On Sunday, I finally left the flat brown sprawl of Erbil, with its Dubai-esque complexes and glittering malls and hit the road to Sulaimaniya (aka Slemani, aka Suly) with a practical stranger but friend of Ayub's, Saad.
The day before, I'd explored Erbil on my own, taking a long walk through the massive "central park" of Erbil to the citadel rising over the city, which has been continuously inhabited since 5th century BC, making it possibly the oldest continuously inhabited place on earth. (But it's under major reconstruction, so, despite knowing humans became humans there, it was kind of underwhelming).
I also visited a textile museum full of farming tools and looms of the previous century along with some hundred traditional rugs and dozens of traditional outfits displayed on glamor mannequins behind glass. I realized there that all the other Kurdish museums I've been to (2) have been about genocide. So the rugs were a welcome departure.
And so was the road to Sulaimaniya, winding through the surreal green of springtime. It looked how I imagined it would look if it rained on the moon, and lush fields of green dotted with Dr. Seuss trees sprung up atop a lunar landscape. Around every corner there was a lusher, greener crook, and in each, an SUV or taxi parked with a family beside it, picnicking or dancing elbow in elbow to the electric beat of Kurdish dance music, or chasing a kite up a hill, silhouetted black against the setting sun -- it was a Kurdistan I'd only seen in pictures, and I spend the car ride repeating "it's beautiful," one of the few Kurdish phrases I didn't forget: zor jwana, zor jwana, zor zor jwana.
In the car, my new friend Saad flips through CDs with one hand, steering and holding a cigarette with the other as we pass semis and mopeds and shepherds with their sheep on the narrow road lacking a center line or shoulders. My English good? he asks, and I tell him yes, because it is better than my Kurdish, if only by a little. We listen to Kurdish music, and then, it is Michael Jackson for the rest of the drive.
An aside: the Kurds love Michael; I can't emphasize this enough. On the two and a half hour drive, we listened to Thriller three times. In all honesty I kind of took some solace in the words to You Are Not Alone, feeling fairly alienated here with my blue hair and lack of Kurdish language skills.
After a quick stop at a roadside tea shop where two children asked to take a picture with me, we round a corner to see Suly spread beneath us like an electric blanket, dazzling in the black evening. On the mountainside above the city, SLEM NI is spelled out in lights the colors of the Kurdish Flag (Worth noting: these are the same colors as the Rastafari Flag; I feel they take on a different tone in Kurdistan, though.)
I decline Saad's offer to have dinner with him and his wife, and my cousin Saman meets us in the park. It's wonderful to see him, because last time I saw him he was 13 and now he is 19 and in college and driving a car. Back at his house, he shows me the library, which has been sorted and organized since I'd last seen it, and contains some four or five thousand books by my estimation on eight 6 by 6 foot shelves (along with a collection of two dozen antique radios). The books are in Kurdish, English, Russian, and Arabic; they are history books and communist texts and poetry and literature. Some of the books once belonged to my grandmother, Gail, who used to trade books with Saman's father, Ihsan, who was a poet and writer and the keeper of the library. Other books once belonged to my father and his three sisters when they were growing up here. Saman tells me that in one book, he found a train ticket from 40 years earlier with my grandfather's name on it.
Behind a warped copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy, dated by the price printed on its cover (95 cents), I find a mostly empty pack of Marlboro Reds, and Saman admits that sometimes, he has a smoke in the library, explaining to me that the books absorb the smell, and plus, they're used to it -- his father used to smoke in the library all the time. I laugh and flip through an 800-page anthology of poetry; Saman shows me a poem he wrote at the library's desk, a lucid, dreamy piece that imagines the characters from every volume sitting on the shelf against the spines of the books and watching as he sits at the desk, just as they used to do when his father was still alive. We talk about what else he is writing and whether or not the Fuad family is cursed to be single (Saman has two much older stepbrothers in their 40s or 50s who've never married).
We eat a dinner of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers with fresh bread and kubay brinj, fried rice patties stuffed with ground beef, which my brothers and I called Kurdish corn dogs when we were kids. Saman's older sister Azheen finally comes home and Saman and I began a relentless campaign of giving her a hard time -- she's just been accepted to Columbia and Johns Hopkins for her master's, and apparently has been driving the family crazy with talk about it. The three of us stay up until almost one in the morning talking about Kurdish politics and ISIS and whether or not there is a Fuad Family Curse as well as the related topic of how much Kurdish society accepts openly dating at all.
This morning, I tagged along with Saman to visit his friend Peter, an older German guy from Holland who's lived in Kurdistan since 1991, when he came during the Kurdish uprising and has been here ever since. He recently has been kicked out of the refugee camps by the police under suspicions of working with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a militant revolutionary group being violently suppressed in Turkey right now) and he is now focusing on converting a crumbling but beautiful Kurdish house into a venue for music and art. We had coffee with cardamom and talked -- what else? -- politics and history and the culture of victimhood among people who've been oppressed and massacred, in oil-rich states like Kurdistan (oil is what's cursed, not the Fuad Family, I tell Saman). Before heading to the university, we poked around the pretty brick walls of the future venue before grabbing lunch at a place around the corner run by Syrian Kurds, where they served foot long skinny falafel wraps with a tasty herb sauce.
I'll leave you with my favorite tidbit I've gleaned here, after a friend of Azheen's offered me an egg roll in the "student union" of the American University of Sulaimaniya and another friend asked, isn't the Chinese place a whorehouse? And apparently it's not just a rumor, but common knowledge that several of the Chinese restaurants here double as brothels.
Up next: Kurdish college students discuss Trump in a political science class.