I lost my job in Ireland, and got one in Kurdistan
I landed in Suleimaniah to 42-degree heat and culture shock, with women in hijabs and calls to prayer five times a day. But there are more similarities between the Irish and the Kurds than I could have imagined
Aw, go on: April Keith at a tea stand in Kurdistan; tea – drunk black and strong as tar, with plenty of sugar – is the foundation of Kurdish hospitality and a gesture Keith never turns down, as it leads to rare experiences: “I’ve sat on top of a mountain at a border outpost drinking tea with two peshmerga soldiers, rifles over their shoulders”
Four years ago I became an economic statistic when I lost my job. I used the opportunity to return to college, having dropped out at 19, and then to realise a dream I’d had since I was a teenager: to live and work in the Middle East.
I applied to teach English at an international school, and was asked to choose some countries to work in. I picked Dubai, Jordan and Kurdistan. Why Kurdistan? Where is Kurdistan? I had to look it up before ticking the box.
After a Skype interview I got an offer to teach English in a private school in Suleimaniah, a city in the Kurdistan Region, an autonomous part of federal Iraq. With a population greater than Dublin’s, Iraqi Kurdistan is having the kind of oil boom that turned Dubai from a fishing village into the uberwealthy economic hub of the Middle East.
Last summer, before I left, I watched in dismay as Islamic State wore a bloody trail through Iraq and Syria. James Foley was executed 72 hours before I was due to leave. My flight was rescheduled because Islamic State got within 20km of the airport in Erbil. Almost everyone told me not to go. But my family, ever my cheerleaders, told me to follow my heart.
I landed in Suleimaniah on August 22nd, straight into 42-degree heat and culture shock, with women in hijabs and calls to prayer five times a day. But I quickly discovered that there are more similarities between the Irish and the Kurds than I could have imagined.
In both countries I get into a taxi and am bombarded with personal questions, as well as hearing the driver’s views on politics, the weather and the price of petrol. I have to sit in the back instead of hopping in the front, as I did in Waterford, but taxi drivers never change.
Kurdish women will not let you up from the table until you have convinced them you can’t eat another thing. But of course you have space for a cup of tea. They drink it black over here, strong as tar, with plenty of sugar. It is the foundation of Kurdish hospitality and a gesture I never turn down, as it leads to rare experiences: I’ve sat on top of a mountain at a border outpost drinking tea with two peshmerga soldiers, rifles slung casually over their shoulders.
Kurds treasure family. They have the same large clans as our parents did, and they dote on their children. Ireland lost a generation to emigration because there was no work for our aunts and uncles; in Kurdistan they died in their thousands from persecution. Children are revered here, even when they grow up. When you marry a Kurd you marry the family.
They love a drink. I flew here prepared for a year on the dry. But Kurdistan is alive with bars and hotels. The craic is mighty. I can’t count the number of nights I’ve gone to homes and restaurants and collapsed into a chair after an hour of dancing.
Kurds are friendly. A lot can’t find Ireland on a map and think I’m British, but I couldn’t name the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan until I got here and saw Erbil on a road sign. Saddam Hussein wreaked genocide on the region with the al-Anfal Campaign of the late 1980s, using poison gas and mass execution, and scorching the trees from the earth to rid the Kurds from “his” land. They lost 182,000 people in those years.
The peace between Iraq and Kurdistan is fragile. Kurds are still struggling to have their homeland acknowledged by Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
This doesn’t feel like Iraq, like a war-torn country; It feels vibrant and bustling and loudly peaceful.
As far as I know I’m the only Irishwoman here. An Irish lad teaches with me, and a few more above in Erbil, although I’ve not met them yet. It’s a long, long way from Tipperary to Suleimaniah, but I’ve never felt more at home.