself live in the Kurdish diaspora are detached from experiencing. I captured images to take back with me overseas as a reminder of the motherland. Ever since then, I return to Kurdistan annually and aim to grasp the Kurds in all their glory in various parts of Kurdistan through my photography; regular Kurds, in their normal everyday environments who each have their own story to tell. There are many colours and stories to share in Kurdistan, I guess this is just my way of sharing mine and theirs.
*This year, on the 10th February 2013, the council ministers of the Kurdish Regional Government elected the 24th April as the University Martyrs Day; a homage to the fallen martyrs of Sulaymaniyah University (now known as Salahaddin University)