Encounters in Kurdistan

Arriving at eight in the morning at Sanandaj, after a whole-night bus trip to Hamedan, after looking for a long distance taxi at five in the morning, after a hundred and fifty-five-kilometer taxi ride, squeezed together with two Kurds on the back seat, always higher on the serpentine road among the barren mountains, then, at the bottom of a valley opening wide, a multitude of concrete cubes: the capital city of Kurdistan. A bewildering mass of Kurdish trousers. Eating at eight in the morning the only dish served by the breakfast place of the bazaar, cream of wheat with cinnamon and sugar, childhood memories, only the wheat is different, and they mixed oil in to make it more nutritious. In the clothing rows of the bazaar, elegant mannequins dressed in elegant Kurdish clothes. Sitting at nine in the morning in the tea room of the bazaar, with Kurdish music lingering outside, old Kurdish merchants having a tea on the terrace, Kurdish-language talking around the four tables inside. The Kurds coming and leaving all palpate and judge a sport shoe that someone put out for sale next to the counter. This is a moment that I must described here, from here I have to take it with me, closed in the notebook, like a pebble from the shore of the sea.

Café 90, an old-fashioned café in Sanandaj’s old town. Hookah, backgammon, loud slapping of dice, guttural sounds of Kurdish speech. I look at my phone, here I finally have a signal. I open the laptop, all eyes across the room look upon me. I smile around, then I lean above the notebook. Tea is served, the boy in the brown Kurdish suit smiles at me, he asks in Kurdish, I reply in Persian as to where I came from. An Iranian, when asking kojahl, is not curious of your origins, but of where you live. In the pre-modern Iranian identity, the most important item is religion, the second is residence, while nationality and language are rather accidental. “May I take photos?” “Befârmaid”, he offers to me the whole coffee house with a generous gesture. An old Kurd appears in the crosshairs of my lens in the door, seems to be a teacher, he is greeted with great respect. He looks at me in surprise. “Kojahl?” “From Germany.” He comes to me, shaking my hands. “Angela Merkel is a great person. We will never forget to Germany what they did for us.” He embraces me and kisses me on either side. I feel embarrassed, I do not deserve this award, but it feels definitely better than what I would have received if it turned out that I am Hungarian.

Before Marivan, near the Iraqi border, a fifty-kilometer road snakes up onto one of the roofs of the world, the ridge of the Zagros, the village of Howraman. For thousands of years nobody could conquer this isolated valley, the few locals are farmers in contrast to the rest of the Kurds, of whom the passage of the armies for over a thousand years have made nomads. Even their language differs from that of the other Kurds. At the junction I get out of the minibus, I ask a taxi driver how much he would charge to take me up. Thirty thousand, he says, anxiously about whether I will accept it, seven and half euros. I take a seat in the car. “Today I sleep there, tomorrow I come back.” He does not reply, he is struggling. Finally he utters: “Then I have to go up twice, it is sixty thousand.” “Of course”, I assure him, “two going up, twice as much.” He relaxes, becomes joyful, tells about the region around us in a strong Kurdish accent, he pronounces the Persian v as ua, I am initially alarmed when he pronounces Marivan as Marihuana. He is also from the valley of Howraman. Adamhâ-ye ouramâni kheyli khuband, the people of Howraman are very good, he tells many times. When we get to the point from where cars cannot go on, I continue my way on foot. I heard that there was a small hotel in the village, but no, it is just being built. But the owner does not let me down. “I will send you to a family here, they usually accept guests, they will give a good dinner, they will give a good breakfast.” Lonely Planet also says that the people of Howraman are so hospitable that it is difficult to leave them, so I do not worry. The head of family receives me in silence, shows me the neglected rooms, I sleep on the earth. There is no word about dinner, nor of breakfast. Which does not matter in itself, I always have some tins with me, but I exactly understand that in their hospitable culture this behavior means that they do not consider me a person, just like when the Europeans intrude with their cameras into the intime sphere of locals, like among monkeys. I am angry. The next day at noon the taxi waits for me at the same place. “Ouramân khub bûd?”, that is, whether Howraman good was. Kheyli khashang bûd, it was beautiful, I reply. Ham khâne khub bûd? the house was also good? Khâne khub bûd, vali adamhâ khub nabûdand, the house was good, but the people not, I say. He is shocked. Why, what happened? They did not even give me a cup of tea, I say. He also exactly knows what it means, he falls silent. The cheerfulness of yesterday completely abandons him, he grimly sits behind the wheel. Before arriving at Marivan, he stops at a butcher’s shop, he buys meat, he buys warm bread. A little later he stops in front of his own house. “We go in, we have lunch, is it all right?” he asks. “All right”, I say. While the lunch is being cooked, he feeds me with walnuts and grapes grown in his own garden in Howraman, we look at family photos. Beautiful girls on the blossoming spring Kurdish mountains, he and his wife in the meadows of Howraman. “Really beautiful pictures”, I say. “The people of Howraman are very good”, I say.

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In torn pants, dusty shoes, dirty shirt, with a scaly face from the mountain sunshine, sleepless and unwashed I enter the best hotel of Kurdistan. The four-star Hotel Shadi rises as a hypermodern castle on the hilltop above the capital city of Kurdistan, the proud red inscription lights from far on its facade. I did not intend to stay for the night in Sanandaj, but the minibus from Marivan was delayed for several hours, and this was the only hotel whose name I could tell the driver. The receptionist seems not to wonder. “Two hundred eighty thousand, but we can give you a discount of eighty, so two hundred thousand, that is, fifty euros.” “Let it be.” A wonderful view of the city, good wifi, quiet, work until dawn, tomorrow I will sleep anyway on the bus to Kashan, for which I also order a ticket for 11 a.m., I will be there at seven in the evening. An extensive breakfast, real coffee, I serve myself twice. At ten I go down with the backpack to the reception. “I am really sorry, they called us from the terminal, that the bus was canceled, it wil leave only at eight in the night.” That one will arrive at Kashan only on Thursday morning, completely tired, and in that evening I must start to guide the ten-day Iranian tour. “No matter, I will take long distance taxis.” “And why don’t you go by plane? It leaves at 11, it is half an hour to Tehran, then two hours to Kashan with bus.” It will not be cheap, but let it be. The girl is calling. “Unfortunately the ticket sale is closed. But wait a minute.” She speaks to someone in Kurdish, with great respect. “The boss called the captain of the airport, they will prepare a ticket for you.” I go by the hotel’s car, with a driver in uniform, even accompanied by a stewardess. In the airport I am arranged out of turn, the captain personally brings the ticket, with an aristocratic gesture he rejects payment. The hotel has repaid its price. In the waiting room, nicely printed free books to take away, poems and short stories in Kurdish and Persian. At the security check they let me take the camera out of the backpack. “Switch it on.” I do so, but it does not show anything, I have to shot a picture to make it appear working. The complete security apparatus appears on the LED. The inspector smiles with satisfaction, but he turns aside my offer to take a picture of him, too. Boarding some minutes later. Now I sit here above the clouds, sometimes I also take a picture of them. Soon we take off. I go to the Âzadi terminal, at three I will be in Kashan. I will have enough time to go to my favorite barber, in the evening for a tea in the garden of Shah Abbas, and tomorrow I will greet relaxed the group in the airport of Tehran. Welcome to the marvelous East.