KIRKUK, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – Heavy metal in Kirkuk does not always mean armored vehicles and artillery. For the fans, heavy metal means listening to their favorite local band: Dark Phantom.
Based in the heavily contested, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Dark Phantom is emerging in a hazardous climate yet proud of its defiance. Amidst the reign of the extremism and among the destruction of war, the heavy metal band rose in 2007.
The multi-ethnic band, consisting of two Turkmens, two Kurds, and one Arab has survived not only lack of support and appreciation from some in their own communities, but has braved various death threats from Islamists who equate 'metal' with Satan worship.
“They call us Satanists but music is life itself. And when you hear the sound of explosions and gunshots and the constant news of killings, heavy metal is the kind of music that comes to [our] minds, not hip-hop or love songs,” Murad Jaymz, the founder and guitarist told Kurdistan24 in a phone interview.
He says the band is determined to carry on with their passion but their challenges are manifold as they have had to go through several periodic “hibernations” to survive serious threats.
“We are like brothers, and we speak to each other in all three languages all the time, Kurdish, Arabic and Turkmen. We like to show the realities of life in Iraq. We suffer and war has destroyed our lives, but we rise above the war with our music,” Jaymz said.
In 2011, the band held its first concert in Kirkuk and to their surprise a sizable crowd gathered. “Mostly people between the ages of 18 to 28 and some teenagers [showed up]. I had never played in front of 300 people before but right after the first song, I gained my confidence and felt proud of my team,” Jaymz added.
Energized by their new fans' enthusiasm, the band promised to release their first album. At that point, “terror groups and their allies began threatening to close all the our band's pages on the internet. We were also warned, again, to stop our activities--or else,” the Dark Phantom guitarist told Kurdistan24 in an email exchange.
Only two years after the most credible and serious death threats, the band held three successful concerts in the liberal Kurdistan Region city of Sulaimani “which was a great recovery” Dark Phantom founder wrote.
However, disaster struck the band in 2014, as one of the vocalists and the drummer fled the violence consuming the country. “One of the guys lost his cousin, and he just said to us, ‘I can’t stay here any longer,’” Jaymz explained.
That’s when 23-year old Mir from Sulaimani was introduced to the band and became a vocalist and Mahmood, the only Arab band member, replaced the previous drummer.
As the band members partially changed, so did their music. Dark Phantom began transitioning to a style and sub-genre called Thrash Death Metal, which employs techniques such as faster tempos, heavily distorted and low-tuned guitars, and features aggressive and powerful drumming.
The band's manager, Abdulla Barzanji who lives in Erbil in Kurdistan Region told Kurdistan24 that prior to Islamic State's (IS) invasion of Iraq, he organized private parties and concerts at Sulaimani Institute of Fine Arts and University of Kurdistan-Erbil (UKH) but the war and subsequent financial crisis that followed ruined those plans for the time being.
“There was supposed to be 'Music Festival Kurdistan 2014' in UKH. It was a huge project, but the situation got bad, and many things got cancelled,” explained Barzanji.
To date, the band has recorded ten new songs for their debut album titled “Nation of Dogs” which is set to be released this summer.
Men in impoverished Rojhalat find no other means to earn a livelihood but to risk their lives and climb impassable passages for long hours while carrying goods such as tobacco and tea to make as little as $10 a day.
LOS ANGELES, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Last week, yet another Kurdish kulbar(border courier) was shot by Iranian guards. The Kurdish term “kulbar” consists of: “kul” meaning back and “bar” meaning carrying. “Kulbaran” is the plural form.
Twenty-eight-year-old Soran Ahmadi from the village of Ghala Rash, near Sardasht in Iranian Kurdistan (Rojhalat) was shot last week while carrying goods from the Kurdistan Region to Iran.
Ahmadi is one of many men in impoverished Rojhalat who find no other means to earn a livelihood but to risk their lives. They climb impassable passages for long hours, and sometimes days, while carrying goods such as tobacco and tea to make as little as $10 a day. The high rates of unemployment have affected Iran in general, and Kurds and Baluch ethnic minorities in particular.
