By now you have all heard that I was deported from the Kurdistan Region in Iraq this week. Seven years ago, in September 2015, I was deported from Turkey. It’s all a little bit much and I will need time to deal with this new situation and I can’t fully reflect on everything yet, but one similarity between then and now has been going around in my head: how (increasingly) authoritarian governments want to define your identity. Turkey called me a propagandist. What does the Kurdistan Region try to reduce me to? A tourist, apparently.
After I was forcibly taken from the Fishkhabur border crossing, between the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and Northeast-Syria, to Erbil airport, it became clear that I was going to be put on a plane to Amsterdam against my will. I knew it from the minute I was stopped at the border at the very last minute, but only after my luggage was checked at the airport and I was in some police office, did they feel the time was right to make it explicit.
They never told me why. Nobody was authorised to talk, and the man who was going to explain what the problem was, actually asked me what I thought the problem was. I of course answered that the problem was that Turkey was occupying and bombing Kurdistan, but that was not the answer they were looking for. I got angry, told them that they were part of a system that allowed Turkey to call the shots in the so-called autonomous region, cursed in Dutch and was then advised to stay polite. So: they are a group of men in uniform who are following orders to deport me, but when I get angry, I’m the one who has to behave better. Miraculous, how they manage to turn the roles around.
Anyway, only when the Dutch consul-general in Erbil came to the airport to help me (for which I’m very grateful, even though it was of course not in his power to stop the deportation), did it become clear why I was being kicked out. I am ‘persona non-grata’. He has been calling with the authorities, and one of them had told him that I was welcome to come to Kurdistan as a tourist, but not as a journalist.
As a tourist! Even on the very, ultra rare occasions that I engage in tourism, I can’t switch off my identity as a journalist. Imagine doing a hike in the mountains and coming across an empty village, and a shepherd tells you it was emptied because of a Turkish bombing, what should I do? Keep walking, pretend I didn’t hear? Not mention it? Keep silent?
What the Kurdistan Region in Iraq likes, is people who come to Kurdistan to hike and to enjoy the stunning nature (don’t look at the plastic waste all over the place). What it likes, is for those people to take photos and share them on social media with the hashtag #BeautifulKurdistan. They want to build an image of friendly, democratic, rugged hikers paradise, and they’d love it if I helped build that image. No way.
It may seem very different from the situation in Turkey seven years ago, when I was prosecuted for ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’ (and acquitted). But in that case too, the authorities wanted to make decisions about my identity. I built my personal defence around that theme. They can portray me in all the ways they want, they can put any label on me that they like, but that won’t change what I am, which is a journalist. I won’t allow you to use me for the story you want to spread about me.
The same was applicable this week. Kurdistan is stunningly beautiful, and I will write about that when I feel the need to do that based on journalistic criteria. I would rather not come than come in the shape or form you want to force me in to.
These manipulations of ruling powers are mirrors of their wider policies. In Turkey, the state has never allowed its people to live their identities to the full, but has forced and continues to force people into the Sunni Turkish mould. People who demand to live their lives around who they really are, are suppressed. In the Kurdistan Region, the importance of a positive image grows as their grip on power weakens under economic, political and military pressure.
I can return to the Kurdistan Region as a tourist. Me doing that is just as likely as me returning to Turkey as a propagandist for one of Erdoğan’s media. No authoritarian leader can tell me who I am. I’ll return with my pen, or not at all.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.