Monday, June 18, 2012

Erbil, Iraq

The thought of Iraq brings up all sorts of horror stories in people's minds. It gets a lot more media coverage than most other countries in the world these days which in my mind means media bias and exaggerated preconceptions. I've seen first hand how that has affected my expectations of other countries I've visited, Ethiopia being a perfect example. It also means that if I say something contrary to what you expect to hear, then I get accused of being a know-it-all after only a couple days in country and discredited or completely ignored. Sky did 3 tours in Iraq and spent over a year total in the country. His experiences (and purpose) were completely different and while we may contradict each other, each is a valid perspective on the country. At best all I can give you are my basic and quick impressions and compare them to my impressions from other places.
The reality is that we both went to different Iraqs, and they are night and day. The Iraq of the invasion, occupation and major media exposure is the southern Arab Iraq. The Iraq I was in is the northeastern autonomous Kurdish Iraq, aka Kurdistan. In many ways they operate as 2 different countries and it seems that they eventually will be. It seems inevitable and probably not even very far off. This is a region of the world with bizarre politics and there is a ton for them to sort out, but it wouldn't surprise me if it became the next recognized country of the world as I can't think of any other serious contenders at the moment.
The Kurdish people live in the region covering northeastern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, western Iran and northern Syria. In Turkey they are oppressed, the militant Kurdish PKK is considered a terrorist group and constantly gets into skirmishes with the Turkish military. During Saddam's reign the oppression and persecution of the Kurds hit genocidal levels. Despite being a major ethnic group in the region they have never had their own recognized country as a people though they have had great leaders and significant cultural influences on the region. One of the most famous historical Kurds was Saladin, the great Muslim warrior who was victorious over the crusaders on many occassions. During the US-led invasion, the Kurds were the most supportive group within the country and there was really no fighting or major instability in their areas. Many people told me that they never even considered fleeing the region for their safety while many others eventually moved there from the more troubled south.
Thus it has been more or less stable and safe for visitors the entire time and a trickle of tourists has always continued to cross from Turkey for quick visits. So with that in mind I feel a little bit like a cheater saying I've been to Iraq and it feels a lot more touristy than a lot of other places I have been, especially recently, like Chad or Somaliland.. The current reality is that Kurdistan is very open to foreign visitors and development and will allow me to enter visa free for 10 days into its region. Less than an hour away, past checkpoints I can't cross, with a visa I can't get, I could get myself killed in Mosul or Kirkuk, very dangerous cities for westerners in Arab-controlled Iraq (though both are disputed regions of Kurdistan). .
How is it that it can be safe here and not there? Well, there is a lot of security, but to be honest, running around in Erbil, the “capital” of Kurdistan, it doesn't feel like anywhere close to a war zone compared to some other places I've been. Apparently the people are quite multi-ethnic here and although very racist (the Kurds hate the Arabs and Turks), they hate intolerance more. I was told by a western guy living here that one of the reasons there is no conflict is that officially they don't tolerate trouble makers and people like that don't exist here long. Whatever that might mean.... Iraqi's from the south need special permits to be allowed into Kurdistan also, presumably to prevent trouble from heading north and also to prevent internal refugees from hiding out somewhere safe. I'd gone to visit this guy with my host the night I arrived and he had a loaded pistol sitting on his desk as we relaxed and chatted. I'm told everyone has a gun, or many, from small to very big which might sound scary, but the atmosphere and vibe was definitely one more of tolerance than violence.
The Kurds simply have too much to lose by being stupid. They are sitting on a massive amount of oil and other natural resources. Everyone, and really everyone around here has told me that Erbil's stated goal is to become the next Dubai, and they could potentially pull it off, though it's still a long way away. There is money flowing into here in disgusting amounts and it's immediately obvious. They are also on a path to a creating a legitimate country they can call their own. The last thing they need is instability.

