The Kindness of Iraqi Christians
by Nina Nooit
We hitchhiked down a road not marked on our maps. When the first car stopped for us, we learnt why. This was a newly made road, laid by a petrol company specifically for their drillings. Our destination was the Christian village Bedial. What my travelling partner Clément and I had heard about it had intrigued us: “It's a small village, the people from there don't leave it very often. You can only travel by car until the village Kani, and from there a mountain path leads onward. You have to walk seven or eight kilometers.”
Kani lay near the end of the new road. Only a couple of years earlier it would have been much harder to access. When we arrived in Kani we walked around for a bit, looking for a shop. We planned to sleep in the tent later on. As I came out of a grocer’s with our supper in my arms, Clément was talking to a young family with two kids. They invited us home and we gladly accepted. The hospitality of the Kurdish people really is outstanding. This meant our trip would be a lot easier.
The next morning we left our bags behind and embarked on the trail. We left relatively early, but the heat began to rise quickly. It was to be a sweaty walk. Thankfully the surrounding landscape was invigorating. In North Kurdistan the mountains would have been almost bare of trees because of the Turkish military burning them ever so often. Here in South Kurdistan the slopes were covered in woods. The amount of trees is certainly the biggest difference between the landscapes of North and South Kurdistan.
The path we had been told about was actually a dust track wide enough for a car. We later learnt that the road was closed from November to March every year, so during that time the villagers had to be mostly self-sufficient, they could only walk to Kani and back. It took us about two hours before we arrived in the village. The few houses were sparsely dotted over a wide, sunburnt plateau, with a big, central church right in the middle. We walked around and an already elderly couple started talking to us from across their garden fence. They addressed us in Arabic, which to them must have seemed like the language most suitable for talking to foreigners. It may have surprised them that I answered in Kurdish. Whereas they both knew Arabic, only the man spoke Kurdish. Their names were Myriam and Yakub, and they invited us into their home.
Inside a picture of a priest adorned one wall. “He is my nephew”, Yakub elucidated, “he lives in the city”. After a pause he began speaking and we learnt a lot about his family and the history of the village. In 1978 Saddam had bombed Bedial, and everyone had to flee. People came back only in 1991, when the UN installed a no-fly-zone in Northern Iraq. While Yakub was speaking of the terrible things that had happened, his smile only faded once, when talking about the death of his elder brother.
After we had eaten lunch together Yakub put on a large, round straw hat and went into the garden. The couple's wide, comfy looking double bed was right in the middle of it, shaded by grape vines and apple trees. When our host came back inside, he was cradling a giant water melon in his hands which he planned to “slaughter” for us. “He's so sweet, he reminds me of my grandpa”, Clément commented with affection. He remarked upon how extraordinary the man was: “His village was bombed and he had to flee with his whole family. His elder brother was killed by Saddam’s stooges. But he is always cheerful, even when he tells us all this. This is true strength of character!”
As evening neared, and the heat of the day had subsided, we were taken on a tour around the churches. There were several ones in the tiny village. The most conspicuous one was of course the big, modern one we had first seen from afar when approaching the village. We went to visit an older one, though. It was a relatively low building assembled of dark stones. Parts of its roof had been perfunctorily repaired with blue tarpaulin. “This one was our main church. It is over 700 years old, some say one thousand. Saddam’s bombs destroyed it. We built back up what we could”, Yakub explained. On the altar leant a picture of a knight on a horse spearing a supine dragon. I recognized him, it was Saint George.”Yes, Mar Gewargis”, Myriam nodded. He was the patron saint of this church.
Later we went to visit another house of god. We had to hike there. Myriam gestured us to come and take some biscuits and apples from the house for the long walk. For us two tourists, the ascent was taxing. We were astonished at how fast and agile the small, elderly man darted up the dusty path in front of us. I wrestled with my own breath and counted my heartbeat as I followed him at an ever growing distance.
When we reached Mar Sawa, as the church was called, we noticed there was nothing more to it than a metal cross on top of a rock. Views were grandiose from here, though. We could see the entirety of the plateau on which the village was located. It ended abruptly in a canyon, on the other side of which lay the famous Kurdish village Barzan. While we relaxed and enjoyed the view, Yakub disappeared. It took us some time to realize that he had descended into a cave hidden behind some bushes. Clément climbed down first, I followed. Immediately behind the entrance we became surrounded by a dense cloud of buzzing flies. “The guardians of the cave”, Clément joked. We stepped further down to a place where we could stand up straight again and gasped from astonishment. Yakub had put up candles, and the small cave was lit up eerily and beautifully, throwing the sculptured wall into dramatic relief. There were stalagmites and stalactites everywhere, some of them having merged into thick, unbroken columns.
We walked to the corner where Yakub was kneeling, taking the last ones of the candles to help light them, too. Surrounded by hard shadows and soft candle light, enveloped in the enchantment of a flickering chiaroscuro, I mused that this was probably one of the most memorable places I had ever visited. It was a truly magic experience.
Nina Nooit has travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan four times since 2007. You can read more by Nina here: http://youarealltourists.blogspot.de/.
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