Saturday, 7 July 2012


Northern Iraq 2008
We were waiting for our shared taxi to fill up when Sinan came along, a large black padded gig bag on his shoulders. He was tall and round-faced, in a pin-striped shirt with a high waistline. “Erbil?” he asked the driver. The driver nodded and opened the boot. Sinan lowered the gig bag into the boot with care and got in the front seat. My friend and I were sat on the kerb with our backpacks. “Yallah!” shouted the driver “Erbil!”. We got up, climbed into the backseats and shut the doors. The driver started the engine and we set off.
We began to make our way through the traffic of downtown Dohuk, where poured concrete and plate glass waged a slow battle against ancient stone souqs and minarets. Sinan turned to face us from the front seat, greeted us and asked where we were from. England, I said. America, said my friend. “Welcome in Kurdistan! My name is Sinan.”

Sinan was well-groomed and slightly overweight, with a tentative moustache on his top lip. He had the flat, responsible look of a civil servant. “Where are you from?” I asked. “I'm from Kurdistan. I live in Erbil now. But I grew up in a small village in the mountains. Between Erbil and Suleimania.” I told him his English was good. “Thank you.” he replied. He cleared his throat, folded his hands on his lap and looked out the window.

We had been driving for around an hour before we talked again. The road passed through wide valleys bordered by mountains.  “Sinan, what’s in the bag?” I asked. “Is it a keyboard?” “Yes!” he said. “It’s my keyboard.” His face had brightened. “My keyboard is my life. She goes everywhere with me.”

“Do you play professionally? Or as a hobby?”

“Professional and hobby! Both.” said Sinan. “On Tuesday and Thursday I play in the International hotel in Erbil. On Wednesday and Saturday I play in a bar in Ain al Kawa. I play in weddings, parties, all around Kurdistan. And when I am not playing there, I am playing at home. Even sometimes, I play in my sleep.”
“Really?” I said, trying to figure out the logistics of this.

“Really.” said Sinan.

Now Sinan was not like a dull civil servant at all. A breathless, goofy joy had awoken in him and I suddenly liked the guy a lot. I asked him what kind of music he played.

“I play everything! English songs, Kurdish songs, Arabic, jazz, classical, every style.” He paused for a moment. “But my favourite…” He looked at me and grinned. “My favourite is Europe.”

“Europe?” I asked. “You mean European?”

“No, Europe. You know, Europe, the group!”

“Ah, that Europe!” It clicked. Europe of the poodle perms, the spandex trousers, the dry ice. “The Final Countdown!” I said.

“Yeah, the Final Countdown!” replied Sinan with a grin.

“Dadelaaadaah, dadelaadedaah!” said Sinan, playing the riff one-handed on an air keyboard.

“Dadelaadaah, dadelaadedaadeh!” I responded, completing the riff, and Sinan held up his hand for a high-five. I high-fived him back, and felt a small thrill of unexpected camaraderie.

He sighed. “But they have many other beautiful songs. Do you know the song Tomorrow?

“No.. I don’t think I know that one..”

“Or Rock the Night?”

“No.. sorry.”

Our easy banter suddenly gave way to an awkward silence. I racked my brains for ways forward in the conversation. But I had nothing to say about Swedish glam-rock bands. The truth was, I hated Europe. Something about the synthesizers, the drum reverb and bombast had always made me feel ill. Oh well. I looked out the window. We were passing through a dusty village dwarfed by mountains. There was a small mosque that looked as if it had come in a flat-pack. A corner shop displayed wilted vegetables in rows of boxes, and a skinny column of shawarma meat rotated slowly in a kebab restaurant.

Sinan turned back towards me. “When I was small, I had a friend who was older than me. He liked music. One day he brings me a, how do you say, a cassette. He says to me, Sinan, listen to this band. You will like this band. And I put the cassette, and I listen to this music..”. Once again, on the air keyboard, Sinan played the riff.

“Wow. It was amazing. AMAZING. I take the cassette and I listen to it, again and again and again. I can’t stop listening. And I say to myself.. I will learn the keyboard. I will learn the keyboard and learn ALL the songs of Europe.”

“And so you got a keyboard?” I asked.

“No! I asked my father, he says no, you can’t have a keyboard. For two years, I asked him every day. Can I have a keyboard baba? Can I have a keyboard? And finally he bought me a keyboard. A Casio keyboard. Very small, but beautiful. This was the best day. So I learned all the Europe songs. After this I learn Kurdish songs. After this Arabic and Western songs. And thanks to God, now it is my job.”
“That’s amazing.” I said.

