Honestly, who cares about the destination. The journeys are usually much more fabulous.

So. Picking up where I left off a while ago:

After Kirkuk, we drove on to Arbil. I wanted to see the Arbil citadel, which is supposedly the oldest continually inhabited structure on earth (supposedly), but when we got there it unfortunately proved to be Kurd-ified. They were renovating the place, so all but one walkway was closed, and everything looked too new. We read some posters in front of the structure which detailed its renovation – apparently it was somewhat destroyed decades ago, and the city had recently decided to spruce the place up. Which is a noble goal. But get this – older Arbil residents who remembered what the old citadel looked like were questioned about the accuracy of the new citadel’s appearance, and none of them thought the two even remotely looked alike. And, really, there are pictures of the old citadel, and the new one looks nothing like the original. Ah, renovation. People here value the new much more than the old, it seems.

So we wandered around, met some of Sam’s friends, etc. I wanted to go to Lenga, the second-hand bazaar in Arbil which, from what I’ve heard, is a city in itself. But it was closed for Eid. So I took a picture of a mosque instead:

A mosque in Arbil
In front of the fountains at the base of the Arbil Citadel.

We spent the night in Arbil, and the next morning we set out for Dar Mar Matta. I had only heard of the place through googling “travel Kurdistan” and reading the ONLY TWO BLOGS concerning the topic. And only one of the authors had really traveled – the other seemed to have taken the Lonely Planet route and stuck to major cities and tourist attractions like the Arbil citadel.

Given that I only knew about it thanks to some Canadian world traveller dude, and no one in Suly had ever heard of the monastery, I began to doubt that this place existed. If the blog hadn’t included pictures, I might have brushed it off as travel gab.

But as it turned out, one of Sam’s friends in Arbil had heard of it! He gave us a rough route to take: take the road headed to Mosul, then turn right at the road to Dohok and follow the signs to Dar Mar Matta.

Well, taking directions from non-travelers is an awesome adventure. Sam and I drove on the road to Mosul for a couple hours until we found a road sign to Dohok. However, it was a little to close to Mosul for my comfort. I kept asking Sam, “Ok, but we’re not going to Mosul, right? We’re going past Mosul? Not Mosul, Sam!”

The road we took to Dohok took us straight to the checkpoint into Mosul. It was a double checkpoint – if we went through the first checkpoint and turned right before the second one, we’d get to Mar Matta. If we went straight through the first and second checkpoint, we’d enter Mosul (and I was convinced that they’d immediately notice I was white, spoke no Arabic, and they’d somehow figure out I was Jewish).

Girls near the Mosul checkpoint. They were clapping and singing, but once they saw me grab my camera, they started posing!

Although we intended to turn right after the first checkpoint, we were told by the Iraqi officers that this wasn’t possible. A few hours previous, a car bomb had gone off and the authorities we still cleaning it up.

Yeesh. Lesson learned: don’t go too close to Mosul.

So we turned around, me being a little shaky, and backtracked to the road Sam’s friend was apparently talking about (we’d passed it).

A little ways up the road we spotted a graveyard on a hill and drove into the adjacent village. The BEST village. Why? Take a look at the people we met:

Some boys who were playing soccer in a field and ran over to the car when we waved at them.
Boys climbing all over an oil drill thingy.

The most wonderful family we met lived in a house on the top of a hill. We stopped because two girls (in the picture below, the young ones in blue next to me, without headscarves) were giggling and pointing at us, and I wanted to say hello to them.

A bunch of women were sitting nearby and I went over to greet them, too. Well, the matriarch of the family (who is 78!!) saw me, grabbed my arm, gave me a big smacking kiss on each cheek, and dragged me into the house. It wasn’t so much an invitation as a cheerful demand: You are going to be our guests.

We sat down in the guest room on cushions lining the walls. Women on one side, men on the opposite side. Soon a young woman (who had disappeared into the kitchen when Sam and I were led into the guest room) emerged with a tray of candy and nuts, and soon afterward returned with a small cup of Arabic coffee.

Arabic coffee is fantastic. It’s very strong, and very sweet. After drinking a cup (which is, truly, minuscule), I’m jittery for hours, which makes travelling and conversing clumsily in Kurdish really, really fun!

We didn’t have much to say, because most of the family only spoke Kurdish, and although the men of the family spoke Arabic and could talk with Sam, the men didn’t direct their conversation toward me. It wouldn’t be proper for the men of the family to speak to a female guest.

So the conversation began to lag. But I couldn’t let that happen, so I began teaching the blue girls some clapping games!

Woman on the far right: 78-year-old awesome Kurdish matriarch! And she is STRONG, too, let me tell you – got me into that house in about 5 seconds flat.

And suddenly, all the young women wanted to join in! I taught a bunch of them, and then had them clap with each other, and then, in this house in a village I didn’t know the name of, on a road to a monastery I wasn’t sure existed, 8 Kurdish girls were playing a clapping game I’d learned in an American PE class in the 2nd grade.

We exchanged numbers with one of the uncles in the family, who had a cell phone since he worked for an oil company in the region. Sam and I are going to go back sometime soon, and the women want to outfit me in some traditional Kurdish dress!

I really like this family. This is what makes the frustrations of Kurdistan worth the trouble. This hospitality, the tight-knit families, and crossing over those cultural boundaries.

Oh, and a Kurdish man on a motorbike:

Kaka on a motorbike.

And also a Kurdish shepherd:

Although the lovely family wanted us to stay the night, we insisted we had to get to Dar Mar Matta. So we took our leave, and with many stops to ask for directions, we arrived at the monastery well after nightfall.

But man, did that make the sunrise all the more spectacular.

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