Monday, December 30, 2013

Moving to Kurdistan!

Dearest most Loyal Blog Reader (s), no matter in which freezing cold, or melting hot corner of the world you maybe in right now!!!

I admit I am not the best blogger. A huge apology for all the inboxes which I have not replied to, but here I am with a post that will probably answer all your questions, and more. Truuuuuuust me!!!

By the way, read till the end of this post and you will see a surprise. Consider it a New Year present from me to you.

So, sit back, no, actually go get yourself a pyala of chai (or coffee), then sit back, relax and read away as you will have all the information on living in this part of the world only clicks away. You've gotta love me for this!

This is what a pyala of chai looks like. (Tea  in a special glass, referred to as Istikan in Arabic)

So, let's get started! Shall we?!

Ladies first. As always! 

Men seem to dive in to any new place they live in, whether for a holiday or work related stay. However, us women, well... let's just saw we like to know where we are going and a little planning and thinking doesn't hurt!

Your first stop should be the Women's International Network Erbil (W.I.N.E) page, feel free to click here  if you're a woman in Erbil. I advice you to join the large family of women from all corners of the world who share the nice pizza they had at certain restaurant, their search for a particular cupcake mixture at the supermarkets or it can be a place to share your complaints and difficulties while living in the ever growing city in it's transition phase. Believe me, with over 600 members in the group there is always almost someone who replies with an answer to your question or gives support, advice and kind words to your complaint.

Women's International Network Erbil 

This group is so good to the extent that you can ask the number of a restaurant that delivers the best burgers and you will have a reply with in two minutes! I must mention once more it is a WOMEN'S ONLY group.

Let's Volunteer in Kurdistan, Erbil

There are various ways you can do this, but it is often best to volunteer with an NGO because in many places here you can't just walk and say: "Hey! I want to volunteer with you." The sad reality is you will get people raising their eye brows. Hence, you can start in one of these places.

Volunteers in Erbil  is a page on Facebook where you can get to know other people who are interested in volunteering. From there you can share your ideas and involve others who have same interests and want to help out.

Volunteers in Erbil - page

You can contact the RISE Foundation, click here they're a great group who do great work. I have seen them in action and I must say very easy going. Someone by the name of Tom was a great help at a point where a friend collected a lot of donations, they helped in entering the refugee camp and distributing a lot of the goods (note there are two Toms in RISE!). Contact them! Some wonderful people there! However, I think their work is limited to only refugees in the Region.

RISE Foundation
My first start in volunteering was with START NGO, their door is always open, feel free to click here and learn more about what they do.


* Sorry if there are any typos, it is hard to focus on what to write when you're eating some amazing kulicha with tea! Also, a BIG HUGE SORRY, the display pictures of the PrintScreens are not appearing on the computer. I blame the slow internet connection. I am apparently very behind for not upgrading to FastLink which apparently is the fastest internet at the moment.

Anyhowwwww back to what we were saying. Ways to volunteer in Erbil.

IFMSA International Federation of Medical Students Association- Kurdistan was initiated by my amazing friend Dr. Leila Amin. I remember I attended one of their events this year, many of the volunteers who are medical students referred to Leila as the God Mother of IFMSA-Kurdistan. She initiated it, and now it is run by some  SUPER AMAZING young Kurds! If you are a nurse, doctor or anything in that field GET IN TOUCH with Leila and her superb team!

IFMSA Kurdistan - Facebook post
And finally a wonderful group of young people run the Dilvia Charity organization, which according to my knowledge are all volunteers. I had a few friends there when Dilvia was just starting.
Dilvia Charity Organization
Fun, leisure and yeah.. more fun in Erbil

For those who like to have some fun, here are some places for you to start.  The only (I think) English radio station in Erbil is called Babylon, it is streamed on 99.3 FM, there is an amazing morning show which will make you laugh all the way to work. I think you can listen to it online no matter where you are, click here to find out more about them. The three hosts will be your best friends in your lonely Erbil mornings. So do tune in.

