Middle East

Baghdad diary: Travels and shopping in Iraqi Kurdistan

Aram, cobbler in Suleimaniya
Image caption A cobbler in Iraqi Kurdistan can take a week to make a pair of shoes

Travelling through the mountains of Kurdistan in northern Iraq is not always an easy business. The winding roads get narrower and more tortuous the further you drive from the towns.

Eventually, as you approach the Iranian border, some peter out altogether, turning into little more than dirt-tracks, better negotiated on the back of a mule than in the none-too-robust cars we had hired.

We were heading towards a camp for refugees, villagers who had been forced to flee their homes because of persistent air strikes by Turkish warplanes, and shelling from across the Iranian border.

This has been going on for some years. Both Iran and Turkey regularly bomb northern Iraq, striking, they say, against Kurdish rebel groups, fighters who maintain bases in these inaccessible mountains.

It is a conflict so remote and so old now - the PKK, or Kurdish Workers' Party has been fighting Turkish government forces for 26 years now - that the world appears to barely notice.

Refugees

But this year, the bombardment has been fiercer than before, the residents of the camp told me.

"We don't have any control over these people," Mahmoud told me, referring to the Kurdish guerrillas, as we sat on his creaking iron bed in front of his UN-supplied tent.

The setting was stunningly beautiful. A fast stream ran through the deep gorge and on both sides; colossal craggy mountains caught the early evening sunlight.

Image caption Mahmoud and his family depend on aid to survive in the refugee camp

But the reality of Mahmoud's existence here, and that of more than 2000 other people now living in this camp, is less poetic.

Caught between the powerful military machines of Turkey and Iran on the one hand, and a small but durable Kurdish guerrilla force on the other, these people have been driven from their villages and are becoming dependent on aid for their most basic needs: food, water and shelter.

Some have had their homes destroyed. More often, though, it has been their livestock or their beehives that have suffered; their orchards or their crops.

And for the moment, they say, it is still not safe to return.

"We just want to be left in peace to tend to our animals," Mahmoud said.

'Misery'

In truth, it seemed to me that the Kurds of northern Iraq are in a difficult position.

On the one hand, their situation is relatively benign, compared to that of their fellow Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria.

They have their own autonomous region, which can to a large extent do as it pleases, independent of the central government in Baghdad.

On the other, as Mahmoud suggested, the presence of the fighters - who are considered terrorists, not only by Turkey and Iran, but also by most western governments - merely brings misery to the Kurds of Iraq.

But speaking to people in Iraqi Kurdistan, it seemed to me that most people felt a strong sense of solidarity with their fellow Kurds in neighbouring countries.

It is a duty, if not to actively help the guerrillas, then at least to provide them with food and shelter, or - as in the case of the Kurdish regional government - turn a blind eye to their presence on Iraqi Kurdish soil.

Traditional dress

Many Kurdish men still prefer traditional dress to jeans and t-shirts.

It is a distinctive outfit: a suit of baggy woollen trousers underneath a matching jacket, held in at the waist with a colourful scarf. Often they wear a turban on their heads.

Their shoes, perhaps the least noticeable part of the ensemble, are, I think, the most interesting.

There is a street in the centre of Suleimaniya, Kurdistan's second city, which is full of cobblers' shops. In the windows are displayed rows of white shoes, in different sizes but identical in style.

The top of the shoe is made of white cotton - I'd seen a man outside on the pavement, bleaching the material with a paintbrush a little while earlier.

Image caption Many men in the mountains of Kurdistan still wear traditional dress

The sole is a thick slab of animal-hide, covered in decorative threads of cotton: blue, red and white.

When the shoe is new, there is a length of leather stretching from the heel to the toe to stop the sole from warping or becoming misshapen before its new owner begins to wear it. The cobbler will cut it off for you if you buy the shoe.

Good deal

I stepped inside to try a pair on.

The cobbler, Aram, was sitting cross-legged on the floor of his small shop, knocking wedges into one of his shoes to give it shape.

He bade me sit down and sent for tea. I asked for a size 42. He hunted round and gave me a pair. It was the right length, but a little loose around the edges. The second pair I tried was also not quite right.

So the cobbler looked at my feet, took a third pair, and stretched it on his block. They fitted perfectly.

When I asked him how much, I was quite surprised at first by his answer. The price of $50 (£33) for a pair of shoes seemed pretty expensive, especially in this part of the world.

Surely locals would be getting them cheaper?

I phoned a friend who is Kurdish and asked him whether I was being charged over the odds. No he replied, actually I was getting a good deal.

The cobbler explained that each pair took a week to make, that they were designed for walking up and down the rough mountain paths and extremely durable.

I thought of all the cheap imported clothes and toys and other, mostly useless, items that are the staple of any market in any town almost anywhere in the world these days.

Image caption The finished product for $50: A sturdy shoe made of animal-hide and cotton

Suleimaniya was no exception - I had passed plenty of that stuff on the way to the cobbler's shop.

And yet here was a thriving community of craftsmen, holding out against the global onslaught of poor-quality goods, made in a rush for a quick sale, in China and elsewhere in Asia.

The people of Kurdistan, often living rather isolated and by no means affluent lives, are quite clearly still prepared to pay a decent proportion of their monthly income for a product that is labour-intensive but good quality, and produced locally by a man they know by sight and name.

How long, I wondered, before these cobblers succumb to the pressure of the global market, and are priced out of the local one?

I paid my $50 gladly, and bought a pair to take back to my girlfriend too. I hope they fit. But if they don't, I shall bring them back to Aram and get him to knock them into shape.