08 June, 2010

Erbil: Neighbors who (almost) speak English

I've heard it said that for a Turk, traveling in Iran is cheap because you don't need to buy food; people will give it to you to show their good will. I am beginning to think the same is true for an American in Kurdistan.

In the city center, i walked the base of the citadel in search of the elusive cheap hotel. Along the way, i took in the magnificent fountains. Erbil is a place of juxtapositions: these modern fountains, punctuated by little piers where men stand and take pictures of each other, are right next to a row of crumbling buildings that house hardware shops. Young men sweep the sidewalks in this park, but a few feet away the curbside is cluttered with empty cardboard boxes.

street vendor and curbside trash

A room with three beds in Zheen Hotel, just below the Citadel, costs 45,000 dinars but i get it for 40,000. I'm standing on the balcony, taking pictures, when i hear a voice from next door. A moment later three Arab guys in underwear emerge onto their balcony. They all speak just a few words of English - far less than my Turkish, to give you a sense of things. Next thing i know, i'm taking their picture, then sitting on a bed in their room exchanging photos, then discussing the relationship between alcohol consumption and something of a particularly masculine nature, using mostly gestures. They ask what it's called in English, and i learn the Arabic for it.

me, with Nassir, Bassam, and Ali

I say i should leave and get some food, and Bassam says he's hungry too. Falafel? Together we walk in search of a place to eat. After nine, the city center is largely closed (just as Ainkawa comes to life). A block from our hotel, next to a traditional cafe where men are playing dominos, there's a falafel stand. We each eat two - served in real Iraqi pita bread, add your own onions and cukes out of an uncovered, communal bowl. The guy who tends the stand is cleaning the tiled floor with a hose. On a table is a bowl of thick yellow curry sauce. We sit on a long bench, backs to the street, eating falafel and then drinking sweet çay. In Turkiye, there is only cube sugar with tea; in Iraq, only granulated - and a lot of it. Of course Bassam won't let me pay. At the hotel room, he showed me pictures of their trip to the famous falls near Shaqlawa; tomorrow he and his friends are headed back home to Karbala - but he wants me to call him from America. He keeps delightedly telling passersby i'm an American.

tea glasses, and domino players

Back at the hotel, i'm exhausted. Midnight, but the sound of a circular saw drifts up every few minutes.