I’m in Kurdistan!
by Rob Ferguson
When I touched down in Kurdistan, it was four in the morning and pouring rain. But Erbil’s new international airport was so impressive with its polished granite floors and high vaulted ceilings that I felt duly welcomed. The officer at passport control asked no questions; he just fingerprinted me, scanned of my retina and stamped my passport: no visa for most westerners. Kurdistan, dubbed “the other Iraq” functions as an autonomous region within Iraq, which has strict visa requirements and is basically a no-go zone.
“It’s harder to get into Canada,” I said to an American coming through with me, “and I’m a Canadian.” Ha laughed. “They love foreigners here,” he said.
Outside passport control a beaming little man was holding up a sign saying Mr. Robertson. He was Renas, one of the drivers for SABIS University, my new employers. He took my big bag and, still smiling, led me out into a parking lot.
“Rain,” he shouted. “Bashi! Good!”
“Better than snow,” I said.
He squealed the Toyota pickup through the half-empty lot, waved happily at someone he knew as he raced through a series of Arabic and Kurdish radio stations until he found he thought I’d like: American country music. Probably it was left over from the days when American troops were everywhere. It was kind of amusing: some twangy hurting song crooning in the cab as we splashed through deep puddles and sped past massive construction sites to a hotel, half under construction, only about ten minutes away.
“Welcome to Iraq,” I said, grinning at Renas.
He looked taken aback. “Kurdistan!” he shouted, happily.
Now 5 AM, unsurprisingly no one was awake at the Sipan Hotel. We woke up some boys sleeping on big fake-leather couches, and I was shown to my room. Happily I hit the bed; it had been four flights and over twenty hours since I’d departed Toronto.
Erbil (Air-beel) is the capital of Kurdistan, or more officially the KRG, the Kurdistan Regional Government. It’s an ancient city dating back possibly as far back as 10,000 years, although the first records, at a mere 2000 BC, identify it as Arbilium. Built around a fortified citadel, it was invaded and conquered by Akkadians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Persians and Greeks until, around the time of Christ, it became a Christian centre. Muslims took over in 642 AD, and it has remained predominantly Muslim while being overrun by Abbasids, Moguls, Turkmens, Persians (again), Ottomans, Brits, and mostly recently Saddam Husein’s forces.
Today, thanks to a secured peace, relative political stability and most importantly oil, it has become the biggest city in Iraqi Kurdistan and a boomtown.
One sunny afternoon when I had no classes, I ventured out of my suburban university and followed the wide avenues toward the ancient centre. I skirted the enormous Martyr Sami Abdul-Rahman Park, a recently landscaped oasis where Saddam Husein’s Fifth Corps once tortured and killed Kurds, passed the well fortified Kurdish Parliament and then found myself wandering the narrow spoke-like streets that led to the citadel. Unquestionably this is the heart of the city, and it rises impressively from the surrounding pancake plain like a magical bastion out of the Arabian Nights. Sitting atop a steep 30-metre high hillock, its sandy-coloured brick walls are now partly covered in scaffolding as UNESCO and the KRG are restoring the site.
I ascended a lane that wound up to the top, passed through an arched gate and arrived in mud-brick ruins once housing thousands of Kurds but now abandoned for renovations. I strolled over to the South Gate where a gigantic statue of a seated old sage with a beard and flowing robes looked out over the Qaysari Bazaar and the agreeably spurting fountains of Parki Shar below. I took some photos as a couple of kids scrambled up onto his lap and a line of Kurd men posed in front in their traditional billowing pants and round caps.
Wondering who that wise old man was, a few days later I found his photo in a book: Mubarak Ben Ahmed Sharaf-Aldin (1169-1239), also known as Ibn Almustawfi, was a historian and religious leader in the era of Sultan Muzafardin. Born in Erbil, he wrote about history, literature and language, and his masterpiece was a four-volume history of his city.
“We say he’s driving the citadel,” said my student Sarkawt with a discreet Kurdish smile.
It seemed an apt comment on the state of things. Erbil is a city reinventing itself as a dynamic oil-patch capital, and not surprisingly, it’s vehicle-obsessed. Outside the crowded old core are rings of ever widening avenues filled with SUVs, muscle cars and pickups zooming past endless construction sites: new subdivisions called Dream City and Italian Village, high-rise hotels and office blocks, new government ministries and domed shopping malls.
During the American-led war in Iraq, I didn’t recall hearing of Erbil. Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, Fallujah and Basra all became synonymous with bombings, battles and massacres, while Erbil remained mostly safe and secure thanks to its self-governing status within the federal Iraqi republic, which was won originally in a 1970 agreement with the Iraqi government, reaffirmed after the first Gulf War in 1992 and again in 2005 after the fall of Saddam. Over the last few years thousands of Kurds, who fled persecution and war for Western countries, are returning,
So I find myself in a semi-independent land the size of Holland that stretches from the arid northern plains of Mesopotamia into the snowy Zagros Mountains, landlocked and surrounded on three sides by dangerous neighbours: the closed and politically unstable “rest of Iraq” to the south, war- torn Syria to the west and Iran, which is hostile to most westerners, to the east. Only the border to Turkey in the north is open and despite the ongoing disputes between Kurds and Turks, which periodically bubble up, it provides me a motivating outlet for adventure beyond these limited borders. And very soon I will do just that: take a bus northwest to Urfa, the Prophets’ City, an ancient and storied town that pilgrims have visited for centuries.
Rob Ferguson has worked in communications and as a trainer in his native Canada, Vanuatu, Mongolia, Central Asia, the Caribbean island of Montserrat, Colombia and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He has also worked as a freelance journalist, editor and instructor of English, creative writing and journalism. He is the author of *Dancing with the Vodka Terrorists: Misadventures in the 'Stans*, available from here. He currently lives and works in Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq. This blog originated here. Contact Rob Ferguson at: FaceBook: Robert W Ferguson. Instagram & Twitter: robertissimmo
More by Rob FergusonThe Jihadists are Coming!
Life in Erbil, the New Dubai!
Into the Zagros Mountains!
Christmas in Gali Ali Beg!
Spring in Kurdistan!
Sex and Booze in Kurdistan!
Culture in Kurdistan!
I Kiss Your Eyes, Habibi!
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