photo: Eddy van Wessel


Monday, May 27, 2013

Let's eat a bit less

I love Kurdish food. Or I should say: some of the Kurdish food. You can wake me up for a good yaprach (dolma's), or a nice biryani. But never for a kebab or a tikka. 

I know people who eat kebab every day, and I have often wondered how they can. Or rice and chicken and sauce, every day the same. Or just with sauce - soup, the Kurds call it, as in the picture. So boring! Where I come from, you can eat food from all over the world: Spanish, Italian, Asian and even Russian.

Not only in restaurants; Western supermarkets also sell the ingredients and some pre-cooked meals. When I came to live in Kurdistan I had a major problem: the lack of the food stuffs needed to make a meal the way I like it. For that reason I simply stopped cooking. I was lucky to know two ladies who are good cooks, and the best when it comes to yaprach.

One problem for me is that the main meal is at lunchtime. After eating a lunch like that, no way I can concentrate on my work. Heavy lunches are bad for productivity.

Problem number two is the portions. Who can eat all of the xosi sham (see the picture below)? I hardly get half way. And the rest? Is just thrown away. Does anyone ever consider the waste? Not just the cost of the material, but also the time and energy that went into growing and harvesting the rice, feeding the animals used, the transporting of the food, and finally the cooking? To be wasted like that? It makes me feel guilty when I leave half my xosi sham. So whenever possible, I try to share the plate.

And another problem with these portions is that people eat too much. And put on weight, as in the Kurdish society hardly anyone exercises or does sports. 

And it's not even only the portions. The way the Kurdish rice is cooked, with quite a bit of oil, is also far from healthy.

Moreover: the change that came on the gastronomical field, is not a positive one. Fast food conquered the Kurdish towns. Young people have become addicted to hamburgers and fries. The results will show when the Kurds get the same problem as the United States has with obesity: too many people get too fat, and from a young age.

Being fat in Kurdistan is still seen as positive. It shows you have enough money to get well fed, and if your luck turns at least you have some fat to burn. The fact that it is unhealthy, and leads to heart attacks and other diseases, has not been well promoted.

It is high time that Kurds do realize that offering smaller portions is not impolite at all. No, it is considerate, as they do not want their guests to eventually die from overeating.

This column was published as a column in the Kurdish newspaper Kurdistani Nwe.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Being clear is not impolite

“The taxi driver did not want me to pay!” My foreign friend cannot understand what happened. He offered money at the end of the ride, and the driver did not take it.

“Did you offer it again?” I ask carefully.

“No, why should I? It was a good deal!”

How do you explain the complicated rule of Kurdish hospitality, where you have to refuse what has been offered, and can only accept it when the offer has been repeated, not once, twice but even three times?

I know of cases, when foreigners who were ignorant of this rule, gladly accepted the free ride and got 
out of the taxi, only to be shouted at by the driver. This rule even applies for accepting a cup of tea, or a meal. Someone might invite you for dinner, yet does not really expect you to accept, and will repeat the offer: "You have to take a meal with us!" It sounds like he or she wants to convince you, and for some people this may be true. But the chances are the offer is made out of politeness.

And I myself, when I did not know the habits well yet, have accepted offers that I should have refused. What to do when someone offers you the jewellery or the jacket that you have just admired? Refuse, of course. But with our Western mind we think: well, if I like it, why should I refuse it? Or even: how can I refuse it? That would be impolite!

The whole notion of offering something, just to be polite, does not exist in our Western world. If you offer something, you want a person to have it. And you want him or her to accept. To refuse, could even be considered an offense – like: do you not like me, that you refuse what I want to give you?

Here we have a definite clash of civilizations. And Kurdish rules sometimes are hard to understand. Because at the same time that one should refuse an offer, it is impolite to say ‘no’. How often it happened to me that I asked for an appointment, or for support for the media center, or for the attendance of someone to an official something – and I would not get any reply.
My email would go silent, as did my phone.

With my Western habits, I would repeat the request. Only to be met by more silence. Or people would agree to something, but in the follow-up I would hit the same wall of silence. It took me a while to understand. To avoid saying ‘no’, you just ignore the request. Is that polite – as politeness is so essential in the Kurdish culture?

To be honest: I find it very impolite. I’d rather be told to my face that something cannot happen, and preferably have an explanation why not, than being kept ‘on the leash’ – waiting for what? For nothing. Please do not waste my time: being clear does not have to mean you are not polite. It is quite the opposite!

