*After this post, I’m going to mix things up for the next couple of weeks in order to avoid what might be referred to as “Iraq Overload”. I’ll basically be alternating between posts on Iraq and posts on other topics instead of just writing about Iraq each time. But for now, the post below was written in response to several emails I received, and while short, I do hope that it sheds some light on where Kurdistan might be headed in the near future.
There is no shortage of optimism in Iraqi Kurdistan. Locals everywhere, from Dohuk to Erbil to Sulamainiyah, as well as in smaller villages such as Amediya, are eager to point out how calm and normal life currently is in this part of Iraq. There are smiles on the faces, laughter to be heard and a laid-back approach to life that seems to be embraced by everyone.
In every part of this region that I visited, I repeatedly had difficulty convincing myself that such real danger was never too far away. Life seemed too good, too comfortable, too optimistic everywhere I turned.
Now before I continue, I must admit that I probably interacted (in terms of actual conversations) less with the people of Kurdistan than I have with the people of almost any other country I’ve ever been to. The reason was not a lack of effort on my part, but simply the language barrier. My Kurdish is non-existent, my Arabic equally so and almost every time I informed a local that I spoke “Engrezie”, they would typically throw up their hands in defeat, implying that it would be impossible for us to communicate. Very few people speak even a small amount of English.
But of course, despite the language barrier, I did attempt to gather some information about this region, not from the internet or books, but from the actual locals who call Kurdistan home.
And I discovered that even though Kurdistan is so full of optimism, it appears that nobody knows what to do with all of that positive energy. It’s sort of a “Sweet. Now we have a semi-peaceful, semi-autonomous region, now what do we do?” kind of situation. Sure, foreign investment is pouring in, development projects are being completed and the quality of life seems to have improved greatly over the past 8 years or so.
However, as far as what the future holds, it’s anybody’s guess and maintaining this current level of stability and growth is nowhere close to being a guarantee. I really do believe (unfortunately) that this relative haven could become a more troubled region in a very short period of time.
Just look at the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. This city is claimed by both the Kurdistan government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, neither of which wants to give up the chance to cash in on all the oil. And right now, it seems as if the only thing preventing an all out armed battle between the two sides is the presence of US soldiers in the region whose mission is to keep the peace. However, once the US withdraws its troops, the possibility for battle becomes an all too real possibility and if that were to take place, Kurdistan would easily be outmatched by the newly trained Iraqi military and their newly acquired weaponry.
So if Baghdad does decide to forcefully take control of Kirkuk once the Americans leave, this could instantly lead to severe instability and a much weakened Kurdistan.
In addition, if Turkish warplanes continue bombing the north of Kurdistan in their efforts to combat the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a group which has been battling with Turkey for a long time, Kurdistan simply would not be able to fend off such attacks from all sides.
Of course, this is merely a possibility, albeit a serious one to consider, but such a situation could erase much of the impressive progress that has been made in this region over the past decade.
But this is also what’s so incredible about Kurdistan. Despite the possibility of such a situation taking place, you would never believe it if you traveled there today. The sun reflects off the windows of newly opened shopping malls, new cars fill the streets, birds chirp along with the Kurdish music played at tea stalls and the fountains in every landscaped park spray beautiful streams of water high into the sky. And the Kurdish people themselves, while aware of the fragility of their current situation, maintain their optimism at all times, not simply hoping for, but whole-heartedly believing in an even brighter future for their little corner of the world.
Here’s a short video I took of everyday life in the Kurdish town of Sulamainiyah (my apologies for the music at the start as I tried to get a little too fancy!):
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[…] Understanding Kurdistan – Even the name of the semi-autonomous north is controversial in a neighborhood that’s in flux but under high tension. Finally, before you hop on a flight to northern Iraq, it’s critical you have enough cash on you for the duration of your trip. […]
Amazing! Shukran for sharing all these posts.
[…] seems in 2007 as part of an effort to restore the Citadel (and make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site) all of the inhabitants were evicted, save a single […]
I’m fascinated by this trip of yours. A brave and bold thing to do… Have you considered taking a few Arabic classes?
I’m not being funny, but when you fall in love with a region where not many people speak English (as I have Indonesia, and it seems you have the Mid-East), the sooner you learn the language the better.
Initially, I thought I’d just pick up a dictionary and pick it up as I went along (which has worked OK for both me and my son). But I wish we’d had a few lessons just to get the framework of the language, so that we could understand more of what we were hearing from the get go.
Hey Theodora – Had I stayed in the region longer I would have tried harder to learn Arabic. I did take a couple of classes but stopped after that. However, when it comes to Kurdistan, the locals speak Kurdish and while one could easily survive with Arabic, Kurdish is definitely the language of choice. So it gets a bit more complicated as the two languages are not really too similar at all 🙂
What is the situation like now with the various business mafias running the place? Are the bottled water mafia, the generator mafia, and the taxi mafias etc .. . still controlling the distribution of goods and services or has some sort of public works infrastructure been redeveloped?
Hey Wade – To be honest, I’m not too sure of the answers to your questions, although from my observations, it did seem that a decent public works infrastructure was in place. Of course, whether that was government organized or mafia-led, I don’t really know. Things did seem to operate relatively smoothly though and I didn’t hear any talk about any mafias during my travels at all.
As always, Thanks! Love the youtube video. Feel free to do more posts on Iraq. It is very interesting.
Love your work and admire your guts!
