Erbil, Iraq Matt Makes a Friend

I put Syria on my itinerary because I assumed I had enough contacts to assemble a decent-sized crowd. When I actually stopped to check, I learned I only had three. I’d already purchased my flights by that point, so the first leg of my month-long middle east trip became primarily about sight-seeing…and jet lag.

The main draw of Damascus is, well, Damascus. That is, the Old City, which is a walled-in circle about a kilometer in diameter, near the center of another modern city that shares its name and is way way bigger.

If you’ve been to Jerusalem and entered the Old City – pretty much the same thing, but with less baggage.

The ancientness of Old Damascus is pretty hard to get your head around. It's often called the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. That’s actually debatable when you get down to it, but here’s how I prefer to think about it: when Alexander the Great conquered Damascus in the 4th century B.C., the city was as old to him then as he is to us now.

The primary draw for me was getting to visit the tomb of Saladin – or Salah Al-Din – a Sunni Muslim of Kurdish descent who made the crusading kings of Europe look like the mendacious, barbaric dickwads they were by showing respect and mercy upon their defeat. In fact, in the long history of conquerors, I think he may have invented the concept.

Anyway, it’s a tomb, so not much to do once you walk inside.

Next to the tomb is the big Umayyad Mosque. It used to be a Temple of Jupiter. I wish it still was.

On the way far other side of the city is the Chapel of St. Paul, as in the apostle formerly known as Saul. Inside the tiny chapel they’ve got a replica of the basket Paul was supposedly placed into when he was lowered out the back window to flee the Jews. I was surprised to learn about this, because in all of ancient history, the Jews did very little chasing.

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Okay. Looked it up. Sounds like someone did some revisionary editing to the book of Acts and erroneously blamed Paul's persecution on the Jews. Not the first time that's happened.

In my limited wanderings outside the Old City walls, I visited the National Museum. It has lots of great carvings, reliefs, and clay tablets with cuniform script; one of the earliest forms of writing. It was all quite nifty, but with minimal description the artifacts lacked context, so it was not very informative. I was disappointed.

One highlight: a carving of a Hercules-like figure wrestling a bull while a snake bites the bull’s penis and a scorpion grabs at its testicles. Dirty pool!

Between excursions, I kept hopping online and pestering contacts for someone to dance with. Shortly before leaving, I managed to meet up with Amr, a professional dancer who performs at the Damascus opera house. He gathered together three other dancers who were versed in pretty much every major style and we went into their rehearsal space.

I tried to shoot a ballet clip with them. My thinking was that they could teach me something very basic I could do that would fit together with what they were doing around me, and the result would look nice.

This turned out to be colossally wrong. Some things I learned from the experience:

– Ballet is really really hard.

– If I'm not able to perform at even a basic level, I just look like a clown and it comes off as disrespectful to the other dancers and to the dance itself.

– I need at least half an hour of focused rehearsal time with any real dance move before I should attempt to shoot it. I am personally not capable yet of just picking things up on the spot.

So that experience was a bit embarrassing, but I suppose the upside is I figured out some important lessons and it's good to learn that stuff at the start. Still, it was a shame to leave Syria without a great clip. Might be something in the footage I can use. We'll see.

Next stop was Iraq, but to get there I had to fly from Beirut. I was advised that the easiest way to get from Beirut to Damascus is in a taxi, so I went to the depot where independent drivers wait for passengers to take on the two-hour journey.

Speaking no Arabic, I was led straight over to an old man with one leg and no teeth who was sitting on a bench.

"Where you from?"


"American? I love you fucking guys. Look at your fucking face with those sunglasses. You're fucking beautiful, you son of a bitch."

"You speak like an American. Where'd you learn?"

"The navy!"

 His name was Charlie. He was a navy scout in Lebanon in the 50s and they taught him to speak like a beat-era Greenwich Village hipster.

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Charlie took me to a driver who was going to Beirut and he translated for me. At first it was 1500 pounds for the ride ($33), but when i told him i needed to get to the airport in two hours and needed to leave immediately, he said id have to buy two tickets and pay 2500.

At that point Charlie switched from translator to coach. "Don't be an idiot, you fucking son of a bitch. You gotta negotiate!"

After some haggling, I ended up crammed in the back with Ahmed, who is a palestinian refugee from gaza, and a Lebanese restaurant supply salesman named sam, who is apparently a mobster.

 "Watch out for that guy. He's a fucking Capone! You know what a Capone is? Yeah, of course you fucking do."

My spider sense was tingling as I got in the car. At that point I had very little control of the situation and no feasible way out of it. I was an easy mark to get conned or worse during the ride.

Turned out everything was fine. Ahmed and Sam both spoke English and were considerate and polite. They helped me sort through the border crossing process and answered all my prying questions about Lebanon and what it's like to be a Palestinian refugee.

