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Chapter 13: Learning

Erbil to Mosul. April 18.

I am the first person to admit that I'm ignorant about most things that I have neither yet encountered directly nor developed a personal interest in. It pains my father that I don't bother to read or watch news, and it shocks some people of how little I often know about a place before going. Sometimes it even shocks myself.

After doing a morning sightseeing ride in Erbil, I headed to Mosul completely in the blind. Basically, all I knew was that it was located at a comfortable distance for one day of cycling on flat roads, and that from there I could access Akre next in a similar fashion. Obviously I knew it was safe enough that the locals and expats encouraged (or at least not actively discouraged) me to go, but that was it. If you have been following the news at all the past ten years, chance are you knew more things about Mosul than I did when I hopped on the highway, heading west from Erbil.

One relevant thing I didn't know was that I'd be leaving the autonomous region of Kurdistan. A Peshmerga guard (Kurdish military) on the last kurdish checkpoint warned me to be careful in Mosul. "It is not safe, not like in Erbil." That was a personal advice, not official guidelines, and so I thanked him and largely ignored it. I train myself to respect people's fears, but also to identify them for what they are: their problems and not mine. I had heard some Kurds being afraid and actively disliking Federal Iraq in part or entirety, and would continue to hear more anxious voices about places I had already come to like for the people I met there. This is especially true for Mosul. Having all history in mind, I don't judge these fearful people one bit, but their perspective is not mine.

While neither the warning from the Kurdish guard nor the lunch I was given by the Iraqi military at the following checkpoint were enough for me to get the hint, the change of atmosphere upon reaching the outskirts of Mosul was impossible even for me to miss. While the shifts had been subtle on my crossing to Kalar and gradual between kurdish towns and cities, going from Erbil to Mosul was like switching country, or even continent, completely. The cities are similar in size but where Erbil is shiny and new, Mosul is dusty and old. In fact, it is one of the oldest cities in the world, another thing I didn't yet know. For being a modern city, Erbil felt calm. In Mosul, I was directly thrown into the bustling bazaars and chaotic traffic, and the smidge of normalness about being a foreigner on a bicycle that Erbil could muster was long gone. I had literally cycled to the wild west... and I kind of liked it.

During the day I had been lucky to find hospitality through Krista from Canada and was taken in at the generosity of the family of her husband Ali. While I had already dipped my toes in traditional house rules of Iraqi families, now I was thrown in the ocean and it was apparent I had much to learn. I had excellent help to make sure I did not drown or drag someone else under in panic, and it was well needed.

Perhaps a better analogy than swimming is that of acting in a theatre. The play of the traditional household is not complicated per se, but you have to know your role, your script and your cues. If you don't, the others cannot play their parts. Your role as an adult is largely determined by three dichotomies. Firstly, whether you are man or woman. Secondly, whether you are a guest or from the hosting family. Thirdly, whether you are married or not. Thus, I was to play the role of an unmarried male guest. It sounds simple enough, but if you are unsure of your role, and each cue is new to you, it is much trickier.

For instance, at lunch time. Food was cooked by the women, whom I should not approach as a man and who would not be introduced to me as I was unmarried. As a guest I should not help with cooking anyhow, so I waited in the reception room until I was called for. So far, I had played my part well. But then, after eating, it fell apart. I ate pretty fast and finished before some others. The polite thing to do, or so I have been raised, is to remain seated until everyone is finished and the lunch is officially over. And so I did, and after going to the bathroom, I returned to show my willingness to socialise. Dead wrong.

In Iraq, families are big (though they are getting smaller for each generation), and most rooms for eating are small, so everyone cannot eat at the same time. Genders are generally separated and women play supporting roles, so men eat first. The gender separation is also for muslim women to be able to dress more light and comfortable in their home, and a benefit of eating later is that you can linger at the table to socialise... But only once the men have left, especially the unmarried male guest. There I was, on my high horse thinking I was the one treating women well as a member of a progressive society, all while preventing the women from eating.

Iraqis have a wonderful habit of seeing their guest in the best possible light. My awkwardness was never met with anger, frustration or impatience. Instead there was curious caring with a touch of worry, like that of one with a mysterious mental illness; how can a grown man know so little about his place in the world? How will he take care of himself and a family? Perhaps the answer to the constant question of why I am not married became obvious once I was seen interacting in the household. Looking at myself and my quest, who am I to say that their worries are unfounded?

In Mosul I learned that the city is indeed in Federal Iraq, that it is one of the oldest in the world and what a traditional family flow is like, even though I still cannot play my role without someone feeding me lines. I also learned what many of you already knew from the news, that Mosul was the heart of the civil war with Daesh, also known as IS/ISIS and that it was completely destroyed by bomb raids from the coalition forces. Finding out first hand was... unsettling.


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