I’ve been in Suli, Iraqi Kurdistan for 3 days now. I’m on my own here, a scary but fantastic opportunity and a challenge I wanted to take on. For myself, for Make Life Skate Life and for all the young skaters here who are experiencing skateboarding for the first time.
I arrived, got settled in and headed out to the skatepark. First of all, what a beautiful location! The Suli skatepark is located in Hawary Shar park, one of the biggest parks in the Middle East. It’s surrounded by stunning mountains which frame the sunset between their jagged edges and brooding mountain clouds. That was the first thing that took my breath away, the second was the people. Once again, I’m shocked at the welcoming and warm-hearted nature of the people I’ve met. It highlights to me something that we’re missing in the west, an overall sense of community and cooperation.
In Palestine and now in Kurdistan, I’ve experienced such a lovely, genuine curiosity from the people I’ve met in a way I can’t describe (but I’ll try to). Anyone, whether you ask for directions or spend a week with their family, is truly interested where you’re from, why you’re here and most of all, welcoming you to their home, their city and their country. I’ve noticed this isn’t just the case with foreigners, even people visiting from other cities are treated in the same way and if I take with me anything from this trip, it will be the value of this open-hearted, curious and welcoming nature.
The guys I met at the skatepark in Suli were worried about the location of my hotel. They said the bazaar area was dangerous because it was so busy with people, there’s lots of homelessness and there were drug dealers and drug takers in the area. I’d had local people worry about me before “be careful in Bethlehem”, “be careful in Jerusalem”, new friends caring about me and wanting me to be safe. Because I’d heard these kinds of warnings before, I didn’t take it too seriously. I’m from Manchester myself which has its own homelessness crisis and a fair amount of drug dealers and takers, plus I live in the city-centre so I wasn’t too concerned.
"He forced me against the wall and before I could do anything, he spat in my face, from right up close. He started screaming at me and I pushed past him and ran down the road."
Last night, I was walking to get some food, only about 5 minutes from my hotel. As I walked along, I became aware of a man walking directly towards me with purpose. I tried to step out to my left to get around him but he blocked my way and kept walking forwards so I had no choice but to step back so he wasn’t in my face. He forced me against the wall and before I could do anything, he spat in my face, from right up close. He started screaming at me and I pushed past him and ran down the road. The road was busy with people but I didn’t hang around to see anyone’s reaction. I used my hand to wipe his spit out of my eye so I could see where I was running.
I got around the corner and my run became a fast walk, I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. Every man I saw I felt might do the same. My mind was whirring, what could I possibly have done? I wasn’t talking on the phone, I wasn’t smoking, I didn’t even notice him until he was already walking into my space. I went into the next restaurant I came to and went straight to the bathroom to wash my face and hands. It was in my hair, he’d really gone for it, that’s for sure. What made him so angry? I was wearing a t-shirt and trousers, I was walking alone but so were lots of women on that street. I took a seat, ordered food and thought about what had just happened.
The scariest thing about situations like that is that you realise just how weak you are. I’m a strong woman, my mum raised me to be fearless. I’m not small either, I’m nearly 6ft and I’m not easily intimidated. The fact remains that I saw the threat and in the second and a half I had, I thought he was going to attack me or mug me or sexually assault me. I tried to push past him and I couldn’t. He was stronger than me and in those 3 or so seconds he could do whatever he chose to and there was nothing I could do to stop him.
I’d love to say that I sat in that restaurant and felt a determination to succeed more than ever. I wish I could say I collected myself and thought “that’s why I’m here” to empower women against this kind of aggression, this feeling of powerlessness. I didn’t feel like that. I felt foolish, small, naive and way out of my depth. I missed Nanja, I missed home, I missed my Mum. In 3 seconds I’d gone from feeling like I was taking on the world and actually doing quite well to feeling like a child lost in a shopping centre. Suddenly, everything that half an hour before I’d seen as my next adventure, felt like the next threat against me.
I want to say at this point that this isn’t Iraq or Kurdistan or Suli. This isn’t religion, it isn’t even men. I’m not writing this to warn others of the dangers of visiting Suli. Far from it, I believe I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, it could’ve happened in any one of the many countries I’ve visited and it certainly could’ve happened in Manchester. It happened here, it happened to me and it made me feel like shit. That’s all. So, why am I writing this? I’m writing this because shitty things happen when you’re away, they make you feel shitty and it’s ok to feel shitty when shit things happen.
"So, why am I writing this? I’m writing this because shitty things happen when you’re away, they make you feel shitty and it’s ok to feel shitty when shit things happen."
I didn’t want to tell people back home about what had happened because I didn’t want people to say “well what did you expect? You went to Iraq” Again, just for complete clarity, that one man’s actions are not Suli, or Kurdistan, or Iraq, they’re not the Middle East and they are not all of the wonderful, generous and open-hearted people I’ve met on my journey so far. They are one man and his choice to behave that way. I didn’t want to tell people who’d been working here before me or the Make Life Skate Life crew because I didn’t want them to think I couldn’t handle it. For the record, nobody at Make Life Skate Life has given me any reason to think that I couldn’t tell them, that fear existed independently, in my own head, which is another thing that’s important to talk about. It took me a day or so to get it settled in my head but I did tell people because they need to know, you need to know and we all need to talk about the reality that these things happen, both at home and abroad. One of the most dangerous effects of any kind of attack, whether sexual, physical or verbal is fear. Fear that it will happen again, fear that it reflects badly on you, fear that it means you’re not as strong or brave or clever as you thought you were. Travelling, teaching and writing about my experiences is what I do, I experienced this and so I’m writing about it.
"Talking about the things we experience connects us as human beings, it fights against the fear that scary experiences create and it means that, together, we can keep working to achieve the things that we’re fighting for."
It could’ve happened to anyone, anywhere but it happened to me and it happened here. That doesn’t mean that I’m not capable of doing what I came here to do. It doesn’t mean that I should stay at home and not travel and not teach and not write. It doesn’t mean that I’m any weaker than I was before it happened. Feeling scared and wanting to be home immediately after that happened, doesn’t mean that I should go home. The thing that’s important to understand, for all of us, is that feeling foolish doesn’t mean that you’re stupid, feeling scared doesn’t mean you’re not brave and feeling apprehensive doesn’t mean that you’re not capable. It’s ok to be upset when scary things happen and when they do, it’s important to talk about them. Talking about the things we experience connects us as human beings, it fights against the fear that scary experiences create and it means that, together, we can keep working to achieve the things that we’re fighting for.