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The Kurdish Steps


18 Aug 2010 20:3912 Comments

[ passport ] "I pray you do not get raped," a friend in north Tehran warned over voicemail after she heard I was headed to Kurdistan. The region is presented in the Iranian media as some sort of no man's land inhabited by mysterious people who do horrible things. Unlike other ethnic minority groups in Iran, few Kurds migrate to different parts of the country to find work, so few Iranians get to have many real-life experiences with them. They make a convenient scapegoat for the government. A Basiji once had the audacity to tell me that the Kurds were behind last year's post-election protests.

My guidebook paints a more accurate picture of Kurdistan -- it is said to be one of, if not the, most enjoyable regions for travelers in Iran, though few venture there. The region is very poor as the Kurds suffer from economic discrimination, just as they do in other countries. Kurdistan also bore the brunt of the Iran-Iraq War. My guidebook said that although Iranians are world-renowned for their hospitality, Kurds, unimaginably, take that hospitality a step further. I had to see how this was possible.

I loaded into a share taxi in Tabriz to make the 200-mile journey along the Turkish and Iraqi borders to Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan. The taxi driver, a skinny, gray-haired man with a receding hairline and only six intact teeth, looked harmless enough. Smiling, he decided not to wait for more passengers to fill up the taxi and negotiated a deal to take me on my own to Saqqez -- halfway to Sanandaj. Once on the road, we were surrounded by hills that turned from brownish-green to brown.

"Kurdistan, na," the taxi driver said to me through the rearview mirror, pushing out his fingers as if to say, No. He mimed taking off his imaginary headscarf, sighing in relief, giggling like a little girl. I had heard the dress requirements were relaxed in Kurdistan, but I was not about to take my headscarf off, especially not in front of this guy. "Na, merci," I answered. No, thanks. He laughed at me: Suit yourself.

Suddenly, on the right side of the highway, a tank appeared, several fires burning around it. Men ran by with guns drawn. My heart raced -- was this an Iran-Iraq conflict unfolding right before my eyes!? The driver paid no mind, and I realized that it must only be some sort of military exercise. A few minutes later, a large, bulbous structure loomed to the left in the distance. Just then, I remembered: There was a nuclear reactor site on this road. Crap, I thought -- an American woman this close to a nuclear reactor. A great way to be mistaken for a spy. I slumped down in the seat and made sure that my camera was at the very bottom of my bag. In the rearview, the driver's eyes were on me. I ignored the elephant in the room and looked in the opposite direction, pretending to be engrossed in the exceedingly dull landscape on that side. The driver said something involving the word "America" and broke into laughter. I ignored him.

We stopped in Piranshahr, by the Iraqi border. A melee of trucks, taxis, trucks, and personal cars exchanged giant bales of wire, vats of what looked like cooking oil, boxes of fruit, and exotic-looking passengers in all sorts of dress. We sat and waited. For what, I did not know. I began to sweat. Some men dressed in business suits looked at me curiously from the car parked next to ours. Paranoid, I tried not to make any eye contact, but then they waved and said, "Hello, how are you," in perfect English. I waved back, smiling nervously.

Soon after, we were at the agreed-upon destination, Saqqez, a small town that serves as a transportation hub. Along the main road is the share taxi stand, along with a line of stands selling cheese puffs, candies, batteries, soda, fruit, dolls, and a tiny kebab restaurant.

In front of the stands was a line of taxis, along with what can best be described as a taxi pimp -- a fast-talking 20-something with a wad of cash. Dramatically he shouted out destinations, arranging passengers with the appropriate vehicle. I walked past him, seeking food before transportation. I passed a smiling taxi driver cleaning the windshield on an otherwise spotless new yellow cab. He had a headful of thick, black, helmet-like hair and a mustache. He was wearing a pressed button-down brown shirt and the standard Kurdish pants -- dark gray baggy trousers with about a thousand pleats around his belly. He looked kind.

As I paced, trying to decide what to eat, many people tried to help me. I heard a heavily accented "Hello, do you -- speak En-glish?" It was the taxi driver. "Baleh," I answered in Farsi. Yes. "I speak En-glish," he said, smiling proudly. "Wonderful, nice to meet you," I responded, relieved.

