I visited northern Iraq for a reason. It does not boast the historical monuments of neighboring Syria nor a wide range of landscapes like Turkey, however I had read that the ethnic Kurdish people ranked second to none for hospitality. During the first half of my week in the area, I had enjoyed some heartwarming experiences in Dohuk, Erbil and Suleymanieh. With each day, there was growing evidence that these people were extremely gracious and welcoming. Overpaying for meals was never an issue. In fact, paying for a meal at all was the challenge.
For my final night in Kurdistan I slept in Halabja. The village-cum-town has a particularly horrific history. During Saddam Hussein's rule as leader of the Ba'athist Socialist party, he committed atrocious massacres of the Kurdish people. Arguably the single most inhumane act was to drop a chemical bomb on the town of Halabja on March 16, 1988. Within 60 minutes of detonation, more than 5,000 civilians lay dead and thousands more devastated by the mustard gas.
My ride to Halabja from Sulaymanieh offered beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, rolling hills and to the east, the snow-tipped mountains that formed the border with Iran. I was dropped off in the centre of town. My first mission was to find a place to sleep. I had no information and my Kurdish language skills were as abysmal as when I arrived five days earlier.
The word 'hotel' and the gesture of my hands under my head as a pillow had done the trick in the past. I would give it another go. As I walked the bazaar, there was not a single pair of eyes that was unaware of my presence. A slow head nod and a spoken 'Salaam' turned glares of curiosity into smiles of welcome in 98 per cent of cases.
Two men dressed in camo fatigues slung with AK rifles approached me. Kurdistan is littered with checkpoints manned by Peshmerga (soldier in Kurdish). They usually just wanted to see my passport and visa stamp. I never felt threatened. That said, this was the first time I had been stopped in the street. "Password" demanded the mustachioed man. I did my best to swallow the words 'Open Seasame!' and supress the giggles mounting in my throat. I knew he meant 'Passport'. I reached into my secret pocket and produced the goods. I was not concerned. Just like the random men that flanked the street, he was only curious about who I was and what I was doing on his turf. The soldier just happened to have a gun and so was entitled to inquire more deeply.
After combing over each of the 24 pages with child-like fascination they smiled and I was on my way. Down the road I gave my Hotel? act to a couple of men. They pointed that it was down the road but also communicated that I would need a taxi. I voiced displeasure. Seconds later I was in the back cab of a civilian pickup truck and off to the hotel courtesy of a couple young guys driving by. A kilometre down the road they yelled at two other guys strolling the street. The newcomers jammed in beside me.
Upon arrival at the hotel, they each wanted a picture taken with me. To investigate the action, the hotel receptionist had wandered outside. He said that I could not stay there. I didn't really push as I wasn't keen on staying this far outside the centre of town anyway -- too isolated.
Giddy, we jumped back in the truck and zoomed off, slowing only for the speedbumps -- innocent goats be damned.
We arrived at Salzan Motel. The guys raced up the stairs ahead of me. They weren't carrying their life on their back. I interrupted the conversation upon arrival in the lobby salon. I was keen to manage this interaction as I wasn't sure how many accommodation options were in Halabja and didn't want to again be declined a stay before I even got in the door.
The receptionist wasn't interested in entertaining my hand gestures and so handed me the phone. On the line, some broken English garbled into the ear piece.
I understood what was on offer and negotiated the price passing the phone back and forth between me and the receptionist.
It wasn't looking good. They guy was firm on charging me 40,000 dinars ~ $35 USD. The only room had three single beds a kitchenette and living room. It was obviously way more than I needed, but Kurdistan holds some bizarre accommodation norms.
I thanked him and left. After weighing the limited options available to me I returned 30 minutes later. We settled on 35,000 dinar for the night.
I unslung my pack on the bed, washed my face and walked out into the puddled street. I was in search of a cay (tea) to recharge. On a side street is sat down on the front bench of a cay shop. I began exchanging pleasantries with the man beside me. He spoke a fair amount of English. I would later learn that he had spent several years in Birmingham, England.
After 10 minutes, Osman invited me to his house. I had no agenda. He didn't seem to either and so I graciously accepted the invitation. We trudged less than five minutes through back alleys to his front door.
I slipped off my boots and entered the atrium of his concrete home. He gave me a short tour of the kitchen, one bedroom, bathroom and TV room before gesturing for me to be seated on the floor. He introduced me to his wife who greeted me with a hesitant smile. She couldn't have been more than a couple years older than me. He was 43.
She prepared and served us Nescafe as he sat comfortably, and me awkwardly, on the carpet beside the block heater. As our conversation continued I commented on how meticulously spotless his house was. He beamed, his next inhale lingering momentarily in his chest. It was such a welcomed contrast from the village street and shops. I didn't mention this particular observation.
