I arrived at Sulaymaniyah International Airport around 9am on Thursday, April 1st.
As soon as I got off the plane and approached immigration, I realized I was in a unique country in the region. Four booths were open to inspect arriving passengers, two manned by men and two by women. And so far, this could be deemed typical of most Middle Eastern countries nowadays. The two women, however, were unveiled, young and so full of make up even a guy could notice. This caught me by surprise: local women usually wear the veil over their head, as a sign of Islamic faith, even in the modern, tolerant Middle Eastern countries I had visited before. But here, the woman checking out my passport and taking my digital headshot could have been Italian. In fact, I really felt like I was at a train station in the “hinterland” of Milano: the young Kurdish guys that were on the plane with me (returning from Nowruz vacation, one can guess) were wearing tight-fitting, slightly ripped and stylishly-tainted jeans, fashionable jackets, and lots, lots of gel in their hair. The big sunglasses – worn at the airport gate as much as under the hot Kurdish sun – and the mohawks completed the picture. These men and women, all around my age, were the Iraqis that were going to host me in their city; and, I would later find out, were quite representative of the local population.
Miraculously, all my three enormous pieces of luggage made it to destination on time, surviving a two-day trip from DCA to ISU via two different (and unaffiliated) airlines and four airports. But there they were, all three rolling toward me just a few minutes after I passed immigration. As I walked to exit the baggage claim area, I definitely stood out. Not because I was white – my flight was roughly half locals and half Westerners – but mainly because I had three-and-a-half legs and was pushing a cart with five pieces of luggage.
Not very surprisingly, a customs official, a short middle-aged man with no uniform but an imposing dark mustache, told me something in Kurdish and indicated that I had to step aside for luggage inspection. My thoughts went straight to the pounds of pork of all kinds, sizes and varieties that I had packed a few days earlier. What if it was illegal to bring that tainted meat into the KRG? I never did check that with the people who urged me to bring bacon, ham and prosciutto with me to Sulaimaniya. But my modest fears lasted only two to three seconds, as another unveiled woman working at the airport came to my rescue. Presumably a colleague of the customs official who had asked me to stop, and potentially his superior, she shook her head, shrugged her shoulders and waved her hands as if saying, “nah, come on, this guy? Not necessary, can’t you see that [fill in the blank]?” Not sure what her justification was – was it that I was white? that I was semi-handicapped? that I was unsuspicious-looking? – but hers was the final word. My multiple servings of uncooked pork were saved, and who knows, maybe I escaped a tough start to my relationship with the Kurdish authorities.
Almost as if someone knew where I had just come from, at the first turn onto the main road, leaving the airport, there was a big apple – probably 5 feet wide – on the grass divider separating the two opposing lanes. I am hopeful to one day understand what I owed that random tribute to.
UPDATE: Passing the Big Mysterious Side-of-the-Road Apple a few days ago, a colleague pointed out that there are numerous apple orchards around the city, and that perhaps the curious object was related to those in some way.