Life in Erbil, the New Dubai!
by Rob Ferguson
I live in Einkawa, the Christian suburb of predominantly Moslem Erbil. Since most of us foreign teachers at the university are at least nominally Christian, or, as in my case, just irreligious, I guess they decided to house us where we could hit a mass now and then, or more crucially, buy some booze at one of the many liquor stores that are not allowed in the rest of the city.
Einkawa stretches just north of the city over the flat Mesopotamian plain without a single physical feature to demarcate it – no waterway, hill or even a copse of trees. It likely has some history to it, but as it’s a collection of similar-looking modern concrete buildings and homes, it certainly doesn’t look like it. A typical Erbil house is two-storeys, abuts its neighbours, has a rather gaudy marble facade and a high front wall, behind which is a parking area and tiny garden with maybe an orange tree. They line the side streets while stores, hotels, restaurants and several churches and the odd neatly kept parkette, always fenced in barbed wire and locked, are concentrated along the arteries. Most of the stores cater to builders and renovators as Einkawa, like the rest of the city, is expanding rapidly. The streets form an erratic grid that’s laid out such that it’s easy to get lost. It doesn’t help that there are no addresses, and as nobody knows street names, directing a taxi driver requires lots of gestures.
My building is four storeys, built a few years ago as a hotel. The owner, from Lebanon, has a luxury suite on the top while we are housed in mostly small, windowless apartments equipped with the basics – generic furniture, a little kitchen, satellite TV and wifi. It’s like living in a modest hotel, except the power goes out recurrently, which generally leads to a noisy generator starting up – Iraq is infamous for its challenged power grid. The wifi is abysmally slow and occasionally the stench of the septic system wafts up through the drains. Still, I’m mostly not complaining: I lucked out and got a decent-sized apartment with a window facing the street.
Einkawa is the area of the city for nightlife, although compared to any western city the fun spots are thin on the ground. Besides a few overpriced hotel bars, the Deutscher Hof is the place to be, especially Thursday night – Friday and Saturday are the weekend here. It has a variety of good German draft beer and dishes like bratwurst and schnitzel. The waiters are smiley Bangladeshis and the clientele are mostly expats in the oil business and their Kurdish workmates. Thursday nights there’s a barbecue and entertainment, which, one Thursday when I was there, included a bonfire and fireworks. Everyone got drunk and a few of our students from the U asked me permission to proposition the female teachers. I told them they didn’t need my permission, which they took as a yes. One of the teachers, a flirty southern belle from Alabama who is almost 70, told us later she got four propositions, “All of which I regretfully declined,” she said with a flattered chuckle.
Erbil is a city of strange and inexplicable mysteries that I spend my leisure time trying to solve. Here are three:
One: Why is there a new hotel on almost every corner? These are decent hotels with rooms going for around $100 a night. They all look unoccupied. Well, it is winter. First I thought that entrepreneurial sorts were throwing them up because the media was calling Erbil the “New Dubai” and they expected tourists to descend in hordes. Maybe, but Erbil is not Dubai: no beaches, no indoor ski slopes, no tall hotels that look like sailboats. Not yet anyway. Then when some of my students told me that something like 98% of all adult Kurds are married and divorce is rare, I though, aha! So the hotels are for some much needed hanky-panky! But when I proposed this idea to my good friend and student Mohammed, he frowned and said, “No, Robert, the hotels are for the Arabs! They come up from Baghdad and southern Iraq in the hot weather because it’s cooler and the mountains are close by. They love it up here!” Well, stay tuned and we’ll see in a few months if all these hotels are teeming with Arabs.
Two: Why is everything so expensive?Because his is the “New Dubai!,” But things cost even more here than Dubai. It’s maybe complicated why, but maybe not. Kurds are not bargainers. You pay what they say, and maybe they’ll give you money back. That has happened to me several times in the bazaar and with taxi drivers. When I went to a dentist, he told me I needed a filling replaced and my teeth cleaned. He said $200. But when he finished the job – in about 15 minutes – he only charged me $100. Apparently this is how Kurds do business. They start off with a high price and then maybe lower it. But maybe not. I know the friendly guy selling veggies at his shop down the street makes up the total every time I buy stuff. Sometimes it’s a bargain, sometimes not. This is likely the only place in the world where a new car driven off the lot increases in value. They leave stickers on the windows and plastic on the moldings and sell it a few weeks later for at least $500 more. Kurds are always selling their cars and buying “new” ones for more than what you’d pay at the dealership. Go figure. And then go into any of the new Starbucks-style cafes around town and have a latte for $8 and add and brownie for $7. Why? I asked one of the business prof. Because of inflated land values have driven up rents and prices, he said, adding cheerfully that we may soon be in for a crash – just like Dubai!
Three: Why is public transit almost nonexistent? Oh, there are a few buses around, but hardly anyone is on them. Everyone drives. The sidewalks are mostly an afterthought and few people walk anywhere. I’ve walked around the city quite a lot and rarely meet anyone. Okay, we’re sitting on a lot of oil here, but still — there are poor people here too. But they mostly live in the centre where everything is concentrated and quite walkable. And this is a family oriented society – women stay mostly at home unless their husbands take them out to the mall, and kids get driven or bussed around. One day a couple of teachers decided to take a bus and hailed one but the driver wouldn’t let them on. He pointed at a taxi. Okay,it’s true, they’re cheap – it’s $5 to just about anywhere in town. But still – a big city without decent public transit? Come on!
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
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