I met Iraq today. Well... Kurkish Iraq, but close enough.
If you've ever taken a world history course, you know that Iraq's story dates back to the Babylonians and before, a time before Islam or Christianity characterized by rich culture, warring tribes, polygamy and idol worship, and a more than a bit of pride. The citadel in Erbil is part of that story.
Arguably one of the most endangered cultural sites in the world, the citadel has bowed to countless masters, survived scorching summers and snowy winters, and still stands to tell the tale. If only its walls could speak. An unfathomable 6000+ years old, it still rises above the bustling city of Erbil, an ever present reminder of the region's great past. I was told that people still live within its walls to this day, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
Walking among the ruins (naturally with my five heavily armed friends), I couldn't help but think of what it used to be like. Were there once imported palm trees lining the steep and dusty road to the center of the old city? Were there fresh water fountains where today there is a pile of rocks?
I got a brief glimpse into the past walking through the Kurdish Textile Museum. Being Turkish, I was naturally interested in the elaborate looms and fine yarns used to make Kurdish carpets; but what intrigued me more were the buildings housing the museum and the abundant framed photographs and paintings, covered in decades of dust. Upon entering a narrow corridor, visitors are welcomed by a large open room with colorful stained glass windows lining parts of the roof and second floor balcony. Carpet-filled floors pad the feet while you gaze into the black and white eyes of a middle-aged Iraqi man lounging in the afternoon sun, his face seeing through the camera and at any visitor who may happen by his dusty photograph. Off the second floor balcony were multiple rooms, each with a slightly different theme (record players, carpets, guns, etc.) yet brought together by the feeling that this "museum" used to be the mayoral manor, or perhaps a guest house used by a rich Saudi merchant on his way to Constantinople.
Outside again, we march past a group of armed pêşmerge escaping the heat under an ancient arc, one of many entrances to the once grand citadel. We say hello ("Choni kaka"). They smile and nod. Beyond the wall we look down on traffic, shoppers, salesmen, beggars, and old men; Iraqis going about their daily lives. Behold the old market.
"Do you want to go down?" chimes Hamdija.
"Is it safe?"
"Sure, why not?" Not quite the response I was looking for, but I think in Bosnian that means yes. At least I hope it does.
After taking a few pictures in front of a large statue of a man sitting with a Quran open in his lap (I was told this was a monument signifying the first place that Allah ever cried) we climbed down the steps leading to civilization. Immediately bombarded by the sounds and smells of a bustling city, I finally feel as if I'm experiencing Iraq (minus the Jackson five who won't get more than ten feet from me at all times). We walk along the street, past a butcher (is it a good idea to put raw meat in the window where it receives direct sunlight?), a baker, a restaurant, and a tailor, until coming to a covered section of the market. Not another gringo in sight, we dive in.
The one English-speaking local security guard asks me not to take pictures, as this will attract attention to me. My question is, how are two 6'3 white guys (Hamdija and me) speaking English going to attract any more attention than we already are? In any case, the camera stayed in my bag as we wandered through what looked to be a centuries-old market, full of anything one would need to survive. The smells of the food section were matched only by the vibrant colors of material these Kurds use to make their traditional dresses. A symbol of both pride and prestige, traditional Kurdish outfits are beautifully and expertly crafted by the tailor even for everyday use.
Although I took no photos of it, the sights and sounds of the market will stay with me for some time. This was not a tourist destination, but rather a place for Iraqis to go about their daily lives. I was a mere visitor, here one second and gone the next; these people have been buying the necessities of life here for centuries, perhaps even millenia. Each store owner greeted me with a smile, though none tried to sell me anything. After many trips to the covered bazaar in Istanbul, this caught me as a little strange. Were they afraid of me, or intimidated by my own personal basketball team shadowing my every move? Or were they fed up with the presence of foreigners in their beloved country, wanting nothing more than to get on with their daily lives without the trouble that seems to follow Americans wherever they go? In any case, I felt completely safe yet unwelcome, as if the tailor with whom I spoke (his sign said "Ibrahim. For Dress.") would rather I leave his shop than linger to try and find a present for my girlfriend. I know it wasn't personal, but I couldn't help but wonder if things would be any better under different circumstances...
"Yalla, let's go."