Jabar and Esmeal both ask:
What did you think of Kurdistan?
I don’t want to answer this question in too straightforward a manner.
I can, of course, be straightforward, and say that I think Kurds have a uniquely collective mindset, a strong familial fabric, that they are welcoming and friendly, whilst also being fierce and independent.
But I prefer storytelling rather than merely telling, which I think is more entertaining and more illustrative of the statements I made above. I can show, rather than just say.
So, suffer me a ramble about how I ended up in Kurdistan, and then I will share some snippets from my time there.
Hopefully the gentle reader will develop an image, an idea, a vibe of the place that still seems so vivid in my mind’s eye three months later.
How did I end up in Iraqi Kurdistan?
When I first decided I was going to travel somewhere, I looked at a list of countries to which I could travel without any harsh travel restriction.
On that list I saw Kyrgyzstan, and thought, this is a suitably foreign, wild, interesting, beautiful destination.
After booking flights, I broke the news to Mum, who almost instantly started researching the destination on the internet.
“You can’t go there, Liam!” Mum squawked. “That’s next to Iraq and Syria!”
“Mum,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I’m not going to Kurdistan, for heaven’s sake, I’m going to Kyrgyzstan.”
Three months later, I find myself flying from Istanbul to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region within Iraq run by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
How do I find myself visiting this country, after finding it preposterous that my Mum would even suggest I would go there?
I will answer that question by, first, telling you why I found it preposterous, and, second, how I was persuaded to visit.
(Please note that I don’t consume news media, watch TV or read newspapers. I used to be somewhat of a news junkie in that regard up until late 2015, at which point I deleted all social media and ejected my consciousness from the mainstream (bad) news cycle. The extent to which I am informed about goings-on in geopolitics extends to what I see or hear in snippets, or is dated to 2015.)
So, first, my dim and uninformed view of Kurdistan, which had me roll my eyes at my mother, and why I automatically assumed it unsafe.
This is what I knew before my visit.
It is the biggest nation in the world without its own state.
The Kurdish people have for many decades been persecuted and bombed by such loveable global actors as Turkey and Iran, against whom Kurdish militias have fought staunch and unsupported insurgencies. Kurdistan covers territory in the states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, by the way.
The Kurdish death count stretches into the hundreds of thousands just where Saddam Hussein is concerned, who at one point bombed Kurdish forces and civilians with hydrogen cyanide, killing thousands in one sick stroke.
I remember watching the news cycle around 2014. Daesh forces were advancing into Kurdish territory, and the US, with its multiple military bases and aircraft carriers in the region, was coolly watching on as they fought against forces of true evil. Christ. I remember now why watching the news made me so cynical.
I rolled my eyes at my Mum because the first image I had of Kurdistan was of a fiery war zone, or at least, a region that had recently been one.
Now, how did I go from finding the idea of visiting Kurdistan preposterous to finding it irresistible?
This was thanks to two people I met on my travels.
The first person was Henry the Younger of Sussex, a dashing young lad of exceptional intellect, chirp, charm and character, who has starred in several AMA answers, including one on hitchhiking and one about our surprise trip to a school in Uzbekistan.
The first day I met Henry in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, I commented on his blue shirt, which had quite the substantial rip in it.
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“Oh,” he replies, nonchalant. “I came off my motorbike in Iraq.”
Henry had lovely things to say about Iraqi Kurdistan, about the nature and the people.
He told me that there hasn’t been war in that region for 2 years, and the country is safe.
The second person was Ridvan AKA Moses, a bat-shit crazy Kurdish coder living in Istanbul.
I stayed with Moses around 10 days, in which time he cooked me meals, cleaned my rank sandals, washed my clothes, gave me a pair of shoes, two pairs of shorts, a pair of socks, a shirt, and generally fussed over me in a way that would put many a mother to shame.
“Moses,” I asked him, after being given some food or clothing or being told to shower or being back massaged. “Are all Kurdish people like – like this?”
His reply was affirmative, and so it was that I decided to fly to Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Arriving in Kurdistan and first impressions
I contacted a Couchsurfing host in Erbil, a Syrian fellow with whom I would be staying for the first few nights. He said that the city was perfectly safe, and I shouldn’t worry about jumping in a taxi upon arrival.
The problem was that the taxi was trying to charge me upwards of $20 for the ride into the city. No goddamn way! I could see on Google Maps that the walk is little more than a half-hour.
After failing to barter any of the taxis down to a more palatable amount, I made my way on the mostly empty road towards the city, past midnight, in the cloying heat, under the moon.
Two friendly Kurdish blokes with little English pull over and ask if I want a ride. I show them the spot on the map, and they gladly drive me there, wishing me well.
