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Chapter 17: Chomen

I had cycled the 50 kilometers Soran to Choman without rush and, like many times before, hoped for Kurdistan to give me what I needed when I arrived. All I knew was that Choman was supposed to be a pretty place, that was it. When arriving I could immediately see that was true, but also that I would need help to reach the high spots that were the most attractive. And I wanted someone to share that beauty with.

Most of the time when engaging locally, there is one key connector that lead me to more people and experiences. After fishing for english speakers and a place to stay, I got offered a simple room at the culture house and accepted. Had I had a little more patience I could have stayed with a local man that showed up a moment later. In Choman my connector became Bakhtyar Bahjat, and I felt very relieved.

Being lost is not knowing where you are. Feeling lost is not knowing why you are there. Psychologically, it had been tougher going east as it was away from my goal and I would have to backtrack the same route. In Choman I felt lost until Bakhtyar showed up, but when he did I knew I had a purpose there, and that there would be moments to live and stories to tell from them. Bakhtyar offered to take me up to one of the high lakes, and the following day we went with a whole group of friends and their sons. On that day I got to see some of the struggles that these Iraqi men live with.

The road up got increasingly worse as the melting water had dug trenches right through it. Most Europeans would have turned around, or never went in the first place, but this was just a daily nuisance for the Iraqis. When the car got stuck, everybody but me knew exactly what to do, and after moving rocks to support the back wheel we eventually got the car unstuck only to stop right after upon reaching the glacier. 

There was still a climb to make to the lake, and we were all underdressed for the cold and the wet ground. I began to doubt the project but Bakhtyar had a mission and was used to bigger obstacles. We eventually made it, took our pictures, and came back down. It is the only place in Iraq that is ideal in the summer, and I could see how the hot season could make it a wonder to behold. But while it was not the perfect time or the perfect weather, I had gone there with a passionate friend, and all was perfectly fine with me.

On our way down we stopped for picnic where the temperature was warmer. I took the opportunity to get to know the other men a bit more. Wali had not been able to climb to the lake with us because of his leg. When he took off his plastic boot, the leg ended by the ankle, missing a foot. A year past, he had stepped on a landmine near the Iranian border while hiking. There were no prosthetic surgeries done in Iraq, and Wali hoped to get help to finance a surgery in Germany.

Another man, Peshawa, pulled up his jeans and revealed a scar, or perhaps defect, on his thigh unlike anything I've seen. Where there is usually a muscle on the side of the leg, making it look near cylindrical, his skin instead turned in to the bone near the knee as if the sculptor of the body had dug his fingers in when shaping the leg. In his teenage years, Peshawa had suffered a minor fracture in a football game but kept on playing for months before it was uncovered. He was now well in his fifties and had made it up to the lake faster than me. That could mean that his condition didn't bother him, but given how he got that leg in the first place, I supposed it said more about how men of the culture show pain: they don't.

When we were leaving, Wali's younger son took the driver seat, his eyes reaching just above the wheel after adjusting the chair. I didn't want to make a scene out of it as I assumed they all knew what they were doing, but in the most casual way I could muster I asked Bakhtyar the age of the kid. "Fourteen" he said, and I smirked to myself while the jeep came down the lower mountain much smoother than I would have managed.

When we were back at Bakhtyar's for dinner, I got to see another hardship of Iraqi men: navigating the kitchen without a wife. I had seen this before, and it was just as endearing every time. It is not that Iraqi men can't cook, and I'm certainly not the right man to judge another's cooking anyhow. But basic orientation in the kitchen has been completely left to the women to the point that whatever the lone man is looking for, no matter how common the tool, it takes him at least three tries before finding the right drawer. Even so, the meal we shared was local and lovely, and perfect after an afternoon of hiking.

The night before I had learned a different and twice as intense version of Dominoes, and after dinner we were back to the cafe for some more rounds. As a seasoned and serious board gamer I strive to make optimal moves, but this version had far too much calculation going on for me to keep the pace. While the others certainly had developed an intuition for the game, they also did hard maths in their heads at a speed and accuracy way beyond me, and I would normally consider myself better than most. When I raised the topic, it became obvious that it was not only the Dominoes that had them hone their math skills. All payments are done in cash, often with manual calculation. While I would use a calculator to save time, Iraqi store owners had mostly used it to show me that their calculations we correct after seeing me struggle to keep up.

It is a common judgement to make of people with less material means that it equals less mental means. Many a times have I been surprised of how knowledgeable and capable people are regardless of their income or education level, only sometimes in other areas and other ways than what I'm used to. When I think about it, it makes perfect sense that Iraqis would beat the Swedes in head calculation any day, with both daily practice and a history of great scientists, particularly astronomers. Of course the men and the kids can handle cars - they live in the mountains and depend on them. And with those mountains, the biome and the precipitation, it is only reasonable that the nature of northeastern Iraq look similar to that of Switzerland, only more intense, wilder.

The real question is: why am I surprised?


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