Grandmothers in black abayas flowing to their feet, younger women in western clothes, older children, and fathers with young children stand around the bread bakery, just around the corner from our house in Suleimani, in the Kurdish region of Iraq. We were all there to buy fresh “nan” the thin Kurdish flatbread. Like others, I put my money in a long row along the edge of the flat counter, to be served in order of arrival. Once their money was in line, the person either stood nearby or even walked off to return after doing other quick errands. I remembered this same system being used in central and southern Iraq.
More people huddled around since it was a Saturday, and the shop had been closed for Friday, the holy day for Muslims. The day had not reached its hottest, only about 105 F in the hot sun, since it was only 9:55 am when I arrived.
Behind the booth, three men each did their task like clockwork. One man scooped up a handful of prepared dough from a large bin, rolled it around in his hands to form smooth balls, and lined them on a table. The second man took a ball and flattened it out in his hands, as one might flatten out pizza dough in traditional style, and then flopped it onto a rounded frame that looked like a hard round cushion. With this, he quickly slapped the disk of dough so that it stuck onto one of the vacant sides inside the concave open oven. The third man watched over the bread in the oven, taking each finished piece out with long handled tongs and then flinging it onto the flat top of the booth in front of us.
The buyer next in line, stood at the booth, picking up the amount of large flat discs of bread that they had paid for, stacking it, and carrying it off, and leaving the space for the next in line.
Being quite conspicuous as a foreigner, I was constantly watched, but people milled around and treated me like anyone else. After getting permission to take pictures, those who didn’t want to be in them stood aside, while others stayed.
When my turn came, I had stood around the bread counter 30 minutes, but wasn’t in a hurry; I enjoyed being there. It was more than an act that helped our neighbors learn to know and trust our presence among them. I was a part the everyday tasks of the people in our neighborhood, learning to know them and their traditional customs, and not being given some special privilege as a foreigner.
And in a time of uncertainty about the future of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq—not knowing if their communities will also be battling the extremist militias threatening people in other parts of the country—it’s good to see life, as usual, going on. In fact, people here find their routines and practices reassuring and a reminder of the common heritage and culture that strengthen their communities and bind them together.