The Calm Within an Iraqi Storm

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February 13th 2013
Published: February 23rd 2013
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Images of charred remains, bloodied bodies and wailing survivors filled my television screen. BBC World was reporting yet another bombing in Kirkuk. I looked down at my computer screen where the payment page for my flight to Erbil in the Kurdish Region of Iraq was displayed. Erbil is a mere 100 kilometres from Kirkuk. I glanced again at the violent images on the screen, “Damn it,” were the only words to issue from my mouth. The mouse hovered above the payment button and with a slight movement of my finger, the button was clicked. I was going to Iraq.

Travelling to Iraq was the intention, but upon arriving at Dubai airport a few days later, I met with an unexpected and frustrating opponent – airline bureaucracy.
“Do you have a letter from the Iraq Ministry of the Interior”, declared the officious woman on the check-in counter.
“I don’t need one for Erbil” was my riposte.
“Yes, you do,” was her response.
“I do for Baghdad and Basra, but not for Erbil. Australian passport holders can obtain a visa on arrival for 10 days,” I confidently assured her.
She paused, but the following comment convinced me that victory would not be mine on this day.
“The system is saying that you can only get the visa if you have the letter from the Ministry of the Interior.” Any time an employee refers to a system or process as a third person, the battle is always lost.

After an hour of discussion, I was finally allowed to board my Qatar Airways flight to Doha, with my intention being to confirm the current situation with the Iraqi Embassy in Abu Dhabi prior to the connecting flight the following day. Early the next morning, I contacted the Embassy and two staff members confirmed that the letter was not needed, but it took a dozen telephone calls to finally locate and speak to the correct Qatar Airways representative at Doha Airport.
“I spoke to the Iraqi Embassy in Abu Dhabi and two staff members there said that I do not need the letter,” was the concluding line of my summary of events.
“Then you need a letter from the Embassy stating that fact,” was the response from a lady with a thick English accent.
“So I need a letter to show that I do not need a letter?” was my exasperated reply.
I suddenly felt as if I had stumbled onto a Monty Python skit.
“This is ridiculous.” I paused before pleading, “I can come to the airport and will call the Embassy from my phone and you can speak to them.”
“No, you must have a letter.”

The intransigence was infuriating, so I immediately cancelled the ticket. Qatar Airways are one of my favourite airlines, but they failed spectacularly on this occasion, especially as it has been years since Australians required any Iraqi Ministry of the Interior letter to travel to Erbil or anywhere in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

Next call was to Emirates, who correctly informed me that Australians did not require any such letter, and so I promptly booked a flight. Two days later I commenced my proposed journey to Iraq.

Having been shaken by my Qatar Airways experience, every control point during the journey was approached with a deal of anxiousness. Check-in at Doha passed with my bags being checked through to Erbil – a positive start. Boarding the plane, and transferring flights in Dubai all went smoothly. The plane was only a third full, with only a smattering of Europeans or Americans, all who seemed to be travelling for business. I watched with great excitement as the plane entered Iraqi territory (after having made a detour to avoid Iranian air space). A while after, the dangerous city of Baghdad passed beneath the plane, seemingly peaceful from this great height.

After the plane landed in Erbil, it was time to confront the ultimate test. The terminal was modern, with many pale coloured tiles ensuring an immaculate appearance. I approached Passport Control and gave a confident smile. The officer took the passport, and rifled through my pages with interest. This was taking longer than expected, and to further possible complicate matters, he expressed surprise that the purpose of my visit was tourism. After scanning my fingers and thumb for identification, I heard that distinctive thud of a visa stamp being imprinted on my passport. Success is mine!

I passed quickly through baggage, customs and hurriedly approaching the exit, a short Kurdish man prevented my passage by pointing a gun-shaped thermometer to my head (I had previously experienced this unnerving practice in North Korea). He nodded in approval, so quickly swept past
Flight map shows the plane in Iraqi airspaceFlight map shows the plane in Iraqi airspaceFlight map shows the plane in Iraqi airspace

Note that the route avoids flying over Iran.
him, and with all control points behind me, I punched the air in exalted triumph – I was in Iraq! That evening I sent a rather long email to Qatar Airways requesting a full refund of my ticket due to their error, and enclosing a photo of my Iraqi visa and boarding pass to labour the point.

