x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The other Iraq: travelling in Kurdistan

Feature Erbil in Kurdistan looks to reverse its fortunes by becoming the next tourist hot spot in the Middle East.

An imposing statue of an ancient poet is seated in front of the Erbil Citadel.
An imposing statue of an ancient poet is seated in front of the Erbil Citadel.

Say Iraq, and roses probably don't come to mind. But thousands of the pink and red blossoms fill parks in the northern city of Erbil in Kurdistan, which brands itself as "the other Iraq" and is preparing for its own surge of tourists and business travellers. Rose gardens and water fountains fill the city's central Minaret Park, so-called after the 12th-century Mudhafaria Minaret inside. When I visited in late November, thousands of locals strolled the walkways, chatted on park benches, or smoked narghile on the pavement cafe. Atop a temporary pool of water, children squealed as they tumbled inside large inflated balls.  

Across the street, past a "no guns allowed" sign, people strolled around another green park and stopped inside its art gallery, the first gallery in the country, according to the director, Hawkar Rskin. A series of paintings on the theme of violence against women had attracted more than 1,000 people in the previous 24 hours, he said, and hundreds of the gallery's paintings have sold to western buyers since the gallery first opened last year. 

Erbil, a park-filled, fountain-lined city, is Iraq's fourth-largest after Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. Wide ring roads provide quick access to some of the country's biggest construction projects, including an international airport with runways to accommodate large aircraft such as the Boeing 777 or Airbus A380. Already, direct flights to Erbil run from Amman, Beirut, Dubai, Istanbul, Oslo, Stockholm and Vienna. Attracted to Erbil's relative stability and security, western companies are investing in malls, hotels and business centres, and numerous travel agencies already offer package holidays to the region. 

"Private sector investment across a wide range of sectors in the region now totals more than US$16 billion," Samer Al Majali, the chief executive of Gulf Air said when the carrier launched direct flights from Bahrain in October of last year. "These are all clear signs that this region means business." I entered Iraq by land and without a travel agency, getting a free-of-charge visa stamp at the border. From Silopi, in the Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey, my girlfriend and I took a taxi 25km south to the dusty border town of Zakho, in northwestern Iraq, crossing through Turkish and Iraqi customs within an hour. Out of sheer curiosity, we eagerly accepted the offer from the Iraqi in our taxi to celebrate Eid the next day with his family in Erbil, 200km south-east. 

Our taxi cruised at 120kph over newly paved roads, with snow-capped mountains to the north and flat farmland and desert stretching south. Bunkers appeared above the roadside and soldiers stopped our car at periodic security checkpoints. At one, a Kurdish officer peered into the driver's window, eyed me and my girlfriend, and said, "I think they're terrorists with Muqtada al Sadr." Everyone laughed. When our taxi passed the turn-off to Mosul, less than two kilometres away from one of the country's deadliest cities, our driver pointed toward the city and said "kushhhhit," pretending to cut his throat by moving his thumb across his neck in a slicing motion. "That's the road to hell," added Bilunt, our Iraqi dinner host. 

We smiled, but we also realised how close this relatively safe zone was to the rest of Iraq. When our driver asked my nationality, I considered lying, as most news out of Iraq concerns the anti-American insurgencies in Mosul and Baghdad. Hesitantly, I revealed I was American.  "I love Americans!" the driver exclaimed, which shouldn't have been surprising since Saddam Hussein's genocidal Al Anfal campaign between 1986 and 1989 killed up to 100,000 Kurds, according to Human Rights Watch. Kurdish forces backed the US during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and since then Kurds have earned regional autonomy and political sway in Baghdad, with Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani as president of the Iraqi administration and Massoud Barzani as president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. "Americans, good," my driver said. I looked at my girlfriend incredulously. "Shukran," she said. "No shukran!" the driver yelled. "Shukran is the language of Saddam. We speak Kurdish! We say spaz," he added. 

"Sorry," she said. "Spaz!"  Arriving in Erbil four hours later, new road signs welcomed us into the regional capital. Aside from a barricade surrounding the regional government offices, security appeared minimal. Bilunt's father shook our hands and welcomed us inside. His wife quickly spread a table with food, including baklava from Ashtar Sweets, which they called Iraq's most famous patisserie and a former favourite of Saddam. Founded in Baghdad in 1980, the shop closed in 2003, they said, and only recently reopened in Erbil. 

When power cut at 8pm, the family switched on their private generator. The national grid supplies only eight hours of daily electricity, they said, and they purchase an additional 16 hours from private generators. With Erbil powered independently, with the Kurdish and not the Iraqi flag flying over the city's airport, and with a different word for "thank you", the distance from the rest of Iraq seemed greater than it was. 

