Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
“Kurdistan is one hundred percent safe,” said my driver, Lawin, as we sped down the smoothly paved road from the airport into Erbil. “The problem is,” he went on, “people see the stuff on TV, and they think that everywhere in Iraq is like that. But it’s not. This is Kurdistan, not Baghdad. Don’t go to Baghdad. Don’t go to Mosul, or Kirkuk. But here in Erbil, in Sulaymaniah, you are one hundred percent safe.”
Lawin was the driver that my hotel had sent to pick me up. It was 3:30 in the morning. Lawin looked to be forty-something. He told me that he had lived in Britain for ten years starting in 2000 and took British citizenship before returning to Iraqi Kurdistan only a few years ago.
And he undoubtedly had a point. Most people don’t know that Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurds instead of Arabs are the majority, is semiautonomous. The Kurds, a people spread among Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, have no country of their own. But they have a distinct culture and language, which is a close sibling of Farsi and unrelated to Arabic. Kurdistan has its own military, the highly effective Peshmerga, which has done much of the heavy-lifting in the war against ISIS, or DAESH, as it’s called around these parts. Indeed, the Kurds have managed to keep the conflagrations of recent years away from their portion of Iraq.
Most people also don’t know that Iraqi Kurdistan’s semiautonomy extends to border controls. Even though most nationalities need a hard-to-obtain visa to fly into Baghdad, the opposite is true when flying into Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In fact, even my airline didn’t know this. When I went to check into my flight in Istanbul, the Atlas Global staff spent a good twenty minutes either insisting that I needed a visa to board the flight or checking and failing to find the correct information on Kurdistan’s visa requirements. The confusion on their faces led me to expect that hardly any non-Iraqi citizen ever took this flight into Erbil.
And yet I noticed other visibly foreign passengers on the flight as well. Landing at the spick-and-span Erbil International Airport, I found a lone, young French woman in line in front of me for passport control. She said she was here working for a humanitarian mission. “Do you speak any Arabic or Kurdish?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said. “Just English and French.”
When Lawin came to pick me up, she was waiting on the curb with another European, a short, bespectacled, emaciated, and prematurely balding young man, presumably a fellow humanitarian and not exactly looking like someone who knew how to handle himself. Where was their contact? “I don’t know, he’s an hour and half late.” Where were they staying? “I don’t know, some hotel.” I left them on the curbside. No one was concerned.
And no one needed to be. Lawin was right. Erbil seemed perfectly safe. One armed guard stood at my hotel’s front door. But that’s nothing compared to the dozen guards brandishing AKs behind the steel gate at my hotel in Kabul. The nearby shopping mall also had but one guard. He patted down men coming into the building, next to a photo of the Kurdish president getting patted down. But that’s nothing uncommon for Middle Eastern cities. Indeed I found the atmosphere in Erbil less tense than in Cairo or Beirut or many other cities.
“Yes, yes, we have lots of shopping malls,” Lawin was saying in the car. “We have KFC in this mall over here. Foreigners like KFC, and we have lots of foreigners here as well.” Aside from the Europeans I just met, several of the hotel staff who were Nepali — so was the man staffing the information desk back at the airport. “My neighbor back in England, back in Leeds, his name is Tony. He’s in his seventies now. And he’s been here four or five times. I tell you, Kurds are the friendliest people in the world. Every time he comes, he pays for nothing. Everyone just gives him stuff for free, invites him to stay with them.”
The next day, when I walked up to Erbil’s citadel, I caught a distinctly American accent. Three American men were there with a guide. “Hey did Darrell ever make first sergeant?” one of the men asked the other two. One of the other two wore a fatigue-colored t-shirt that read, “Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve.” Operation Inherent Resolve is the U.S. code name for the war against ISIS. So these were military men, though out of uniform and perhaps on a brief R&R from the U.S. base here in Kurdistan. And an ex-soldier, an American colonel, I had read in the New York Times, now ran a travel agency here.
“The Americans have been here many years,” Lawin announced proudly. “Not a single American soldier has been killed in Kurdistan. In Baghdad, every day they have problems.”
I got to see a lot more of Iraqi Kurdistan and got to know a lot more about Lawin. But I’ll tell you more about that next time.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."