Snap Shot: A first person look at Kurdistan before the invasion of ISIS

Recognized only as ‘Northern Iraq,’ the Kurds nonetheless carved out an autonomous region – one that in summer 2014 was just beginning to understand the threat represented by the terror movement.

Kurdish nomads sit in a tent on Mount Halgurd, near the border with Iran border. (photo credit: TAMARA BARAAZ)
Kurdish nomads sit in a tent on Mount Halgurd, near the border with Iran border.
(photo credit: TAMARA BARAAZ)
July 2014 brought with it the longest and possibly hardest Ramadan in living memory.
The desert wind was blowing through Iraq at a heat of 45º, and people wandered the streets like zombies. The scorching temperature was not the only thing ushered in by the desert gusts: Islamic State, the terror organization competing with al-Qaida for the title of most extreme group of the year, was on the warpath.
Its aim was to transform Iraq, whose condition at the time was not particularly brilliant, to a Taliban-type state ruled by a retro-archaic interpretation of Shari’a.
I was there when Islamic State had just started appearing on the news. The movement had already conquered Mosul, close to the unofficial borders of the semi-state of Iraqi Kurdistan.
At the time, Iraqi Kurdistan had barely begun to recover from its blood-drenched past, and was struggling for recognition of its independence. This small semi-state was surrounded by a sea of questions and speculations: Would Islamic State dare invade? Would the Kurds lose their newfound semi-independence, won after a generation-long struggle with the Iraqi state? Kurdistan, by the way, was still referred to as “Northern Iraq” in the official verbiage of the BBC; reports coming out of the area were frightening.
Downtown Erbil with the Assyrian fortress in the background (Photo: Tamara Baraaz)
I had just arrived in Turkey from an excursion into Somaliland when Islamic State started its rampage in Northern Iraq, and strongly hesitated before crossing the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. Eventually I made the leap, taking a taxi from the border check to see for myself whether it was possible for there to be a great deal of smoke without fire. I found this not to be the case – but that as long as the fire stayed 20 kilometers away, the Kurds maintained their cool.
At the border post, the taxi driver took passengers’ passports to get them stamped. The customs official was reluctant to leave his air-conditioned office, and not particularly interested in checking the passengers or collecting payment for visas. I didn’t complain; I collected the stamp and asked passersby where it was safe to travel.
That’s when I found out two things: Kurds really don’t speak English; and many of them don’t speak Middle-Eastern Arabic, either.
But they were incredible, and incredibly patient hosts, and we managed to communicate on a superficial level.
“Is Amadiya nice?” I asked.
“Yes,” they replied.
“How do I get there?” “You can’t get there from here. There’s no bus.”
So I hitchhiked to Amadiya, an ancient mountaintop village. The village contains ruins from the period of the Assyrian empire (2500 to 605 BCE), and remnants of its Jewish community – who arrived after presumably being exiled here by the Assyrians. On the mountain’s foothills is a promenade with restaurants, and waterfalls originating on the mountaintop; in better times, Arab Iraqis from the lowlands would flee Baghdad’s stifling summer heat to dip their feet in the waterfalls. Now they, and Iraq’s shattered Assyrian and Yazidi sects, come here to flee Islamic State and the war.
The 6,000-year-old Assyrian fortress in Erbil (Photo: Tamara Baraaz)
I arrived at the hotel with a backpack the size of a corpse and a limited mastery of Palestinian-Jordanian Arabic. I left after being on the receiving end of a load of outrage from the hotel manager for failing to understand his instructions, and a heartwarming love letter from the receptionist.
I also met the Abu-Bakr family, who fled Baghdad with a bevy of noisy children. I was happy to meet people who could understand my Arabic, and they were happy to meet someone to whom they could complain.
“We’re eating up our savings here,” they lamented, “we’re paying $100 a night. It’s a shame Saddam is gone.”
“Saddam? Saddam Hussein?” I yelped incredulously.
“Yes, Saddam was great. Things were much better under Saddam.”
From Amadiya, I left on a hitchhiking journey that lasted five hours on a sweltering desert plain.
“What are the chances Islamic State will invade?” I asked the drivers.
“Don’t worry, Kurdistan is safe. Nothing will happen; just don’t go to Zakho.”
“But I just came from there!” “Well, don’t go back. And don’t drive to Mosul or Kirkuk.”
Every crossroad has signs directing motorists to Mosul, Baghdad and Kirkuk, and the drivers kept pointing at them. “Do you see that intersection?” they warned. “Don’t go there.”
I had learned that it often paid to disregard such advice when traveling in the West Bank. But I was getting the idea that this might be a good time to start listening.
IT’S EASY to hitch a ride in Kurdistan, because the Kurdish are very generous and almost always stop. It’s not as easy to stay on the hitched ride, because there are many lonely drivers.
After ditching a difficult driver, I found myself at a boiling-hot intersection, with passed-out peddlers tending dilapidated vegetable stands. An air-conditioned car stopped with screeching tires, running over a fuel canister.
