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Published: October 25th 2009
For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
Before you read ahead, forget everything you know about Iraq.
The ancient Mesopotamian ruins of Ur and Nineveh, where civilization began and writing and law codes were invented, the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the purported location of the Garden of Eden, and capital city Baghdad are all scratched off my Iraq travel itinerary. I am going to the ‘New Iraq’, a relatively safe and stable, visually stunning, and quickly developing semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq, occupied by some of the friendliest and most hospitable people in the world.
My exposure to Iraqi people and culture actually began before I even entered the country. On a recent bus ride from Turkey to Syria, I shared a seat with Jabbar Hassan, a Baghdad resident returning from a holiday in Istanbul. A professor by trade, he spent hours ‘lecturing’ me on a host of topics, ranging from Islam to Middle Eastern history to electrical engineering. He insisted on filling my notebook with maps, contact numbers, and information for my upcoming journey. He also told me about life in Baghdad which, while having improved a
lot (according to him there is now only one bombing every 2-3 months, compared to 2-3 per day back in 2003), is still not safe for travel, and he showed me scars on his leg from when he lived through one of those bombings.
Disembarking at the bus station, there was a loud noise when somebody dropped a piece of luggage, and Hassan hit the ground covering his head. He was a little embarrassed, and said that when you are used to so many explosions, your instincts prevail over rationality.
A few weeks later and I am on my final bus ride in far eastern Turkey to Silopi, the border town where I will cross into Kurdistan, Iraq. But I don’t even make it to the border town. At Cizre, the second closest town, an eager taxi driver hops on to the bus looking for people to drive across the Iraqi border for 15$ a head, and I share his vehicle with an elderly couple, also from Baghdad and returning from holidaying in Turkey. The wife sits in the front and chain-smokes, asking me the usual questions (through her husband Mahmoud); where do I come from, what do
I do for a living, how much money do I make, why do I travel alone, and where is my wife? When I inquire with Mahmoud about the scars on his hand, he tells me he was wounded when he was in the Iran-Iraq war which ended 20 years ago, one of the bloodiest disputes of the last half-century, and he produces his Military Commander ID card.
Arriving at the border we drive right to the front of a lineup of hundreds, if not thousands of semi-trailers and our driver alights with our passports and races from window to window, jumping lines and filling out forms on our behalf, as we sit in the car chatting and fanning ourselves under the excruciating Iraqi sun. Moving on and we are greeted by a large ‘Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan’ sign which the armed guards eventually let me photograph, after initial refusals. I am then taken into a small room where my temperature is taken and I am asked where I am coming from (not quite the ‘interview’ that my guidebook told me to expect and I was quite looking forward to. I guess a few more travelers are filtering in these
days so they are not quite so shocked anymore). Then to another room full of local people where we are served cups of sweet black chay (tea) as we wait for our free visa and passport.
And that is it. I am in Iraq!
There are few public buses in this country, and they are not recommended for travelers because they sometimes stop in very dangerous cities lying just outside the borders of Kurdistan, such as Mosul and Kirkuk, where bombings and kidnappings are still commonplace. Therefore most travel is done by shared taxi, and at the local ‘garage’ drivers stand outside of their vehicles and shout destination names until they are full and depart.
Contrary to what I expect and very different from surrounding Middle Eastern countries, the taxis in Kurdistan are clean, new, expensive vehicles, and most highways are well paved and traffic moves along swiftly. Local taxi drivers are in fact maniacal lunatics behind the wheel who laugh in the face of death at every turn, speeding around sharp cliff-side corners in passing lanes, riding inches from the bumpers of other vehicles and laying on the horn in a manner that conveys, “Get the
fuck out of my way or I will run you off the road”, and all the while blasting shrill Kurdish music on the radio and talking on the their mobile at the same time. But if like me you have been on the road in the Middle East for a while, it is nothing really new, and believe it or not, you almost get used to it.
I arrive to pleasant Dohuk, the first major city as you enter Kurdistan from the north. Picturesquely situated at the base of a mountain, the first thing I note is that traditional Kurdish cityscapes are like a kaleidoscope of colors, in contrast to the white or earthy monotone villages that are seen throughout the Middle East.
Walking the hectic streets of Dohuk I take in the sights and smells that will form my environment for the next week; fruit juice stands with rows of blenders full of multicolored blended concoctions, pistachio ice cream, shwarma (donair), and my favorite of all Middle Eastern foods, falafel, which in Kurdistan comes in a fresh bun with tomato and cucumber and is flavored with a yellow curry sauce.
