Iraq 7 - Back to Erbil and Happy Newroz

We ended our trip driving back to the capital, Erbil. I chose to ride in the car with one of our hosts rather than with the group in the shuttle and it ended up being one of my favorite memories of the trip. Not just because the host told me more stories, like about how he and his wife met, how they came to find their faith, and about his time in the Peshmerga and how he felt during the Saddam horror years. But also because I got a front row seat to Crazy Kurdish Traffic Patterns.

At one point, I remember listening to Iraqi music blaring, watching a crazy dance of cars in front of us, on a two-lane highway, where cars would take turns swinging out into oncoming traffic to see if there was space enough to pass the guy directly in front of them. Eventually they'd shift and the car that was hanging out on the wrong side would slide back in front of us while the car in front of them would slide out into oncoming traffic. Occasionally one would find an opening just long enough to make the brave little dart around the car in front of them, then they'd slide back where they belonged and the whole dance would start again. Our own car took part in the dance as well and at one point, we were trying to pass a large truck in front of us and kept swinging out to see if there was room, and finally -- I kid you not -- we just passed the dang truck anyway, not waiting for a break in oncoming traffic. The driver just figured the oncoming traffic would part like a river flowing around an unwanted rock and that's exactly what happened. We straddled the middle line and passed that truck while driving into oncoming traffic. On a high. way. not a sleepy back street where we're only going 15 miles an hour. Nah, full on interstate. I just sat in the backseat and laughed.

We met a lady at one point in our trip who said she told her fearful relatives in America that they needn't worry that she would be bombed living there, they only needed to worry -- that she'd perish in a traffic accident.
I so understand that now.

We finally arrived safely back in Erbil where we started this crazy adventure. We visited a local church and helped stuff food bags for the needy. We met all walks of life including some of the refugees out of Syria. Our leader also befriended a deaf man who we all fell in the love with. He had a huge smile and worked so hard alongside us even though it was clear he had other physical ailments besides lack of hearing. It was sad to learn that the disabled population is often ignored and the man didn't really have any way of communicating since sign language wasn't prevalent. The crazy thing was our leader had just been discussing his interest in the deaf community there just a couple days before (he himself knows American Sign Language) and no one he spoke to seemed to know much about that community. And then our leader just ran into this man unexpectedly. And lit up the world of this man when he started signing to him. Even though the man only understand a few words, just the fact that our leader paid attention to him, tried to enter his silent world, made such an impact. It was beautiful and definitely felt like a divine appointment.

The rest of my memories about Erbil pretty much revolve around Newroz.

Newroz celebrates the traditional Iranian New Years. But more than new years, for the Kurds, Newroz also celebrates deliverance from tyranny. The legend of it centers on an ancient tyrant but now it's also a celebration of freedom from Saddam and a celebration for the Kurdish cause in general.

Our hosts had loaned us their own Jili Kurdi (the traditional dress attire I mentioned earlier) for the ladies to wear to a couple different events. And I'll never forget what a moving experience it was to be in Iraq, exactly 10 years after the U.S. invasion, and be singing and dancing next to Kurds celebrating their freedom from Saddam. Incredible.

However, it's not just Kurds who flood the streets in Kurdistan during Newroz. People from neighboring countries and Southern Iraqis (Arabs, rather than Kurds) also come to Kurdistan to party.

And that's when our tough, former Kurdish military host got real nervous about his little herd of Americans.

I personally couldn't tell an Arab man from a Kurdish man except maybe by the way they were dressed, but apparently "southern Iraqis" were everywhere which meant potential danger for us. I did notice quite a bit more interest in us than I'd felt before. And at one point, one person in our group was talking to someone up from Baghdad and they mentioned a couple of us would love to visit to Baghdad, to which the southern Iraqi laughed heartily with a "ha! You'd be shot!"  And they were serious.

Welp, maybe next trip. (Just kidding, parents!)

Back to Newroz. Everyone takes to the "countryside" (aka every square inch of dirt along side any major highway) to picnic and dance the day away. (Below is from when our group joined in a southern Iraqi group dancing in the street. One of our guys decided to "Bernie" his way through the dance, which is why he looks like he's losing these days....)

The traffic out of the city was again ridiculous and at one point I asked The Boy who was on our trip (the 16-year old fearing kidnapping on our way out to visit orphans) how many lanes of traffic there was supposed to be.

His answer: "three I think?"

then I asked how many there currently were.

His answer: "five I think?"

Which seemed about right. And people were waving flags, blaring music, sitting on top of their cars and loving the fact that we were there with them. Below is just a snippet of the chaos:

Then there are fireworks at night. And people jump over fires. And there was a gigantic party at some park that our host refused to let us attend because it was just too dangerous for us to be there. Which was fine because only men are out at night there (seriously, no women anywhere in sight. It's very strange to walk around and see.) so I personally wouldn't feel welcome -- or would feel too welcome -- and it was nice to watch it on t.v. in the comfort of our host's home. We even went up on their roof to look for fires and fireworks. Although I know each of us stood there imagining what it was like there when those flashes of lights and booms were coming from things much more deadly than fireworks years ago.

But that was then. And now, Kurdistan seems to have great things coming its way.

We left feeling that sense of hope for Kstan and full of love for its people. We made a day-long stopover in Istanbul on our way back to the U.S. and then arrived back in D.C. to disbelief from the customs agents that we'd actually go to Iraq for vacation. ("No really, who were you with?" was a favorite phrase of my agent...)

Such an amazing experience. Zor supas, Kurdistan.
Picnics on Newroz

me in my Jili Kurdi dancing on Newroz

picnics. everywhere.
group of guys just dancing along the street on Newroz
Dancing on Newroz
The ladies in our Jili Kurdi
Watching Kurdish President speak on Newroz
Love rolling around with giant thousand dollar bills in my pocket
maybe next time, Baghdad
I always want my water to be "familiar"
Seriously, found these in a
Not if, *when*.
You da furniture? No, *I* da furniture! (found on a table)
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Be careful, the stairs are very "sleepary"
Miss you Kstan!