Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chronicles of a Woman’s Friday in Iraq--Erbil, Iraq 011411

Yesterday was Friday, and the weekend here in Iraq. I decided to visit around the ancient citadel of Erbil. It is like 15-20 minutes from Ankawa. I wanted to walk a little bit because the weather was nice. A lot of cars when passing by me were honking. So far, I was feeling safe but I started to worry when I noticed that a pick-up slowed down and stopped next to me. While walking, I was taking pictures and I took a picture next to a house and a generator. The guy started to ask, in Arabic, something related to the picture and the house. I couldn’t understand all that he said, but he was not happy that I took that picture.

There is a lot of private security around, and apparently he was one of them. I asked what was the problem with taking a picture. I guess he thought I was a terrorist, taking pictures to later put a bomb! So I just kept walking and ignore him. Later, I noticed some other cars slowing down, and sometimes stopping ahead of me. I just tried to cross and walk on the other side of the street. I couldn’t believe that a woman couldn’t walk on a main street without being harassed. So, I thought about not pursuing my visit to the citadel.

I called my Iraqi friend and told him about my frustration. Why couldn’t I walk freely, what’s wrong with men here?. He advised me to ignore the cars and to take it easy. He said is better when women walk together. It felt really strange for me, coming from Palestine, Cairo and Turkey, and traveling all the time alone. What was different about Iraq? I have been here in the Middle East for more than 6 months and this never happened before. I told him I just wanted to enjoy myself and walk but that I could not even do that, without being harassed, plus there was nothing to do around here. He said that it was safe, to just try to walk and see what I could find, to try to enjoy the culture, see the differences between the culture and people here and my own culture;to explore around. I complained about how can I enjoy and explore if I cannot even feel free to walk, plus I didn’t know my way around. I complained that this was not what I came for and I felt I was wasting my time.

He asked me: “What did you come for, what were you expecting?”.

I replied: “I came to see the real Iraq”

But this was part of the real Iraq; there is not only poor people. This was also an Iraqi reality, and now I was experiencing it. He said, this is the reality, there is nothing to do. Young people struggle with this.

Shops with traditional Kurdish images

Ankawa is not a poor neighborhood, the houses here are very big and beautiful, but there is something else missing. There are no cinemas or clubs, or places for young people to gather and exchange ideas. Young people here is not motivated [to stay here], they often look to America as an escape to this traditional society, where there is no freedom. I was experiencing another face of the Iraqi society. Iraqi youth is connected to the rest of the world through technology, some of them speak perfect English, and there are new universities being established to educate the next generation of Iraqi leaders. But if they don’t find any freedom, they are feeling trapped and their only hope is to move out of Iraq. How do we expect to build a strong society?

Barzani, the Kurdistan Region President and Jesus, next to each other

So, after my conversation, I hesitated to go to Erbil, but in the end I turned my frustration into courage. My friend was right, I had to embrace the differences, try to understand them for what they were, and get the best of this experience, and the best was not to stay afraid and do anything, so I crossed the street when I saw a taxi that was leaving some women on the other side. So now, the challenge was, to get to Erbil city center. Of course the taxi driver asked how old I was and if I was married, which I tried to avoid answering pretending I didn’t understand him. I managed to accomplish the first part of the mission.

Once in the city center, I saw the impressive Citadel, dominating majestically the panorama. Now, the mission was to survive as one of the few women there. I mean, there were a couple of women, accompanied by their husband and children, but alone, there was not a single one, well just me. I found three young women and asked them to take some pictures, and they told me how to get to the top of the citadel.

It has been claimed that the site is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world. The earliest evidence for occupation of the citadel mound dates to the 5th millennium BC, and possibly earlier. which lies 30 meters above the ground and is 7000 years old. On the bottom entrance there was an old man with a shop, I sat with him and he offered me a piece of his chocolate bar. I thought, oh, thank God that not all men are stupid. He said that he had 4 boys and 4 girls, and invited me to his house and said he will take me around in the car to visit many places. I went up to the citadel and walked around the once ancient city that is now in the UNESCO list.

Views of the mountains from the citadel

When I came down, I asked the man on the shop if there was a bathroom. He pointed to the other side of the street, where there was a mosque and lot of people. I guess because it was Friday and they were praying. It took me a while to realize I was the only woman walking on the packed sidewalk. At one point, I stopped and looked around and all eyes were on me. It felt a little bit intimidating but I took a deep breath and kept walking, telling myself, I had the same right that these men, to be there, and walk freely. I wondered around the stores and even bought a lipgloss by almost sign language.

Men in the market and I was just sitting and observing

Kurdish flag

I went back to where I started. It was a square, with water fountains, and benches, and little coffee shops. I wanted to have a coffee, but again was intimidated by the all men atmosphere. What the hell, I was already there and they were already looking at me, so I stopped in a small shop and asked the boy for Nescafe—a ready mix coffee-creamer-sugar—and sat among the all men crowd. A man came and asked me if I knew Kurdish and I said “ Kurdi nazanem” (I don’t know Kurdish) and he left. They were playing Shemame, a Kurdish song from Turkey that I know, but I reminded myself that I cannot dance in public, so I was just singing and laughing to myself.

Teaching myself Kurdish-sitting with my coffee

After I finished the coffee, I came back home, of course after having another interview with the taxi driver, I told him I had a Kurdish boyfriend and even with that he offered his services if I needed to go anywhere. I can’t believe that women here have to put up with all these challenges; on a daily basis. What is wrong with men here? But I am satisfied that at least I managed to challenge the stereotypes by daring to sit around all the men in the square. I was not scared, I was looking at them too. I was dying to know what they were thinking. I was smiling timidly and then looking back at my Kurdish notes. I guess they were as curious as me. I was wondering if any of them was going to say something to me and I guess they were curious as to why I was there by myself.

The Nescafe is a very sweet mix of mostly sugar, with a coffee flavor which is spread all over the Middle East

Mission accomplished, and proud I survived Friday day out in the city! Up for next Friday?

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