The Story Behind The Photo: Erbil, Kurdistan

Tea House - Erbil, Kurdish Region, Iraq

Rashid in the Tea House – Erbil, Kurdistan

“In the Middle East, the visitor is seen as a gift from God. But like any gift, the reaction to its receipt is related to its frequency; the more regular the gift, the less enthusiastic the response. The Middle East bestows the most hospitable of welcomes on visitors, and since I never met or saw any other foreign tourist during my ten days in the Kurdish region of Iraq (known as Kurdistan), it meant that all latent hospitality was poured upon me.

The Qaysari Bazaar on the south side of the citadel had all manner of goods on offer: clothes, shoes, fabrics, plants, and furniture to name a few. The Bazaar was a jumble of different styled shopping areas; some bright, others dingy. One would see women walking in groups, who universally wore the face showing hijab, few wore black, with most opting for a variety of different colours and patterns. I saw only very few of the face-covering niqab. The men more often walked alone, but they tended to congregate in tea houses, eating establishments and other public areas.

I soon discovered that a journey of any distance would be a prolonged affair due to the frequent requests to stop for a chat and sometimes to share a tea. Others would entreaty me to take their photograph, or they wished to pose with me in front of their Smartphone or camera. My route through the Bazaar, onto the park and finally to the citadel took approximately three hours, whereas I would have been able to walk the same route without interruption in less than an hour.

As is usual with my first day in any location, I approach it through the eyes of someone observing, rather than immersing. Despite this cautious approach, the response was remarkable. On the second day, I removed that last veneer of caution and strode forth; the reaction was extraordinary.

Returning to the Qaysari Bazaar I searched for Erbil’s most famous tea house, as suggested to me the previous evening by Amer. Frequented by both the privileged and the poor, it held much promise. Again, my passage was prolonged due to the increasingly frequent conversations and photo opportunities along the way.

I finally happened upon a rather unassuming entrance to the tea house, an establishment whose interior was filled with a patina of pictures of famed Kurds, whilst below men sipped tea, conversed and smoked cigarettes. An elderly man named Khalil Chaichy, who has served tea on the premises since 1952, noisily shuffled around in haste serving customers with barely a grin, but often a nod. I was beckoned by three Kurdish men who spoke some English to join them for tea, which here is served in very small glasses with a liberal collection of sugar resting on the bottom. I followed the practice of some by pouring my tea into the saucer and drinking directly from there.

Sitting across from us was a stout, elderly Kurdish man. This former Peshmarga (‘soldier’ in Kurdish) named Rashid became increasingly involved in our conversation. With a mischievous glint in his eye, he gave me the strongest of handshakes, whilst boasting that he has never spent a day in hospital – a fine achievement for a man of 75. Rashid proudly displayed the menacing knife carried in his belt, and identified people he knew personally amongst the images on the walls. When the others left, it was just Rashid and I within the confines of the far corner of the tea house.  With no common language, we resorted to gesturing and facial expressions to communicate. Despite this barrier, we established a rapport and warmth in the briefest amount of time, and I was genuinely sad to see Rashid take his leave.”

My blogs on Kurdistan:

The Calm Within an Iraqi Storm Kurdistan 1
Killing Me With Kindness Kurdistan 2
The Dawning of a Grander Day Kurdistan 3