In the US we’re pretty used to using our credit cards to pay for things and we’re adding all sorts of new electronic payment methods. But in Northern Iraq, nearly everything is still done in cash. Hannah and Colleen discuss a few of the multitude of reasons for this, but more about the effect it has on every day life and how everyone navigates multiple currencies!


Here are some videos that show cash things we chatted about in the podcast:

Here’s a video with a Kurdish man counting currency.

Here’s a lesson on how to count this way.

Here’s a tour of one of the money exchange streets in Erbil!

Learn more on our Iraq Page!
Ask questions on our social media or by email to hannah@servantgroup.org. We’d love to hear your thoughts and questions!


Here’s a rough transcript of the podcast!

Hannah: Hey Colleen.

Colleen: Hey Hannah.

Hannah: So this is “Between Iraq and a Hard Place.” Although it kind of looks like a storage closet.

Colleen: Seriously we’re here to talk about life in Iraq.

Hannah: Right.

Hannah: We’ve talked about religion. We’ve talked about politics. There’s only one more thing that we’re not supposed to talk about that we’re going to talk about today.

Colleen: Yep!

Hannah: Money!

Colleen: All the money!

Hannah: Which I guess technically we have talked about money because we talked about support raising.

Colleen: And that probably is the more awkward topic of money than this one.

Hannah: It’s true. We’re going to talk about how money works in Kurdistan.

Colleen: Currency.

Hannah: Actual physical money as well as odd impacts of that. Neither one of us are by any means economists who know how the like economic system in Kurdistan works.

Colleen: No but we were able to watch and see especially differences from the way things work in the United States and how people thought differently about their lives because of those differences.

Hannah: But if you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of money in the Middle East we we’re not a place for you. I think the thing that most people find surprising about money in Kurdistan is that everything is cash based. There aren’t really banks in the way that we think of banks.

Colleen: I mean banks exist. But banks are more just places where people go to get money, like transfer to exchange money not places where people store money.

Hannah: Right. Like a savings account or even a checking account. Not not a thing. I never saw anyone write a check.

Colleen: I don’t think they exist.

Hannah: Right. I I feel like if I had tried to talk to my students about that they would be like, What?

Colleen: Why would you trust what somebody wrote down on a piece of paper?

Hannah: Right. Yeah. Which means that people carry around cash all the time.

Colleen: And lots of it!

Hannah: Lots of cash, which can be intimidating and almost feel wrong. Coming from America where at this point I rarely carry any cash with me.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: And if I do it’s maybe 20 or 30 dollars.

Colleen: Right. The only time I carry cash is traveling to Iraq.

Hannah: Yeah. Yeah. The same! I think that can be intimidating too because you have to carry in all of the money that you’re going to need in cash. And there are ways to get money once you’re there. But it’s complicated and messy.

Colleen: And there’s not just ATMs everywhere. There’s not no you know nobody takes very few places take credit cards. I think that number is growing.

Hannah: Sure.

Colleen: Especially in more touristy type areas. But for the most part everybody expects to be paid in cash and isn’t set up to receive funds any other way.

Hannah: Like you’re going to pay a rent in cash. You’re going to any of the shopping that you do in your neighborhood is going to be in cash. If you go out to a restaurant it’s all going to be in cash and was always really interesting on payday. Working at the school, you would go up, for one thing it was never always the same day. It was just like you know you had to know what the rumor was like, “Oh today is the day that we get paid.” And then you go up to the accountant’s office and hand you an envelope with the amount of cash that’s supposed to be in it. You have to sit there and count it and then sign this little book that says, “Yes I received this much cash.” And when you’re dealing with large amounts of cash counting cash is a skill.

Colleen: It is! And it’s not a skill that I feel like I grew up with or really most Americans grow up with.

Hannah: Right. Because. If anything we have machines that count money for us now. Right. Like even when I worked in retail we had a little money counter and you would just put the bills from your cash drawer drawer in there and it would count it for you.

Colleen: Yes.

Hannah: And so counting by hand is kind of like a fun, I feel like it’s impressive now that I can do it. People are like, Ooooh.