99.3 Babylon FM, English Radion Station in Kurdistan

This is the iErbil page. Browse around, basically little bits and pieces about Erbil, insights, advertisements, and you can read what many individuals write who are already living here. 


The Erbil Lifestyle page is all about where to go and what to do in Erbil. Everything from events, parties to people and places. For example did you know the Lebanese (I think she's lebanese) artist Nawal el Zoughbi will be hosting a party on New Year's Eve in Erbil. Nop. I bet you didn't. (You probably don't even know who she is, but you get my point) So give  the page a like and browse around.
Events in Erbil for New Year #Hawlerakam #Hawler
Ummm.. for the ones who like to have a night life (to be honest other than Iskan street and the malls I am the wrong person to give advice on a night life in this city) but there is a closed group which I am not a member of. Some of you might want to have a look, it is the Erbil Night Life page. My nightlife consists of family gatherings or the most is a burger in one of the infinite cafes/ restaurants. (I have a few posts on on various cafes. Check them out!)

Finally, Spotted Erbil  is a fun leisure page which you might like to have a look at. 
Spotted Erbil Facebook page

Oooooops! Almost forgot, for The Nerdy type - we do have the Erbil Book Club group as well, not many people seem interested, there are about seven of us (girls) now. It's kind of fun, because we end up reading a book and never meeting up.  If the situation improves I will make sure to blog about that too.

The University of Kurdistan Hewler offers Music Lessons once a week. If you are interested. There is however a fee.

Also, there are Yoga and Zumba classes running in Erbil as well. If you are interested to join. The Yoga classes runs four days a week. (Click on the Yoga and Zumba button, it will take you directly to the pages, do send them an inbox with your questions.)

That's it for now! Dearest Loyal Blog Reader, click away to the many pages and sites, write emails, comments and find your home away from home in Erbil, or as I like to call it, Hawlerakam (My Hawler).

For those who did scroll down and want to know the surprise. Ummm I honestly don't know what you were expecting as a surprise, but I will be blogging for seven consecutive days, as from today (please say this was a good surprise. Yes? No? Ok. that's a no!) Also, as a 2014 gift I will be posting my Memoirs column back in the Kurdish Globe days. Every Wednesday night on Mandalawi.blogspot

SURPRISE!!! Read above. Hehe

Okay, okay, I get it. Can you at least act like you are surprised and excited?!


For now xwa hafiz!

Wednesday Memoirs - The loyal child

The loyal child
By Sazan M. Mandalawi

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Kurdish culture is the strong family bond it tries to celebrate.

Nuclear family is still very much alive in Kurdistan and inspires hope to entire generations. In fact, the elderly do not have to leave the family for a nursing home. Sazan Mandalawi explains more.

I have come to enjoy my regular visits to the orthodontist, as you may understand a five minute doctor's visit results in five hours of patience in the waiting room. With the most recent visit, after an hour of reading Ambrose and Brinkley's book Rise to Globalism with history of American foreign policy. The words on the page became scribbles and squiggly lines in front of my eyes. Clearly, not learning anything, with the sound of the Mulla's baang - a call for evening prayers - closing the book I placed it on my lap, looking around the waiting room, and down on the street through the window, I realized just by observing, we can learn and observe so much about Kurdish people.

I can write about the reckless driving in Erbil's medical road, the endless long waiting hours, the pregnant mother with three toddlers, the crying child, the Taxi horns, the bags of prescribed medicine and the topics of chit-chat and gossip in the waiting room.

Nevertheless, what caught my attention was observing a young man holding the hand of an elderly man, clearly his father, with the other hand placed gently on his shoulders, above the arched back, guiding him across the busy street. I thought at that point he would let him go, I was mistaken, as they walked a little further and until the point my eyes could follow them into the doctor's center he kept his father close to him, like an overly precious gem that he was so cautious about to keep safe.

The picture was clear in my mind, an ill elderly father, mid seventies I would imagine, the son brining him for a doctor's visit. This is not a rare scenario in the region. In fact, the bond and care a family share is undeniably one of the most beautiful and inspiring features of the Kurdish culture.

