So, I’m lying on a fluffy white duvet and surfing the flat-screen TV embedded in my hotel room wall. I’ve just finished a meal of Milanese risotto flavored with saffron, washed down with a glass of chilled pinot grigio. Through the window, I can see the twinkling lights of what claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, giving way to the darkness of the plains of northern Iraq.
That’s right. I’m in Iraq. In a five-star hotel. With Italian wine and Italian food, cooked by a real Italian chef. There are buckets of iced champagne sitting on the bar downstairs, and a Bulgarian pianist is playing classical music in the marbled lobby. It’s just too un-Iraq to be true — and in some ways it’s not true.
For this isn’t the real Iraq, the one where bombs go off and people are assassinated and the electricity is almost never on. This is Kurdistan, the northern enclave that broke away from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and secured virtual autonomy from Baghdad following the U.S. invasion in 2003. It’s mostly safe, and much of it is beautiful, in some places spectacularly so. It’s populated not by Arabs but by Kurds, who claim European descent, speak their own language and are possessed of an unqualified love for all Americans.
It’s also old, with archaeological settlements dating back 9,000 years and remnants of a multitude of civilizations too numerous to list. Kurds like to promote it as “the other Iraq,” an acknowledgment that it is in fact part of that country. But as they will also readily tell you, they dream of independence in an expanded nation of Kurdistan reaching into Turkey, Syria and Iran.
And it is supposedly the hot new tourist destination of 2011, scraping in at No. 20 on National Geographic’s list of “20 best trips of 2011.”
I'm here to find out why.
It soon becomes apparent that the five-star Irbil Rotana Hotel is not the real Kurdistan, either. It’s a pinprick of Western-style luxury in a largely unspoiled land. Irbil’s spanking new airport, a cavernous structure of white steel and gleaming marble, speaks to Kurdistan’s aspirations to become a global destination for businessmen and tourists. Its rattlingly empty terminals suggest that there’s still a long way to go to fulfill those ambitions.
Here, travelers can obtain 10-day visas, which are not, however, valid for the rest of Iraq. And that raises one of the key challenges of any visit: figuring out where Kurdistan ends and the rest of Iraq begins. The borders between the region of Kurdistan and the rest of the country are hotly disputed, and it's not a good idea to stray beyond them into areas still prowled by insurgents.
Indeed, it’s a good idea to steer clear of any of Kurdistan’s borders, as three Americans who went hiking in the direction of Iran and were detained by Iranian soldiers in 2009 found out.
In addition to the risk of straying into hostile territory, travelers need to be aware of possible anti-government protests. Kurds recently underwent their own mini-version of an Arab Spring, with almost daily demonstrations in the region’s second city, Sulaymaniyah. Live ammunition was used against the demonstrators, and though the protest movement has now been crushed, the core grievances that caused it, including corruption and restrictions on free speech, have not been resolved. The unrest has severely dented Kurdistan’s claims of being an oasis of calm in a troubled region and undermined its boasts of democracy.
Kurds, however, know where the boundaries lie and where protests are likely to occur, so the best way to get around, short of joining an organized tour, is to hire local guides. Driver Ako Abdullah and Kurdish journalist Kamaran Najm are waiting for me at the airport, along with American photographer Sebastian Meyer, and we set out for Sulaymaniyah, a two-hour drive away.
Sulaymaniyah is what is known in Iraq as a “new” city, which means that it was built in 1784. It looks little like the flat, beige, monotonous cityscapes of Iraq so familiar from years of TV war coverage. Mulberry trees line the streets, snow-capped mountains glitter against a clear blue sky, and the bazaar is crowded with Kurds in the billowing pants and round caps that are the most visible signs of their distinctive culture.
We stop for tea at the legendary Sha’ab (People’s) tea shop, which is packed with men sipping glasses of piercingly sweet tea and shouting loudly while playing dominos. Apparently they are discussing such matters as poetry, art and politics, because this is the intellectual hub of a city that prides itself on its learning. The walls are lined with pictures of turbaned men who are famous poets, artists and writers.