I took the most WONDERFUL trip this weekend. Impulsive, unexpected, rewarding.

I woke up on Friday morning determined to get out of Suli. It had been 2 weeks since I’d gone anywhere, and the longer I go without travelling, the more I get stuck in a complacent rut.

So I went to the bus terminal, figuring I’d see where the buses went and choose the fullest, quickest one. Since the buses go when full, you often have to wait at least an hour to leave. The nice thing about not having a definite plan is I could choose whichever bus was most full, and thus would leave the soonest.

I asked the men where each bus was going and they started to get confused. “Chy tewey broy?” (where do you want to go?) they kept asking. “Nazanm” (I don’t know) I said. I kept telling them that I just wanted to know the destinations, but they seemed so confused that I didn’t have a set plan that they called over a Kurdish man who spoke English.

But it wasn’t a language problem. The English-Kurdish man was equally confused. It’s just unthinkable that a young, single, (white) woman would go on a bus alone without knowing exactly where she wanted to go. Basically, I was an American unicorn.

The bus to Halabja looked fullest, and even though I’d been there before I hadn’t explored the town to my satisfaction. So I went to Halabja again!

I really like going east. Approaching Iran the mountains rugged and beautiful, and the scenery is much more green. The roads are smaller, there are a lot of little villages, and a lot more sheep farmers.

View of Halabja in the spring. The mountains are getting more rugged as we drive eastward and approach Iran.
View of Halabja in the spring. The mountains are getting more rugged as we drive eastward and approach Iran.

Aaaaaand I started talking to a middle-aged woman on the bus. She had no English so my limited Kurdish was put to the test. Turned out well! He was in Suli visiting her dad during the week, but was going back home to Halabja with her two sons, Alan and Hama. She asked me where I was going in Halabja, and once again I responded, “I don’t know yet,” and once again she looked shocked.

She insisted that I come to her house and let her feed me, then I could go on my way.

Psssssh. Like a Kurdish momma would ever let me go once I’ve eaten her food. It’s like a much more hospitable Persephone-like situation. You eat their food and then you are part of the family!

So I went with Leyla, Alan, and Hama to their home in Halabja. I met her two daughters, Reyzan and Parez, who were bubbly and welcoming. I wish I had sisters! No one in the family spoke any English, so the whole weekend I was muddling by in Kurdish. I did pretty well, though! It got easier the more time I spent with the family.

Leyla, Reyzan, and Parez immediately treated me like a sister, and after I mentioned that I love seyranakan (picnics) and jili Kurdi (traditional Kurdish clothes), they squealed and brought out their seyran photos and a huge bag of jili Kurdi.

Then I became their personal Barbie doll. They pulled a jili Kurdi over my head, brushed my hair, put makeup on me, and layered jewelry over my neck, shoulders, and waist.

BAM! I was Kurdish.

Jili Kurdi!
Jili Kurdi!

Parez and Reyzan called their friends to come see me. We all ate a quick lunch.

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Every 10 days Leyla makes TONS of naan (bread).
Every 10 days Leyla makes TONS of naan (bread).

After we’d all had lunch, the four girls took me out to wander around Halabja. We went to parks and they took lots of photos of us standing in front of things. Kurds love to take casual-not casual photos in front of random things. Statues, cars, fences, trees, you name it.

baby pomegranate tree!
baby pomegranate tree!

Then we went to a sweets shop to each some ice cream. There’s this funky Kurdish ice cream treat that’s pink and green and always stains my clothes because I’m such a clumsy eater. It’s weird but oddly satisfying. Here’s a picture of it:

Some weird Kurdish desert with funky vermicelli-type sweet noodles. And odd flavor - I haven't decided whether I like it or not.
Some weird Kurdish desert with funky vermicelli-type sweet noodles. And odd flavor – I haven’t decided whether I like it or not.

And then we walked back home to prepare for dinner! Leyla had asked me what Kurdish food I liked to eat. Really, I like it all! I just don’t eat it all the time because it’s really oily and carb-y.

By the time we got back, Leyla had started to make shufte – Kurdish meatballs made of fatty mince, parsely, onion, flour, and salt. I am truly amazed by Kurdish wives/mothers when it comes to food. They make EVERYTHING from scratch. They ask me what I’d like to eat, I say, “shufte,” and immediately they go to the kitchen to start grinding up the meat and boiling the rice. Leyla was like a kitchen magician.

Making shufte while Hama clings on and disrupts the whole dinner-making process with his wild Kurdish child ways.
Making shufte while Hama clings on and disrupts the whole dinner-making process with his wild Kurdish child ways.

Leyla disappeared for a half hour to cook the shufte outside. When she came back in the girls started setting up for dinner. They laid the sifra (disposable plastic table cloth) on the ground, put a bunch of garnish on it, and brought the dishes out.

