Kurdish Hospitality – Erbil, Iraq’s Mayor. He popped out of his seat, with a wide grin. His speed defied his age. We had only met for a moment the day before, but he recognized me immediately. But to be fair, I stick out in Erbil, Iraq. As you might imagine, there are not many tourists here. I was drinking chai with the Mayor of the Qaysari Bazaar, Abu Ali.
On my first day of visiting Erbil, the capital of autonomous Kurdistan, I took shelter from the sun, and sipped very hot and sweet tea. I was in the covered market, the Qaysari Bazaar, which dates back over 700 years. I felt like I was hanging out at a Shriners club or VFA. Groups of men, slurped tea and puffed on cigarettes. The men huddled in groups, some dressed in sharp suits, others in traditional Arabic dress. The crowd tilted toward the older generation. Prior to departing, I produced my camera and took a snap of a distinguished man in a grey suit. I offered a thank you and continued my exploration of the souk.
Two days later, I passed the same tea house and recognized many faces. The Mayor of Erbil, Abu Ali, the man in the grey suit, spotted me immediately. An extra red plastic chair was slid out and I planted myself in the middle of the group. The Kurds are known for their warm hospitality. It is quite difficult to refuse chai. Greetings were offered.
Firm handshakes and smiles. I waited for my first of three teas. I gingerly sipped the tea, it was hot. The tea arrived ready with superfluous amounts of sugar. I watched Abu Ali, pour more sugar into his tea. I smiled and marveled at his sweet tooth. I contemplated the diabetes rates in Kurdistan.
I attempted to depart and pay. Abu Ali’s hand firmly grabbed my arm. I stayed in my seat. More tea was delivered. Abu Ali and his friends seemed to be having a political discussion. The discussion was in Kurdish but I recognized the names of political figures. ISIL was beheading victims only 50 miles from where we were relaxing. So current events were on everyones’ minds.
Abu Ali’s friends came and went. I soon found myself sitting next to a Sunni Arab from Mosul. He spoke excellent English. He was warm and gracious offering me multiple welcomes. Yet, he was frustrated with the US government. He had to leave his home in Mosul, which had been overrun by ISIL. He had been staying in Erbil for over a year. He explained that the US, Israel, and Iran were in partnership overthrowing governments. He also firmly believed that the US was omnipotent. “The US could make one phone call, and ISIL would be gone the next day. I have no issue with you. You are my friend. We hate ISIL. My friends are Muslims, Christians, and Jews. You are welcome here. Whatever you need, you tell me.” He smiled, shook my hand, and placed his right hand on his heart.
Through a series of gesticulations, I was invited to a lunch of kebabs with Abu Ali. I had already had a falafel lunch, but was not able to decline. Abu Ali and I traversed our way through the souk. He stopped every several minutes to offer greetings and introduce me as the American visiting Erbil. He nicknamed me John Kerry.
We stopped at the local pharmacy, and I found myself sitting behind the counter with a group of men. More tea was brought out. I could not imagine this taking place at my local CVS. Abu Ali again introduced me as his American friend, John Kerry. Everyone laughed and smiled. “Salaam, welcome to Kurdistan.”
Eventually, we said our goodbyes, and stopped with several men selling luggage. Abu Ali seemed to be regaling his friends with a yarn as they all broke out laughing. Again, I was introduced as John Kerry. More handshakes, welcomes and smiles.
Moments later, I was given a private flute recital. Abu Ali directed the local flute maker to play a solo. The grizzled man brought the flute to his lips.
We were not finished yet, as we stopped into another shop with a collection of sweets and nuts. Another warm welcome for me, John Kerry.
Abu Ali and I weaved our way deeper into the souk and finally arrived at the Kebab of Yasin. It was packed. We joined a table with several others. I recognized immediately that I was at the locals’ favorite. The place was bustling. An amiable waiter, placed silver trays in front of us with two skewers of kebabs and all of the fixings. A large platter of fresh bread was plopped down in front of us. I scoffed down the kebabs, rolled up in the bread, chased down with a cool yogurt drink. After lunch ended, more introductions took place, more smiles, and more photos.
But yet, our day was not over. Two more stops took place at other tea houses within the bazaar. More chai was presented. I was fearing I would never sleep. Abu Ali seemed to know everyone, and everyone seemed to know him. I was his guest of honor, John Kerry from America. Everyone warmly welcomed me.
At the end of the day, we returned back to the first teahouse we met at. Abu Ali was comfortably ensconced in his seat laughing and talking with his friends. Through a nearby translator, I thanked Abu Ali for his incredible hospitality and his generosity. He never accepted a dollar from me the whole day. We didn’t even share more than ten common words. Yet, I never felt so welcome.
Kurdish Hospitality – Erbil, Iraq’s Mayor. Check out my first day in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq.