6 - 12 June 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Charm amid chaosThough war-torn, divided, and seemingly forever beleaguered, Iraq's Kurdistan has a lot to offer. Khaled El-Fiqi liked an Abbasid era stone bridge and the traditional male attire of Dahuk
Long and winding roads lead to Iraq's Kurdistan. Regardless of what route you choose, moreover, you are bound to be harassed at the borders. Turkey allows no one to pass. Iran and Syria are, grudgingly, more accommodating. I had to drive from Damascus to Kameshli, a town in Syria's northeastern reaches. There, I crossed the Iraqi border into a zone controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Masoud Barzani's KDP is one of the two major groups in Iraq's Kurdistan. Its rival, the Jalal Talabani-led Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), had given me permission in Cairo to make the visit. So, at the first checkpoint, I had some explaining to do. The KDP official in charge heard me out, consulted his superiors and, two hours later, graciously handed me a permit to proceed to PUK-controlled Al- Sulaymaniyah.
MODERNITY AMID THE RUBBLE: A gruelling six-hour car ride from the border, Al-Sulaymaniyah is a surprisingly easy- going city surrounded by mountains on almost all sides. It had fallen on hard times, but its fortunes had improved after the oil- for-food arrangement was implemented. According to the UN- sponsored deal, Kurdistan receives about 13 per cent of Iraq's oil revenues, a sum that proved sufficient to rehabilitate some 3,500 Kurdish villages, but was apparently insufficient to improve the area's dilapidated roads.
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Still, for a region devastated by civil strife and two major wars, the city was remarkably calm. It also had a modern aspect. Often described as the cultural capital of Kurdistan, Al- Sulaymaniyah lives up to its reputation with surprising grace. It has a reasonable infrastructure of communications -- Internet, mobile phone and dish antennas. Despite the modest per capita income of 500 Iraqi dinars (less than $30) per month, food is plentiful and most can afford it. Women are dressed in a variety of European fashions. And, if you can afford eating out, the biriani and stuffed vegetable dishes are delicious.
Not everyone, of course, can afford to eat in restaurants. The poor still live in refugee camps. I visited a camp that was built four years ago in Bard Qarman. There, about 1,000 families are accommodated in makeshift tents covered with plastic sheets and exist on relief donations.
The local government, mindful of the economy, provides free education in Kurdish. The teaching of Arabic starts at fifth grade. When I questioned the practice, I was told how the Iraqi regime had repressed the Kurdish language in the past. Education officials said that once the situation improved they planned to have Arabic taught at first grade.
Most Kurds depend on animal husbandry. The mountains and valleys abound in grazing areas and animals are allowed to graze freely. You can buy a sheep for about $30 dollars -- a cow costs ten times more.
A few years of drought interrupted the hydro-electric power supply, so most Kurds use generators to light their homes and businesses. This, however, only partially solves the problem. Petrol, which is provided solely by the Iraqi government, is in short supply. Although it is relatively cheap, cars wait in line for hours at the pumps. Plenty of rain fell last year and the dams filled up. This could ease the situation. But money must first be found to repair the power grid.
CITY OF THE FOUR GODDESSES; Irbil (the name, I was told, means 'four goddesses') is the capital of the region and one of Kurdistan's oldest towns. Its most imposing feature is its castle. Perched on a sand hill and surrounded by an enormous moat, the castle houses entire markets, expansive residential areas, and a massive, if dilapidated, mosque. These date back to the early days of Islam.
It is hard to tell where Irbil begins and the countryside ends. The city is a maze of circular alleys, and the traffic is befittingly confusing. The surrounding farms produce great wealth in large crops of barley and wheat. So much so that the area is often described as the granary of Kurdistan. Monuments abound. These include a Saladin castle. Beyond, green hills, intersected by streams and waterfalls, roll away into the distance -- a place to visit, certainly, once the traffic and politics are sorted out.
A THRIVING COMMUNITY: Dahuk has a thriving merchant community, but electricity cuts can last six hours a day. When I tried to phone another Kurdish town, I discovered that I had to make an international call. Somebody told me later there are no direct telephone links between a number of Kurdish towns, mainly because of the political rivalries between the region's two leading parties.
Thanks to its closeness to the Turkish and Iranian borders, Dahuk shops, Port Said-style, brim with goods from Turkey, China, Iran, Syria, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Strangely, though, for an open city, the men of Dahuk retain their centuries old dress: baggy, striped trousers and turbans.
The village of Imadiyah, 1,400 metres above sea level, is perhaps the only place in the world that decreases in area as it becomes more populous. Built on a pinnacle, it loses its soil to erosion by the elements as its population increases. The view compensates for the precarious setting: orchard-covered hills and springs glinting in the sunshine.
Another outstanding feature is the Abbasid bridge near Zaku. In obvious need of repair, the stone-built, 117-metre bridge stands on massive slabs of rock neatly arranged at the bottom of the river. It alone would attract sightseers, once the region becomes more accessible to tourists.
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