A tourist in Kurdistan – a trip in Iraq
By Ben Dirs
The first thing you notice about Kurdish men is their hair. Such boastful hair, like great plumes of chimney smoke. A symbolic statement? “Yes, we’ve got some bad stuff going on around here. But we’ve still got better hair than you.”
For a man whose own hair is staging a race between bald and grey, it is a humbling sight. There is much that is humbling about Kurdistan, not least the unquenchable spirit of its people. A people without a country to call their own; a people whose tormentors deny they are even a people; a people whose cuisine veers between the bland, the beautiful and the terrifying.
A welcome dinner?
My brother, Nick, had taken up a teaching post in Erbil, Kurdistan and I was flying in for a visit. Northern Iraq isn’t your everyday holiday destination but I was surprised to find it was very much open for business. So there we were staring into a bowl of sheep’s head and intestines. Just the steam rising off it is making me queasy, as if its curling around my throat and slowly squeezing. The meat turns out to be quite tender, it’s just that it’s attached to a row of teeth. I think I’ve seen his face before, piled up next to a flock of his disembodied mates on a market stall. I put down my fork. My guide Karwan asks if I enjoyed it. I smile weakly. Karwan smiles back impishly. I think the sheep is smiling but it’s difficult to tell. This is going to be no ordinary trip…
In Machko Chai Khana, cut into the southern wall of Erbil’s ancient Citadel, Karwan orders up a couple of teas, asks the waiter to prime a hookah pipe and we get plumbed in for a spell of people watching. This is the life. Surrounded by portraits of actors, singers and politicians and squeezed between old men smoking furiously, it’s how I imagine a Soho pub in the 1950s. A man in traditional Kurdish get-up plonks himself down, says something to Karwan and they both start chuckling. “He says,” says Karwan, “that if you smoke too much hubbly-bubbly, your penis will stop working.” We laugh and laugh before I replace the pipe in its cradle and request the bill.
Outside Qaysari Bazaar, one of the oldest covered markets in the world, a man is standing on a box, shouting and gesturing wildly. After a couple of minutes, he has drawn a crowd of at least 100 people. Some laugh, some jeer and, of course, everyone films on their phone. Karwan tells me he is a famous comedian, denouncing President Barzani and threatening to burn himself to death the following day at 10am, unless the government promises to make economic reforms.
He adds that he’s probably just pissed. But the impromptu demonstration is instructive nonetheless: Barzani, whose ubiquitous presence looks a lot like a cult of personality to a visitor’s eyes, is not above criticism.
Time to break free of the city, so we jump into Karwan’s taxi and head for the hills. On our way out of Erbil, we pass great swaths of white tents where refugees are sheltered. Kurdistan was experiencing something of an economic miracle until ISIS turned up in 2013 but now it is as if someone has pressed pause and rewind. ISIS have been forced back to Mosul but foreign investment has dried up and the economic situation has indeed become precarious.
A quiet tourist trail
I Karwan, one of the few independent guides in the region, is ticking over but tourists aren’t exactly flocking to Erbil’s proud new airport. Paris has experienced as many terrorist attacks as Erbil in the last few years, but perception is more powerful than reality. Kurdistan is open for business – visitors don’t even require a visa – but for many Kurds, life is on hold. As an out-of-towner, it is advisable to travel with a guide for both language, geography and safety reasons.
Karwan sticks on some traditional Kurdish music (I can’t place the signature instrument but I imagine a Kurdish Rick Wakeman cutting loose), the ramshackle, breeze-block towns recede and we’re suddenly surrounded by great, grassy mounds, as if we’ve entered a seaside golf course for giants. The town of Shaqlawa is overlooked by the Safeen Mountain and home to some of the funkiest sweet shops since Willy Wonka opened his factory. Sausages made from milk and figs hang from the ceiling; barrels overflow with every kind of nut; sheets of dried apricot are stacked up next to punnets of conserve, so gooey and sweet your teeth ache just looking at it.
There are plenty of business hotels in Erbil but you can still find clean, cosy accommodation on the cheap. The Fareeq Hotel is situated in the predominately Christian neighbourhood of Ankawa and does the job quite nicely. I was intrigued to discover that the rise of drunkenness in the area isn’t down to the local Assyrian population but rather down to Muslims, who frequent the various bars before jumping into their cars and causing havoc.