My first real experience of Kurdish people in Kurdistan, then, was being offered a ride in the middle of the night with no request for, or expectation of, reward. Instant good vibes.
Erbil is the hottest place I have ever been to.
Even after the 40 degree heat in Tashkent, I was not prepared for the 45 degree heat in Erbil. To walk in that heat is to break into an instant sweat. I wanted constantly to sit down and take a break in the day. It just drained me. Whenever there was a breeze, it didn’t refresh me, it just blew sauna-level heat into my face.
Erbil is metropolitan – relatively speaking – with many Arabs and Europeans and Americans, all getting fat off the black gold bubbling away underneath the scorched earth of the region.
Still, I met many Kurdish there, whom I found to be very friendly.
Taxi drivers, after minimal haggling, would settle for the equivalent of $2 for a ride, and insist on me taking their mobile numbers so I could call them, incase I need anything or find myself in trouble. Many Kurdish have family working away in the UK or Germany or elsewhere in Europe. They are hard workers as well as fierce fighters.
My first day in Erbil, I went to the bazaar in the centre of the city. Though the heat was cloying, oppressive even, I loved the hustle and bustle and barter of the place, which was much more civilised than the equivalents I’ve experienced in the Arab world. Just try walking through an Egyptian or Moroccan bazaar without being accosted! Though many kids, some as young as 6 or 7, did approach me insisting I buy their lighters or let them carry my shopping for me.
I saw everything for sale there, from food to clothes to watches to electronics to weaponry.
If I had the compulsion, I could have haggled for one of the guns on sale there, lying casually upon the market stall in broad daylight, no local batting an eyelid.
Likewise, in Erbil’s equivalent of Wall Street, there are fat wads of dollars and dinars being traded openly without any security.
I purchase some veg and fruit at market, paying a mere 1,500 Iraqi Dinar for cherries, cucumber, tomatoes and dill. That’s 75p.
Taking refuge from the heat, I go into one of the small cubbyhole cafes the locals go to sit, drink chai and shoot the breeze.
Kurdish chai is super strong and super sweet, and delicious. I sit cosily between two Kurdish gentleman, in their traditional overalls with belt and turban, and opposite a moustachioed old boy who smiles and waves at me.
The traditional Kurdish dress is badass, by the way, it looks stylish and suited to them, giving the apt suggestion of military fatigues. They must sweat in them, though! Especially as the electricity is off as much as it is on. The fans stop whirring in our cafe, and the true heat announces itself.
After taking my chai, I rise to pay the 15p or so it will cost me, and the old boy opposite me rises to insist he covers the cost. He shakes my hand and asks in halting English, “Where are you from?” I say I am from England and he says, “I love you. You are beautiful. I love England. I see you again, Inshallah.” And I walk back through the filthy, rubbish-strewn streets, smiling at how pure a moment that was.
There were districts in Erbil that were spectacularly multicultural and multiracial, some even permissive, as I mention in this AMA concerning LGBTQ experience in Kurdistan and elsewhere.
Again, quite novel things as compared to my limited experience of other Muslim majority countries.
It seems Kurds prize not only freedom from other countries but also freedom within its own country, in which I met Muslims, Christians, Jews; Arabs, Indians, Africans, Europeans – all sorts! It was beautiful.
Despite being very poor, Erbil is not only very safe and secure, but also friendly and welcoming.
My Syrian host’s cousin, Mohammed, was living with him in Erbil, in their tiny windowless apartment. Mohammed immigrated from Syria to Lebanon – like going out of the frying pan and into the fire – then immigrated from Lebanon as so many are trying to at the moment.
“We are living in the good times,” Mohammed tells me, simply.
No Saddam, no Daesh, no war, peace, and even prosperity – in strictly relative terms.
Mohammed’s widowed mother is earning $25 a month back in Syria.
Mohammed is earning more than that a week as a waiter at an Italian restaurant in Erbil, His mother is a teacher in Tartus, by the way. Puts things into perspective.
Hitchhiking outside of Erbil
The nature in Kurdistan, outside of the capital city of Erbil, was stunning. Epic. Glorious.
I had the pleasure of hitchhiking with two wonderful young gentlemen, Levi and Ayar, a Californian Jew and Kurdish Muslim.
Levi and I first caught a minibus north-east, out of the oppressive heat of Erbil, where the air begun to thin, the temperature cool, and the desert crumple into rocky hills, before rising up into mountains.
We had three chirpy peshmerga dudes riding along with us. They asked where we are from, what are we doing, smiling and chirping away. We swapped Facebook details before saying our goodbyes, and I still get a video call from time to time, usually when they are smoking cigarettes in their barracks.
