My travels this weekend began to let me start over. I’ve been clinging to certain travel expectations, which do not serve me well in this culture. I’m starting to erase those expectations from my brain, instead adopting a new way to travel.

  • Expectation: to travel with other English-speakers at the school. Reality: I have to travel by myself or with non-English-speaking Kurds
  • Expectation: a smile and curiosity will open lots of doors when traveling. Reality: yes, and especially with Kurdish men. So stay away from them.
  • Expectation: as an American, the locals will give me a little leeway in obeying customs. Reality: sure, but often because they think you’re easy.

On Friday, I’d planned to go to Halabja with a guy I’d met at school who has a car, but to be honest I was feeling so vulnerable and disgusted by the men I’ve met here that I cancelled the trip. I didn’t want to travel with him and then be skeeved out again.

But I still went to Halabja – but on my own 🙂

I’ve been getting a LOT of conflicting advice about travel. My roommate, Jennifer, says NEVER to travel alone – but she’s very shy. I asked Aso, a Kurdish teacher, and he said that of course I’d be safe traveling alone – but he’s a man and I’m not sure he knows what to watch out for.

I took the adventurous advice and went.

I looked on the three blogs about Kurdistan that exist, and surmised that I could take a bus to Shaheed Halabja for a few hizar. So on Friday morning, I went to the bazaar to change some money (my salary is paid in American dollars) and buy a little food for the trip. I wanted to buy shwarma, so I was walking through a courtyard in the bazaar and I spotted a candy shop I’ve passed before. The old man there was selling these jellied candies. I asked him what they were, and he handed me one to try. Man, it was good! I still don’t know what they’re called, though. Most have pistachios in them, and other types of fruit.

Yum.

I tried to buy as few as I could, but I haven’t yet found a way to communicate that I want to buy a fourth of a kilo, or just a few individual things. So I let him pack me a half-kilo box. They ended up going to good use, but I’ll tell you about that later. I then bought 3 shwarma at a nearby shop, and headed out.

Prepared, I took a taxi to Garaji Halabja (Halabja Garage, go figure) from where the bus would take me to Shaheed Halabja. When I arrived at the garage, I walked straight to the line of buses waiting to fill up so they could go. A man pointed me to the Halabja bus, but a minute of conversation in muddled Kurdish with the driver and one very insistent old woman (na, na, owa bo Halabja Taza. Halabja TAZAAAAA!) revealed to me that this was the bus to Taza Halabja (the new city). They pointed me to the right bus and I got on, sitting next to two women about my age who had books on their laps.

*Note: a proper Kurdish woman should never sit alone, or in the midst of men.

I had “Great Expectations” in my bag, which I had bought at the English-language bookstore last weekend. The blog I’d read told me that the bus took about 2 hours, so I didn’t want to be bored. I figured sitting next to women that read would mean that 1) they’re smart and have things to talk about. 2) They might know English (even though their books were in Kurdish).

Once the bus was full, the driver came and collected our money. I asked one of the women: bachinde? She responded: se hizar u du sao penja. So I handed the driver 3,250 dinar. I love it when language makes things easier.

During the bus ride, I found myself chatting a lot with the two women, Arazoo and Zhino. Chatting, but mostly gesturing and smiling and pointing to things. They had very little English, and I little Kurdish. Which makes for the BEST conversations. We filled up probably 10 pages of my little notebook with our pidgin-conversation.

We passed quite a few checkpoints. Some were proper-looking checkpoints, and some looked like kiosks set up in the middle of the road, except for the armed guards patrolling. At one, Arazoo told me: “Keep your silent.” So we paused our conversation for a minute as the guards gave the bus a once-over and waved us through.

As we neared Halabja, I started to get a bit nervous about the looming mountains which indicate the border between Iran and Iraq. I mean, the 3 hikers? Halabja is only 25 km from the border, and I was starting to wonder if, should I fail to get off the bus at the proper stop, some guards might stop and question me. But I was just being a little paranoid. We got to the monument, and Zhino told to driver to stop. I got out, waved the bus away, and headed in to the monument.

Halabja Monument

The monument was certainly not joyful, but it wasn’t as sad as I’d been led to believe. There are many graphic photos of those killed in the gas attack, which made my eyes quiver. And all the documents and names of those killed – but I’ve also been to Yad Vashem in Israel, and I don’t think any museum could be as heart-wrenching as that. I had my own tour guide, Mohammed, as I was the only person at that time in the museum. He spoke a bit of English, as he was actually in Halabja when the attack occurred. He was 6 years, 5 months old, he told me, and everyone in his family was killed. I asked him why he came back to Halabja, and more so why he was working at the monument, and he shrugged. I think he said, “Nothing’s easy.”

We went into the restaurant in the back of the monument and each had a cup of tea (tea finalizes nearly every Kurdish encounter. And often begins it as well. That’s a lot of sugar to consume. So I’ve been brushing and flossing diligently). I told him I wanted to go to the cemetery on the other side of town, and asked when the last bus would leave. He told me I could get a taxi, but I’d be cutting the bus close. He then clucked and shook his head, and said, “It’s ok, I’ll take you.”

Considering my recent experiences, I was very wary. But it was the middle of the day, this man worked in the Halabja monument, and when I looked in the back seat of the car I saw a doll. ‘Do you have a daughter?’ I asked him. ‘Two,’ he smiled.

He drove me up the hill to the cemetery.

Gravesite for the gas attack victims in Halabja cemetary

It’s beautiful, especially the Halabja memorial. And I’ve always loved to wander cemeteries, and this was a whole new kind of cemetery. Each plot usually has a headstone and a footstone, and there’s very little carving on them. The stones are usually painted, often in bright colors like blue or pink. There are also lots of flowers painted on the stones.

Headstone, stating the name and dates of the person buried.

Near the entrance, there’s a sign which warns Ba’ath party members (Hussein’s party) to keep out. The Ba’ath regime was responsible for the gas attacks, so its members are persona non grata at the site where the attack victims are buried.

When I was done wandering, Mohammed drove me to the bus station, where I found the bus back to Suly. I thanked Mohammed, and he told me to bring my students back on a field trip.

Really, it’s amazing that visiting such a tragic place, evidence of the worst of mankind, could restore me faith in humanity. After being so disgusted by the men in Suly, I met people during my trip to Halabja who were nothing but kind and generous.

And this weekend, I’m going to hang out with Arazoo and Zhino.

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