The northern region of Kurdistan is not only safe, it’s scenically splendid, historically fascinating and fond of celebrations – to which you’re warmly invited...
"That horrible day, I was six years old.” Mohammed Saeed’s eyes welled with tears as he recalled the events of 16 March 1988 – the day that Chemical Ali blitzed the town of Halabja with poisonous gas, killing over 5,000 people. Now, 25 years on, I was visiting the museum that marks the atrocity.
For Mohammed the memories were still vivid. “Twenty-one members of my family tried to flee on a tractor, but became a target,” he explained. “My dad started screaming. A rocket hit the ground and two girls – my five- and eight-year-old cousins – were dead. While we were crying another person collapsed. One by one, people kept dropping down.”
Having lost most of his family, Mohammed acted on instinct. “My little sister Hamida was 18 months old. I took her in my arms. The wall collapsed where we were sheltering. I saw a hole opposite, a chickenhouse. It became a safe haven for us.”
Even when they were rescued and taken to hospital in Iran, Mohammed’s troubles didn’t end. His sister was whisked away, never to return. “Forty-three children disappeared. I think she is in Iran, adopted by a family.”
Today, Mohammed is healthy, married and has children of his own. But the mental anguish remains. “I’m a living martyr. I should be dead. But I am here to tell the story.”
Mohammed now works at the museum, showing visitors through the Hall of Tragedy, which contains reconstructions of the event. Another room displays graphic photos of the victims. They died in their homes, in the streets, on the backs of trucks. In one photo, a cat lies dead next to a baby. In another, a live calf sits next to its dead, bloated mother.
We watched a grainy video that – chillingly – includes the voice of Chemical Ali saying he will destroy the Kurds; he had already killed 180,000 Kurds by 1988. It’s no surprise that, in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan – the country’s far north, bordering Syria to the west, Iran to the east, Turkey to the north – people are thrilled that Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown.
Iraqi Kurdistan is now booming, thanks to the combination of its oil, its safety and an influx of international companies eager to invest. After years of persecution locals here have relative freedom and increasing prosperity – and are revelling in it.
Our guide, Karwan, told us that his family fled Iraq when he was small; he lived in the UK until 2003, returning when the allied forces invaded. Even he is surprised at the rapid changes in Kurdistan. “I’d never have dreamt that I would see this,” he admitted, adding, “I feel safer here than in bits of London.”
We’d flown into Erbil, known locally by its Kurdish name, Hewler. Leaving the airport, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t Dido playing on the radio or the new apartment blocks, shopping malls and Land Rover dealerships. Driving past cranes and building sites, it was hard to believe that Erbil has a rich history; the citadel at its heart lays claim to being the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlement. Fragments of pottery from Neolithic times have been found here, while reams of historic heavyweights – from the Sumerians and Assyrians to the Mongols and Alexander the Great – have lived within.
In the 1980s, Saddam planned to house his security forces in the citadel; he had its magnificent main gate pulled down to make it more “Arab-looking”. But restoration of the whole citadel is now underway. While most families have been moved out, one family has been allowed to stay – not least so the place can maintain its ‘continuously inhabited’ claim.
Regardless, the labyrinthine Qaysari Bazaar at the base of the citadel was still bustling. Stalls were piled high with walnuts, pistachios, apricots and strawberries, and we snacked on earthy stewed broad beans from a huge vat. A nearby shop was selling traditional musical instruments, including a type of lute called a saz. Yards away, a phone shop touted desirable phone numbers: whoever wanted 0750 445 1616 would have to pay $65,000.
Back at my hotel, Kurdish pop videos played in the bar-restaurant. While none of the artists were as scantily clad as Beyoncé, it was still a surprise to see sultry women writhe and pout, not a headscarf in sight. The sound was turned down while a band shuffled onto a small stage. A portly grey-haired gentleman then played a saz and sang ballads of love and loss. There was a brief stir when famous Kurdish singer Aziz Waysi walked in, but he sat quietly and everyone soon returned to their beers or arak.
The majority of Iraqi Kurdistan’s population are Muslim, but other religions are practised here – if not necessarily flourishing. “You can tell Christian villages by the beer adverts,” explained Karwan the next day, gesturing at a Tuborg poster as we drove through a broad plain, bright green with spring grass. Flocks of grazing sheep roamed with their shepherds, and giant storks’ nests perched on pylons.
We turned off towards the village of Alqosh, which sat before some hills that looked as if they’d been scraped by giant fingernails. A winding road took us up a slope to the Rabban Hormizd Monastery where we explored several cave rooms, a small cave chapel and a church.
Back down in the village, at the newer Monastery of the Virgin Mary of the Cereal, Father Gabriel took us through the history of Christianity in Iraq. There were once around 600 monasteries, and they were centres for learning and knowledge. However, many Christians have left the country; Father Gabriel was worried that one day there will be none left. There are just eight monks at this monastery now, which also serves as an orphanage.
Our next stop was Lalish, the spiritual centre of the ancient but little-known Yezidi religion – a perplexing hodgepodge of Zoroastrian, pagan, Christian and Sufi beliefs. We were greeted by Kamal, an English teacher, who filled us in. The Yezidis have been persecuted throughout their history; during Saddam’s time it was forbidden to come here. But now the temple at Lalish attracts a regular stream of pilgrims, especially for its April festival. There are only 80,000-100,000 Yezidi in the world, and numbers are gradually dwindling – which is unsurprising: they don’t accept converts and aren’t allowed to marry outside their faith; even the three castes within the religion can’t intermarry.
