Five years ago, Christopher Hitchens produced an engrossing essay for Vanity Fair in which he described a Christmas vacation spent with his son in Iraqi Kurdistan (Holiday in Iraq, Vanity Fair, 2007). For those unfamiliar with the region, Iraq’s northern Kurdish provinces were rescued from Saddam’s genocidal ambitions after the Gulf War of 1990-1991 by an Anglo-American enforced “no-fly” zone. As Hitchens solemnly states in his piece, Iraqi Kurdistan had a twelve year head start on its neighbours to the south, and provides a heart-wrenching glimpse of what could – and in his mind, should – have been for the rest of the country. Few writers held out more hope for the success of the Kurds, and it was in part his belief in the righteousness of their cause (and in their example of what a Saddam-free Iraq could be) that fueled his vehement support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Hitchens spent a great deal of time among the Kurds – whose population spans significant parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq – in the months following Desert Storm. At that time, they were a besieged people: displaced, divided, and, in Iraq, reeling from the chemical barbarism of a sadistic dictator. It was with this knowledge that Hitchens returned to Iraqi Kurdistan more than fifteen years later in 2006. Saddam was gone, the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan had been enshrined in a new constitution, and the president of “new” Iraq, Jalal Talabani, was a Kurd. Hitchens’ elation was evident in his prose. Kurdistan had always been Iraq’s most picturesque and oil-rich region, and its residents had apparently been making full use of their resources. He described a burned out landscape reborn with hotels, building projects, and a thriving oil industry; and a total domination of press and ideas overcome by newspapers, elections, and a thirst for internationalism.
It was with such images firmly in mind that Kat and I crossed the border from Turkey to Iraq in November. A good way to get yourself uninvited to dinner in Turkey, by the way, is to employ the term ‘Kurdistan’ with any kind of conviction. The Turkish government has long battled its own Kurdish nationalist movement, led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and any sympathy for their cause is more or less tantamount to treason. Even crossing the border, it is advisable to tell Turkish officials that you are headed to “Northern Iraq.” Once through to the other side, however, the green and red-framed sunshine of the Iraqi Kurdish flag welcomes you to a land of pride and redemption.
The first Kurdish city across the border is Zakho – renowned principally for its mysterious Dalal Bridge. From there, roughly four hours in a shared taxi (there is, as yet, no bus system that avoids the still-tumultuous south) takes you to the bustling and rapidly-modernizing regional capital of Erbil. The oil refineries on the way in, and the unbelievable number of hotels scattered throughout, are the clearest sign that the region is shaking off its troubled past. At times, it feels like the entire city is under construction. Malls and restaurants abound, as do the billboards of international companies. And while commercial development appears to be accelerating at an almost kitschy rate, one thing was clear: the economy of Iraqi Kurdistan is booming.
More money is usually better than less money, but I have learned from previous travels that it is best not to take “economic development” at face value. A sudden influx of resource wealth in formerly stagnant economies often comes replete with side effects. Upscale hotels and new roads can be a cheap way to mask a disproportionate concentration of new wealth and distract from significant environmental degradation. In the case of the Iraqi Kurds, the prevalence of “fast money” could also undercut the democracy they appear intent on building (Fareed Zakaria has made the case that pulling money out of the ground in the form of oil, rather than from citizens in the form of taxes, can seriously compromise government accountability).
A simple drive through the Kurdish countryside is enough to show that not everyone is benefitting from the region’s oil boom. Most small cities and villages remain incredibly poor, and I doubt if many of their residents have had the chance to loiter in Erbil’s new and overpriced cafes and restaurants (1 coffee = 8 USD!). The general attitude toward the environment, too, is plain to see. Buildings are raised quickly and randomly; roads are bulldozed through all manner of landscape; and the prevalence of garbage on the streets and in the hills does little to inspire the green-thumbed onlooker.
Discerning the political state of affairs is a little harder. Iraqi Kurdistan is a burgeoning democracy (Moussad Barzani was elected as regional president by parliament in 2005) but power is split between two highly entrenched parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The region may have been largely safe from Saddam after 1991, but the “no-fly” zone did little to prevent a bitter internecine war between these two political factions. In particular, the years between 1994 and 1996 saw horrific acts of cruelty perpetrated between Kurds, resulting in more loss and more refugees. Since 1998 the two parties have been working better together and, particularly since the 2003 invasion, a common Kurdish purpose (in Iraq at least) seems to have taken shape.
