“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Iraq travel article for AZ Magazine

Typically, a break from work is supposed to be a holiday away from all problems and troubles. You can imagine my acquaintances’ surprise when I told them that I was spending my time off in Iraq! Perhaps I over-exaggerated the notoriety, because in fact, I spent it in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, and they are certainly not quite the same thing. Iraq is dangerous and terror ridden, frequently making the news for suicide bombings and violence. Erbil, also known as Arbil or Hawler in Kurdish, is (mostly) safe and secure. No visa is required for many nationals (although this only allows a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan and cannot be used to go into the rest of Iraq), and airlines such as Lufthansa and  Austrian Airlines fly there. It is practically normal!

Nestled at the top of Iraq, just on the other side of Iran from Azerbaijan, Iraqi Kurdistan is just one small part of Greater Kurdistan, which encompasses territory in Syria, Turkey and Iran as well as Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is home to a mixed group of people: Kurds, Turkomen, Arabs, Christians, Muslims (both Sunni and Shiite), among others, and has been a frequent scene for tension. Skirting the infamous Arab city of Mosul and negotiating for control of oil-rich Kirkuk, the Kurdish Autonomous Region remains a powerful element to modern Iraq. Turkey has been a recent investor, tending to support Turkomen businesses, while returning from exile, Kurds are bringing money and business ideas to aid in the establishment of a strong region.

As I boarded my flight in Dubai’s terminal 2 (quite a familiar spot considering FlyDubai’s other destination of Baku!), I noticed that I was one of only 3 or 4 women on the flight. Most other passengers were businessmen going to the Trade Expo in Erbil. But why Erbil? Erbil has a magnificent old citadel, now a UNESCO World Heritage site built on layers of archaeological remains dating back to the 6th Century BC, allowing it to lay claim to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth, akin to Damascus or Cairo.

Wandering the citadel (which requires special permission due to the derelict nature and potential collapse of most buildings) is like entering a ghost town. While as recently as 5 years ago, this was a vibrant living museum, a government decree moved all residents to other residential complexes elsewhere in the city (where no, doubt they were glad of the extra space, running water, improved repair of buildings, and of no longer having neighbors literally on the other side of the wall or below their floor -- remodeling with mud-brick does leave a little to be desired!). As tragic as it is to lose the live heritage of living in such an ancient city, the restored city will provide a draw for tourists and other visitors to the city. Currently, however, there is an air of decay – if I blink I can convert the charming, deserted courtyard centered by an ancient olive tree into a lively display of ladies gossiping and laughing over their dinner while a child or two or four runs from room to room or up the narrow steps. Each courtyard is unique and they vary enormously in size, shape, wealth, community feeling and functionality. Even the traditional Kurdish clothing worn by men seems very comfortable – a wide sash-like belt over loose khaki trousers: formal and yet unique.

The old city was originally divided into three districts (mahallas): the Serai for notable families maintains its dignity with large homes and grand two floored courtyards elaborately decorated with paint motifs and wooden carvings. One such home has been converted into the Erbil Carpet Museum, a charming collection of rugs, kilims, sumaqs and other woolen products similar to those found in the stalls near Baku’s Maiden’s Tower. The Takya area was the home of the dervishes, a mystical Sufi ascetic sect, and the Topkhana was for craftsmen, farmers and other families. The Topkhana has left us with narrow winding alleyways with small doorways leading to an intimate world within, also with beautiful designs on buildings and the occasional glance over the highly-coveted outer wall balcony. Views from the tops of buildings show layers upon layers of mud-brick rooftops and homes, with small trees peeking through occasionally, with the Mulla Afandi mosque (the only religious structure surviving in the old citadel), a centerpiece seen from all areas of the citadel.

Beneath the ochre citadel walls lies the Qaysari Bazaar, a maze of alleys with ancient shoe-makers, wooden cradle carpenter shops and other crafts and wares. While not a prime spot for purchasing tourist wares (which are a rarity in Kurdistan), the photo opportunities are excellent!  Further afield is the incomplete Mudhafaria Minaret. Evoking faint vestiges of turquoise tiles and complex geometric designs found across Iran and Central Asia, this minaret is a bit out of place surrounded by a city park which includes a gondola and fake rock art exhibit hall!
Whether picturing the battles between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia that raged in nearby plains, or when Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Ottomans, and Sumerians  wove their tapestry of layers over this ancient fortified mound, there is no doubt about the history that is imbedded throughout Erbil. What must each ruler have been thinking? I’m sure they didn’t think that it would remain inhabited for millennia, and that in 2010, it would be surrounded by a prosperous new city booming with new investment and businesses of Kurds returning home.  New mosques are being funded by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and the vibe of success is at a high.