This particular incident I observed that day reflects and reveals a great deal about the importance of family bond here in the region. I have come to realize the sons and daughters as they grow they remain loyal to their parents who sacrificed everything for them. In fact the society has stereotyped any child who puts their parents in nursing homes as heartless, disloyal and careless.

I compare this to abroad, in most cases after a certain age children leave their family's house to live on their own or couples move in together. Whilst children are at school, parents have full time jobs, family time is little, and leisure time is usually spent with friends. As parents age, some begin to save for nursing homes, a loyal son would visit his mother or father on the weekend, either at their place, or to the nursing home. I learnt in our society this is different, as much as children grow through the eyes of their parents they remain children, and after every prayer a mother would pray for each of her kids, one by one. Furthermore, the kids themselves, as much as they grow they feel the need to be close to their parents.

Occasionally, even after marriage if there are no financial problems, the son may see it as his duty to stay and live with his mother and father, so not to leave them alone in their elderly age and in case they need anything. Here there is self sacrifice for the sake of his parents, this should be realized and appreciated. In other countries, in some cases, as children grow the family bond to a degree breaks apart; every individual moves into their own path and take their own direction in life, seeking their own interest. Unlike here, the western culture does not encourage making certain decision in life for the sake of your parents.

As long as it is not extremely self sacrificing, this bond and feel of responsibility towards parents and family members is another one of the cultural aspect of Kurdish people that make them so unique and special.

The young gentleman I was referring to earlier who took the responsibility to take his ill father to the doctor feels this is the smallest thing he can do in return for all the sacrifices and hardship his father suffered for the sake of him and his siblings. A tradition and culture as such should be closely cherished to the heart and make every Kurd proud, indeed, scenarios as such make me a proud Kurd. Kurdish parents suffered a lot in bringing up their children, and they deserve the extra attention and care as they age.

This column was published in the Kurdish Globe newspaper on Saturday, 16 May 2009, 08:31 GMT

Friday, December 13, 2013

Change the world, one person at a time!

Dear Loyal Blog Reader,

They say a picture tells a thousand words. I will save the words, and leave you with the pictures. I hope they tell a few thousand words on our recent training of forty youth at the Kawrgosk and the Darashakran refugee camps based in Erbil.

And when there is a few minutes of time, we visit families in each of the tents
The little ones always get our attention

When we had to train at a tent, in the evening, and the electricity cut. 

The three of us, Anmar, Rasti and I, at points in our life we were refugees. Even though we were young and only glimpses or pictures are captured in our minds, we grew up with stories from our parents about the experiences of fleeing our home. Today, the three of us, all together, have spent weeks with youth in a refugee camp. A few years back we were trained by the UNFPA as Youth Peer Educators.

Rasti and I in action! 
At the time the three of us were just volunteers while we were students. Rasti in Media division at Salahaddin Uni, Anmar a student in the physical education college in Baghdad, Me, Politics and International Relations in Erbil. We were young, loving life and wanting to make a change. I guess you can say we had a little too much energy. Today, we have all graduated and have began our careers, but somethings just never change. Never.

Y Peer team! Give us a flip chart, a few markers and a group of youth! That's all. 

An activity that allows each of the participants to discuss their suffering, and if they decide to lose hope and put off their candles, others will light it for them once again. This activity almost always makes us cry. But we have found it is the most helpful activity with the refugees. You learn that you are not alone in your pain and suffering. 

We make new friends

Day one of our training in Darashakran

Rasti in action! 

Hospitality in the tents

Hope. Life. Love. 

Anmar during one the sessions. Participants- group work

... [I could not think of a caption]

Training doesn't stop, even if there's no electricity, even if it's night, even if it's freezing cold. No it doesn't. 

You learn to appreciate life much more when working with vulnerable people

Under these tents there are many stories to be told

Can you also call this your home?

Rasti makes a new friend

Hope. A little girl had made this outside her family's tent. 