Kurdistan is a secular state and
Muslim restrictions are liberal for the region; in each city I visit I manage to find a little shop selling beer. Women wear brightly colored scarves, or none at all, and certainly not the chador.
The stylish local women also wear the same excessive amount of eyeliner that is common throughout the Middle East, but they also seem to whiten their faces, which produces a look that is ever more striking. Many men still wear the traditional Kurdish outfit, which I would describe as baggy MC Hammer pants with matching button up top, accentuated with a long twisted scarf that serves as a belt, and a skullcap, the colors of which denote the village that the wearer comes from and which is mostly concealed beneath a black and white patterned scarf wrapped around their head.
As I walk through the lively markets of the Dohuk old city, I get much less attention than I expected; I suspect that there are so few tourists in Iraq that people don’t even realize I am one. Sometimes as they pass me, they suddenly notice and their head shoots back at me at the last second, and then I hear giggles behind
me. There is just about no English here, and my wanderings lack the barrage of ‘hellos’ that is the norm in other countries. If I try to say hello to them, they just stare back with wide eyes.
My accommodation of choice in Dohuk is described in my book as the
backpacker hotel in Iraq. Except that I don’t see any other backpackers there, which will pretty much become a constant throughout my visit in the country. The cheapest rooms in Iraq go for about 15$, and generally include air con, TV, your own bathroom with squat toilet, and a mini-fridge. Electricity is still a major problem throughout Iraq, with regular power outs that always seem to happen when you have just finished writing a long e-mail, and the humming sound of generators forms the background soundtrack to your visit.
From Dohuk I make a day trip to a tiny mountain resort called Sulav, where I wander up a path to some small waterfalls, which would have been very serene had they not been so littered with trash. I then walk along the highway for a few minutes before a passerby stopped to give me a ride up
These children in seldom visited Amadiya were initially afraid of me, but once I started photographing them, they could not stop laughing!
to the next city, Amadiya, which is perched majestically on an immense cliff top ridge. The streets here are less congested and the village small enough that my presence is quickly noted by all and met with shocked stares as I wander through. A group of children seem afraid of me, but when I start photographing them they think it is hilarious and cannot stop laughing, fighting for who gets to pose for the camera next.
Just as I am about to leave I walk past a school as the students are finishing class and pouring onto the streets, and all eyes are on me, laughs coming from all directions. The biggest, most handsome, and obviously most popular student approaches me and pronounces, “You are coming to my home for tea”. 22 year old Riben Hddad escorts me down the street, with small mob of giggling younger students trailing behind, to his sunny front yard where we eat Kurdish desserts such as baklava and other sweet cakes, washed down with multiple cups of sweet tea. Before I leave he fills my backpack with fresh pomegranates and walnuts from the trees in his yards and he wraps up all the
leftover desserts in a bag for me to take.
We drive in his BMW to a small Christian village nearby to visit his friend’s family, where we are served a giant Kurdish lunch of fresh nan bread, stewed vegetables and rice dumplings. I have been told that to be invited to dine in an Iraqi home is a great honor, and as Riben drives me back to the taxi garage everything that just happened seems surreal; the kindness received by strangers in this country is overwhelming.
On the road again the next day and I am traversing most of Kurdistan by share taxi to get to Sulaymaniyah, described as the most modern and ‘westernized’ city in Iraq and about the same size as my hometown in Canada. En route we reach an intersection and turn right towards Mosul (one of those two dangerous cities I am supposed to avoid) instead of following the sign forward to our destination. My heart skips a beat. My plan was to not
get killed while visiting Iraq. But to my relief, we turn off in the right direction at another intersection about 20km before Mosul.
The route involves multiple checkstops, where
armed Peshmerga soldiers (Kurdistan’s military force) check the vehicle and wave us through. At one stop I am asked to get out. I carry my camera, guidebook and sunglasses, trying to look as much as possible like a tourist. A giant soldier looks through my bag and examines my passport, towering over me and standing very close, as other soldiers crowd behind him and to my side. He turns the passport up and down repeatedly, unable to read it, and asks me questions about my trip. I get the impression they are mainly just curious about me, and more than anything I suspect this soldier just wants to show off to the others that he can speak English, as he translates my answers to them. He looks at my guidebook and is impressed that it has a map of Kurdistan. And then with a big smile he takes off his shades and says, “Welcome to Kurdistan. Enjoy your trip”.
Closer to Sulaymaniyah and we drive right up to the edge of Kirkuk, the second dangerous city I am supposed to avoid. The highway skirts right around the city, and as I peer over the rooftops I am humbled; we
are used to seeing places like this on the news but not in real life. A large fire burns somewhere near the center and black smoke rises.
