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OP/ED: Reporter Adam Lucente writes home from Middle East about the war zone, the food, and missing his hometown of Suffern, New York

Written in Ankawa, Iraq: the Rockland of the Middle East

BY ADAM LUCENTE

Ankawa, Iraq—Tucked above downtown Erbil is the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region-and only 51 miles from ISIS-controlled Mosul, Ankawa is a primarily Assyrian Christian-inhabited neighborhood in northern Iraq. Churches, a large statue of Mother Mary, Aramaic signs, and alcohol stores line the streets, not exactly the usual sights for an Iraqi locale. Ankawa’s diversity and hospitality remind me of Rockland County every time I’m here.

I’ve been a journalist based in the Middle East for most of the past year or two, but originally I hail from Suffern. This is something I’m often reminded of upon saying, “I’m a New Yorker!”  Arabs and expatriates alike want to know where in New York I’m from. So I say “Near Jersey,” “the suburbs,”  or “Aidan’s country house from Sex and the City,”, answer obviously depends on my audience.

 

 

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Adam with his interpreter and two peshmerga (military of Iraqi Kurdistan) generals near a frontline with ISIS in the Assyrian village of Tel Eskof.

 

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East to west, I’ve been throughout Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and Iraqi Kurdistan, but Ankawa feels the most like my home, Rockland County.

Most of Ankawa’s residents are Assyrian Christians. Their historical language is Aramaic-Jesus’s language and many still speak it and use it in their liturgy.

Arabic is their lingua franca, however, and they will often use this to converse with the Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis and others living among them. The Aramaic alphabet reminds me of Hebrew, and this is the first reason I see Rockland in Ankawa. Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew are all Semitic languages, and the Aramaic alphabet most closely resembles that of Hebrew, in my opinion anyway.

It reminds me of when I’m in Monsey, NY, where I go to get falafel when home to ease my reverse culture shock-I wonder what language to speak to people. Of course, I could just speak English, but sometimes wonder if Pita Land or Kosher Castle would be good places to practice the bit of Hebrew I’ve picked up through my travels. Walking into Ankawa’s shawarma joints, I face a similar dilemma.

Yes, I could order in Arabic, but I’m hesitant. What if this particular cashier is a Kurd? I’ve gotten in trouble for speaking Arabic to Kurds before. I was once accused of appearing like an ISIS member at an Asayish (security forces of Iraqi Kurdistan) checkpoint due to my long hair and beard, Syrian accent when I speak Arabic (it’s Jordanian, but close). I shrugged it off at the time, but after seeing some pictures of dead ISIS fighters a source sent me, I must say they do have long, bushy hair and beards…

Also, the shawarma in Ankawa and all of Iraqi Kurdistan warrants mentioning. You pay around $3 for what is labeled a shawarma (grilled meat on a spit) sandwich, but you receive so much more. They’ll usually bring soup, hummus, sesame chips and salad along with your sandwich-for no extra cost.

Israelis and Palestinians often argue over who makes the best shawarma, but I give it to the Kurds, Assyrians and all who cook this delicious delicacy in Iraqi Kurdistan. Being served a huge, delicious meal there, I feel as I do when I see Dino at the Airmont Diner.  Although the food in Ankawa is much, much cheaper, with all due respect to Dino.

Ankawa’s ethnic and religious diversity reminds me of Rockland as well. Someone once told me Spring Valley is the largest Haitian community in the U.S. after New York and Miami. Not sure if this is true, but it speaks to Rockland’s incredible diversity, with Creole speakers on top of Yiddish speakers, on top of Spanish speakers, and so on and so forth.

Erbil, where Ankawa is located, is the same way. Most inhabitants are Kurds, but then you have to the Assyrians, Yazidis, Arabs and others. The refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps on its outskirts host a wide array of Iraqi and Syrian peoples as well.

And then there are the immigrants. It’s not uncommon for an Egyptian to serve you your drink, or a Filipino to clean your hotel room. The T.G.I. Friday’s (yes, they have one) was staffed entirely by Asian workers the last time I went.

Erbil even has its own Christopher St. Lawrence: president of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani. I don’t mean this as a slight to either man; all I mean is they are polarizing figures, seemingly either loved or hated by their dominions.

In Ankawa, you’ll see Barzani’s pictures in many a room. A friend told me he once heard a fellow Kurd say “Barzani over my father and my brother.” His Kurdistan Democratic Party is one of the main parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. Still, he has many opponents throughout the autonomous region.

If Barzani is anything, he’s a survivor. He worked with Saddam Hussein to fight the rival Patriotic Union for Kurdistan party and its allies during the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War in the ‘90s. He’s presently working with the U.S. to fight ISIS in the area. He even met with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan-a man largely disliked by many Kurds in Turkey and Syria-in April to further discuss fighting ISIS.

Will St. Lawrence survive his April arrest like Barzani survived Saddam’s attacks on the Kurds, a civil war, the U.S. invasion and the rise of ISIS? Only time will tell.

Regardless of what the future holds, Ankawa will remain my Rockland away from Rockland as long as I’m in the Middle East. If you ever have over a grand to spare, a desire to be a tourist a few hours from ISIS, a taste for delicious Middle Eastern cuisine, and a soft spot for breathtaking mountains and plains, then I whole-heartedly recommend paying Iraqi Kurdistan a visit.

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Adam with Nineveh Plain Forces (an Assyrian paramilitary group) after a training exercise near the frontline with ISIS in the Assyrian village of Tel Eskof.

 

-Rockland native Adam Lucente is a freelance journalist in the Middle East. He has reported for Al Jazeera and other publications from across the region. Adam Lucente regularly submits a column from the Frontline in the Middle East to rocklandtimes.com

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