The next day was the big Eid feast, but first Bilunt showed me around this city of 1.2 million inhabitants. We visited the hilltop Hawler Citadel, which Unesco estimates is 8,000 years old. A steep, narrow road led into a maze of alleyways and traditional brick homes covering 10 hectares, some in shambles and others still colonnaded palaces. They're built atop a "tell," or pile of remains from Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Greek, and Islamic cultures, according to the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalisation. About 800 families lived here until 2007, when they were evicted to make way for a multimillion-dollar, Unesco-backed restoration project aiming to bring hotels, restaurants, museums and galleries to the hilltop fort. A traditional, domed hammam dating back to 1775 is no longer functioning, and a large portion of the citadel's outer wall collapsed in 2007 because of erosion; the World Monument Fund has listed the citadel as one of the 100 most endangered cultural sites in the world. In the courtyard of the citadel's rebuilt mosque, I was introduced to Kanan Mufti, the general director of Kurdistan's Ministry of Culture and the head of the renovation project. 

As far as Mufti was concerned, northern Iraq already deserved to be a luxury travel destination. He argued the point over a cup of tea at his home. As we sat and chatted about tourism in Erbil, his bodyguards stood watch outside the door, and two Kalashnikov rifles rested against a nearby chair.  Iraq's violent reputation had made me hesitant to visit, I said, and I expected that westerners who fail to understand the political and cultural distinctions between Iraqi Kurdistan and greater Iraq feel similarly. During previous Eid celebrations in 2004 and 2005, I pointed out, suicide bomb attacks killed more than 150 people in Erbil. The US State Department warns against travelling anywhere in Iraq, as even in relatively stable places such as Erbil "violence persists and conditions could deteriorate quickly." 

Mufti shook his head. Unlike the rest of Iraq, he said, Kurdistan is safe, with regular visits from foreign diplomats. The Turkish foreign minister visited in early November. Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Armenians, live side-by-side in Kurdistan, he said, and the region isn't subject to the anti-American insurgency as in nearby Mosul. "Mosul, Mosul, Mosul, the news always talks about Mosul," Mufti said. "Kurdistan is not Mosul. You don't need to be nervous." 

Hundreds of foreigners already visit Erbil monthly, many with tour groups, Mufti said. The Paris-based agency Terre Entière began offering packages to Kurdistan in 2008, including an eight-day, $3,039 (Dh11,707) "Christmas in Iraq" tour, and the agency repeated the tour this year with another 20 people. "In the province, you feel safe everywhere," Hubert Debbasch, the company's chief executive has said. Euromonitor International forecasts arrivals to Kurdistan will grow 22 at per cent a year, faster than anywhere else in the country, according to a report last June, helping to boost the nationwide total of international tourists to 160,000 by 2012. 

Visitors to Erbil come to see the city's ancient citadel and countless archaeological sites throughout the region, Mufti said. But with minimal investment in museums or in creating a regional tourism route, most only visit for political or business reasons, as was apparent from the numerous construction projects around the city.  Of more than a dozen shopping complexes now under construction in Erbil, according to the local Kurdish Globe newspaper, the $1bn (Dh3.67bn) Nishtiman Mall, when completed, will be the largest shopping mall in the world, with more than 8,000 shops. The rising Korek Tower, built to house the region's telecommunications provider, will soon be Iraq's tallest building. 

Hundreds of hotels have gone up since 2003, with hundreds more on the way, said the manager of Mondeal Hotel, which opened in 2007. For $75 (Dh275) per night I had a room at the Mondeal with 300 television channels, free Wi-Fi, and a wiry mattress. The city's top accommodation, the Erbil International Hotel, also called the "Erbil Sheraton" because the location housed a Sheraton until 2003, offers rooms from $204 (Dh750) to $531 (Dh1,950) per night. 

Outside the city, Damac Properties is building a $6bn (Dh22bn) mixed area of residential units, hotels, malls and golf courses the biggest investment project in all of Iraq. More than 35 companies from 20 countries have signed oil exploration and development contracts with the regional government. "We want to become the next Dubai," Bilunt's brother, an engineer, said as we drove around the city. 

That evening, we crowded into Bilunt's small home to celebrate the big holiday feast. My girlfriend helped chop vegetables and prepare taboola and soups in the kitchen, while I sat in with the men and discussed politics and religion. The son of an imam sat beside me, excitedly asking questions about America, which somehow turned into a conversation about religion. "Think about it this way," he said, "with Islam, you get Jesus and Mohammed. Two for one!"

After two hours, the family of lawyers, doctors, engineers, businessmen and imams surrounded a table overflowing with Kurdish foods: flat bread, yoghurt, salads, rice, raw cucumbers, and birinc, a white rice with meat. Genders quickly separated again, with the women in a back room teaching my girlfriend how to dance Kurdish-style, while I continued talking with men. Another of the imam's sons had recently opened a factory in Erbil packaging sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and pistachios. He'd brought three boxes full of the stuff, and he filled a plastic bag of it for me. "He's our rich cousin," one of the family member's joked. Iraqi Kurdistani enjoys the lowest poverty rates and highest standard of living in the country, according to the Central Statistics Authority, and Bilunt's family was no exception. 

We left the party and walked back to our hotel at 10pm, though Bilunt would stay up until dawn with his brother and cousins. Before taking a taxi back to Turkey the next morning, I had a chance to speak with our hotel's manager. I couldn't help but ask one last time if Erbil really was as peaceful as it appeared. "Who says it is dangerous in Iraq? Only the television," he told me. "It is safe in Kurdistan," he said. "Here, the war is over." travel@thenational.ae