A female driver. Finally.
The fuel canister belonged to two children who were trying to sell it – and receive compensation for its loss. Because of the war, a third of the Kurdish oil sources had been lost; prices had soared, there wasn’t enough fuel for everyone and every gas station had a long line of cars stretching back for at least a mile. They waited for an hour, sometimes more, just to fill up. The destroyed oil canister was worth its weight in gold; the kids demanded the driver pay its price in full.
“Come on!” she urged. I entered the car and we fled the scene.
“I’m a frightened blonde tourist,” I told her. “I’m afraid Islamic State will invade Kurdistan, kidnap me and send BBC some really bad quality footage.”
“No need to worry,” she assured me. “We have a strong army.”
At the nearest checkpoint, she approached a soldier. “My passenger is thirsty; do you have any water?” “Do you have any water for me?” responded the guard. “The army doesn’t give us any water on Ramadan. It’s hot as an oven and I must drink.”
In Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, I climbed up the Kala’a, a massive Assyrian fortress overlooking the city. Erbil vies with Jericho for the title of oldest continuously inhabited city, with urban remains dating back 6,000 years. Beneath the wall-encircled hill lies the old market, where anything from sweets and kebabs to traditional Kurdish clothing can be found. Beside the market are giant fountains, the center of Erbil’s social life.
At night, after the Ramadan fast was broken, the city would awaken and hundreds of families, old men and teenagers would gather at the fountains. A line of nargila smokers and backgammon and remi players filled the alleys. Restaurants screened soccer games and played patriotic songs of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces.
Erbil was a developing metropolis attracting foreign investors from all over the world. An enclave hosted American and other Anglo contractors, and every street corner boasted a mall with foreign brands, electronics, beauty salons and other Western amenities. Most people had some kind of work and there were very few beggars, with money spread around the city.
In spite of Ramadan restaurants were open, discreetly curtained off from the street to shield the privacy of those who preferred to dine. In my wanderings, I paused in the air-conditioned lobby of a hotel to cool off. A group of policemen and passersby, Kurds and Arabs, were discussing “the situation.”
One of them burst out: “Stop saying Kurdistan! There is no Kurdistan! We are all Iraqis; this is Iraq!” The Kurds remained oddly silent. This was the complex situation of Iraqi Kurdistan in a nutshell: In 1992, the Kurds liberated Erbil from Saddam Hussein, declaring independence and forming a government under the aerial protection of the US. They have their own police, army, local laws, a flag and an anthem. Scores of foreign quasi-embassies are sited in Erbil; Kurds can – and do – grant visas to people entering their territory, and pretty much run their own affairs.
They can grant these visas to Americans and Europeans upon entry only. Those who need to apply in advance (Latin Americans, Israelis, etc.) can only do so through the Iraqi embassies, which means Israelis cannot obtain a visa – though there have been rumors of IDF officials getting under-the-table-visas from the Kurdish quasi-government.
Yet the world does not recognize the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan; certainly Iraq doesn’t. Arab Iraqis and Kurds can travel and work in both states without a visa (though the Kurds had constructed roadblocks and a “security barrier” separating them from the rest of Iraq during the Iraq war), and Kurds have only one ID and passport – an Iraqi one.
But the Kurds have not abandoned their dream of an independent Kurdistan, and they still hope that Iraq’s instability and the swift development in Iraqi Kurdistan over the past few years will hasten international recognition. The Israeli government has publicly voiced its support – but has not followed its words with actions. Nor has any other government.
I FLED the steamy city for the peak of Halgurd Mountain, the tallest in Kurdistan, which still held remains of the winter snow. It took me two days to trek to the top, but the view was breathtaking and definitely worth the journey. Not far from there, three backpackers hiking along the Iraq-Iran border in 2009 were intercepted by Iranian border guards and spent two years in prison in that country’s prison. Owing to this fact and news about the war in Iraq, there were almost no tourists there.
As I descended the peak I ran into Kurdish nomad families, in tents with satellite dishes; they insisted on feeding me in spite of the fast.
I ended up putting up my own tent in the area and joining them for a meal to break the fast. From there, I continued on in a bus, headed directly to Georgia via Turkey. The bus stalled for four hours at the Kurdish-Turkish border; the customs official was watching a soccer game and refused to examine the passport of one of the passengers. When the game ended, he stamped the passport and the bus continued. The passport belonged to an Arab Iraqi.
“We’re going to Turkey for a vacation from the chaos back home. Everything went downhill since the Americans came,” revealed a passenger. “Back in Saddam’s time, if you stayed quiet and out of politics, you could live a peaceful, stable life. Now, you can’t stay uninvolved and there is no quiet. What are you doing here?” “I’m going to the Black Sea – away from the Gaza missiles,” I replied.
Months later, I will hear about the Yazidi hostages, the Komani battles and the involvement of Iraqi Kurdistan in the war (against their original decision).
I wonder what life in Erbil looks like today.
This story first appeared in The Jerusalem Report