Erbil seems to be marketing itself as the ‘Dubai of Iraq’ and judging by the growing number of skyscrapers, shopping centres and five-star hotels they certainly know the simple rules of how to emulate the Gulf. However, Dubai does not have anything like the Citadel or the Qaysari Bazaar. Erbil’s citadel is formed from layers of civilisations dating back over 10,000 years from the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Mongols to name only a few.
It can still be called ‘one of the oldest continuous living civilisations’ because, even though the government has removed most of the inhabitants in 2006 (among the poorest of the city, now relocated and generously compensated), there remains still one family to preserve the site’s continuity and the imposing statue of ancient historian Ibn Al-Mistawfi to guard it. The citadel is in the process of large scale restoration, aided by UNESCO and other governments, and these areas have been faithfully reconstructed in the original way.
It certainly needs care and preservation and will be a worthy place to visit when it is complete but at times the facades seem slightly over the top and unreal. However, right now most of the site is still exactly in the condition as it was left when everyone vacated so the mood is spooky and sepulchral. Although technically out of bounds, it is very easy to dodge the guard and go exploring in the labyrinthine alleyways and staircases. This will all look very different after renovation, and something will be lost forever with it, buried on a mountain of secrets and stories. A local newspaper claimed that the area had become an area for gay rendezvous and the police were increasing security and ‘random checks’, whatever ‘random checks’ are supposed to entail.
At the bottom of the citadel lies the tangled mass of the bazaar which dates back to the 13th century. As Erbil has hardly any Western tourism, it is one of the more authentic souks that a traveller can find.
On the last day, we returned to the ‘office’ to get the bus back to Turkey and were surprised by the erection of a series of white sheets that covered nearly half the corridor. As we cautiously approached, we heard the unmistakable sounds of chatting, spoons striking tea cups, and the rattle of tavla pieces. As I pushed past the curtain, I was greeted by the company boss with a handshake, an offer of a seat and the sight of over twenty men sitting, smoking and drinking tea. And it wasn’t even three o’ clock. No sooner had we sat down until a plate of hot Menamen was thrust in front of us, surrounded by cans of Coke. Clearly, we had wandered into a Ramadan Speakeasy and the Turkish bus company workers were the Al Capones. Even though breaking the fast is a matter between you and Allah, I still felt a small thrill, like I was an accessory to a crime.
On board it was all going smoothly until we stopped at a petrol station just outside the border. A car drew up near the bus, a woman emerged and approached the driver to ask if she could travel. The driver agreed but quickly changed his mind when he saw that the woman’s car contained her entire worldly possessions that she was adamant that they would be accompanying her. Apparently there was absolutely no way all of this could fit. This prompted a colourful exchange of opnions and what previously was a crowd of ten or so quickly became a mob of over a hundred. A remark about someone’s mother was expressed, the first punch was landed and suddenly everyone on our bus watched below as a mass brawl began. We could just about see the white shirts of our two bus drivers bobbing in the middle but it seemed as if everyone was fighting each other. Gradually people began to improvise and out of nowhere we saw the original woman swinging a long metal pole which failed to hit anything except the ground. Many different smaller skirmishes formed until everyone was suddenly halted into momentary silence at the sound of gunfire. As everyone crouched down in the aisle, I began to think that, as the source of the problem, we on the bus were somewhat of a sitting target (added to the fact that we were still in Kurdistan and almost everyone apart from me and my friend was Turkish.) It became apparent that the gunshots were those of the Kurdish guerrillas, old men in traditional costume who I saw mooching around Erbil with rifles slung over their shoulder. They were warning shots, ‘calm down’ shots if that isn’t a contradiction and shortly after this the army arrived and dispersed everyone. I managed to take a blurry photo during all of this, but as soon as I did, someone of the bus started tutting and wagging their finger at me. The police had to write a report, which took hours but nothing compared to the time spent at Turkish customs as the border guards caught a smuggler and took the entire bus into a warehouse to be X-rayed. I drunk so much tea and smoked so many cigarettes with my fellow travellers that I must have forgotten how many hours late we were. But at least now I have my ‘gunfire in Iraq’ story.