The foreboding black basalt of the Diyarbakir fortress slowly faded away as the bus rolled through dry brush, splashes of yellow meadows and patchy forests until passing over the Tigris. I was told that, in two years, some water from the river will be pumped all the way up to the hill, funnelled through the city walls and cascade back down to the ground creating a marvellous waterfall. A perfect mirage. Although, judging by the sea of abandoned, unfinished housing projects on the city’s outskirts, a figment of the imagination is what this project may remain. The bus passed through a strikingly beautiful town named Hasankeyf which was once a notable stop on the Silk Road and pillars and arches of its formerly grand bridge are still standing.
Visiting Iraqi Kurdistan (or, if speaking to Turkish nationalists, simply ‘Iraq’) is surprisingly easy. The region has enjoyed a great deal of autonomy and Western influx of capital since Saddam Hussein’s assault on the Kurdish population. To travel there, there are the traditional delays and colourful episodes (of which more later) but otherwise it is as simple as acquiring some dollars and getting on a bus marked ‘Arbil’ (the capital) or ‘Hawler’ in Kurdish. As we crept ever closer to the border, the checkpoints increased in direct proportion to the PKK related operations in the area. All of these stops were fairly relaxed affairs and if you are sitting next to a female companion, the soldier will check your passport but not hers, so all your contraband cigarettes and Rolexes can be easily stored under a lady’s dress.
We stop at a sizable roadside store but the door is locked and nobody seems to be on site. The sun bakes the pavement so everyone congregates under the canopy of the shop until the owner comes out, pulls up a stool and sits down with his arms folded. A strict Ramadan policy operates here, so he won’t even sell people food and drink during the day much to everyone’s annoyance. By some interpretations, people on a journey are exempt from the fast, but unfortunately the proprietor doesn’t share this view. I struck up a conversation with an Iraqi Kurdish man who briefly acted as an interpreter for the British Army before going to live in Hull for many years. When we arrived at the Iraqi border, he handed over his British passport and was subjected to an agonisingly slow check by the guard. Neither men shared a language (or at least neither admitted to speak it) and the guard whose sole job it is to flip through a book of twenty pages to find a visa written in Turkish acted as if he was looking for a lost contact lens in a swimming pool. The level of animosity between Kurdish civilians and Turkish soldiers seems to be extremely high but Iraq certainly wins the border post contest because as soon as we arrived, we entered a plush, air-conditioned atrium and watched National Geographic while our passports were stamped (with the politically contentious words ‘Iraqi Kurdistan’).
The evening came and as we drew ever closer to Erbil I suddenly realised that I didn’t have any plan for the evening’s accommodation. There was a young Japanese tourist called Takia on board who was only slightly more prepared with a photo of a hotel on his phone. This was our best chance so when we the bus terminated, we jumped in a taxi, showed the driver the image and we were on our way to the centre, speeding through the traffic. There was a strange moment that came a few minutes after setting off when the driver asked us all, ‘So, Costa Rica?’ We looked at each other, shouted ‘No!’ and he turned around the car and started driving in a different direction. I will always wonder where he thought he was taking us, but either way we soon arrived in downtown Erbil to a carnival atmosphere. I was beginning to understand that, during Ramadan, every evening was characterised by a festival sprit. In the main square, multicoloured fountains shot water high into the air, legions of men chatted over tea and music blared out from every corner.
Arriving in Arbil with a Japanese guy was like being a groupie for the Rolling Stones. As soon as he stepped out of the taxi, he was surrounded by all sorts of people, competing to give him directions. Despite the fact he was staying in the same hotel, we didn’t see Takia for a few days, when we finally met again he looked truly exhausted as he explained that every day he was asked to pose for hundreds of photos with Kurdish families. That night we took him to the Christian suburb of Ankawa, the only place for miles to procure a beer, and we sat in a sombre bar whose front door was emblazoned by a large sticker informing customers that they couldn’t bring their gun inside.
Half of the second day was spent driving all around the area in search of an ATM (all the banks downtown were closed and the machines only offering the salutation ‘We wish our customers a Happy Ramadan!’). Our solution came in the form of the Majidi Mall – a sprawling monument to shopping – bigger than most I have visited in the UK but then the British malls don’t have machine gun toting guards manning the airport style security. Not yet anyway. Arbil has been largely peaceful in recent years, but this is still Iraq and there have been sporadic bombings over the years.
Once inside, almost blinded by the lights and cleanliness, in addition to an ATM, I finally found the women of Arbil trying on clothes in Ecco and United Colours of Benetton, and lunching in Movenpick. It was a stark contrast to the Nishtiman Mall in the centre of town that caters only for men and contains rows and rows of the most eccentric mannequins I have ever seen.
- On the top floor we found the ‘office’ to buy a bus ticket back to Turkey (a group of Turkish guys sat in plastic chairs outside an empty store) and it was here that we met ‘Tony’. Tony was one of the many young Kurds whose family has saved up an almost improbable sum of dollars to smuggle him out of the country to Europe and, hopefully, a better life. Barely a teenager and relying on nefarious people smugglers, he passed through Turkey, Greece, Italy and eventually to Sweden where his health was so bad that he collapsed on the street. He woke up in hospital looking at the man who saved his life and would later welcome him into his family. He has been living with them for the last few years and is hoping to ‘get married’ and become a citizen which is why he is back in Arbil, to wait for documents.
Accepting the offer of a tour around the city, we stepped out into the 50 degree heat, I lit a cigarette and thereby committed a Ramadan faux-pas. Tony (like everyone I met) told me that it was very unlikely that anyone would object to me publicly but I thought it cruel to waft cigarette around the fasting residents of Arbil. After a long walk around the Minaret Park (formerly an army base, now a green oasis with a little cable car Teleferique running across) we headed back to the centre just in time to hit the mass exodus of people hurrying back home to eat. By now this was a regular sight but suddenly the skies darkened and for the first time in many months, cool raindrops descended on Iraq. Some pedestrians hurried their steps, some stopped to spread out their arms in joy but two keen young guys on a motorcycle paid for their haste by skidding out of control on the wet tarmac and crashing to the ground. Life stopped for three seconds, passersby inspected the situation for any sign of injury, and then resumed the march home once two chastened smiles announced that all was well.