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Published: March 4th 2013
In the Middle East, the visitor is seen as a gift from God. But like any gift, the reaction to its receipt is related to its frequency; the more regular the gift, the less enthusiastic the response. The Middle East bestows the most hospitable of welcomes on visitors, and since I never met or saw any other foreign tourist during my ten days in the Kurdish region of Iraq, it meant that all latent hospitality was poured upon me.
As is usual with my first day in any location, I approach it through the eyes of someone observing, rather than immersing. Despite this cautious approach, the response was remarkable. On the second day, I removed that last veneer of caution and strode forth; the reaction was extraordinary.
Returning to the Qaysari Bazaar I searched for Erbil’s most famous tea house, as suggested to me the previous evening by Amer. Frequented by both the privileged and the poor, it held much promise. Again, my passage was prolonged due to the increasingly frequent conversations and photo opportunities along the way.
I finally happened upon a rather unassuming entrance to the tea house, an establishment whose interior was filled with
a patina of pictures of famed Kurds, whilst below men sipped tea, conversed and smoked cigarettes. An elderly man named Khalil Chaichy, who has served tea on the premises since 1952, noisily shuffled around in haste serving customers with barely a grin, but often a nod. I was beckoned by three Kurdish men who spoke some English to join them for tea, which here is served in very small glasses with a liberal collection of sugar resting on the bottom. I followed the practice of some by pouring my tea into the saucer and drinking directly from there.
Sitting across from us was a stout, elderly Kurdish man. This former Peshmarga
(‘soldier’ in Kurdish) named Rashid became increasingly involved in our conversation. With a mischievous glint in his eye, he gave me the strongest of handshakes, whilst boasting that he has never spent a day in hospital – a fine achievement for a man of 75. Rashid proudly displayed the menacing knife carried in his belt, and identified people he knew personally amongst the images on the walls. When the others left, it was just Rashid and I within the confines of the far corner of the tea house.
With no common language, we resorted to gesturing and facial expressions to communicate. Despite this barrier, we established a rapport and warmth in the briefest amount of time, and I was genuinely sad to see Rashid take his leave.
I ventured from Erbil’s traditional area to its modern, namely The Family Mall shopping complex. Passing through a security check, I was soon amongst an airy interior lined with designer branded shops, and this seemed a salubrious place for my first haircut since leaving Australia. The stylist was from Turkey, so as Turkish pop and traditional music issued from the television, my hair was gradually trimmed to a manageable length. Thinking the appointment finished, I was surprised when the hairdresser approached me with a small flaming rod that he waved within my ear lobe to singe any hair within. I’ve seen some unusual hairdressing practices in my time, but never this. With all ear hair adroitly removed without me sustaining any burns, I departed the salon.
I sauntered to the adjacent amusement park for a supposed 20 minute period, but this evolved into a three hour stay which commenced when four teenage Christian couples celebrating Valentine’s Day together invited
me to share a delightful mint and lemon sheesha. After a period of casual conversation and borrowing my hat for different photographic poses, we all proceeded to the tagada ride blasting music at a thunderous volume. Whilst the others joined the ride (I declined in case the spinning caused my recently consumed dinner to reappear), I witnessed Kurdish men dancing with abandon. Some would mimic the moves from their favourite music videos whilst others linked arms in a line and danced in a more traditional Kurdish form. The mood was infectious and the atmosphere electric.
I was swamped with offers of conversations, photographs and invitations to travel to people’s homes. One of the first questions people asked was “Where are you from?” and in my entire time in the Kurdish region of Iraq, not one person successfully guessed my origin as from Australia. The Kurds believed I was American (because of my hat), British (because of my language), German (because of my appearance – half correct, my mother is German), Italian (because of the way I gesture) or Swedish (!). They were surprised to meet an Australian, let alone an Australian tourist.
I wish people who decry the
Kurdish region of Iraq being dangerous could have stood beside me during this time at the amusement park, for it was the culmination of what could be described as the perfect day of travel – a day filled with friendship, laughter and warmth.
Laying in bed that night, my head recalled the day’s whirlwind of hospitality, prompting me to opt for something less frenetic the following day. I decided to visit the spacious Sami Abdulrahman Park, which seemed largely devoid of people due to its enormous size. Most of my time was spent in solitude, and I could quietly sit sunning myself on a park bench and gaze at water features, manicured lawns, and wide paths. But then I chanced upon a wedding, which saw me suddenly amongst a group of happy Kurdish families taking dozens of photographs of me and posing for twice as many. The hospitality of the previous day suddenly returned with full force. It was an unexpectedly intense conclusion to a largely peaceful day
That evening at the hotel, I felt totally drained, it was as if I had been accorded celebrity status amongst the Kurds. Though most welcome and appreciated, it was a
trifle tiring. Perhaps I would feel more invigorated after a sleep, but the next morning I was still fatigued by fame. Despite the high cost, I resolved to travel along a portion of the Hamilton Road (so nicknamed after the road’s engineer, New Zealander, Sir Archibald Milne Hamilton) or as the Kurdish call it, the Haji Omran Road.
Initially the landscape was attractive, and I was surprised to see fertile, albeit rocky terrain. Once we neared Harir the scenery dramatically changed. My driver, Mohammed, drove between a wide breach in the limestone cliffs, and from there it was turn after turn of gorgeous scenery as lofty canyons plunged into rocky ravines lined with gushing mountain rivers. Whenever we stopped for a photo opportunity, I was always approached by whoever was wandering nearby for yet another chat. However, with so few people present, it was far less intense than the previous two days.
Returning to Erbil for my last night in the city, I again visited the roast chicken shop where I met the kind Iraqi brothers a few nights before. I encountered another English speaking Kurd, and during the conversation, I stated that Erbil appeared safer than Brisbane
in Australia. Less than two minutes after these ill-timed words left my lips, I heard a commotion on the road outside. My attention was drawn to a group of men approximately thirty metres distant, and from their midst came an agitated man carrying a dark object in his right hand – even under the dim street lights it was obviously the shape of a handgun. He was looking to the right at some opponent unseen by me, and in what proved an important intervention, had to sidestep a passing car. The man quickly raised his gun and lowered his head to take aim and fire, but those extra steps allowed a friend time to reach him and forcibly lower his arm before he could discharge the weapon. Had another two seconds passed, that gun would have fired, and the scene would have become one of absolute mayhem.
The gun-wielder was swarmed by his shouting allies. I could sight the handgun waving high in the air, but whilst the wielder was restrained as many arms kept his arm aloft, firing was not possible. The people in the restaurant assured me I was safe, and I certainly felt that way, as
we blithely commented on what we were witnessing. When it appeared that the gunman was subdued, we departed the restaurant, and shortly after arriving at my hotel a few doors away, the local constabulary arrived in several vehicles with weighty weaponry that put the handgun to shame. Almost as soon as they had appeared, the police diffused the tension and departed a now subdued street, as people returned to their pre-altercation activities.
My time in Erbil has been characterised by most incredible hospitality I have ever experienced, and even including the handgun incident, I never felt under threat at any time. I always believe that the world is a reflection of your attitude; if you view people with suspicion, then they will regard you the same. But if you smile and open your heart, you will be treated in kind. To quote a song from The Beatles
”The love you take is equal to the love you make.” But in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, the love you take is infinitely greater than the love you make.
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