Friday, 30 August 2013

One week in Iraqi-Kurdistan

So I have now been living in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan, for one week. These are some of my thoughts and experiences so far.

A week ago today I arrived at Sulaymaniyah airport, the only one in Kurdistan with direct flights from London. Nested among the Kurdish mountains, Sulaymaniyah is slightly smaller than Erbil, but it supposedly has a more liberal, progressive attitude than it's more conservative neighbour. I hope to get a chance to visit it soon, as well as the cities of Dohuk and Zakho to the west of Erbil. On the way from Sulaymaniyah, we drove through a beautiful, albeit rather dry, mountainous landscape inhabited by numerous large birds of prey who glided over our heads. We stopped for breakfast even though they had woken us up at about 2am on the plane for breakfast. We stopped at a roadside buidling and I recognised the word çêştxane (چێشتخانه) or restaurant. Since I had already eaten something I turned down the breakfast kebab (no different from lunch or dinner kebab) and so they brought me a plate of natural honeycomb, a plate of yoghurt and a plate of cheese. I realised this was probably considered the light dish, I managed to eat perhaps a quarter of it.

As we approached Erbil, we drove through what must be considered the suburbs, but really is just miles and miles of empty or half built houses. Since the 2003 war and the discovery of vast quantities of oil in Kurdistan which currently does not go to Baghdad, Erbil has been going through a huge building boom. Houses and flats are ridiculously expensive so obviously foreign investors see a lot of opportunity in building here. But this craze isn't just limited to the suburbs. Travelling through the city proper, perhaps a third of the buildings you see are just skeletons waiting to be bought. It's bizarre to look at everything seemingly so new in what is considered one of the oldest cities in the world (or the oldest if you ask anyone from here). In 5 years time I'm sure that the city will have changed massively from how it is now. They're even planning a tram system apparently!

Another aspect of the city which was quite new to me was how everything is quite isolated; there are very few shopping districts where you can walk around, shops are mostly in enclosed malls, apart from the bazaar and a few streets dedicated to electronics or to car parts. This means nobody really walks around, something I got quite accustomed to in Barcelona, although considering the heat outside it's somewhat understandable. Also considering that the petrol prices here are so low, 500 IQD per litre (£0.28, 0.32€, $0.43), everyone drives or takes taxis everywhere. I have to take taxis too because I'm not actually living in the city, but rather in a small village on the outskirts, although in a protected compound. Most foreigners live in Ankawa, the Christian quarter, but the school thought I'd be safer here, and since I'm not paying for rent or bills, I can't really complain.

I have gotten used to catching taxis and trying to explain to them where I want to go. I was surprised on my first trip that they didn't know basic landmarks in the city, so now I bring a map and phone in case I need to call somebody from the school to direct the driver. I've also learnt the standard prices and can tell if a driver is trying to fleece me. The good thing about the taxis is that I get to practice a little Kurdish every day and since they cannot speak English, the onus is on me to improve. That said, they don't seem to understand that just because I can say a few words doesn't mean I can understand everything; this is apparently what English people are like and it's kind of awful. However, if I manage to string a full sentence together, they tell me my Kurdish is very good - these false compliments are very helpful when starting to practice a language.

I went to a German bar/restaurant that is in Ankawa this week too. I met some very friendly English speaking Kurdish guys and drank German beer which felt weird. Actually most of the people I've met have been friendly even when we can't understand each other.

I've been learning things about regional Kurdish differences and am realising that the one Sorani grammar book that exists in English isn't going to be much help now since it obviously isn't based on the Hewleri dialect. For example, I thought that 'where are you?' is le kweyi?, but apparently it's more common in standard Sorani to say le chweyi?, not that different I know, but in Hewler it's more common to say le chênderi?. These are the kinds of things that you don't find in European languages since they've had many years of unifying their languages, unlike the Kurds, and often have a long tradition of studying their own languages and recording regional differences. Here people are more interested in studying science rather than humanities, althought to be fair humanities are a luxury for societies with time and money. Hopefully the Kurds will soon realise how important this is.

This is already a long post, so I'll save the rest for another time. I just wanted to say thank you to people who have been supporting me on facebook, especially for those times when I realise, holy shit I'm actually living in Iraq!


  1. Very nice post, Alex. Manténnos informados!! :)) Un abrazo!

  2. Hey ho,
    if you manage to stick it out there, it is my plan to come back to Iraqi Kurdistan within the next year - for learning Kurmandji.

    Gladly we have other languages in common, otherwise we might have a language barrier there, seeing that you are going for Sorani. As I noticed the two supposed dialects are pretty different ;)