Outside of the airport was characterised by a cool wind and heavily clouded skies. Private vehicles cannot approach the terminal, so I boarded a shuttle bus to take me to an external taxi rank and was soon in a rather dishevelled taxi being carried along the wide, smooth paved road lined with all manner of buildings in seemingly good condition. Everything appeared remarkably calm compared to the troubled, turbulent impression that Iraq has amongst Western eyes. Even the traffic was moderately civilised and quiet compared to some Middle Eastern countries – there was no cacophony of horns in these streets.

The journey saw me pass numerous green, white, red and yellow flags of Kurdistan, by comparison, the Iraqi flag was rarely seen. The Kurdish region of Iraq is considered to be autonomous, which means that they have their own government, military,
View from my plane seat to the Iran/Iraq borderView from my plane seat to the Iran/Iraq borderView from my plane seat to the Iran/Iraq border

This was on the return journey to Dubai.
police, media, education system, and flag, in addition to their own language. Residents here would proudly welcome me to Kurdistan (as defined by the Kurdish populated areas of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran), it was rare to be welcomed to Iraq.

The traffic became increasingly congested as we approached the citadel, that towering jumble of buildings that look down from a steep hill upon the centre of the city. Supposedly, this citadel has been inhabited for 8000 years, thus making it one of the longest continuous settlements on earth. However, only one family remains as the lack of maintenance and water erosion has seriously damaged the mudbrick buildings, necessitating a massive reconstruction effort.

With the traffic proceeding no further, I paid the driver and began my search for accommodation. There were some fairly decrepit options on offer, especially considering the price, but finally settled at the comfortable Kotri Salam, where my room overlooked the city. At sunset, prayer calls from the numerous mosques in the area seemed to respond to each other as their words of praise echoed off the buildings.

The next day, I sallied forth into Erbil (also known as Arbil or Hawler) and discovered
My visa on arrival and boarding pass to IraqMy visa on arrival and boarding pass to IraqMy visa on arrival and boarding pass to Iraq

I sent this photo to Qatar Airways who denied my boarding.
a side of Iraq that you will never see in the media, and it was the same Iraq that nickkembel wrote about in his excellent blog, The New Iraq, that inspired me to travel here. There were only a few security forces to be seen, and those that were on view walked nonchalantly and even would acknowledge a smile if they met your gaze. There were almost no security checkpoints in the city, a sign of the safety with which the Kurds consider their environment.

The Qaysari Bazaar on the south side of the citadel had all manner of goods on offer: clothes, shoes, fabrics, plants, and furniture to name a few. The Bazaar was a jumble of different styled shopping areas; some bright, others dingy. One would see women walking in groups, who universally wore the face showing hijab, few wore black, with most opting for a variety of different colours and patterns. I saw only very few of the face-covering niqab. The men more often walked alone, but they tended to congregate in tea houses, eating establishments and other public areas.

I soon discovered that a journey of any distance would be a prolonged affair due to the frequent requests to stop for a chat and sometimes to share a tea. Others would entreaty me to take their photograph, or they wished to pose with me in front of their Smartphone or camera. My route through the Bazaar, onto the park and finally to the citadel took approximately three hours, whereas I would have been able to walk the same route without interruption in less than an hour.

A taxi journey to the suburbs saw me meet a fellow Couchsurfer, Amer. He is co-founder of the RISE Foundation whose vital work is to help some of the 70,000 Syrian refugees who have fled the violence of their home country, and are now struggling to commence a new life in the Kurdish region of Iraq. We sat, chatted about life, and smoked a vanilla sheesha – what a fine way to end a day.

Amer drove me to my hotel, and as it was now nightfall, I was unprepared for the sudden drop in temperature, so hastily made my way to the nearby roast chicken shop. I settled to enjoy a lovely chicken with rice, beans and flat bread when a man with beige coloured eyes motioned for me to join him so that I would not eat alone. It so transpired that Maher and his brother (who shared that same striking eye colour) were Iraqi and were also visiting Erbil. Maher was proud of his Iraq, and we chatted about his country, my travels and our personal lives. It was a warm, engaging encounter that had me leave the restaurant with a smile on my face.

