Neon lights, Filipino hookers and Jägerbombs. My first impression of Iraq was not what I was expecting. My first night in Erbil and I was confused, it felt like the Philippines, not Iraq. Outside my hotel was a TGI Fridays.... it was like I imagined the Old West used to be — people setting up shop to get a piece of the action, preachers, teachers and oil workers.
I didn’t have to travel far to see the real city, the centre of Erbil has a 7,000-year-old citadel on top of a hill surrounded by markets, although these are starting to give way to more modern, and Western, developments.
The weirdness continued into the second night when I found myself in a pub quiz, not something I was expecting in Iraq. But then everything was starting to feel rather unexpected here. Except the kebabs — having been in the Middle East for a while I was getting very used to those.
Iraq is probably not high on most people’s travel list but something about it appealed to me — I like to visit places where locals offer you tea without wanting payment and speak to you for the joy alone. Also I hate tourists, apart from me obviously. Most of the country isn’t safe but much of the Kurdish region is, and more everyday as they take back control from ISIS although it goes both ways. Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region in the North of Iraq where the majority population are Kurds.
My guide, a local named Balin Zrar was fascinating, I wasn't sure what to make of his combination of woman's sun hat and engraved Republican Guard pistol, it makes a strong statement. What that statement is though I don’t know. Balin left Iraq in 1997 when the years of bombing became too much. He was 19 years old and spent 6 months walking through Europe. Sleeping rough, eating grass and drinking from animal troughs. Along the way he was beaten, arrested and released. Arriving in England he made a new home and lived the good life, setting up an Italian restaurant in London. Eventually finding his way back home he now acts as a guide to reporters and a few tourists looking for something different. It was a tale worthy of the big screen.
Browsing the markets, everything from fidget spinners to rocket launchers was on display. This was the first time I’d seen a fidget spinner and assumed it was some local trend, I realised when I returned to the rest of the world that like an alien invasion they’d taken over simultaneously.
Obviously we headed straight to the gun shop where the owner was surprisingly happy for us to mess around with his guns (and rocket launchers) posing for photos — I can’t imagine he’d get the same reception in the UK unfortunately. There’s very little theft here, as was evident when I returned to the gun shop having left my bag there… it was closed but that simply meant pulling the shutters down half way — like a scene from Mission Impossible I snuck underneath. It’s not every day you get to break into a gun shop.
It struck me as odd that all the stalls were staffed by men — I only realised this when looking (in passing obviously) at the female underwear stalls, where the middle aged men and bushy moustaches seemed out of place. I think I was seeing progress mid-way, too sexist to let women work but progressive enough to give them a choice in underwear.
Walking barefoot around the Yazidi village of Lalish was an unusual way to spend my birthday. I was told to take my shoes and socks off and look out for snakes. The Yazidi people have an unusual religion, it mixes bits of other religions and adds a little of their own. The result is they’re considered devil worshippers by Muslims. It’s a very secretive religion, the details passed on by word of mouth alone. They believe in God but not Jesus. That Noah was saved by a large black snake plugging a hole in his boat. You have to be born into the religion, you can’t convert or marry in. The latter has been known to lead to honour killings in the past. There are also three sects within and you have to marry within those — rather prohibitive for a people of around 100,000-150,000. As a result they are dying out. Although being hunted by ISIS probably doesn’t help.
They have a number of unique traditions, there’s a building dedicated to storing bits of bread where it’s just left to go mouldy. And yes, they do eat it. I was lucky enough to be allowed inside their temple, dark corridors carved from stone with the occasional lightbulb casting an artificial glow, the walls and floors black and shiny from years of burning oil. It felt ominous — not the usual display of wealth and grandeur other religions create for their places of worship.
After Lalish we stopped at a refugee camp, now home to 20,000 Yazidis after ISIS took the village of Sinjar in Syria. As we arrived the clouds turned black and mud fell from the sky. I’ve never experienced mud rain before and had no option but to flee for the shelter of the minibus. The roads were unable to cope and turned into dirty rivers.
Talking to locals, I was surprised to hear the positive effects of military intervention here. It's easy to be critical of Western actions in the Middle East and to question our intentions. But here the people want it, they’re very grateful and told me they finally felt safe after years of genocide.
Perched high on Gara mountain sits one of Saddam’s 40 palaces, its former glory lost during the civil war to missiles and looting. Now it barely stands, riddled with bullet holes serving as a tourist attraction to a handful of people. Back in their prime each palace had to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for Saddam and his entourage, just on the off-chance he'd visit — a security precaution so his whereabouts couldn’t be known in advance. A soldier guided me around, I think trying to show me where the missiles came from and where they hit. Himself a victim of the war, now unable to speak.
On our way to Dohuk we stopped at the Rabban Hormizd monastery, part of the Chaldean Catholic Church (whatever that is). It’s carved into the cliffs, small rooms linked by crawling through even smaller corridors, the result is rather claustrophobic. Climbing up to the monastery Balin kept looking through his binoculars, the scenery looked very average so I asked what he was looking at. “We’re at the frontline with ISIS” he said, I thought he was joking at first. I knew we were close to Mosul which the Peshmerga were liberating from ISIS but from the sanctuary of our minibus I didn’t realise just how close that was. The Peshmerga are still heavily fighting ISIS on the front line. They do this for their families and their freedom, for them it’s a war for survival and not one based on politics.
