In Kurdistan

In 2012 I read an article on an Iraqi news site about a small, historic town in Iraqi Kurdistan that was battling to save its architectural and cultural heritage from unregulated development amid economic hardship. The town was called al-Amadiya, or Amedi, and the accompanying picture of it was amazing, showing buildings crammed together on top of a huge, flat-topped mountain with sheer sides. It looked beautiful, but a tough place to live – and the news story was all about how the town authorities were trying to control spillover while also encouraging young people not to leave for bigger cities.

Then I did some more research. Amedi wasn’t just old – it was ancient. That rock’s been inhabited for thousands of years. Kurdistan – and Iraq – being what they are, Amedi had also once been a major centre of Jewish population. It had had synagogues, wealth and sophistication. It was, and to some extent still is, a site of pilgrimage. That was interesting. I did some more digging – and the book I wanted to write that I’d been struggling to formulate in my mind fell into place.

Then I wondered if I could actually get to Amedi.

I emailed the Kurdish journalist who wrote the story – he replied at length, but there wasn’t much he could offer beyond what he’d published. I emailed somebody else, then somebody else, and somebody passed me on to somebody, and then somebody suggested I write to a PhD student in Germany called Shireen Younus Ismael. She replied straightaway – full of information, very enthusiastic, and hugely knowledgeable about cultural heritage work being done in Amedi. I began to see how I could write about something slightly tangential to me – cultural heritage preservation – that would let me, later on, write about the thing I really wanted to write about.

I pitched an article to a magazine editor about Amedi’s efforts at cultural heritage preservation. In 2014 he commissioned me, and I started making plans to go. Kurdistan is safer for me to travel in than the rest of Iraq, but it still needed thought and planning. But then ISIS launched the horrifying Sinjar massacre. Security aside, it would have been entirely inappropriate for me to even attempt to go there during that awful time, taking up space, taking up energy and resources prancing around looking at buildings. The editor and I cancelled the trip.

In 2018 I pitched again. Just before or just after I was re-commissioned, I heard that the British government’s Cultural Protection Fund had announced it was awarding £100,000 to help efforts to document and preserve architectural heritage in – my jaw dropped – Amedi. I reconnected with Shireen. She was back in Kurdistan, and as enthusiastic and welcoming as ever. The money would be administered by World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit based in New York & London, but before I could even approach them, they approached me – and then I discovered that their main contact on the ground in Amedi was Shireen. It was all coming together nicely.

I absolutely loved my time in Kurdistan. I’ll wax lyrical about it somewhere else, but for now, it’s enough to say that that trip was a life-changer. So many people were so generous to me. I think about them, and Amedi, every day.

A good friend Leon McCarron had put me onto a fixer and guide team Laween Mhamad and Miran Dizayee – they were brilliant. I couldn’t have done half the things I did, or got to half the places I saw, without them. Their skill and perseverance brought me quotes of gold, from people all over Amedi – far beyond what ended up in this piece published in AramcoWorld magazine. One day, I’ll be able to tell the full story of that trip – and, if I do, it will be thanks to Laween and Miran.

Then the magazine sent the exceptional George Azar to Amedi – his gorgeous images, reproduced in the piece, tell their own story.

Meanwhile, seven years after the idea first came up, I sincerely hope this article can do some good for the amazingly warm and welcoming people of Amedi, and the vital work Shireen and her team at Dohuk University are doing, partnered by WMF and others.

Amedi – and Kurdistan – is an extraordinary place. I’m so lucky to have seen it. I hope you like my article.