Tag Archives: erbil

For Al Jazeera – “Iraqi Kurds Look To Erbil For Tourism Boost”


Erbil, Iraq – The citadel that looks out over Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region is often claimed to be the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in the world. The mound on which it sits has evidence from Assyrian and Sumerian times, and the structure is imagined to contain the Temple of Ishtar, deep below the ground.

The citadel was granted World Heritage status at the recent session of UNESCO in Doha, finally upgraded from the “tentative” list, where it had sat since 2010, a decision welcomed by Dara al-Yaqoobi, head of the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalisation (HCECR).

“The World Heritage Committee recognises that Erbil Citadel has met its conditions and criteria and the site has outstanding international value, it deserves to be inscribed. Being a UNESCO World Heritage site is very important,” Yaqoobi told Al Jazeera.

As increasingly troubled political realities plague the region, World Heritage status has been proclaimed as “a gift … to the people and all communities of Iraq”, by a member of the Iraqi delegation to UNESCO.

The citadel, which is being touted as a major tourist destination in Iraq, joins three other UNESCO sites in the country: Ashur, Hatra, and Samarra.

Dara al-Yaqoobi said $35m has been spent so far on revitalisation projects around the citadel [Luke Coleman/Al Jazeera]

The citadel is not the only structure undergoing preservation work in the area.

A large building near the north gate is being re-purposed as a visitor and information centre, and Yaqoobi said homes and businesses would also be built.

The project to revitalise the visitor centre is in the first five-year phase of a 15-year plan. Yaqoobi said that $35m had been spent by the Kurdistan Regional Government so far over the last three years, and that the HCECR was investigating the feasibility of public-private partnerships to raise more funds.

Another major project near completion is the reconstruction of the main gate. In the 1950s, the Ottoman-era gate was demolished as it was deemed unsafe. “They didn’t know how to conserve it,” Yaqoobi said, “so they did the easy thing and removed it”.

The area remained empty until 1979, when the municipality constructed a new gate. After a year of research by the HCECR – using photographs, first-person testimonies, and archaeological examinations of the original foundation – a decision was made to rebuild it using the previous design.

There is a large amount of construction, maintenance, and preservation taking place in the citadel itself. “It means bringing life back to the citadel. We have to have good conditions for residential and other activities,” Yaqoobi said.

In addition to being at the centre of the capital, the citadel is regarded as central to long-term tourism plans for the region, with discussions taking place about adding restaurants and shops to the textile museum which was recently opened within its walls.

Alongside UNESCO, the HCECR will undertake a study looking at a viable strategy for tourism development. The details of this new plan remain unknown at present.

But will international recognition have a positive effect on tourism?

Mohammed Yaseem Jamal, the proprietor of a shop selling honey, perfumes, and gifts at the base of the citadel, is unsure. He has been doing business in this area for 45 years.

I’m proud to have my shop here and happy about the UNESCO decision… But people don’t come because they are scared of the name Iraq, even though we know the [Kurdish] region is very safe.

“I’m proud to have my shop here and happy about the UNESCO decision. I think it is a bit late, because it’s important for people to know what life was like in the Citadel. But people don’t come because they are scared of the name Iraq, even though we know the [Kurdish] region is very safe,” he told Al Jazeera.

Heja Baban, co-founder of Meydan PR & Marketing which recently completed a project for the KRG Board of Tourism, said that recent violence across Iraq has negatively impacted perceptions among potential visitors.

“It affects how the rest of the world sees Iraq as a whole. The first thing you think as a tourist is ‘Am I going to be safe?’ And if that is not 100 percent clear, you will have second thoughts. Even though it is safe, it’s not considered as safe as it was two months ago, and that’s enough,” Baban told Al Jazeera.

According to figures from the KRG Board of Tourism, approximately 2.2 million people visited the region in the first eight months of 2013. Yaqoobi is unsure of the effect the current conflict will have on tourism, “because it is so recent we don’t have any clear statistics and we won’t know the effect for some time”.

So far, the citadel alone has not been enough to attract large numbers of tourists. “I hope this brings people, perhaps more will come when the museum is built,” said Jamal, referring to the proposed Kurdistan National Museum, which is designed by Daniel Libeskind.

