Where to begin?!

This was the most fascinating birthday I’ve ever had. There was no birthday cake, or party hats, or indeed any sort of party. No old friends, favorite foods, or the birthday song. But damn was it awesome.

I started the day out strong by waking at 3am. Glad to see my friend Jet-Lag wants to overstay his welcome. I just read and dallied about the apartment, and then around 5am the muezzin’s call to prayer began. I also heard songs coming over the loudspeakers, maybe since it is the first day of Eid? I made some tea, opened a window to let the music in, and sat in bed listening as the sun rose.

Later in the day, two other expats and I went exploring. They both have much more experience living abroad than I do, so I let them take the lead a bit. Devin is also studying Arabic, so he’s very useful to have around. I didn’t expect it, but a lot of people speak Arabic very well. He went around waving at everyone and saying, “A salaam aleikum,” to which they would reply, “Weh aleikum a salaam.” A lot of the Kurds we talked to couldn’t really understand Devin’s accent, though. We ended up playing lots of charades to get our points across.

View of some Sulay homes looking toward the Eastern hills (which divide Iraq from Iran)

Since it was Eid, all of the grocery stores were closed. However, we found a few little hole-in-the wall shops to grab a soda or some nuts to eat as we walked. A dollar is equal to 1,250 dinar. A soda is usually 500 dinar. So 40 cents. I appreciate that things are cheaper here! When I traveled in Britain and Europe, it felt like I was hemorrhaging money, the exchange rate was so bad.

At Eid, kids get new clothes. It was easy to spot – so many kids were sporting crisp new t-shirts and jeans. Kurdish men’s fashion is very… crisp. Young Kurdish men usually wear jeans and a t-shirt, but the t-shirt is very clean (usually white or black) and usually embellished in some way, like with a pocket or piping on the sleeves. The jeans are dark with very obvious distressing, so you’ll see a guy wearing dark navy jeans with white “distressed” patches on the bum, thighs, and calves. Kind of like in the US, you’ll see girls wearing fashionable ripped jeans, and it’s very obvious that those rips did not appear there organically. And the guys’ hair is very, very coifed.

Also, older Kurdish men wear these awesome outfits with baggy pants and tops, and a pshten (belt, or sash) wrapped around the middle.

traditional clothing for Kurdish men and women. Perhaps more were dressed smartly for Eid?

Our aim was vaguely to get to Park Azadi, but we were really walking until someone invited us in. We’d all heard about this famous Kurdish hospitality, and wanted to experience it first-hand. Finally we found a man who spoke English, and who was very excited to speak with us. He was on the balcony of his house, and rushed down to greet us and invite us in. We took off our shoes, and he escorted us into a sitting room and offered us candy from a little basket on the table.

His niece came in (it’s always, so far as I can tell, an unmarried young woman who serves the food and drink to guests) and placed a few bowls of spiced nuts in front of us, and we chatted as we ate pistachios, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, chickpeas, and sunflower seeds. After a bit, he asked us if we wanted tea, and when we accepted his niece came in with four saucers, some fluted glasses of tea, tiny spoons, and a bowl of sugar cubes. We each took a sugar cube and stirred it into our tea, but our host took one and popped it into his mouth. We didn’t realized how much sugar was already in the tea! Even though it was extremely hot, there was a film of sugar on the bottom that never dissolved. I took a sip and was astonished at how sweet it was. Very good, but I realized why the tea glasses are so small. It would be hard to handle so much of it.

Our host poured his tea into his saucer and sipped it from there. He told us it was to cool the tea before drinking. The heat of the tea allows more sugar to dissolve, but then it’s too hot to drink. So if you pour a little tea into your saucer, you cool it down a bit but still retain the sweetness.