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preparing dinner.

Leyla served us individually, giving me the first serving of everything. It was wonderful, but having the first serving meant that I got the largest serving, and of course I was expected to eat all of it!

Dinner: shufte (meatballs), brinj (rice), shillay bazam (okra soup), and garnish (anise, parsley, lemon, and cucumber).
Dinner: shufte (meatballs), brinj (rice), shillay bazam (okra soup), and garnish (anise, parsley, lemon, and cucumber).

And after dinner came the tea, of course. The women boiled the water and tea, then brought out the piallakan (tea glasses) on a tray and served us all.

First, Leyla spooned lots of sugar into each glass.

1) Spoon in the sugar. Two generous Tbsp per glass.
1) Spoon in the sugar. Two generous Tbsp per glass.

Then, she strained the very bitter tea into each cup. The sugar covered up the bitter taste of the tea, go figure. The other pot is full of hot water, which is used to dilute the tea and to rinse the glasses with between each serving.

2) Strain the tea.
2) Strain the tea.

Then we stir the sugar into the tea, and drink!

Ready to drink.
Ready to drink.

Leyla’s friend, Afrah, came over for dinner as well. She’s from Hawraman, which I learned was a different ethnic group. They have their own language and everything. I was wondering, because Afrah and her two daughters didn’t look Kurdish. They each have rounder faces, button noses, darker skin and features, and straight dark hair. Afrah told me she and her girls are “Hawrameen.”

Very cool!

Enjoying a chigara (cigarette) after dinner.
Afrah enjoying a chigara (cigarette) after dinner.

After tea, we all went into the living room to watch “Arab Idol.” It’s the middle-eastern version of “American Idol.” There was a Kurdish contestant from Suli, and she won her division for the night and got to sing a Kurdish national song! It was really cool to see Afrah and Leyla’s families cheering on this Kurdish singer who was performing a Kurdish song for, basically, the entire Arab world.

Guess how old Leyla is? Seriously, guess! I thought she was about 45. NO! She’s 35!! 35!! And her oldest child, Parez, is 19! 19!!!!

Leyla was married when she was 14 (her husband was 19), and when she was 15 she had Parez. I was astonished, and Leyla laughed at me. That is YOUNG! And she and her husband seem so good with each other. I guess, from an American view, early marriages are expected to end in discontent.

But seriously, look at how adorable she and her husband are:

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She’s so bubbly and friendly that she has the energy of a young woman, but I suppose a life full of work and child-bearing will age a person. She looks lovely, just a bit older than I would guess.

I was really tired, so we all headed to bed. The girls had their own room, though that was a loose designation. It was a family room where the girls usually slept. There are no individual beds, either. Just doshekakan (cushion/matresses) which are dragged out from the main wardrobe each night and placed on the floor. People sleep anywhere in the house, really. Alan slept in the TV room, Hama slept… somewhere, probably next to Alan. The parents have their own room, however. Still, there are no American beds. It’s quite informal, and privacy isn’t really a concern. Family is family, after all.

This is where we sleep - mattress/cushions (doshek), thick blankets (batani), and a pillow. There are no beds in Kurdish houses, and though certain rooms may be reserved for people (this was the girls' room), doshekakan can be dragged anywhere. Easy peasy, and comfortable, too.
This is where we sleep – mattress/cushions (doshek), thick blankets (batani), and a pillow. There are no beds in Kurdish houses, and though certain rooms may be reserved for people (this was the girls’ room), doshekakan can be dragged anywhere. Easy peasy, and comfortable, too.

The next morning, Parez took me along to her art school. While her sibling attended more traditionally academic schools, she wants to be an art teacher. So her school is full of paintings, sculptures, and studios. It was really cool! And co-ed, I wasn’t expecting that.

Parez's art school in Halabja.
Parez’s art school in Halabja.
pottery class at Parez's art school.
pottery class at Parez’s art school
A painting of Kurds fleeing Halabja after the cyanide bombs in the 80s. Made by one of Parez's peers at art school.
A painting of Kurds fleeing Halabja after the cyanide bombs in the 80s. Made by one of Parez’s peers at art school.

After an hour or two, Parez called some friends to drive me back to her house. Then I gathered my things and Alan escorted me to Garaji Slemani, where I could catch a bus back to Slemani. I got to sit in the very front seat of the bus, too! Usually only older men sit there, out of convention, but hell, I was feeling quite excellent about my weekend and why not take the best seat on the bus??

Oh, and as Alan was escorting me to the garage, we passed by a bunch of butcher shops and I took a picture of a cow’s head sitting out front. The butchers display the hooves and head of the cow they slaughtered that morning, the cow whose carcass is hanging in the window for the day.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with a picture of a cow’s head to see you off.

And a cow's head.
And a cow’s head.
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