Kurdish Iraq and the Temple at Lalish

Dohuk, Iraq – We found Nikson loitering outside the hotel; or Nikson found us. In a white t-shirt, jeans, high-top sneakers, and messy spiked hair, he could have been any seventeen-year-old from Brooklyn. Nikson asked if we were military and I chuckled awkwardly. Foreign service? No. Contractors? No. We were standing on a street corner in Dohuk, Iraq—three friends and I—wearing giant backpacks and fussing about where to sleep. Nikson was peppering us with questions when a muscular white guy with a shaved head and sunglasses walked past: everything alright fellas? Yes—yup—yeah—yes, we responded like freshman at roll call. Then he was gone (the only foreigner we ever saw on the streets of Iraq). Private security, Nikson said dismissively. Although we suspected he was angling for tips, we decided to accept his advice. As it turned out, there was more to Nikson than we initially knew…

An hour later we were settled into two simple but comfortable hotel rooms. After posing for photos with a large group of young Kurdish men from the rooms next door, we were enjoying the buzz of arriving in a new country. In one room, Jimmy tossed Iraqi banknotes in the air and photographed them. Then he lined them up one by one and took more pictures. I lay on my bed watching, thinking this was a bit dark. But Jimmy is a bit quirky and we liked it (anyone who travels by land and sea from Holland to Australia is a bit quirky). Next door, Tom and Quan were resting form the day’s trip. Northern Iraq was a funny place to spend Labor Day weekend, but that’s exactly what we were doing.

Entering the country proved simpler than expected. Our bus from Mardin had followed the Syrian border for three-hours, flirting briefly with the Tigris River, before arriving in the dusty border town of Silopi. From there, a jeep took us into town for some paperwork before whisking us south out toward the Iraqi border. Coming to a long queue of cars, our driver stepped out with our passports to jockey with a dozen other men for Turkish exit stamps. Thirty minutes later we were on the other side of the checkpoint, sitting in a modern, air-conditioned waiting room with leather chairs—this was the entry point for Iraqi Kurdistan. After some brief questioning, the border officers stamped us into Iraq for twelve days and that was that.

On the Iraqi side we swapped about $40 in Turkish lira for enough Iraqi dinar to get to Dohuk and hired a driver to take us the 45 miles. Sometimes, in countries with limited transportation infrastructure, travel is remarkably easy because you have no choice but to hire private transportation—Iraq is one of those countries. And so, before long we were in Dohuk taking in a new country. So far, Iraq presented no surprises.

Photo: Tom and Jimmy enjoy posh chairs at the checkpoint to enter Kurdish Iraq—very different from the corresponding Turkish post.

Photo: These guys were staying in the rooms next door and insisted on photos, so we obliged. Behind us, the windows to Quan’s and Tom’s room (weird).

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Photo: Classic Jimmy. In fact, Iraqi money is really colorful and pretty. Do your thing, Jimmy.

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Photo: Littlest bed EVER.

* * * *

“I want to go to Alabama,” Nikson said in perfect English.

We were sitting upstairs at a hole-in-the-wall eatery, filling ourselves with soup, donor kabab, salad and pita. Nikson had been waiting for us at the door to the hotel when we left and offered to show us a great local eating spot. It was perfect—the food was cheap and good and the customers were few and paid us relatively little attention.

“Alabama?” I said with disgust. “Nikson, nobody wants to go to Alabama.”

“My friend lives in Alabama. And I have a friend in Florida.”

“That makes no sense,” was my only rebuttal.

“My friend Mike lives in Florida,” he continued.

In fact, Nikson did have friends in these places—he was talking about friends he’d made in Iraq. Thousands of U.S. troops passed through Northern Iraq during the eight-year war. Not only that, because Kurdish Iraq was a relatively safe region, it became a common place for U.S. troops to spend R&R. Nikson—ten or twelve then—met these troops, learned English by running errands, and eventually became their friend (and Nikson wasn’t alone—we met another young kid with a similar story). Fast-forward to 2011: the war is winding down, many of the troops have left, and there are young Kurdish kids in Dohuk with very good English, access to Facebook, and U.S. friends in places like Alabama.

“Okay, but Alabama?”

“Yeah, I want to go,” Nikson said. He must have said it three times. I frowned.