Colleen: Well especially since, again, there because it’s part of everyday life and normal what everybody does. They have a very specific way of doing it. And I wish, maybe we’ll have to take a picture and put it in the show notes or something but there’s a very specific way they hold the bills so that as you count they’re in a different section of your hand so that you don’t…. So if you have to stop for a moment and have a conversation you can go back to counting without having lost your spot.

Hannah: Right. Yes. So it’s kind of like to try to describe it you kind of like fold the bills in half over your index finger.

Colleen: So they’re in a U shape.

Hannah: So they’re in a U shape and you use your thumb to push them down and you kind of hold them like with your lowest two fingers, your ring finger and pinky. So you’re kind of flipping them around to to do another U around your fingers or you can leave them flat and straight too is the other way. But it’s so much faster to count money that way.

Colleen: Because it wants to spring forward instead of you trying to pull money forward.

Hannah: Right. To separate it with like if it’s in a stack and try to separate it with one hand while the other hand holds it.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: You can almost count money one handed.

Colleen: Some people can! I saw people do it that way and…

Hannah: It’s really impressive!

Colleen: …flick it with their thumb and like they’ve got it.

Hannah: Yeah. And when you’re counting like a huge amount, over 100 bills you have to find a fast way to count it. And they figured it out.

Colleen: Well I mean part of that comes from the fact that most of the bills mostly the largest bill you ever find in Iraq is the twenty-five thousand dinar bill which is about 20 dollars depending on the exchange rate any given day. So if you’re being paid several hundred dollars for your month’s salary. That’s a lot. It’s like being paid in 20s. It’s a lot of bills.

Hannah: It is a lot of bills. Their bills are really beautiful, too. There are… how many would you say common bills? There’s the 250 dinar which is kind of like change they don’t really do a lot of coins

Colleen: Right. There are coins but most people don’t use them except for the buses.

Hannah: Oh! I never rode a bus.

Colleen: Yeah, you can use the coins in the bus. That’s the only way I ever got coins was through the bus.

Hannah: I never even saw coins. So not commonly used.

Colleen: But yeah, the 250 is what people pay for a bottle of water or candy. It’s like what you hand to small children who you know are bugging you.

Hannah: And they get like really decrepit because they are passed around a lot.

Colleen: Shreds!

Hannah: And so they will get one that’s like tattered and taped together and like some places will take like a half of one, because it’s kind of like this doesn’t have a lot of value, anyway.

Colleen: Right. Then there’s the five hundred.

Hannah: I rarely saw them.

Colleen: I had some of those but, yeah. Those are not super common.

Hannah: So the next one will be a thousand dinar.

Colleen: And those are really common.

Hannah: And they’re like tan dust coloring.

Colleen: Kind of orange almost.

Hannah: And those are almost equivalent to a dollar.

Colleen: Almost yeah.

Hannah: So they’re also fairly common when you get change for something.

Colleen: Right. And it’s like what you know kids would pay for lunch in the snack bar with you know two or three thousand dinar you know you buy a sandwich in the bazaar.

Hannah: And those get beat up too. Not nearly as bad as the two fifties that I saw.

Colleen: I feel like because they’re slightly bigger they also I don’t know. People don’t just shove them in their pockets.

Hannah: Crinkle them up and shove them in their pockets. Although I did see kids do that too.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: Then you have 5000 which is blue and purple. And so the 250s to we should talk about the size, the 250s are smaller than a dollar bill.

Colleen: Yes. And they’re blue.

Hannah: And the thousands are about the size of a dollar bill.

Colleen: Close, yeah.

Hannah: The five thousands are slightly bigger than that bigger. A little bit longer a little bit wider.

Colleen: Then the ten thousand. Those are green and also bigger.

Hannah: Yes slightly bigger than the five thousand and then you get to the 25 and it’s almost oversized like you can’t fit those in a wallet.

Colleen: Not an American standard wallet, no.

Hannah: Like the twenty fives and the tens don’t quite like the tens don’t quite fit the twenty fives definitely don’t fit.

