06/06/2011 § 1 Comment

The neon sign at the ‘disco’

“Ishkandaar, Ishkandaar.” The words blaring and distorted, over Kurdish synth music, echo in my head, evoking the particular brand of repressed seediness that I witnessed last night.

Sexuality is pent up in Kurdistan, to the point that it will find any release it can.

In a taxi back to Erbil from the mountains, the driver, taking both hands from the wheel and his eyes from the twisting road, showed me jittery porn videos on his battered old mobile phone.

Rattling out Kurdish – despite my not understanding a word – he seemed to be asking me a question. All I could make out was “sexy” and “Erbil”.

I came to the conclusion that he was asking me whether I thought Erbili girls are attractive. Being eager to please, I nodded vigorously with thumbs up, looking, I imagined, a little too enthusiastic.

So it proved as he thrust one of his hands down his tumescent trousers and, with the other, reached across groping for my groin. Embarrassed, I pushed his hand away and the rest of the journey was run out in red-faced silence.

Was this guy even gay, or was he just taking what he could get in a society where the realisation of sexual liberation is a long way off? Kurdish people don’t date. Speaking to people about how they met their wives and husbands most say that they saw them, and if they were lucky maybe spoke to them a few times, when their families met, and proposals would follow.

It was in this atmosphere that my housemate and colleague Chris and I heard tell of a house of loose morals – with rumours of strippers and even prostitutes. In the name of journalistic enquiry we felt duty bound to investigate.

Stepping in beneath the buzzing neon sign, reading “Disco”, a guard with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder was alarmed that I had my camera with me. “No, no. No photos.” After agreeing we were ushered into a large hall reverberating with ear drum piercingly loud music with the usual manic Kurdish acid house beat.

Around us, immaculate gelled haircuts topped slick shirts open almost to the navel. But not a woman in sight. Who were they dressing up and dousing themselves with cheap cologne for?

Every once in a while, a table of men would spring to their feet and,chests shaking, move closer to each other until almost grinding. If this wasn’t Iraq I would have assumed it was a gay club.

That was, until a heavily made up woman, her stomach bulging in a tight polyester dress, stepped up on stage to whoops and cheers, to screech out a few songs. Soon she was among the tables, trailing the odour of her cheap perfume among the shisha smoke, and repeating those words that would ring throughout the evening, “Ishkandar, Ishkandar”.

She would say this over and over again until the targeted party would quite literally throw money at her. Notes would be dropped on her head, at which a hangdog teenage boy with hair heavily greased over his forehead would scramble on the floor for the money. Big spenders strode up on stage and cascaded 5000 Dinar ($4) notes.

There was no nudity, no hookers; just a bizarre ritual meted out by men who don’t know how to interact with women in anything close to a natural way.

So, this tawdry affair didn’t live up to the imaginings of strippers and loose women dreamed up by the city’s conservative inhabitants. Just the sniff of men having some kind of contact with women in a mildly sexualised, seedy environment was enough to shroud it in some kind of sordid aura.


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You are currently reading “Ishkandaar” at MUSTACHES AND KALASHNIKOVS: Stories from Kurdistan.


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