Thanks Randall! I’ve decided to throw in another Iraqi post next and skip the mixing it up for now 🙂
Now I’ve got MC Hammer stuck in my head as well!
The funny thing is, despite all the tensions just about everyone sees the economic incentive of a peaceful north. Ultimately it’s what has and hopefully will, continue to improve relations between the KRG-north and Turkey. In the end it will achieved through peace, decades of fighting hasn’t gotten that part of the world much further than to appreciate a life without violence.
Like you mention though, it’s extremely volatile; Kirkuk, the KRG’s alleged relations with the PKK, and southern Iraq all make for an unstable brew.
Hey Anil – Yeah, it’s funny we never made the MC Hammer connection while we were there!
But seriously, I guess it’s already a good sign that Kurdistan has been stable recently despite the conflicts on all sides, and I’d like to think that the results of all this violence in the region would be a strong desire for less fighting. So perhaps other solutions will be examined and instead of the situation deteriorating, it will continue to improve for all sides. I’d hate to see otherwise.
I don’t want you to stop blogging about Iraq, as I’m beyond intrigued. Such an interesting post!
Thanks Andi…I won’t stop blogging about it as I still have a long list of post ideas to write about this place!
I agree with you Earl, I think the area will become a trouble hotspot when the US troops pull out. I don’t think the Turkish government is going to cease their bombing at any time and I can not see the PKK giving up either.
On a lighter note : did I spot someone wearing MC hammer trousers in your video? About 25 seconds into the film. My husband has a pair of those trousers and I refuse to be seen in public with him if he wears them. Remember I live on the Aegean Coast of Turkey but those trousers are typically to the East of Turkey. If they are the trousers ( really baggy crotch ), I can not help but think of MC hammer dancing around in a video when I see men wearing those trousers.
Hey Natalie – Yes, your observation was correct! There were MC Hammer trousers everywhere as it is the traditional dress for men in these parts. They wear the baggy pants with a baggy shirt and then tie a long piece of cloth around the waist. Anil and I were thinking of buying a pair as well but in the end, I thought that US Immigration would probably find them to be suspicious so I decided against it. But since you’re in Turkey, I say let your husband wear them around (as long as he doesn’t suddenly break into MC Hammer dancing of course)!
Absolutely wonderful post Earl. Love hearing about Iraq through your eyes.
I appreciate the comment Dan as I’m just hoping to provide the ‘other side of the story’ that will never be published in any news outlet!
Really interesting post Earl. I’m glad to hear there’s a positive mood in the area. I worked with Iraqi Kurdish refugees in the UK and they were so proud of their homeland. I organised arts and cultural events and they always wanted to be involved, performing their traditional music and dance to keep the culture alive.
Hey Erin – I can imagine the pride of the refugees you worked with as in Kurdistan itself, I found that everyone would point out that the music we were listening to was “Kurdish music” or the clothes were “Kurdish clothes” and the language was “Kurdish language”. They were so incredibly proud to have obtained their semi-autonomy and to have a place they can call their own. And I actually met a few people who now live in the UK and were back in Kurdistan visiting family. They too spoke of the large (and strong) Kurdish community in the UK.
Perhaps you worked with some of these very same people!
Love getting these little glimpses into “normal” life like this. These are the scenes that usually never get reported or seen because they aren’t sensational.
It makes me sad to think of Kurdistan going under Iraqi rule again if the American troops pulled out. This area was abandoned and left to fend for itself after Gulf War 1. Hate to think of it going through that again. On the flip side, it’s so lovely to hear about the optimism and positive spirit of the people.
Hey Audrey – I found myself feeling the same way. When you’re surrounded by such positive people, it’s almost impossible to even think of Kurdistan losing its semi-autonomy. It would be a shame if it were to happen as Kurdistan is filled with such warm people who want nothing more than to have a safe, peaceful region to call home. And as you can see in the short video, they’ve just about achieved that goal of normalcy. Most of the street corners I stumbled upon in the handful of places I visited looked equally as calm and normal.
And I’m just curious, are you guys thinking of visiting Kurdistan once you make it to the Middle East?
Forget the mix-ups, man, and continue writing about Iraq! :):)
Haha…thank you for the comment Adam! I will definitely take that into consideration as I write my next posts. I guess I could forget the mix-ups for another week or so 🙂
What a great video. I like it because it’s not of some tourist destination (nothing against those though), it’s just a short glimpse into normal everyday life there. Really glad you took that.
Hey Nate – I’m glad you liked the video and I also think that a normal street scene reveals much more about a place than a shot of a famous landmark. I still watch this video over and over again and find something new each time!
Really love this series as it changes our very skewed perception. The mix-up will be nice but I want more Iraq posts!
Hey Ayngelina – Plenty of more Iraq posts to come…perhaps I won’t mix it up then for a while 🙂
[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Working Traveller and Andrea Maria Perullo, Derek Earl Baron. Derek Earl Baron said: New at WanderingEarl.com: Optimism In Kurdistan https://bit.ly/g2QFP7 […]
Remarkably normal indeed. I guess our perceptions are influenced by what journalists choose to highlight. We should all keep open minds I guess on ever country, even those in the middle of a war.
Hey Sandy – Maintaining an open mind is vital in order to avoid falling victim to misunderstandings and assumptions. Before I went to this region I would never have believed anyone if they told me life would be so normal there as I was expecting to be tiptoeing through some intense danger zone!