It fell to Mohammad to translate the act of hiking into more familiar activities, and to present as sites of recreation mountains long rooted in Kurdish identity as areas of violence. They served as a refuge for guerrilla fighters and as the site of Hussein’s death camps and firing squads. The Baathist government killed up to 180,000 Kurds in the Anfal countryside alone, a figure that does not include the crushed revolts of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s; those killed in wars with Iran, Kuwait or the United States; or those killed in wars and massacres elsewhere in Greater Kurdistan – Syria, Turkey and Iran – where international hiking trails are not remotely possible. According to a worn saying of indeterminate age, “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” The saying has a double meaning. It refers to the acts of betrayal that Kurdish communities have endured at the hands of supposed allies over the centuries – among them the United States government, which, according to one tally, has betrayed the Kurdish causes of nationalism and autonomy eight times – and a difficult survival story in the Zagros, Taurus and Qandil ranges.
“We Kurds fled to the mountains, hid there and in some cases the pesh merga spent years living there,” Mohammad said. “They really have been our only friends. We were crossing a field of dry Syrian thistle. Here, a person might find Kurdish lady’s mantle, Syrian rhubarb, and Iranian onion sharing one clearing. Now, says Mohammad, the mountains were made for hiking. “Not hiddenhe says, relishing the pun. ‘‘Hiking.”
Because the track to Zorgavan was nearly repaired, Garthwaite had invited two friends to join us for the day. The women were avid hikers. One of them, Meena Ayad Rawandozi, wore a blue windbreaker and a baseball cap over her long straight hair. His father was a government bomb defuser who often traveled to Yazidi towns to neutralize ISIS munitions. She didn’t worry about mines; oak nerves ran through the family. “He says to me, ‘Go to the mountains,'” she said. “He supports me.” A few years ago, Rawandozi joined a hiking club founded by some university students. They chose a name – No Friends But the Mountains – that everyone would recognize and gained viral fame on Instagram by posting saturated photos of secret hiking spots. Soon, NFBTM had thousands of followers. From five members, they grew to 30, women and men, with Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmens and Arabs.
As the group grew, Rawandozi began to think about the value of women’s access to the outdoors. She started climbing with an emergency rescue team to practice leading long-distance hikes. “We don’t have a women-only hiking group in Kurdistan,” she said. “It’s a novelty for us.”
Recently, Garthwaite led a group of teenage girl hikers on a walk through Music Valley near Shaqlawa. The girls came from Sinjar and Mosul and had been living in IDP camps for years. “They’re not allowed to hike with men,” Garthwaite said. “Obviously we need female guides.” Rawandozi seemed a likely candidate. In April, she took a group of Kurdish women on a day hike of her own design. She wanted the practice. This summer, she will lead an all-female expedition to climb Iraq’s highest peak.
I spent a lot of November following Mohammad, McCarron and Garthwaite along the entire length of the Zagros in northern Iraq, and sometimes beyond. One day Mohammad took me by car from Erbil to pass through a cluster of towns and ruins 80km west of the trailhead. Each location was crucial to the story of religious and ethnic cohabitation he wanted the Zagros Trail to tell. They included a 7th-century Chaldean monastery, the sacred Yezidi temple of Lalish and, at Khinnis, 2,700-year-old bas-reliefs celebrating King Sennacherib’s canal system, which destroyed the city of Babylon and has a recurring role in the Old Testament. .
Yet none of these sites were part of the trail, and they probably won’t be for a long time. Besides landmines, the two biggest dangers for hikers in the Kurdistan region are airstrikes and paramilitary groups. The stages of the trail that Mohammad and McCarron traveled on the plains of Nineveh, which include a potential first starting point in the hilltop city of Amedi, pass through areas where Turkey has carried out hundreds of airstrikes and artillery targeting PKK strongholds. Strikes have also occasionally landed east of Shush near the future trail alignment, including an attack in Bradost in August 2020 that killed 15 people, including five civilians. “There are so many beautiful mountains where we just can’t go,” a tour operator from Erbil told me. As with landmines, a fatal strike on a group of hikers could set the Zagros Trail back a generation.