Spring in Kurdistan!
by Rob Ferguson
Spring lasts about a week in Kurdistan. After what was a very mild winter of bright cool days with the odd rainy one – one morning in January it snowed but the snow was gone by noon – the temperatures shot up into the mid twenties and wild flowers bloomed. Well, actually in Erbil one stinky weed that grew absolutely everywhere produced small bright yellow flowers that stunk and threw off pollen that had many people sniffling.
“What are those weeds?” I asked my fellow teachers. No one seemed to know. After Googling around, I decided they were probably genetically modified canola plants. They looked like canola and it had been recently introduced to Iraq by USAID. In North America and elsewhere, the wind had spread their seeds rapidly and unstoppably resulting in contamination of other crops.
But one day, Dr. Shwan, a Kurd who taught sociology and political science, told me they were just a plant that thrives for a few weeks and then dies off.
“They’ve been around since I was a child,” he said, instantly destroying my environmental disaster theory. “Some people use the flowers as a cure for ailments,” he added scornfully.
On Easter weekend, which was yet another holiday at the university – the director is a Christian Kurd – some of the students organized a picnic in the mountains.
Now what you have to know is that in Kurdistan – maybe all of Iraq – picnicking is both an art form and an obsession. On any pleasant Friday – the holy day of the week in the Islamic world – families pile into cars and take off for the mountains with freshly skewered meat on sticks, dolma – grape leaves wrapped around tomatoes, peppers, onion and eggplant in a bed of rice and meat – and big plastic bottles of water and pop. (The words dolma and picnic bring swoons of pleasure to all Kurds.) The highways north towards the mountains are jammed with cars and some families are so eager to get picnicking that they stop along the highway, build little fires with twigs and branches and begin the ritual. Kurdish music blasts from car stereos and they wave happily as the rest of the country crawls past in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Our picnic was organized by my student Aso, who, despite his rather unfortunate name, was without doubt the university’s leader when it comes to anything Kurdish. A few weeks before, on Revolution Day, he organized a student party, which some of us teachers attended. We were ushered into the cafeteria – the largest room at the university – and seated in a line in front of a make-shift stage. First on was a heavy rock band, and one of the students, Ali, performed several eardrum-shattering guitar solos. Apparently a few years before he’d been in a boy band in Baghdad, and we all agreed his boyish good looks and infectious grin qualified him for that – although regrettable he didn’t sing.
After that Aso led a line of male students, all dressed in Kurdish baggy pants and fancy vests, in the dance. The deejay played face-paced Kurdish songs and the boys, arms around each others’ shoulders, hopped along and invited others to join the line. Inevitably we almost all did. It was an easy step and lots of fun. The female students, some dressed in Kurdish outfits that made them look like members of a sheik’s harem, stood and watched. Dancing, like all social activities in the Islamic world, is a segregated activity. Later they took to the floor, and while they were sweet to watch, they somehow lacked the chutzpah of the boys. The activities closed with speeches, and Aso stole the show with clever and rather disrespectful impersonations of senior administrators, who fortunately, were not there.
The original plan was to drive up to an incomparable site high in the mountains that only Aso knew about. But alas it was three hours away and we left late, so we made do with a spot by a babbling mountain river only an hour away and not far from Shaqlawa, the Banff of Kurdistan. The bridge across the river had collapsed and so we forded it in our vehicles. The school bus got stuck, but luckily in Kurdistan there’s never an SUV far away, and one soon pulled it across.
On the other side, under a gnarled old tree, Aso, Mohammed and Mohammed built a fire and cooked the kebobs while we lounged in the shade sampling salads and sipping beers. I took photos, but later my good friend and student Mohammed wouldn’t allow me to post them on Facebook as there were bottles of beer propped jauntily among the plates of food.
“Robert, my family would kill me if they ever thought I drink!” he said.
“But you don’t drink. It was only the alcoholic foreign teachers who were drinking in the photo,” I retorted. “Besides I doubt your family visits Facebook very often.”
But apparently incapable of understanding the paranoid need for censorship, I lost that battle.
It was a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky, wild flowers were in bloom on the slopes around us, and in a field nearby a tree, just coming into leaf, shimmered against a backdrop of smoking spring fires – the local farmers were burning off the winter stubble. The delicious kebabs and the beers soon had us happily dozing. Later a handsome lad of about six, dressed in full Kurdish regalia, walked up to us and standing in the centre of our picnic, struck a confident pose.
“A future president of Kurdistan,” I said, taking his picture. I looked over to see where he’d come from, and saw a line of shiny new Land Cruisers surrounded by armed bodyguards. I then realized I wasn’t kidding.
After some mule rides and stimulated with more “secret” drinking – most of the female students sat in the bus silently disgusted with the boys – the afternoon evolved into the inevitable Kurdish dancing. While it was fun and good exercise, we had to battle heavy traffic back, so I took the lead in packing things up. As I gathered up the rubbish, I noticed that others had tossed most of it into the hay field beside us. Then I realized that strewing garbage about the picnic site is the last part of the ritual.
An hour or so later we were nearing Erbil when my friend Mohammed, who was driving some of us in his car, took a call and told me we had to stop ahead next to the highway. I objected as it was getting late, but he insisted, and as the sun sunk into the dusty Mesopotamian plain and cars zoomed by on the busy highway, Aso, Mohammed, Mohammed and about six other students and me all danced around celebrating the end of the picnic and the arrival of spring.
A week later the temperature hit 30 and summer arrived.
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!
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Into the Zagros Mountains!
Christmas in Gali Ali Beg!
Sex and Booze in Kurdistan!
Culture in Kurdistan!
I Kiss Your Eyes, Habibi!
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