On this day, the Kurds also disappeared with our passports, but they offered us tea and food while we waited. The courtesy was not incidental. Some six weeks later, in Baghdad, I was talking to a South African private security contractor about the differences between that city and the Kurdish city of Arbil. "We're the dogs here [Iraq]. I know that," he said of hired bodyguards, "but in Arbil, when we visit an office with a client, they bring tea to our vehicles or positions." Arbil is many things that Baghdad is not, but considering his profession one might have expected the South African to note the relative safety as the foremost distinction. "People on the street here," he said of Kurdistan with a sense of awe born of having been in Baghdad too long, "will actually look at you for a second, even smile sometimes." After four hours in a cramped, smoke-filled taxi, a brief stop at an explosives dump disguised as a gas station, and the studied discourtesies of Turkish border officials, I did not need to visit Baghdad to appreciate Kurdish hospitality.
No proper introduction to the people, nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial writers seem to concur, could omit to mention it. In his enduring memoir Road Through Kurdistan, published in 1937, Archibald Milne Hamilton, a New Zealander building a British road through the region, remarked on the "sacred obligation" of hospitality in Kurdistan. "A Kurdish host always likes to know when he should expect guests, that he may have food ready, and offer the best that he may provide." Kurdish history is rife with war, politicking, and displacement. Many here have memories of long marches and periods of extreme deprivation, yet the culture cherishes the enjoyment of food and the business of playing host. In the coming months, I would observe the same enthusiasm, whether my dinner companions were the future president of Iraq and the prime minister of Kurdistan, or students in roadside shanties or displaced Iranian Kurds in refugee camps. Whether seated on couches in elegant living rooms, or on worn Kurdish rugs on the floors of bullet-ridden one-story concrete blocks some called home, long conversations were the rule preceding and following meals. On picnics in the foothills outside Mosul or in the mountains on the Iranian border, men would retreat from lunch to gossip, smoke, and play a game like bowling with rocks, while the women cleared plates and prepared tea and talked among themselves.