Colleen: So you end up folding those up a little bit more if you have an American style wallet. And they are pink!

Hannah: The twenty five’s are pink and red. And the tens and twenty fives stay new, pretty well because they’re not getting exchanged as much. It’s not as… it’s not uncommon to have them, but it’s not, you know children don’t have them.

Colleen: Right. You get them in your salary or something. But then you immediately turn them into smaller bills.

Hannah: Right. Or you turn them over to your landlord to pay your rent or make a large purchase of some kind. It’s not just like I need to go down to the corner market and buy some milk.

Colleen: You don’t take a twenty five for that.

Hannah: No.

Colleen: And if he might not be able to change for that one.

Hannah: If you do they’re like, “Really?”

Colleen: The different sizes and different colors make it much easier for people who either are illiterate to be able to use money and use it accurately. So I know old I know some older people that would talk about the bills by their color not about by their numbers and they understood the sense of the difference in value without necessarily knowing or having the numerical math skills exactly worked out. And I was told that it also was good for the blind.

Hannah: Because they can feel that feel the different sizes. I also really liked that the bills are in English on one side and in Arabic on the other side. It also had the English numbers which are actually Arabic and Arabic numbers which are actually Hindi on them which is a whole different conversation but it meant that it was accessible for me to know like, “OK this is worth this much money.” It also includes people who don’t speak or read Arabic or English could also figure out by the size and color what the different moneys are worth. So it makes it a lot easier, which if you’re gonna be a cash based society everyone has to be able to know how to use the cash that you’re using. So it makes a lot of sense. It’s one of those things that I wish. Wish America would do. I wish we would make our bills more distinct than they are, and more accessible for all people.

Colleen: Yeah. Because I’ve worked with internationals here in Nashville and going through those different bills like, they can look seem very very similar to each other. And if you don’t read or you don’t know American numbers in a fancy script, then…

Hannah: …or American presidents…

Colleen: …or American presidents and important people, then it can be a challenge to distinguish these different bills. Like there’s a face on one side and a building on the other side and all these scrolls and they’re all green and it can be a challenge.

Hannah: Yeah I just I really like the kind of rainbow of colors too. It was pretty.

Colleen: They also look fun together.

Hannah: It’s just very beautiful money in a way that American money has like a lot of beautiful things about it but…

Colleen: …and a lot of history…

Hannah: …it’s just all the same color. You can use U.S. dollars to pay for things.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: Only if it’s like big things like you can’t go to the corner store and give them a dollar. Usually to buy something.

Colleen: Noo. I would say hundreds and sometimes even really crisp clean twenties are usable currency. Hundreds always.

Hannah: Ahhh, not always.

Colleen: Well, OK not always but even a store, if they can make the change for it probably will accept your hundred dollar bill and give you change. Obviously not everyone can all the time.

Hannah: I went into a store once and I only had one hundred dollar bill and I was buying like probably fifty dollars worth of stuff and so I was like yeah this will work this will be fine. And I handed him my hundred dollar bill and he looked at it and he looked at me and he said this has seen too many journeys. And he handed it back to me and I was like a one hundred dollar bill! And like it’s not brand spanking new but I just watched you take a ripped in half two hundred and fifty dinar bill from like this small child.

Colleen: Right. But there is that sense of only new dollar bills are ok. Like different times different people are more or less picky about that. Like I’ve seen bills that had like weird stamp on them get turned down like oh maybe that stamp means that it’s counterfeit. Like I mean to some extent, How do they know?

Hannah: Right. Well and I was there and you were probably there when the 100 dollar bill changed I like the design of it change and I brought some of the new hundred dollar bills.

Colleen: Oh you did?

Hannah: And tried to exchange it and I think it was the first time they had seen them and they were like, “This isn’t real.” I was like, “But it is real!”

Colleen: This is you’re gonna see a lot more of these.

Hannah: Yep. So like it works but sometimes it doesn’t work so well.

