It seemed so far away, that 23 July. And now that it has passed I feel like it all happened too fast, like I need more time.
I get to the airport an hour earlier than was necessary. I was afraid of missing my flight, of getting stuck in traffic, or in a swarm of locusts… who knows.
A huge storm breaks out and we can’t take off. “There you are”, I say to myself, “locusts!” I laugh at my own foolishness and realize we were to leave a bit later then expected, a slight delay, that’s all.
The flight stopped over in Istanbul and it was jam-packed. People from all walks of life crammed in this airport, from those going on holiday, to those travelling for work
I fell asleep, I thought , I heard, and before I knew it, I boarded the next flight to Erbil. I realised that it’s was really happening – I’m going to Iraq and I didn’t tell my mother. She is going to be so mad when I get back. 🙂
A little girl and her father sat next to me. They were speaking Arabic. Every now and then she looked at me with a smile. I would smile back. The universal language.
I decided to take a notebook with me instead of a computer. The plan was to write in it every day; to record moments, ideas, sensations. It has been ages since I last wrote anything by hand, and it shows in my handwriting: the words look like they have been written by a crazy giraffe jumping around on three legs, or something to that effect!
The approach to Erbil was turbulent, there was a very strong wind, and the sweet girl next to me was looking a bit green around the face, poor thing.
Once off the plane, it hit me that I was in Kurdistan on a one-month visa. “I might just stay here for a month,” I thought to myself. As I go through passport control, I looked around me and saw that I am the only woman travelling alone. The thought, still to this day, doesn’t particularly bother me; on the contrary, at the time, I felt pretty damn good!
The Erbil International Airport is new, modern, has the tenth longest runway in the world and was built in 2003 alongside the old Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) military airport.
As one does in all respectable airport stories, I went to the baggage reclaim area to wait. As the suitcases passed by and each person took their own, I thought about how this act of waiting has become so “normal” and is yet still so full of meaning; about how many things there are inside the suitcases and how they identify the many lives that they represent.
I ventured out of the airport and look for a taxi. There was a hot wind blowing, dry but very strong. I didn’t know it then, but I would immediately get used to this too. The driver hardly said a word but he smiled a lot. Actually he laughed when he saw my big red suitcase and my face that has turned the same shade of red from the heat. I must have been quite a sight! The taxi had Wi-Fi and I managed to get connected for the first time since I left home even if I did not really feel the need to connect, I mean, I felt I wanted to keep that feeling of being in a bubble, without the safety net of what was familiar.
I asked the taxi driver to take me to the place that I would call home for the duration of my stay there.
From the taxi I looked at the city of Erbil for the first time and it struck me how modern it was, full of lights and people out and about just like any other city in the world; how “normal” it was but at the same time how unique.
We pass by low traditional houses as well as skyscrapers and high-rise buildings
Let me digress at this point to tell you how I got here.
I met Karim Wasfi in Abu Dhabi at the Culture Summit where professionals, leaders, and diplomats from the world of arts, media, public policy, and technology came together to identify ways that culture could raise awareness and promote positive change. In this international context, his message really hit me, together with a strong desire to want to do something to help spread the message, to invade the world with words, music, peace.
I asked him what it was that drove him to undertake this challenging task, but deep down I already knew the answer: the need to break down barriers, to build bridges, to find stability for one’s country, but mostly to help its people.
“Culture has no borders” was the manifesto of the last edition of Invasioni Digitali [Digital Invasions, Ed.], and maybe this is also one of the reasons why I immediately felt drawn to Karim Wasfi’s project.
After telling each other about our respective projects and dreams, it seemed only natural that we organised my trip to Iraq to join forces.
“Yippeeeee, I’m going to Mesopotamia!!!” was my first thought and my experience as a humanistic high school student had resurfaced. The memories of all the class tests at school flashed before my eyes.
Let’s get back to Erbil and the dinner that awaited me at the end of my trip. I was dying to try out Iraqi food, and I was also famished. It was everything I expected and more!
Their cuisine has deep roots in ancient traditions that are difficult to pin down considering that we are talking about the Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian periods, with later influences brought about by Indian, African and various other migrations.
I realised that when I looked at my plate I saw all the majesty of the Tigris and the Euphrates reflected in the vegetables on my plate, but apart from my bias, the food was really good – not only delicious but fragrant and beautiful to look at as well.
As you can well imagine, they use a lot of spices in their cooking, and they eat a lot of goat meat, beef, lamb, poultry, vegetables, and rice. The most popular dish is definitely the Kebab, for example the shish-kebab which is composed of pieces of lamb, chicken or beef placed on skewers alternately with pieces of onions and bell pepper; but other staples include hummus, tabbouleh (ground wheat with vegetables) and raw vegetable dishes that invariably include onion. In addition to these I tasted a lentil soup, a broad bean soup, falafel, yoghurt, and Kubbat Puteta Chap (potatoes stuffed with meat). Everything is served on platters from which diners help themselves using pieces of soft round samoon bread. I could dedicate an entire post to all of the food that I tasted – the topic definitely deserves undivided attention!
