Khalid Kishtainy, author, translator and broadcaster was born in Baghdad. Here he recounts a recent visit to Kurdistan, a sombre return to a once well-loved place, followed by a meeting with its always upbeat president.

During a recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan to attend a “Forum for the Defence of the Religious Communities and Sects in Iraq”, I had one personal interest – to meet up with Mam Jalal, other- wise known as Jalal Talibani, the President of Iraq. The conference was held in the city of Sulaimania, the jewel of Kurdistan, with the aim of dealing with problems experienced by these small but ancient minorities whose history, in some cases, extend to pre-Christianity. They included Sabean-Mandeans, Shabaks, Syriac and Chaldean Christians, Yazidis and Sufis. All lived quite peacefully with the rest of Iraqis until present times when fanatical and, dare I say, opportunistic Islamists started to harass them, sometimes with bombs. The point of the exercise was to force them into leaving the country and then, take over their homes and businesses. All according to the free market principles introduced by the Americans.

For me, it was an occasion to revisit so many dear old places. Sadly, among them Halabcha, whose 5,000 inhabitants were exterminated by Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attacks. All that was left of them were communal graves and their names on the walls of the new and moving Mausoleum. The impressive tall building included many interesting relics, including the rope with which the perpetrator of the massacre, Chemical Ali, was eventually hanged, as well as the shoe with which a Baghdadi peddler smacked Saddam Hussein’s portrait in the public square.

The Iraqis seem to be good shoemakers, for another one of them sold his shoe for a few thousand dollars to a collector of memorabilia in the Gulf. It was the shoe he had thrown at the face of the American President, George Bush, a few years earlier.

The Mausoleum is an evocative place which prompts every visitor to ponder the question: ‘How could anybody do this to his own people?’

I went out to visit the cemetery with the big signboard at the gate: ‘Ba’thists are not allowed in.’ As I mentioned to Adil Murad, Executive of the National Union Party of Kurdistan, “Surely, a graveyard is just the right place for them!”

“This signboard is wrong,” he agreed, “it should read: ‘ Ba’thists are welcome!’ They should go in and see what they did.”

From this macabre place, we drove to the White House, the headquarters of the National Union Party in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Mam Jalal was waiting for us. He looked well, alert and much younger than most of us. There was no sign of ageing or the ill-health that has been recently rumoured. He read our memorandum, absorbed its ideas and made his worthy comments on it, in just a couple of minutes. Like the seasoned politician he is, Mam Jalal gave us his piece of wisdom. “You are dealing with a humanitarian question. Don’t mix it up with daily politics. Concentrate on your mission.”

All the serious work done, it was time for fun. In a previous article in this magazine, I described Mam Jalal as the only joker among present world leaders and certainly the only wit. So, I tickled him with an amusing story, which inspired him to turn the meeting into a presidential comic show.

He called on all those present to contribute, each with his own latest joke. It was then his turn to give us something

“On my last state visit to China, an official spoke about the population problem in his country saying that every minute a Chinese woman produces a baby. I said to him: ‘Good for you! In our Kurdistan, the Kurdish woman takes nine months to produce a baby!’

The amiable Mam Jalal invited us to dinner. “If you like my food”, said the President of Iraq and former Pershmerga fighter, “you can ask for an encore. If you don’t like it you can ask for an indemnity.”

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