Friday, November 04, 2005

Traveling Iraq pt. 4-Sulaf

Today is a day like no other. A day I'll remember for the rest of my life. There are some experiences that truly change you. That you know will retain an extra special place in your memory forever. I've had more of these moments in the Middle East in the past year than I have in about the past ten years of my life put together. But this is one of the peaks.

It is the Kurdish New Year. Everyone is on holiday, except for those that must work in the morning for people to prepare for the rest of the day, which are mostly shopkeepers and butchers. For all of Kurdistan is going on a picnic in the mountains today.

We split duties preparing for the trip. The car must be checked and filled with gas. We must have implements for a barbeque. And we must have all the ingredients as well, the main one being a freshly slaughtered lamb. Once all of this is done, we are off into the mountains, driving aimlessly, looking for the perfect spot to picnic.

There are signs of unity everywhere. On radio Sawa, the song that is on is singing "we are one Iraq from Basrah to Dohuk" goes on to sing of Iraqi unity, from north to south, from people to people, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, men and women, are all children of Iraq. I caught this display of two Kurdish flags together. The Kurds are very proud and independent, but still they are part of Iraq, and on this day, it was so nice to see it displayed in many ways.

We drove and drove. We entered the small village that is the resort part of Sulaf. You can see here in this photograph that there are a few places at the foot of the mountains. In the mountains are caves that the Peshmerga trained and camped in back in Saddam's time as the story goes. You can see them as visible large splotches in the mountains. On top of one of these buildings as we drove by were a group of students graduating from Baghdad University. They were dancing on top of the roof of one of the buildings here, celebrating Nawrouz, and they too were singing songs of the new Iraq. The entire day seemed full of a happiness that nothing could possibly shatter.

We finally decided on the spot to have our picnic. It was up behind a farmhouse, on a hill, overlooking the mountains. There was an old Christian church of some sort there. It was peaceful, it was beautiful, it was heaven on earth. I looked out to catch the sun shining in rays on the top of a hill where literally it looked as though the top had been shorn off, and a small city built on the hill. The sun shined on it in a way to make the city look surreal, ethereal even.

Well, this is about a picnic, in the Iraqi style! Out came the lamb, to be chopped and prepared. Iraqis know how to make a bbq. That lamb was the best thing I've ever tasted in my life, with some roasted onions and tomatoes, with Iraqi bread, and the juices running on it. I will have other picnics in Iraq, but this one will be the one that remains with me forever, as do many of our first great experiences in life.

The farmhouse has two children that came out to look at us from a safe distance. The farmer already assented to allow us to come up and picnic in back of his place, so it was just curiousity driving the kids to see what we were up to. I saw two farmdogs out there playing with them. They were wandering about, and, well, I'm an animal lover to put it mildly. And a dog lover even more so. And these were quite obviously bred from some sort of strain of the Great Pyrenees herding dogs. So, I couldn't help myself. I gave a sharp whistle, and the dogs responded instantly. Yes, yes, I know the rules. Don't pet stray animals, especially in places where they are likely to carry all manner of diseases.......but these weren't exactly your run of the mill strays (of which there are plenty in the Middle East, cats and dogs alike). They played with the farmers' kids, and that was good enough for me.

After feeding them the remainder of the lamb bones, I took a walk up the hill to find a lone Kurdish shepherd there. (Click on photo at top of page to enlarge.) He was watching his flock (right), and he assented to saying hello and allowing me to take his photo. As far as I could tell, he had never encountered a foreigner before, especially a female one, and he seemed greatly shy. He was, my companions explained, ashamed that he had broken in on a group picnic. He did give me a quick smile though, and after I took a couple of photos, I left him with his flock in peace.

The drive back was a bit long, and so I took another turn at the wheel. This was one of the most interesting bits of my journeys in Iraq. You see, women in the countryside aren't seen driving, most especially they are not seen driving men about! We had two women in the front of the car, and men in the back. The roads were absolutely jammed with cars returning to Dohuk from picnicing, and as we got closer to where the road turned to the city, authorities were routing traffic around to the right, which we knew would take another 45 minutes, when if you were allowed to go left down the straight path, you would be in Dohuk in 15 minutes. Luckily, Iraq treats her women with some deference. A male is not to be insulting to a female, or he insults every male in her family. All I needed to do was smile and point left, and say "Dohuk, Dohuk" and look a bit befuddled, and the very nice gentleman decided that I would be allowed to cut through the roadblock and signaled to the next man to allow me through, and we all cheered in great relief.

Back in Dohuk, I collapsed on the bed after learning the traditional ways that different sects pray with the prayer rugs that are left in most "hotels" for guests. The rest of my night followed the day with a state of blissfulness that is near impossible to describe, the kind that comes with a grace and sweetness when you are in the hands of another culture, realizing once again that the human heart is basic in its needs the world over.


Blogger luckent47 said...

this is how I would do it too. get out of the city, eat some bbq and play with the neighbors dogs!!

it must be crazy weird to walk around in places humanity grew up in and feel like you have anything to say to these people?!!

great job and have a safe long trip.

8:58 PM  
Blogger EddieP said...

What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

12:59 AM  
Anonymous Health Blog said...

For all of Kurdistan is going on a picnic in the mountains today.

1:17 PM  

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