In October 2013 I traveled from Tbilisi, Georgia to Iraqi Kurdistan.
I think Kurdistan needs a bit of an explanation. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group on the planet without a homeland to call their own. The area where Kurds live was carved up after World War One leaving the Kurdish area split among Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and a tiny bit of Armenia. In total, today there are some 35-40 million Kurds and their history over the past 100 years has not been easy.
From what I understand, the Kurds experienced relative stability and harmony as one of many minorities in Syria. That changed a couple years ago, of course and many Syrian Kurds fled to neighboring Iraq and Turkey. But in Iraq they have had quite a different story.
After years of fighting with the Iraqi government, the Iraqi government and Kurds signed an autonomy agreement in 1970 but it wasn’t implemented. This led to more fighting in 1974 and then the horrible 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war led to even more fighting. The use of chemical weapons against Kurds in the town of Halabja is well-documented and serves as an example of what the Kurds were subjected to as a minority in Iraq.
After the Gulf War in 1991 a no-fly zone was established allowing Iraqi Kurdistan to finally have autonomy, peace, and stability. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which saw no fighting in Iraqi Kurdistan, autonomy was established in the 2005 Iraqi constitution and the Arabic and Kurdish languages became official languages in Iraq.
Much has changed with the calm and stability that Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed over the past 20+ years. Economically they are marching forward carried on the wings of $100+ per barrel oil. The cities are huge construction zones. New homes, office buildings, and malls are being constructed as local wallets expand and as the population increases due to economic migration from neighboring countries coming in search of safety and economic opportunity.
Despite the troubled past, I didn’t detect much resentment from Iraqi Kurds toward their Arab countrymen. In fact, it was almost like they pitied what they have gone through the past 10+ years, with horrid violence continuing to plague their daily lives.
There is only one contested area that I know of so far, the city of Kirkuk. The Kurds and Arabs both have laid a claim to the city, and today it is partitioned into a Kurdish north and Arab south. Though this is one country, there are checkpoints throughout both southern Iraq and northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan). Going from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah, a journey completely inside Iraqi Kurdistan, there were four checkpoints. The checkpoints were no big deal. The car or bus was just waived through, other times I was asked to show my passport and Iraqi Kurdistan entry stamp.
From what I understand, I would not be permitted to enter the south of Iraq as it requires a real visa form an Iraqi embassy abroad. Perhaps I could obtain it in some government building in Iraqi Kurdistan. I thought about trying, but I didn’t want to cause my parents any more worry than they’ve already endured.
I can’t remember how it works, but I think Arab Iraqis are allowed to visit Iraqi Kurdistan, but I think they need a residence visa to live and work here. Don’t quote me on that, but I think that’s what I was told.
I never visited Iraq under Saddam, but I have read it was far less conservative than the nearby Gulf countries. I have no idea how it is now in Arab Iraq, but in Iraqi Kurdistan it was far less conservative than I expected – and fantastically tolerant.
There are Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many are Assyrian, some are Armenian, some are even Catholic. They generally live side by side and are brothers and sisters despite their different faiths. I found this unity beautiful.
You can find shops selling alcohol everywhere. In the Christian Ainkawa neighborhood of Erbil there were alcohol shops on literally every street. In Sulayamniyah you could easily find alcohol in most neighborhood shops. This is not the case in many Muslim-dominant countries since alcohol is forbidden by the Koran. Gambling is also forbidden in the Koran, but there were sports betting establishments as well.
The situation of women.. hard to say. There were women wearing the abaya, the full black robe, but none covered their faces. I don’t think I saw any young girls wearing abayas. I felt like I saw more women walking around in the street, shopping in markets, etc. than I did in India, but I could be wrong. I think women are still seen as the bearers of honor for families and as such are subjected to a stricter set of rules and standards to abide by. But women here definitely work, pursue education, and positively contribute to the community.
That said, there seems to be the same obsession with whiteness here as I’ve seen in India and other parts of the world. I saw many women out and about with several layers of white powder on their faces. To me it looked ridiculous, but I guess some find it beautiful. I passed by a wedding party and it was even worse, with faces so made up they may as well have been wearing a mask.
Strangely, despite whiteness being a component of beauty here I saw no one using an umbrella to shield the sun while walking in the streets. Most people here drive everywhere, but still, I saw thousands of people walking in the streets during my week here and none had an umbrella.
In Iraqi Kurdistan you see the Iraqi and Kurdish flag flying on all government buildings. It was hard to gauge how people felt being part of Iraq – now synonymous with violence and bad news. I saw a car with “Kurdistan Is Not Iraq” on its back bumper.
It seems the young generation isn’t learning Arabic. The older generation was forced to because (I heard) they could be instantly put to death for speaking Kurdish in public. English is not widely spoken though educated people do speak it well. Also, many Kurds fled Iraq during the violence in the 1970s and 1980s, fleeing to European and North American countries. Thus, I found some young people who spoke perfect English as well as some Kurds who lived abroad and came back when calm descended upon Kurdistan. I was in a small café in Sulaymaniyah and when the staff realized I couldn’t speak Arabic or Kurdish, they summoned a guy in the back. The cook, an older man in his 50s or so, asked me with almost a perfect New York accent “hey, what kind of a burger do you want?” as if it were straight out of the Sopranos. Such random language situations are not abundant, but can be found here in the least expected places.
When I said I was going to Iraq, the concern on everyone’s minds (especially my parents’) was safety. By now you’ve read that Iraqi Kurdistan is much safer than Arab Iraq. But perhaps I have understated how safe it is here. I felt like I was back in Qatar or the UAE. You can walk around at night without fear, violent crime is almost unheard of (though this did happen the week before I came, it was politically motivated and targeting the government, not civilians), and people in the market and taxi drivers don’t even try to rip you off. It’s extremely safe – statistically safer than most U.S. cities I’d imagine.
I could easily live here, though I wouldn’t like to. It reminded me too much of living in Qatar and those weren’t good memories. But besides that, it’d be a bit boring for me, etc. But yes, I could very easily live here and feel comfortable. In theory the threat of terrorism exists here and looms overhead always. But the chances are so remote that it’s basically not part of anyone’s thinking process. I’d rather live in such a place than in a place like Chicago where you can walk down the street and find yourself inside a swarm of opposing gang-members’ bullets.
Though this article got quite long and left out many other aspects of life here, I hope it served as a nice introduction to this wonderful, misunderstood place that I called home for a week.