According to human rights organizations, between 36 and 44 border couriers have been killed in 2015 alone, and at least 21 were wounded by Iranian government forces.
IMPUNITY FOR MURDER
United Nations’ March report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran states that the arbitrary killing of the unarmed kulbar is “in violation of Iran’s domestic laws and international obligations.”
In response to the UN concern with the plight of the border couriers, Iran said “[I]t is very difficult to distinguish drug traffickers and armed bandits from real Koulbaran [sic] at [the] borders.”
But how difficult is it to see that the persons crossing with heavy loads on their backs or mules are not bandits in an armored vehicle but humans left with no option except to auction their bodies to feed their family?
Iranian laws dictate that the border guards can fire their weapon only if they believe the trespasser is armed and dangerous and only after following these steps: first, an oral warning, second, by shooting into the air, and third, targeting the lower body if they must fire.
But activists say that border guards fire at anything that moves among the trees and bushes, be it a human, an animal, or breeze, and they enjoy impunity for it.
“[The spilling of] Kurdish blood is halal in Iran,” Rebin Rahmani from Paris told Kurdistan24, using the Islamic term for what is "permissible."
Rahmani is the director of the European branch of the Kurdistan Human Rights Network that recently published a detailed report on the situation of the kulbar, among many other human rights violations, in Rojhalat.
Rahmani himself was imprisoned twice in Iran once for being a kulbar when he was in high school—carrying shampoo to pay for his schooling—and once for his political activities for being the editor-in-chief of a student newsletter that was shut down like innumerable others in Iran.
Activists report that the relatives of the killed and injured kulbar are threatened not to file a complaint against the guards.
They are also forced to pay for the bullets that have cut through the flesh of their loved ones in order to be able to repatriate the corpse and bury it.
This type of oppression is not a new strategy in the Islamic Republic of Iran. For four decades, families of political activists who were sent to firing squads have had to cover the expense of the bullets.
According to the detailed report by the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, 41 percent of the kulbar killed are between the ages of 20 and 30, and 20 percent are over the age of 30. One percent are under 18 and 20 percent of the dead were over 30 years of age.
So far, no complaint has been filed against the border guards.
THE ‘BARE’ LIVES OF THE ‘UNPEOPLE’
English writer George Orwell coined the term “unpeople” for those who are easily “vaporized” (killed) in 1984 when the government wants to dispense with their lives. Building on Orwell’s terminology, Professor Noam Chomsky used the word “unhistory” to talk about the ignored realities of the lives of the powerless people around the world. Both terms apply to kulbaran in Iran.
“Kurdish and Baluch kulbar in Iran have no rights as citizens and are not protected by the law; therefore, their lives are dispensable, and anyone can get away with killing them. This is what Agamben calls ‘bare life.’” Shahed Alavi, a Kurdish activist and journalist based in Washington DC, told Kurdistan24.
Stripped of significance and subject to violence, the poverty-stricken Kurds on the Iran-Iraq border are appropriate examples of what Georgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher, calls living a “bare life.” These people are exposed and unprotected although, unlike Roma and refugees whom Agamben refers to, they are within their lands.
“Although kulbaran live in their ancestral land, they are perceived as displaced people. Their crime is disrespecting frontiers,” Alavi added.
BORDERS AND FIRST NATIONS
The border guards have been freely shooting unarmed kulbaran because the borders are “sacred,” much more valuable than the life of unemployed humans who are willing to do the most difficult jobs to earn a humble living.
But for the Kurds, crossing one side of Kurdistan into another does not feel like crossing borders. They are moving across their ancestral lands divided as a sacrifice to the interest of world powers after World War I. The Kurds are like First Nations in North America; the borders between Canada and America that have divided their land are meaningless.
“Kurds aren’t only killed on the borders of their cities and villages but also in wealthy cities of Isfahan and Shiraz when they carry goods,” Rahmani added. Wearing traditional clothes marks one immediately as “sub-human,” a non-person who can easily be killed with no punishment.