Even so, there are deep feelings of betrayal and distrust that may take generations to overcome. I met a photographer and filmmaker who was arrested by Saddam’s forces in Erbil at a time when the city was supposed to be off limits. At the height of the region’s civil feud, PDK forces took the drastic step of aligning themselves with the Iraqi dictator in an attempt to oust their rivals. Seeing a chance to reclaim the Northern provinces, Saddam captured Erbil and killed a lot of Kurds in the process. When asked his opinion of the current situation, my friend replied calmly that, “if you like roads, and oil and hotels, then maybe you’re happy; if you care about this land, its people, and its culture, then you’re not as happy.” He added that there remains significant division between the two major political parties, and that their control of much of the country’s new wealth (Barzani’s family is reportedly worth billions) has many people asking, “Where’s my share?”
Before leaving on the year-long trip that eventually brought Kat and I to Iraqi Kurdistan, I had phoned an acquaintance from Toronto. The man owns a small business in my old graduate school neighbourhood and we had become friendly. He was also the first Kurdish person I had ever met. When we decided that Iraqi Kurdistan would be included in our trip, I called to let him know that I would be visiting his homeland. He promptly emailed a list of contacts in the country, assuring me that Kurdish hospitality was unlike any other in the world.
One of the numbers was of a professor of sociology at Salahaddin University, the largest in Erbil. I called him upon arrival and, though I’m certain he had no idea who I was, he agreed to meet us for coffee within the hour. Educated in Vienna, he had been recruited by the university to help develop the faculty of social science and social work. Among other things, he was given the difficult task of teaching young Kurdish men and women how to counsel their brothers and sisters in a society where grief permeates multiple generations. Since Kat is a social worker herself, and no stranger to the concept of intergenerational trauma, our new friend invited her to give a lecture to a group of his students. The presentation was well-received (in English!), but it was clear that this small contingent of counsellors would have their work cut out for them. To throw a stone in Kurdistan is to risk hitting a “cycle of abuse”, as families struggle to deal with the repercussions of decades of loss. Most affecting was a conversation we had at a Kurdish wedding. In discussing the long-term effects of the Kurdish struggle, an English-speaking teacher pointed to three men sitting at our table and rather matter-of-factly informed us that we were flanked by three generations of anger, frustration, and consequent physical abuse.
In spite of the evident difficulties and testimonies of frustration, we enjoyed ourselves immensely in Erbil (and later in Sulaymaniyah, the region’s other major centre). The Kurdish reputation for hospitality certainly preceded itself and, by the grace of a most kind host, we were able to see both rural and urban areas, the mountain weekend retreats, the many bars and restaurants and “international villages”, and attend one of the most colourful and energetic wedding ceremonies one could imagine. The result was a glut of mixed emotions. By what standard should such a place be judged (if I can presume to judge it at all)? The professor perhaps framed it best when I asked him about the impact of rapid economic development on the Kurdish social fabric: “You have to understand,” he said, “Kurdistan was two meters underground. It was destroyed. It is now above the ground…but only two millimeters above.”
Hitchens was fond of recounting the actions of those dissidents who, tired of the shackles imposed by their totalitarian governments, strove to live “as if.” His accounts of Vaclav Havel in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia or the youth of present-day Iran, for example, describe a kind of every-day dissent, whereby brave men and women make the decision to live as if the absurdity of their respective regimes were just that. In the intervening years between 1991 and 2003, the citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan might also have laid claim to this esteemed designation. They were largely protected from Saddam, but his forces lurked across a precarious border, and rival Kurdish parties imposed their own brand of divide and rule. However belatedly, the Kurds of Iraq eventually came to behave as if they lived in a place of their own, and as if that place had a future.
In many ways Iraqi Kurdistan has aged well. Its claim to be the “Other Iraq”, a place primed for tourism and foreign investment, is not unfounded. The press is at least nominally free, business is undeniably growing, and the rhetoric of democracy is more than just a smoke screen. Encouragingly, women are visible (by regional standards) and active in parliament. The hijab is common but not mandatory, and there is a genuine interest in other peoples and cultures. And while reports of honour killings, suppressed protests, and government corruption and nepotism remind one of the work still ahead, there is nothing credulous about Hitchens’ assertion that, “[the Kurdish flag] at present represents the closest approximation to democracy and secularism that the neighbourhood can boast.”
Iraqi Kurdistan now approximates something like an “as long as” society. It will succeed as long as its two rival factions continue to work together and allow for (even welcome) competition from other parties with differing views. It will prosper as long as construction of hotels and malls is matched by investment in sustainable and effective health and welfare systems and checked by sound environmental policies. It will reach its full height (Hitchens’ words) as long as it is acknowledged that there is significant individual and collective healing to be done. Indeed, Iraqi Kurdistan will continue to be the example for the region as long as it puts its vast quantities of oil money somewhere in the vicinity of where its mouth is.