February 28, 2006

The Utah of the Middle East

SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ – When I first saw the city of Suleimaniya, in Northern Iraq, during daylight I was startled. Out my hotel room window was a straight street, the first such street I had seen in almost half a year. That probably doesn’t sound like a big deal. And it isn’t. But it threw me for a second. There aren’t many right angles and straight lines in the East. Those few that exist are as striking as snow in the tropics for people like me who are used to disorienting and chaotic urban environments.

Suli from Hotel.jpg

Suleimaniya isn’t North America even if it reminded me of home for a brief moment. And the only thing out my window that really looked Western was the straight street. Nothing else did. But the longer I stayed in the city the more like home I decided it was.

Iraqi Kurds build parks in residential areas filled with single-family homes, something completely unheard of in Beirut and Cairo where everyone lives in apartment towers and there is almost no green space at all. I prefer dense urban environments to suburbs, and I always have. But there was something oddly refreshing about the layout of Suleimaniya. I couldn’t stop thinking that it was the Utah of the Middle East.

Suli Park.jpg

I met an Kurdish Iraqi couple in Suli who lived for a while in the United States. Ras Rasool is a teacher. Her husband Shwan Zring is an engineer and a member of the Iraqi National Congress. They both came back to Iraq to help rebuild after Saddam’s regime was demolished. Utah was the first place they landed when they arrived in the States. They stayed there for seven months. When I said “Suli looks to me like the Utah of the Middle East” they both burst out laughing. “That’s exactly what we think as well,” Shwan said.

Utah (at least the urban part) bores me. And I get a kick out of Beirut (the Paris of the Middle East). But Suli is relaxing. Suli is calm. Suli is weirdly prosperous, tidy, and suburban considering which country it’s in.

Somewhere around 800,000 people live in the city today. Three years ago only half as many lived there. Like any city that undergoes rapid urban migration, most of the newcomers live on the outskirts. Unlike in most Third World cities, the people who live on the outskirts don’t live in shanties or slums. Their part of the city is actually more prosperous than the old urban core.

Nice Suli Neighborhood.jpg

I’m not cherry-picking these photos. I spent almost a week in the city. Every neighborhood I saw, from one end of Suleimaniya to the other, looked either lower middle-class or amazingly wealthy.

Some Kurds are returning home from the diaspora loaded with cash. Others are making money off the surging economy. Iraqi Kurds who remain in the West remit money back to family members who never left.

Real poverty, of the grinding Third World variety, did not appear to exist. If it does exist, it is very well hidden, at least in the cities. (The countryside is still primitive.)

Suli Mountains.jpg

Expensive Suli Neighborhood.jpg

Downtown is compact. There is no skyline. It has the look and feel of a tiny city or a very large town.

Downtown Suli.jpg

It’s modern, for the most part. I was told the city is only 220 years old, which makes it just a squawling infant compared with ancient Erbil, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Damascus. But it still looks and feels like the East in some places. Downtown still has its grand bazaar, its outdoor markets, and its traditional Kurdish cultural flavor.

Suli Bazaar.jpg

Old Man in Suli.jpg

Women in Suli.jpg

A lot of Iraqi Kurds want to leap out of the old Middle East and join the global economy. They actually want McDonalds to move there and open up “restaurants.” Even liberal intellectuals yearn for Starbucks and KFC. The Western part of the global economy has much more to offer the world than these kind of places, but the corporate chains are too skittish to move there. So the Kurds don’t even get KFC.

A few of them, though, have decided to just rip off the corporate American chains and build their own pirated versions. The fake “Sheraton” in Erbil isn’t the only knock-off around. There are two separate bogus McDonalds “restaurants” – one called MaDonal, the other Miran – that blatantly steal the Golden Arches logo and design. Everyone I asked said the food at both fake McDonalds' is hideous. That's one reason why they want the real deal. I didn't have the heart to tell them that real McDonald's food isn't very good either.

One enterprising Iraqi opened a copycat “Domino’s Pizza.” He stole the name as well as the logo. He also downloaded a picture of a real Domino’s Pizza in North America, printed it out on his computer, and framed it on the wall.


Dominos in Suli.jpg

For better or for worse, Starbucks wouldn’t look at all out of place in most of the new developments in the shiny glass modern ring around the city.

Suli Strip Mall.jpg

New Suli Construction.jpg

One of the downsides to all this explosive new construction, at least from an architectural point of view, is that many of the new houses and buildings don’t make any design sense. Below is the Suleimaniya Library. It’s not an ugly building. It certainly beats Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian detritus that still clutters up much of the landscape. But the architect can’t decide if his building is modern or classical, and the fusion of the two does not really work.