My first full day in Erbil revealed two distinct impressions: first that the city felt extremely safe; and second, that the hospitality of people – both Kurdish and Iraqi – verged on being overwhelming; but this was only a precursor to the exceptional kindness lavished on me during the following days.

Update: On 4 April 2013 Qatar Airways refunded the unused portion of my ticket and waived any cancellation charges. In their email to me they stated that "Our local airport office had confirmed that you can get visa on arrival if arriving in Erbil." Thus it appears Qatar have now corrected their previous incorrect position. A satisfying outcome to my dispute with them.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


100 metre street - Erbil, Kurdish Region, Iraq100 metre street - Erbil, Kurdish Region, Iraq
100 metre street - Erbil, Kurdish Region, Iraq

The quality of the streets in Erbil was very high.
Friendly faces at the Qaysari Bazaar - Erbil, Kurdish Region, IraqFriendly faces at the Qaysari Bazaar - Erbil, Kurdish Region, Iraq
Friendly faces at the Qaysari Bazaar - Erbil, Kurdish Region, Iraq

Thannon (left) is a local shopkeeper, and Arsalan (beautiful name) on the right is from Iran.
Exchanging currency - Erbil, Kurdish Region, IraqExchanging currency - Erbil, Kurdish Region, Iraq
Exchanging currency - Erbil, Kurdish Region, Iraq

These men requested me to take this photo of a supposed transaction.
Intense man - Erbil, Kurdish Region, IraqIntense man - Erbil, Kurdish Region, Iraq
Intense man - Erbil, Kurdish Region, Iraq

He demanded I take his photo, and there was no way I could refuse.

23rd February 2013

Thanks for helping me to relive my trip
Sounds just like it was when I was there, with the addition of smartphones. I look forward to reading about the rest!
24th February 2013

Thanks for inspiring me to go!
There were so many stores selling smartphones, it is no wonder that many people have them. In addition, the Kurdish people were very fond of Facebook - I'm sure that there is a link between the two.
23rd February 2013

Wot no Baskins & Robbins ice cream???
Great blog Shane! It's interesting to see that how sometimes, our preconceived ideas of what a country is really like can be so completely and utterly wrong. I look forward to reading more :)
23rd February 2013

Great Blog!
Erbil was somewhere I toyed with the idea of going a while back. I wish I had now.
23rd February 2013

I've really been looking forward to this blog every since you said you were headed to Iraq. I'm glad you got through the ludicrous cyclical mess at the airport and managed to arrive at your destination! It's wonderful reading about people's generosity and can't wait to learn more from your experience.
24th February 2013

Kurdish Generorsity
If the generosity was impressive after the first full day, the following week was incredible - I've never experienced anything at that level before. The next two blogs will contain more details.
24th February 2013
Amer (from RISE Foundation) and I share a sheesha - Erbil, Kurdish Region, Iraq

Having heard your dreams & plans to enter Iraq when we were together in Vietnam, I am delighted you persisted...and got there. Even pleased for you there were you thus learnt how to unlock the doors...and be rewarded for your determination. Your hand pump said it all. Looking forward to hearing what other doors you have what to many is a closed country. Keep smiling Shane & keep safe.
24th February 2013

Persistence is the key to success
We are thrilled to read your blog and get a glimpse of your adventure. Sounds like you've been welcomed with open arms. Love the photo with Amer. Glad Nick inspired you to travel to Iraq. Hopefully your refund will be coming from the airlines.
25th February 2013

a real adventure...
looking forward to reading about the rest of your time in Iraq, and how you get on with the refund from qatar airways! safe travels :)
25th February 2013

WOW another wonderful adventure
Hello PH I see you are enjoying another wonderful adventure. I do so enjoy reading all about it. (But I don't think I will ever visit!) L GG
27th February 2013

beautiful pictures as always. glad you made it to iraq somehow :) looking forward to reading about your speaking engagements ;) keep safe. x

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