"We put off the heater at night, because it's dangerous. The tent can burn down in less than two minutes." 

Rasty and Anmar writing their testimonies, now, as I put this post together... 
Words from Rasty about our recent training with Kurds in the Syrian Refugee Camp based in Erbil
Words from Anmar! 

Sad but smiling!

Dear Loyal Blog Reader,

(This was written a week back, I didn't realize it wasn't published)

Contradiction in the title of this post, right? I agree.

In the recent days I am back at the refugee camp, this time in two different camps in Erbil - Kawrgosk and Darashakran. In total, my colleague and I are training 42 youth.

42 young individuals with hopes and dreams; 42 individuals who cross the line to answer 'yes' to the "I am optimistic" question. Yet the same 42 say they are lucky to have one shower a week in the personal hygiene session. 42 youth who jump, play and take part in our activities, 42 individuals who laugh, and tell jokes but can immediately cry when asked to talk about the hardest part of living in a refugee camp.

My dear reader, if you have not yet witnessed a young man or woman lose control of the muscles in their eyes to prevent tears from sliding down their cheeks I will explain to you how it feels. It is much worse than you going through pain, it is as though the person you love most in this world is being sliced in front of your eyes, they're yelling for your help, but you cannot reach them. Yes, that's how it feels.

Having said this, here we are learning from one another. Empowering these young people to make healthier decisions, lead better lives and most importantly to never lose hope. When our mission ends, we all say goodbye with tears, they know we have made a difference in their lives, and I know I will miss them... a lot.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Love from Behind Bars

Helloooo to World's Most Loyal Blog Readers!!


The sweet H.M. and I (A.S. too) have started a research in the women's prison in Erbil. Lucky me (I'm not being sarcastic. I mean it) is assigned to do the interviews, field work and closely studying individual cases. What can I say? I won't give any specific details because the findings are indeed very interesting so far. But who would have thought my trips to the prison would also take me jewelry shopping?!

A piece handmade by one of the prisoner
Put the findings aside for now. At the prison, I realized many of the younger women I was sitting with had handmade jewelry on. In those moments when they began crying, feeling upset, I would draw their attention to some of the beautiful little pieces they had either on their fingers, little hair clips or necklaces. I came to know that some of the inmates are making a lot of handmade goods, including jewelry. How else would they spend their time?

Some of the purchases I made from one of the inmates 

After an intense Thursday morning, I spoke to the director, and managed to push through my case that I must buy some of the handmade treasures in support of the women. She made a phone call, within two minutes a very humble, skinny, pale and blue-eyed woman came in with a plastic bag in her hand. She was one of the inmates who has a sentence of more than just a few years. I still, to this second, don't understand how much jewelry was put into that small plastic bag-- over 450 pieces. Let's say 500!

So, I chose some little bits and pieces, some for me, others I will put away to give to special friends. Some of the pieces take more than a few hours to make, yet the cost she was asking for was incredibly cheap -- ranging from 2 IQD to 4000 (basically $1.50 to less than $3.50). Considering the monthly wages they receive selling their jewelry is not only encouraging them to continue their handmade work, but also some extra income which they can spend or save.

Forget the gold belt on Jli Kurdi (Kurdish clothes) this is too pretty! 

When you can look at each piece, all different in size and colors, you can't help but think: "The girl who did this, where was she sitting, what was she thinking as she put in the individual beads? Who was she thinking of? What are her dreams? What is her story?" And that's the beauty of these pieces. But I am sure each one is made with love, with lots of patience and sometimes made with feelings of regret.
Loved how she had used the colors in this one (it can be both a necklace or a bracelet) 

Just to imagine all these beads were put through the thread by hand...

For younger children perhaps

I LOVED this one! 

Perhaps a necklace?
If you are in Erbil and you wish to make purchases drop me an email, and I will make sure you get your goods. They make thoughtful gifts and at the same time the money is going to someone who can really use.

