A long way from Baghdad

ERBIL, Iraq — Threatening decapitation is a popular joke in northeastern Iraq. Rather than ignore it, Kurdistanis acknowledge foreigners’ misplaced fear of them and dismiss its absurdity.

“I take you to my home, or maybe I kill you,” laughed Bullent, a Kurdistani dental student whom we met at Iraq’s border with Turkey, running his finger across his throat in a slicing motion. Despite his remark, we accepted the offer to visit his home in Erbil, Iraq’s third-largest city after Baghdad and Mosul.

Erbil is also the capital of Kurdistan, an autonomous region within Iraq with its own parliament and president. Fifty miles west in Mosul, Al Qaeda, though weakened, continues to terrorize people with drive-by shootings, car bombs, and extortions, Reuters reported on Nov. 27. Kurdistanis complain that their region’s proximity to Mosul gives it a bad rap.

“This way, dead. That way, safe,” distinguished our taxi driver at the fork in the road with one path leading toward Mosul and the other toward Erbil. He too made a slicing motion across his throat. As we drove into Erbil, illuminated fountains interspersed by palm trees wrapped in colored lights lined the median of a freshly paved road.  

“See?” Bullent said. “It’s nice.”

new fountain installations in erbil
New fountain installations in the heart of Erbil.
(Stephen Kurczy/GlobalPost)

When we arrived at his home, the family was preparing for the next day’s Bayram, or Eid, Islam’s holiest holiday. The men sat my companion and I down in the living room and, in fluent English, began telling us about their hometown. Kurds love America for ridding them of Saddam, explains Bullent’s brother, a structural engineer named Hussein.

“America gave us freedom,” I remembered the cab driver telling me on the ride there. “So they can have our oil — take it!”

American companies are rewarding this loyalty with lucrative construction contracts, Hussein explained. His Kurd-owned engineering firm has an office in Washington, D.C. to manage such deals.

“In 10 years, it will be like Dubai,” Hussein told us the next day, as he drove us around the city’s newly-constructed ring roads, past half-built, high-end hotels and a sprawling new shopping center.

The next day, we also explored on foot — a suicidal venture elsewhere in Iraq.

At the city’s center is a citadel that is, according to UNESCO's pilot project to restore it, up to 8,000 years old. We visited the historic mosque adjacent to it where well-known businessmen and clerics gathered for their afternoon prayer. A prime terrorist target, I thought immediately.

On Eid in 2004, twin bombings targeting officials killed 109 people. Adnan Mufti, the former Kurdistan House Speaker, spent four months in the hospital and lost most of his colleagues that day, he told me from his brother’s home on Eid this year.

Mufti, who is ethnically Turkish, explained why he believed Kurdistan had achieved the stability that eluded the rest of Iraq. The government — specifically, his party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — respected ethnic minorities and gave them a voice, he argued.

Representation in the Kurdistan government is based on population, like the U.S. House of Representatives. One parliamentarian represents 40,000 members of his or her ethnic group. However, even though there are only 4,000 Armenians in the region — far too few to qualify for a representative — the Kurdistan government still granted them one representative, Mufti explained.

After leaving the Mufti home, we walked the empty streets. It seemed as though the entire population remained at home celebrating the holiday and preparing a feast, until we arrived at Minaret Park. There, thousands had gathered to wander the pristine grounds where bulbous, bright roses lined manicured paths and unveiled women walked around with sticks of cotton candy in one hand and their husband’s hand in the other. Girls in new dresses and boys in child-size silk suits gathered around the park’s main attraction that afternoon — a pool filled with giant, inflated floating balls with children inside them running in place as if on a hamster wheel. 

At the center of another Erbil park, Iraq’s self-proclaimed first art gallery — Shanidar Gallery — had a special exhibit featuring art condemning violence against women. The goateed curator, Hawkar Rskin, said business was thriving.

Since 2003, he had been commissioned by the local government to paint murals on several of the underpasses of new roads. He recently completed a mosaic at another park in town. Would he be able to work freely elsewhere in Iraq, I asked. He just laughed.

Kurdistan is not Iraq, its citizens say again and again. This is because of Kurdish military, not American, who have almost no presence in the area. On the 350-kilometer road from the Turkey border to Erbil, we passed 10 checkpoints, all staffed by Kurds. At one stop, an officer leaned into the car and, like many, cracked a joke.

“We are with Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia and are here to cut off your heads,” he said, smiled, and waved us past.