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Newroz – pronounced, “Nawrooz” is Kurdish New Year. And in Iraq, the celebrations in Akre are, by all accounts, the ones to see. This small town, nestled into a ravine or two in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, is host to thousands of visitors who join the throng in the already packed streets to celebrate via the medium of a pitched battle in which the primary weapons are fireworks. There are also actual, real weapons, such as Kalashnikovs and various types of pistol. These however are secondary and used only for purposes of emotional expression. There is a lot of emotion, it is frequently expressed. What with fire crackers, catherine wheels, rockets and automatic gunfire being let off all over the shop, the whole thing is somewhat cacophonous and it should not be expected that ear drums remain intact.
By 3pm the main square is a gauntlet only the brave or stupid (and those equipped with heavy duty ear defenders) should run. The backstreets are chock full of rival factions with tactics involving ladders, and the lady revellers are beginning to regret their high heels and diaphanous dresses quite unsuitable for the hail storm, which ensues with unexpected vigour for a late March day in the Middle East. Once the hail has settled – quite literally, in small drifts on the ground and the accompanying monsoon conditions have abated somewhat, people begin to make their way up winding streets and paths to the top of one of the three mountains that border the town. Upon gaining sufficient height above town, the source of some of the automatic weapon fire can be seen in the form of roof-top parties attended by traditionally dressed (both Kurdish and Western style) people, many of whom wave KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and Kurdish flags in between expressing their emotions with AK47s. The town is bespattered with constant blooms of firework sparkle and smoke and everyone is in high spirits.
Those anxious about the potential for there to not be any tea on top of the mountain may rest assured that there is tea. A charcoal fuelled chai stand is manned by experienced professionals, hell bent on meeting the capacious appetite for tea exhibited by any good Kurd in his right mind. But in a minute. Or maybe 10. Because the water has not boiled yet.
Several behigh-heeled ladies have successfully braved the steep stony paths and stand, phones in hand, pouts on lips, tweaking whatever it is one tweaks for that perfect selfie moment. Not to be outdone, the gentlemen jump upon the selfie wagon with considerable verve, and the entire mountain top erupts in an orgy of selfie madness. Men in suits pose godlike atop rocky outcrops, head tilts are perfected, group shots mastered. Foreigners are visible as densely populated clusters of Selfie Hunter mayhem, dotted along the edge of the mountain where hessian wrapped torches stand waiting to be lit.
The air meanwhile is punctuated at random by the sort of hollow boom physically feelable somewhere around the solar plexus. Should there be interest, following these sounds a little further up the mountain, in amongst some rocky outcroppings of impressive size, reveals the entrance to a cave. From this cave issues forth both the god-awful booming noise you get when you set off decent sized fireworks inside a confined space, and the screams and giggles you get when you add half a dozen pre-pubescent boys to the confined space with the fireworks. Their ears will surely never be the same.
As soon as the light shows the slightest sign of fading, excitement gets the better of everyone and what appears to be crude oil is poured from small plastic water bottles onto the torch heads. The foreigners – most of whom answer to the word Photojournalist – move in with intent, Canon and Nikon clad hands attempting to capture what is really a rather marvellous scene. Those at the bottom of the mountain, either began earlier, or had better crude oil, because they are well ahead on the torch lighting front. They’re lit and they’re off. Surging (if single file can be said to surge) up the winding stone pathway, flaming torches aloft, all huge smiles and happily skipping feet. The photojournalists, still severely encumbered by hordes of Selfie Hunters, try desperately to achieve sufficient lens reach for a picture unencroached upon by selfie stick or mobile phone. Finally the torches at the top are lit and the inevitable rise in excitement levels brought on by burning things, together with the cover of what could now definitely be described as twilight, only serves to intensify the endeavours of the Selfie Hunters. With renewed vigour they triumph over European type Photojournalists – who, compromised as they are by politeness, are unable to respond to cries of “One photo. One photo” with much beyond, “Oh, okay then, one more, and then would you be ever so kind and let me get on with my job please?” before realising too late (circa the 897th selfie attempt) that this strategy has doomed them, as they try to maintain their footing while being literally moved up the mountain side by a selfie hungry throng. The Americans maintain slight advantage; being capable of prioritising other things over politeness they hang in there, doggedly clinging to the very edge of a steep drop, thereby rendering it physically impossible to achieve a selfie with anything more than the back of their heads. The idea of leaping out into the abyss, iphone in outstretched hand, for that one final selfie, clearly visible in their eyes, the Selfie Hunters come tantalisingly close to bumping a few of them over the edge. Luckily sanity reigns in the form of the torchbearers from below arriving on top of the mountain in a blaze of almost spent torches which they might quite possibly be persuaded to let the Selfie Hunters relight and carry back down.
The whole thing is really quite wonderful. Though not of course if you are an ear.