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Where in the world is Sheryl?

Subject: Iraqi Kurdistan #2
Date: September 20, 2008 9:23:19 AM PDT

Greetings from Suleiymania. I'm always sending the emails from one place writing about the previous. So this one is about Erbil.

I'm having an awesome time because the people are the among the best i've met in all my travels. I was given the phone numbers of some people here by a Kurdish friend at home. They have turned out to be really lovely, nice people.

In Erbil, i stayed in a cheapish ($30) hotel in the middle of the bazaar, right next to the Citadel, a fortress-like structure dating back thousands of years. It's supposed to be one of the oldest, continuously inhabited places in the world. It used to house over 500 families but those who remained were moved in 2007. They are hoping for Unesco status one day. It's pretty much ruined mud-brick houses up there, a mosque, and the remains of a synogogue. (All of the Jews left Iraq around 1950-52.) The highlight is the Textile Museum, which has a rich collection of carpets and weavings. The owner, Lolan Mustefa, is trying to preserve traditional weaving by having young women learn from older ones. Supposedly the nomadic Kurds no longer weave, so it's really a dying art in this country.

My first full day in Erbil, i was invited by Dan, my friend Aseel's friend, to join 9 20-something guys on a picnic/bbq to Dokhan Lake, about 2 hours southeast of town. The guys are Christians, not Muslims - yes, there are some here, though they are a minority. The lake was created by a dam and there are lots of "resorts" or picnic spots along the outflow river. The guys brought fixings for kebabs - meat, onions, tomatoes; chips, fruit, nuts, and drinks. When we arrived, the river was very low and the guys (some in bathing suits, some in their underwear), but later in the day they released water from the dam and the water level rose quite a bit. We hung out all day and then drove up to the lake where they went swimming again. The guys really took care of each other - not letting one who drank quite a bit go in the water when he clearly shouldn't have. Neither of the drivers drank, which i thought was very responsible.

The 2nd day, I extended my visa beyond the 10 days i was given at the border so i wouldn't have to rush and i could accept whatever invitations i receive. It only took me 1/2 hour at the police/immigration office but it was a classic example of paper shuffling. Nothing is computerized. I went to about 7 different offices where each time someone stamped something, filled out a form, and stapled a paper. Finally i was given the go-ahead and they extended the visa. It cost me about $2. Most of the people waiting at the office were people who represented laborers, the foreigners (often from Bangladesh) who do the construction and other labor.

The economy is booming - all those laborers have plenty to do. There's tons of construction - buildings, houses - very nice ones by our standards. Lots of oil money and corruption. No one i ask really knows where the money comes from but it's not from working a regular job.

Later the same day, my friend Dan took me to a Martyr Sami Abdur-Rahman Park, a beautiful park on the edge of town. There are some small lakes, lots of grass, trees, a few restaurants, statues, etc. Lots of families come here to enjoy the cool(er) evenings.

Then, i was invited to attend a Chaldean Christian wedding party by Dan's cousin Alan, who spent 5 weeks earlier this summer in the US at a high school exchange program (1-way exchange). There are two types of Christians here, Chaldeans, who are the same Catholic as the Pope, and Assyrians, which i am told (but unconfirmed) is orthodox - maybe like Russian or Greek Orthodox. Anyway, the wedding was held at a hall but was held outside on a big grassy enclosure. About 400 guests, seated at plastic tables, had brought their own food and were dressed every which way; some in jeans, some all spangly, and some just nice. The bride and groom & their party sat at a raised dais in front; the band played at the opposite end. Periodically there was a huge dance where lots of people joined hands and circled the whole place. Lots of Kurdish and other music. We sat with Alan's cousins - a mom & dad, 2 sons & 1 gorgeous 19-yr-old daughter. Mom had made tabouleh and some other salads and we had store-bought olives, chick peas. Toward the end of the evening, waiters brought around meat sandwiches in bread pockets and soft drinks - Coke, Sprite, & Fanta. I didn't get home until 11:30.

