Think of Iraq. What pops into your head? Romanticized visions of Baghdad? Ancient Mesopotamia? A war-torn country filled with cities you’ve heard about on the news, like Mosul or Fallujah? If you want to travel to this Iraq these days I’m sorry to tell you that it sure as heck ain’t gonna be easy. Tourist visas are not readily given out and, short of going on a heavily guarded organized tour, there isn’t really a viable way to get one.
Instead make your way north to Kurdistan! “Kurdistan?” you’re probably thinking. Fear not, you’re not alone. See, Kurdistan is part of Iraq (in fact, the government claims to be the “Other Iraq”), but if you visit, you’d almost never know it was. They have their own autonomous government (that’s rather publicly been disputing with the southern government over making its own oil contracts), military, the Peshmerga (literally, “those who face death”) that guards their borders, including the borders with the rest of Iraq. All that violence you still here about in the news? Yeah, that’s in Southern Iraq…not in Kurdistan. The Peshmerga do a fantastic job of keeping the place safe! So safe that I felt safer there than I do at home in New York City! Seriously!
Kurdistan, the “Other Iraq,” Borders in Iraq?
Wait…borders? If you look at most maps of Iraq you won’t see a border separating Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. Heck you won’t even see a mention of Kurdistan on most maps. In short, the Kurds control the provinces of Dohuk (also spelled Duhok), Erbil (also spelled Arbil or Hawler/Hewler), and Sulaymaniyah (also spelled Sulamani/Slemani). In practice though, the borders extend a bit beyond this area into southern Iraq (or “Arab Iraq,” as the Kurds call it).
I mean this when I say this… Kurdistan might as well be its own independent country. And for all intents and purposes it kind of is. Just not technically… Your passport stamp, for example, which is issued by Kurdish immigration authorities, states “Republic of Iraq–Kurdistan Region.” And officially, it’s only valid for the Kurdish controlled territory so no going to the south for you!
Getting a Visa for Iraqi Kurdistan
How do you get this visa? Easy! If your passport comes from the U.S., Canada, the EU or Austalia you just show up at the land border with Turkey or at Erbil or Sulaymaniyah airports. (If you don’t, check with an Iraqi embassy and good luck…) Have an Israeli passport stamp? No problem! You hand them your passport, maybe answer a question or two and there you have it! No fees or anything!
And do note, there is a major typo on this stamp. You ONLY have to visit the Directorate of Residence if you want to extend your visa and stay beyond 10 days. If you leave on the 10th day or sooner, you won’t encounter a problem if you don’t visit!
Iraq or Kurdistan? What’s in a Name?
So what’s in a name and why does it matter? Many Kurds will tell you with pride that they live in Kurdistan and that they are not Iraqi, but Kurdish. There’s good reason for this. Many Kurds don’t trust the Arabs and don’t identify with Iraqis in general. Remember that Saddam Hussein tried to wipe them out and, as we’re seeing nowadays in southern Iraq, ethnic and religious tensions are very strong. Their own identity is big for them as they fought and suffered for the autonomy they have today.
It gets a lot more complicated though. While in Iraq, you’ll want to say Kurdistan as much as possible, but when you’re in a neighboring country like Turkey, you’ll want to avoid saying it! Confused? See, Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors don’t like the idea of a Kurdish state, as most visions of a country called Kurdistan include large swaths of what are currently Turkey, Iran and Syria. There you tell people you’re going to Iraq. Don’t even think of mentioning the word “Kurdistan” lest you want to experience a potentially nasty reaction.
So what’s in a name? Turns out a whole lot! I DID go to Iraq… just not the Iraq you’re probably thinking of!