Colleen: Yeah, I know before I would leave I would go into my bank and you know get my cash out to take with me and I would always ask, OK. Can you get me you know clean bills without any stamps or tears or especially since I was originally from a pretty small town, I got so that I knew it would be easier and better for them if I went in a few days in advance and said hey I’m going to need two to three thousand dollars worth of clean bills in you know in three days. Can I come get them then and they’d be like, Thanks for letting us know. Yes, we’ll start collecting the pretty ones. And they understood why and you know were happy to accommodate me. But it was a weird thing being like, Um, I’m sorry. I’m gonna have to reject this perfectly good bill because it’s got this weird marker mark on the corner that someone probably marked on it to test to see if it was legit and it came out legit but the dude’s in Iraq are going to maybe fuss about that. I don’t know.

Hannah: Now it’s time for silly songs with… not really. I am not going to sing. But I do want you to share this podcast if you have a chance. Even if you don’t have a chance. This is your chance. So share this podcast with someone who you think would find it interesting. Someone who loves to travel, someone who hates to travel, someone who doesn’t have their passport because everyone should have a passport. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Hannah: And there are a couple of different ways that you can exchange dollars too.

Colleen: Which I found was generally the better way to do it. Not just to try to go to your local corner store with a one hundred dollar bill and hope they could give you change.

Hannah: I gave up on that pretty quickly. So you can go into a bank and exchange.

Colleen: It’s kind of complicated.

Hannah: It’s a little complicated.

Colleen: Sometimes they’re not open.

Hannah: We sometimes could do it through the accountant at school and be like, Hey we have two or three hundred American dollars. Can we come in and give you the the U.S. dollars? Because the school could use them more easily.

Colleen: Really large purchases are often… I feel like more often done in dollars than in dinar.

Hannah: Like if you’re gonna buy a car, right.

Colleen: Those ones would be almost be more likely to be in dollars.

Hannah: So we would do that sometimes. They didn’t really love that we did that. And eventually they were like, Yeah we can’t do this for you anymore, which is totally understandable. But the main way that most people exchange money is you go down to the bazaar and there are all these guys sitting there with like boxes with cash in them, stacks stacked up with a rubber band around it.

Colleen: Yeah, like a lot of them in Suly would be like this little tiny cart and it’s got like this kind of glass frame up on it and they’ve got all these different bills taped up so that like some from different currencies to show which currencies they’ll exchange because those places will also exchange euro or pounds or you know lots of different currencies. Like stacks and stacks of dinar and dollars and things you’re just like, Whoah, there’s so much money right there.

Hannah: Yeah. It’s really the first time especially it’s like, Is this like is this OK? It feels a little not underhanded, but kind of like black market?

Colleen: Unsafe?

Hannah: Yeah it feels unsafe.

Colleen: I mean and to some extent it kind of is black market. In the sense that it’s not tracked or organized by the government system or banks.

Hannah: Yeah. They’ll usually write you like a receipt that says you gave me this much U.S. dollars I gave you this much dinar and then you’re kind of expected to stand there again, stand there and count in front of them. It’s not like rude.

Colleen: You can also shop around for the best exchange rate because there were some places, too that I eventually found and knew that were more offices inside the bazaar that were a little deeper and sometimes they would give you better rates and sometimes the people out on the street would give you better rates. It just depended on the day.

Hannah: And that’s where language skill really comes into play. And I don’t know if you ever ran into this but in Dohuk as a woman I couldn’t really exchange money.

Colleen: Oh really!?

Hannah: I needed to go with a man, because it was always men that had the money and women don’t have control over their money in a lot of ways so sometimes the men would be like, Where’s your husband? Almost like, Where did you get this money from. It’s suspicious to them that a woman would have you know 700 dollars in cash or whatever. And so I almost always had to go with male teammates or get, I had a couple male teachers at the school who would take my money and exchange it for me.

Colleen: Yeah I don’t know that I ever had to do that, I mean there were definitely times I went with people on my team but more that we would just go do things together.

Hannah: Sure.

Colleen: Because it was easier to navigate the bazaar that way. But no, I certainly went and exchanged money on my own and Suly. But Suly is a little less conservative than Dohuk and they may have thought I was really weird and I just didn’t pick up on it.

