Hospitality

Published Friday, Sept. 5, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

(ZHARAWA, IRAQ) I’ve never experienced such hospitality as the Kurds extend to anyone who will accept. Taxi drivers often thump their open hand to their chest and refuse to accept payment, preferring that the ride be accepted as a “gift from the heart.” (This gesture must be acknowledged but refused, unless they insist three times.) Our group picnicked in a park one day last week, and every family we passed asked us to join them for a bite. Meetings follow a staccato rhythm, interrupted with servings of bottled water, chai tea, and Fanta Orange soda.

These gestures are unrelated to the host’s economic standing, social status, or life circumstance. Nothing has brought this realization home more poignantly than our visit with some homeless Kurds.

Many Americans are reading “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson. It’s been on the New York Times’ best seller list for 82 weeks, and it describes a tradition of hospitality in nearby Afghanistan. Everyone is offered a first cup of tea. If you’re offered a second cup, your host is willing to do business. A third cup being offered means you’ve become like family.

We were offered five cups of tea today at this homeless camp. But that’s the end of the story, not the beginning.

Our trucks arrive at Zharawa, a remote camp for Internally Displaced Persons near Iraq’s mountainous border with Turkey, after almost four hours of navigating the politics and pavement that have led to this place. Children greet us. Their mothers remind them to behave.

The patriarch for the clan then arrives to welcome us. His name is Amin, but everyone calls him “Uncle.” He’s the tallest and heartiest father among the five families who have clustered their tents at this portion of the river’s edge.

Amin is wearing a western-style shirt, which clashes with his traditional baggy pants and wide sash belt. The mismatch of styles doesn’t strike me as odd. I remember John Kitzhaber touring Oregon as governor, dressed in a suit and tie from the podium up, but jeans and cowboy boots from the belt buckle down.

What I can’t help but notice are the slight creases in Amin’s shirt, dividing its design with subtle right angles. Amin is wearing a brand new shirt, fresh from its folded packaging. Somewhere nearby there must be a small pile of pins.

This shows the depth and degree of his gesture of generosity, but he doesn’t know I can see it.

This shows the depth and degree of his gesture of generosity, but he doesn’t know I can see it. And we’re not the first to come.

The International Council of the Red Crescent has been bringing fresh water. Although there’s a river flowing beside the camp, the water is used by livestock and people for sanitation purposes, making it unsafe to drink.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has provided tents, but the tents aren’t winterized. Snow will blanket this mountainous area soon. Besides, everybody knows where they’ve set up their camps will be completely flooded in three months once the winter rains arrive.

Both ICRC and UNHCR are committed to helping refugees, but if they can’t safely return to their homes, the solutions they offer are necessarily temporary. They are involved to help the homeless, but not to build them new homes. It’s the government’s responsibility to make people feel at home in their homes.

We’ve come to hear their stories and they share gladly. But they insist first we drink, then eat, then watch the children play. A full meal is spread on the carpeted tent floor, with food enough for everyone, including the guards who were sent to watch us. Chai tea is served before the meal, then the dishes are washed by the older daughters while we eat, so more tea can be served afterwards.

Amin tells us proudly, “Since 1991, we’ve rebuilt our villages and asked for nothing. All we want is to return to our homes and sit safely there. In our village, we’re more than free.” But the bombing started in March, first in the mountains all around, then in their village of Ruzga. The bombing continues even now.

When asked what motive Turkey and Iran may have, an older man shrugs and mutters, “To wipe out the Kurds.”

Amin says it differently, even if he sees it the same. “They know we’re preparing a new nation. They want to stop it.”

We walk downriver and meet more families. The stories they tell are much the same. More tea. We gather the children and ask them to decorate a banner, reading “Bombing Hurts. Please Stop.” We hope to be allowed to take the banner to one of the nearby villages.

The children make a mess and love it, no different than any other children anywhere. One of the guards leans his gun on a chair while he helps decorate the banner with the children.

The Asaish guards refuse to allow us to walk back to the villages, because the shellings and bombings have come too regularly over the past week. It’s too unsafe. Any casualty to a foreigner could set off an unfortunate chain of events.

We agree. We wish things were different, but understand we could accidentally make things worse. So we fold our legs, sit again in the tent, and prepare for another round of tea. Our hosts smile.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is writing this week from the Middle East. All his essays and a photo of the soldier playing with the children are posted and readers can leave comments right here at www.dksez.com.