Broadening the mind on Iraq's lawless roads

By Cathrin Schaer

Viva explores the globe following three intrepid women taking the path least travelled. In the third adventure Cathrin Schaer visits a country which appears different from the headlines.

From stunning scenery and modern ice-skating rinks to traditional sweet stalls at the local markets, Iraq is full of interesting surprises for visitors. Photo / Thinkstock
From stunning scenery and modern ice-skating rinks to traditional sweet stalls at the local markets, Iraq is full of interesting surprises for visitors. Photo / Thinkstock

And there it was: an ice skating rink in the middle of a shopping centre. Hardly what the average New Zealander associates with Iraq and not somewhere I expected to end up on my journey to the Middle East.

"Do you want to have a go?" I asked my colleague Mayada, an Arab business journalist from Baghdad.

She took another look at the handful of kids shrieking, laughing and tottering their way around the modern indoor rink, slowly shook her head and smiled. "You know, Cathrin, there are so many ways to die in Iraq, I think I might just avoid this particular one," she said.

Mayada has a pretty good sense of humour. But she's also right. Most of the time we associate Iraq with conflict, death or violence: suicide bombers and sectarian conflict, attempted genocide, American soldiers, burning oil wells, Saddam Hussein's torture chambers ...

But not all of Iraq is like that. The shopping mall we're in today is in the north in what is known as Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the safer parts of the country. After years of conflict, the Kurdish people managed to eke out an agreement that gives them their own state within Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is part of Iraq but, inside its borders, it has its own laws, military and judiciary, its own economy and its own government. It also has its own oil wealth.

And here in the capital city of Erbil, where both Mayada and I are attending a journalism seminar, there are several, huge air conditioned shopping malls selling the kinds of consumerist junk one finds in shopping malls the world over.

It's not every day you get to visit a country that's been in the headlines this much. Although I knew I wasn't going to be roaming the streets in a flak jacket toting a notebook, I wasn't quite sure what to expect and was a little nervous.

But for the dozen or so journalists and photographers here from all around the country, Iraqi Kurdistan must seem like a bit of a holiday from their everyday reality in places like Baghdad or Mosul. This might be considered the "safer" bit of Iraq but bad things still happen here. However, somehow the sectarian violence that plagues the rest of Iraq doesn't seem to crop up as much.

It seems that the Kurdish people appear to have mostly put aside their religious differences in favour of their nationalistic tendencies. They are Kurds first; Shiites, Sunnis or Christians second.

After years of fighting, there's still a very strong military presence here. I found out more about this when we decide it would be an interesting exercise to try and visit an illegal gun market - every Iraqi town has one, apparently, usually hidden on the outskirts of town, and we decide to seek out Erbil's.

"Do you think I could get myself an AK47?" I ask. I've heard you can pick one up for about US$100 ($124). A Kurdish friend thinks that would be unlikely. Why? He explains the three levels of military that operate in Iraqi Kurdistan: there's the ordinary police force and then there's the Peshmerga, who started off fighting for Kurdish independence in the early 20th century, they're more like the military. And finally there's the Asayish, who are more like a secret police force.

"The Asayish would be the ones who guard the gun market and we'd need to ask their permission to go there," Qasim, a local journalist, explains to me. "They'll probably be fine with you going there to take a look but they'll know you're not supposed to be buying anything."

Qasim continues that, "if, for example, somebody comes and buys a few too many guns - you know, as if they're planning something - then the Asayish will keep an eye on them. They might just pay them a visit. They'll ask them a few questions, they might take the guns away, give them a warning, that kind of thing. It's not serious - they're just letting that person know that they know."

Outsiders are still regarded with some suspicion. "Yeah, they think we're all terrorists," another colleague, an Arab originally from Syria, tells me, laughing.

An Arab is more likely to have come from outside the territory and therefore, more likely to cause trouble of some sort.

Which brings me to one of the greatest pleasures, and biggest concerns in Iraqi Kurdistan: the lawless roads. The highway into the mountains near Iran consists of a skinny, two-lane black top, with its sides crumbling away and huge potholes. Yet everyone races around at 120km/h or faster. One of my fondest memories of Erbil is driving down the so-called highway. We're going way too fast, oven-hot air is blasting in through open windows, the bleached out landscape skids by and the punk-music-loving German driver is playing the Ramones way, way too loud. There was cold beer involved and it felt like we were at the movies. Or maybe in a movie.

As a result of the better security in Iraqi Kurdistan, the region has become a drawcard for international companies wanting to do business in the "new Iraq".

Just about the only obvious tourist attraction in this city is Erbil's Citadel. The mound of dung-coloured dirt sits in the centre of the city. It's akin to a human-sized ant hill, around 500 dwellings carved out of a giant mound of dirt; it's apparently the oldest continuously inhabited place on Earth. People have been living here for around 7000 years.

And at the top of the Citadel, there's a slightly ramshackle textile museum where you will find not only incredible fabrics, local weavings and carpets but also what may be the city's only actual tourist souvenirs and postcards. Over-priced, of course. The Citadel is under Unesco protection and under re-construction. And when we went, dragging our sweaty, dirty selves up the dusty hill in the bone dry 40C-plus heat, we seemed to be just about the only people there.

You don't see too many Westerners out and about. Walking around the local market, we look for cooking spices, tea glasses and henna, as well as the specially imported nutty Iranian sweets, genuine Turkish Delight and local honey with "special antiseptic qualities".

One taxi driver got lost taking us back to our hotel - there are no real street names in Erbil - but by the time we did find our lodgings, we were such good friends he offered us his phone number and a meal at his house. Try doing that in Panmure.

Overall, the general attitude towards us seemed to be either a sort of ambivalent curiosity or genuine pleasure at making our acquaintance. Which was interesting to me because everything we tend to hear and read about Iraq sets up a sort of opposition. Us against them. Guns and bombs.

Before I came to Iraq, I might have thought there were terrorist squads ready to behead me on every corner. I was ready to be scared of something more than ice skating.

But I think travelling here did what travelling is well known to do: it broadened my mind. Meeting the people in any country, no matter how war-torn, conflicted or headline-ridden, makes a place more real. It emphasises the human condition we all share. So although I didn't actually expect to be contemplating ice skating with a witty Baghdad journalist, in a mall in northern Iraq, I look back and think it was a damn fine thing that I got the chance to.

- NZ Herald

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