He looked back at me, smiling while clenching his teeth, just as I have done so many times in Iran: I have no idea what you're saying. A young, attractive woman wearing eyeglasses and a blue headscarf interjected, "He is concerned for you -- he wanted to be sure that you got something to eat, and that you know where you are going." She explained she was one of his passengers in a share leaving for Sanandaj.

Excited that this woman who spoke English and the kind-looking man I noticed earlier were headed where I was, I asked if they had room. I did not realize that the taxi was already full -- that they had just stayed as long as they did just to be sure I was okay. A conversation between the woman and the driver ensued, and a moment later the driver was taking a brown leather briefcase out of the trunk, handing it to an unbelievably tall, skinny man in a white dress shirt and slacks. I realized that they were making space for me by kicking him out. "No, no, no," I pleaded. The skinny man smiled, put his hand out, and bowed his head slightly as if to say, Please, it's no problem. The woman translated, "He insists."

Once in the car, we got into road trip mode. The driver -- Mr. Mohammad -- and the three other passengers took turns telling stories of Kurdistan. We snapped photographs of flower-carpeted valleys and drank juice. The woman, a 30-year-old lawyer, originally from Tehran and now living in Saqqez, informed me that she made the two-and-a-half-hour journey to Sanandaj every week so that she could go to therapy.

Mr. Mohammad and the passengers began asking where I was going to stay in Sanandaj. I showed them my guidebook, explaining that there were many hotels there. Their raised eyebrows and glances at each other suggested they were not comfortable with my response. "The taxi-man would like to invite you to his home -- his daughter speaks English," the lawyer announced. This was a very generous gesture, but I did not want to impose. He again insisted that his wife and two daughters would love to have me as a guest. The lawyer told me that she rode with him every week and that, in her opinion, he was a good and trustworthy man.

I decided, What the hell -- I've never stayed at my taxi driver's house before. If there was ever going to be a time, this was it. The passengers breathed a sigh of relief as I told them that I accepted the invitation. They wanted to be sure that I felt comfortable, so we all went to the language institute where Mr. Mohammad was picking up his daughter from English school. I imagined she would end up my informal interpreter. Learning the ins and outs of Kurdistan from her, I'd leave there much more knowledgeable.

Mr. Mohammad's wife, his sister, and her husband also met us at the institute. The English-speaking daughter turned out to be an adorable ten-year-old ponytailed girl carrying a Dora the Explorer book bag. No matter what I asked her -- How old are you? Where do you live? Do you like English? -- she was likely to respond, "I'm fine, thank you." She was my linguistic twin, matching what I could do in Farsi. Sign language would have to do.

We went to an ice cream shop. As rosewater creaminess melted in our mouths, I tried to explain that I do not eat meat, acting out an elaborate nonverbal hunting ordeal. I had already experimented with not telling people this and then inconspicuously skipping all meat dishes. But I quickly learned that my eating habits would be closely monitored, and that to some, if you do not eat meat, you are not eating at all. For a guest to be hungry, to lose weight or even merely maintain it while in a host's care seems to be an Iranian's worst nightmare. Bread, vegetables, fruit, and milk products don't count as food -- eating them is like eating air. People were often baffled that I had not died from not eating meat for 18 years. Countless mothers across Iran studied me during meals, brows furrowed, heartbroken and perplexed.

The Mohammads were good sports. They humored me by preparing and eating a macaroni dish for dinner -- feigning nods of approval, but ignoring my nonverbal insistence that they eat meat. Instances like this, I wish I was not a vegetarian.

After dinner, we carried on as the next days would repeatedly unfold: tea, looking through family photo albums, conversations I could just vaguely understand, and Kurdish lessons. The Mohammads were consistently sweet and caring, even when they had no idea what I was doing or saying. When extended family came, questions shifted to American pop culture -- Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lopez. The background soundtrack for all of this was the hum of Kurdish electronic music accompanying Kurdish dancing on what can best be described as Kurdish MTV.