Hannah: I would also have students that would be like Miss if you have American dollars like I’ll give you Iraqi dinar for them. I almost never did that. That felt really sketchy to me and I don’t think it really was. I was just kind of like I don’t want to start this like oh if you want U.S. dollars Miss Hannah always has them and she’ll trade you.

Colleen: Like some sort of weird money laundering scheme that you’re not really privy to…

Hannah: Right! No, no, not okay with me. Another consequence of them being cash based is that there’s not a lot of petty crime as far as like people aren’t going to steal cash from you. Pick pocketing…

Colleen: Pickpocketing, burglary, like all of those kinds of things that we think of as common in Europe or other places like it really doesn’t happen hardly at all.

Hannah: There will be people begging sometimes.

Colleen: Oh a lot of the time!

Hannah: A lot of the time, but they’re not going to for the most part, they’re not going to approach and annoy you about it. And it did get worse after ISIS. There were a lot more people who had nothing but for the most part you know if you’re at a in a taxi at a stoplight they’re not going to come up in like bang on the windows and beg you for money.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: Some of them will be trying to sell you gum or something like that.

Colleen: That’s pretty common.

Hannah: So it’s very rare that people are going to be like accosting you which is different than experiences I’ve had like an India where anytime you go out in the street children are going to follow you around screaming at you to give them money.

Colleen: I never heard of anything like that happening or anyone getting anything stolen from them in public.

Hannah: Yeah. I’ve only ever heard of one person and it was kind of wrong place wrong time and the person who did the stealing was their family and everyone that knew them was like there’s something wrong with them. It wasn’t a need to steal the money. They were just like unstable.

Colleen: And I’ve heard of people having money stolen from them by family members or you know that kind of thing. But not just the random street crime that you see in Europe.

Hannah: It was really weird going to Athens and being like, Oh right. I have to think about. People will take things out of my pocket or they will try to grab my purse and run and so I need to be more vigilant about it.

Colleen: We’ve had multiple trips go to Greece and have things stolen whereas in the entire time I lived in Iraq I had never heard of any of my team members in any of the cities have anything stolen.

Hannah: I’ve even like had cash that was in my pocket fall out of my pocket and some little kid pick it up and bring it to me and be like, Here, sorry, you dropped this. They don’t want to take it from you, which is kind of amazing.

Colleen: I mean and that’s why those dudes can sit on the street with piles of cash and not fear for their livelihoods and even people you know you think about what what do we use banks for. Like some of it is that safety or savings. But even the people like people keep stacks of cash in their homes. Like their entire life’s savings in places I don’t know where in American parlance it’s under their mattress. I kind of doubt that that’s actually where it’s at. But you know.

Hannah: I think it’s interesting too. Another thing we use banks for is to get loans. We borrow money and that doesn’t exist in that form in Kurdistan.

Colleen: No. People don’t really get loans except from family members right in cash right.

Hannah: So like if you want to buy a car and you don’t have all of the money that you need you would go round to your family and say, Hey I want to buy this car. I have this much money I need this much more. Can you give me something I will pay you back. Houses are the same way. I want to buy a house. I need this much money and so there’s more there’s more accountability for you as the loanee of like. I will pay this money back and there’s more of a check on like. Do you really need this? Your family is now just gonna give you money for for the most part they’re not just gonna give you money for things that you don’t need.

Colleen: And they also know what you need.

Hannah: And sometimes they’ll be like oh I can help you get a car for cheaper than that or I can get help you buy a better house somewhere else. So that’s that’s kind of a nice thing.

Colleen: All the networking that happens through that kind of shared cash expense category is not something that we do here in the US. I mean partly we’re just so individualistic. It’s another way that society there is much more communal if we want to go buy a car, we go by ourselves to buy a car or go to the bank and get a loan or go to the… I don’t know. I actually haven’t ever bought a car by myself.

Hannah: You go to the bank and you get a loan and then you go and buy your car.

Colleen: It’s a much more like me and maybe a friend or family member who is the adviser but it’s not a communal process.