One of these fellows is from a 20 person village. One looked pretty much Caucasian, interestingly, as you can see above.
One of these delightful fellows uploaded a photo of his son holding a machine gun that was bigger than him. Friends and family expressed their distaste. For good reason! Seeing a child hold a deadly weapon, loaded or unloaded, is not a pretty sight.
However, my argument is – not even argument, my point of view is – that the Kurds are fighters. They have fought only very recently. And, I am sad to say, I think the current peaceable ‘good times’ lasting for any appreciable amount of time is about as likely as Erbil freezing over.
In many of our world’s countries, and pretty much all of Europe’s countries, protecting children from the harsh reality of war is a privilege.
Kurdistan has not ever had such a privilege, though they have more than earned it.
Better be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.
And Kurds are both great gardeners and courageous warriors, as it happens.
Long may that continue in this region where forces of chaos and evil thrive.
As we drive past a massive cubic building currently under construction, the Peshmerga chirpers point it out to us, informing us that it is the new US Consulate, and it was bombed by drones in the last week.
Shaqlawa is our first stop, a beautiful, quiet town sandwiched between mountains.
We meet Ayar there, a bright and chirpy young soul who has just attained a degree in IT.
Ayar has taught himself some decent English, and is very eager to show us around, introduce us to his family and to hitchhike with us today.
The weather is bearably hot at this higher altitude. Ayar tells me that it snows in winter here, which I find hard to believe, as I still sweat despite being out of the sun’s rays.
We visit Ayar’s family, are served chai, and offered food. We meet his father, a traffic policeman, and two of his uncles, who are Peshmerga and private security. They are, like all the Kurds whose homes I had the pleasure of entering, welcoming and kind and curious and accepting and civilised.
As they switch to speaking Kurdish, and I enjoy my third cup of delicious chai, I see the situation for what it is: kind of beautiful, that an Guernsey-Irish Catholic, a Japanese-Californian Jew and a Kurdish Muslim can sit and drink and speak together on utterly equal terms with total respect, in a region where people kill for religion, burn heretics, throw gays off buildings.
I think this is something that sets Kurdistan apart, that there is not only a formal religious freedom, but a secular nonchalance, an indifference to something as private as somebody’s faith – something that used to exist once-upon-a-time in pre-blitzed Syria.
At length we say goodbye to his family, Levi taking some cracking photographs before we make our way up the road to try and hitch a ride.
During that short walk, we passed no fewer than five of Ayar’s cousins. Ayar jokes that he has 100 cousins, and I am honoured to become cousin 101.
The Kurdish marry their cousins, as a general rule.
It is a ‘thing’ here for men to be married to their father’s brother’s daughter.
Perhaps that is why Kurds have such an intensely knit familial and social fabric, one that shares so freely. Come to my house, eat my food, take my clothes.
We hitch a ride in an SUV with a Kurdish guy, who allows me the front seat; I’m not sure whether he does this because I am the biggest or look the oldest or look the most exotic and foreign.
Kurdistan was the easiest country to hitchhike in, I found, with the one glaring exception of Kyrgyzstan. Kurds are eager to help and welcome and impress.
Another ride we hitch is with a slick and suited Kurdish security guy, his wise looking father in the front seat, wearing the full Kurdish traditional attire.
Our driver is steering lazily with one hand, eating chickpeas with the other, speeding past cars and trucks on the winding mountain roads, looking back towards us in conversation. I seriously consider fastening my seatbelt for the first time since Kyrgyzstan, but I remember my German friend informing me that it is “offensive” to do so in Kurdistan. Never saw a crash in Kurdistan, although they drive like humans have more lives than cats.
After another hitched ride we make it to beautiful Gali Ali Bag, a waterfall cascading out of a canyon into a small pool, mountains reaching up all around it. Beautiful spot. Levi thanks me for my exotic appearance, in the awe of which Kurds and Arabs can be cajoled into having their photographs taken.
As it happens, we ended up being filmed ourselves, by a Kurdish TV crew. Though I stood and listened and nodded, I had absolutely no clue what was being said by either Levi or the interviewer. Yet, the interviewer insisted I stay in the frame.
[At this point in my diary, there is a note: Levi says, “Everybody has lost somebody here, so it’s wholesome to see this.” He was referring to the beautiful scene, children playing, adults with their shoes off and walking through the water, in mountains where Peshmerga proudly remember the time they fired with AK-47s and RPGs at Saddam’s tanks from unseen elevations, and were punished cruelly for their resistance.]