Thus, the unaccountable killing of unarmed kulbaran has much deeper roots than the so-claimed “difficulty” that the Iranian government points out.
Young fashion in Iran. (Flickr/Stefanie Eisenschenk)
International Women’s Day offers another opportunity to recognize "the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women." The media often portrays two contradictory images of Iranian women. The first is that of the oppressed woman, stoned and silenced—like Sakineh Ashtiani, who was convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning in 2009. The other extreme is a less familiar image, that of the empowered woman, educated and strong—like Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and human rights activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
Like all stereotypes, neither of these images accurately depicts women in Iran today. The majority of the women in this country live somewhere between these two extremes. That is, most women in Iran are neither subjected to stoning nor are they empowered through education.
According to recent statistics, Iranian women have taken up education in droves. However, despite the fact that 65 percent of university graduates in the country are females, most positions available to them are secretarial. And women who manage to find higher-paying jobs in Iran are pressured to quit after marriage. So, with few protections against harassment and discrimination, Iranian women are dependent on male family members and vulnerable to exploitation and violence.
Instead of stones thrown at women as punishment, acid is being thrown at women today to “keep them in their place.” In October, across the populous and religious city of Isfahan, 25 women had been victims of acid attacks—for no discernible reason other than their failure to live up to Iran’s strict dress code. The anonymous assailants claimed that they were defending the hijab.
Under the law, women in Iran are required to be wholly covered except for their hands and faces. However, a growing number of educated urban women are finding holes within the law and pushing the boundaries of the country’s dress code. Women may wear a headscarf, but they also leave some stylish hair uncovered. Or they may cover their bodies, but also wear tight overalls that show off their curves. For others, their exposed faces are often completely made up.
The conservative clerics in Iran consider the dodging and bending of the dress code laws to be a threat and, as a result, the Iranian parliament passed a law in October that protects individuals who “enjoin good and forbid wrong.” In other words, “correcting” the behaviour of women who do not follow the appropriate Islamic apparel is encouraged. Incidently, the spate of acid attacks against women began after this law was passed.
And yet, while modest attire for ladies is mandated, Iran is also a culture that equates feminine identity with beauty. A woman’s value is measured against an ideal of a small, pointed nose and full lips, of full breasts and buttocks. It is against such standards that women are judged as marriageable or unmarriageable. Defined by their bodies and forced to be economically dependent, it is not surprising that most women in Iran have few prospects other than marriage.
Women in Iran are turning to plastic surgery to obtain the desired lips, breasts and buttocks in an attempt to increase their chances of marriage. In fact, Iran has become the nose job capital of the world. The Iranian newspaper Etemad reports that every year, 200,000 Iranians reduce the size of their nose.
For Iranian women, beauty is mandatory yet illegal. An Iranian woman has to cover up, yet she is also expected to be beautiful. She is expected to be educated but has to excel at household duties. These paradoxical expectations subject women to constant scrutiny, judgement, ridicule and animosity.
While women in Western countries also face strong pressures to have the right body, Iranian women face the added risk of being attacked for trying to do so. Iranian women have little recourses in the justice system. An Iranian woman still cannot work or travel abroad without her husband’s permission. Women also often don’t retain custody of children following divorce. Furthermore, women are not considered to be reliable witnesses in a court and a woman can only inherit half of what a man can inherit.
Women's rights groups were hopeful that discrimination against women would ease under President Hassan Rouhani, but they have seen few improvements. According to the Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, Iran ranked 130 out of 136 countries in 2013. Just 3 percent of Iran’s parliamentarians are women. Even influential ministers such as Maryam Mojtahidzadeh, head of the women's ministry, talk about ‘complementary’ roles for women—not equality.
There are some signs of hope. Ashtiani’s sentence was commuted and she was freed last year. And despite the obstacles faced, women’s workforce participation is slowly growing; women make up 13 percent of the paid workforce. Meanwhile, women like Parwin Zabihi, an activist in Iranian Kurdistan (Rojhalat), and Soraya Fallah, a Kurdish activist in Los Angeles, continue to push for improvements and international pressure aims to ease the difficulties experienced by women in Iran.