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Where in the world is Sheryl?

Subject: Iraqi Kurdistan #3
Date: September 23, 2008 6:52:43 AM PDT

Greetings from Suleimaniya. Actually, I'm back in Erbil, but you'll hear about "Suly" & some other miscellaneous stuff today.

I took a shared taxi from Erbil to Suly, about 2.5 hours. The direct route took us on the outskirts of Kirkuk but i was assured it was safe. I did see offgas fire from what is probably an oil well - the picture is a familiar one to those who watch the news. Anyway, passed through w/no problem.

I got a hotel in the "new" part of Suly, 7 minutes walk west of the bazaar and 7 minutes east of the museums. Even though my Erbil friends said Erbil was "better" - it's the capital, the people in Suly were a bit more mod. Radical haircuts and facial hair on the young men and more single young people walking around together. On the downside, the bazaar closes up at 6 during Ramazan when people go home to eat with their families, and it doesn't open up again. In contrast, Erbil's bazaar re-opens around 8pm until midnight. The first night i had a hard time finding an open restaurant for dinner around 8 unless i wanted to settle for pizza, which is not an option for me. My nice hotel owner (Swedish-returned; lots of Kurds emigrate to Sweden), was having snacks and drinking w/some of his men friends and invited me to join them. He even ordered me a chicken kebab and wouldn't let me pay. Hospitality is genuinely given. Two days later, before i left, i was eating kebabs in a restaurant across from the hotel and he picked up my bill. Granted, he may have been making money off my room since I didn't bargain - $25/night seemed reasonably the going rate.

I spend a lot of time wandering around the bazaars when I travel. It's my favorite thing to do. The next day, I visited the museum which contained a small collection of old pottery and metal implements from ancient civilizations. I'm told the museum in Baghdad was something to see. Then the obligatory visit to Amna Suraka, the former prison known as the "Red Security Building" because it was painted red. It is now the war crimes museum, scenes in rooms where Kurds were held, interrogated, and tortured; men, women, and children alike. There is also a room whose walls are a mosaic of 152,000 shards of mirror, representing the 152,000 Kurds who died either through torture, gassing, or just outright killed by Sadaam's regime. I bumped into a CNN crew at the war museum. They're based in Baghdad and were in Kurdistan doing a few stories. I joined them for lunch afterward.

The next morning I took a mini-bus to Halabja, the town where in 1988 Sadaam killed 5,000 Kurds with chemical weapons in 1 day. Chemicals included Napalm, Sarin, and other heinous things that shouldn't even be manufactured, let alone used on people. There were two memorials. After the mini-bus dropped me off in town, I was asking around if anyone spoke English so I could find out where the memorials were. Mohammed, a taxi driver, happened to be there, spoke some English, and offered to take me to the memorials. Afterward, we went to his modest but comfortable house (built with his own hands), where his wife, Parwana, served me water, dates, and walnuts even as I protested that I didn't need anything. (Again, they were fasting). She's a beautiful woman and they seem to have a close relationship, although they're childless after twelve years of marriage. Mohammed took me back to the mini-bus garage and wouldn't take any money for driving me around. Really, I'm not making this stuff up.

I returned to Suly (1.5 hours), had a quick kebab thanks to Omer of the hotel, and took a shared taxi back to Erbil. I shared the taxi with a family of Swedish Kurds. There are lots of Kurds living in - or who have lived in and returned to - Sweden and Germany.

Back to my same Hotel Bekhal in Erbil in the center of the bazaar. Some practical info. I've been paying about $25/night in Erbil & Suly; it was cheaper in Dohuk. The hotels are nothing special - my mom would not care to stay in them, but I feel safe (the staff looks out for me), they're clean enough, have fans or A/C, which I try not to use if possible, and have bathrooms in the room. I walk around town wherever possible but taxi rides anywhere in town are 3,000 Iraqi Dinars, or $2.5. I've been mostly eating in small restaurants in the bazaars. I'm invariably disappointed when I go to a decent restaurant, by the price and that they're not much better than the street food. I pay about $2 for a kebab, bread, onions, tomato, water, and tea. The same meal in a restaurant costs about $5. I'm not trying to save money but I really enjoy the bazaar food, which my friends here would consider unclean. Again, I'm paying the same price for everything as locals, unheard of among travelers.

Today I visited the Archaeology museum, slightly better than the one in Suly. There was an Italian archaeologist who was trying to arrange some sort of exchange with the museum, meeting with government ministers, etc. He explained some of what I was seeing to me - pottery, inscriptions, etc. I also happened upon an art gallery that didn't have an exhibition, but the curator showed me some paintings and photographs.

I've been running around with an interesting bunch of people. Very middle class Christians, who live in Ainkawa, the Christian neighborhood. I had lunch today with my friend Aseel's sisters - all as wonderful as she is. I had told them I had a lunch date with some other friends at 2:00 but they insisted I eat anyway. Who am I to turn down food? Then I had lunch again with Dan's family. And I'm having dinner with Talan, who has ordered a special fish dish Masgouf, which is famous here. I'm not eating that much every day, it's just a big food day today, I guess. The houses are really nice - as nice as any in the West with all the modern conveniences. You might think people live in tents or mud-brick homes, but some people live very well here.

Power outages are VERY common and a fact of life. Several times a day and night, the electricity goes out. Apparently the government has plenty of money to fix the infrastructure but the money goes in peoples' pockets instead. Fortunately I have a tiny, lightweight flashlight that has been invaluable.

An inquiring reader asked how the Kurds view the upcoming US election. Many people have said they prefer Obama but my friend Aiyob's father, a high-ranking Peshmerga, said that McCain's policies in the region bode better for the Kurds. They fear that if the US starts to pull out, the Iraqi army may gain power and cause problems in the north, which is currently semi-autonomous. They have their own democratically elected officials and their own flag. It could seriously harm things up here if the Americans don't maintain some sort of presence or pressure. Of course, we in the west don't favor war, especially when it doesn't directly impact us, but many people in the East see it for the greater good it may bring in the future and they are grateful for the intervention. They think we should help the Iranians as well get out from under their fundamentalist government, if not through war, through covert support. I'm so not political but it's fascinating listening to people and how aware they are about the world issues.

I've been wearing a headscarf the whole time here - it's not necessary, as the Christians don't wear them (some Muslims don't either), but since I'm staying in the Muslim and out of respect for Ramazan, I willingly cover my head (it also keeps my hair cleaner). I'm wearing long pants but I've rolled up the sleeves of my shirt above my elbows. Many Christian women wear t-shirts and jeans, skirts.

I know some of you are wondering why you haven't heard me complain about the heat. Before I left I had seen online that it's been 100-105. It probably is but it's VERY dry. I haven't minded at all - I just take things slowly. When I get tired or run out of energy, I stop for a tea WITH sugar, which normally I take black. The sugar really gives me an energy boost.

Tomorrow I plan to go back to Dohuk for 1 night, check in with my friend Jamal, and have dinner with his family. That will put me very close to the Turkish border for an early start the following day. That leaves me about 6 days running around Eastern Turkey until I have to get back to Istanbul a day or two before my flight.

Until next time, sheryl


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