Hannah: I think “wasta” also plays into that to some extent, that someone may loan you money and even if you pay it back you still kind of owe them.

Colleen: So there’s interest!

Hannah: Right. When they come around and need something from you they’ll be like, “Hey I loaned you money.” “Well yeah. But I paid you back.” “Yeah, but still, I was there for you and your time of need.”

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: So now that I need you for something completely unrelated, you owe me to some extent. So yeah, there’s your interest. Yes good point.

Colleen: I think too, it plays in with things like I mean the way we have in the US. Like a credit score like in some ways your “wasta” is your credit score or even your behavior. Whether or not you’re considered a reliable person in your family can all be part of that social credit.

Hannah: Which makes it difficult as a foreigner to do some of the things that would be typical for a national because we don’t have a family that we can like, I want to buy a car I need this much cash we don’t have family members that we can be like, Hey can you loan this to me? And if you want to buy a car in Iraq probably no bank in the U.S. is going to give you a car loan you to do that.

Colleen: No way!

Hannah: So you have to rely on supporters or your sending agency or yourself to get those funds together to do that which is fascinating and I can’t imagine what Kurds think when Americans roll up with loads of money to buy a car when they’re like who’s giving you this money? But I mean maybe they think our families do it.

Colleen: I think they probably do and in some ways if it’s coming through supporters it is our family. As Christians we have a family in the church that supports us in some of the same ways as Iraqi families. We are a community.

Hannah: I think too. I did have students who knew about credit cards because the more well-off families will open bank accounts in Germany or Switzerland or wherever, other countries and get credit cards. And so you know their kids will be like yeah about this online. Where online buying is a thing that does not happen there. One, you can’t get anything shipped there very easily and two nobody has credit cards because there aren’t any banks to issue credit cards. So you have to be able to leave the country and establish some sort of home address somewhere else to be able to get a bank account. So credit cards are almost a status symbol in some ways.

Colleen: Absolutely. And there are even businesses now that are based in Europe and the U.S. where you can have your item shipped from Amazon to their office in your name and then they will bring it to Kurdistan for you because you can’t get it shipped there and call you up and you can come to their office and pick it up.

Hannah: Yeah.

Colleen: It’s fascinating to me. It’s a weird niche that exists for a very select clientele.

Hannah: And so as an expat getting to use that service is always a little bit like, this is both too many hoops for me to have to jump through and also like the best thing in the whole world because…

Colleen: …it didn’t exist when I lived there. So I’m a little jealous.

Hannah: It started as like within my last year or two I got a couple of things through that that was just like this is so cool! Which you know now we live in America and Amazon delivers to my doorstep. So it’s less cool.

Colleen: But for there, the idea that you could order almost anything in the world and get it, is kind of I mean, and rightfully so, kind of mind-boggling.

Hannah: It is for a country that has been cut off from the rest the world for most of its existence.

Colleen: But honestly even that it exists here. If we really think enough about it it’s kind of mind-boggling.

Hannah: I mean delivery ANYTHING is probably my favorite thing. We could do a whole episode… but we’re not gonna. Because that’s about America. But we could do a whole podcast about how much I love having things delivered. It’s beautiful and complicated and blows my mind.

Colleen: So don’t take the things you have for granted.

Hannah: Right. Yes maybe go out don’t go out tonight. Just order in. People will bring food to your door and you don’t even have to give them cash you can do it all through like the internet it’s amazing! Like it’s amazing. But also take into consideration how your life would be different if you did live in a cash only society. I know some people do that for budgeting. They choose to only pay for things in cash. Imagine if that was the only way you ever paid for anything ever. How how different society would look.

Colleen: And how differently you’d think about what saving meant or investing meant.

Hannah: And we’ll talk to you later.

Colleen: You can find us at ServantGroupInternational on Facebook or Instagram or on our website at servantgroup.org.

Hannah: Yeah and if you have a question that we haven’t answered yet send us an email or Facebook message. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks for listening!

Hannah: You’ve chosen the wrong podcast.