Spring is the time when hundreds of Iraqi Kurdish women head for the hills to collect herbs that start growing around now.
“They cook them themselves to eat and they also sell them,” says Nermin Mazwi, a local woman who led us on a journey into the prairies and foothills of the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan. “Every year we collect these herbs and many Kurdish people enjoy eating them for their health benefits. For example, eating nettle with your meal makes digestion easier. It is also mixed with dough and baked. Other herbs are cooked daily, such as mallow, which we can have for breakfast and dinner. Truffles are also cooked regularly for meals.”
The hills are green and the women gathering herbs are of all ages. Some of them sing to the others. Some of the younger women are learning which herbs to collect from the more experienced gardeners.
Another local woman out on the same day, Shireen Nouri, says the collection of herbs and plants on the first days of spring is a family affair. “Most of the families in the Dohuk province cook these herbs at this time of the year because they bring a change to the traditional food that's cooked throughout the year,” Nouri says.
“The herbs just don't grow anywhere,” explains another collector, Mariam al-Taher. “Each herb can be found in a specific kind of environment – some are higher up, others are lower down. Most of them do grow in the foothills of the mountains here which makes them harder to get to.”
For some of the women out here, the work of gathering herbs is not just private; it is actually a source of income. Al-Taher sells herbs at the markets in the city of Dohuk and she says demand is high. “People here also store them, drying the herbs or keeping them in the fridge, so they can use them in autumn and winter too. We sell a lot at this time of year.”
“This time of year is hard work for me,” Qamri Abdul-Jabbar says; she is 67 years old and she sits on one of the pavements near the centre of Dohuk selling the bundles of herbs. “I go out with my daughters and sons in the early morning and we usually stay there until sunset. We collect herbs like nettle, curry, mallows and mushrooms as well as others and we sell them in bundles, sometimes even by the kilo. They're not expensive. A bundle of herbs costs about IQD500 [around US$0.40] and we put a lot of effort into collecting them.”
Abdul-Jabbar says demand is good even if it's not necessarily regular. She estimates that she makes about IQD35,000 (around US$30) a day from sales.
There have been some problems this year though, the matriarch continues. “There are a lot of displaced families here and the women are going out to the fields too, they're competing with us,” she explains. “They are everywhere we are and they tend to sell their herbs a lot cheaper.”
“The collection of herbs is a Kurdish tradition at this time of year and there are both economic as well as health benefits,” says Mohammed Ibrahim, a representative from the Directorate General of Agriculture in Dohuk. Besides the business competition, Ibrahim says the women out there collecting herbs must also contend with other dangers – things like insects, bears, wolves and snakes as well undiscovered land mines. “That risk increases at this time of year because as plant and grass cover increases, you cannot see if there's any unexploded munitions in the soil.”
However none of this is likely to prevent local women from getting to the plants. As herb seller al-Taher points out, it's also about the fresh air and the environment. “We were raised in villages around here and we feel happy and relaxed doing this kind of work,” she explains. “The air carries the scent of wild flowers in bloom and we actually also have a lot of fun doing this work.”