I was afraid to be the typical tourist and avoided taking pictures of food, at least on the first night … but then I my inner tourist gave in the following days.
At dinner the conversation had inevitably entered into issues related to the situation of the country, on Isis, on Saddam Hussein, on the destruction of Mosul but also to the irrepressible desire and drive to rebuild.
You breathed reconstruction from their words; they immediately made you feel part of this emotion that leads them to look forward, to the future that is already there, to heads that have never been lowered but proudly fought on and continue to do so, to start again.
I managed to fit in some sight-seeing in Erbil, and considering that I didn’t have much time available, I decided to visit the Citadel.
The assistant of Karim Wasfi, accompanied me, his name happened to be Maryann – a funny coincidence!
As soon as the taxi driver knew that this was our first time in Kurdistan, picked up the phone and began to show us some videos of places that, according to him, we had to definitely visit.
All of this was happening while he continued to drive, which gave that extra thrill. He might not have known but I followed every bit of his advice.
Erbil is a Kurdish city – اربيل, Arbīl, in Arabic; ههولێر in Kurdish – capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
It is an ancient city where the first human settlement is believed to date back to 4500 – 3000 B.C. It was built along the main trade routes that ran from Mesopotamia to Anatolia, Syria, and Iran, and for this reason it has always been inhabited by a wonderful mix of different cultures and traditions. It was near to this city that Alexander the Great, during his expedition into Asia, defeated the army of King Darius III in the battle of Gaugamela, also known as the Battle of Arbela.
Here it is, the humanistic high school student, welcome back. 🙂
Approaching the Citadel from the Central Bazaar’s square, I was struck by its magnificence: 30 metres high, built on a mound formed by the remains of previous settlements. The sun is shining, the air is hotter than anything I am used to (but it soon becomes familiar) and it embraces the Citadel in a cloud of blurred, golden dust, creating an almost mythological landscape.
Hot air fills your nostrils as you breathe, along with the dust and sand carried by the wind, and it gives you that feeling of being in a place that had yet to be discovered.
With my gaze I search for the entrance and hurry along the path towards the archway.
The Citadel has been continuously inhabited since its establishment and, when you walk through the narrow streets, you get the sensation of being taken back in time, to an Orient of porticos, courtyards, columns, and ornately decorated homes that have wonderful stories to tell. The strange thing is that the Citadel does not have any walls as such, but the perimeter is formed by approximately one hundred tall houses with windows located only at the uppermost levels.
The narrow streets spread out like the branches of a tree from the main and only gate into the city. The layout is such that many of the streets are shaded during the hottest hours of the day so as to give some cool relief to the inhabitants.
There are approximately 250 houses in the Citadel and the oldest surviving house, the Qala’Hammam, dates back to 1775.
No traces are left of houses from the 16th and 17th centuries because the Citadel was continuously being built and rebuilt: even today there are many active building sites due to various restoration projects that are under way and this gives you the feeling of being in a living place, which is trying to restore itself from its rubble, to recover the majestic past that you still breathe walking through its alleys.
Many of the houses are double-storey brick houses that overlook a courtyard. The upper level used to be the “noble” level where guests were received, while the lower level was used as a storehouse or for taking afternoon naps.
Considering the heat, I can perfectly understand the need for setting aside an entire floor for napping!
The houses that probably belonged to wealthier families have beautiful archways and decorative wooden ceiling beams.
At the centre of the Citadel there is the Mulla Afandi Mosque, used for the Friday sermons.
These mosques were usually built in the city centre and played a very important role in bringing people together especially in its role as a place of prayer on the most important day of the week, Friday.
The mosque that we see today is a reconstruction of the original mosque which was completely demolished in 1957.
Not far from the mosque is a hammam dating back to 1775. It was typically used by women until 11am, and then by men. The hammam was a place where trade agreements were negotiated, friendships were cultivated, and where you could definitely go for a good chat! It consisted of three rooms with different temperatures, from the coldest to the hottest: Barrani, Wastani, and Jawani. the latter surmounted by a dome with openings to let in the light.
While walking I met two guys who were taking pictures, I squinted to get a better look and realized that one of the two was trying to “take” with two fingers the flag pole behind the houses and immediately became a “Leaning Tower of Pisa” syndrome!
I looked at them and laughed, they found it amusing and reciprocated.
They went back to the experiment until, satisfied with the result, continued their tour. To be original, I say “the whole world is a small village” and I think how beautiful it is to travel and to find such similarities and discover how the differences are just words.
