The Middle East's best kept secret - Iraqi Kurdistan
The immigration officer reappeared balancing a tray of hourglasses brimming with syrupy tea. The Ibrahim Khalil border crossing - the overland gateway from Turkey to the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan – was not what I had expected. There was no jostling of sweaty elbows or interrogation at the hands of scary men in reflective aviators. Instead I let the polar breeze from the air-conditioning wash over me and waited for my next refill.
Several shots of tea later, my passport was returned. I flicked through to admire the new wet stamp: “Republic of Iraq Kurdistan Region”, and underneath, “You have to visit Directorate of Residence within 10 days”. Having previously experienced the comedic inefficiency of Middle Eastern bureaucracy I decided to avoid the Directorate and set out to squeeze my trip into the allotted ten days.
From the border the taxi we had commandeered in Turkey raced across the mountain range towards Dohuk, travelling along one of the busiest trade routes out of Iraq. The driver slalomed between cargo trucks, the landscape passed in an unspectacular beige blur as dusk set in.
Dohuk finally emerged in a constellation of neon lights. I unfolded my limbs from the passenger seat and drifted zombie-like towards the smell of smoking meat. Revived by the fluffy Kurdish bread and tangy gherkins I contemplated my destination. There is not much of interest to the tourist in Dohuk, it is however a good place to reflect on the unlikely eventuality that you are chewing on a kebab in one of the world’s most war-ravaged countries. Yet Iraqi Kurdistan is an oasis of calm amongst its warring neighbours. Welcome to the Middle East’s best kept secret.
The next morning I headed towards Lalesh, a fairytale village nestled in the hills separating Dohuk and Mosul. Even its name has an enchanting ring to it, meaning source of light and brightness. Its whimsical turrets certainly reflected a dazzling white light.
The tiny village is a holy site and refuge for the Yazidis, a minority sect who have suffered a long history of persecution. Yazidi faith marries elements of Christianity and Islam but their patron deity is an archangel, represented as a peacock. Inside the sanctuary pillars are swathed in textiles as colourful as the deity’s feathers, tied in knots, each knot signifies a wish, when untied by another pilgrim the wish is said to come true. Visitors pad around barefoot. Shoes are banned throughout the village which adds to the earthy magic of the place.
Shoes back on. Hurrying along my whirlwind itinerary I was in Erbil by nightfall. This is the regional capital and it has a regal air about it, the renovated citadel towers above the central square. A colossal statue of an eleventh century historian stares vacantly down from the ramparts. The city pulsates with the throng of merchants and customers falling over eachother in the congested bazaar.
Despite the chaos the bazaars of Kurdistan provide a strangely blissful shopping experience. No tourist touts. No singing mosque alarm clocks! Allow yourself to be swept along by the crowd, past sheep’s cheese swimming in buckets and pomegranate seeds piled high, translucent like rubies. Sulaymaniyah’s bazaar beats the rest, worthy of a few days on the itinerary to get lost in its beating heart.
Away from the bazaars Sulaymaniyah is also a sobering place. A short walk from the centre lies the Red Intelligence Museum. The museum is a former prison and intelligence headquarters used during the Saddam Hussein years. The courtyard is parked up with Soviet-era armoured vehicles and the dank cells speak of an appalling history. A reminder that not so long ago Kurdistan was far from being the safe haven it is today.
I left the cities behind and began the ascent into the mountains to the North. Vertigo. Acrobatic goats balanced along tight-rope cliff faces. The taxi zigzagging up hairpin bends and past peaks covered in snow.
The hospitality of the Kurds allowed for some wonderfully surreal experiences. There’s a tendency to focus on the downsides of travelling as a woman in the Middle East. Yet in many ways we have an advantage above men: we are the third gender, often treated as the ‘honorary man’. As a foreign woman you are often accepted into the male domain as well as the female quarters. The reverse is rarely possible for foreign male travellers.
I most starkly experienced this in Shaqlawa, a cool mountain retreat. Arriving on the eve of the religious celebration of Eid Al-Adha, I was invited to share in the festivities with a local family. Unbeknown to me the head of the household was a high ranking military commander, this became evident when he laid out his rifle collection on the livingroom floor! As I shuffled self-consciously in my chair the reception room filled up with a steady stream of village elders coming to pay their respects. Avoiding eye contact I focused my attention on perfecting the local custom of sucking tea through a sugar cube tucked behind my teeth. One old man stared at me whilst noisily slurping with his one remaining tooth. Soon two dozen men were assembled and I was the only woman.
Having survived the inner sanctum of male domestic politics I hurried towards the border. I arrived, on day ten, at the river Tigris which flowed beneath me marking the Turkish-Iraqi border.
(Erbil bazaar image courtesy of Martijn.Munneke)