Expat tales: Living the Kurds' way

17:00, May 10 2014
Kurdistan market
BAZAAR SHOPPING: When the temperature is not too extreme, Caitlin Smith likes to visit the market.

Caitlin Smith teaches English in an American University in Iraq.

Why did you move there?

I moved to Kurdistan for work in 2011. I had been living and working in Australia and wanted a change - a big change. I found a position on an international job board, applied, and had a ticket sent to me within a week. Everything happened very quickly!

Caitlin Smith
Caitlin Smith

What do you do there?

I'm an English instructor at The American University of Iraq. I teach students from both Kurdistan and Iraq, so there's often three languages being spoken.

What do you like or dislike about life there?


Kurdistan's political situation is always in the back of my mind. The region is very safe with a lot of military presence and checkpoints, but there have been a few occasions where I've felt a bit nervous. People like to celebrate by shooting in the air, which I will never get used to. Kurds are famous for their hospitality and I love how welcoming people are. It's not unusual to be invited to family homes or on picnics with wonderful smiling people.

How does the cost of living compare to New Zealand's?

Most expat contracts include accommodation and utilities, so the cost of living is very cheap. Food shopping can be very frustrating - the supermarkets will have something one week, and then it will sell out and they'll never restock that item. I've learnt to hoard cheese - I recently paid $40 for a kilo of cheddar, which is sitting in the freezer. The stores are mostly very cheap, although the food you can buy isn't always great.

What do you do on weekends?

In the summer it's much too hot to go outside during the day - the hottest I've experienced so far was when it got to 49 degrees. When the weather isn't too extreme, people like to go for picnics and get out of the city, or explore the bazaar.

What do you think of the food/what's your favourite thing to eat there?

Dolma is the national dish - everyone's mum makes the best dolma, and the best way to show your appreciation is by reaching for seconds (or thirds). Beans and rice are the staple food, with very well-cooked meat - lots of barbecue, although obviously no pork sausages.

What's the best way to get around?

Taxis are everywhere and incredibly cheap. It can be difficult to explain where you want to go, because there aren't addresses as such. I use a combination of gestures and Kurdish to get to where I need to go.

What's the shopping like?

It's pretty grim, so expats come into the country with giant suitcases. There's a strange contrast between the skimpy, revealing clothes sold in stores and the modest way that women dress. I'm still struggling to find a balance.

What's the nightlife like?

Alcohol is increasingly available, but there's still a stigma attached to being seen drinking in public. There are restaurants that cater for people who do like a drink, but there aren't clubs (yet).

What is your favourite part of the city?

I live in Sulaymaniyah, which is a beautiful mountain town. I absolutely love the views - the mountains make me a bit homesick, to be honest. The bazaar is probably my favourite place.

What time of year is best to visit?

It depends on how comfortable you are in the dry heat or the wet cold. April and May are the most beautiful months - the mountains are green, the water is clear and the flowers are being picked.

What's your must-do thing for visitors?

Definitely visit one of the many little amusement parks in the region - there's nothing quite as scary as being on a dubiously maintained ferris wheel in an official war zone.

What are your top tips for tourists?

Bring good shoes - the footpaths here are similar to the obstacle courses we did in primary school.

How easy is it for you to get back to New Zealand?

Not at all easy. When I first arrived, it took seven flights, but it's possible to do it in four. It's usually a journey that takes 48 hours door to door.

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