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3 Days as a Guest in a Kurdish Home

Inside a Kurdish Home with my hosts Araz and his mother

Kurdish people are notoriously friendly! So much so, that I got a ton of invitations to visit them from people, who merely saw my public trip on Couchsurfing.

While I was in Iraqi Kurdistan, I hitchhiked all around the region and I had many locals offer me help, food, and even lodging.

That was the case with Araz, who invited me to visit his Kurdish home in Qaladiza, a small town in the east of the region.

My arrival

I took a shared taxi from Erbil to get to Qaladiza. Shared taxis are the most common way to travel in Iraqi Kurdistan. Albeit not the cheapest (the minibuses are cheaper by almost 30%), these are much more convenient, as the buses only go at set times; in my case late in the afternoon.

Traveling in Iraqi Kurdistan is always marked by the occasional Peshmerga Checkpoint. While most times it’s a routine check that takes seconds, I had this bizarre experience when it took an hour, and all my luggage was checked.

Anyway, that was after my visit to Qaladiza (or sometimes spelled Qaladze, I’ll alternate).

Arriving at 2 PM in Qaladze I was very hungry, so I decided to grab a kebab while waiting for Araz to finish work and meet up. I let him know where I was and surprisingly to me, he was at the kebab shop in less than 10 minutes.

I was already finishing, but he insisted on paying! I somehow managed to give 3000 IQD / 2.3$ to the cashier before Araz (later in my journey, in a similar situation in Kuwait, I would be too slow). Muslim hospitality is like that. Kurdish hospitality is like that even more.

Sizzling kebabs in Kurdistan

Qaladze: A brief overview

Qaladze is a small town of about 100.000 in the Sulaymaniyah Governorate of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. It has a really troubled history and is only vaguely famous but for all the sad reasons.

In 1974 it was heavily bombed by the Saddam Hussein government and more than 350 people were killed, of which more than 150 were students and children.

Ostensibly, the attack came as a response to the transfer of Sulaymaniyah’s University to Qaladze, now under Mustafa Barzani, a Kurdish leader and a strong political figure of the time.

It was once again a target during the Iraq-Iran war and utterly destroyed, forcing its residents to relocate to other nearby villages. They only started coming back to Qaladitza after 1991. Practically everything you see in Qaladitza today is less than 30 years old.

Day 1

The home

Araz’s home was only 10 min on foot from the main street. More than welcome, when you’re carrying a 13 kg backpack in 38-degree heat.

It was a one-story house, well-kept. As with any Muslim home, leave your shoes at the door.

My first impression inside was just how much empty space there was. Every room had a nice soft carpet that covered the entire floor, but there was no furniture. Literally zero chairs, no table, no cupboards, no wardrobes, no shelves, nothing.

I found out why that was later during my stay – to accommodate the large family that visits often. See, Araz has 3 brothers and 3 sisters but is the only one not married yet. As such, he still lives at home, whereas all his siblings have formed families in their own nests. But everyone meets at Araz’s mother’s house.

On a regular day, there’d be a cousin or an uncle who visited in the morning, an aunt or a sister with a newborn in the afternoon, and a few families coming over for dinner. The house was never empty.

A trip to Qaladze Citadel

Later in the afternoon, when the sun was more forgiving, Araz and I went out to meet one of his friends and go to the Citadel. Now, don’t imagine anything remotely similar to the Erbil Citadel. Qaladze Citadel was big and impressive, but the key word in this sentence is “was”.

Qaladze Citadel was completely destroyed in the Anfal Campaign of the Iraqi Government’s war against the Kurds in the 1980s.

Today, there’s an impressive mound standing there, but nothing on top of it. The only reason to climb it nowadays seems to be for a nice place to picnic and to see the city from above.

Qaladze Citadel
The view from Qaladze Citadel

Day 2

Lake Dukan

On the next day, Araz organized one of his uncles to pick us up and go to Dukan Lake, which is the biggest lake in Iraqi Kurdistan.

It’s a beautiful place, that carries another sad story, unfortunately. See, the Lake (created by the artificial Dukan Dam) may be in Iraqi Kurdistan, but the water flowing into it comes from outside, namely Iran and Federal Iraq. Both are not on the best terms with the local government in Kurdistan and frequently restrict the amount of water flowing toward Lake Dukan.

This means that there is way less water in the lake now than ever before. So much so, that there on the rocky coast, according to my map, I was at least 100 m into the water.

No friends, but the mountains

Kurdish proverb

At Dukan Lake, we swam, had fruits and snacks, and enjoyed the sunset. It’s the local Kurds’ only way to experience something like the sea – because being landlocked, surrounded by enemies, and having one of the worst passports in the world certainly doesn’t help with sea vacations.

Tea Culture

Back home I had my evening tea. Everyone in the Middle East drinks a ton of tea and the Kurds are no exception. Let me tell you – their tea is exceptional!

Kurds drink tea with breakfast, post-breakfast, between breakfast and lunch, with lunch, with the afternoon snack, with the post-afternoon snack, when they don’t have what to do until dinner, when they are socializing with friends, with dinner, after dinner, before bed and these are probably only scratching the surface.

During my 3 days in Qaladze, I probably drank over 40 cups of tea. Yup, more than 10 per day.

You can’t see the tea, but I swear, it’s there somewhere

Your house, your rules

I try to always be considerate to my Couchsurfing hosts. But there were many things I didn’t know about Kurdish culture and what not to do in a Kurdish home. Here are some rules, so you don’t make my mistakes:

  • Take off your shoes at the entrance – that should go without saying;
  • If another person enters the room, stand up and greet them;
  • Do NOT shake the hands of girls and women, just a small wave from a distance is enough with them;
  • Wear long pants, even inside;
  • Never show any nudity apart from your hands, arms, and neck. When taking a shower, have all your new clothes with you, change inside, and then walk out dressed;
  • If you’re sitting on the ground (as many Kurdish homes do not have furniture to make more space for big families), do NOT sit with your legs straight and the soles of your feet pointing at someone. It’s considered rude. Instead, cross your legs or fold them towards you;
  • Do NOT lie on the ground when there are other people in the room;
  • Say “Dasrhosh (extra polite thanks) and “Spas” (thanks) when given something or someone buys something for you.
The inside of Araz's Kurdish home.
Notice how everyone has their legs folded toward them

Day 3

During my third day there I really got to see what life is like for people in Qaladze.

Not much happens during the day. Araz only works 2 days per week, so he has a lot of time on his hands. Many people in Qaladze (and Kurdistan in general) don’t work at all. Unemployment is rampant.

All throughout the day there are men on the streets and the cafes, just loitering, playing cards or dominos, gossiping, and whatnot. We went to the tea house, then the cultural center, then the main square and the market. There just isn’t much happening in the day-to-day life of unmarried men in rural Kurdistan.

It evoked a sense of pity in me. These people can’t go anywhere else for better options. They can’t leave the country. They are enemies to everyone around them. And on top of that, their government is so corrupt that there aren’t enough opportunities for everyone. Truly a horrible combination.

Still, somehow, Kurds manage to keep their spirits high and make do with what they have. It was for sure one of the happiest and kindest nations I’ve come across in my travels. And for this, I’m thankful.

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