“Where’s your brother these days?”
It’s a common question in my life. Tom is rarely where I am and usually where no one else is. His life and career take him to the world’s geographic fringe, into remote deserts, jungles and mountains of places not traveled by most of us – Yemen, Madagascar, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Arctic Canada, Guatemala, Kurdistan and the Congo Basin of Gabon.
Tom has always been independent, a survivalist and so smart that in one early accomplishment – winning Student of the Year when he was in ninth grade – he inspired the entirety of my academic success in high school and college. Very simply, I wanted to be as smart as he was, and is.
I marvel at my brother’s life and the self-confidence he has to go where he goes and do what he does. Tom goes to the lonely edge of reality, where life and death stare him in the face and present him with questions crucial to his survival. He has outrun killer bees, confronted guerrillas and chimpanzees, pulled himself from the icy water of the Arctic, escaped stoning and torching in the Andes, and outwitted some very shady characters in numerous countries, including the U.S. Tom’s first book, Thirsty, tells of his many adventures and lessons in remote geochemical oil exploration. He is currently looking for a literary agent for his next book, a work of fiction.
Tom recently returned from Kurdistan. I invited him to be a guest writer and share his account of a place we barely know, and will come to know better in time.
In the IKR
by Tom Brown
The muezzin crackles through the warm city air outside the glass doors to my balcony at 7:30, as brief and perfunctory as it is protracted in conservative Islam. Outside, concrete is poured into precarious, suspended forms around bunched spaghetti-strands of rebar, well-dressed children find their way to school, and watermelons are arrayed enticingly in the strong sun. It is morning, both for the day and for the era.
The city of Sulimaniyah does not walk but runs into a future where the Iraqi Kurdish Region will become independent of Iraq and its blood-soaked, sectarian palsy. Most Iraqi Kurds survived Saddam Hussein’s Anfal pogrom in the late eighties, and many did not. Fighting-age males were systematically apprehended, imprisoned, and executed. The despicable military campaign culminated in gas attacks on the city of Halabja that killed some 5,000 civilians, primarily women and children. The gas used was purchased from the United States in a time when the US viewed Hussein as a bulwark against Iran.
The Kurds can now discuss such horrors so matter-of-factly that I am left to marvel at their capacity to move on−neither forgiving nor forgetting, but truly moving on. Of course, many here thank the US for removing Saddam after the superpower’s long courtship with the despot soured, but some old enough to remember know that the US and the world looked away from Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988.
Success is the best revenge. Sulimaniyah and its surroundings are growing so quickly that there are buildings poking into the dusty blue sky that were not here when I arrived a month ago. I have spent that time conducting oil and gas exploration, walking ten or fifteen kilometers a day across red desert mesas and sharp-toothed canyons, meeting villagers regularly. I collect geochemical data. The IKR’s growth boom has a good deal to do with oil.
One small North American company recently drilled and completed a well in the IKR that has become the envy of many, an old-fashioned, high-pressure discovery that we used to call a ‘gusher’, except that such discoveries are no longer allowed to gush−too dangerous, difficult, and wasteful. The well is a true prize, and the surrounding blocks have been leased up by larger companies, many of which you’ve probably heard of. The Kurds have stipulated a high-percentage of oil revenues from discoveries within their borders, and their government and its elected officials will determine how much of that revenue improves national infrastructure and benefits broad groups of people.
Construction firms, vehicle vendors, hotels, restaurants, and groceries are already seeing increased business. So are security services and the locals they employ, most of whom are former Peshmerga soldiers. Many are old enough to remember Anfal. Whatever opinions you may hold about oil exploration, it’s important to remember that Kurdistan wants the sort of security and prosperity that Europe and North America enjoy, and for that, in this region, they need capital and powerful friends. Capital comes from having something to sell that absolutely everyone wants. When did you last get in a car?
It is not hard to imagine another Saddam emerging in Baghdad. It may even be likely. It is true that in 1988, at the height of Anfal, when Kurdistan’s primary products were goats, sheep, wheat, and nuts, none of which were exported, the world averted its attention from a massacre. The West’s rhetoric in future regional conflicts will continue to be about human rights and the defense of civilians, but once the energy multinationals arrive in force, it is the oil and the nation that issued the oil leases that will be defended, and it will be defended well.
It looks like Kurdistan has plenty of oil, and it seems that in Kurdistan, religion may be riding in the back seat. Many of the women in Suli dress like Europeans, and those who dress conservatively do not cover their faces. Kurds take pride in a work ethic that overrides their need to pray during the workday. I even met a couple free-thinkers who don’t believe in a deity and weren’t afraid to say so, profound evidence of an open, tolerant intellectual atmosphere.
Suli is safe. Foreigners can travel independently. Beer and liquor are sold in shops. The Kurds are all on the same team, and street crime is rare. The highest mountain here is Cheekah Dar, at nearly 12,000’, and snow falls in the winter in many parts of the IKR. There is endless, undeveloped rock-climbing, some on exquisite limestone. Wildflowers abound in the high hills surrounding Suli. The people are some of the warmest I’ve met anywhere, and I’ve been around. They are proud to have foreigners in their soon-to-be nation, and I’m proud to have worked alongside them. Three cheers for a healthy, happy Kurdistan−finally.