The weather so far has been mostly either gorgeous clear blue skies and sunshine, about 19/20 degrees, or it’s been pissing down. I have to put that bit in because I’m English and some stereotypes are hard to put down. I did notice the BBC reporting on the battle for Mosul last Friday showed clips ablaze with sunshine and a reporter referring to “this morning” and “today” fairly frequently, when it couldn’t possibly have been filmed that day because it was pouring down so much the place basically became a quagmire. That may well be normal practice and happen all the time, but it sort of goes against the whole Beeb integrity thing – the reporting implied the footage was of that day and they said nothing to correct that.
Continuing along the English stereotype vein, anyone who knows me will be ever so relieved to know that beers are readily available here. There are in fact Bottle Shops/Off Licences etc in a few areas. Should you have adopted vaping in a big way, you’d also be well catered for. Vape shops abound. I’m living in a Christian suburb called Ainkawa – which boasts a rather spectacular little watering hole called Teachers. The sign outside reads Teachers Club For Family. Not sure about the family bit, but the place is like a sort of smoke infused town hall of gargantuan proportion, gridded with tables and chairs. Waiters trip nimbly around, distributing small bowls of almonds and ice, and the best baba ganoush I’ve ever had the fortune to stumble upon. There is a constant hum of Kurdish/Arabic/Journalist and the place is slightly prone to bouts of Bingo. All in all it’s bloody marvellous.
During my days so far, I’ve been tramping across Erbil, camera clasped firmly in slightly nervous hand. I’m not nervous because it’s Erbil, I’m nervous because there’s so much I want to take pictures of and I’m scared I’m missing all the good bits. Well, ok, sometimes I’m also nervous because my phone battery has run out and I have absolutely no idea where I am, but asking has never failed to sort that out and usually leads to some sort of exciting diversion. Or at least an extension of my charades comfort zone (man I am going to be so awesome at that game next time someone forces me to play!). I have been pleased to note that the wiring of Erbil is second only (in my experience) to that of Burma
and that there is much offal available everywhere. Big fan of nose to tail eating and the Kurds appear to have that very firmly nailed.
Getting a sim card turned out to be a little more intense than I had bargained for, in terms of being fleeced of personal data even I didn’t know I had. My passport was scanned, photographed (5 times, with a webcam), my origins noted down in a ledger, my finger prints taken. In total contrast to this over-enthusiasm for the collection of digital information, it can be very hard to find information online here about various things that I’ve grown to take for granted. Businesses online for example have their address down as things like “On Salahaddin, opposite the Korek Shop” and a lot of the roads seem not to have names at all. It’s all about asking people what the place you’re looking for is near. I have no idea how one is meant to find a residential address without being guided in via the power of mobile technology. And not being able to just look up the location of a place on a map and then follow the blue line to it, is slightly disconcerting. Given that just over half of my life has been lived the other side of the digital revolution, I should by rights be able to do this, but I appear to have lost that capability,
A few nights back, at about 1am, there was suddenly a huge hullabaloo. Of car horns and yelling and engines revving and then gun shots. Single ones to start with, then short bursts of automatic fire. It all sounded quite jolly, so I was not unduly alarmed, but not being used to people randomly shooting automatic weapons in my aural vicinity, I did wonder whether I perhaps should be. I was worried enough to check things out via the medium of twitter (as well as nipping downstairs to check that friends in the house also detected a note of jollity and to lock the front door. Which we never do) and found that all that had happened was Barca won the footie. 20 minutes of sporadic celebratory shooting seemed a little extreme in the circumstances, but I guess the Kurdish must just really like Barcelona.
One thing I have really loved so far is the markets/bazaars/souks – they’re pretty much the most enjoyable ones I’ve encountered. Unlike most of the rest of the world, they aren’t just full of the same old shite pretending to be “local handicrafts” or “art” which has actually all just been manufactured in some factory in China and shipped to places like Bali. Oh no – there’s actual real stuff in these places.
