Snapshots from Sulaymaniyah

Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Whatever ideas I might have had about Iraq, they were always set against a stark desert background, like the one in the above picture. There is some truth to that, but as in most cases of roads travelled behind a screen, that is a thread in the fabric.

I’ve been in Iraq now for 4.5 days as I write this post. I’m here in the city of Sulaymaniyah, in Kurdistan, working with Preemptive Love Coalition for a month. This is a dream opportunity, and between “omg I’m in Iraq” and “omg I’m here with the Preemptive Love people” you’ve got the bulk of what’s been happening in my head.

In the last half-week or so I’ve just been absorbing as many inputs as I can. About the people, the city, the history, the organization… everything really. I have no concrete ideas about any of it, because I don’t know what I don’t know. Only that I don’t know.

But yes, there is desert. And mountains that pale at the height of the day and deepen when the sun bows to the night. And it’s hot. It’s autumn, and heat and light are incredibly reminiscent of high summer in Perth (Western Australia), only much drier.

That’s not the only part that is familiar, even though I’ve not set foot in the region before this.

The part that looks at a fruit shop and what is retrieved from the brain is a similar image from a Malaysian city back in my youth – that was a few days ago so I don’t know if this necessarily holds true today. All the Southeast Asians I sent the picture below to collectively recognized it as a scene that could have come from our home region: Malaysia, Thailand, Cambobia, Vietnam etc.

How those fruits are arranged on those crates above? That’s how they were too in the flourescent fruit stalls in my youth, when grocery shopping happened after dinner and fruit-buying was a default stop a couple of times a week: apples next to plums and rock melons and oranges and watermelons. Cut fruit was our definition of dessert. Those vegetables piled on the side in plastic crates? You’d see that in the market if you visited where I live in Singapore now.

Of course you’d see scenes like this elsewhere in the world. And also in mine. It’s a comfort when they present themselves, for me and everyone at home who worries for me. None of us have been to Iraq or the region, and all we know about any of it are the horrors that we are alerted to in the news.

Which is not to say there are no dangers. Of course there are. But it’s good to weaken my investment in the danger of the single story, as the inimitable Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed in her TED talk. It’s good to be here, to experience ordinary life, and get a feel for what it means to be in Iraq (or at least, Kurdistan around Sulaymaniyah). So far, flashes of deja vu dog me, as so many interactions in my day are identical to the ones I understand as as Singaporean and Malaysian; the ones I grew up with.

I’m hoping to do some decent work while I am here. More on that to come… hopefully!


  1. William says:

    My goodness, a glance at the first two images of desert, particularly the second, with the fence and power lines, and we could be looking at Richard Misrach, right out of Desert Cantos. And then the street stall. I’ll keep nagging, build some biceps and get a GFX! Please stay safe.

    1. Charlene says:

      Ha! William, you crack me up. If/When they make a medium format thing that’s the size of a Pro2 and a fujicron prime, that’s when I’ll start thinking seriously about selling a kidney for one.

      Oh and i was looking at those scenes thinking about one of those pictures in Desert Cantos too.

  2. walker says:

    Love these, have a nice stay!

    1. Charlene says:

      I’m sure i will. Thank you

  3. Ian Boys says:

    Wow that’s a big departure. I like that you see the familiar, not just the alien. Best of luck and enjoy it all.

    1. Charlene says:

      It’s definitely a departure, but not as much as most of us might think, in all honesty. There are amazing amounts of similarities, for me, anyway. And thank you Ian :)

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