Kurdistan: the other Iraq

May 28, 2011

So, I’m lying on a fluffy white duvet and surfing the flat-screen TV embedded in my hotel room wall. I’ve just finished a meal of Milanese risotto flavored with saffron, washed down with a glass of chilled pinot grigio. Through the window, I can see the twinkling lights of what claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, giving way to the darkness of the plains of northern Iraq.

That’s right. I’m in Iraq. In a five-star hotel. With Italian wine and Italian food, cooked by a real Italian chef. There are buckets of iced champagne sitting on the bar downstairs, and a Bulgarian pianist is playing classical music in the marbled lobby. It’s just too un-Iraq to be true — and in some ways it’s not true.

For this isn’t the real Iraq, the one where bombs go off and people are assassinated and the electricity is almost never on. This is Kurdistan, the northern enclave that broke away from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and secured virtual autonomy from Baghdad following the U.S. invasion in 2003. It’s mostly safe, and much of it is beautiful, in some places spectacularly so. It’s populated not by Arabs but by Kurds, who claim European descent, speak their own language and are possessed of an unqualified love for all Americans.

It’s also old, with archaeological settlements dating back 9,000 years and remnants of a multitude of civilizations too numerous to list. Kurds like to promote it as “the other Iraq,” an acknowledgment that it is in fact part of that country. But as they will also readily tell you, they dream of independence in an expanded nation of Kurdistan reaching into Turkey, Syria and Iran.

And it is supposedly the hot new tourist destination of 2011, scraping in at No. 20 on National Geographic’s list of “20 best trips of 2011.”

I'm here to find out why.

It soon becomes apparent that the five-star Irbil Rotana Hotel is not the real Kurdistan, either. It’s a pinprick of Western-style luxury in a largely unspoiled land. Irbil’s spanking new airport, a cavernous structure of white steel and gleaming marble, speaks to Kurdistan’s aspirations to become a global destination for businessmen and tourists. Its rattlingly empty terminals suggest that there’s still a long way to go to fulfill those ambitions.

Here, travelers can obtain 10-day visas, which are not, however, valid for the rest of Iraq. And that raises one of the key challenges of any visit: figuring out where Kurdistan ends and the rest of Iraq begins. The borders between the region of Kurdistan and the rest of the country are hotly disputed, and it's not a good idea to stray beyond them into areas still prowled by insurgents.

Indeed, it’s a good idea to steer clear of any of Kurdistan’s borders, as three Americans who went hiking in the direction of Iran and were detained by Iranian soldiers in 2009 found out.

In addition to the risk of straying into hostile territory, travelers need to be aware of possible anti-government protests. Kurds recently underwent their own mini-version of an Arab Spring, with almost daily demonstrations in the region’s second city, Sulaymaniyah. Live ammunition was used against the demonstrators, and though the protest movement has now been crushed, the core grievances that caused it, including corruption and restrictions on free speech, have not been resolved. The unrest has severely dented Kurdistan’s claims of being an oasis of calm in a troubled region and undermined its boasts of democracy.

Kurds, however, know where the boundaries lie and where protests are likely to occur, so the best way to get around, short of joining an organized tour, is to hire local guides. Driver Ako Abdullah and Kurdish journalist Kamaran Najm are waiting for me at the airport, along with American photographer Sebastian Meyer, and we set out for Sulaymaniyah, a two-hour drive away.

Sulaymaniyah is what is known in Iraq as a “new” city, which means that it was built in 1784. It looks little like the flat, beige, monotonous cityscapes of Iraq so familiar from years of TV war coverage. Mulberry trees line the streets, snow-capped mountains glitter against a clear blue sky, and the bazaar is crowded with Kurds in the billowing pants and round caps that are the most visible signs of their distinctive culture.

We stop for tea at the legendary Sha’ab (People’s) tea shop, which is packed with men sipping glasses of piercingly sweet tea and shouting loudly while playing dominos. Apparently they are discussing such matters as poetry, art and politics, because this is the intellectual hub of a city that prides itself on its learning. The walls are lined with pictures of turbaned men who are famous poets, artists and writers.

