I first heard about Lava when given a ride by a young man in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, after a job meeting.
“My cousin is also from Sweden”, he said. “She moved back here with her Swedish husband a while ago and opened a beauty salon”.
Not knowing many Kurdish girls marrying to Swedish men, I was hesitant to believe it. But Erbil is like a village despite its size, and many people mentioned Lava and her beauty salon. After an incident at a hair salon where my haircut came out awful, I scanned the city for someone to fix it, and found a salon called En-Vy behind shaded doors in the area Ainkawa. In the back of the salon was a girl in hip square glasses, mixing colors and chatting in Kurdish. It happened to be Lava that people were talking about; a Kurdish girl from Sweden who spoke my dialect of Swedish. I became a regular customer at En-Vy’s, their style being so different. En-Vy was a place for many open-minded women to hang out and drink coffee while having hair extensions inserted for the weekend or makeup done before weddings. After a while I also got to know more about Lava.
Deciding to move back to Kurdistan with her family in 2004 after graduating from high school, to a city someone described as “the Wild West” – at that time there were hardly no streets, bars or cafés – Lava Marof was determined to be a part of the process of rebuilding her country.
“I felt like wow, I can be a part of building this country”, she tells me on Skype from Malaysia, where she now lives.
She held down several jobs; one of them at Ministry of Education, revising the English material for schools, and she pursued her university studies at the same time. It wasn’t easy being a girl from Sweden, obviously independent.
“Your daughter is out all the time”, the neighbors would complain to Lava’s mother.
“She’s out all the time because she has three jobs”, the mother would reply.
“Why does she need to have three jobs?” the neighbors would ask, puzzled. “Is she not going to get married?”
Nevertheless Lava stayed put. She was proud of being Kurdish and determined to be a part of the newly independent Kurdistan Autonomous Region. After graduating from Salahaddin University she went back to Sweden where she met her future husband to be, Alex. Quickly she decided to bring him to Kurdistan to visit her family.
“I told Alex he had to ask my father for my hand”, she said. “There are certain things in my culture that are precious and that I want to maintain.”
They married and moved together to Erbil. Alex free-lanced within digital media and Lava fulfilled her dream of opening a beauty salon with European standard, importing all products from Italy, the staff being both men and women. I asked how this was possible with many veiled customers.
“Some accept the male staff cutting their hair, some don’t, and they might go somewhere else”, Lava said, also explaining that the shaded doors protected from view from the outside and that male customers was not welcome – this mix between conservative and Western oriented customer service obviously being enough to keep a large group of women coming to the salon.
As it has not been to walk her own path between two countries and cultures, I ask Lava about the worst thing she has experienced and she retells a story on how she and Alex together with a group of friends checked in to a resort in Rawanduz. The receptionist demanded to see the marriage certificate, and upon seeing it, asked Lava if there had been no Kurdish men left for her so that she was forced to marry to a European. Lava snapped back: ‘Yeah right, since all Kurdish men are thinking like you’.
“Sometimes you just have to show who’s in charge”, she concludes.
Photo credit: Lava Maroof