Someone mentioned that they’d heard the Yezidis don’t like the colour blue. True, Kamal answered: in the 1800s an attacking army had worn blue. Whoops! I hadn’t been very diplomatic, wearing a blue blouse and scarf...
Luckily, I wasn’t turned away, and we approached the temple. The entrance was engraved with important Yezidi symbols: a rooster, the sun, the moon, the pole star. We stepped carefully over the threshold – it’s forbidden to tread on it. Inside was a hall with seven pillars, representing the seven days of the week. Knotted swathes of fabric were wrapped around the pillars, each knot representing a wish.
If I had a wish, it was to meet the ordinary people of Kurdistan, which proved easy. If we so much as smiled at a family, they asked to have a photo taken with us. If we popped into a chaikana (teahouse), conversation flowed – and the owner wouldn’t let us pay. Likewise, if we tried to buy bread fresh from a tandoor, the baker invariably refused our cash.
One day, when driving through the countryside, we spotted a traditional-style house made from mud and straw – a rare sight. We jumped out to take a look. The matriarch of the house bustled over and invited us in for tea. We followed Zubri up wooden steps to a flat roof, removed our shoes, and were beckoned into the family’s living quarters.
At one end of the main living room there was a window, framing the mountain behind; a large TV sat next to it. At the other end was a wardrobe, and a curtain screening the family’s bedding – this room became the communal bedroom at night. The ceiling was made of wooden beams. To Zubri’s surprise we admired the house. “My daughters are embarrassed by it,” she explained. “They want a modern house like the others in the village.”
We sat on the carpeted floor and drank sweet tea as Zubri and her husband Sadiq teased each other with affection. The banter only stopped when the conversation turned to Saddam Hussein. The house had been bulldozed twice and set on fire four times by Saddam’s forces. “The peshmerga [Kurdish freedom fighters] used to come in from the mountains and we’d feed them,” said Sadiq. “But we paid the price for it.”
We drove on to Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan’s second city. That night was the start of Newroz, the equivalent of New Year’s Eve, to celebrate the year 2713. By the time we arrived it was dark, the main street was closed to traffic, and fireworks were exploding.
The crowd steadily grew. There were women dressed in shimmering reds, blues, pinks; their eyes were rimmed with kohl, and some wore gold-coloured headdresses. Many of the men and boys were in traditional dress too. One group danced in a semi-circle, their arms around each other’s shoulders. Another – in traditional garb but with trendy hairstyles – linked arms and danced in a line.
Nationalistic Kurdish music pumped out from a small stage, the focal point for flag-waving and outbreaks of dancing. All along the street were food stalls selling the ubiquitous bakla (broad beans) or tea, while the bottleshops were doing a roaring trade. The atmosphere was relaxed and family-friendly, and the crowds started to dissipate well before midnight.
By morning there was no sign of the previous night’s revelry, and the streets were near empty. We headed to Freedom Park, where some young women students were dressed up to the nines. They giggled as we chatted and had our photos taken together. The mood was carefree, yet just over the road was a dilapidated, nondescript ruin that was once the notorious Amna Suraka, or Red Building, where security services tortured, murdered and raped thousands of Kurds.
Rebin, one of our guides, told us that his uncle had been a prisoner here, and that his father, a peshmerga, had stormed the building and freed him. Karwan had been born just a few minutes’ walk away; his family fled to the mountains when Karwan was young, before ending up in the UK. Everyone in Kurdistan had a story to tell.
The tales were chilling, but it was hard to stay sombre for long when so many Kurds were determined to enjoy the holiday. We joined the thousands heading out of town to celebrate with an alfresco feast. Family groups of up to 50 would claim a roadside verge or a shady spot in a meadow. There they would lay out a feast, play football, fly kites, and set up hammocks in the trees. And they would dance, joining hands and forming a semi-circle, moving sideways with rhythmic steps.
We turned off the main road into a well-known beauty spot. It was crammed with families but, further up a twisting road, we found a space. As we stretched our legs, one family asked us to join them dancing, while another brought over tea and invited us to share their food. However, we had our own magnificent feast, prepared by Karwan’s wife. The centrepiece was a typical festival dish of yaprakh – vegetables, including aubergine, onions, courgettes and peppers, stuffed with lamb, rice and herbs, and baked together for hours, before being turned out as a giant melt-in-the-mouth ‘cake’. My veggie version was one of best things I’d eaten for ages.
Everywhere, people were dancing, eating, drinking and playing games. “Years ago we would not have been able to do this. We couldn’t travel, we couldn’t celebrate,” explained Karwan, a grin on his face.
It had been a particularly special day. But the next day was a Friday – the traditional picnic day – and so the families were out in force again. This time, after a short walk, we made a fire and barbecued kebabs. On the Saturday, as we drove back to Erbil, there were still some diehard families out in the countryside, dancing and feasting.
For us, it was journey’s end. As we headed to the airport, we were told that the government was thinking of declaring the next day to be another holiday; there was to be an announcement at 6pm. “What will you do if it’s a holiday?” I asked our guides.
“We’ll go to the countryside for a picnic with our families!”
Kurdistan has few major sights. But it’s got mountains, lakes and rivers – with potential to become a top adventure travel destination in time. It also has rich and moving history. And it has hospitable people always ready to hold a party – to which you’re sure to be invited.
Yes. Run by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Governmnt, Iraqi Kurdistan is the only exception to the British FCO's advice about avoiding travelling in Iraq.