It’s over two years since I touched down in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), or if you prefer, Iraqi Kurdistan, Northern Iraq (Saddam’s moniker for the area, not a name which will win you many friends if used here, understandably) or increasingly, as tourism opens up, The Other Iraq. Amongst expats here, we refer to it simply as Kurdistan, or Iraqi Kurdistan when we’re explaining to friends and family just where in the world it is we’ve found ourselves.
It’s over two years since I arrived, seemingly by accident.
In November 2010, after a year of unemployment in the UK, I ploughed the end of my savings into taking a CELTA course, a month-long teacher-training program, qualifying me to teach English to adult speakers of other languages. I’d done a little unqualified teaching in Ukraine, where I lived for two years in the past, and had a hankering to return to a CIS country, utilising and improving upon the little Russian I’d picked up in that time. The first job for a newly qualified CELTA teacher is quite a tricky thing to find, with almost all positions advertised carrying a requirement of two years’ experience. Couple this with the time of year, and my email outbox betrays many applications made once a drink or two had been taken during the course of Christmas celebrations, that start early in the UK, and often end sometime into the second week of January. I remember that schools in Russia, Argentina, Columbia, Thailand, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, China and Palestine all received my particulars, juiced with experience in Kiev, working with children and an ambitious play that my late 30s made me the ideal candidate. As it was, I accepted an offer to work in Samara, central Russia. My meager earnings from delivering pizzas, with the lack of tipping typical to a depressed town in a depressed country, funded a one way ticket to the country and the attendant visa fees. I arrived a 3am on a bloody cold March morning (-22C to be precise, a personal record). My meeting with the boss the following morning confirmed the worst fears of a gamble – he was a Walter Mitty character, and it became clear that he had swindled many thousands of dollars from others in the city, and I made plans to make good my escape. And then, an email. “Do you still want to work in Iraq?” Hmm, I don’t remember ever wanting to work in Iraq, but after an interview and a promise to buy my ticket to freedom, I accepted. My connection to the internet was prohibitively slow, and I arrived in Erbil late April, with no real knowledge of where I was.
I was really green, as green as the unexpected mountains I was to see a week later, mountains that absolutely gave the lie to my preconceptions of deserts, dates and camels. I had just one day orientation at the headquarters of the school that had flown me over, and then I was left to my own devices in a run down hotel near the Citadel in the centre of Erbil. The Citadel (or Qalat in Sorani Kurdish, the most commonly spoken form of the language in KRG) purports to be the oldest continuously inhabited structure in the world, with one family remaining in the ancient walled community – evidence suggests that it has been settled for at least 7,000 years. I moved to Erbil from Sulaymaniyah at the beginning of 2013, and have struck up friendships with many archaeologists, this being the land of Assyria, Mesopotamia and Babylon – often forgotten in amongst the tragic violent history of the last 30 and more years.
During that week, I skulked around the immediate environs of the hotel, but was not assured by the guarantees of security that my colleagues had given me, and felt under threat (I was that ignorant). Each night, unadorned by beer (really, had I moved to a dry country? I hadn’t.), I watched a movie or three on one of the pirated satellite channels, only half-joking to myself that Al Qeada were to make me the next star in one of their grim broadcasts.
Happily, after a week, I got word that I was to travel to Sulaymaniyah (Suli) with my new manager, and start teaching. Along with a local teacher, Amjad, Omed duly arrived and we set off on the three hour car journey taking the route that winds over the mountains, commonly known as the Koya road. It takes a little longer than the Kirkuk road, but for obvious reasons, that is no hardship. The taxi route between Erbil and Suli skirts Kirkuk, and is safe at the moment, but you’ll have heard of the sporadic bombings in the city. Security of the city switches between Iraqi federal forces and the Peshmerga (literally, Those That Face Death), the once guerrilla Kurdish fighters who are now the de facto security force in KRG. Kirkuk is an Arab/Turkman/Kurdish mixed city, and a reporter friend of mine (again, there are still many here, so I’ve made many interesting contacts) tells me that ethnicity is not the root of trouble there, rather it is the desire to control the oil and gas deposits. Another large percentage of the expat community is involved in the oil and gas sector, with KRG having huge reserves. Fractious relations with Baghdad can be traced to the question of ownership of these reserves, with a substantial portion of the KRG budget still drawn from the federal capital. Naturally, the south wishes to share in the wealth being generated in KRG, and equally understandably, the semi-autonomous Kurds are keen to enjoy some financial security and independence.
Once we’d left Erbil, small hills began to morph into far more impressive mountains, verdant and simply beautiful. I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing, and relief swept over me, especially as we drove into Suli, along the entry road that passes the new airport and the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah (AUI-S). Dominating the skyline, albeit against the mountains that hold the city in a crucible, is Iraq’s tallest building, still under construction now. It is a 5 star hotel and is part of the Farouq Holdings business empire that includes the leading mobile network, Asiacell and other interests including cement factories. Construction is rampant here, with ‘villages’ of high-rise residential buildings being concreted into available space in the major cities (Duhok is the third largest KRG city, near the Turkish border), and is especially prevalent in Erbil. Concrete is not the preserve of the cities though, and government grants mean that most new houses in the rural areas are also concrete, the traditional brick and mud structures becoming an ever rarer sight. The urban villages are often named after nationalities, and a great many businesses too, reflecting the countries that provided refuge for those that fled Saddam and subsequently the Kurdish civil war, before returning.
Saddam’s ‘Anfal’ campaign against the Kurds is one of the great rarely reported genocides of the twentieth century. Up to 180,000 Kurds lost their lives in the mid to late 80s, as many as 5,000 in the 1988 gas attack on Halabja. After a no-fly zone was established during the first American led war in the early 90s, the promise of Kurdish autonomy was derailed by a senseless internal conflict between the Barzani-led Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), under the control of former ally and current Iraqi president, ‘Mam’ Jalal Talabani. But for now, conflict resides in the past as the KRG government looks to cash in on its new found wealth and try to attract more tourists. Certainly this is a growth market; whilst there is little in the way of a mid-range option, there are many independent travellers passing through, and at the exclusive end of the market, tours cost $500 per day and more. Without doubt, spring is the time of year to visit, and the Newroz (‘new day’ literally, but Kurdish new year informally) festival on the equinox is a joyous celebration, lit with flaming torches and sustained by the picnics that are ubiquitous at that time of year; the summer becomes uncomfortably hot, with 50C not unusual in Erbil, whilst Suli is typically 3 or 4 degrees cooler.
The thing that gives me joy more than any thing else here; more than the excellent hiking through springs and rivers, more than the sweet tea and rich dolma, more, even, than the education I’m receiving, is the people. Kurds are extravagantly hospitable, and a simple offer of tea, when accepted, is sure to become at least a meal. Most families have a dark recent history, and in time you might find this tragedy shared, but more likely you’ll find yourself holding hands and jiggling your shoulders in a line as you (try to) dance away the last kebab, sun glinting from the silver and gold on the dresses. Just look at the Kurdish flag, and you’ll see that dawn is finally breaking for the Kurds in Iraq. With the ever-changing situations for Kurds to the west in Syria, north in Turkey and east in Iran, the future will be interesting, to say the least.