This museum project has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the World Heritage inscription, as it is planned for an area within the protected buffer zone around the base of the citadel. But UNESCO-imposed restrictions, including building regulations which state that the structure cannot be taller than three-storeys, may make development around the citadel difficult.

The International Committee On Monuments and Sites, which advised UNESCO on the award of World Heritage status, made reference to the contrast of the museum’s very modern design and the citadel. Currently, the local government is considering whether to alter the design or move the proposed site.

Yaqoobi said: “If the museum doesn’t match those regulations or isn’t in harmony with the citadel, it may be modified a little.”

Fiddling While Rome Burns or Let Them Eat Cake


I have two phrases that I use when I find myself slightly confused by something Kurdish.

The first, “Zor Kurdi” (Very Kurdish) I used when a Kurdish friend of mine insisted that we enter the memorial museum in Halabja via the clearly unmanned security kiosk. It wasn’t a big diversion, but it seemed unnecessary and smacked of the kind of indoctrinated behaviour I naturally rail against. A small thing, we can agree, but so are the mosquitoes currently feasting upon me.

Secondly, “Bexerbet Kurdistan” (Welcome to Kurdistan) I use to illustrate something that feels unique to the region. On the roads, for example, when taxis creep to an almost imperceptible speed going over any crack in the road; a regular driver of mine once slowed for a shadow cast by election bunting. Or the honking at the lights, three seconds before they turn green – such patience for speed bumps, and glorious anxiety to get on the move elsewhere.

These oddities don’t annoy me; they almost always cause a wry smile. It’s a part of travelling and living abroad, to appreciate the differences. And as a guest here, I try to steer clear of criticising my hosts. I am sensitive to both the hard work that is being done to improve a young proto-state and to my own privilege of having been bought up in a country with a long-established (admittedly now creaking under successive self-interested governments, but enough of that) social and physical infrastructure.

A street nearby in Ankawa has recently had the start of a sewerage system installed. My mind struggles to conceive of the enormity of this project, of the necessary chaos the groundworks will bring. It’s brilliant that it’s being done, and whilst I have very little knowledge of the intricacies of such an operation, I hope it’s being done with foresight and to the highest standard possible. These literal foundations are going to define the KRG, and a poor job is going to reflect laughably on a city irritatingly labelled the ‘new Dubai’ – Hawler has history Dubai can only dream of, and in the rush for riches must not forget its personality.

So when a headline as unlikely as “French firm to build small Eiffel-style tower in Iraq” pops up in my daily Google alerts, my heart sinks. Why in the world does any city in Kurdistan, let alone Sulaymaniyah with its skyline defining Grand Millennium, need a replica Eiffel tower? Under the headline, something more annoying becomes clear.

“In line with investment laws in Kurdistan, foreign investors are asked to carry out a tourism project in the city where they intend to invest,” according to Yousuf Yassin, director of Sulaymaniyah municipality.

I understand the focus on tourism, I see that it’s a pillar worth building the new Kurdistan on. It’s a beautiful country, with some good quality hiking in the areas safe from mines. And the 300 square kilometres that remain dangerous are being cleared, slowly. Perhaps the French firm should be required to make a substantial donation to MAG or one of the other organisations working in this arena?

The streets of the cities and towns in Kurdistan are regularly and well-maintained and in the capital there are moves to create more green spaces to compliment the parks that are already here – but what of the can and bottle strewn disasters on the mountains of Goizha and Azmaar? Why not have investors plunge their social responsibility funds into public education films and litter-pick initiatives? Perhaps a larger, more comprehensive education programme that addresses water scarcity and the folly of hosing down streets?

As I approach the end of my third year living here, I’m asked how long I intend to stay. My answer is that I will stay as long as I’m welcome. I use an idiom, ‘if it’s not broken, why fix it?’ to describe my situation. That doesn’t apply to the region though, and whilst measures are in place and initiatives have started, I can’t help but think that some of the foreign investment could be put to better use.

And then, something zor Kurdi will be most welcoming.

Life In Kurdistan, a piece for http://asfar.org.uk/


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.