Discoveries In the “Other Iraq”

Selali Fiamanya on travelling through Iraqi Kurdistan…

At the end of the first night my travelling buddy Kyro and I were in high spirits: we had visited a local bazaar and the holy town of an old and tiny religion, gone hill-walking, and braved the biggest rollercoaster the city’s theme park had to offer. I had also beaten him in bowling. As we reclined in the taxi on the way back to our hostel I realised to my surprise that I was having fun in Iraq.

We were in Iraqi Kurdistan, a territory in the north of Iraq which gained some political sovereignty from Baghdad in 1970, but was devastated since then by war. Saddam Hussein’s Al-Anfal genocide campaign in the 1980s was responsible for up to two million deaths by means of aerial bombing of whole villages, chemical warfare and firing squads. The region had benefited since then from the US invasion, and helped with the toppling of the Iraqi government.

24 hours earlier I had wanted nothing more than to run away. We had travelled from Silopi in south eastern Turkey for five hours and arrived at the bus station close to midnight. We spent the night there waiting for daybreak, when cheap taxis could take us across the border. On the horizon you could just see the black imprint of the rugged mountains which seemed to run in every direction. The prospect of what was beyond them filled me with dread, especially as we talked to our first Iraqi friend.

“Mohammed” was a middle aged Arab from Mosul, a town south of Kurdistan in Arab Iraq, and was waiting because the roads to his city were closed from 6am to 6pm by US forces due to the risk posed by daily bombings. His was a story of hopelessness: his work as a university graduate chemist was in tatters due to an inability to import raw materials (chlorine gas is classed as bomb fodder) and his factory along with thousands more in Iraq had been closed. We were told how in his youth he had gained a scholarship to Canada to study but was drafted to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. Eight years later the fighting had stopped and he was still stuck in Iraq. The future of his son was in jeopardy as it wasn’t safe enough to send him to university. Even when the taxis arrived in the morning, he found it hard to convince someone to take him home.

photo courtesy of Bryn Pinzgauer photo courtesy of Bryn Pinzgauer

His despair at the state of his country was apparent: as he described it, followers of Saddam’s regime were destabilising the country for no other reason than to impede development. With no outlet for youth expression like the Facebook driven uprisings in other countries, strapping bombs to oneself is the alternative method of expressing discontent. As we delved deeper into the issues in Iraq, we found that Mohammad had no doubt that the Americans were now responsible for the separation of Arabs and Kurds, and had ruined the country for him. Our meeting was during the heyday of the Arab Spring; a time of hope in the Middle East, but for him there was none. “They’ll all become like Iraq” he said, definitively. He implied that the lack of a strong dictator would result in the crumbling of these countries; an idea we were to come across again.

We said our goodbyes before heading off to Duhok, a city in the northwest. The smoothly paved roads, new storey buildings and swanky Japanese taxi cabs were a contrast to the dusty, quaint city I was expecting. We chatted to our taxi driver, who took us to Lalish, the Mecca of the small Yazidi faith (an amalgamation of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastranism). He was full of vibrance and joy in his newly found freedom: the future of his son was secure, with him attending a new Kurdish university. When he had lived under an oppressed Kurdistan it was too dangerous even to go to secondary school.

As we drove through the desert he’d point to areas on the road near villages and shops and say “people used to come here and blow themselves up!” half chuckling to himself, as if reminiscing. He even had shrapnel wounds from those days. He had moved on from the time of oppression and was embracing this new life. Although he professed to believe everyone was equal, there was some casual slandering of the Arabs, mainly to do with the state of their cars: foreign investment means I sat in more taxis with TVs in the headrests in Iraq than I’d seen in the UK my whole life.

While driving we were stopped regularly by the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military; literally “Those Who Face Death”. On one occasion, a burly, 60 year old, toothless general peered into our car. We were both petrified. He took our passports and gruffly told us in English “You… you are… very welcome in Kurdistan”. The army is hugely respected by the people for keeping the peace, and more importantly, freedom in Kurdistan. This friendliness quickly became a recurring theme of the trip.

In fact, along the way the only trouble we had with the Peshmerga was when our taxi driver had an expired licence and the police held us up while they flagged down other cars to hitch us lifts. We made it to Amedi where we met a seventeen year old called Suleiman. He acted as our guide, showing us round his hilltop town where we saw the Eastern Gate (as seen in Lonely Planet’s top 10 of the Middle East) and introducing us to his friends. We played basketball, talked football, smoked far too much shisha and ate plenty of ice-cream. It was all so disarmingly normal.

photo courtesy of James Buck photo courtesy of James Buck

Our next main stop was Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan. We met a man called Hassan who became our new guide. He was the big dentist in town. (Seriously: he got recognised at the mall). He was an Arab who moved up from Baghdad to find safety, as had many others. This has resulted in Erbil quickly becoming an ethnically diverse community over the past decade, with most people now bilingual in Arabic and Kurdish. It had been a good day, but as we turned to leave we caught on the TV reports of multiple suicide bombings in Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, merely 60 or 70km south. It’s this dichotomy between the two Iraqs which stings the most. The Middle East was, for centuries, relatively peacefully, cohabited by many different religions. The twentieth century brought on decades of strife, but now Iraqi Kurdistan is the beacon of hope that things can get better.

Iraq is a stunning country. Perfect blue skies are carved by the sandy, sharp mountains. In the desert heat one can relax by a waterfall oasis with a kebab followed by limitless refills of hot, sweet tea. In the capital, Erbil, you can stand on the oldest continually inhabited area on earth, and then, feeling suitably cultured, sneak off to the Christian district for some cheap liquor, and the friendly locals are more than willing to show you around their local mosque between a game of netball and a chat round a shisha pipe. The Kurds are proud of their land, and they should be. Welcoming, but not yet tainted by tourism, the “Other Iraq” is a place where you can make real discoveries.


  1. jon webb wrote:

    Top work; I’ve been to Erbil and met Hassan myself…