“Better to be a Rose than a Thorn”: Finding Kurdistan by chance

Ten years on from the invasion, what has changed for ordinary Iraqis? In this double feature, we share the perspectives of two writers on what it means to live in modern-day Iraq.

It’s over two years since I touched down in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Or perhaps, if you prefer, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan; of Northern Iraq (which, as Saddam’s moniker for the area, is not a name which win you many friends if used here); or increasingly, as the KRG seeks to attract tourists from abroad, of “The Other Iraq”.1 Amongst expats here, we refer to it simply as Kurdistan, or Iraqi Kurdistan when we’re explaining to friends and family just where in the world it is we’ve found ourselves.

Two years have now passed since I arrived, seemingly by accident.

In November 2010, after a year of unemployment in the UK, I ploughed the last of my savings into taking a month-long CELTA course to gain the necessary qualifications for teaching English to adult speakers of other languages. I had previous experience from a little unqualified teaching in Ukraine, where I’d lived for two years in the past, and hankered after a return to a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) country, where I could utilise and improve upon the little Russian I’d picked up in that time. Unfortunately, the first job for a newly qualified CELTA teacher is quite tricky to find, with almost all positions advertised carrying a requirement of two years’ experience. After applying to schools in Russia, Argentina, Columbia, Thailand, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, China, Palestine and elsewhere, I initially accepted an offer to work in Samara, central Russia, where my meager earnings from delivering pizzas, with the lack of tipping typical to a depressed town in a depressed country, managed to cover a one way ticket to the country and the attendant visa fees.

My stay in Samara would be brief, however. A meeting with the Walter Mitty-esque boss the morning after arrival confirmed the worst fears of my gamble, as it became clear that he had swindled many thousands of dollars from others in the city. I made plans to make good my escape. And then, an email arrived. “Do you still want to work in Iraq?” While I didn’t remember ever applying to work in Iraq, after an interview and a promise to buy my ticket to freedom followed, I soon accepted.

My Russian connection to the internet was prohibitively slow, and so I arrived in Erbil late April, with no real knowledge of where I was. In hindsight, I was as green as the mountains that unexpectedly greeted me a week later, which were to give the absolute lie to my preconceptions of deserts, dates and camels. After just one day’s orientation at the headquarters of the school which had flown me over, I was left to my own devices in a run-down hotel in the centre of Erbil near the Citadel – a tentative UNESCO world heritage site which is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited structure in the world. Evidence suggests that it has been settled for at least 7,000 years and one family currently remains in the ancient walled community.2 During that initial week, I skulked around the immediate environs of the hotel, but I was not assured by the guarantees of security that my colleagues had given me, and felt under threat (really, I was that ignorant). Each night, unadorned by beer (really, had I moved to a dry country?!), I watched a movie or three on one of the pirated satellite channels, only half-joking to myself that Al Qaeda were to make me the next star in one of their grim broadcasts.

Happily, after a week I heard that I was to travel to Sulaymaniyah with my new manager Omed and begin teaching. Along with a local teacher, Amjad, we set off on the three hour car journey taking the route that winds over the mountains. Once we’d left Erbil, small hills began to morph into far more impressive mountains, verdant and simply beautiful. I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing, and relief swept over me, especially as we drove along the entry road that passes the new airport and the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah (AUI-S) into the city. Dominating the skyline, albeit against the mountains that hold the city in a crucible, is one of Iraq’s tallest buildings, still under construction now. The Shary Jwan project will be a 5 star hotel and is part of the Farouq Holdings business empire that includes the leading mobile network, Asiacell and other interests including a cement factory. Construction is rampant in Kurdistan, with ‘villages’ of high-rise residential buildings being cemented into available space in the major cities. Although this phenomenon is especially prevalent in the capital Erbil, others such as Duhok, Kurdistan’s third largest city which lies near the Turkish border, is no exception to this construction boom. Indeed, the vogue appears to have been imported from across the northern border.

Concrete is not the preserve of the cities though, and government grants mean that most new houses in the rural areas are also concrete, the traditional brick and mud structures becoming an ever rarer sight. These urban villages, like many new businesses, are often named after nationalities which give the names of countries that provided refuge for those that fled Saddam Hussein – and later, the Kurdish civil war – before returning. In the mid to late 1980s, up to 180,000 Kurds were estimated to have lost their lives as a result of Saddam’s genocidal ‘Anfal’ campaign, with as many as 5,000 killed in the 1988 gas attack on Halabja alone.3 After a no-fly zone was established during the first American led war in the early 1990s, the promise of Kurdish autonomy was derailed by a senseless internal conflict between the Barzani-led Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), under the control of former ally and current Iraqi president, ‘Mam’ Jalal Talabani.

