Travels in the “safe corner” of Iraq
The sky above flashes in lights. The screams are periodically muted by deafening blasts. Children run uncontrollably in all directions. If our parents give us a call right now and we excitedly admit that yesterday we crossed into Iraq it would be quasi-imposible to convince them to ignore the disturbing sounds reverberating in the background. It’s the 21st of March – Nowrooz – the beginning of a new year for many in the Middle East. We are walking down the streets of Erbil, the capital of the Autonomous Kurdish region in the Northern part of the country and a remarkable celebration unfolds in front of our dazed senses. A firework show, surpassing by far the legendary magic abilities of Gandalf the Grey, paints the evening sky in a thousand shapes of pastel colours for over an hour. A party mood fills the air with music, and everyone has gathered at the Minaret’s park for a massive picnic and celebrations. Women dressed in splendid shiny gowns and Kurdish men proudly exhibiting the formal version of the their traditional clothes mix with dozens of ‘tourists’ from the Arab part of the country. In a second, our presence at the celebrating streets causes sensation and we are surrounded by swarms of Mosuli and Baghdadi. A pictures marathon begins. Westerners, a rare view in their own cities, are certainly an attraction and their cameras and mobile phones work tirelessly to eternize the encounter. For a couple of hours we are as popular as Lionel Messi and pose for a photo every few metres. Meanwhile, we kindly reject offers to visit Mosul and Kirkuk and our potential hosts agree that this is a wise decision. ‘Visiting us is not a problem – they reflect – but losing your head probably is.” Luckily, we are going to sleep respectively 88 and 130 km from the above mentioned cities…Quite a distance, maybe if you were travelling by carriage or on foot. Eventually, slightly exhausted we reach the end of the Nowrooz party street, where a family of Syrian refugees have made their camp in the park and smilingly remind us of the tragedies that everyday people flee just across the border. The fireworks are over and the night carries an excitement bearing a chilling touch.
A day earlier, hesitant and uncertain we had crossed the border near Silopi, set comfortably by the Turkish customs officers into a little smugglers van loaded with football t-shirts and sports shoes. Finally, curiosity had taken over fears and, suspecting that even the Kurdish Autonomous region might sooner or later get too risky to visit, we concluded it was time to stop checking for a while the Middle East section of the international news. The first and immediate result of this decision is that we find ourselves sipping tea at the customs office near Zakho and chatting with the border officer: “Don’t worry at all – he exclaims cheerfully, while hitching a car for us – you are in the safest corner or Iraq. As long as you stay within Kurdistan, there is absolutely no problem. It is perfectly fine here”. We do not doubt his words and, at least for the moment, his statement is valid, but the questions “how” and “why” this region escapes the surrounding turmoil, would accompany us throughout our stay in the country. Happily, the border guard opens the door of a car with a Turkish registration plate and invites us in, while the surprised driver obediently smiles. “Have a great time in Kurdistan and enjoy the ride to Erbil!” – he waves goodbye. How to explain him that according to Google maps the way to the capital goes either through violent Mosul or a seemingly desolate tiny road in the mountains, which greatly diminishes our chances of a pleasant drive. We are yet to learn that the checkpoints all across Kurdistan would most certainly not allow us get lost and head to Mosul even if we try hard to ignore the road signs; plus the Kurds and the Turkish truck drivers are as afraid as us of getting to Iraq proper and have taken all the precautions to avoid doing so. And in fact that ‘little mountain road’ turns out to be wide, busy and full of traffic. The sun sets ahead and thousands of little lights shine in the mountains. The road winds up and down invisible hills and eventually we step out in the city center of Erbil.
To our immense convenience, Marta, dizzy and nauseous, rushes out of the car and choses to follow the commands of her revolting stomach just next to the entrance of a fancy hotel. She interrupts the evening shisha gathering of five moustached men in business suits that slurp with delight their sweetened cups of tea. Curious, either about her foreign appearance or her unhealthy look, one of them invites us for a seat and a glass of water that Marta accepts by collapsing on a couch while mumbling incomprehensible words of gratitude. Three minutes later the ugly ducks transform into clumsy swans, guided into a pink double room by somebody who insists on carrying at least one of our backpacks. An unexpected invitation to stay in a cosy hotel is definitely a beautiful and non-turbulent way of landing into the arms of Kurdistan. Care-free we dive into a set of fresh sheets. Still unable to comprehend the magnitude of our luck, we fall asleep while, in the background, a wide TV screen speaks Arabic over a hundred channels. Images of the wonders of Dubai, of men praying in the mosques of Mecca, of women in chadors shopping fancy clothes in flashy malls and of explosions and desperation all pop out in a repeating sequence from the screen. Overwhelmed we close eyes only to watch silently a vivid projection of a long day that brought us all the way from Mardin, pass the barbed wires of the Syrian border to the capital of Kurdish Iraq.
In the morning, breakfast is served on the second floor – orange juice, toasts and eggs, accompanied with tea and an interesting chat across the table. Abdullah, an Iraqi with some business in the States, shares with us his opinion on the current state of affairs, Kurdish nationalism and the situation in broken Iraq – that lived under fear but “at least was stable” in times of Saddam. One side of the story. The other could be lengthy told by the oppressed Shiite and the marginalised and persecuted non-Arab minorities in the times of the late dictator. Unfortunately, it seems that not much has changed since the former regime was toppled. Sunnis complain of a revenge taken by a largely Shia government, the fate of most minorities remains unchanged and a constant threat of ruthless terrorism gripples the country. The only side that seems to benefit recently are the Kurds who, spare some internal power struggles, are experiencing a sort of renaissance. In the past 10 years, their capital city Erbil has become an attractive holiday and work destination for rich Iraqis seeking a few days refuge from the car-bombs reality plaguing the rest of the country. The hatred for Saddam Hussein in the Kurdish region, methodically consolidated by the latter’s brutal policies, resulted in a general support for the US intervention in 2003. As a consequence, the oil-rich area was spared the devastations of war and enjoyed a boom of foreign investment that quickly transformed the tiny ancient town of Erbil into a modern business looking city.