The Citadel was captured by the Mongols in 1258 which signalled the start of a slow decline.
Great efforts have been made to preserve the Citadel, and in April 2014 it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The High Commission of Erbil Citadel Revitalization (HCECR) is responsible for overseeing the preservation and restoration of the Citadel, with initiatives such as the spectacular Kurdish Textile Museum where I wandered around spellbound for two hours.
The Kurdish Textile Museum houses an incredible collection of carpets, dresses, fabrics, and handmade objects used by both non-migratory and nomadic Kurdish groups.
The goal of the museum is to promote the cultural heritage of the Kurdish tribes so as to preserve the traditions that define an entire population.
You could call it a museum of farming culture, with exhibits of farming equipment, baby beds, and everyday household items.
The smell that you felt as soon as you entered the museum is what I felt as a child when I went to my grandparents’ house, where there were rugs everywhere and the imagination took flight . In fact, it brought me back to when, sat and played with models of motorcycles in iron and rubber that my grandfather brought me from Africa, telling me how they had been made especially for me on that far away continent.
The traditional Kurdish hats are beautiful, each representing the colors of a specific tribe, and are composed of two parts, the upper part (klow) and the turban (hewri).
The turban was wrapped around the head in different ways but always in such a way as to leave the upper part clearly visible. I also tried to master the technique with which it was wrapped but with almost worse results than when I tried to wear a Saree in India.
Headscarves – I can’t do them to save my life!
On the upper floor I discovered a huge room with carpets on the floor, bright red, green and yellow velvet upholstered sofas, and a quartet playing traditional music: perfect for a relaxing break, listening to music and sipping chai tea.
Curiosity, however, is always around the corner and I couldn’t avoid asking the musicians the names of those instruments that were so different and yet similar to those we are used to. Indeed, they even let me video-record them while pronouncing the names joyfully, always with a smile.
There is also a small gems and stones museum where I found a very particular stone, which seems normal but in fact is far from it! The stone actually witnessed the killing of 5000 Kurds, as commemorated in a plaque that precedes it.
You get a huge punch in the stomach, a strong one.
It’s time to get going, and I go back to the Central Bazaar, bustling with activity, small shops, coffee shops, and fast food restaurants where you can grab something to eat.
An overwhelming blend of aromas, fragrances, and – above all – sounds.
A vendor stopped me and offered me a taste of one of his sweets. I had never tasted anything so good, and before I knew it I was sitting down and ordering some more. The sweet is called Baklava, made from filo pastry and covered with syrup and honey. I also tried pistachio biscuits… Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates has got nothing on these!
When you put them in your mouth they have a soft and spongy consistency at the same time, buttery, and they stick to your hands for the honey that covers them.
The shop was long and narrow, with bar stools propped against the wall. When you ordered, someone brought you a small table where you can place your food and drinks.
It was hot inside, as soon as you cross the threshold you are hit by the strong smell of sweets as when you pass in front of a bakery early in the morning and smell the freshly baked bread.
There was a race to grab the place near the fan, but also solidarity among the clients so we all sat on the same side in the cool while the other side of the shop remained empty, providing making it seems as though we all came together, as part of the same group . After all, that feeling of unity would accompany me throughout my entire journey.
Refreshed and satisfied, I took a walk through the portico that ran along the outside of the building where the shops were located. There were shops for everything, from phone cards to ice cream, clothes, suitcases, even fruit – you name it!
From the gallery, if you raised your eyes, you were always accompanied by the Citadel watching you.
As I walked, I realised that three children were watching me and smiling. I smile back at them and they run away as fast as lightning – they probably weren’t expecting that!
I laughed to think about what I must look like to them – a flushed DIY tourist in the middle of that incredible chaos of people and voices.
I saw them again after a short while and that time we waved and smiled at one another. There is no shortage of smiles here. It is therapy for the soul.
Intent on seeing everything I possibly could and more, but without a map of the area, I went into a shop and asked for directions to the Arab quarter, only to be told that I was already there.
It was very hot so the streets were deserted or, better, the alleys of that neighborhood where time seemed to have stopped but you could read the history on the walls thanks to some writings that had particularly struck me.
“The antidote to fifty enemies is one friend”
Here you realized that you should not wish for life to be easier but to be a better person.
I stopped counting the smiles I met in a few hours, they were purging my soul of anything negative.
Another smile awaited me, that of a gentleman who, sat al fresco on a bench in a small park at the end of an alley, he moved himself to let me sit down and rest.
He should have seen my red face, hot and flustered after all my wandering.
I sat next to him and look at the people passing by, we exchanged two words or, better, gestures and bursts of laughter at the impossibility of understanding each other using sign-language, but fortunately there was no need for it.
I have to go back, the journey continues and I still have many things to do but I’ll tell you this next time!