Although the Kurdish region is now free from warfare, remnants of the past continue to affect relations with wider Iraq. This is best symbolised in Kirkuk, where security of the city switches between Iraqi federal forces and the Peshmerga (literally, “Those That Face Death”), the Kurdish former guerrilla fighters who are now the de facto security force in KRG. Kirkuk is an Arab/Turkman/Kurdish mixed city, and a reporter friend of mine tells me that ethnicity is not the root of trouble there, rather it is the desire to control the oil and gas deposits.4 Here, a large percentage of the expat community is involved in the oil and gas sector, with the KRG’s proven oil reserves put at 45 billion barrels – nearly double that of America.5 Fractious relations with Baghdad can be traced to the question of ownership of these reserves, with a substantial portion of the KRG budget still drawn from the federal capital. Naturally, the south wishes to share in the wealth being generated in KRG, and equally understandably, the semi-autonomous Kurds are keen to enjoy some financial security and independence.

But for now, conflict resides in the past as the KRG government looks to cash in on its new found wealth and independence and try to attract more tourists. Kurdistan currently is a growth market; whilst there is little in the way a mid-range option, there are many independent travellers passing through, and at the exclusive end of the market, tours can cost $500 per day and more.

Without doubt, spring is the time of year to visit, and the Newroz (Kurdish new year) festival on the equinox is a joyous celebration, lit with flaming torches and sustained by the picnics that are ubiquitous at that time of year; the summer becomes uncomfortably hot, with 50C not unusual in Erbil, whilst Sulaymaniyah is typically 3 or 4 degrees cooler. Here, weekends in the spring and autumn will often involve a hike. In the summer, temperatures stifle the prospects of a long walk, but whilst the water remains high enough after the rains of the early part of the year, wild swimming is a great joy6.

However, the thing that gives me joy more than anything else here; more than the excellent hiking through springs and rivers, more than the sweet tea and rich dolma, more, even, than the education I’m receiving, is the people.

The transition from Russia to a much more conservative Middle East was not as strange as one might imagine; it took some time to meet other expats, but in the meantime Kurds took me to their hearts. I even had a Russian student, so I was able to learn an extra word or two. I work for AMIDEAST, an excellent organisation that promotes good relations between the US and Middle East and North Africa countries. My greatest challenge has been teaching American English (pronunciation mostly, the odd dropped ‘u’ and the like bother me little). My main responsibility has been to provide archaeologists and conservators with a working knowledge of the language for more effective fieldwork communication, with the bonus of once more getting an education.

Kurds are extravagantly hospitable, and a simple offer of tea, when accepted, is sure to become at least a meal. Most families have a dark recent history, and in time you might find this tragedy shared, but more likely you’ll find yourself holding hands and jiggling your shoulders in a line as you dance away the last kebab, sun glinting from the silver and gold on the dresses. Just look at the Kurdish flag, and you’ll see that dawn is finally breaking for the Kurds in Iraq.

Luke Coleman is an English teacher currently based in Iraqi Kurdistan. For further comment and analysis, follow him at: www.lukecoleman.co.uk and @littleletters

For an alternative perspective on life in contemporary Iraq, read Ghadeer al-Safi’s article ‘Healing through diversity‘.

1 http://www.theotheriraq.com/ [Accessed 17/07/2013] return to main text
2 ‘Erbil Citadel’, UNESCO Tentative World Heritage List, http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5479/ [Accessed 17/07/2013] return to main text
3 ‘On This Day 1988: Thousands die in Halabja gas attack’, BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/march/16/newsid_4304000/4304853.stm [Accessed 17/07/2013] return to main text
4 Sebastian Meyer, ‘Violence on Rise in Iraq’s Oil-Rich Kirkuk Area’, Voice of America, 4 April 2013, http://www.voanews.com/content/violence_on_rise_in_iraq_oil_rich_kirkuk_region/1635053.html [Accessed 17/07/2013] return to main text
5 ‘Peace, Harmony and Oil’, The Economist, 20 April 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21576394-despite-assertions-contrary-iraqs-kurds-are-inching-towards-outright [Accessed 17/07/2013] return to main text
6 http://vimeo.com/69812851 return to main text

Kurdish national flag has been raised for the first time abroad with an official ceremony attended by over 100 guests. The flag has been lifted in front of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Mission to the EU in Brussels on 31 May 2012 by Carlos Kurdi, Head of the KRG Mission.

Women perform a traditional dance at a Kurdish wedding reception outside Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

Erbil refinery.

Newly built shopping centre in Erbil.

Dr. Adil Karem, director of the Halabja Martyrs Hospital, in his office. Halabja was attacked by chemical weapons in 1988 and the public health effects are still being discovered.

Citadel of Erbil.

One of three damaged tanks displayed beside the road north-east of Erbil, remnants of a battle in 1991 between Saddam Hussein’s government forces and Kurdish rebels; one of their victories that helped secure their later autonomy.

Gali Ali Beg gorge, close to the Iranian border.

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All writers' views in articles are their own and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Asfar team.

Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)