History has not been kind to the Kurdish people, being oppressed by the Turkish government and caught in the crossfire of the brutal Iran-Iraq war, at the end of which Sadam turned on them and committed acts of genocide, such as the chemical bombing of nearby Halabja, which killed over 5000 Kurds instantly.
In 1991 soldiers of the Kurdish Perhmerga army attacked and liberated the Amna Suraka, the center of the Iraqi intelligence Service in Sulaymaniyah where thousands of Kurds were imprisoned and tortured. Today it is open to the public as an open-air museum, with tanks, torture machines, prison cells, and building facades replete with gunshot holes on display. When I walk though the compound door the guard has to look for a set of keys to the museum entrance, and then I am assigned a guide who takes me through the site, explaining the many brutal framed pictures that decorate the walls. The pictures hide nothing. They are graphic and gruesome; contrary to the abstract terms used in the
media to describe atrocities, they show the truth of war. The tour finishes with a long hallway where mosaics of 182 000 glass shards decorate the walls, one shard representing each Kurdish death under Sadam, and 5000 bulbs light up the ceiling, one for every Kurdish village destroyed.
At the core of Sulaymaniyah is an enormous traditional market, 1.5 kilometers in diameter, where thick crowds push past endless stalls, and old men sit in parks playing with their rosary-like strings of beads. As I wander though taking pictures I am watched with suspicious eyes by the stationed soldiers, and more than once I am asked to produce identification.
Sulaymaniyah is not as ‘westernized’ as I had expected, though by Iraqi standards it is certainly at the forefront of modernization, and much of the city is under construction as new buildings, hotels, amusement parks and shopping malls go up. And I must admit I was a little shocked to see that boy-band style emo hair is going strong among the Kurdish youth, and I even spotted one legitimate skater kid on the street.
My final stop in Kurdistan is the capital city, Erbil. Along with Damascus, Aleppo and
Jericho, Erbil competes for the title of oldest living city in the world, and the ancient community that is found right inside the city’s castle-like Citadel is considered the oldest continually inhabited urban space in the world. Except that the local government recently relocated all the residents, save for one family so that they could maintain the title. As I wander through the ghost town above the city, I am watched very suspiciously and followed by armed soldiers, and when I try to veer down one of the side streets they quickly prevent me from doing so.
Just in front of the Citadel stands a brand new shopping mall, with signs proclaiming, “Nasdak: Constructing the Future”. The group of locals photographing the escalators at the entrance gives an indication that this is all very new and exciting for them. Western in it’s concept, but there are still a few major differences from malls back home: all the retailers are men, all the shoppers and loiterers are men, and all the shops that I see sell only men’s clothing. Also, the interior of the mall has the air of a traditional market; crammed hole in the wall shops, little space
for walking, groups of boys standing and smoking, and men sit on the floor in front of the shops selling goods from baskets. But intriguing nonetheless!
As I wander down a main street in Erbil, I decide to veer off into one of the residential alleyways. I am quickly surrounded by curious children, and once again at the children’s demand it quickly turns into an energetic and prolonged photoshoot, which is what I was secretly hoping for anyways. A few mothers hide in the entrances to their homes, initially suspicious of my presence. But as the volume of the children’s excitement rises, dirty hands grabbing at my camera, five year olds shouting out the handful of English words they know, the mothers decide that they want their infants to get their turn to be photographed as well, bringing them out, propping them up on the streets and pointing to my camera, pushing the hyperactive older kids aside. When I finally pull myself away, my best photos in Iraq taken in a matter of minutes, a wave of emotions overcomes me.
That evening I head to the city’s largest park, where locals gather in the evening, women wearing their
brightest colors and men their finest suits, to picnic in the grass, smoke sheesha, and stroll along the sides of the lake at the center. Men pay a small price to drive a motorboat up and down the miniature body of water, with barely enough room to drive straight for more than about 5 seconds, but they seem to love every one of those seconds. I sit on the grassy patio of a fine restaurant and observe the crowds at sunset as I drink bottles of Russian beer. Is this how you imagined Iraq?
My final day and I am in a taxi through a region with the most dramatic landscapes in all of the country, the Gali Ali Beg Canyon. In a few short hours we rise to an altitude of just under 2000m above sea level. The air is crisp and the views spectacular. I share my ride with two Iranian men headed the same way as me, and when we arrive to the Iraq-Iran border, which sees very few westerners, they help me through and pay for my onward taxi, foreshadowing the immense hospitality that will soon become the defining characteristic of my Iranian experience, but
that is a whole other story… For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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