When we first met Nikson I thought he wanted money, but as it turned out he was just looking for friends. Like so many kids you meet while traveling, he wanted to practice his English. But he was also in love with America. Nikson was into rap (himself a rapper) and asked which artists we liked. And his interest translated into a selfless desire to help: he walked us through the bazaar, translated for us, and offered tips on Dohuk. He just wanted to be around some Americans. And we took to Nikson as well, asking about his friends and even getting a little defensive when a local shopkeep got hostile with him over some past grudge.

Nikson turned out to be a great kid and tremendous help. Maybe it was naïve, but I found myself feeling sad at the thought that he had made friends only to have them wrenched away after the war. He might never make it to Alabama, and here I was visiting his country without any personal connection at all.

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Photo: Kids shining shoes outside our hotel in Dohuk.

Photo: Nikson takes us to a yummy little restaurant for food.

* * * *

The next day we rose early for the trip to Lalish. Lalish is the religious center of Yazidism and my reason for coming to Iraq. Yazidism is an ancient faith endemic to the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, called Yazidism. The 13th century temple at Lalish, important as the burial place of Sheikh Adi, is the most holy pilgrimage site for Yazidis. Its curious theology, which draws on elements of Zoroastrian (sun-worship), Islam (mythic figures), Hinduism (reincarnation), and Christianity (Easter eggs), has led to a lot of confusion about the religion. For instance, Yazidis have been accused of devil-worship, because its creation myth begins with the central figure, Tawûsê Melek, who is identified with Satan in the Christian and Muslim traditions). But it’s a fascinating faith that I wanted to know more about. Oh, and Easter eggs.

The sun was low as we approached the village, and it seemed there could be nothing at all out here in the empty plains of northern Iraq. But several kilometers from Lalish the horizon began to bow under the weight of the Zagros and Bitlis Mountains (which separate Iraq from Iran and Turkey) and we approached a narrow green valley cradled in a wrinkle of low foothills. The road ended in a narrow, leafy path between several buildings where a few people stood around chatting. Otherwise there was no activity—Lalish looked like a very small cluster of homes.

We parked the car and got out to look around. Jimmie went off down a path to poke around the houses while I waited back awkwardly: we didn’t know how to find the temple, couldn’t communicate with anyone, and I felt like an interloper in their village. Disappointment was beginning to set in when two men appeared down a path between two buildings. They wore beards and keffiyas and one was carrying a soiled black pot in his hands. They would approach the exterior wall of home, dip a length of wick into the pot, then light it on fire and stick it to the wall. Then the walked further down the path and did this again, each time in a spot already blackened by oil. I was watching with curiosity when one man looked up and seeing me gestured to follow them. So I did.

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Photo: Nestled in these hills—30 miles north of Mosul—is the village of Lalish.

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Photo: Two men carry a bowl of oil and a bundle of wicks as they walk through Lalish shortly before dusk.

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Photos: Each day, 365 flames are placed throughout the village—a remnant of the Zoroastrian influince on the Yazidi religion.

Photo: Days, months, years, maybe centuries of tradition, is collected in this great spiritual center of the Yazidi faith.

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Photo: A small square near the entrance to Yazidism’s most sacred temple. On some days it’s full of Yazidi pilgrims.

For some time I followed the two men as they attached the burning wicks to buildings—inside and out—uncertain about its meaning. Eventually we emerged into a small square where the main temple stood, where the men gestured toward the temple door and continued on their way. To our luck, several Arabic-speaking men were emerging from the entrance and one approached us. His name was Loqman he was a journalist from Erbil, recording and retelling the history of Lalish. Loqman was extremely generous and took time to explain to us the rituals and beliefs of Yizidism (the fire, festivals, and Easter eggs, for instance), and he walked us through the temple.

The temple interior was fascinating. In the first room was a large space with wide pillars, and wrapped around the pillars were knotted sheathes of beautiful bright silks. As we passed from room to room, continuing deeper into the hillside, the rooms grew smaller and older in appearance: from high walls of small brick to tighter spaces of large stone, then hewn-rock caves, and eventually what looked like a crawl-space sealed by stone. Along the way we passed tombs and pots for carrying oil.

