Kurdistan: The Other Iraq

Kurdistan, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
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]

Kurdistan, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam Hussein’s Palaces

Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
The name “Babylon” brings up two associations – that of an ancient city in Iraq, and of a place of sin and decadence. It’s only fitting then that Saddam Hussein erected one of his palaces on a hill overlooking the ancient site of Babylon.

This is only one of 70 such palaces, many built during the UN sanctions while Saddam’s people were short on food and medicine. Many Iraqis complained the sanctions did nothing to hurt the dictator, and this Babylon-on-a-hill seems proof of that.

Saddam had palaces in every corner of the country, and this one and another I visited in Basra are both opulent, even though they’ve been stripped of everything even remotely valuable, even the wiring. They were once fitted with the finest rugs and gilded furniture. There are rumors that there were solid gold toilets.

These empty, echoing shells are the only thing left of a huge cult of personality. Saddam’s face used to be everywhere. Statues stood at every intersection, giant murals decorated every neighborhood. He was a constant presence in the media. Saddam used to joke that if an Iraqi family’s TV broke, all they had to do was tape a poster of him on the screen. Now there are only empty plinths and whitewashed walls, and the Iraqis watch satellite channels from Europe and Dubai.

You’ll have a hard time finding Iraqis who will say anything good about Saddam Hussein. Even those who hated the sanctions, bombings and eventual invasion are glad he’s gone. Of all the people I talked to in my 17 days here I only found two guys, workers in a roadside tea stand, had something positive to say about his rule.

“In Saddam’s time Iraq was strong. Now it’s weak,” they said.

True enough as far as it goes, but Saddam’s megalomania was what brought Iraq to ruin and the vast majority of Iraqis understand this. During his reign everyone pretended to love him, because to act otherwise was to court death. In their hearts, though, they hated him. It must have galled the Iraqis to see his image everywhere, and to think about the treasures that filled his palaces.

All those treasures are gone now, except for one sad reminder of a pot-bellied dictator and his limitless greed. In a dark side room on the second story of the Babylon palace, I came across the shattered bowl of a gold-painted toilet. Not solid gold, sadly, just gold paint. Must have been the guest bathroom. It was good enough for me. I’d been in the bus for a long time and there was no other bathroom available so …

%Gallery-171444%Yeah, baby!!!!! Gadling dumps on the dictatorship!

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: “Beer run in Basra!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Shameless bottom photo taken by a laughing Per Steffensen. He was laughing with me, not at me. Really.]

Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism

Muqtada Al-Sadr Promotional Posters–Why Saddam’s Hanging Makes For Good Advertising

Muqtada Al-Sadr, Iraq
Like it or not, Muqtada Al-Sadr is the new face of Iraq.

Posters of him are everywhere in the Shia areas, alongside the faces of his father and father-in-law, who both rose to the rank of Grand Ayatollah. They appear on the upper corners of this poster. His father was murdered by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who oppressed the Shia.

Iraq has always been divided between the minority Sunni and the majority Shia, two sects of Islam with more similarities than differences, but enough differences to create centuries of bloodshed. Check out the BBC for a good summary of the differences between Sunni and Shia. Since the beginnings of Islam the Sunni have been in charge, and every subsequent colonizer or national government has kept the Sunnis on top. Everyone, that is, until the Coalition established democratic elections and suddenly the majority got to rule.

Muqtada Al-Sadr popped onto the American radar during the Coalition occupation. He criticized the U.S.-led occupation and in response, the Coalition closed down his newspaper. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army then rose up in revolt. The Coalition tried to arrest al-Sadr, which led to a protracted battle with heavy losses on both sides. Al-Sadr remained a free man.

This bloody victory made Al-Sadr’s reputation. He soon controlled large areas of Iraq and killed off many of his opponents and forced many Sunnis to become refugees. He also installed his version of Sharia law. Alcohol vendors and other “undesirables” were frequently executed. On the other hand, his organization distributed food and rebuilt infrastructure.

Al-Sadr also played the political game. His party did so well that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, shown on the lower right of this photo, had to form a coalition with him. Al-Sadr’s greatest personal triumph came when Saddam Hussein was executed, a scene that appears next to al-Maliki in this poster. It seems to say, “Vote for us, we got rid of Saddam.”Below is another al-Sadr poster, with the man himself on the right. The faceless figure in the center could either be the Imam Ali or Mohammad. The Imam Ali is often shown with his face depicted, and even the Prophet Mohammad is sometimes depicted in Shia art. The periodic flare-ups of indignation against depictions of Mohammad are mostly a Sunni phenomenon.

Traveling in Iraq, I’ve been constantly confronted with posters of a man with Iraqi and Western blood on his hands, a symbol of the ongoing sectarian divide. Sadr’s organization claims it has renounced violence, but with the ongoing clashes between Sunni and Shia I find that hard to believe.

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: “Video Games With A Refugee!”

[Both photos by Sean McLachlan]

Moqata Al-Sadr, Iraq

Iraq Road Trip: Who Takes The Ultimate Adventure Vacation And What’s It Like?

Iraq, Iraq roadtrip, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
We heard our first gunshots a week into our trip. We were resting after a long drive in our Baghdad hotel when shots crackled through the night. Anyone who was sleeping immediately got up. Nothing wakes you up quicker than gunshots in Iraq.

Insurgency? Sectarian violence? No, a wedding taking place in front of the hotel.

Iraqis like firing in the air when they’re celebrating – when their team scores a goal, when someone returns from the Hajj, when someone gets married, or just because they’re happy. It used to freak the hell out of the American soldiers.

