Last Friday, I embarked on my adventure. I had been planning on somehow going alone, by bus and taxi. But this was not to be. I found someone with a car who wanted to road-trip as much as I did. Sam, the head of catering for the school, was my travel buddy this past week. I was nervous – I’d only know him for a little while and I was worried our travel styles wouldn’t sync up. But it turned out just fine, and having him with me made the trip better: 1) Creepy guys wouldn’t hit on me, 2) I could go out after dark, and 3) having a car let us plan our own schedule and we could stop anywhere we thought was interesting.

We left at 6am last Friday, and headed through Chamchamal to Kirkuk. Chamchamal was nothing more than a bunch of houses. Apparently other Kurds make fun of people who live in Chamchamal for being backward and stupid. Like in the US, they’re the token hicks.

So we continued on to Kirkuk. I was pretty nervous about going, since ALL of the expats had told me never to step foot in the city, it was so dangerous. BUT – none of them had ever been there, so how did they know? We were going to meet Mustafa, Sam’s friend, and say hi to his family.

Gas fire in an oil field near Kirkuk

We got there, and Kirkuk just looked like another city. A bit less developed, perhaps; the buildings were all shorter, and often the shop fronts were more run-down. We had to wait for Mustafa to join us – which took a while, since it was Eid and Mustafa couldn’t find a taxi for ages. But when we eventually got to Mustafa’s house, his mom and brother ushered us in and immediately served us refreshments: tea and candy. While we were in the “guest-room” drinking tea, Mustafa’s mom (a short lady in traditional dress and wearing a huge smile) was in the kitchen cooking up some breakfast.

Man, it was delicious. When she was done preparing the food, we came into the kitchen and were served naan, jam, cream, soft cheese, date cookies, and more tea. Mustafa’s family only spoke Arabic, so Sam talked with them and occasionally translated for me. They all started to laugh loudly and joke, and I realized they were pointing to a cookie that, after being baked, had turned out to look like a penis. And Mustafa’s mom was the one laughing the loudest! I understand the three men in the room, but she was dressed like a proper Muslim woman, head covered and everything, and here she was waving around a dick-shaped cookie.

So I immediately knew I liked this family.

Muhammad, Mustafa’s best friend, showed up a little later. Mustafa’s mom urged him to eat a date cookie – the aforementioned one – and we all looked on with grins as he ate it. When we told him what he’d taken a bite of, he looked at the half-eaten cookie, then punched Mustafa in the shoulder. Everyone was laughing so loudly, it woke up Mustafa’s older brother in the next room (he’d waited in line all night outside the barber shop to get a haircut for Eid, and had only gotten home around 5am).

Refreshed, we headed out to see Kirkuk. More specifically, we visited the citadel. Having never planned to visit Kirkuk, I didn’t even know it had a citadel. But man, I’m glad it did. It was beautiful.

Boys chasing each other through the citadel.

There were multiple mosques in various stages of ruin, half-buildings and chipped wall paintings, and lots and lots of small walls.

These boys were helping each other climb into the upper level of this minaret.

An old courtyard with a half-dead tree. I could only get here by crawling through a window and over a pile of rubble. It was a huge surprise to find a tree among the ruins.
Inside one of the buildings. Climbed through a hole in the roof, and presto – I found this.

I don’t know anything about the citadel’s history. There’s no information about this place, in Arabic or English. It’s just sitting atop a hill, crumbling. Unfortunately, the government does nothing to protect areas like these, and so there’s graffiti and garbage everywhere. Old things aren’t prized – new things are. Also, some of the old buildings near the edge of the hill overlooking the city are occupied by political parties. Best avoided.

Feeling like kind of a badass for going to Kirkuk, we drove next to Arbil!

Up next: Arbil – The Capital

2 thoughts on “Day 1: Kirkuk

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