After some time we came to a checkpoint. A group of bored soldiers with kalashnikovs stood around smoking. “Passport!” the driver said to us. A soldier approached the car and took our passports and identity cards. “Journalist?” he said, looking at my friend and me. We told him we were tourists. After conferring with his colleagues, he handed back the pile of passports and IDs with a nod, and said something in Kurdish. We drove on.

I thought about the history of Iraq. The eighties was a troubled time. A generation of young men decimated by the brutal eight year war with Iran. Hundreds of thousands of civilians slaughtered, and countless villages reduced to rubble in the genocidal Baathist campaign against the Kurds. The bloody suppression of the uprising in 1991. But somehow for Sinan, growing up in a small village in this decade of exodus and savagery, the defining point of his youth had been the discovery of a Swedish rock band. That blew my mind.

“Sinan, how old are you?”

“Thirty two” he said.

I attempted a half-formed question.

“But how… I mean, when you were a growing up… there were lots of problems in Kurdistan in this time, right?”

“It was a very bad time. Many people died.”

He paused for a while and stared at the dashboard. I wondered what memories lay behind these words.

“For this, I hate politics. I hate all governments. But music, music for me is everything.”

The journey continued. The sun dropped below the horizon and the expansive valleys turned to flat plains. The sporadic lights of villages gave way to the street lights and blocks of the sprawling Erbil suburbs. Sinan said something to the driver, and a moment later we pulled up by the side of the road. It was his stop. He turned to us, shook our hands and said goodbye. “Come and see me play. I play this Thursday in the International Hotel.” “Inshallah,” we said, though we knew we’d be in Suleimania by then. And then taking his keyboard from the boot, Sinan walked off into the night.

For the remainder of the journey, my friend and I talked about Sinan. Someone should make a film of his life, we decided.  It would be called Sinan the Magnificent. A small boy in war-torn Kurdistan receives a revelation on a battered cassette. Sinan, all puppy fat and thick-rimmed glasses, cross-legged on the floor with headphones on. Dreaming of escape as synthesizers and power chords drown out the distant rumble of bombs. In his mind, he is Sinan the Magnificent. Rising out of the dry ice, feathered hair flapping in the wind, surrounded by racks of synths. But in order to achieve his dreams, he must first get his hands on a keyboard. It would be bittersweet and heart-warming and awesome, and it would surely win awards.

Later in the internet cafe, I thought again of Sinan’s story. I brought up The Final Countdown on Youtube and put the headphones on. Could I hear the song as Sinan did, all those years ago? I wanted to. But as soon as the synth brass riff started, the familiar feeling of nausea came over me. And with the nausea, a long dormant memory was awoken.

I stood knobbly kneed and awkward in too-short shorts and white trainers. It was year 7 PE class, and around thirty of us faced a thin woman with short black hair wearing a shellsuit. She pressed play on a tape recorder, and the music started. “Dadelaaadaah, dadelaadadaah” sang the electric trumpets. “Ok, find a space, guys!” she shouted. “Everyone face me.. and a one, two, three, four..” And as the drum beat kicked in, she began marching on the spot. We all followed, and the march became a step-and-kick, became a star jump, became an air punch. A simmering resentment rose inside me with every new move. For the indignity of my short shorts and skinny exposed legs. For our servile imitation of her stupid movements. And for the ridiculous music, which my finely-tuned young ear had identified as at least five years old, and thus worthy of nothing but contempt. I hated it all and I wanted it to end. This was my Final Countdown.

A song, I thought, is an amazing thing. It may be a recording, an unchanging collection of frequencies and rhythms. But a song is also something much more mysterious, something utterly individual. It is a little network of neurons in the mind of every listener that, on flickering into life, evokes memories, images, emotions and senses. We all have our Final Countdown, I thought. It occupies a tiny corner of the brain of every human who knows the song. But no two Final Countdowns are ever the same. For me, it is aerobics and humiliation. For Sinan, it is exhilaration and endless possibility. I don’t think I’ll ever learn to love Europe. But when I hear that song in years to come, it will always be Sinan’s Final Countdown that comes to mind.

Welcome to Ibn Sifr

Dear reader,

This is not really a blog. It is just a place where I can put stories/essays/articles that I have written when they are more or less finished. It will be shamelessly self-indulgent and very infrequently updated. There will be a bit of a Middle Eastern bias, as I lived in Syria for three years. The general themes will likely be music, language, stories and public transport. There may be old writing, new writing, and writing I started years ago and have come back to more recently.