When we got outside we found a crowd of guys dancing to a brass band while women stood to one side and clapped. A few of the younger girls danced with each other. The men were all dressed in Western styles, as were some of the women. Other women, especially the older ones, wore the abaya, a loose cloak of black cloth covering everything except the face and hands, which some women cover as well.

The appearance of a crowd of Westerners didn’t slow down the wedding at all. Most people kept on dancing like we weren’t even there. Some came up to say hello. One guy stuck his phone in front of my face and showed me a photo of himself in uniform next to some American soldiers. “Friend! Friend!” he shouted over the music.

Soon the bride and groom went up to their room and the party broke up. We went to our rooms too. We had another long, dusty drive the next day.

Heat and dust. Way too much heat and dust on this trip. And I went in October.

Iraq is a big country and its best sights are spread out over hundreds of miles, so we did a lot of driving. We went the length of the nation, from Basra in the swampy south to Kurdistan in the mountainous north. Much of our time, however, was in the vast desert in the middle.

Driving is easy thanks to an excellent highway system built by Saddam Hussein. It’s been well maintained ever since. The absence of potholes would put many U.S. state highways to shame. Despite the good roads, travel is a lot slower than in peaceful countries because of the numerous checkpoints. Concrete blast walls line the roads where watchtowers and armored personnel carriers keep a close eye out for terrorists. Sometimes the guards waved us through, sometimes they held us up, once for as long as two hours.

Blast walls, like the one shown above, aren’t just for checkpoints. They’re everywhere – in front of government buildings, schools, gas stations, mosques and dividing Sunni from Shia neighborhoods. Security is a constant issue here and you’re never allowed to forget it.

%Gallery-170776%Iraq, Iraq roadtrip, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
Our tour leader told us that “sometimes” we’d have a police escort. “Sometimes” turned into “most of the time.” We usually had a different group of cops each day and it was luck of the draw whether they’d be friendly or aloof. The annoying thing about them was how they often got in the way of my interacting with regular Iraqis. People tend to treat you differently when have an armed escort. There were a couple of times, though, when I was really, really grateful for their presence.

We started out with ten travelers, six of whom only stayed for nine days while I and the rest stayed for the full 16. Because of a scheduling mixup I had an extra day alone in Baghdad at the end. That led to some weirdness I’ll get to later. My companions came from all over – Canada, the UK, Norway, Spain; we even had a couple of Americans. One kept saying he was from Canada, and while I generally have a problem with Americans pretending to be Canadians, I let it slide in this situation.

There were no women. This was both good and bad. It’s interesting to travel in the Middle East with women because they get to speak to a lot more local women and thus have a very different experience. I traveled in Syria with a woman and it was fun comparing notes at the end of the day. We had two completely different trips. The presence of a woman does tend to complicate things in Muslim countries, though.

We were all seasoned travelers and nobody appeared particularly nervous, although we all got uncomfortable at times and dealt with it in different ways. One middle-aged guy was really gung-ho, like he regretted never being in the army and was trying to compensate. Once when we got out of the bus to visit a mosque in the tension-laden city of Mosul he told us to, “Lock and load, boys.”

Gag.

Everyone had read up on Iraq and had their own special interests in archaeology, politics, or religion. All except for Mr. Gung-ho, who knew almost nothing and cared even less. He was just there for the bragging rights.

One guy was a doctor who fortunately never had to use his emergency room skills, and another was a programmer with a talent for photography. He has an awesome travel photo collection online. My roommate was a 68-year-old Norwegian engineer who groaned every time he looked at the electric wiring. He kept taking photos of dodgy fuse boxes and substations so he could give a lecture to his coworkers when he got home. He’s also an accomplished sailor who took small boats across the Indian Ocean and far north of the Arctic Circle. If I’m doing stuff that cool 25 years from now I’ll consider myself a success.

Iraq, Iraq roadtrip, Iraq tourism, Iraq travelThe Iraqis treated us with a mixture of wariness, curiosity, and friendliness. In “My War,” Colby Buzzell’s excellent memoir of his time with the U.S. Army in 2003-4, he noted that “[the women] would stare at us but as soon as you made eye contact, they would look away. The Iraqi men were a little different. They stare too, but don’t look away, and if you wave, which is something they never initiate, they wave back, nervously.”

Things have changed a bit since then. The women still look away, except for a few younger ones who will hold your gaze and smile for a tantalizing moment. The men have chilled out much more. They rarely wave first, but when you wave or say salaam alaykum most burst into a smile and return your greeting. In the frequent traffic jams the folks in the next car would often roll down their windows and start a conversation.

The general impression I got from a lot of Iraqis was that they wanted us to understand that we were welcome.

Another thing Buzzell noted was that every time he went on patrol he’d come back with his pockets stuffed with gifts. This happened to us too. Possibly my weirdest experience in Iraq was one night at a restaurant along a highway. It consisted of one huge dining room serving up quick dinners for hungry motorists. The crowd was mostly truck drivers, busloads full of pilgrims, and a weightlifting team loading up on carbs.

The TV was playing “Black Hawk Down.” A bunch of the Iraqis were really getting into it and I got sucked in too. It’s a damn good movie, after all. I don’t know if the Iraqis found it ironic to be watching an American war movie in the middle of Iraq, but I sure did. I kept waiting for them to cheer when any of the American soldiers got tagged. That never happened.

After seeing American troops blast through Mogadishu, we headed out to our bus. On the way out, the owner of the restaurant came up to me with a smile, said “welcome,” and gave me a pack of chewing gum.

Who knows? Maybe he did the same thing when American soldiers were on his street instead of just his television.

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: “Moqata Al-Sadr Promotional Posters – Why Saddam’s Hanging Makes For Good Advertising!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]