Suli Library.jpg

It’s a petty complaint, though, I know. Meaningless, in fact, when you think about what these people have been through the last couple of decades.

There are some serious complaints about the way things are progressing. I met Dana Qashani, an Iraqi Kurd who lived and worked for a while as an urban planner of sorts in Britain. He says Suleimaniya is in worse shape now than it was three years ago: Automobile pollution has gone up with the increased prosperity. There is no urban planning to speak of. The city is expanding so fast there aren’t even any maps that detail it. (Saddam Hussein banned maps anyway, though, so I suppose they’re used to that.) The local government is crazily thinking of putting up skyscrapers before they bother installing a sewage system. There are so many new roads under construction at all times the city has become a nightmare of detours. (I can attest to that one myself.) Some of the construction firms are a bit dodgy, and there is nothing to guarantee that what was built yesterday won’t collapse on the new owner’s heads in two weeks.

Considering that some cities in Iraq are still exploding, it was hard for me to get too bent out of shape about development problems. Look at all the glass in Iraqi Kurdistan. Who in their right mind would build a city that looks like this if they weren’t sure car bombs, rockets, and bullets are a thing of the past?

New Suli Buildings.jpg

Postscript: Don’t forget to hit my tip jar! Would you know Northern Iraq looked like this if I didn’t go there with my camera and bring back these pictures?

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:50 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 27, 2006

Driving to Suli

KURDISTAN, IRAQ – I liked almost everyone I met in Iraqi Kurdistan. But no culture is without its annoying bastards, and the idiot who drove me from Erbil to Suleimaniya was one of them.

A torrential storm blew into Erbil on my last morning in the city. Streets flooded, in some places with feet of water. The power was out everywhere except in my fake “Sheraton” hotel. A journalist friend who was staying in another hotel packed his bags and moved into the “Sheraton” while I was on my way out. His hotel was wet as well as dark.

“You might not want to drive to Suli today,” he said. “You’ll have to go over some steep mountain passes.”

“I’m from Oregon,” I said. “It rains eight months out of the year there. I’m not worried.”

I would have to find a new driver and translator in Suleimaniya unless I wanted to pay hotel accommodations for my guys in Erbil. So I asked Birzo, my translator, to find me a driver who would just drop me off at my hotel in Suli, then turn around and head back to Erbil. He took me downtown and set me up with a company that had a good reputation.

“This man will take you to the Suli Palace Hotel,” Birzo said as he introduced me to a fat grinning 20 year-old. “Normally it would cost 50 dollars, but it’s raining so he wants 60. He doesn’t speak English, but you should be fine. He knows where the hotel is.”

“Okay, Birzo,” I said. “Thanks for all your help.”

“If you have any problems,” he said, “just call me and I will translate for you over the phone.”

I loaded my luggage into the car and we were off.

As we were leaving the city, my driver said “We go Kirkuk.”

“No!” I said, more sharply than I probably should have.

“Kirkuk good, Kirkuk good,” he said.

“No,” I said. “Suleimaniya. We are going to Suleimaniya.”

“Erbil. Kirkuk. Suleimaniya.” he said. The fastest road went through Kirkuk. “Kirkuk good.”

Kirkuk isn’t good. It’s a catastrophe. Violent acts of terrorism and war take place every day in that city. Westerners are specifically targeted. Bonus points are earned for killing or capturing Western journalists. I dared not go to that city without a security detail, and especially not with a stranger who doesn’t speak English.

Kidnapping crews have set up shop all over Iraq. Guys will snatch you off the street for a mere 1,000 dollars. Then they’ll sell you to another crew who pays 5,000 dollars. You get traded all the way up to the top of the kidnapping chain where one of two things will happen. For-profit criminals will release you if someone pays them millions of dollars. Or Zarqawi’s jihadists will cut off your head on TV. It all depends on which group of vicious bastards you end up with. Kirkuk is in Iraq’s red zone where the kidnappers and killers still operate.

“No, no, no, no, no,” I said. “We are not going to Kirkuk.”

“Kirkuk good,” he said again.

I called Birzo.

“Birzo,” I said. “It’s Michael. I need you to talk to my driver, please. He insists on taking me to Kirkuk. Either we go directly to Suleimaniya or I’m getting out of this car.”

“Hand him the phone,” Birzo said. “I will talk to him.”

I handed my driver the phone. He and Birzo had a little chat in Kurdish. The driver handed me the phone back.

