I am flying over the Iraqi desert in a half empty medium sized aircraft. The closest passenger is three rows behind me and snoring loudly. My GPS freezes after leaving Turkish airspace, so I play a game of looking out the window to guess where I am. While I am probably somewhere between Dohuk and Erbil, the surface below reminds more of Mars than anything else. An endless series of cracked canyons is embedded between thin mountain chains in the otherwise flat desert. These thin scars stretch between both horizons.

As we begin our descent, I start to notice long white columns of smoke rising from the mountains below. The smoke is organic, the product of burning farmland. It is a refreshingly natural sight. Burning crop waste has been practiced by farmers since prehistoric times in order to fertilize the next crop.

In the distance I see more smoke. This time in the form of a black mushroom could, an indication of a bomb or air strike hitting somewhere in the direction of Mosul.

As we get closer to Erbil, haze from the dozens of oil refineries below trickles into the air, forming an opaque grey ocean between the plane and the airport. “Welcome to Erbil,” says the pilot over the loudspeaker, “the current temperature is 50 degrees (122 Fahrenheit). We hope you’ve enjoyed your flight.” The plane drops into the grey ocean like a star falling into a camp fire. In the muddy air I make out the skyline of this once booming oil city.

Although I bought the plane ticket to Iraq on a whim a couple weeks before, I was always drawn this country. I had been interested in Iraq since I was a child. When I was four years old, Bush launched the US into the first Gulf War. While my playmates were intrigued by plastic superheroes like Superman and the Turtles, I was obsessed with Saddam Hussein. The idea that absolute evil could have absolute power was fascinating because I felt that absolute good is by its nature, was unable to have absolute power.

The week the US began its invasion of annexed Kuwait, I bought a miniature army set and constantly re-enacted Saddam Hussein’s world, obsessing over the details of military purges and the placement of troops during his invasion and inevitable retreat.

Now I was here in Iraq: a land which has not only been miniaturized through my toys, but also miniaturized through the lens of newspapers, and through distance, politics, language and cultural barriers. Finally, this land was beginning to expand from outside my airplane window.

The Black, the Grey, and the White; A brief exploration of the three cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.

This is going to be a different kind of travel essay. First of all, it will be written in three parts, out of order. For example, I visited Erbil first, but I will speak about it now, in this second part.

Second, I will only write about what I saw and heard. If I were to begin writing about the history of these cities, I might as well begin writing an encyclopedia. Erbil alone, is considered by some archaeologists to be the first city in the history of the world. It’s hard to fathom how much culture and yore these cities have accumulated.

Third, again, unlike good journalism, I am not going to write the truth. I’m only going to write what I was told, read, and saw. Perhaps I’m spending too much time in the Middle East, or perhaps it’s my upbringing in a cult, but I believe in order to understand people and cultures, I have to understand their truths separately from the facts. If everyone acts on a truth that diverges from reality, how valuable is that truth compared to reality? When studying history, the facts mean everything. When observing culture, facts are things that usually get in the way.


Part Two

The Grey: Erbil


There is a grey chemical haze that envelops Erbil like a fog cap on a mountain. The haze comes from three main sources; oil refineries, car exhaust, and generators. The oil refineries around Erbil have transformed the parched land into a sunny Mordor. It is hard to imagine so much smoke being pumped into the air by anything other than a chain of active volcanoes. Yet, as disturbing as these refineries are, they are the lifeblood of this nation.


Erbil is one of the oldest, if not the oldest city, in the world. Although in its current incarnation, the city has become a tiny Los Angeles. Its streets are as wide as freeways. Its layout requires cars, yet there is no public transportation. The seemingly unregulated exhaust from the endless stream of traffic puts a layer of dusty particles on everything, including my skin, which made me feel like I was living in a drizzle of soot.

While the refineries and cars do some unfortunate things to Erbil’s atmosphere, I believe it’s the generators that do the real damage. The power goes out in Erbil once or twice an hour which prompts thousands of diesel generators to simultaneously turn on, making the inside of houses and hotel rooms smell like the inside of train engine, and the outside a train yard. This said, I suppose one gets used to the air, and it’s the worst in the Summer.

Although most Iraqi-Kurdistan was astonishingly in tune with its surroundings, Erbil had an unnatural “green-zone” feel to it. Still, it was not set up for travelers. For example, there were streets lined with dozens of hotels but only one ATM in the city. And it was broken. There were rumours of a second ATM, but it was not found. There were places with names, “Italian village” , “English village” , and “Dream City,” but these were all just heavily guarded gated communities, as out of place with the rest of the city as colonies on the Moon. On top of that, much of Erbil consisted of half built cement mega structures, destined to become mountains of crumbling cement. The global oil crash has not been kind to this city.

