Grazing across the Fertile Crescent

Escape to Iraq for highbrow coffee culture, exotic exports, & hearing Iraqi kids share stories of war & peace.

Iraq stamp
Armchair Adventure inside
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It’s mid-day Friday in northern Iraq as my travel companions and I hike through a forest on the outskirts of Suleimanya.

Despite our remote location, the aroma of grilled kebabs up ahead tells me we’re not alone.
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Waterfall in Iraq
It’s mid-day Friday in northern Iraq as my travel companions and I hike through a forest on the outskirts of Suleimanya.

Despite our remote location, the aroma of grilled kebabs up ahead tells me we’re not alone.

Rounding a bend in the path, clusters of family picnics dot the landscape. Hunkered down on a patchwork of blankets and carpets, children, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and extended relatives detach from the weekly grind to spend their day of R&R under open skies in the great outdoors.

Interestingly, it was in this very region 6,000 years ago that the world’s first civilization emerged in the lush valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers— a land so abundant, the transition from nomadic to sedentary life was a no-brainer.
Iraqi family picnic
But while the existence of organized agriculture made it possible for large numbers of people to live together in cities, it ultimately led to so much ‘togetherness’ that people now need to head to a remote forest just to get a little peace and quiet.

The paradox of advanced civilizations also reveals that the more we stock our kitchens with microwaves, trash compactors, Cuisinarts, and convection ovens, the more excited we are to haul our pots and pans into the wilderness to eat on the ground and cook over an open fire.

We humans are an ironic species.

Down below a rocky overlook, a mom ladles out heaps of spiced rice pilaf onto a platter while a dad turns long skewers of sizzling lamb kebabs over a fire. The whole family looks up in surprise as we walk by and wave.
Mother and son
Separated by decades of war and geopolitical strife, American tourists are a rarity in Iraq— and Middle Easterners discovering Midwesterners hiking through their picnic grounds borders on the surreal.

Without hesitation the dad belts out, “Salam alaykum!” (peace be upon you), the customary Arabic greeting. “Welcome!” he shouts, enthusiastically gesturing for us to come over.

I’m not sure if it’s his Arab hospitality talking or the fact that I’m eyeing their picnic spread like a long-lost love (or both), but he insists we join them for some food.

For the next hour, piles of baba ganoush are devoured and fistfuls of falfel are eaten.

We talk.
We laugh.
We sing.

We take photos— hundreds of photos— as though our mutual fascination of one another demands proof that this chance encounter between Iraqis and Americans is actually taking place.
Iraqi food
Our need for human connection with those missing from our lives is palpable.

Finally, we thank them as they shower us with blessings, and we head back to the trail.
Barely clearing the next bend, another family shouts, “Salam alaykum! Welcome to Iraq!” while holding out a platter of grilled chicken and stuffed grape leaves.

And so, our afternoon continues.

Family after family welcoming us into their lives and scrapbooks as we graze and gobble and laugh and sing and photograph our way through the forest— lapping up every bit of hospitality at each finger-licking, belt-un-notching, feast.

By late afternoon, the family reunions disband as we slowly head out of the park back to “civilization,” at peace in the Middle East.
Iraqi food
Feast in the Middle East
Iraqi family having picnic
The great outdoors
Dina with Iraqi women
Making friends
Kebab ingredients
Iraqi men swimming
Swimming hole
Guys eating
Guys chilling
Iraqi family
Family reunion
Group picture
Middle East meets Midwest
Taking photos
So many photos
Taking more photos
Coffee house in Iraq
Coffeehouses: the epicenter of civilization
Iraqi script
Iraq– the birthplace of Assyrian and Babylonian societies– is often referred to as the “Cradle of Civilization” because it’s from where the earliest human social advancement emerged. Between the establishment of organized agriculture and the creation of written scripts, laws, and rights to the discovery of.... continue reading
Shahbandar cafe
astronomy, algebra, and the decimal system, Ancient Mesopotamia cornered the market on intellectual development– with Baghdad among the most sophisticated, wealthiest, and most progressive cities on the planet.

But– decimal points aside– something even more exciting for humanity was brewing. Coffeeshops.

Yep, Iraqis soon discovered that the less time they had to spend hunting and gathering the more time they had to hang out with friends. And what’s the fun of being a highly-literate intellectual if you don’t have others to flaunt it with?

So, leveraging Iraq’s strategic location at the crossroads of east-west trade routes, and with rapidly developing coffee bean production on the Arabian Peninsula, a new social institution was about to rock the planet.