There are also blurry, fading photographs of the pesh merga fighters, the onetime rebels who occupy a central role in Kurdish history and are key to understanding Kurdistan and its culture. They pose in baggy pants, carrying Kalashnikovs, in the snowy mountains where they took refuge to wage their guerrilla war against Hussein.

Their triumph came in 1991, after the Gulf War, when the Kurds revolted and ejected Iraqi forces. One of the fiercest battles was fought here in Sulaymaniyah, at what is known as the Red Security Building. It’s actually gray, but that’s the name it was given when it housed the offices of the dreaded Mukhabarat, Hussein’s intelligence service. The facade is still peppered with bullet holes, a reminder of the fierce fighting that took place as the pesh merga fighters closed in on the besieged Baathists inside.

Kurdish authorities have preserved the structure as testimony to the tyranny of Hussein’s regime and have turned the prison block where Kurdish dissidents were kept and tortured into a museum. The walls of one room have been embedded with the shards of mirrors, 80,000 in all, in an eerily evocative memorial to the estimated 80,000 victims of Hussein’s attempt in the late 1980s to wipe out the Kurds altogether.

Otherwise, little has been done to formalize the facility, except to strew a few authentically grubby blankets around the stone floors and install a smattering of life-size white plaster figures cast in postures of suffering.

It could be garish, but it’s not. There’s a raw immediacy to the dank, dark cells where prisoners were crammed by the score, and wandering through them, you can feel the misery and the squalor. In the interrogation room, a plaster man is strung by his wrists from the ceiling. Apparently there’s a truly terrifying recording of screams that plays when you press a button. But on the day we visit, it isn’t working.

Not forgetting Hussein is high on the agenda of the Kurds, who wear the suffering of their past with a mixture of pride and determination to guard against history’s habit of repeating itself.

To that end, they have also constructed an appropriately ugly museum memorializing one of Hussein’s ugliest deeds, in the town of Halabja, an hour’s drive southeastof Sulaymaniyah.

It was here, in 1988, that Iraqi warplanes dropped bombs packed with mustard gas and cyanide on Kurdish civilians, apparently to punish them for supporting the pesh merga. The museum features a diorama of plaster dead people and real stuffed animals based on scenes captured by news photographers, a wall inscribed with the names of the 5,000 or so victims and a video of the horrific injuries inflicted.

It’s a powerful reminder of the evils of Hussein’s regime, so easily forgotten in the chaos and bloodshed that followed the U.S. invasion. And it’s a reminder that despite the brutal efforts of Arab dictators to suppress the clamor for democratic change now sweeping the Middle East, none yet has come close to Hussein in the scale of atrocities committed against his own people.

But now it’s time to check out some of the more ancient aspects of Kurdistan’s heritage, so we head back to Irbil. Because it’s already dark, we have to skip the 9,000-year-old village of Jarmo, reputedly the oldest discovered site of human habitation in the world, though locals assure us that there’s nothing to see but a few holes in the ground.

The next day, we head northwest across the rolling plains of biblical Ninevah, where the pre-Christian Assyrian empire was based. Striking out across what appears to be an empty field, we encounter the half-buried remains of an Assyrian aqueduct at the site of Jerwan. Built about 3,000 years ago, it lies alongside a definitely modern minefield planted by Saddam’s army.

The minefield, mercifully, is marked by rows of upside-down red triangles on sticks. The ruins bear no sign identifying them as an important archaeological site, and we clamber over them, running our fingers over the cuneiform inscriptions left by the workmen of a forgotten civilization, who constructed what is reputed to be world’s oldest aqueduct.

Heading north into the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, we pass a growing number of pointy, conical structures, signifying that we are closing in on our next destination — Lalish, the spiritual capital of the obscure and much threatened Yazidi religious minority.

One of the lures of Kurdistan is its diversity; most Kurds are Sunni Muslim, but there are also sizable minorities, including Christians of various ancient denominations. The pointy cones are graves and temples belonging to the Yazidis, who claim to be the original inhabitants of the land.