This mall went on forever but only had a few businesses inside.

The center of the city was an exception to the ugliness. As it was the original city, it retained beauty and soul. The elaborately ornate bizarre was massive, loud, and vibrant. The citadel, raised above the rest of the city on a masa, looked too ancient to be real. The plaza below was an aesthetic refuge for the city’s population.



Erbil’s citizens were also an exception to its ugliness. Everyone I met was kind and thoughtful. The biggest shock came when I had to cross the giant streets. These Niles of asphalt were daunting at first. There were no crosswalks in Erbil, and if there was something that resembled a crosswalk, it was not working because of the chronic lack of electricity. Instead, pedestrians crossed the street by walking from spaces between the lanes.

In my home city of Izmir this would truly be a death sentence. However in Erbil, drivers would press the brake pedal just enough for me to run in front of their car onto the next space between lanes, until I made it all the way across the street. It was a great system. By the end of my trip I was addicted to crossing the street, thrilled at the recognition of my humanity.

Another example of Kurdish thoughtfulness came when I would attempt to buy something. I knew about five words in Kurdish. The Arabic I could speak was a different dialect, and while some people understood a little English, the typical shop owner did not.

In some cultures, not knowing the language and wanting to buy something as simple as a bottle of water, results in a clusterfuck involving a congregation of multiple shop owners, customers, and cellphone calls to the cousin that took an English class in 1982. But in Erbil, I was able to calmly explain things through hand gestures and broken Arabic, until the shop owner understood.

Taken in a strange neighborhood of broken buildings which had people still living inside.

Even though Erbil did not seem like a functional or even livable city, I look back on it with affection because of the simple appreciations of my humanity – something that is rare for any city. I left Erbil after spending a little over 24 hours there. Perhaps more time would have reveled a better side, but I doubt it.



I originally started writing this about someone I met in Basmane, but I’ve decided to make that an entirely different article. This one will just be about Basmane. The second article will be about the woman I met.

I live in the city of Izmir, which is on the west coast of Turkey; a giant country that forms a three-way bridge between the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.

I arrived in Izmir on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2015. Shortly afterward I began working with the large population of Syrian refugees that came here with the intention of smuggling themselves to the Greek islands just off the coast of Turkey.

Most of the refugees in Izmir live in a neighborhood called Basmane. It is in an old section of the city, built on the side of a hill. Basmane is made up almost entirely of apartments converted from ancient mansions, abandoned churches, and other structures built a dozen generations ago. The apartments are in a state of arrested repair, or simply falling apart, but their aged beauty still reverberates down every street.

Streets of Basmane. Photo by Keli Scott

The streets in Basmane are narrow enough to feel like alleyways, although sometimes these alleyways skirt vast undeveloped fields where Roman ruins lay untouched by museums or tourists. At the top of the neighborhood there is an empty castle whose origins change with every person I ask.

I do not know the history of Basmane but I believe the street layout was planned by giving a one year child a crayon and paper and telling them to have a go at it. To complicate things more, all the streets are randomly numbered rather than named. It’s almost impossible to remember addresses and give directions. For example, here are directions for the half-mile walk from the train station to the castle:

Take 1297 street to 967 street. 967 street turns into 1291 street, which turns into 954 street, then turn right at 1021 street, then turn right 1023 street, which becomes 1008 street. Turn right on 5262 street then right 5263 street, then right on 5260 street, then right on 5264 street, then right on 5250 street, which will bring you to the castle 🙂

Basmane. Photo by Keli Scott

I’m not complaining. Basmane is my favourite place in Izmir. I spend most of my time there. Packed to the brim with people from every part of Syria and Iraq, I hear languages that haven’t been named and see clothes I cannot describe. The streets are lined with grandmas who look at least 150 and full of packs of playing children. Because I teach the children (and some adults) here, I am always recognized. Most of what I hear when I walk through the streets is, “ ‘ello! ‘ello! ‘ello!” Children shouting from the windows, from the streets above and below me, sometimes even from the cars, “ ‘ello! ‘ello! ‘ello!” It is a neighborhood full of life, action, and laughter.

Of course, it is also a neighborhood of hardship. Only the smugglers, the mafia, and a few volunteers choose to live in Basmane. The rest are here because of other reasons. Recently, I’ve had time to start asking how people how they got here.