According to historians, the first Baghdad café was established in 1590 under Ottoman rule. In no time, Iraqi coffeehouses, called qahveh khaneh, became the great social network of the Middle East. For centuries, these cultural cafés were highbrow hubs for writers, artists, scientists, playwrights, and political junkies who came to read, write, gossip, debate or just chill over a steaming cup of Arabic coffee and a long, slow drag on a hookah water pipe.
Starbucks Unicorn Frappucino
For generations, Bagdad’s still-famous Shahbandar café has been known for hosting Iraq's top elite thinkers and poets— an oasis of camaraderie where dreamers and debaters come to mix it up and throw it down.

And when it comes to brewing coffee, the Iraqis don’t mess around. A far cry from the iconic Unicorn Frappuccino, Iraqi coffee is served strong, bitter, and whipped cream-free. With a turbo blast of caffeine and a shot of cardamom, mainlining Iraqi coffee while getting into it over politics no doubt produces some seriously big ideas.

Since ancient times, Iraq’s cultural coffee contribution has continued to extend its worldwide reach. (Starbucks can be found in 78 countries and territories with nearly 30,000 locations, including the Middle East.)
But while Middle Eastern coffee growers and traders continue to export coffee to every corner of the planet, it’s the coffeeshop’s role as the human social connector that holds the most universal influence. Today, from big cities to small towns, McCafes to hipster hangouts, modern Americans flock to coffeeshops for business meetings, job interviewing, thesis-writing, Tinder-match scrutinizing, or just a daily dose of caffeinating and connecting.

One sip at a time.

Painting of Arab man pouring coffee
Arab Hospitality vs. "Minnesota Nice"
Home cooked Iraqi meal
One of the most enduring– and endearing– aspects of Iraqi culture is Arab hospitality. In fact, the art of honoring guests is so sacred, it’s practically part of their religious beliefs. Far beyond friendliness, Arab hospitality is a form of social interdependence that evolved from their history of struggle against the extreme hardships of the desert.... continue reading
Arab style coffee being pour
‘Diyafa’ is the Arabic word for when wanderers lost in the desert were given food, water, and shelter until they recovered. Because survival required the help of others, every visitor to an oasis was greeted with open arms and no questions asked.

Here in Minnesota we’re also known for the extreme hardships of weather. Our winters are long and cold, and until you’ve had your parked car buried by a snowplow– or licked a metal pole on a dare– you don’t know the fun of a Minnesota January.

Somehow we acquired the moniker “Minnesota Nice" (we even have our own Wikipedia page!), but ask some of the transplants to our state about how “nice” we are and they might call BS. To more than a few outsiders, we’re a state full of polite, but shallow, conversationalists who will never let you break into our inner circles no matter how many generations you’ve lived here.

Harsh, perhaps, but coming from a long line of stoic and stand-offish Scandinavians, I have to agree. The family I grew up in wasn’t exactly known for our gushing effusiveness– and our “yah, sure you betcha” agreeableness is more indifference in disguise. Try to make an emotional connection with us you’ll discover we’re just as frigid as our climate. Personal space is practically part of our religious beliefs.

Sure, we may say “please” and” thank you” a dozen times in the simplest interactions. We’ll wave at you driving down the road, and let you pull out first at a four-way stop. We’ll stop and give you directions (anywhere but our house). And we’ll happily help you dig your car out of the snowbank, even when the wind chill is 40 below. But come any closer and “Minnesota nice” becomes “Minnesota ice”.

Unlike in Iraq– where stranded travelers would be welcomed with the best seat in the house, served the first cup of qahwe (traditional Arabic coffee flavored with cardamom), and offered every comfort the hosts can afford– stranded travelers stopping by a Minnesota home probably won’t get past the front door, but we’ll cheerfully let you use our phone to call a tow truck.

Finally, when leaving an Iraqi home, the hostess will sprinkle rose water on visitors’ heads from a silver decanter to ensure good fortune and to ward off evil.

When leaving a Minnesota home, a hug isn’t likely, but we’ll make sure the door doesn’t hit you in the behind on your way out.

You betcha.
World map
Belly dancer
Iraq's Exotic Export #1 - Belly Dancing
Iraqi jewelry
Believed to have originated in Egypt, belly dancing has been an important social dance– as well as public entertainment– throughout the Middle East for centuries. Between the sensual torso movements and the flowing scarves, the exotic jewelry and coin belts (not to mention the swords, snakes, and flaming candles that accessorize more intrepid dancers) it’s no surprise that this regional performance art has captivated the world’s attention as well..... continue reading
Vietnamese spices
In the U.S., belly dancing made its first debut at the 1893 Chicago World Fair when a dancer called Little Egypt gave a hip-thrusting, shoulder-shimmying performance to a stunned and speechless crowd. Considering that America’s sexual revolution wouldn’t happen for another 70 years, it was no doubt considered the twerking of its time— and started a wave of controversy as a result. While many corset-loving, ankle-covering Americans were appalled by such indecent body rhythms, smart marketers were ready to cash in.