Dohuk was home to the intriguingly named Trump Fish restaurant, which is exactly as it sounds, a Donald Trump themed fish restaurant serving grilled carp. They’re pretty big Trump fans here. After following several locals in different directions we eventually found the place but sadly its doors were closed. Perhaps the lawyers got involved or maybe they were just out of carp.
Balin tells me he doesn’t think Kurdistan will gain independence. For a start there are too many countries not wanting it to happen. The Greater Kurdish Region includes parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey so independence in Iraq would impact elsewhere. He says it's unlikely there will be peace here anytime soon. Just the next ISIS.
He also doesn’t even think it is suitable for democracy — there’s too much corruption. You can’t impose Western democracy here. He says their minds don't work like ours. People don't like women to have independence for instance. A surprising 33% of MPs are women but they're just tokens to show the world. He thinks they need a king, a dictator — but a good one.
After driving through the mountains we arrived at Pank, a holiday resort built atop a mountain near Rawandiz. It's another example of Iraq defying my expectations — holiday bungalows and a theme park. Waking to a sunny clear morning, I headed off to find the spectacular views I was told awaited me. I’m not convinced I was in the right place as I had to climb a fence and walk through a rollercoaster but the views were stunning. The park wasn’t technically open but they were kind enough to start the toboggan ride for us so at least I got to go on something, even if it was a little tame.
Most evenings I'd wander around looking for street food and a tea house. I’d always find friendly strangers who’d just want to talk. They’d also pay for my tea which was nice. I was surprised how many of them had worked in Europe and now returned, I guess it was these that were more comfortable speaking English with me but I was still surprised. Many gave me their phone numbers in case I needed any help while in their country. I heard many stories of how they were helped when in Europe and wanted to return the favour. I think I was more surprised by the hospitality they received in Europe though.
The closest I had to any danger in Iraq was over the usual lunch of kebabs and bread when from behind me was a loud explosion. Jumping around I saw the tyre of a lorry flapping around its wheel and throwing up a cloud of dust. It was just a blowout — a very loud one. I had another lunch of delicious xxxx interrupted by a soldier. I’d taken a photo of a military vehicle from the shop a few minutes earlier, apparently this was not okay and he’d come to explain his displeasure.
Donning your best outfit and heading out for a picnic is popular in this part of the world and Iraq is no exception. Walking the Old Hamilton Road there were several families visiting from the South, each very happy, grateful even to have their photos taken. A little later that day, stopping at a viewpoint in the mountains I came across busloads of Iraqi tourists, again from the South looking to see the lush vegetation of the North — perhaps on their way to the Pank resort.
The recreation theme continued that evening in Sulaymaniyah — after relaxing with the locals on the hill overlooking the city we headed back down to Chavyland — a fun place but not the urban youth theme park I'd hoped. There were a lot of Disney characters displayed there but I don’t think Disney’s lawyers have visited yet. I did manage to get a Nutella crepe here which I’d been cheated out of in Iran so it was a good day.
It's not easy to look at the lifeless bodies of a father holding his baby, his futile attempt to protect her from the invisible danger in the air. There are many photos at the Halabja Memorial Monument, many of which were strangely familiar to me. I was only 12 years old in 1988 when Saddam Hussein dropped chemical weapons on the city of Halabja killing 5,000 people but I remember scenes from the news.
From Sulaymaniyah we headed to the infamous Amna Suraka prison (also known as the Red Security prison) — Saddam's house of torture and now a museum to ensure people don't forget what happened here. The hall of mirrors inside has 182,000 shards of glass — one for each of the Kurdish people killed during Saddam's al-Anfal campaign. The building itself is riddled with bullet holes from its liberation by the Peshmerga in 1991.
The most haunting thing I saw here were the drawings on the walls made by children. Some were remarkably upbeat — superheroes and car logos — I guess like most children they draw what they're used to. But in-between were writings expressing their despair.
Arriving back in Erbil I was surprised to learn the hotel we were in was only 6 years old — I’d have guessed 30. There’s no concept of maintenance here, perhaps they just assume it will all be destroyed soon and they can rebuild it then. No need to fix my broken door or clean the stains from my carpet — I guess it makes sense in a way.
Iraqi Kurdistan is an interesting place to visit, it has history, tragedy and a strange modernity in Erbil. It felt safe to me but of course has much higher risks than most destinations and its proximity to the frontline with ISIS is hard to ignore. The people are one of the main attractions, so warm and hospitable even to those who perhaps have a stake in the state of their country.
Sitting at the airport in Erbil drinking my rather underwhelming £5 coffee I wasn't really sure what to make of everything I'd seen. I'm not sure what I had expected from Iraq but it definitely wasn't amusement parks, pub quizzes or seedy bars selling $10 beers.
I travelled to Iraq in May 2017 with Young Pioneer Tours and Kurdistan Iraq Tours, I'd definitely recommend both if you're considering a visit. All photos were taken with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 and 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens.