Kurdistan: The Other Iraq

Families out for an evening stroll, friends sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes, tourists seeing the sights without a police escort – am I still in Iraq?

Sort of.

I’m in Kurdistan, an autonomous region made up of Iraq’s three northernmost provinces. The Kurds kicked out Saddam in 1991 after suffering years of bloody persecution, and they’ve pretty much been doing their own thing ever since. I never saw an Iraqi flag flying in the Kurdish region, only the Kurdish “regional” flag that everyone seems to look to as their national flag. The region even has its own national anthem. The Kurdish government also acts independently at times, such as making oil deals with foreign companies even though they’re supposed to be approved by Baghdad.

Erbil, the region’s capital, is a boomtown. New buildings are going up everywhere and the shops are full of expensive products and people who can afford to buy them. Auto dealerships, electronics stores, and swank restaurants are everywhere. There’s a relaxed, optimistic mood in the air.

The Kurds have reason to be optimistic. A distinct people with their own culture and language, their population stretches across several international boundaries. Kurds are found in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Being a minority with a strong sense of independence has meant they’ve faced persecution in all of these countries. Now they have their own region and they’re doing well for themselves. Kurdistan has the lowest rate of poverty in Iraq thanks to a booming oil and gas industry.

There’s even a tourism industry. This is the one part of Iraq where you can travel individually, and an increasing number of curious Westerners are doing just that. Kurdistan’s mixture of ancient sites, functioning cities and rugged mountains has a lot to offer.

%Gallery-172501%Like everywhere else in the Middle East, foreign visitors are treated with curiosity and hospitality. Tourism isn’t big enough here yet for visitors to be pestered by carpet sellers like in Istanbul or Cairo. The relaxed vibe extends to everyone. As we visited the impressive Erbil citadel, a medieval fortress built atop ruins stretching back at least 7,000 years, we had a steady stream of people welcome us to Kurdistan (always Kurdistan, never Iraq) and chat with us as much as their English would allow.

We had people coming up to us all through Iraq, but here it was different. The locals were less surprised to see us, less anxious to know what we thought of their country. The Kurds show a confidence not seen in other parts of Iraq.

It’s difficult to judge a region after such a short visit. I only got to hang out in Erbil for a day, plus see some ancient Assyrian sites and an Iraqi Christian monastery. My impressions are only first impressions and I’m sure I missed a lot. The Kurdish hinterland, with its various factions and ethnic groups, is a mystery to me that would require another long visit to even partially unravel.

There’s no doubt that Kurdistan has its share of problems. Not everyone is profiting from the good economy and ethnic minorities complain they aren’t getting their fair cut. Still, I get the sense that they’re better off than in other parts of Iraq. The oil industry is booming and the leaders of the various factions are keeping a lid on the worst of the violence in order to make money. That’s something the factions in the rest of Iraq, intent on getting the whole pie for themselves, just don’t understand. They’re wrecking the very economy they’re trying to control.

Example: on my first day in Baghdad I ditched my guards and went to the market to find my son an Iraq National team football uniform. I nearly got arrested by the Iraqi police and didn’t even get the uniform. The security situation made the cops jittery and the market streets were clogged by a series of checkpoints. This, of course, hurts businesses. In Erbil, I wandered freely through a busy market and after a bit of hunting in a new, clean shopping mall found a uniform in my son’s size. When I paid for it the shopkeeper added my money to a huge wad of notes he pulled from his pocket. Business was good that day.

I was happy, the shopkeeper was happy, and my son was happy. The difference between Baghdad and Erbil really comes down to that – stability brings prosperity, and that’s better for everyone.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “A Family Night Out In Baghdad!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo by Rob Hammond]

Is Iraq really safe to visit?

If you ever visit Iraq, it’s probably best to tell your parents about the trip after you return. That’s what my friend Jennifer Martin did, and she says it saved her parents from lots of (mostly) needless worry.

Jennifer has just returned from a week-long tour of Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous, surprisingly safe region of northern Iraq. (Venture further afield than Kurdistan and you’re asking for trouble.) While most people would balk at visiting an area of the world virtually synonymous with war, Jennifer did some research about Kurdistan’s security situation and decided to go for it, a decision which guarantees her an automatic victory in just about any travel-related pissing match.

I recently asked her a couple questions about visiting northern Iraq– whether it’s really safe to visit, what are some of the region’s highlights, and how locals reacted upon meeting her. Here’s what she had to say…

1. Most people would never dream of visiting Iraq because of concerns about their safety. How did you decide to visit the region of Kurdistan and, perhaps more importantly, how did you know it would be safe?I was deciding where I should visit during a week-long break from school, and my ideas consisted of Portugal, Spain, and Tunisia. The problem was that I couldn’t justify spending money on arbitrarily picking a destination included on every Euro-backpacker’s “must-see” list. I e-mailed my well-traveled friend for advice, and he responded, “Come with my friend and me to Iraqi Kurdistan.” My initial reaction was not to thoughts of danger; rather, I immediately asked myself, “What do I really know about Iraq other than the information circulated by the media?” I was surprised by how much I knew about its ancient history and how little I knew about its recent history. Thus, I started to learn and decided to live by the phrase, “Instead of asking ‘why,’ ask ‘why not’.”

Well, I didn’t know it would be safe. Just like I don’t know that it will be safe walking to my car after a late-night baseball game in the States. Aside from the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan has maintained relative peace for several years now, the additional reasons I believed Iraqi Kurdistan was (is) safe for travel are twofold. First, I scrolled through several travel blogs of people who visited Iraqi Kurdistan as well as recent news in the area to ensure that all was calm. Secondly, the media and the news greatly exaggerate conditions in a country. Travel advisories for Vienna, one of the safest cities in the world, warn of kidnappings. Even in my hometown of St. Louis, travel warnings mention the risk of a massive earthquake. It’s ridiculous. If we listened to the media, we’d never leave our homes. If you do your homework and be responsible, the chances of danger are greatly reduced.

2. What are some attractions and activities in northern Iraq that travelers might be interested in?

Because travelers to Iraqi Kurdistan receive a 10-day travel pass, there is not a lengthy amount of time to see the region unless an extended visa is obtained. Generally, public parks and large bazaars can be found at the center of each city, and the landscape of the Kurdistan countryside is incredible.

Over the course of our travels, we visited the cities of Dohuk, Amadiya, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Halabja. Erbil is home to one of the oldest bazaars and to the Citadel, arguably the oldest continually inhabited place in the world. From Dohuk, day trips to Amadiya, Lalish, and Gali Ali Beg Canyon are possible. Located approximately 30km outside of Dohuk, Lalish is the sacred city of the Yazidi faith. Amadiya, approximately 60 km from Dohuk, is a small village built on a plateau and situated amongst mountains. Traveling to Gali Ali Beg Canyon is somewhat more difficult, but it is one of the most scenic places in Iraq.

The most impressive sight on our trip came in Sulaymaniyah at Amna Suraka, the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service during Saddam’s regime. This prison operated as a facility for the imprisonment, torture, and death of thousands of Kurds. It has been maintained in its condition since the 1991 uprising by the Kurdish Peshmerga: tanks border the courtyard, bullet holes coat the walls and blankets still lie on the ground in the cells.

Additionally in Sulamaniyah, travelers can visit the Slemani Museum, which holds artifacts from 15,000 BC. A short distance from Sulay is Halabja, the city known as the place where the Ba’ath party dropped chemical weapons on the Kurdish residential areas, killing over 5,000. A museum located before the city’s entrance commemorates this event, and within the city, one can find the Halabja cemetery.

There are other activities and sights to where travelers can visit by looking through travel blogs and performing independent research.

3. Did you meet many (or any) fellow travelers during your time in Kurdistan? How were your experiences with the locals while you were there?

We only encountered one other traveler, a nice Canadian guy named Sean. We first met him while crossing the Turkish-Iraqi border and again while at the Citadel in Erbil. It was an enjoyable and unique experience being the only tourists for the majority of the time. Often people looked at us in a friendly-but-curious manner.

The locals were some of the friendliest people that I’ve encountered. They were welcoming, willing and eager to help with any of our questions, and happy to speak with us. If someone couldn’t speak English, he or she would use hand gestures to make “small talk” or to explain a point. Further, we put 100% of our trust in the shared taxi system and in the locals for help in navigating our way around the region. It was never necessary to haggle for a price, and we were never swindled.

Lastly, my friends and I always felt safe. While traveling between cities, we would encounter numerous checkpoints; however, they were never a hassle. Even several of the Iraqi Kurdistan military members at these checkpoints were noticeably friendly and expressed joy upon seeing that American tourists were visiting their country.

4. Any advice for someone considering a trip to Kurdistan? Would you recommend it as an off-the-beaten-path travel destination?

First, check out the latest travel blogs, websites, and message boards. Fortunately, many travelers have provided detailed accounts of their trips on the internet which serve as great guides on places to see, what to expect, and how to travel in the region.

Without a doubt, I would recommend Iraqi Kurdistan as a destination for travelers who don’t mind keeping their plans very flexible and who can go with the flow. The locals are wonderful, the sights are incredible, and the learning opportunities are numerous.

Thanks so much for chatting with us about your trip, Jennifer! For more, check out Jennifer’s blog for five excellent, photofilled posts about her visit to Iraq.

[Photos courtesy of Jennifer Martin]