Which leads me to the second part…

(which can be read here:

Basmane. Photo by Keli Scott

Stockholm : Dec 29, 2015

Dec 29, 2015 : Stockholm

Today I arrived in Stockholm, Sweden by way of Oakland, California. The plane flight was uneventful but noisy with babies. Throughout the ten hour plane flight I probably got less than an hour of sleep – which in the excitement of travelling to Stockholm, I barely felt. However, I can recognize the lack of sleep in my writing. On the plus side, I spent almost the entire flight learning Swedish.

After we finally arrived at the Stockholm airport, Mo and I bought the cheapest meal we could find since we had not eaten anything during the flight. Our first meal abroad was a very cheesy bread pastry and a coffee from 7-11, which is everywhere here in Sweden.


Revived by the food and coffee we bought a bus ticket to downtown Stockholm. We exited the bus in downtown Stockholm late in the evening, and despite all shops being closed, we decided to explore the city.

We had been warned that it would be cold in Stockholm, but it was only 0 degrees (32 degrees Fahrenheit) – just cold enough for the snow not to melt. Downtown Stockholm was a winter wonderland of a city. Thin blankets of snow felt more ornamental than cumbersome. There was no wind to freeze our faces, no snow sludge to collect on clothes, and no precipitation to make us wet. Besides the perfect weather, I had never felt safer in a city. Most impressively, many of Stockholm’s parked bicycles did not have locks on them. They were simply left outside, apparently vulnerable to thieves and weather.


Wandering through Stockholm at night felt like wandering through the pages of a warm fairy tale. The empty buildings and abandoned streets were clean and glistening with ice and snow. As this was right after Christmas, every single window had a traditional Swedish candelabra in it, lit by warm LEDs. Many windows also featured large paper lanterns in the shape of stars. Sometimes we would stumble upon torches set on the ground, still on fire, burning silently outside of entry ways.


As this was a weeknight, people were relatively scarce on the streets. While many of the people we saw were Swedes, a large portion of our fellow night-wanderers were Arab refugees, which could be found scattered upon every other downtown block.

I did not expect such a strong presence of refugees, both men and women – many elderly – roaming the magical Stockholm streets. Many of the refugees carried or were surrounded by piles of IKEA bags which I assume held most of their possessions.

Upon leaving a subway station, I came across a group of young Syrian women who had set down their IKEA bags in the front entrance. Before stepping over the pile of blue and yellow in order to leave the station, I locked eyes with one of the women. She was younger than me. Her hair was covered with a colourful hijab. Her face was beautiful, made up as if she had just come from a wedding or celebration. But her body was covered in drab, dirty clothes to protect her from the winter.

I opened my mouth to say something but realized I did not have the vocabulary to express anything I felt to her. Her bright eyes said the same thing to me. What else was there to say? If I knew better Arabic I would have said, “I am here for you. What do you need here? What can I do?” But that would not have been the whole truth. I was not Stockholm to help her. I was going to where she had just left from, traveling the route of the refugees in reverse.

The experience did not leave me feeling completely empty. That moment of communication with the Syrian woman alleviated a major fear I had regarding my purposes for travelling to Turkey. Promoting communication is, by far, the biggest asset I have to give to alleviate the refugee crisis. I am not rich, I am not a politician, and I have no connections with NGOs. But I do have my film and writing, my ability to organization, and my patience. However, if those assets are not useful due to major cultural and linguistic barriers, there is nothing I can do to help. Being able to have a complex moment of communication by just using eyes gave me hope that I can work through the cultural and language barriers that I will encounter with Arabs, Afghans, Africans, and Turks on a daily basis.

The next day Mo and I woke early – well we actually didn’t sleep due to the revving motorcycle in our dorm that took the form of snoring person, but we decided to leave our bed around 6am. We wandered the still-quiet streets among refugee families and Swedes going to work. After travelling across the old-fortress island, which looked even more fairytale-like in the light of the rising sun, we travelled back to the hostel for a cheap breakfast. After breakfast we gathered our belongings (everything we owned) and waited in an indoor mall for our bus back to the airport.




The indoor mall was filled with even more refugees who were keeping warm and dry. We sat down to an African woman for a few minutes while waiting for the bus. Beside me, she sang hushed songs to herself, or perhaps us. When I stood up to leave, she stood as well, as if to follow us. “Are you going?” she asked in quiet English.

“Yes.” I said. “And you?”

“Yes” she said very quietly, from some far away place. I looked in her eyes and saw nothing I could recognize. She opened one of her bags to show me something, but all I saw was cloth. Sensing I was about to dive into a rabbit hole I backed off, smiled at her warmly, and walked away. She watched me leaving as if she expected me to turn around and come back. But I didn’t.

Now, as the sun sets in the Stockholm airport, less than 24 hours after we arrived, we are leaving – this time to Istanbul. And then to Izmir, our new home.