Kurdish men spend a lot of time drinking tea, playing games, and socializing at tea shops. A Kurdish tea shop is completely different from how I imagined a tea shop, since I only had Starbucks and Teavanna to compare it to.
Please allow me to describe my first experience at a legitimate Iraqi tea shop buried in the center of the bazaar.
A returning 2010 intern, Alex, likes to call this tea shop “the catacombs.” So when he proposed the idea of revisiting his favorite place in Sulaymaniyah, another PLC intern and I were excited to visit this mysterious, catacomb-like teashop.
Alex led us through the winding streets of the bustling bazaar, when out of nowhere he dove into the small entrance of “the catacombs.” We walked through the narrow seating area and tea stand and then the room opened up to a huge floor filled with a mess of tables crowded with men.
The sights and sounds of the catacomb tea shop were awesome! The noise of dominoes slamming against tabletops, dice rolling across wooden boards and men’s laughter and conversation filled the room. The walls were lined in dirty, beige brick. These brick walls held pictures of Iraqi politicians and famous figures that seemed to transcend their canvas and stare creepily at you no matter where you moved.
The tea shop is a place where they can invite total strangers or friends to play games and drink cha (the Kurdish word for tea). The workers went around delivering tea, handing out games or repositioning cheap plastic chairs and metal tables to accommodate more Kurds. Every so often the old owner of the shop would come by to sweep up the endless amounts of cigarette butts scattered across the floor.
We found a small spot near the AC, and immediately our white skin and American-ness attracted eyes of friendly patrons eager to practice their English and help us out in our attempts to play backgammon. Anytime I play backgammon, a Kurd either playing or just watching, would move my pieces for me if I wasn’t quick enough to move them myself.
That day I spent over three hours in the tea shop losing almost every game I played, drinking tea and laughing with new friends. In Iraq, it’s normal to sit down and help strangers or foreigners with anything, even something as simple or insignificant as a board game.
And this friendliness isn’t just occasional. It’s a quality they practice daily. The Iraqi people really understand the value and importance of relationships. The culture here is saturated with qualities of hospitality and friendliness to strangers and friends, and I’ve recognized this level of love and friendliness as something I hope to adapt in my own life.