Erbil is clearly not a place to hire a motor: there is no insurance and Karwan informs me that the driving test – for those who bother to take it – consists of parking on a hump on a hill, turning the engine off and hoping the car doesn’t roll backwards when you turn the engine on again. If it doesn’t, you’ve passed. Safe in that knowledge, we’re back on the road again. For breakfast, we stop off at a roadside cafe and order chicken kebabs. Pocket versions of the kebabs you might normally eat after nine pints, they’re just the thing to set you up for the day and better than a bowl of cornflakes, especially with red cabbage.
While I never felt unsafe in Kurdistan, there are constant reminders of conflict not too far way. Military jeeps whizz by, crammed full of Kurdish Peshmerga, and there are frequent checkpoints, although I am asked to show my passport on only a handful of occasions before being airily waved through.
There is snow on the road as we make our way up towards Rwandz, a city close to the Iranian and Turkish borders. But all the skidding and sliding proves worth it, because the views of the Rwandz Valley and Gorge are magnificent. During a short break for photos, I ask Karwan what he was saying to the checkpoint guard before we began our ascent. “He said we shouldn’t come up here without a four-wheel drive. But I wanted you to see everything.”
On Mount Korek, there are signs of what the region might become. A cable car ferries visitors to the top, where there is a nascent ski resort. The Kurds have been performing miraculous feats of engineering for years. The Hamilton Road, built between the two World Wars and which runs from Erbil to the Iranian border, crosses a handful of mountain ranges. But along the road are examples of the Kurdish tendency to want to beautify already beautiful things, as with the Gali Ali Beg waterfall, which probably dazzled for millions of years before someone decided to turn it into something resembling a waterpark.
Day three begins with a wander around Erbil’s bird market, which offers the wonder of pink doves and the horror of vultures in cages. There is further horror when I see cages full of starlings being wheeled through the streets. Karwan informs me they are a delicacy, although for the romantics out there they also serve a sweeter purpose: you can pay for their freedom and make a wish as they fly off.
A stop to shop
After a slap-up lunch at the famous Najar Kebab and a few brews in Mam Khalil’s tea shop, a cave of a place in the Qaysari Bazaar which doubles as a memorial to Mam Khalil himself, we have a wander around the Citadel, parts of which look suspiciously modern but which I’m reliably informed has been continuously inhabited for 8,000 years. With Karwan’s guidance I haggle a carpet seller down from $120 to $70 (US Dollars) before chucking the rug in the boot of Karwan’s taxi and heading off to Khinis.
A deep history
Built by King Sennacherib in 700BC, the rock reliefs include one of Sennacherib himself and were carved to celebrate the construction of a series of canals, which supplied the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. Archaeologists know all this because of inscriptions which are still visible, despite being chiselled into the rock 2,700 years ago. A winged bull, collapsed into the Gomel River, lends the site an air of dilapidation and it is apparent that the chap selling tickets on the gate doesn’t receive many visitors.
Overlooking the Christian town of Alqosh is the Rabban Hormidz Monastery, founded in about 640AD but abandoned in the 19th Century. Cut into the mountain are cells where hardy monks slept and studied scripture, while beneath where the altar would have been is an escape hatch. On receiving word that enemies were approaching, the abbot would have dropped into a secret passage, a potent symbol of the perils of religious practice in the region that exist to this day.
That evening a Peshmerga major and friend of Karwan invites us to his home for a leaving dinner. Over mounds of rice and chicken, lamb, naan bread and aubergine and tomato stew, Kak Ali regales us with tales from a life of fighting.
Kak Ali joined the Peshmerga when he was 13, was imprisoned for five years by Saddam Hussein and fought in the Kurdish civil wars of the 1990s. More recently, his sons have joined him in the fight against ISIS in the region.
On our departure, Kak Ali requests that I kiss my mum and dad from him. A lovely man.
En route to the airport, Karwan stops at a small hilltop fort. Halfway up, we find a small boy sobbing. Karwan says a few comforting words and ruffles his hair. When I ask why the boy is upset, Karwan points to the top of the fort, where a dove is perched. “He wants to catch the dove,” says Karwan. The dove promptly takes wing. It’s the story of Kurdistan. One day that boy will have hair like a great plume of chimney smoke. I just hope he has peace.
Find out more about travel in Kurdistan at the official tourism site of Kurdistan
Fly to Erbil with Pegasus Airlines, from Stansted via Istanbul (£288). Flight: nine hours