Having said all that, the whole thing is still a giant mess. I flew into Erbil International Airport. It was opened in 2005 and is very modern, clean and organized and has the feeling of preparing for something bigger. There are now direct flights from several locations in Europe with more opening up all the time. My flight from Amsterdam had only just started a month or 2 before. The people on the flight were mostly Kurdish diaspora going back to visit family. Many of the women were not wearing headscarves, many of the children had light-colored eyes and I even got an invite to stay with one of the passengers at his family home in another town a few hours away.
My flight was a little late and landed at 9pm. I was lucky. Most international flights are scheduled to arrive after midnight so the passengers are forced to take the very expensive airport taxis into town. My host, a Tunisian, had forgotten about me and was working when I called him but he arranged for a friend to pick me up and bring me to his work. He's the manager of Carrefour, has been here for a year and had very little good to say about the country actually. It's corrupt, it's chaotic, nobody knows what they are doing, etc, especially in comparison to other gulf countries that he had worked in previously. The store just opened, 4 years behind schedule, but then the entire mall had been 2 years behind as well. But it was a real, modern shopping mall. You'd never know you weren't in America. It had fashionable women walking around unscarved and alcohol served in it's restaurants. They are much more liberal in Kurdistan (at least in parts of Erbil) than most of the rest of the middle east, feeling much more like Lebanon or Turkey than Afghanistan.
Chad was expensive and war-torn and maybe starting to get its act together a bit but not overly optimistic except maybe in a relative sense compared to it's own history. Somaliland was cheap and war-torn but a little more optimistic, but with no money not a lot was getting done in a hurry. Erbil is expensive and while not exactly war-torn itself we still think of the country that way. But with oil money coming in, development will come fast and furious. I asked the same western guy why he'd come here for the long-term, and his answer was simply that Kurdistan is the richest and fastest emerging market on the planet. A quick look around supports that thought. Everyone says that 5 years ago Erbil was little more than a neglected town. Now it has a new airport, wide, newly-paved roads, half-finished construction projects everywhere and everyone seems to be driving a new car. Reminiscent of Kuwait and the other gulf states where there is more money than sense, the people are obsessed with nice cars, buying big SUV's or new Dodge Chargers of all things and driving them around to show off. Of course this also means that the driving is very, very undisciplined.
The following day, with my host at work again, I ventured off to the city centre to see about some history. Erbil is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and right in the middle is the “citadel”. Erbil is flat, but the citadel is a collection of ruined buildings sitting on a mound 30m above the rest of town. I couldn't help but think of “The Source” by James A. Michener as I walked up there to contemplate all the layers of history that I was surely standing on top of. The citadel is now a big restoration project which means that all the little side streets and ruined buildings are off limits and you can only walk along it's one central street or admire the view over Erbil from the 2 gates, but it's presence is still remarkable.

The citadel.

The citadel.

Below the citadel is the central market area so I had a wander through there as well until emerging blisters forced me to quit for the day. I saw a couple of other western visitors at the citadel so I must not be much of a novelty but I was not expecting to be completely ignored by all the locals the whole day. People were friendly if I interacted with them, but nobody approached me first. This also reminded me of the gulf states.

View from the citadel.

Covered market.

Muslim graveyard.

That evening I met with another local couchsurfer to go out for an evening walk around Ainkawa, the neighbourhood I was staying in. This was when I learned why it seemed so liberal. It turns out that Ainkawa used to be an entirely Christian neighbourhood and is still about 80% Christian. This local, Divan, was neither Kurdish nor Arab, but actually an Assyrian, the descendants of ancient Mesopotamia, speaking Aramaic as his native tongue, and practicing Chaldean Catholicism like most of the people in Ainkawa. I'd been to 1 of the 3 Aramaic-speaking villages of Syria before (and they speak a purer Aramaic apparently) but had not realized that there were more elsewhere. He showed me some of the churches (one dating back to 350AD though rebuilt), a cemetary where they recently uncovered mummies dating to 1500BC and signs written in 4 languages, Aramaic, Arabic, Kurdish and English. Aramaic has it's own ancient alphabet (also written right to left), while Kurdish and Arabic use the same script. Unlike other eastern Christians, the Chaldeans are not Orthodox but are Catholic and follow the pope in Rome though they have church services in Aramaic, a practice which predates the Catholic church.

My neighbourhood in Ainkawa.

The next day, a pair of couchsurfers arrived from eastern Iraq and invited me to join them at a football match in Erbil that night. It was actually the final match of the Viva World Cup, a competition between non-countries. The final match was between Kurdistan and North Cyprus, with Kurdistan ultimately winning and the fans being very noisy and excited about it. It wasn't particularly good football but the energy of the crowd was quite fun and we ended up meeting 2 American CS girls teaching in Erbil as well. We all ended up going straight home after that though as we all had to get up early to leave the following morning.



At 11:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a great write up! You know, you would probably be a writer for some sort of world magazine. You should look into it.


At 11:21 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

*...probably be a "GREAT" writer..

At 10:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey boo!

I enjoyed reading this one a lot! photos are all amazing!



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