Lalish is where they believe the world began, where Adam (without the help of Eve), gave birth to man and where Noah built his ark, on the nearby peak of Mount Arafat. Their main temple, carved from a cave in the mountainside, is dedicated to a more modern figure, Sheikh Adi, known as the religion’s 12th-century “reformer.”

Inside it is dark and cold, but the walls and pillars are strung with brightly colored cloths which you can tie into knots while making a wish. Deeper in, alongside Sheikh Adi’s tomb, there’s another wishmaking opportunity. This time, you get three chances to toss a cloth onto a tall pillar. If you miss, you don’t get your wish.

The Yazidis seem to have a lot of rules. Lettuce is banned, as is the color blue — because it insults the sky, explains the shrine’s guardian, Baba Chawush, who invites us for tea in his home adjoining the temple. Yazidis pray five times a day in the direction of the sun, their holy day is Wednesday, and they venerate a peacock angel who stands at the right hand of God.

There’s more, some of it undisclosed, because for many centuries the Yazidis were a closed and secretive sect. But now they have concluded that their survival may best be ensured by opening up to the world. Tourists are welcome, and so are their probing questions, although you’re left with the impression that they aren’t quite telling you everything.

Another reason to visit Kurdistan is the spectacular scenery, and you don’t have to stray into dangerous territory to find it. Two hours northeast of Irbil lies the legendary beauty spot of Rawanduz, along a road that climbs improbably high into jagged peaks and winds perilously along plunging gorges.

Rounding one last peak, we come across the reason Iraqis flock to the area in the thousands during the summer months: a lurid amusement park perched on the mountainside, complete with a Ferris wheel and a contraption best described as a cross between a luge and a roller coaster, which sends you rocketing down the mountainside at breakneck speed in a little capsule.

On surrounding peaks is evidence of further development. Grand houses and holiday chalets painted pink, blue and lavender are springing up all around, suggesting that Kurdistan’s reputation as an unspoiled wilderness is in jeopardy. But my colleague Kamaran assures me that plenty of other beauty spots remain untouched.

Finally, it’s time to explore the Kurdish capital of Irbil, which claims to outrank Syria’s capital, Damascus, as the oldest continually inhabited city in the world by a few thousand years.

At first glance, there’s nothing old at all about this pancake-flat metropolis, whose squat beige structures give it a strong resemblance to most other Iraqi cities. Except that the streets are clean and freshly paved, and every other building, it seems, is either brand-new or under construction.

Irbil is in the throes of a massive economic boom, fueled by its proximity to the real Iraq. Businesses are flooding here to gain a foothold, and tourists from the rest of the country swarm here to shop in the rapidly proliferating malls and to eat and drink in safety at the restaurants, bars and outdoor cafes of Ankawa, a Christian suburb where alcohol is readily available.

For American travelers, the biggest draw is likely to be the ancient citadel, a vast walled city towering 90 feet above the traditional bazaar. I had assumed that its soaring ramparts were some form of defense, but David Michelmore, a British conservationist working at the site, explains that the citadel is high simply because so many civilizations have been layered atop one another. The earliest identified dates to the Uruk era in approximately 6000-4000 B.C.; the uppermost structures were mostly built in the 19th century under Ottoman rule.

In 2006, the last remaining residents were evicted to prepare for a massive restoration expected to last a decade. Michelmore envisages that once complete, it will resemble the exquisite walled city in Damascus, with the Ottoman-era homes converted into trendy restaurants and boutique hotels.

But sometimes, unrestored has its own charm. We stroll along the deserted cobblestone streets and wander into living rooms and courtyards that once belonged to now long-dead merchants and functionaries, admiring the elaborate murals and the elegant wood and stone carvings of a bygone era, when home decor didn’t come from Ikea.

That’s perhaps one of Kurdistan’s biggest attractions: that it’s still so untouched by the modern world. Yes, modernity is galloping at a furious pace into Irbil and beyond. But in three days of exploring, we haven’t encountered a single other tourist.

Where else in the world can you climb over 3,000-year-old ruins next to a minefield? Or sip tea with the adherents of an ancient religion?

And there’s certainly no place else in Iraq where you can toast the day's end with a glass of chilled pinot grigio.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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