Sulaymaniyah is a town in northeast Iraq not too far from the Iranian border. Apparently there is a bit of a rivalry between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah as both are big cities and both wanted to be capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. In the end Erbil is the capital, but you may want to answer carefully when someone here asks if you like Erbil or Sulaymaniyah better.
I arrived in Sulaymaniyah just as Eid Al Adha was starting, the holiday celebrating Abraham’s devotion and willingness to sacrifice his son. I really, really wanted to experience Eid with a local family. Iraqi Kurds I met described it as their Christmas since gifts are customary, though the fervor isn’t there the way it is for Christmas in the West.
In sending out couchsurfing requests it seemed like all the Kurdish couchsurfers were busy with family things and/or traveling during Eid. Eid is normally a 3-day affair, but given that it fell right in the middle of the week this year most people were given the full week off making a 9-day vacation period including the weekends.
Ella, a British girl from the northeast of England accepted my couchsurfing request and told me she lives in a duplex house shared with an Iraqi Kurdish family. They are friendly and would certainly include her/us in festivities. PERFECT!
On the first night of Eid we went upstairs to see the family. Jamal is the father and he spoke English very well. He learned it in school and used it in addition to Norwegian when he moved to Norway in 1999. He has five kids, three from a previous marriage and two youngsters named Daniel and Helen from his current marriage.
He describes Daniel as crazy and I’m not one to disagree. He was a lot to handle. Helen, on the other hand, was an angel. She had a wonderful laugh and smile and took an instant liking to me. She liked being around me, whispered Kurdish words into my ear that I didn’t understand, and sang songs from school in search of applause and praise.
We spent the evening talking, playing with the kids, and just enjoying being alive. Jamal and his family are not particularly religious so for them it’s a holiday to focus on family and friends. That morning the call to prayer at sunrise lasted two hours. I guess there is a sermon on the morning of Eid al Adha and Eid al Fitr. It’s only twice a year, but he didn’t appreciate the disruption to his sleep. Me either by the way.
Eid is a time of feasting, celebrating Abraham’s devotion and also the pilgrims who have successfully completed their pilgrimage to Mecca. Jamal and his family nearly caused my stomach to burst. I couldn’t believe it and I don’t even know how I got up to leave.
The following day we visited with them again and much of the same ensued. Meeting Jamal and his family will be my memory of Sulaymaniyah forever.
Since I was there during the holiday, the museums I wanted to visit were closed. I thought about visiting Halabja. It’s a village 2 hours from Sulaymaniyah, right next to the Iranian border, where Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds. There is a museum (which would be closed) and a monument. A combination of laziness and sadness kept me from visiting.
I did visit the local market the day before Eid and for about half an hour I felt like I was back in India. It was very busy with everyone buying things for the holiday. I almost never buy things in markets save for food, but I needed a new British plug adapter. Mine wasn’t working well and I was able to find one for less than $2 and got it. I also got some sweets to try and just walked around seeing the locals doing their thing.
Sulaymaniyah has more parks than I would have expected. I guess it’s more than Erbil, but Erbil has an enormous park – Sami Shahid Park. Sulaymaniyah doesn’t have anything like that, but if you leave the city toward the north there are natural green areas.
The day before Eid I went to a café. I read online that it was a nice place to relax and grab some wifi. It was a café I probably wouldn’t have entered without the recommendation, but I’m glad I did. I ordered some lunch off the limited oral menu, had a coffee, and as they officially opened about an hour after I arrived, men started coming to meet up with friends, smoke shisha, play backgammon, and have fun. It’s the simple things that make life worth living and I think I saw that quite clearly in this café. Of course, it was too bad there were no women, but I guess that’s another story.
I have to say, I felt a bit sad leaving Iraq. I wished I could visit the south and see the incredible history there and hear the Arab Iraq story. I wished I could have explored more of Kurdistan, but it didn’t fit with my budget at all. Iraq is relatively expensive, at least when it comes to my world of traveling. But I am so glad I had the chance to experience these things and I know I’ll be back.