My boyfriend is a middle child. I realized the full meaning of this when I first visited his family last year during eid al-fitr, the holiday celebration at the end of Ramadan. M's family includes eight sisters, whom I was (sort of) introduced to when we walked onto his property for the first time.
Older houses in Halabja have large courtyards with fruit trees and two separate units: One contains about four rooms that are the living quarters; the other contains the bathroom and kitchen. (i.e. water is pumped from the tanks on the property into only one unit. There is no government water system.)
When we first entered the courtyard, all I saw was a flurry of women running around, doing, well, everything – too much for me to be properly introduced. They were shaking out the rugs, making food, even moving furniture. You can do a lot with eight women – enough, in fact, that there isn't much need for men. They didn't even need M to move a large couch, let alone do anything else in the house. I realized that my boyfriend didn't have a clear role in this family. Middle children tend to get lost in the shuffle anyway, but M's sisters seemed like they could handle everything themselves, from money-making to shopping to housework.
M's sisters are all educated. That was something their mother insisted on. She, too, is educated, at least by Halabja's standards: She can read and write, and made it through sixth grade. Her girls have gone farther: Most have graduated from universities or institutes (which are like community colleges in
M's sisters put him through college. His dad wanted him to take over the teahouse, but he instead opted for a degree in English. Dad couldn't figure out why his son would turn down the opportunity to have a guaranteed business in a country where wars and sanctions left many of its educated jobless. But M saw a brighter future and chose a different path, and now he's in the
His sisters will probably never leave Iraqi Kurdistan. They went to
Kurdish women don't usually venture far from their families unless their husband's work or decisions require them to. As different as M's family is, it doesn't break all traditions.
I wasn't with my boyfriend this trip but I had a great visit with his sisters, watching bad subtitled American movies and communicating with our equally bad Arabic. Staying at M's house is like having a sleepover. There are four rooms for eleven people, and we slept on thin mattresses that are folded up and stored in a closet during the day. I slept in one of the smaller rooms with five of Mariwan's sisters – at least I think I counted five lumps under the blankets. When the electricity cut at about 9pm, (it went on at 7pm) all we had were our flashlights and a kerosene heater that illuminated the room. We chatted and giggled and instead of eating junk food, we had pomegranates and oranges grown in their yard.
Halabja isn't paradise, that's for sure; I haven't seen roads and infrastructure that bad since I was in war-torn east Congo four years ago. But it certainly has its positive side, including a warm home that is a wonderful place to rest.