In fifteen days, our “More Friends That The Mountains” projects in Kurdistan/Iraq took us to four different IDP and refugee camps and included hosting two community kite events. We flew kites. We danced. We shared many moments of friendship!
While most days were filled with active movement on this work, our time also included quirky moments typical of traveling.
In no specific order, and with a random nature to these stories, here are some of my favorites:
On our first morning, after a few slow-paced weeks in Lebanon, Brian and I arrived at our hotel in Erbil and enjoyed a similarly leisurely walk near the Citadel for our first of many kebabs. We returned to our hotel to await Jason’s evening arrival – thinking about a relaxing evening of catching up. Jason texted that he landed and was ready for his pick-up by Awa, an artist he had been communicating with for weeks about the Hope Mural Project. In a matter of a few text exchanges, we were dressed and ready to meet Awa and eight of his closest friends for an evening of chai and nargila. We soon learned that Awa and his friends are very popular on Snapchat in Iraq. Our first hours in Kurdistan were snapped for all to see and while we enjoyed chai, some of his fans came to visit and say hello. This was our first experience as Snapchat celebrities.
Speaking of chai, it’s a big deal in Kurdistan, served in small, piping hot glasses with at least a half inch of sugar lining the bottom. Wherever you stop, it’s not uncommon to be offered chai. It is usually good for a chuckle to see us try to blow the liquid to a tolerable temperature while our Kurdish friends quickly down it with total disregard for seared esophaguses. Over the course of fifteen days, I developed a pretty hearty addiction to this sugary goodness – ending my time there with a daily habit of 8-10 glasses. Although I wouldn’t change a thing, when I arrived in Jordan, my first three days were filled with detox headaches from the caffeine and sugar.
While we were enjoyed chai at our favorite spot near the Citadel in Erbil, a woman asked if we would agree to be on video while drinking our chai. We weren’t sure why, but agreed, and were soon given a clip-on microphone to wear while drinking tea. Since we weren’t exactly sure what to say, our conversation focused mainly on how much we loved tea and how delicious it was. Who would have guessed we could spend ten minutes chatting about this delicious treat? We felt like actors in a cheesy commercial.
During our final meal with friends, we watched Jason’s shocked face as he nearly spit out his chai after realizing he added a bit of salt instead of sugar. We laughed at him – only to watch our second friend (who will remain anonymous) do the exact same thing. For us, chai was not only delicious, but also at the center of many shared moments with friends…some that were pretty funny!
Chai – was usually one part of a really big meal. We ate some sort of a kebab or shawarma every single day. When eating with friends, we would finish our meals and often still have a table of half-filled plates because the sheer amount of food was overwhelming. Each bite offered flavors to impress with a desire, but not an ability to finish every bite. We also loved that you could find delicious shawarma for less than a dollar – which made eating them habitual too. In Dohuk, the men behind our favorite shawarma counter had to laugh on the day when we had enjoyed all three meals there. Oh, and the bread!!! Piping hot and delicious.
One of my favorite chai and food experiences was at the home of Rawand who surprised us with a beautiful spread of fruit and snacks – along with a custom-made nargila pipe that was covered with an artistic display that includes our names a a bit of homage to Kurdistan. While I don’t smoke, I can now say that I have had a favorite nargila experience. Art can be found in the most interesting places!
While visiting Domiz camp, we enjoyed working with the Barzani staff and center volunteers. As we prepared to head to lunch, one of the volunteers shared pictures of his musical talents and a video of a song he made to honor the camp leader. It was beautiful and enthusiastic in praise. I mentioned that he was the best volunteer ever because I have had many volunteers and have never received a song written in my honor. As we ate lunch, he joined us in the small center side room and let us know that within the last half hour, he had written the lyrics of a song for me. While he still needed to finish the music, he shared a beautiful collection of words he had written…words of kindness and friendship.
Each day was a pleasure and I felt lucky to spend my time with so many wonderful people.
And my final random note on time in Iraq…Jason, Brian, and I enjoyed games of Uno at the end of most days. The competition was fierce with happy dances by the braggiest of the winners (no need to mention name). However, in the final championship game – there was a big winner – a really big winner – someone who won in only two hands. Okay, it was ME! I mean – it’s not great to brag, but when you end a trip on a win like that – and will remain champion until the next group adventure – it does seem worthy of sharing with the world. I wish I had pictures of my championship game, but I guess the memories of the triumph will have to suffice! So, thanks for the memories, Kurdistan!