Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hawler

With a supreme bit of frustration, I found my vacation halved and on a bus to Erbil.  I was supposed to have a much-earned two week vacation, but fate conspired otherwise, and I had to run a mini program in Kirkuk for half the faculty, while the other half of the faculty went to Baghdad for a program in the Iraqi capital.  A major failure of communication that won’t be forgotten. 

In sullen silence, I sat on a shag-carpeted minibus driving from Duhok to Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil.  Why would anyone put shag carpeting on a mini bus that has spotty airconditioning in one of the hottest countries in the world??  I thumbed my prayer beads as I exuded frustration.

We arrived to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.  Erbil, or Hawler as it is known is Kurdish and checked into the Mondeal Hotel.  I dropped my stuff, showered and went off to wander. 

I found my way into a market, and my frustrations dissipated.  I watched the people pass as they were buying cucumbers, soft cheeses and spices.  I grabbed a cool glass of some unknown, unknowable purple fruit juice and savored its sweetness.  Men in baggy green pantaloons and circular-wrapped red kefiyas past by, thumbing long strands of prayer beads; women in beautiful florid scarves held their children by the hand.  The Kurds have  a countenance that is somewhere between Turkish and Arabic.  Many are fairer-skinned, and have the prominent cleft chin.  I caught brief glances with women with honey-mahogany colored eyes. 

I needed some alone time, so I passed on the group dinner and chose instead to eat on the street.  I stumbled on a liquor store (PAYDIRT!) and grabbed a bottle of arak and some Carlsburgs.  I threw them in the fridge in my room and I wandered back out and up the main drag.  I stopped at ad-hoc kebab stands that consisted of an open glass case with plates of skewered meats, a small table with onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, salt and msg, and thin charcoal shelf with a hair-dryer esque contraption to fan the red flames.  I picked out a skewer of lemon-soaked chicken, and a skewer of small beef chunks, and sat on the plastic chair on the road to wait.  The fellow sprinkled my skewers with salt and msg, and threw them on the flames. 

As I sat on a plastic chair against the pock-marked wall as traffic passed.  The evening prayer echoed out across the city.  My plates came, and I disentangled the charred meat from the silver skewers.  I filled the seeded triangle-shaped bread with the meats and vegetables, and savored the fresh sandwich. 
I hit one more kebab stand for some barbecued chicken wings, and wandered around the quiet streets.  I noticed that Erbil is far more mixed than Duhok was.  Arab men in white dishdashas wandered by, thumbing beads and smoking cigarettes.  I savored my solitude as I walked under the giant citadel high above the city.   As my friend Bradley told me, Erbil claims to be one of, if not the oldest inhabited cities in the world.  The streets surrounding the citadel are named for their distance from the giant ochre-colored structure (50m from the Citadel, 150m from the citadel).  

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