Our taxi-man had come with us, and he enjoined us to follow him down a narrow passage. I was asked to remove our shoes and discovered cold wet stone beneath my feet. Water was trickling from a crawlspace near the floor, and so we crouched and continued on through the space. On the other side a small pool collected cold water emerging from a spring in the floor. Our driver got on his knees and performed ablutions. Seeming moved, he asked us to take a picture, so we did.

After some time, we returned to the courtyard outside the temple where Loqman was waiting. We thanked him and said our goodbyes and began the journey back to Dohuk—a little mystified but very impressed.

Photo: The first entry to the temple at Lalish. Pilgrims tie silks around these pillars, with knots to represent their problems. When others untie and tie them again, the problems will be solved.

Photo: One of the later rooms—quite old and filled with large pots.

Photo: Quan and Tom pose with our driver at Zam Zam—one of two sacred springs deep within the temple complex. This one is a “spring of life.”

* * * *

It was nearly dark when we drove back to Dohuk. Along the way we arrived at a military checkpoint where we were stopped by Kurdish soldiers and asked for our passports. We handed them forward.

“Uh guys,” Tom hesitated, looking at us from the front seat. Oh no—he didn’t have it. He didn’t have his passport. He didn’t bring it. Oh shit. Now what? Our driver spoke to the soldier and turned to Tom.

“You must go.”

The soldier walked around to the passenger side of the car and Tom began searching his pockets for something. He pulled out piece of white paper and unfolded it for us to see. It was a passport photocopy.

“I have this. Will it work?” You could tell he didn’t want to get out of the car, and I didn’t blame him.

“He says to go.”

And so Tom got out of the car and we watched him—probably for the last time—as he walked with the soldier up a slope toward a small hastily assembled building with windows obscured by blinds. I took one last look as he entered, certain that Tom would never be seen again except in grizzly ransom photos. At least he seemed calm, and I was grateful for that.

Once the two of them were inside, we started to think about leaving—or at least I did. There was no sense in waiting. Who could blame us? Tom would have done the same. He would want us to leave.  Any minute we’d see his silhouette thrown violently against the window blinds and a gunshot would ring out. Or the soldier would exit the little shack cleaning his hands with a small handkerchief and offer a dish of some curious meat to some hungry, stray dogs. It was clear where this was headed and it was only right not to watch. No question: it was time to leave. Jimmy could tell Tom’s family.

And then Tom walked out. He had a polite English smile on his face and was cordial with the soldier. He hopped in the car, stuffed the folded paper away, and turned to give us an “aw shucks” smile. I was disappointed relieved.

“Did they hurt you?” I asked, maybe a bit hopeful.

Nope. In fact, Tom was questioned and politely reminded to carry proper papers in the future. Of course, I thought. No reason to worry. So we started the car and headed home.

* * * *

Photo: The beautiful view from Amadiya, as seen from the 14th century Badinan Gate—another stop on our trip to Lalish.

Photo: Our crew—cool as the Breakfast Club—at Amadiya.

In the remainder of our time we visited Erbil further to the south before leaving Iraq the way we had come. We didn’t see Nikson again, and once across the border our small group began to fracture. Jimmy and I made for Diyarbakir while Tom and Quan returned to Mardin to collect their bags. Jimmy was continuing east through Iran on his flightless journey across Asia (I bumped into him coincidentally nine months later in Nepal). Tom had recently been christened a barrister and was spending some days in Istanbul before returning to England. Quan was heading into the Caucasus, and we planned to meet in Georgia in ten days or so. As for myself, I was making my way north along the Iranian border toward the medieval Armenian city of Ani.

That night in Diyarbakir, I hailed a ride destined for Van (pronounced WAHN). This was dolmus-country—no buses—so it was going to be a long night.  For ten hours I sat crammed into thedolmus with countless other people, unable to sleep. We stopped frequently to pick up or drop off passengers, and at one point a little old man sat on my lap for lack of space. The air grew cold, and at mountainous bends our car lights revealed greenery on the roadside. I tucked in under a heavy shirt and in the morning found myself 1200 meters higher, in the lakeside town of Van. It was still Eastern Turkey, but it was already a very different Turkey than the one I had left.

*Note: I wanna give photo credit to my friends. We swapped pics while leaving Iraq, and I’ve inevitably used a couple of their great pics here. Thanks gentlemen!

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