He offered dinner and feeling at ease, I accepted. His wife spoke rapidly and he turned with an apologetic look to me, "We have no meat as we didn't expect a guest." I effused that I was more than content with the beans, rice and aubergine that were available.
Dinner was a good spread. I made attempts to engage his wife in conversation, but the language barrier combined with the cultural taboo of addressing women proved insurmountable at this point. Osman had switched on his flat screen TV as we sat down to eat. BBC World in English felt strange but fitting.
After the meal, cay was served. By this point, we had nearly exhausted the topics of conversation. My hips and ankles were now feeling the strain from sitting on the floor after nearly three weeks of inactivity. I had yet to incorporate downward dog or child's pose into my daily bazaar wandering, cay sipping and bus sitting routine.
Osman translated that his wife would like to see photos of my family. The two print images of my family that I had brought for this very purpose were in my main pack, back at the motel. As disappointment spread onto their faces, I remembered that I was carrying my old HTC smartphone. I had no SIM card so it was useless as a phone, but as an alarm clock, calculator and flashlight it had served a purpose to date.
I produced the phone from my pocket and navigated to the photo album. I had switched to a different phone back home in April and so had little memory of what pictures were in the album. This was a risk.
I zipped through the deck until I found some photos of my family during my mom's birthday party last December. They were good and I expected they would satisfy the request. The eyes of my two new Kurdish friends remained intently trained on my phone screen. There were new expectations. To stow my machine now would be a killjoy. I hesitated though. I really did not know what other pictures were in this 400-strong album. My thoughts raced to past random bar nights, drunken wrestling matches, dance floor make outs and best-kept-private volumes of skin exposure. What care-free moments had I, a 23-year-old Canadian dude in his Canadian cultural comfort zone, captured and how many of them would be appropriate to share with a conservative Islamic couple in nowhere Iraq? Indeed, only a half an hour earlier Osman had explained how it wasn't OK to take pictures of women fully clothed, complete with hijab, nevermind...ahhhhh...
I went for it.
The following five minutes were intense. With each scene of a wholesome family or stunning Rocky Mountain background the slight quiver in my outstretched hand stabilized and a deep breath fought off heart failure. With each montage of a beer can pyramid, a female on male piggy back ride, or a topless bromantic embrace I clutched my teeth into a half-smile and gauged their respective reactions through my peripheral.
At the end of the session, they were pleased or at least not offended. Afterwards they returned the favour, showing me the photos of their wedding day 15 months earlier.
Osman announced that we would go to a friend's house nearby. I did not protest as I was keen to deepen the cultural exchange. Moments later a horn sounded and we piled into a Camry-like car.
We entered another house, very similar in layout to Osman's. Already seated on the carpeted floor were men, women and children. Like a junior high dance each sex lined up along opposite walls. I shook each man's hand, acknowledged the women with a smile and sat against the wall perpendicular to the mock standoff.
No one else spoke English, but smiles and hand motions in my direction made me feel welcome. I did my best to show my appreciation for the warmth I felt. Osman acted as interpreter. I learned more throughout the evening about the circumstance and the relations. Cay and cups of water were served to the men multiple times by little girls.
There were two new babies in the group. One was two months old and the other 10 days. The freshest addition to the village scene had yet to be named Osman explained pointing to a baby names book written in Arabic. Soon after learning this, I jokingly suggested that we should draw names out of a hat to dub the newborn. This was well received (thank goodness), but not acted upon.
The climax of the evening occurred an hour later when the baby was christened.
In this moment, the sleeping child was laid in the arms of Papa Sherma (an old man seated beside me with a heartmelting smile). The family had fetched their old camcorder to document the event. Through the few teeth that remained, the grandpa began humming. The buzz crescendoed into a chant. Kisses were planted on the forehead of the child and a discrete celebration was noted. Smiles all around. And thus the baby was named Armand. It was pretty magical.
The camcorder was promptly plugged into the TV and the newly recorded scene played in the background while a different team of young girls served baklava, fruit and cay. I capitalized on the screening to discreetly snap pictures of the women. Their presence was too central to my experience to leave out.
Slowly families left into the rain to return home. Towards 22:30, I encouraged Osman to do the same. I would attempt to cross into Iran the next day and needed all of the rest I could afford.
In the cab of a miniature pick-up, I huddled between the house host cum chauffeur and Osman. As the rain lashed the window panes we drove out of town. I knew we were headed to the wrong hotel, but to avoid the otherwise inevitable confusion I waited until we arrived to tell them that it was not my home. Luckily I had paid attention during my other pickup joy ride earlier in the day and so could direct them to Motel Sazan.
I thanked them in the most genuine language I could articulate without leaving them scratching their heads and disappeared upstairs.
In a place whose history begs to be forgotten, I will never forget.