Traveling Through North Iraq

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Take a look at an inside view of Iraq from the eyes of someone visiting for the first time. You might be surprised to learn about what the country really has to offer.

My work involves a fair amount of travel but usually it is not particularly glamorous. The M25 is a well worn path for me. I do sometimes get presented with an exciting opportunity for travel abroad where I always try to make the most of any free time I get. When my company asked me if I was happy to work in Iraq for a week the thought of bombs, shootings and kidnappings entered my head. Not exactly where I saw my career (or life) progressing. Thanks to British media all I knew of Iraq was war, Saddam Hussein and oil, lots of oil. Begrudgingly my work were extremely keen on me going out there so after some (a lot) persuasion my flights were booked. I was traveling to a city called Sulaymaniyah in North Iraq.

A quick Google search was in order to see what was in store for me (it’s not worth searching on YouTube unless you want to scare yourself).

The modern city of Sulaymaniyah was founded on 14 November 1784 by the Kurdish prince Ibrahim Pasha Baban who named it after his father Sulaiman Pasha. Because it was founded as the capital of a powerful Kurdish principality, Sulaymaniyah has developed into a large city with a population of about 1.500.000 people. It is the cultural center of the Sorani-speaking Kurds and an important economic center for Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kurdistan, you say? I thought I was going to Iraq. After more Googling I discovered that Kurdistan is a region in North Iraq. Kurdistan refers to parts of eastern Turkey (Turkish Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), northwestern Iran (Iranian Kurdistan) and northern Syria inhabited mainly by Kurds. Kurdistan roughly encompasses the northwestern Zagros and the eastern Taurus mountain ranges, and covers small portions of Armenia. I appreciate a lot of you more clued up people will have already known all about the Kurds from the heinous attacks Saddam committed on them (mainly) in 1989. I have to admit I was only 6 then and it’s not really come up since.

It’s fair to say the region is extremely hostile; bombings still happen almost every day in Baghdad and Basra and relations with their Syrian and Iranian neighbors aren’t exactly at the stage of borrowing a cup of sugar.

I traveled by myself to Istanbul to catch my connecting flight to Sulaymaniyah. Looking around at the holiday makers in Istanbul made me want to change my flight plans and get the first taxi to the beach, instead after an hour’s wait, I was on a small plane bound for Iraq. Nerves and tiredness were starting to set in and it didn’t help that it was pitch black when we landed so I couldn’t see what was awaiting me.

I arrived at about 4am to be met by our driver “Alan”, not a very Iraqi/Kurdish sounding name, but I was tired and just accepted it. He took me on a short tour of the city on the way back from the airport and we stopped at a tea shop. Iraqis have more of a thing for tea than British do, everything stops for tea and it must be administered every 2 hours. It’s served in small glass shot glasses and poured into the saucer to cool it down quicker and is then slurped. There were a lot of people about even at 5am; it’s so hot there a lot of the construction is nocturnal. There were a lot of quizzical looks when I entered this sports orientated tea shop. It was a mecca to football stars past and present and the pride of place were two big pictures of the great Messi and not so great Frank Lampard. It may have been the tiny tea (no milk 4 sugars) they bought me or the familiar faces that calmed me down, but as I looked about I remember drawing comparisons to a builder’s greasy spoon.

The next morning, I awoke in my hotel and surveyed my surroundings through the window. I was in a fairly residential area but had a great view of the city. All of the houses were built in compounds and I could see so many new buildings under construction. It was dusty, busy and 48 degrees at 8am.

The first few days of my trip were mainly work, the business hours here go long into the night. I must have consumed the weight of Wales in tea and water. I saw so many great photo opportunities whilst I was there but unfortunately I was driven practically everywhere and my schedule so tight it made shooting without a flash impracticable.

I had recently procured a delicious Olympus RD that I was itching to take but it had suffered a minor mishap and the aperture blades had jammed. I was going to take my Olympus OM1 but this is a heavy SLR and not exactly inconspicuous. The following is a massive advert as to why twitter is amazing. A guy I was following @Leftofnever a great photographer and expert with all things analogue, after hearing my predicament and impending photo op offered to lend me one of his Olympus Trips. This camera was perfect for my needs, lightweight, fixed zone focusing and an awesome lens. (Thank you Martin).