There’s so much hustle and bustle, and awesome fresh produce, and offal, and colour, and sweets, and weird things made from sisal that I am assured are meant for scratching your back in the shower, and scarves (I fear a wee addiction poking its sartorial little head above the barrier of my intent to spend as little as possible there), and baklava, and random little junk places filled with treasures (quite possibly from the homes of people who’ve fled, but that’s just a guess),
and pomegranates more huge and beautiful than anyone’s wildest dreams of pomegranates have ever been!
And Rugs. Also carpets, but I’m not so keen on them (though I do at least now know the difference). It turns out that rug addiction is contagious.
My wonderful friend Celia is more than a little smitten and I enjoyed her revelling in all the gorgeous earthy tones and varied patterns of the 2nd hand nomadic rugs in the bazaar and in a rather lovely little rug museum within the Citadel of Erbil, that I now have to shut my eyes when I go past rug outlets in case I spontaneously acquire a truckload.
Shutting one’s eyes while walking the streets of Erbil is not something I’d advise. There are pavements/sidewalks, but they’re not usually functional in quite the manner for which they were initially invented (ie walking along). It’s as if it has been accepted conceptually that roads should have pavements, so they have been included. But more as a box ticking exercise than with anything more than a cursory nod to their actual intended function. They’re very narrow, often have bizarre cambers and there is stuff all over them – necessitating stepping into the road every two minutes to circumnavigate wiring, trees, telegraph poles, random stuff outside shops etc.
I have just spent 7 months in Calne (on the outskirts of the West Country of England, where clotted cream is really a big thing). You can’t get clotted cream in Calne. But guess what – you can less than 2 minutes walk from where I am in Erbil! My new favourite breakfast (after eggs) is clotted cream and sour cherry jam on fresh baked flatbread. I highly recommend. Overall I’m very happy with the food choice – tons of tasty things and cheese is not an issue at all. Which makes a nice change from other places I’ve spent long periods of enforced cheese withdrawal time in. Some visiting friends and I were lucky enough to be taken to an amazing Kurdish food place in Sulymaniyah, run by women, by my friend Lili (who is just the most lovely person ever and made my first weekend here amazing) – the food was delicious, even things that sounded rather questionable – like drinking fermented, fizzy yoghurt, otherwise known as Ayran (not sure I’ve remembered the name correctly).
Tea is very big here. Like bigger than the British obsession with it type big. Black tea, served in little curvy glasses, often with just enough sugar in to conveniently stand your spoon up.
Stirring is a schoolboy error. Unless you’re hell bent on acquiring Type II Diabetes. Tea shops abound, chairs arranged outside in rows facing the road, theatre style. A man wonders around with a tray of sugar supported spoons, into which a faintly discernible volume of tea has been sparingly poured. He deposits one in front of anyone who doesn’t already have one, while keeping an eye out for any shisha maintenance that may have cropped up since his last round.
Visiting a tea shop as a Kurdish woman doesn’t seem to be all that de rigueur. As a female foreigner it’s not frowned upon at all (as far as I can tell), but pretty much everyone local, availing themselves of tea shop tea, is a man.
This brings me to women in Iraqi Kurdistan generally. The religious practices here are many and varied, some women wear scarves, I’ve seen 3 or 4 different styles – there are probably more to the trained eye – some women don’t. My particular favourite style is one where the scarf sort of expands around the back of the head, making it appear that the woman has absolutely vast quantities of hair. I’m intrigued and will find an opportunity to ask whether or not this is actually the case. It looks great anyhow. Also make up and high heels. They’re both pretty big round these parts. The made-upness levels of some ladies in the central bazaar area of a morning are somewhat equivalent to approximately half what I’d put on to attend a gala dinner that featured the word “glam” in the dresscode stated on the invite. While there are certainly more men visibly about the place, there are also a lot of women. I have heard some stories that fit right in with the idea that women’s rights are not especially important here. But this is far from a place where all women have absolutely no recourse to self expression. Do I have to wear a headscarf? Nope.
See pictures of the rest of my time here in Iraq on my photography website: www.efimages.co.uk