I arrived in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in Iraq, on Friday the 19th of September.
Arbil International Airport is small, but has everything an airport needs. In fact it reminded me of a toy airport that someone had made bigger.
The city is located a few miles south-east of the airport, which lies in the middle of what looked to me like a military zone. We passed several checkpoints on the way out (and a week later on the way in).
Arbil is not a small city. In fact it has a population of nearly 3 million and offers everything a normal city usually offers, including supermarkets. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Everything was just a bit too normal.
There was much traffic on the streets everywhere, and most houses older than a few years look like they have been under fire for a few decades (which they have been). Only buildings built after 2003 look really nice.
There are Kurdish flags everywhere. The Iraqi flag also flies, but only the new type flag without the three stars. The flag with the stars symbolised pan-Arabism, a concept the Kurds, like other middle-eastern minorities, do not support. (The Egyptian flag had one star, the Syrian flag two; Iraq’s had three, but now has none.)
The three-star-flag was illegal in the Kurdish region for a while, the new national flag is now accepted.
I mentioned supermarkets. Everything reminded me of Israel, including the street signs with English and Arabic (actually Kurdish) writing and the choice of foods in the supermarkets.
It shouldn’t have surprised me, but the supermarkets in Arbil do have everything. This one also contained a pharmacy. And they had diet 7-up. You don’t expect to find diet 7-up in Iraq, do you?
It’s not obvious from the photos but Iraqis really like sweets. All the supermarkets had a huge selection of small sugary cakes.
They do sell Danish butter. In fact it seems to be a favourite.
Most public buildings, government buildings and hotels, were surrounded by movable stone walls. Most of these walls featured paintings like the two below.
It is perhaps difficult to imagine what the people are like in the region, and perhaps I saw only what I wanted to see, but to me it seemed like absolutely everyone was super-friendly.
On the first evening I left my hotel and walked into a dark alley in the neighbourhood. I found a small shop where a middle-aged men sold sweets, sodas, and light bulbs (for some reason). Surprisingly, he did not speak English. But with a mixture of English (for things) and Arabic (for numbers) we managed to figure out what was going on.
I had US dollars and the man proposed that he change them into Iraqi Dinars. I agreed and he did. He looked up today’s newspaper, checked the exchange rate, and gave me 118,000 Iraqi Dinars for a 100 Dollar note I handed him. That was, according to my mobile phone, the exact exchange rate of the day. In fact he lost 20 cents in the deal.
I bought a soda and two small boxes of cookies from him, which cost less than 80 cents together, thanked him, and left.
A stupid tourist can walk into a dark alley in Iraq and won’t be mugged, won’t even be cheated.
A similarly positive thing happened to me when I took a taxi from the hotel to the “New City” supermarket. The driver, who spoke some English because he had studied sociology at the local Saladin University, was extremely happy to meet a tourist from Europe. He immediately greeted me as a friend and wanted to know if he could help me in any way.
As is customary in the region, especially during Ramadan, he asked me about my religion. (Muslims are usually happy to meet Christians because Islam acknowledges Christianity as a true religion.) I told him my religion.
He welcomed me again. He said he always wanted to meet a Jew. He had a Kurdish translation of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and was just studying it, but he had never met a Jew.
When we arrived at the supermarket he refused to take money from me because, as he said, I was a friend. But I convinced him to take the money (less than 4 dollars) for the ride. He gave me his email address and phone number and told me to call him if I needed a driver. (And I would have made use of the offer but I already had a driver/translator for my projects.)
The three most important cities in Iraqi Kurdistan are Arbil, Sulaimaniyya, and Dohuk near the Turkish border. Mosul and Kirkuk are also Kurdish cities, but are not (yet) part of the official Kurdish region. In Kirkuk the Kurdish militia and police are still fighting it out with terrorists. And from what I was told the Baathists (Saddam’s supporters) are building a militia in Tikrit which isn’t too far away either.
The whole situation is somewhat unstable and could easily collapse and return to pre-2003 conditions, with fights between militias and a civil war between Sunni and Shiite Arabs outside the Kurdish region.
Before 2003 Arbil was a regular target of Saddam’s attempts to regain power in the region. Now Arbil is too normal, a bit disappointing even.
Kirkuk is the Kurds’ Jerusalem, they say. The city used to be fully Kurdish but Saddam’s government has removed the Kurds and replaced them with Arabs. Today the city is ethnically mixed and the Kurds want it back.
Iraqi Kurdistan has not only Kurdish residents. Christians are fleeing the south and come to Arbil where there is a large Aramaic-speaking Christian quarter. Several people I talked to told me that they regret that Christians are not speaking “Christian” (Aramaic) as much as they used to. Kurds are surprisingly much into multi-culturalism.
I couldn’t take pictures of army checkpoints and armed police, but most street corners were guarded by Peshmerga soldiers with really big guns. They were all in uniform and had a Kurdish flag on the jackets and project safety more than they project danger.
Two days later I made my way from Arbil via Kirkuk to Sulaimaniyya. There were several checkpoints on the road and it surprised most people that a tourist would travel that far.
There are not many journalists either. Most journalists apparently sit in their safe hotels in the Green Zone in Baghdad and write stories about the rest of Iraq.
In the mean time most of the rest of Iraq is safer than the Green Zone.
It might sound arrogant but from what I have heard in Arbil and the region the war is something the Arabs do further south. It doesn’t really affect the Kurds much any more.