I have a small stash of Kodak Ektachrome, which you can no longer buy, that I was saving for special occasions. This was the time to break out the film most analogue photographers would sell their Grannies dogs’ favorite toy for. (My Grandma does not have a dog)

I fired off a few shots through the car window but, knowing it was only 100iso, I fully expected blur and the odd 4×4 bonnet in the way. Luckily, towards the end of my trip, our hosts had arranged a few small excursions to see some of the sites. Sulymaniah is certainly a beautiful area. Surrounded by mountains, it is mainly an arid land but has a great sense of history in its views.

We were taken out to Lake Dukan, it was an hours drive west and was a great chance to get out of the City. We encountered many check points on the way (and oil tankers) without a problem until one of the larger ones where we were pulled over. In Iraq it is fairly common to see guns, big guns too. These aren’t the nice shiny guns you see cradled by police in airports in the UK. These guns were quite obviously used; you do what the guards say.

After a search of the car, a host of questions about what we were doing and a long look over our passports we were off. Alan was completely calm during all of this, I was not so good and it’s fair to say the 5.31pm Friday night drinking club my friends and I partake in seemed a very very long way away; it all comes down to what you are used to. These check points are there to protect you; it is good that they stop you; it is good that they are thorough. After a few days in Iraq, I realized that they have a lot of Europeans coming for business and actually a lot of Middle Eastern people vacationing.

What feeds Lake Dukan is the coldest river imaginable. I was dared to have my feet in it for 5 minutes. Coming from a race of people who don’t think 49 degrees is hot, to me who is used to British weather, I was more than up for this challenge. I wish I hadn’t, stubbornness and the National Anthem going through my head was the only reason I kept my rapidly turning purple feet in that water. Alan explained that throughout the summer the river is cold and in the winter (where they have snow) the water is hot. I’m not sure why this happens but it seems to.

After a couple of photo ops we carried on to Lake Dukan, I was amazed when I saw this massive expanse of water in what is predominately a country of desert. The surface area of the lake is 270 square kilometers (100 sq mi) and has a lovely island in the middle. There were quite a few people swimming in the clear waters of the lake and some small boats drifting about with fisherman using big nets. I got some strange looks carrying my telescopic fishing rod down to the banks.

Alan explained why they were giggling, Iraqis are very practical and effective, if you have a task do it the quickest way possible. If you want to catch a fish do it the quickest way you can. They use dynamite and nets. Hence why my tiny rod and fake lures seemed ludicrous to them. After an hour or so fishing with temperatures soaring, the swimming was becoming more and more appealing. We were encouraged to have a dip so we stripped down to our pants and took a plunge.

This felt amazing, the sun was setting, there were some young men singing a beautiful song and it felt great not to be dusty for once. After a while of splashing around and teaching Alan to swim backstroke thoughts of my preconceptions of Iraq were making me chuckle. I thought I would be dodging RPGs and hiding in shadows yet here I was in the most beautiful lake swimming in my pants.

Due to a cancelled appointment, we had some more time to kill the next day and I was keen to learn more about the city and its people. Alan had proved to be a most knowledgeable guide and his story of fleeing of Saddam Hussein to Nottingham is an incredible story that needs to be made into a film. I wanted to know more about the war(s) as there was very little damage to Sulaymaniyah’s buildings.

Saddam had a compound within the city where he was run out of Kurdistan by the local people. The siege lasted all day, the local people were a powerful emotional force and Saddam’s compound extremely well fortified and armed. We were lucky enough to be allowed to a take a photo of this building through the gates. This building is littered with bullet holes and is a scar on blossoming city. I guess it serves as a constant reminder of what has happened and the pride of the region.

They must have been extremely brave to stand up to Saddam and eventually make him flee by helicopter to the safety of Southern Iraq. Many many crimes against humanity were carried out within this compound and it was an eerie site. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to take a photo of these buildings but in a way, the buildings use had turned from a center of evil to a badge of honor for Kurdistan.

We were then taken to the local Zoo. There aren’t many recreational things to do around here, but I was told that this is extremely popular with people of all ages. After awaking the young ticket seller and buying our tickets we were told it was out of season but we could still have a look about. I’m not a great fan of zoos and wasn’t expecting the greatest level of animal comfort.