For those of you (I hope none) who are now thinking "I am not supporting criminals by buying their products" be sure, most--not all-- are victims themselves victims of some of the norms in our society. Not every woman behind bars in a prison is a bad person. Be sure about that.

p.s. For those waiting there is a post coming up on Volunteering Ideas in Erbil and another answering some questions that I have gathered from recent emails on visiting Kurdistan. Stay tuned Loyal Readers!

* Are you well? 

Monday, October 28, 2013

I DO - Part III (Last one)


Your Big Fat Kurdish Wedding

Helloooo Hellooo Helloo Loyal Blog Readers!

(Yes. Yes. I know. I know. Late again. This post was supposed to be made a few Wednesdays back.)
Sorry not the Kurdish way

So. You said "I do" and now it's time for the wedding. The beauty of a Kurdish wedding is that it is not just a one-day big event. No, there are many occasions that build to that big day in the white dress.

We will fast forward the proposing part, because it has become so confusing, there is almost no uniform way of doing it among younger generation Kurds*. But if you're a Kurdish girl then don't expect a Kurdish man to fall on his knees when you least expect it to ask you "will you marry me?" and you being in tears saying: "Oh you surprised me.. y-y-yes!" You know the things you see in movies. Well, yes, that's just in movies.
Dear Kurdish Girl: In your dreams!

The Men
After an indication has been made to the groom-to-be (from this point onwards referred to as zawa, Kurdish word for groom) or a final yes is given to his family (through the women) then the men come. This is usually a big deal. Sometimes 50 cars filled with men arrive to the girl's house, this is slowly changing and now four or five men is sometimes seen as enough. They sit separately in a room, and after making the zawa sound like Prince William by all the complements all the men give him in front of the girl's father, brothers and uncles, they finally ask for the girl's hand. Since they know they are receiving an approval, after some talks from the girl's father (or older brother, uncle etc..) a lot of things are said but in the end it's a "yes" (sometimes the father places conditions on the marriage. Other times they may discuss the dowry etc. but girls these days make an effort to make sure this is not discussed among the men... after all, it is embarrassing!)

They read the Fatiha (sura from the Quraan) and sometimes on the same day, or after few days, a religious man comes (Mala or Mullah) this is when the couple are Islamically declared husband and wife (except there is no "you may kiss the bride").

The Mala 
In my opinion the most difficult part of the entire marriage process is when you wear white, with a veil on your head and you reply a 'yes' to the Mala. Then the zawa and bride-to-be's (bwk in Kurdish. Pronounced: book) father lock hands, say few words after the Mala, everyone reads fatiha and then you here something like: klelelelelelelelellelelelelelelelele from all the women. And that, my dear reader, signifies the fact that you are now a fiancé (or a wife). Sweets, drinks and food follow. Sometimes there is music and dance, sometimes there isn't. It's all choice.
After mara brin - Islamic I DO in the presence of the Mulla

Often, on a separate day a party is made, where the bride-to-be wears all the gold the groom's family have given her. Sometimes this is done at the day of the wedding, or other times, this is not done at all. But sadly, this culture of showing off is still evident!

Then the next day you need to take sweets to your workplace, to share the celebration. Everyone says 'piroza' (congratulations) and be prepared to answer a lot of questions A) about our Mr. Prince and B) about the details of when the wedding will take place.

The Wedding
Unlike the West where people plan their weddings one year in advance, here an entire wedding can be planned and undertaken in 8 weeks or less. In one year, the couple probably got to know each other, got engaged, got married and have a baby as well.
Wedding in Kurdistan, no hassle?!

After a few weeks you will find yourself in your fiancé's car every evening driving the streets of Ainkawa stopping at every single bridal shop. And of course, complaining that you will never find the right dress. Because lets be honest the choices are... not the best! You soon realize saying 'yes' to the Man was easier than saying 'yes' to any white dress you will try on.
Good luck with wedding-dress shops
The Venue
Type A: This all depends on the family, and the budget. Sometimes families decide to go outdoors in a garden, mountain or any green area with chairs, music and a big celebration of the bwk w zawa as they all dance in their beautiful Kurdish clothes.

