March 13, 2010
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An American Traveler in Kurdistan - By Ravi Kaneriya

"Are you kidding?"  That was the response I most commonly encountered when I told my co-workers that I was going on vacation to northern Iraq.  But I wasn't kidding.  I was adventurous, young, and above all curious.  I had been fascinated by the Middle East for a very long time, having studied its culture, politics, language, and history in school and on my own.  I had travelled widely in the Middle East and North Africa and visited many of the peoples of the Middle East, but one of the peoples I had yet to meet were the Kurds.  So it made sense that on a trip to Syria, I should make a trip to Kurdistan.  What I found there was a beautiful land, a rich history, a vibrant culture, a growing economy, a bright vision for the future, a tolerance of diversity, and above all a people of infinite generosity and kindness that has held onto its culture of hospitality despite a tragic history of abuse and loss. 

From the moment I took the bus from Nusaybin, Turkey to Iraqi Kurdistan, I was impressed by the character of the Kurdish people.  A Kirkuki Kurd on my bus, recognizing that I was a foreigner, without even being asked, offered to help me find my way safely to Duhok.  He helped me find a shared taxi to Ibrahim Khalil Crossing and looked out for me as we negotiated the various taxi stops, checkpoints, and government offices across the border.  A British Kurd, who I met in the taxi, learning that I was a fellow English-speaker, also became something of my guardian during the journey, negotiating fiercely with the taxi driver at the border to make sure that I would not be cheated en route to Duhok.  This concern for the well-being of foreigners was something I encountered time and time again.  The Kurds I met seemed have a genuine sense that foreigners in their country were guests, and you could tell that they wanted you to be safe and to have a good experience in Kurdistan.  En route to Dohuk, the 3 Kirkuki Kurds I was sharing the taxi with immediately offered me the front seat, and I quickly befriended them in the car, as they asked me questions about what an American like me was doing in Kurdistan and told me about their hopes of coming to American one day for an education.  They even helped me to find another taxi to my hotel upon arrival in Duhok.

In Duhok and Hawler, I strolled around the town, seeing the many construction projects going on throughout the city.  Seeing all the tourist infrastructure being built - the promenade, the amphitheater, the fountains, the sculptures, the parks - left me with a real sense that the Kurdish government was very organized and executing actively towards a long-term vision of developing the Kurdish tourism industry.  This organization and vision for the future was something I encountered throughout Kurdistan, whether in the new roads that had been built, the restored citadels and forts in the country, or the new hotels being built.  I walked through the brand new Majidi Mall in Hawler with my friend Omer, completely in awe of how normal everything was.  I witnessed rows of groceries, imported from all over the world, young boys and girls playing in the arcade and the bowling alley, and families visiting shops full of the latest Western fashions and Asian electronics.  I couldn't believe this was technically Iraq.  With the exception of the fact that there were more women and girls wearing hijab, I felt like I could have been back in a mall in America! 

In addition to the spectacle of rapid modernization and economic development, I left Kurdistan thoroughly impressed by the cooperation between the various Kurdish parties.  In other countries where different political groups have fought each other in civil wars, the post-conflict period has been driven by political instability and petty fighting over positions of power.  Politicians have put their own interests above those of their people.  And while the government in Kurdistan is not perfect, the ability of Kurdistan's politicians to put the animosities of the past behind and to decide to work together for the betterment of their people is an admirable achievement that many conflict-ridden lands from Afghanistan to Palestine can learn from. 

I also fell in love with the landscapes.  The regal hills around Zakho and the Zagros Mountains at dusk were a sight to behold.  I loved the stunning waterfalls and mountains of Gali Ali Beg, and the views of Lake Dokan from the road to Koy Sanjaq are something I will always remember. 

One of the most moving things I saw in Kurdistan was the Amna Suraka in Slemani.  As I walked through the dread prison, I felt a deep sickness and sorrow to think that in the rooms, through which I walked, women were once being raped, children were once being tortured, and men were once being electrocuted, beaten, and murdered.  I walked through the basement with its gruesome photographs of the Anfal Campaign against the Kurds, too disturbed to look at the faces of anguished young children, hideously deformed by chemical gas attacks.  To see personally this place of such suffering, and yet also to see in Kurdistan, a people rising from the ashes of this painful history, reaching towards a future of peace and freedom, was indeed a moving experience.  Many people who have suffered come out of their suffering numb to the pain of others or stuck in the memory of their tragic history.  By large, however, the people I met in Kurdistan, while remembering their past, remained a hospi
table and tolerant people looking to the future.  I was proud of the Kurds when I drove through Ainkawa, the neighborhood of Hawler where Christians from central and southern Iraq had found sanctuary.  During my trip, I met an Arab Muslim businessman, an Arab Muslim woman who had settled in Kurdistan due to death threats in Baghdad, and a Christian Arab mechanic who had fled religious persecution by extremists in Baghdad to find refuge in Ainkawa.  It is very admirable that despite the hardships that the Kurds suffered at the hands of many Arab Iraqis in the past that they have opened their hearts and their homeland to those less fortunate and in need.  It is my great wish that the Kurdish people will always stay this way and never let their suffering turn into arrogance or hatred towards their neighbors. 

If anyone wonders where hope still exists in this world, it is in Kurdistan.  Hope lives in the gardens, pools, and monuments to freedom erected in Sami Abdurrahman Park, once the site of a Saddam-era military facility.  Hope lives on the walls of the Amna Suraka, where a Kurdish prisoner's poem to his daughter reminds us that even in the most hellish of places, humanity and love persist.  Hope lives in the humble house of my friend Hoger in Amedi, where you find yourself deeply touched that people who live in such modest circumstances can still find it in their hearts to treat a complete stranger like a prince.  Hope still exists on the streets of Duhok, where murals of art and music illuminate the minds of Kurdish children who only 2 decades ago would have lived in fear.  Hope lives in the Kurdish countryside, where perhaps one day, the plans to rebuild some of the thousands of villages destroyed by Saddam Hussein will come to fruition. 

Above all, Kurdistan to me is a symbol of what the human spirit can achieve if only given the chance to be free.  This place was once a neglected, underdeveloped, and oppressed region in the north of Iraq.  Today, it is a beacon of freedom, democracy, competent government, pragmatic leadership, economic progress, diversity, and tolerance.  After this trip to Kurdistan, I left greatly impressed by both Kurdistan's achievements and the character of its people.  It is often said that the Kurds have no friends but the mountains.  I disagree.  The Kurds have at least two friends: the mountains and me. 


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