Levi and Ayar have lives and responsibilities to return to, so in the evening, they make their way back to Erbil and Shaqlawa.
It is my intention to hitchhike onwards from Gali Ali Bag to Soran, and then, hopefully, onwards to Rwanduz.
I stick out my thumb and hitch a ride to Soran with two Kurdish fellows, who stop off en route to deliver some fruit and other bits and bobs to a restaurant. We arrive to Soran, and they ask me where I want to be dropped off. I shrug my shoulders, and point – there!
From this point, I potter around, soaking up the vibe.
As usual, of late, I am the only white person in town, sticking out like a sore thumb, and am roundly gawped at by the locals as I mosey through their streets with a big bag on my back.
I ask a street vendor where I might find shisha, and he points me to a small cafe, where I pop in for a puff, to chill out, and see if there are any active CouchSurfing hosts in Rwanduz (with no success).
The shisha pipe passes over an ice block, cooling the smoke pleasantly. Kurdish prize their shisha and their tea!
I fall into conversation with a young fellow who speaks good English, a pharmacist and great dude named Jabar. His younger brother comes to sit with us, too; he wants to move to Manchester and work with his uncle who owns a car wash, ‘Inshallah’.
I tell them I’m hitchhiking and intend to go up to Rwanduz, where hopefully I will find somewhere to camp – which I’ve resigned myself to, at this point.
Jabar kindly offers to help me find a place to sleep once he finishes his shift tonight. The drive is less than 20 minutes, but it is not walkable, being up a dizzyingly steep mountain road.
At length, I say my goodbyes, and walk to the road which winds around the mountain leading up to Rwanduz.
Sticking my thumb out, I get no luck.
Lots of waving and quite a few beeps from drivers, but no ride.
There are a group of guys at a service station across the road watching me, some laughing and some looking confused. A couple of them wave me over. I’m having no luck here, so I pop over to say hello.
The gentlemen speak no English, but they understand I am trying to go to Rwanduz.
“No taxi, no money,” I explain.
And a gang of five guys cross the road with me to ensure I get a lift.
I lift my thumb, kind of pointlessly, as my hitch-helpers wave both arms, shouting ‘Rwanduz!’ loudly at passing cars, eventually securing me a ride with an unhinged but very genial Kurdish fellow. I thank my rescuers and am on my merry way.
My driver drops me on a steep hill, the main street of Rwanduz, which is so steep I have to walk with an awkward leant-forward shuffle. The views are stunning. The air is cooler, especially as evening draws in.
I trundle on up the hill and pop into a joint called the Taj Cafe.
It has a balcony, with a couple of small tables and rickety chairs, and a ruined sofa, apparently rescued from a dumpster. I gladly and almost irreversibly sink into the sofa, smoking another shisha, drinking Kurdish chai, and as the sun gently sets over yonder mountain, I wonder, where in the hell will I end up sleeping tonight.
I fall into conversation with a couple of different Kurdish characters, one a Christian convert and evangelist preacher, the other a rather intense fellow who works as a translator between the US forces and Peshmerga.
The pastor has been going back and forth to Lebanon for years, preaching at a church over there named The Good Shepherd Church.
He tells me he used to spread the good news in Turkey, until he was stopped and questioned at immigration as to why he was making so many trips. The Turks asked him where he is from, baiting him, and he fell on his own sharp tongue: instead of saying Iraq, he proudly said Kurdistan. He was deported.
The other Kurdish fellow, the translator, seems perplexed that I would just hitchhike here, in the arse-end of nowhere, with no plan or contact, and be sat here yapping away to all and sundry.
“What’s your plan?”
“I don’t have a plan,” I reply, shrugging my shoulders cheerfully.
“You need a plan, you don’t have anywhere to stay tonight,” he says.
“The universe,” I reply, “will guide me to where I need to be.”
My woo-woo faith in reality scares him off.
Incidentally, to this very cafe arrives a group of Dutch documentary filmmakers, an enterprising, inspiring and gregarious group of goodhearted lads who have started a charitable foundation. They hear of my situation and kindly offer me a place to stay at their place. One is a Kurdish emigre, who has lived most of his life in the Netherlands.
After watching the scintillating Switerland vs France game and penalty shootout – and after being refusing the privilege of paying my own bill, which happened time and again in Kurdistan – we retire to the Dutch guys’ place, where we drink whiskey, smoke cigars, and talk about life and death and Kurdistan.
(See, I told you the universe will guide me where I need to be.)
4 thoughts on “AMA #8: Iraqi Kurdistan”
I love reading your chirps Liam. Thank you for sharing. ( I went to school with your Mum)
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That pleases me to read, thank you Karen 🙂 x