Christmas in Gali Ali Beg!
by Rob Ferguson
On Christmas Day Mohammed took us to the mountains. “If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain,” says the old Islamic proverb, which apparently means: If one cannot get one’s own way, one must adjust to the inevitable, which, in our case was not difficult at all; in fact it was very agreeable.
Mohammed, my student and friend, had already proven himself to be a valuable asset: he was obliging and enthusiastic, fun and knowledgeable, and he owned a car. So when Bethany, a fellow instructor, and I said we had nothing planned for Christmas Day – most of the other instructors had gone home for the holidays – he said, “We must go to the mountains!” And since they wouldn’t come to us, that’s just what we did.
It was a glorious morning, not a cloud in the sky and the temperature was well on its way up to 15 degrees C, which for a Canadian seemed implausible for Christmas. We drove north from Erbil along a highway that led soon to American Village, a posh new exurb set among rolling foothills. In Erbil there’s an English Village, an Italian Village and a Swedish Village – alas, no Canadian Village, not yet anyway – but if you are a well-heeled conspicuous consuming Kurd, then American Village is where you must own a villa. My favourite was a garish estate propped on a hill with an enormous fake parrot perched on the roof.
We continued past Salahaddin, a small city named for a Kurdish hero who led Islamic resistance to those interloping Christian crusaders, and following vague instructions from Lonely Planet, turned onto a gravel side road that had us meandering past stony fields and flocks of sheep. Eventually Mohammed stopped a pickup loaded down with farmers and asked in Kurdish, “Where’s Salahaddin’s Fortress?” Being obliging Kurds they happily led us farther along the road and right to it.
Salahaddin’s Fortress is a dazzling ruin sitting atop the spine of a long hillock. There is no sign identifying it, no fence protecting it, and Mohammed admitted he’d grown up only 30 km from here and never even heard of it. Alas, the general Kurd attitude towards their remarkable history seems one of indifference. In the ancient history class I teach, the students are completely unimpressed with the great achievements of Mesopotamia, and Erbil is a city so quickly reinventing itself with bland modern suburbs that its ancient centre – one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements on the planet – feels like a half-ignored relic. But probably this is also why Salahaddin’s Fortress is so well preserved – no one knows about it or cares. We scampered up a steep path and explored the stone walls and turrets that date back the 12th Century, and then at the bottom of the hill found an ancient graveyard full of jauntily arrayed tombstones. As a shepherd led his bleating flock through the ruins, he smiled and waved at us, no doubt amused at our interest in a collection of broken-down stone walls.
We carried on up into the mountains to the canyon of Gali Ali Beg, the “Grand Canyon of the Middle East,” following switchbacks along the Hamilton Road, engineered back in the 1920s by a New Zealander named Sir Archibald Hamilton. The views were dramatic and we stopped briefly at Gali Ali Beg Waterfall, an impressive display hampered by the Iraqi weakness for building tourist trappings like restaurants and souvenir shops so close to the site that it mars the view. I complained of this and told Mohammed he should arrange a meeting with the President of Kurdistan to discuss this problem. He of course readily agreed, and then I admitted that Canadians were not immune to this bad habit and told him Niagara Falls is one of the most spoilt natural sites in the world.
We continued up to the vacation town of Rawanduz, once a British colonial outpost, with its panoramas of snowy jagged peaks and plunging gorges. There was a cable car taking sightseers up to a summit, and Mohammed told us there are plans to build a modern ski resort.
“Skiing in Iraq,” I said, “Chamonix, Aspen, Whistler and now Rawanduz!”
But winter is as yet the off season and there were few people were around, just a group of young men playing an impromptu game of soccer. Mohammed told us that through the long hot summer Iraqis, especially from Baghdad, flock to the area and stay in the hotels and mini-chalets that dot the mountainsides. We inspected a tawdry amusement park with a Ferris wheel and an odd sort of rocket-roller coaster, which if it was operating, would have sent us zooming down the mountainside in a little pod.
We drove on up the Hamilton Road, with more spectacular views of the Zagros Mountains, now completely blanketed in snow. Eventually, we arrived at the village of Haji Omaran and had to stop as we’d reached the Iranian border. Bethany was all for trying to get across – she even proposed she and I hide in the trunk – just so we could say we’ve been to Iran, but knowing that relations between Iran and both the US and Canada were so bad that we might not ever get out alive, we settled for photos with Iranian mountains in the background.
Heading back in the fading light, we stopped in a town for dinner – Christmas dinner. We found a simple restaurant serving the standard fare of kebabs, onion and tomato salad and sweet tea.
“Merry Christmas!” I said, toasting with my glass of tea the other patrons in the restaurant. They all smiled back happily, although none of them relayed the salutation, and I doubted they even understood it.
Rob Ferguson has worked in communications and as a trainer in his native Canada, Vanuatu, Mongolia, Central Asia, the Caribbean island of Montserrat, Colombia and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He has also worked as a freelance journalist, editor and instructor of English, creative writing and journalism. He is the author of *Dancing with the Vodka Terrorists: Misadventures in the 'Stans*, available from here. He currently lives and works in Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq. This blog originated here. Contact Rob Ferguson at: FaceBook: Robert W Ferguson. Instagram & Twitter: robertissimmo
More by Rob FergusonThe Jihadists are Coming!
I’m in Kurdistan!
Life in Erbil, the New Dubai!
Into the Zagros Mountains!
Spring in Kurdistan!
Sex and Booze in Kurdistan!
Culture in Kurdistan!
I Kiss Your Eyes, Habibi!
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