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Where in the world is Sheryl?

Subject: Iraqi Kurdistan #1
Date: September 16, 2008 10:35:44 AM PDT

7:30 pm sept 16

Greetings from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. I arrived in Erbil tonight after two days in Dohuk. First, the shift key is funky so allow me to capitalize sporadically.

My interest in northern iraq is the Kurdish people. the largest ethnic population in the world without their own homeland. There are Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is about the size of Switzerland.

I arrived in northern Iraq Sept 14 via Turkey where I was issued a 10-day visa at the border. I met two guys from Mosul on the bus who were returning home after some r&r in Istanbul and we shared a taxi over the border. One was the manager of a hotel where the coalition forces stayed when they first arrived. He's also a physical therapist and works with people after they receive prosthetics. They said they mostly don't go out of the house. It's unsafe. They haven't worked for several years.

There's no Lonely Planet guidebook for this area. I'm using a compilation of travelers' notes and very basic maps I found on the internet.

On my first night, I was headed out to find dinner when the hotel guys invited me to share their meal - Tershik - wheat patties filled w/lamb in a tomato-ish broth with veggies. Delicious. Then I went out and had a kebab - chopped meat cooked on a skewer - served with some salads, soup, bread, water and tea. Very good and only $3.

When I got back to the hotel, I was lucky to meet a British-Kurd, Jamal, who is visiting his family for a month. His uncle owns the hotel where I stayed and he was hanging out. He offered to take me around out of town the following day.

I woke up early and walked up to a dam just north of town. Passed some parks and schools. I stopped at a school on the way to photograph the kids and was invited inside. I spoke with some women teachers for a while. They said that women in Kurdistan are free to do as they like. Most of them don't cover their heads, although because it is Ramazan (see below), they were wearing scarves and more modest clothes than usual.

Jamal's brother, a butcher, was off work and offered to drive us out of town (for slightly less than the taxis were charging). This was after Jemal and I waited at the taxi garage for an hour for other people to share a taxi with to save money. Tired of waiting, we called for back-up.

We visited several villages. On the way we ran into some shepherds from the south of Iraq who had permits to graze their sheep up north. They were very poor Arabs, nomadic types. The women had facial tattoos, and everyone was old before their time. The roads are very good, not much traffic. A disproportionate amount of BMWs. I can't get a straight answer as to where the money comes from. Probably traders, business people, etc. The economy is pretty good up north, although there are plenty of poor people. Apparently everyone receives the basics from the government - oil, rice, sugar, etc. Life is very cheap.

On the way back, we stopped at Jamal's father's ancestral village where the father owns a bunch of land. We visited Jamal's sister who lives with her husband and three young boys. They have a simple 2-room cinder block/cement house with a small kitchen. Very modest but spotless. Toilet is outside. They have a washing machine, nice dish tv and aircon.

Even the poorest people appear to have satellite dishes and aircon. Ever hospitable, the sister served tea and cookies. I wandered around the village and was given some delicious fresh-baked round, flatbread when I stopped to watch some women baking.

It's Ramazan, the Muslim holy month where observant Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. It appeared that most people are observing the fast. Only a few restaurants are open during the day and they've got white sheets around the outside so those fasting don't have to see people eating inside. I'm in no danger of going hungry, though.

I had dinner at Jamal's family's house - lived in currently by his older parents, a brother w/wife and four kids, and an unmarried sister. We had a feast of biryani - huge pilafs of rice w/nuts, raisins, meat & chicken, and some salads, soups, yogurt-water-herb drink, water, tea and fresh dates. It's a large-ish house with an open courtyard, 8 bedrooms, kitchen, a couple of sitting rooms. We ate in a sitting room on cushions on the floor, which is normal for this part of the world.

Today, I had a delicious light breakfast of yogurt and honey, right on the comb, for $2. Then Jamal and I took a taxi to Lalish, a village known for its Yezidi temple. Yezidis are a minority religion, older than Islam. They revere black snakes. The story goes that when Noah's ark was flooding, the black snakes stopped up the holes with their bodies and forever won the gratitude of the Yezidi people. Yezidis come from all over to pay respects at the holy temple. There were quite a few families there. Apparently they are discriminated against in Iraq - can't get certain jobs, their land gets taken away at the government's will, etc. but lovely, hospitable people. I hung w/some women and children for a while, then as we were leaving, one of the men asked us to stay for a drink (tea), which turned into lunch with the head man and some others. Again, piles of rice and goat, the same one I petted on the way in earlier. Then the top Yezidi leader came, a man in his 70s. His father and all the men before him were Yezidi leaders. We were given the royal treatment and had an enlightening and wonderful experience.

Then, back to Dohuk where I got a shared taxi for the 2-hour ride to Erbil. Dry landscape, but dirt, not sand. It is cultivated at different times of the year. Lots of olive trees. Quite a few checkpoints along the road. We passed about 20 miles from Mosul. The Kurds like and respect their soldiers. They've been keeping things safe up north so there's none of the antipathy one might show to law enforcement.

Well, it's late, and I'm hot and tired. I have running water at my cheap $13 hotel but I doubt it will be hot, which is OK. There is aircon, which I might enjoy a bit. I nearly froze when it came on automatically in Dohuk, as I was content with just the fan.

Stay tuned for more next time I find time and internet.



Sheryl Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer based in Boulder, CO.