Since that time, belly dancing has grown in popularity with group classes being introduced in gyms and community centers across the country— and Shakira videos playing on every TV screen.

Not only is belly dancing a dynamic form of cardio exercise, but medical experts believe it has numerous anti-aging benefits as well. By strengthening the core (abs, obliques, and lower back), it alleviates hip and back pain. By strengthening joints and connective tissues, injuries are prevented, as well as onset of arthritis. The rhythmic motions improve balance, coordination, and flexibility, and the torso movements are even believed to massage internal organs, helping with digestion. Most importantly, the sparkly, bling-enhanced costumes are guaranteed to bring out your inner diva at any age.

Need proof? Meet the 100-year old woman giving Shakira a run for her money. Those hips don’t lie.

Ready to try a few moves on your own? Here’s an easy 1-minute/5-move video from belly dancer and instructor Janelle Jalila Issis:
Iraqi bakery
Iraqi dance group
Boys dancing group
Nuts and grain
Nuts and grains
Iraqi man playing oud
Oud player
Women walking
Women on the move
Shop selling beauty products
Beauty supply shop
Fresh bread
Mosque in Iraq
Iraqi men shopping
Men at marketplace
Iraqi kids playing instraments
Young musicians
Dried fruit and nuts for sale
Dried fruits and nuts
Jewelry for sale
Gold jewelry
Hookah pipes
Hookah water pipes
Rice bags
Rice bags
Mountains of spices
Fresh dates
Shakira shows belly dancing's worldwide reach.
Hookah pipe
Iraq's Exotic Export #2 - Hookah
Iraqis smoking hookah
After Europeans introduced tobacco into Central Asia in the 1500s, industrious Northern Indians designed the first hookah water pipe as a revolutionary new way to smoke, relax, and look cool with their friends. Pretty much the "vaping" of the 16th century, anything that decadent was destined to catch on.

With coffeehouses being the chief social gathering places across the Arab world, hookah was fast becoming part of Iraqi social culture and traditions.... continue reading
Hookah pipes
Iraq’s Shahbandar Café is still the most famous place in Baghdad to hob nob with fellow intellectuals, guzzle coffee, and blow smoke— literally and metaphorically.

Now all over the world, hookah lounges continue to spring up— but culture aside, medical experts say that hookah smoke contains nicotine, carbon monoxide, and carcinogens, and has been linked to lung cancer, heart disease, infectious diseases, and pregnancy-related complications.

Such a buzzkill.
Iraqi textile
Vendor selling beauty products
Beauty shop vendor
Young Iraqi man delivering bread
Bread delivery
Iraqi fruit vendor
Fruit vendor
Brass vendors in Iraq
Brass vendors
Convenience store
Convenience store
Coffee vendor in Iraqi market
Coffee vendor
Iraqi oud market
Oud market
Pasta vendor
Pasta vendor
Coffeepots for sale
Coffeepots for sale
Iraqi woman walking in market
Woman shopping
Man selling spices
Spice vendor
Many things for sale
Colorful wares
Dried fruit for sale in Iraqi market
Dried fruit vendor
Elderly Kurdish man walking
Kurdish gentleman
Iraqi rice
Rice bags
Hookah pipes for sale
Hookah water pipes
Silver coffeepot
Iraqi coffeepot
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Vietnamese textile
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Next stop... Haiti!
Photo credits
Starbucks map: Nekoneko9v [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] -
Al-Shahbander Cafe: Mustafa Waad Saeed [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] -
Iraqi tea: Mustafa Waad Saeed [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] -
Unicorn Frappucino: Michelle oshen from New York, US [CC BY-SA 2.0 (] -
Starbucks in China: By Grant Hollingworth (Flickr: Beijing, China) - [CC BY-SA 2.0 (] -
Painting of pouring coffee: By the Humanette (Flickr: hospitality) - [CC BY-SA 2.0 (] -
Coffee pot with snacks: By BoydJones (Flickr: Incredible home-cooked meal at the Zaidanis, Riyadh - coffee + dates) - [CC BY-SA 2.0 (] -
Pouring coffee from copper pitcher: Eaeeae [CC BY-SA 3.0 (] -
Black and gold textile: PHGCOM [CC BY-SA 3.0 (] -
Belly dancer: Amaranta Dancer [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] -
Belly dancing in restaurant: Dan Lundberg [CC BY-SA 2.0 (] -