From what I could tell, Kurdish dancing was relatively easy and did not require huge amounts of effort or stamina -- maybe that why everybody was doing it? The men and women hooked arms or held hands, all facing in the same direction in one long row, rocking back and forth at the waist, bending at the knee every now and again. Their feet moved about as their shoulders rose slightly and then fell. At times, the looks on the dancer's faces resembled boredom. At times, it looked as if they were unaware that that were dancing at all.

The Mohammads pulled distant relatives' wedding videos out -- more interesting dance ritual unfolded. In one video, the bride did some sort of an innocent lap dance in front of the groom while he looked through her, seemingly bored, even nauseous at times. Once he acknowledged that the bride indeed existed, they dipped their pinkie fingers into a jar of honey, then placed their pinkies in each other's mouths and sucked the honey off.

After the photo albums, home movies, and MTV, Mr. Mohammad himself broke into dance. He breathed new life into it, smiling enthusiastically, jubilantly waving a white handkerchief in the air to the electronic beats while hooking elbows with his daughter and sister. He was a better dancer than any of the MTV pros. He led the ladies around in a slow circle, bending slightly at the waist, moving his legs once in a while as if doing an Irish jig. His soft-spoken teenage daughter giggled, appearing somewhat embarrassed -- like teenagers the world over. She begged me to step in as her replacement: "Missus Michelle, please!"

Taking her place, I quickly learned the dance was much more complicated than I had first thought. As if working by intuition, it required tuning into those with whom you danced -- not looking at them, yet moving both shoulders and feet at the same exact time. I caught my reflection in a mirror -- straight-faced and serious, like the dancers I had earlier found so amusing. -- July 2008

Michelle May is a San Francisco-based travel writer and blogs here. Homepage photo of posters on a wall in Kurdistan, Iran, by Kombizz Kashani.

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How lovely!

PearlG / August 18, 2010 7:37 PM

Thanks for the previous article and this one. i enjoyed it.

persianTraveler / August 18, 2010 7:56 PM

O! and for those of you who need some pictures from her trip to iran , you might want to check this out.

persianTraveler / August 18, 2010 7:59 PM

Some body stop me!!
I love her Mantoo or whatever it's called. I miss Isfahan too. Gosch i want to go home, to shiraz!


persianTraveler / August 18, 2010 8:02 PM


Your blogs are fabulous, I envy your freedom to travel in Iran and Kurdistan. Are you by chance writing a book? BTW- I met a Kurdish medical doctor visiting from Turkey who was all about dancing! . . . and sufi-hugging! (can't describe what he did, any other way). I wish we could all just open up our borders, throw away suspision, and enjoy one another.

goonjeshk / August 18, 2010 10:12 PM

Thank you so much for the comments everyone. PersianTraveler you don't have to stop -- I love it. Goonjeshk, You are correct: I am writing a book. And I think I know the Sufi hug you speak of -- that will be next week's installment! Stay tuned. I appreciate all of your support, MM

Michelle May / August 18, 2010 11:45 PM

Back in the 1970s, we drove straight across the length of Turkish and Iranian Kurdistan, while active hostilities were taking place.

Like the initial tone of this travel piece, my Iranian aunt was horrified when we ultimately showed at her place in northern Tehran, telling her our own travel story.

Pirouz / August 19, 2010 1:56 AM

It was amazing! I admire your courage and your interest Michelle!

Omid / August 19, 2010 3:19 AM

Another beautiful blog, told with great spirit, compassion and honesty. You are an insightful (and lovable!) guide, and I enjoy these journeys with you immensely.

Jeff Greenwald / August 20, 2010 10:17 PM

as a kurd from kermanshah living aboard, enjoyed every line of it


Alal / August 22, 2010 7:40 PM

Hey Michelle,
Thank you for sharing this and thanks for your honest opinions. I really enjoyed it.

Beyan / August 28, 2010 12:27 PM

Thank you Michelle for your positive view of Kurdistan, and I am glad that your visit to Kurdistan was a memorable one.
I hope many more North Americans get the chance to visit the land of the worlds largest nation without a state.

Sam / August 28, 2010 12:39 PM