The next day, another friend of a friend, Aiyob took me out of town to the scenic areas where people go to get away. Shaqlawa is a semi-mountain town w/a small bazaar. Several other places were touristified waterfalls. People come and bring their own picnics. Again, because it's Ramazan, things are kind of quiet, although there were a few families from Baghdad. Then we hit the motherlode. WI asked to stop at some goat-hair tents next to the road - more shepherds. These people were from Erbil but had bought land and brought their animals and set up tents to live in during the summer months. They invited us in - and though they were fasting they served us a yogurt drink before asking if we'd stay for lunch. I accepted, not thinking it was Ramazan and they were fasting, but ever hospitable, one of the women prepared a lovely meal: fried egg, french fries, bread, awesome yogurt, tomatoes, water (i've been drinking & eating whatever is put in front of me, no matter the source) & tea after the meal. Before and after we ate we talked with one of the senior men, who was very articulate. When asked, he said some of their kids were sent to school; others were not if they needed them to work. Also, they sold the baby animals but kept their herd stock. They made milk, yogurt, & cheese in winter. They got water from the river and had coolers and ice to keep things cold. I asked who worked harder, the men or women - of course, the men said they did and the women said they did. I didn't want to commit when they asked me what i thought. They were speaking Kurdish but Aiyoub speaks great English and does some work as a translator as well as writing for an English-language weekly.

On all these road trips, we pass many checkpoints manned by the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) soldiers who maintain order in this part of Kurdistan. They are very friendly - chat a bit with the driver to ascertain that they speak good Kurdish - this way they know they are from the region and not from the south or potential terrorists. We, in the car, raise our sunglasses from our eyes so they can see us. Only once was i asked for my passport, and they guy couldn't even find the Kurdish visa. It's a good security precaution which nobody seems to mind because they truly have kept things safe in the north.

Another thing, people here are very honest. I am paying exactly what locals pay for everything - food, water, taxis. Nobody has tried to rip me off. This is completely unheard of among travelers. Let's hope things don't change. They are truly kind-hearted people.

Aiyob took me to his parents home outside a town. His wive and month-old baby (who they keep swaddled) were there. Earlier in the day he had asked if i'd like to spend the night rather than go back to Erbil, so of course i accepted. (I had Aiyob call my hotel that night to let them know i was staying w/friends.) I picked up a toothbrush at a pharmacy and put my contacts in a glass of water. His father is a Peshmerga "those who face death." Originally from Iran, he took his young family over the mountains on horseback to flee the oppressive regime in the late 80s. There's a whole group of Iranian/Iraqis living in Kurdistan. From the outside, the village looked like a mud-brick village, but inside the house gate (and others), there is a lovely grass yard and garden. The toilet is at the back of the yard - running water, spotless. The house is 3 main rooms, 2 of which have carpets and no furniture, and the living room has several large couches and chairs, and a color tv. The two main rooms have air conditioning, as do even the smallest shacks you see in villages. There's a good-size kitchen w/fridge, microwave, stainless sink, gas-ring stove, large i'd call it a samovar - teapot. There's a large "shower room" with a shower and tap and nice tile floor.

Aiyob's mother made rice, chicken, cooked tomatoes, greens, and a vegetable-type soup. Of course, bread is always served. We ate sitting on the floor, which is common among the Kurds/Muslims (not so of the Christians). Later that evening, some neighbors came by to visit - also Iranian Kurds. We were all served tea, then fruit, then the box of sweets i had picked up during the day. Hospitality is very important - and a way of life. I was given my own room, with a cushion, sheet, and pillow, and had a great sleep. After a breakfast of bread, yogurt & fresh honey, Aiyob, Leyla his wife, baby, and I headed back 1 hour to Erbil. I showered at my hotel, paid up, and caught a shared taxi 3 hours to Suleiymania.

Stay tuned for the next chapter....

My short film "Islamic Journey" has been put on my website sherylshapiro.com. Go to the Islamic Journey page. This will help you understand why i choose the places i do for my holidays.



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