Picture a beautiful, mountainous, oil-rich country with warm, welcoming people and a distinct and vibrant culture, which one day soon will have the opportunity to choose independence.
Scotland? No. Kurdistan.
A couple of days ago I was asked to write the script for a short film an oil company is making about its new operation there. I was quite unprepared for what I learnt about the place.
For me the word Kurd has always conjured the image of an oppressed people, caught up first in rebellion against the Turkish authorities, then suffering dreadful atrocities at the hands of Saddam Hussein, and all the while susceptible to vicious internecine strife.
I had no idea that today Kurdistan is the most stable corner of the region, squeezed as it is between Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq: a peaceful, prosperous, secular society whose political and commercial channels with Turkey are now fully open, and to which Iraqis and Iranians slip across the border in order to let their hair down in up-to-the-minute shopping malls and hotels.
Two things in particular are responsible for Kurdistan’s new-found wellbeing: vast reserves of oil (some 45 billion barrels), for which it is being hailed as the new Dubai; and a fierce and dedicated militia, the peshmerga, which rigorously patrols the borders that insulate it from the surrounding chaos.
When this ancient place – and it is truly ancient: the Tigris and Euphrates both rise in its mountains, while the citadel of the capital Erbil is held to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited town – finally declares its independence from Iraq, it will have been the result of generations of struggle and bloodshed, the current stability notwithstanding.
To the Kurds, the idea that a vote on independence is something that could simply be agreed around the table with the parent state must seem like a fairytale; and that there should be debate over whether or not this is a good thing, must seem like the last word in absurdity.
There are worlds of difference between Scotland and Kurdistan, naturally, oppression being the principle one (although some would argue that the Act of Union and everything that has since flowed from it has hardly been a model of even-handedness). But what we do share is that political, cultural and economic distinctness from our neighbours that makes us more than merely regions of the greater whole.
I first became aware of Scotland as somewhere different when I was sent to boarding school in England. The sense of excitement at the end of term as I got on the sleeper at King’s Cross and woke the next morning to discover that we had crossed the border was to do with more than merely coming home, or rather it was to do with a sense of home that ran broader and deeper than the family embrace.
Almost everything I was returning to was different – the temperament and language, landscape and weather, music and literature, church, dress, food, humour, economy and so on – all the things that shape, and manifest, the character of a nation.
As the referendum campaign has progressed, I have come to see more and more clearly that that distinctness is at the core of my wish for independence – though not because it is something to hold up against the rest of the world in general, or our southern neighbour in particular, but rather because it calls forward the axiom that we are the people who can make the best decisions about our own future. Is it not self-evident that in most other places in the world where these distinctions exist, people take their own decisions about everything – war and peace, welfare and taxation, as well as health, education and law and order?
Josiane Bonieux, a Mauritian friend who has spent her working life in Brussels as an interpreter with the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, emailed me the other day. She said this:
‘It really is a question of belief in yourselves and of self-confidence. It’s a unique opportunity to run your own affairs after centuries of dependency on Britain: and look where Britain is at the moment? How could it be worse anyway? And look at the countless number of small states which have emerged out of the former British Empire and which are far smaller than you are, far less rich and which are doing well …. It’s not that dramatic to be independent: it’s liberating and gives one a feeling of strength and maturity. I don’t know what the Scots are scared of.
‘Once you are independent, you will be part of the European Union with all its advantages, you can deal with the outside world as you wish, you won’t have to fight for recognition in Westminster etc … I don’t understand how all this does not appeal to any one in their own good mind, notwithstanding all the resources you have and which will be shared among 5 million people or so instead of 60 million! Hope you’ll make it anyway.’
Thanks, Josiane. So do I.
The journalist John McCarthy presented an excellent documentary on the new Kurdistan just this week on BBC Radio 4. You can hear it here.