View from my rooftop...
Dohuk is a city of 350,000, nestled in northern Iraq in a quiet valley encircled by mountains that spring up from the Tigris River. I lived there for ten months and all the while those ancient mountains stared placidly down upon me. Wide-eyed, I looked longingly back at them (“Are they indifferent? or sympathetic?” I often mused, unable to decide if those mountains were my quiet solace or a terrible tease). In this culture and because of our proximity to ISIS (I lived one hour away by car from Mosel, their then-newest hub) I was not allowed to go out by myself to discover the answer. My nature-worshipping soul shriveled daily without a cohort to escort me on outdoor exploration. This confinement was bitterness added to my already dessert-parched mouth. From my living room and rooftop, respectively, I poured out my complaint to these silent, steady onlookers.
and from my living room
A view from the Mall: the mountains surrounded Dohuk on all sides
A team of us teachers enjoy the Mountain backdrop
I overheard expatriates and nationals, including my students, speak about hiking these mountains, but their stories existed in a place inaccessible to my mind because of all the “rules” that applied to me, an unmarried woman living close to ISIS-controlled territory in the Middle East. The stories inhabited the same space as those of women running freely (and alone) in the public park, of Arabs showing respect to minorities, and of Christians and Muslims cohabiting peacefully as neighbors and friends. In my mind, I placed all these stories in the same category as I did folktales, legends, and myths: beautifully desirable, yet totally unreal.
In February, my life changed when two Americans were added to my teaching team. Most significantly, these two were a married couple. Culturally, I was allowed to tag along with them outside of the house and my world broadened. I determined immediately to include outdoor explorations into my wider scope of experience and I said so to Admon at school. Like a boy, Ad seized my idea with brio and we began excitedly plotting our first real adventure together.
On a Friday afternoon, “we were six” (as they say in Iraq): the married couple (Tim and Esther), two responsible boy students (Pel and Avraz), Ad, and myself. We met at Gali Circle in the old part of the city, which at that time of day on a Friday, the Muslim-majority day of worship and rest, was deserted. Gali was a small commercial area of restaurants, tea-houses, and a sweets shop built up around the base of the Dohuk dam. We had met here to climb “Flag Mountain,” so named because of the huge and highly visible Kurdish flag painted on its side. From a distance (the only view I’d had of the precipice until this moment), the mountain had appeared docile and even inviting.
Can you spot Flag Mountain's Kurdish flag behind me? Look closely; it appears "small"!
At the base of Flag Mountain
Our two students, Pel and Avraz, arrived cool and confident. Perhaps they’d turned up only to witness the spectacle of Westerners summiting their mountain. Perhaps they were bored on a Friday and our hike was a nice distraction. Whatever attracted them to our group, I was grateful for their presence. We needed their help navigating the path to the top.
Like the boys, Tim and Esther were also quietly composed, but they turned outward to our group in warm conversation as we began to climb. Their focus was on the relationships represented there and less on the event itself. But Ad and I were both wildly distracted by our own excitement: he, to be sharing a new experience; and me, to be outdoors roaming beneath the day’s perfectly azure sky, discovering the beauty of Kurdistan with my own eyes for the first time.
We were a small group and for the first two tiers of the mountain remained as a pack. Before the first tier we stepped through short, timid clods of grass which would become a thick carpet of green after February. A humble community of young trees greeted us at the first leveling out of the mountain and from there the route became rock. The boys raced ahead and our group disbanded, save for the married couple, who together brought up the rear. Each of us enjoyed the climb in our own way. I watched Avraz and Pel challenge each other to reach the next point first and heard their Kurdish exclamations then still unknown to me. Admon, slightly ahead of me, stopped at intervals to praise the beauty of a flower, take a selfie, or examine the remains of a previous hiker’s fire. The cool afternoon air kissed my face and I drunk the warm, white, pre-spring sunlight with silent gratitude.
Tree tier: "Miss, how did you...?"
Still smiling at Tier 2
Avraz and Pel led the way
View from Tier 2
The Kurds make this look easy!
Upon the boulders of the third level, our group reconvened for a photo. Tim and Esther stopped climbing there, but, again, Pel and Avraz sprinted ahead. We were two-thirds of the way to the top and together Admon and I gaged our goal. To reach the summit we had to pass by the painted Kurdish flag and climb along a nearly 70° incline. As Admon stepped he pleasantly talked about school, but my own steps increased my anxiety: I suddenly remembered that I’m afraid of heights!
An upward view from Tier 2. There's the flag!
At the next level the Kurdish flag- proudly painted bright red, white, and green, with a yellow starburst in the center- greeted us. At this proximity, I estimated it as quite larger than I imagined from the mountain’s base- perhaps 60 feet squared. Admon, though impatient to get to the top, couldn’t suppress his desire for another selfie and, smiling, I indulged him. We both climbed past the flag, but Ad slightly outpaced me. The climb now required me to use my hands and I fingered for pieces of grass and rock to hold onto.
A partial view of the flag on "Flag Mountain"
These angles righty depiect the feeling of hanging on for dear life!
Alone, I looked down at the terrain we had covered and was overwhelmed by the smallness of things below me. I looked up at the distance yet to be climbed and estimated it to be about an eighth of a mile. I froze. My body dropped against the rock. Waves of panic began to wash over me. All I could do in that moment was remember to breathe.