Some things we talked about:

  • the pshten, according to our host, prevents kidney disease because it wraps around the kidneys. In Iran, women also wear the pshten 
  • “Cigarette” in Kurdish is the same word as “liver.” Because that’s where you feel it when you smoke.
  • He kept playing with this necklace/rosary looking thing. We found out that it has 100 beads, and is used to count the 99 names of Allah. But he said he was handling it because it gave his hands something to do.
  • We asked if he knew all 99 names of Allah, and he said that, no, he forgets a lot of them. But then he pulls an iPhone out of his pocket, and tells us that he has an app with all of Allah’s names. There’s an Allah app!
  • Big families are prized, and communities are very close. There’s an Arabic saying which goes – if you are surrounded by people in hell, then even hell will be ok. But our host said that, as Kurdistan switches from agriculture to oil, people don’t need lots of kids to work in the fields, and so they have fewer kids, and people don’t work as hard, and they separate from their families.

We left the house eventually and our host drove us to Park Azadi. He wouldn’t let us take a “taksi.” When we got there, we found that it was a sort of amusement park/funfair type of deal. We got a soda and sat down. Within a few minutes, Kurdish boys (there were very few women at the park) were coming up to us and asking to take a picture with us. And then more groups came up. And more. We probably took 15 photos before we could extricate ourselves.

Being white (and for me and Amy, female) drew a lot of stares. It was rather uncomfortable. Devin, being male and American, didn’t understand why we wouldn’t return the men’s stares.

Because, as women, we do not make eye contact with the men standing on the side of the road watching us pass by. You simply don’t. But Devin kept arguing with Amy and I, saying it’s not that bad. There are boundaries women don’t cross when travelling in certain countries. Like going out alone at night. Or making eye contact with certain men. Or dressing to stand out. Things that men don’t have to worry about.

Anyway, we left and started walking back to our compound, where our apartments are. I asked a few people if I could take pictures of them, and when I spoke to one group of women we started chatting (even though out of the five of them, only one spoke English, and very little at that). They were hilarious! So happy and excited to meet us, and invited us in.

They, too, had a little basket of candy on their table, and then they brought us plates and filled them each with an orange, apple, and some little grapes. In their living room was a huge tv broadcasting a singing/charades game show that we couldn’t quite figure out. Eventually the grandma of the house came in, this loud, energetic, 82-year old woman, and she invited us to stay for dinner! When we said yes, all the women retired to the kitchen to make us food from scratch. Wow.

All the women wanted a picture with us. The father didn’t talk much, off in the corner. It was the women who were in charge inside the house!

In the next room, they laid out a blanket on the floor and different dishes. First, they served us tea. I tried drinking it out of the saucer this time, and it worked well! Then for dinner we had homemade naan, heaps of rice, some beans in sauce, and some apricot sauce called mishmish in Arabic, and kaisi in Kurdish. Also, there was this bitter milky drink that I took a few sips of to be polite, but which I found quite disgusting. They kept serving and serving us, even though we were full. The little boys in the family were on the couch behind us playing games on this one handheld device, recording our voices and distorting them, and playing Mario Bros. They knew a little English from school, and so we talked to them a bit. The younger one, perhaps 5, was really proud to show me he could count in English to 10. In return, I made him teach me to count to ten in Kurdish.


The father in the house, after we were done, drove us back to our compound. Everyone else in the house, especially the grandma, kept motioning for us to stay, spend the night at their house! But we were exhausted (especially me, since I’d woken up at 3am) and wanted to get back. Maybe in the future, though. Balen, the older of the boys, came in the car with us. His mom told us through the car window, “He go with you to America!”

Kurdish vocab:

yak: one

du: two

sen: three

no: nine

djuani: beautiful (female)

zur: very

b’kher be: welcome

na: no

bAle: yes

khoahaFIS: goodbye (a lot of people just say “bye,” but in a Kurdish accent. So “bayee.”)

a mosque we ran across.

One thought on “Happy Birthday to Me! (a tale of tea, hospitality, and lots of walking)

  1. SO COOL. Don’t you just love the call to prayer? That’s one of the things I really missed when I came home from Turkey.
    The Allah app is great. I knew a Muslim woman here in Portland who had an app that basically did the call to prayer at the proper times and pointed toward Mecca so she always knew when to pray and what direction to face. Technology + ancient religion = so cool.

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