I don’t think I’d ever been quite so excited to cross a bridge. Here I was, literally in no-mans land, the space between border crossings, and up ahead lay grand mountains. Behind me? Turkey. Finally, the bus passed a sign: “Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan.” This was the moment my whole trip was designed for. The moment where I’d travel in Iraq!
As we parked across the bridge, everyone made their way to the Arrivals Hall. I had begun to walk when a Kurdish Peshmerga soldier (literally, “those who face death”) called me back. I gulped. He asked to see inside the daypack I was carrying. And then he did something incredible. He apologized to me for the inconvenience.
This first impression stuck with me, as it was a taste of the kindness I’d experience throughout my 10 days of traveling in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. And when people ask me what it was like, I can honestly say that the people I met in Iraq are by far the warmest folks I have ever encountered! From the soldier at customs who took it upon himself to teach me Kurdish, to the young man in Dohuk who had worked as a translator for US troops in nearby Mosul, to the group of college students in sublime Amadiya who “adopted me” for the day and to the Arab young man from Baghdad who invited me to his home in Sulaymaniyah, the people are what absolutely stood out to me most.
A Word of Warning Before You Travel in Iraq…
You know, before going, I was given a warning: “Prepare to be loved.” Boy was that ever true. See that photo up there of me with a couple of kids? Their father, the owner of a hotel, asked me to pose with them before leaving. On a couple of occasions, complete strangers would holler at me in passing, “I love you!” It was all slightly jarring at first. I mean, I’ve traveled plenty of places where I’ve been stared at before but never anywhere that made me feel a bit like a rock star.
Think about it, though. Saddam Hussein was not kind to the Kurds. In the late 1980′s, he launched a genocidal campaign against them, killing up to 100,000, including 5,000 in a matter of minutes using a chemical gas attack. The Kurds have largely been autonomous since 1991 (the “no-fly zone” helped there), but they were still a major beneficiary of the 2003 U.S. invasion. In fact, George W. Bush Jr. is something of a hero there.
For a people who have been through so much though, I was really struck by their friendliness, particularly folks around my age. Since the U.S. invasion, many Kurds who had fled to other countries have been returning, bringing with them their worldliness and ideals. It would be fascinating to return several years from now to see if that’s changed the Kurdish culture at all, which, for now, remains quite religiously conservative in some ways. Like how men and women don’t socialize together…at least in public.
Should You Go?
If you’re looking for a place to go sightseeing, then I don’t think travel in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region is for you. If you’re used to places that are easy to get around and that have developed tourism infrastructures, then I don’t think it’s for you either. Even if you’re looking for a really cheap destination, you may want to re-evaluate. But if you go, you’ll be rewarded, not only with some fantastic natural beauty, but a taste of a people who can teach you so very much about the world.
And really, you constantly have to pinch yourself in Iraqi Kurdistan, because you’ll have many a moment where you’ll find it hard to belive that the peaceful place you’re in is Iraq at all!