The nature of international travel means that, unfortunately, most travelers never leave the capital or main cities of a foreign country. This is a natural consequence of several factors: first, the transportation infrastructure means that ‘all roads lead to Rome.' The larger cities have international airports and are the nexuses of highways and railroad, meaning that all travelers have to go through them. Second, most visitors simply don’t have business in the countryside: if they are visiting for work, their meetings will be with government ministries or large company headquarters in the principal cities.
Over the course of three visits to Kurdistan in the last two years, I had never left Erbil, Kirkuk, or Sulaimaniya except to travel between those cities. This time, however, a friend took pity on me and brought me to visit his family during Eid, the end of the Holy month of Ramadan.
While I said that he took pity on me, it’s more accurate to say that his instinctual Kurdish hospitality kicked in when he saw a foreigner in need. The Kurds have a strong culture of welcoming friends, minor acquaintances, and even complete strangers: it is not unusual for Kurds to invite foreigners to visit or stay in their house after even brief conversations. If you go out to meals, they insist on paying for their guests, and if you need to go somewhere, they will offer to drive you. Upon arriving at my friend’s house in Zakho, his mother said, ‘If you are a friend of my son, you are like my own son.'
This awe-inspiring generosity can lead to some embarrassment amongst Westerners who are not used to it. When he gave me his own room to sleep in; when they brought me more sweets; when his brother offered me the front seat of the car - I could almost see my own mother shaking her head at her wayward son imposing on his hosts. Westerners visiting Kurdistan shouldn’t worry about being hospitably received by almost anyone they meet: rather, figuring out when and how to turn down hospitality is the key concern.
While attempting to navigate between Kurdish hospitality and my Western sense of imposition, I got a first-row seat to various reunions of family and friends that accompany Eid. The Islamic tradition that most Kurds follow is Sufi, which perhaps explains the tolerant nature of their religious practice. During Ramadan, even devout Kurds who were observing the fast offered me water during the day. As seems to be the trend around the world, religious observance is more prevalent in rural areas and amongst older generations.
Regardless of the degree or type of religious beliefs, all Kurds are united by strong family ties, which were in evidence throughout various exchanged meetings. Given my lack of acumen with languages, I couldn’t understand the excited talk among family members who had been separated for months by work, but the facial expressions communicated that same joy in being with family that I recognize from my Italian roots.
During the days, when I wasn’t being fed traditional Kurdish food and sweets, I went out with the young men into the countryside. The beautiful Sharansh waterfall, high in the mountains and surrounded by green foliage even during the brown, arid summer, dazzled me with its cascading waters. Nearby, the Bahiri cave provides cool spring water and shade for visitors weary from the oppressive sun. Later, we swam back and forth on the Little Kahbur River, a tributary of the Tigris. The Delal Bridge, with its massive and ancient stones, was another impressive landmark for a history buff such as myself. Tourists are advised to go out into the Kurdish countryside during the cooler and greener spring: maybe it was just the atmosphere of friends and family, but I still enjoyed the sights in the late June heat.
While Kurdistan is absolutely safe for contemporary visitors, the more recent history of the Kurdish struggle is still intimately connected with these majestic landmarks. My friend pointed out the mountain pass that he and his family had to flee through in 1991 when Saddam took aim at the Kurdish people for their resistance to his rule. While the international communities' no-fly zone prevented his wrath from landing, the trek into the mountain remains a powerful memory for many Kurds when they think about their relations with the south. My friend’s father, once a mountain Peshmerga, told me afterward that they used to camp above the now tranquil Sharansh waterfall; the juxtaposition of these natural wonders with the history of struggle and sacrifice boggles the mind of Westerners who only know the complete safety and security of contemporary Kurdistan.
Like all adventures, however, my brief sojourn into the Kurdish countryside had to come to an end, and I headed back to Erbil with my friend. I hope to see more of the mountains and the Kurdish people soon: it is an experience that one does not soon forget.
Matthew Cancian is a PhD student in Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He holds a Masters of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School, and served as a Captain in the United States Marine Corps.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan24, any related institutions, or organizations.