We were taken to the first enclosure and as I gazed through the locked gates I saw the bizarre site of a Labrador looking back at me. The next enclosure housed a few cats and a recently born litter of kittens. Alan loved them and was awfully impressed when I showed him a picture of my cat, who is not only a looker, I have no doubts he would go for a rhino if it looked at his treats.

We were getting hungry so were taken to the local markets, a massive souk not dissimilar to any you would find in and around the African/middle eastern region. What was pleasant is that you didn’t have the same pestering sellers that go hand in hand with markets in places such as Egypt. It was a much more relaxed atmosphere and I was free to browse where I liked without fear of hearing “lovely jubbly”. There were plenty of shops selling ironmongery and watches but one stall selling a 2004 copy of the Argos catalog made me look twice.

I left Iraq having had a nice time, it was a beautiful place, has a lot of culture, the people are lovely and it’s hot. Without all of the fighting, I have no doubt that this would be firmly on the backpacker’s route. It’s surprisingly a very safe place to be. Strict laws and even stricter religion means that you are never going to get mugged, abused or any of your possessions stolen. Yes, there is always a chance of more serious events, but they are very keen to separate themselves from places like Baghdad. Bar some protesting violence at a local TV station, there hasn’t been trouble on that scale here for many many years.

My impression and knowledge of Iraq has changed immensely and I hope you see from my photos that this is a normal region. Iraq is a country full of different beliefs shoe horned into borders which when you add in the vast amounts of black gold hidden beneath its land unfortunately has led to war.

I met a young man my age whilst I was over there that had also had to flee the country at time of trouble. He spent a few years in England until returning to his country. We got on great and he was keen to tell me his shoes were from River Island, Shirt from Marks and Spencers and Trousers from TK Maxx. We went out for some lunch and I was keen to impress on him how my vision had been blurred by the likes of the BBC and was glad to of come here and experience it for myself. He liked English people and had enjoyed his time over there. After teaching me some basic phrases in Kurdish, I asked him to give me his best English accent. He said (in the best North London accent) “wot you lookin at?” A common enough phrase that spells trouble for the listener. I thought that about sums it up, In Iraq I was treated so well and everyone was so polite to me I took away some nice memories whereas when pushed to recount his ideas of England he came out with that!

written by anonymous on 2012-07-31 in #lifestyle

5 Comments

  1. traaaart
    traaaart ·

    great article! thanks for for taking the time to share!

  2. buckshot
    buckshot ·

    A fantastic piece of photojournalism, and very brave of you to go over there at your company's gunpoint! I had a fairly similar experience when I went out to Yemen in 1997, which was at that time practically a no-go area for Westerners because of its recent civil war and lots of kidnappings that had been going on in recent years. Like you, I arrived late at night and there was no public transport or even taxis available from the airport, so I reluctantly accepted an offer of a lift into town from 4 guys in a pick-up truck, one of whom was cradling a Kalashnikov on his lap. I thought for sure I was a gonner before having even been in the country for half an hour! But it turned out they were incredibly helpful, generous and hospitable, just like the vast majority of Yemenis I met during the 10 days I was there. So, also like you, I arrived with massive preconceptions based on personal ignorance and 'bad press' from the West, and left thinking just how wrong I'd been and what an absolutely astounding country Yemen was. It is a great shame that even today only a relatively tiny number of Westerners have been there. I have an album of shots from my trip, if you're interested, here: www.lomography.nl/homes/buckshot/albums/1827362-yemen-the-p… So thanks a lot for your great write-up of Kurdistan. I'm sure you will treasure the memories of all you experienced there for the rest of your life... and be telling the boys at your 5.31 drinking club all about it for years to come...! It just goes to show that there are amazing experiences awaiting all of us out there in this vast world, as long as we push ourselves outside our comfort zones now and then. Good on you, Mr Anonymous!

  3. twinklecat
    twinklecat ·

    i love the aged look of these photos. looks like a fantastic trip.

  4. denisesanjose
    denisesanjose ·

    Great narrative! I'm curious to see Iraq myself, as well as North Korea. It's the non-touristy locations that have the most amazing stories.

  5. micky_s
    micky_s ·

    Nice story, I wonder what state this city is in now, at the merciless mercy of ISIS... :( sad times

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