This column was published in Kurdish in the newspaper Kurdistani Nwe

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A new king

I have a new King. When he was sworn in on Tuesday April 30, my country turned orange, the colour of our royalty, and in case of football matches and other informal national celebrations very much the national colour. When Holland plays in the European or World Cup, whole streets turn orange.

Yet the Dutch flag is red, white and blue. Orange is the colour of our monarchy, the House of Orange. But who cares? In Holland even revolutionaries accept a King, and until recently a Queen. Here everybody has one day a year (Queens Day, now Kings Day) for fun and games. The country is closed; everybody is out for games, the Queen/King mingles with the people.

I was reminded of this, when during the Kurdish New year, Nowroz I saw the new trend of dressing cars with big Kurdish flags. Or flying a little one from the car window. Fences are painted in the Kurdish colours. And recently I saw that near Korek Mountain a resort is being built in those colours.

That is as far as the similarities go. Because Kurds handle their flag in a different way from the Dutch. For the simple reason that the Kurdish one is still new, that not so long ago it was punishable to have one. Now you can wave it openly and you do so proudly. The Dutch use their flag more as a ritual, and the orange colour as a way to feel connected.

A while ago in some areas only the Kurdish flag was flying, and not the Iraqi. The Zakho checkpoint had only the one flag, as a signal one was entering Kurdistan, and a denial of the fact that it still is part of Iraq.
The flag in Kurdistan is part of a nationalistic tendency. Kurdistan has hardly any souvenirs, but it does have flags in all sizes. And there are pins of the Bigger Kurdistan in the colours of the flag. For Kurds the flag is all about the nation they fought for.

When I watched the ceremony in which the Dutch parliament accepted the new monarch after he vowed to serve the country, I understood what Kurds feel about their flag. I felt proud of my nation, where democracy and monarchy go hand in hand. Where the King is not the big boss, but plays the role the democratic system allows him to. Where people even make a song to welcome him - and after much criticism and discussion, that still is song for them with thousands in a football stadium. 

These special moments hold the country together. I wish Kurdistan to have many of moments like this.

This column was published in Kurdish by Kurdistani Nwe newspaper.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Give me a name!

‘Hi, this is Hiwa’, I hear when I pick up the phone. I hesitate. Which Hiwa? I know three, perhaps even four guys with that name. Which one is this? I do not know his phone number, so that does not give me a clue either.

Let’s see if this problem solves itself. ‘Yes, Hiwa, how are you?’ I am lucky. This time, it only takes me two questions to understand whom I am talking to. But I have actually made phone calls when at the end I am still wondering who it was I have been talking to.

The problem is caused mainly by the fact that in Kurdistan hardly anyone uses a family name on the phone. And if they do use a second name, that is the name of their father, again a surname. So Hiwa could be Hiwa Ahmed, or Hiwa Saman. And so you can also have Ahmed Hiwa, or Saman Hiwa - without them being related at all. The only thing they have in common is their fathers' name.

The start of the phone call above is not typical. Usually, the person phoning starts by asking how you are. You might be a minute into the call, without any name being mentioned at all.

So why do I not just ask who the person is? Because I feel it is not polite to show I have not recognized the voice – and it is so important in Kurdistan to be polite! And I have noticed my Kurdish friends do not ask either, as if they are supposed to recognize the caller. It seems to be a game you cannot really refuse to play.

And this habit was already there before the days of the mobile phone, when your phone did not yet tell you the number of the caller… It was even more complicated then!

How different from making a phone call in my country. When you pick up the phone, you always mention your name first. And when you make the call, you also do so to start with – unless, perhaps, when you know the other side can recognize your phone number. For us this is a matter of politeness; do not let people guess who is on the phone.

How different politeness can be in different cultures. To be honest, in Spain also people do not mention a name first. They pick up the phone and ask: Digame – Tell me? Or: Vale (pronounced as baleh, which is the same in Kurdish: OK)? 

The use of only a surname in Kurdistan also is common in conversations. You can talk about Kak Hiwa or Parwa Khan, without mentioning any family name. Yet you are supposed to know which Hiwa or Parwa we are talking about.

I am sure this habit was normal in the villages, where everybody knows each other. But in the modern towns that is no longer the case, so it can lead to a lot of confusion and probably also to incorrect information about people being circulated.

Be honest, my Kurdish readers: it is confusing at times. And it does lead to difficult and some times even embarrassing moments.

Times are changing, perhaps habits too. Or not?