Flight to Erbil in northern Iraq. Landed at midnight with dead batteries on all my devices and no sign of anyone who might be there to pick me up. Sat on a bench in the arrival area until a security guy came over and told me the parking lot was way the hell away from the airport itself – a security measure, I later deduced. John was there waiting for me.

John runs an organization called American Voices that goes into post-conflict countries and runs two-week fine arts academies for local students. The teachers are all volunteers from the states, specializing in music and dance. I was arriving in the middle of their session for Iraq.

Got to the hotel where everyone was staying, including students who’d been brought in from all over the region, so the hollow, concrete building had a sort of kids-on-a-field-trip vibe to it. They hung out in the lobby until all hours, laughing and dancing and throwing stuff at each other.

The classes were held at the Ministry of Culture building in Erbil, which they’d basically taken over – though I got the impression it wasn’t really being used for much anyway. I spent four days milling about, talking to teachers and students and attending dance classes here and there.

At the risk of hyperbole, the students I encountered were, without exception, more driven and passionate about their chosen disciplines than any students I've ever encountered. These are pretty much the brightest young artists Iraq has to offer, and they practice amid challenges that, well, it's hard for someone like me to imagine.

Here's Bruce, the cello teacher, conducting the orchestra.

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This is one of the few pictures I took of the students. Photographing them is a touchy issue, because some of these kids are putting their lives at risk by even going to the academy. A lot of them come from the city of Mosul about 50 miles away, which is still largely controlled by insurgents — or whatever we're calling them these days — and those guys have pretty strong opinions about music and dance, particularly with regard to females.

There are sad stories. I will spare you.

This being northern Iraq, the students are mostly Kurds — an ethnic minority you may have heard about for their persecution under Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish people have been in need of strong allies and, as such, they are generally big supporters of the US. Since the 2003 invasion, the region known as Kurdistan has been fairly secure and is considered safe for travelers. As a result, Erbil has seen a huge surge in its population as people fled from surrounding areas.

Erbil, by the way, happens to be another of the oldest cities known to exist. I went on an excursion with Brad, the piano teacher, and Amy, an administrator, to a place called the Citadel. It's a walled hilltop with ruins built atop ruins with other ruins still beneath. The oldest of them date back about 10,000 years, which gives any other Neolithic archeological site on earth a run for its money.

The modern city of Erbil is oriented in concentric circles extending out from the Citadel. So even while you're wandering through the ruins, you're still surrounded by traffic and other noises.


Iraqis seem to be crazy for fountains. They build pretty dang nice ones, and they always seemed well-attended.


It's a thing, I guess.

After the Citadel, we wandered around the adjecant Souq. It was pretty exciting just to be able to walk around a city in Iraq without an escort, feeling safe and relatively normal.


Some of the teachers who've been coming out annually over the last five or so years say Erbil has gone through an enormous transformation. Very recently, I'm told, the streets were empty. People didn't dare go outside. But those fears have lifted and Erbil is dusting itself off and moving on.

The most memorable thing for me about my visit to Erbil was getting to meet Omar. Truth be told, while I've met loads of nice people in my travels, I haven't made an awful lot of lasting friendships. And I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad about that. As I get older I realize good friends are a rare and valuable commodity all around. Anyway, Omar…


Omar is 24. He speaks five languages and he's a doctor. He claims to have taught himself English by watching bootleg DVDs of Friends, and now he can repeatedly kick my butt in Scrabble. Here he is beating me at Scrabble and chess at the same time.


Omar volunteered his time as a translator for the teachers, and generally made himself available for whatever needed doing. After spying my iPad, he introduced himself as a fellow geek, and we were fairly inseparable after that.

Omar's grandfather was one of the most respected doctors in Iraq. He was also, evidently, a polymath with an insatiable appetite for knowledge. He had a big impact on Omar growing up. He basically taught him how to learn.

After the first gulf war, his grandfather's bank assets were seized by Saddam Hussein, and his family was zapped from privilege to poverty.

Around the time of the second Gulf War, Omar's grandfather passed away, and his mother died tragically a short time later. Omar's father was grief stricken, and he and his three younger siblings went through a very difficult time.

Omar has never been outside of Iraq, but he knows more about the world and its history than most people you'll encounter.

Having become a doctor, he is now hoping to join Doctors Without Borders to gain experience in emergency medicine, with the hope of one day creating an emergency medical services program for Iraq. His application was turned down for a reason I didn't quite follow — something to do with his Iraqi citizenship, I think. I've got to assume a doctor who speaks English, French, and Arabic would be of some value, so I hope that gets sorted out. I have pulled what few strings I have.

I ended up with a bunch of really good dancing clips for Iraq. There was an abundance of opportunities. All I had to do was set up the camera and position myself somewhere near the middle of the frame. The challenge is going to be picking the one best clip from all that I shot.


Next I head for Lebanon, and then off to the Stans.