Iraqi Kurdistan is a comparatively safe part of Iraq. Despite a small car-bomb that went off the week following my visit, it was only a minor hiccup in the overall safety of the area. How does it stay safe? The Kurdish government militia and independent army maintain multiple strict road blocks entering and leaving all towns and cities of the region. Why should they have their own army? Unfortunately, Saddam Hussein was responsible for perpetrating many terrors against Kurds specifically, and most Kurds feel safer being policed by their own military force.  You may remember hearing about the Halabja poisonous gas attack where around 5000 people were murdered (and around 10,000 injured) by chemical weapons on March 16, 1988 as part of a genocidal attack against the Kurds by Hussein’s regime. This is just one example of the horrors attributed to the Anfal genocide campaign. Kurdish history is, of course, more complex than this, with the establishment of a separate region occurring in 1970 and several uprisings and many forced and unforced exodus of the population occurring since.

Around Erbil, and for much of Kurdistan, scenic mountains, very similar to those of the Caucasus Mountains north of Baku, with picturesque villages, green spring valleys, waterfalls, and dammed lakes provide a respite for all of Iraq from the hot, dry desert plains. Lake Dukan, a reservoir created by a hydro-electric dam, is a popular vacation spot and cabins and tourist facilities cannot be built fast enough to cater to the demand. It lies on the picturesque mountain route from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah, which winds over hills and passes with spectacular viewpoints all along the route.

While Erbil is flat urban sprawl with wide ring-roads and new factories, Sulaymaniah is an older city with a vibe catering to decades past. Three hours drive from Erbil, the traffic is abominable, but the energy is exciting. Built over valleys at the foot of various mountain ranges, Sulaymaniyah, colloquially known as ‘Slemani’ is also showing signs of economic prosperity and revival with new businesses and opportunities. The downtown market has a vibrant mix of produce that cater not just to visitors, but also to locals purchasing their necessities. On a more sober note, aside from the two small museums, Sulaymanieyah is also the site of Sadam Hussein’s notorious ‘Red Security’ Amna Suraka torture prison, which operated as a facility for torture and death for thousands of Kurds under Saddam Hussein. It is ridden with bullet holes and left as a museum and monument to the horrors committed there. I was quite surprised when my taxi driver had never been, but he thought it important to visit to bear witness.

On the drive back to Erbil over the rolling dry hills, the traditional nomadic tents were still being used (much to my taxi driver’s horror at having no plumbing facilities!), the shepherds were still tending their flocks, and the road blocks were as strict as ever.

While I’m not really hoping to convince any of you to book your tickets, I do hope you will now know a little more about this forgotten corner of the world, that is not just about war and bombs and devastation, but about new developments and families being able to return to their homeland. Travel information is very scarce. Hotels tend to cater to the higher level markets. Budget accommodation does not exist. Even finding a place to eat without simply stumbling upon it in Ainkawa (the Christian suburb) is difficult, although we all felt amused to see ‘Costa (Rica) Coffee’ a spoof on the large Costa Coffee chain found around the Middle East. This is an emerging destination - we even had the local expat fare of Quiz night on Monday! However, this region is changing and will emerge into a regional center. Direct flights to Tbilisi are planned for 2011, and other cities throughout the region are aiming to connect, both for business, and for the odd curious visitor such as myself, to explore. Two new international schools have opened in Erbil, and the promise of growth and change is palpable. Whether it is to explore renovated hilltop forts and castles, examine ancient relics and cities in-loci, get a view of the spectacular mud-brick mountain villages hidden away far from urban civilization, this is a place worth visiting.

Three interesting trips by other travelers:

Recently, this article was published in Az-magazine in Baku. You can visit the magazine website at www.az-magazine.com. It was pages 44-47 in the Janaury 2011 edition.