As we walk its streets we quickly surrender to reality some of our preconceptions about Iraq. Life in the Kurdish region goes on as normally as in any other war-free country around the world. Busy with their work, people rush around new and glossy office buildings in fancy cars and Toyota pick-ups, others drink tea in well-maintained green parks, watching little kids play around, and a third group entertain themselves shopping in the alleys of the big, lively bazaar around the citadel – the only construction in the city that speaks of its long history. Built on a hill made of the accumulated remains of pre-existing settlements and overlooking Erbil, this ancient fortress (6000 BC) is currently under reconstruction, in a project that aims to eventually turn it into a park museum. Although it claims to be one of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth, the former residents of the area have found new homes in the suburbs and the empty houses, slowly cooling down from the hassle of everyday life, reinforce our feeling that Erbil is determined to look only forward. In the only still functioning building of the citadel, a cute little mosque, we come across the local imam. Happy to converse, he smilingly admits that he is Sufi dervish who once had long dreadlocks hidden under his turban – a special sign of holiness according to the branch of Islam he belongs to. Unfortunately, when he went on hajj to Mecca, he had to cut them off to avoid potential troubles, since other groups of Muslims consider Sufism a sect and some of them greatly dislike them. In neighbouring Mosul many of the imam’s friends saw their dead in the hands of radical Salafists. ‘ A lot of people from other cities visit our mosque – he says – They hold my hand after prayers and talk to me. If I am to meet them out of Kurdistan, though, their behaviour, would be completely different. They never learnt that Islam is a matter of choice and all about peace and love.’ The imam smiles and smoothly switches the topic. ‘ Take a shepard’s stick and a rosary and walk down to the villages of the rural north-east, moving your head up and down swaying your dreads. That’s the way to earn for good the reverence of the locals. They will simply adore you!’ Entertained by the image of our holy friend, a self-styled Iraqi Bob Marley, hiking the mountains of his country and preaching the message of One Love we wave goodbye and quickly sink into the crowd outside.
Underneath the citadel, Erbil is a boiling party. Fountains spring from the main square, with locals and tourists mixing in a rainbow of colours and fashions, and their mobile phones incessantly flashing. Children climb walls and sell balloons, while young guys walk around with fresh falafels and older men sit on the floor threading beads into rosaries and selling rings. Behind the crowd, the Qaysari bazaar hides a labyrinth of alleys buzzing with a Middle Eastern market atmosphere. The lines of tea shops and dry fruits give place to homeware stuff, and then to lively women looking for glittery clothes and golden accessories for their Nowrooz celebrations. Some more corridors away, the fabrics turn to earthly brown, beige or grey colours, and skilled tailors exhibit their pieces while proud Kurdish men walk around like models of the most traditional fashion. And after an hour lost in the maze we are back to the teas, fruits, sugar and on to the street to grab our own falafel and some sort of giant baklava that tastes of heaven. Happily enjoying the pleasures of Kurdish life, we walk around the center in search for some suitable accommodation – 60$ a night is not something we can afford, no matter how good breakfast is. But all cheap hostels seem to be either full or hidden and we start to wonder if the friendly imam will be happy to find a tent set in the yard of his mosque. We suspect not. Couchsurfers seem to be busy over Nowrooz and we are sadly looking at our empty mailbox when we remember that a CS friend of a friend had given us his phone number some months before. The miracle comes this night as a present in Iranian wrapping paper: Mostafa, who barely remembers we ever wrote him, simply says “hey guys, come home for dinner”. And this is how a new travelling troupe comes together: our host, an Iranian expat with an American accent that teaches in a local Uni, Hassan – his friend– the kind of guy that one always wonders what he might be up to lately; and Gosia, their Couchsurfing guest from Poland who actually lives and works just 200 km south of Erbil (!?). It’s apparently illegal to take people home without police permission, but we simply crawl up the stairs in the best silence possible, just on time for music, drinks and an advanced taste of Iran.
A couple of days later, in the company of our new friends, we explore another face of life in Erbil. Its dark, the city is a bit quieter, the vendors selling wooden rosaries and various paraphernalia have gone back home, the falafel shops are closed and the air feels pleasantly fresh. We walk long boulevards heading to Ankawa, a famous neighbourhood, traditionally the Christian area of the city and one of the reasons why our Iranian friends associate Iraqi Kurdistan with freedom. Apparently in this part of the world Christianity is a label promoting wild alcohol consumption (at least wild in local terms) and a type of female fashion atypically provocative for the Middle East. Streets of booze shops stretch through Ankawa, surrounding the only church that we see around, and most of the billboards to be found are advertising brands of beer, whisky and vodka. This is almost the only place in Erbil that actually sells alcohol drinks and any night-life seeker heads to the ‘Christian neighbourhood’ if he is in a party mood. Ironically commenting on the unexpected twist that the old oppressive European religion takes on here, we grab our drinks and head back home for some dinner and planning – a hitchhiking team in search for their destination. Welcome to Kurdistan!
We travelled in Iraqi Kurdistan during March 2014, when IS was still ISIS and the conflict had not fully escalated yet. While we truly can say that we felt well and safe amongst the people we met – in their cities, at their homes, anywhere we went, we do recommend other travellers to check the current situation and take conscious and well-informed travel decisions. It’s not down to everyday good people to guarantee our security when conflict is near. Also, we believe that in August 2014 the border Silopi – Zakho is not as safe as when we went through.