Type B: Other times, event halls are booked, there is no wedding planner! No. Not at all. Just the hall, food is either sandwiches or one dish for everyone. There is music, pictures and lots and lots of dancing.
What an outdoor wedding might look like in Kurdistan

Type C: Recently, with the fancy hotels opening in the Region, those who have the budget undertake their weddings in hotels. The guest list is sometimes restricted to close family and friends (still reaches 200 people) food is catered for, there is live singing (this is sometimes also the case for Type B weddings) and lots and lots of dancing.
Many hotel options in available in Erbil (note, this is not one)

Aaahhh... The Guest LIST!!!!!!!!!!!!! 
In Type A and B weddings usually everyone is invited including the neighbors, the neighbor's cousin, and so many others that the bwk w zawa (bride and groom) don't even know. 

Be sure, all the kids will invite themselves too. Sadly, the culture of KIDS ARENT INVITED TO WEDDINGS is still not clear to many people. And yes, you will have a crying toddler at your wedding, and as you cut your cake the little princes and princesses will surround the cake (argh!).

Invitations usually given a week in advance
The Party
No matter what type of wedding party you go to, if the budget is half a million dollars or $500 you come back with your feet swollen and your voice lost because of the dancing, singing, shouting and you know.. that klelelelel sound us women do!
I love the dahol w zurna at Kurdish weddings! 

Usually there is a khana-bandan, which is a night before the wedding where the girl and her good friends get together to put henna on the bride-to-be's hands. There is dancing, and food exclusive for the girls.

The following morning the bride and some of her friends or family go to the salon where her hair and makeup is done (OVER DONE), the groom and few members of his family pick her up. The car is decorated, music is loud, horns are on, you drive around to a pre-booked studio to get the wedding pictures done (nowadays outdoor photography is becoming popular, so the photographer joins the bride and groom in one of the bigger parks, i.e. Martyr Sami Abdul Rahman Park) after the photo shoot they make their way to the wedding venue.

Our salons and make up artists need serious training!

Rings are exchanged, cake is cut, people take pictures with the bwk w zawa, food is eaten, shoulders ache, feet ache (did I mention there is dancing?) and slowly people leave.

Considering this is a Middle Eastern society always expect the few people who never dance and just use the occasion to watch everyone, who is wearing what and who is doing what and who has come and who has not (this will be the gossip for the next week). Usually, older mums take the opportunity to look around for a pretty girl for their son (because he is so gunaaaha, can't find a bride for himself). And if you're single, whoever sees you they wish for you to be a bride/groom soon.
Bride and groom through the streets in Kurdistan

Soon there are few close friends left that take the bride and groom to the hotel.

And then... let's hope they live happily ever after.

By the way: There is no Best Man Speech, or Maid of honor speech or even groom's speech! Which is something I like about Western Weddings!

After Party with One Month
"Baby on the way?"

If you dare say "I am not well" everyone will ask if there is a baby on the way. If after a few months there is no baby, some will ask if there is something wrong with you, or if you want the name of the great doctor that her cousin's friend went to, then got pregnant after few months.

Yup. Society will ask, you answer! 

Oh yes! Some people have a day after the wedding for the gifts at the bride and groom's place. This is called haftana (usually happens seven days after the wedding) some refuse to hold this tradition, and therefore, gifts are also welcome on the wedding day or  they are taken to the new couple's place after the wedding. You must also invite the new couple for a meal out or at your house! Maybe so the bride doesn't need to cook for a while :)

Gifts usually money or house needs, sometimes gold jewelry 

And that, my dear reader is your Big Fat Kurdish Wedding

*Please note, wedding traditions vary greatly among different parts of Kurdistan, among different villages and even different families. The younger generation Kurds who are familiar with the west sometimes create their own trend of a wedding culture (of course, where the family does not appose). 

NOTE: ALL pictures taken from google images. Sorry, internet way too slow for me to put the link of each of the sources for the image. Let's hope no one charges me with any copy right issues.