This past weekend a few of us took a trip to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. The 3-and-a-half-hour drive there, through curvy, small country roads, was made remarkable by a landscape reminiscent of what I had first admired from the plane landing in Suly. Vast green plains gave way to striking mountains, and the journey took us through various levels of elevation. In one particular instance, as we were descending a high point, the landscape in front (and below) of us was surrounded by mountains, creating a sort of natural frame and resembling a giant crater. It reminded me of the descent into Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania; only that lions and zebras made way for goats and cows.
Erbil is a favorite get-away for those who have lived in Suly for a long time. Many of my friends and colleagues who have at least a year on me appreciate going there to escape the somewhat – what shall I call it – calm nature of our host city. While relatively big, booming with businesses and filled with students from across Kurdistan, Suly remains a pretty modest city with a somewhat stale nightlife and a limited spectrum of available goods. I’m definitely still in my honeymoon phase and enjoy being here, discovering new parts of the city, and going for only the third time to that good pizza/hooka/beer place. But for others around me, heading to the busier, more diverse and vibrant Erbil is a welcomed break.
We satisfied my friends’ thirst for change by visiting a number of cafes/bars in the first few hours there, including an all-out American sports bar with NFL helmets scattered throughout the walls. (They even had burgers there – huge.) Interestingly, Erbil has a Christian quarter, adorned by at least one church, as well as a German restaurant, a bakery with precious meats and cheeses and – perhaps most importantly – a go-kart race track.
Perhaps the main cultural attraction of Erbil is the Citadel, a set of ruins on top of a tall hill in the middle of the city. It now looks like an ancient fort town, but it’s incredible to think that it has hosted villages of various civilizations for more than seven thousand years. From it, you have an exquisite view of the city, and it was quite a lot of fun to get lost among the tight streets, half-destroyed houses and ancient stairwells.
We also visited the Grand Mosque of Erbil, which was simply stunning. The Bangladeshi housekeeper (mosquekeeper?) was a little hesitant to let us in – three white, clearly non-Muslim guys and a Western woman with an improvised, although appropriate, veil. Then a Kurdish man in his seventies or eighties came bearing the keys, and accepted to show us around. As we were admiring the striking decorations, the golden Koran passages and the patterned carpet inside the mosque, one of the two Bangladeshi who worked at the mosque began making conversation. In his broken English, he asked us about our families, told us about his two young kids, and began justifying why he left his country. “In Bangladesh, I am very poor man. Very poor.” I tried to ask him how he liked Erbil, and if in this burgeoning town he was a little better off than back home. “Me, in Bangladesh, very poor man, very bad.” He didn’t understand my question, and I was disappointed by our lack of mutual understanding. I would have loved to hear more about how he liked his life in Iraq. Makes you think: people from Europe and the States would hardly set foot in a country where an honest, hard-working man from Bangladesh has found hope, and possibly a new found dignity. I know the mosque worker would have validated this reflection – if only I had been able to speak with him more in detail!
A sad characteristic of the Kurdish capital – by no means unique to this city – is the quantity of unfinished buildings. I’m not even talking about buildings clearly under construction that have just stalled for a little; instead, they’re unpleasant stacks of vertical and horizontal concrete blocks creating the outline of a building that will never come to be. I won’t ruin this post with a sample picture, but you can see the unfinished buildings, churches, mosques and ancient citadels here, along with other pictures from my trip to Erbil.