|Viewed from the citadel, locals take an evening stroll in one of Erbil's central squares.|
Along with one colleague and one security guard, I flew on Iraqi Airways from Baghdad to Erbil, the administrative and commercial capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
"Kurdistan" itself is something of an imagined land, since the ethnic Kurds straddle the mountainous borderlands of northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, northern Syria, and northwest Iran. History never granted the Kurds their own country, but today they are working hard to carve something like a nation out of Iraq—and to distance themselves from their Arab countrymen.
Iraq's Kurds bore the brunt of Saddam Hussein's brutality for decades, and developed their independent streak in response. During the 1990s, the Kurds suffered not only under the
international sanctions which Saddam had earned for the country by invading Kuwait, but also under an internal set of sanctions which the dictator imposed exclusively on Kurdistan (as punishment for a rebellion, I was told).
Cut off from their Arab countrymen for years, the Kurds essentially struck out on their own, developing their own government and de-Arabizing their society. Besides Kurdish, the middle-aged and elderly in Erbil speak Arabic—a result of their schooling in the old united Iraq—but the young generation was raised on an all-Kurdish curriculum. Today, many kids here can speak more English than Arabic.
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Economically, the Kurds suffered heavily under Saddam's sanctions. Qasim, a Kurdish journalist about my age who served as our translator for several meetings in Erbil, told me the city "just used to be a big dirty village."
Since Saddam's ouster in 2003, the Kurds have been busy turning that village into a modern metropolis. Today Erbil is Iraq's third largest city, and is enjoying a construction boom. New skyscrapers, modern hotels, and high-end shopping malls are rising all around town, joining the traditional structures—covered markets, a medieval citadel, and Turkish-style mosques with pencil-thin spires.
Thanks to an airline glitch, we enjoyed several extra days in Erbil, giving us an opportunity to explore the city and its surroundings.
"Exploring" was still done in a convoy of armored cars, though we no longer had to wear the body armor and helmet that were standard issue in Baghdad, and we could walk the streets in the company of our Kurdish security detail. Company security policy wasn't negotiable, but to me, Erbil looked every bit as safe as the Syrian towns I had spent a summer poking around, and certainly seemed a world away from Baghdad. (On a side note, the Kurds look down on Iraq's violent capital as much as we did. Sitting with Qasim one afternoon, I remarked that, thanks to Kurdistan's strong foreign ties, "From here it's easier to fly to Stockholm than to Baghdad." Qasim cracked up, then sputtered, "Yeah, but why would anyone here want to fly to Baghdad?!?")
Between meetings and during our free days, we drove to sites in and around Erbil. First, we explored the citadel that towered over the city center, a traditional textile museum, and a wide square filled with churning fountains and sharply-dressed evening strollers.
On Friday, we drove north from Erbil, through verdant farmland where families picnicked beside the roadway, to the small village of Shaqlawa (شقلاوه in Kurdish). There we ate lunch with the Kurdish guards—communicating everything through gestures or the broken translations of the lone English-speaker among them. We wandered through the town's afternoon market, sampling honey, dried figs, pomegranate syrup, tamarind paste, brick-oven breads, local olive oil, dates, and almonds.
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For me, one of the greatest curiosities in Erbil was the Kurdish language—spoken by everyone in the streets and written on all the street signs, billboards, and shops. Because Kurdish is written with Arabic script, I was able to read it without difficulty, but couldn't comprehend a word (in the same way that an English speaker can read Spanish words but not understand their meaning). From the calligraphic style, I guessed that Kurdish was influenced by Farsi, and later learned that the two languages evolved from the same linguistic family, wholly separate in origin from Arabic.
The Kurds share more than mere linguistic bonds, however, with their Farsi-speaking neighbors in Iran. Iraq's Kurds spent the decade of isolation from their compatriots strengthening commercial ties with Iran and Turkey. Today, those bonds arguably remain stronger than their allegiance to Baghdad. At the same time that they enjoy good relations with their Iranian cousins, many Kurds adore Tehran's greatest enemy, the Bush administration, for toppling Saddam—just another reminder of the complexities of this country's politics.
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Late one afternoon, our security guards took us to the Erbil Speed Center, where we zoomed around a racing circuit in rented go-karts, powered by dual lawn-mower engines. After a half hour of whipping around the track, we were hopped up on adrenaline and chattering like a band of giddy teenagers. Language was no obstacle as we reminisced about wild turns, out-of-control spins, and one guard's full-speed collision with a barrier of stacked car tires. Poking fun at the tentative driving of my colleague, the Kurds clicked their mouths and mimicked the clip-clop of a trotting donkey.
The next day, the Kurdish guards took us to the shooting range in the hills outside Erbil where they train. The Kurds and our security team leader (a former Special Forces sniper in New Zealand) walked my colleague and me through the weapons on hand and how to fire them. We shot a Glock pistol, MP5, AK-47, and a Belgian FN. (The weight of this last one left my arms shaking after just a few seconds of unsteady firing.) We finished off with a shooting contest against our Kurdish friends, in which I managed to hit one of the water bottles propped on a dirt barrier 50 meters away. But mostly I was just happy at having made it through the first shooting experience of my life without putting a hole in myself.
For five days, I could not have felt further from Baghdad.