One of my colleagues told me that my time in Iraq was just the right amount to make me feel weird about leaving, and he was right. I’ve been here long enough not to feel like a tourist anymore, but just shy of feeling like a true resident. I’m finally getting used to the place and starting to live like a local. I know where to buy the best sheep’s yogurt. I know which side of the street to stand on to catch a taxi going in the direction I’m headed. Shopkeepers at the bazaar ask me where I’ve been when I haven’t stopped by in a while. I even have a favorite bread guy that makes chive nan on a street corner and recognizes me with a big smile and no English comprehension, but he knows me now and he gives me exactly what I want without me having to say a word. I’m starting to feel at home, but now it’s actually time to go home.
My last day in Iraq felt like any other day at the office. I went to work in the morning, finished a blog post on water waste, celebrated someone’s birthday with a bright pink heart-shaped (Valentine’s Day?) cake and overly sweetened soda, helped the birthday boy develop a project proposal framework, and went back to my apartment. Pretty much a normal day with Nature Iraq. It felt so normal that it didn’t feel like my last day at all. As I rode through the streets of Sulaymaniyah on the way to my apartment, I stared out the window trying to wrap my head around the fact that I wouldn’t drive this very same route tomorrow morning.
Earlier in the day, Nature Iraq’s CEO was kind enough to chauffer me around town to confirm my flight with Turkish Airlines and ship a box too heavy for me to carry home. He asked me if I will miss Iraq. I explained that I will, but it’s more than that really. “I never thought I would come to a developing nation and leave with a higher standard of living, or eating mostly.” I’ve learned that a life without sheep’s yogurt and fresh figs is no life at all. I lay awake at night wondering where I can get fresh nan bread in New Haven. My mom is scouting fig farms online. I have to start making my own hummus because the premade stuff I could get at the grocery store simply won’t do anymore, but I don’t cook! I have to use dried chickpeas soaked for several hours to get the right flavor? I’m totally panicking.
And the coffee! I can never drink American drip coffee again. I stashed two packages of cardamom coffee and a few kilos of loose-leaf tea in my luggage to ease what I expect will be some agonizing withdrawal tremors. I even ordered an espresso machine online and had it shipped so it would be home waiting for me when I arrive. Still, just in case, I bought a special teapot and two coffee brikis so I can make it by hand if my espresso machine turns out to be a bust. I’m not messing around.
But seriously, having almost evolved into a local, there are so many things I will now miss about Iraqi Kurdistan. Ending this blog the same way I started it, here are 10 things I’ll miss (in no particular order) that will hopefully entice others to venture out here someday:
- The food – fresh figs, masti marr (sheep’s yogurt), local honey on the comb, nan bread, Saleh’s bamya (okra stew), Sarbagh’s doma (stuffed vegetables), Ammar’s ful medames (broad bean smash), and the hummus, mhamara (“red stuff”), baba ganoush, and limo u nana (lemon and mint smoothie) at Eiliah Café in Azadi Park.
- The quiet beauty of Mt. Peramagroon standing like a gargantuan backdrop for Ramadan’s nightly iftar feasts.
- Herds of livestock roaming free range, with their shepherds and without, traversing the hillsides and wondering aimlessly through the streets.
- Lake Dukan’s 85°F, crystal clear, deep waters and craggy cliffs that are a perfect recipe for daring 50-foot jumps that remind you how to face your fears.
- Zero percent humidity all summer long.
- Taxi fees based on destination rather than time mean four-dollar taxi rides to pretty much anywhere in Sulaymaniyah, regardless of traffic.
- Sulaymaniyah’s bazaar – I went about twenty times, got lost almost every time, and never even saw the whole thing.
- Perspective – talking to so many people who have lived through incomprehensible suffering and oppression, but have come out positive on the other side.
- The still of the morning as the sun rises unnaturally early at 4:00am, followed by cloudless sunshine all day long, ending with magnificently giant sunsets in Margepan Valley.
- The limitless hospitality of the many Arabs and Kurds who welcomed me with kindness and gratitude, opened their homes and their families to me, and took exceptional care for my health and safety throughout my time in their beautiful country.
On my last night, Nature Iraq’s CEO picked me up at my apartment, like so many other nights before, for one more dinner out. Most of the office met us at my favorite restaurant, Eiliah Café, for some traditional Middle Eastern fare: hummus, baba ganoush, the red stuff, fatoush, and my favorite meat dish: kofta al seikh. It was no different than my first dinner out with them – same restaurant, even. Everyone chatted about work and family, and it was only about me when people got up to leave and say goodbye, which I preferred. At the end of the evening, they presented me with a book, Return to the Marshes by Gavin Young (1977), as a thank-you gift and an expression of their hopes that I will return someday soon. I hope I do.