As I clung onto the side of that mountain in northern Iraq I remembered when a twelve-year-old me had gotten stuck in a Virginia pine tree. I had forged my way to the top of that tree without an exit plan and became stuck tight. An hour later, after much noise-making, the neighbors found me and proffered their ladder to get me down. From 9,000 miles away and 7 hours behind me, my dad now inserted himself into this thought-string, his pragmatism rebuking me: Who will be there to bring the ladder for you this time, Ab? Always have an exit plan. This is not about you proving yourself to anybody!
He’s right, I meditated through deep, controlled breaths to prevent myself from hyperventilating, Who will rescue me from the top? What if I get up there, but can’t come down? I imagined an Iraqi helicopter hovering above me and a rescue team suited up in matching Jason Bourne black outfits descending from a ladder to hoist me up and off and down from this mountain. This would never happen. Helo rescue teams don’t exist in Iraq to save dumb Americans from summiting heights too great for them (do they exist at all?). It was impossible and I was impossibly frozen with fear.
I was frozen there (for how long I don't know) until a voice called me back. I sensed the voice approaching me but my face remained buried in the mountain until I heard it ask distinctly, “Are you OK?” and Admon himself stood above me, his voice, curious, rising at the end. I raised my head but couldn’t look at him; I was trying to be humble. Of course I wanted to summit that mountain, but my Daddy’s specter’s argument was compelling. I was preparing to turn back, but frozen still, my mouth formed these words, “Ad, I’m afraid of heights. I can’t make it to the top.”
He began his negotiations.
“Abbey, look, the boys are at the top already. Why did you stop? I’ll help you,” he soothed.
“No, Admon. I’m more worried about getting back down than about getting up. I won’t make it down if I keep going.” Defeated, I conceded, “You have to go on without me.”
Ad’s reply was gently stubborn, “You’re making it to the top. I’m not leaving you.”
I turned my face towards him. Admon’s hand, larger and stronger, reached for mine, “And I will help you get down. Do you trust me?” This is the real question, isn’t it? I put to myself: Do I trust Admon? A quick and quiet analysis surged through my synapses. In a moment, I had my answer: “Yes! Yes I trust you!” and I surrendered to his grip. He instinctively, firmly, pulled me to my feet. I exchanged my mountain-clinging for hand-grasping.
Pel, seeing his teacher fearful, prone, and clinging and his other teacher urging her on, scrambled down to our spot and lead the procession onward. A few paces ahead, he watched our path, calling out to Ad where to lead me. I clutched onto Ad’s hand or he held mine. Or perhaps both. As we stepped, I watched Ad’s feet and listened to his voice. Adrenaline surging through my body, Admon’s words were indistinct but I heard his tone, gentle and affirming. I focused on the sound of it, remembering the sage words of Solomon:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!
I thanked God that Admon, in that moment at least, was my “plus one.” Under Pel’s care-taking with these thoughts I grasped Admon’s hand, warmer than mine, all the way to the summit of Flag Mountain.
Pel and Ad "taking rest" (as the Iraqis say)
At the top, which was flat and wide, I released Ad’s hand, knelt, stared at the ground, inhaled, and exhaled until my panic passed by. The guys were taking in the sights. I heard their exclamations and finally, timidly, rose to join them. The beauty of our vista sent me into near hysteria of a different kind. There was the city sprawling, miniature, beneath us. There were the other mountain peaks that surrounded our city and here we were peers with them. Here we touched the sky, now cloudlessly pure blue. There were the vast waters of the Dohuk dam, mirroring the sky, and I traced the shoreline. I laughed and exclaimed with the rest of our group. I was incredulous, yet grateful to be there and I considered that without Admon, I wouldn’t be.
Miss Independence had just been schooled in the necessity of friendship by my kind, unassuming coworker and our blithe, young students.
View from the summit: Dohuk Dam
Still shaky, barely smiling
The Mountaineers celebrate our first Mountain in Kurdistan!
After a respectful amount of time enjoying the victory and snapping photos for posterity we began our descent and Admon again generously offered me his hand. I wanted to take it –I had liked the feel of his grip and desired a reason to be closer to him- but, awkward and suddenly shy because of our students watching us, I refused. Nevertheless, true to his word, Admon coached me down step-by-step from our great height. From only a few paces ahead of me, Ad’s happy chatter and pleasant laughter calmed my again rising anxiety and distracted me from my fears. When we reached the mountain tier at the base of the Kurdish flag I was able to relax completely. Admon pulled out his phone and shared his music. He took song requests and played my favorite, by Coldplay, on repeat. Satisfied, we began planning more hikes and adventures together. I now knew that I completely trusted this man and I thanked God for the surprise Ad continued to be…
Everytime thereafter I passed by Flag Mountain (far left) it was with great satisfaction ("I did it!")
and humble gratitude ("because of my friends!")
Our hiking group revisited Flag Mountain.
We challenged ourselves to climb through the flag and succeeded.
Dohuk sprawled, minature, below me.
By the second climb I was able to really smile...
and make friends at the top with some surprised locals!
I was so proud of that Kurdish woman who conquerred her mountain!
The Two A's: "Two are better than one"