“It’s fine,” Birzo said. “He will take you directly to Suleimaniya.”

“Thanks, Birzo,” I said. “Sorry for bothering you. I’ll see you again in a few days.” I hung up the phone.

“Kirkuk good,” my driver said.

I wanted to punch him.


He turned and went onto a different road out of the city, this time toward the mountains. It looked like we were going the right way. But I had never driven to Suleimaniya before. My plan was to take a nap on the road, but now I needed to be awake and alert in case he tried to drive me unprotected into the war zone.

I didn’t know him from Adam. He was probably just blasé about security. He seemed like a simpleton and he probably didn’t realize that Kirkuk is much more dangerous for me than it is for him. I doubted he wanted to take me to Kirkuk. He almost certainly just wanted to take me through it on the faster road to Suleimaniya. But there was no way I could be sure he wasn’t some bastard who would drop me off in the wrong part of town for 1,000 dollars. It was unlikely, I know. But I couldn’t be sure. So I stayed awake to verify that we stuck to the mountains and didn’t drive down into the plains. I could go to Kirkuk with the Peshmerga or with the army, but not with this guy.

We drove for hours through the mountains in a horrendous downpour. After a while I was certain he wasn’t taking me to Kirkuk. I didn’t have a map with me (I never did see one for sale anywhere) but I know the geography in my head.

I started to feel bad that I didn’t trust him and that I had yelled “No!” at him so fiercely. But I remembered what my Palestinian-American friend had told me in Erbil: “Never forget that you’re in Iraq.” I didn’t quite act like myself in that country, at least not all the time. I even slept differently. Normally it takes me an hour to fully wake up in the morning, but in Iraq I was instantly awake and alert and hyperaware of my surroundings.

Night fell and we were still on the road. It took much longer to reach Suleimaniya than I expected, mostly because of the hard driving rain. Finally I saw the faint glow of whatever electricity was still on in the city as we approached the outskirts.

My driver pulled off the road and started to park behind a taxi sitting there with its lights off.

“Taxi,” he said.

“No!” I said, really pissed off now.

He got back on the road and sped up.

The nerve of that guy. I was paying him to drive me to a hotel in Suleimaniya, not to a place in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Suleimaniya, in the countryside, in the rain, in the dark, in Iraq. No way would I let him strand me out there like that. And I wouldn’t give him a tip either.

Suleimaniya was flooded just as badly as Erbil was flooded. We pulled off the highway onto a low lying street that had been turned into a fast-moving river. The water was so high I’m amazed it didn’t flood the inside of the car.

When we finally reached the inside of the hotel, an attendant who wore a hipster goatee ran outside to the car in the rain and soaked himself bringing my luggage into the lobby. I tipped him five dollars. (I didn’t have anything smaller, and I could not give him nothing.) My driver saw me do this.

I handed 60 dollars to the driver, the agreed-upon amount. He stuffed it in his pocket, then stuck out his hand asking for more.

“What?” I said, pretending I did not understand.

A security guard holding a machine gun said “He wants you to give him more money.”

I looked at my driver cold in the eyes and said “No.” You don’t try to drive me into a war zone, then try to strand me in the Iraqi countryside during a storm and expect to make extra money.

He swatted his hand at me like a little girl and stormed out of the hotel in disgust. The security guard laughed. I went up to my room, happy to be in a warm well-lighted place.

Postscript: If you enjoy these stories, don’t forget to hit the tip jar!

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:27 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 22, 2006

The Beginning of the Universe

Center of Lalish 1.jpg

LALISH, IRAQ – In Northern Iraq there is a place called Lalish where the Yezidis say the universe was born. I drove south from Dohok on snowy roads through an empty land, seemingly to the ends of the earth, and found it nestled among cold hills.

I went there because the President of Dohok University told me to go. “I am a Muslim,” he said. “But I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.”

Yezidis are ancient fire-worshippers. They heavily influenced Zoroastrianism, and in turn have been heavily influenced by Sufi Islam. The temple at Lalish is their “Mecca.” Hundreds of thousands of remaining Yezidis – those Kurds who refused to submit to Islam – make pilgrimages there at least once in their lifetimes from all over the Middle East and Europe.

“They worship Satan,” my Kurdish-speaking driver said to me through my translator Birzo before we got out of the car. It sounded like ignorant bullshit to me, and not only because Saddam Hussein also said so. I would have to ask the Yezidis about that.

We parked the car and approached a Yezidi man wearing Peshmerga pants and a checkered kerchief over his head and his shoulders.

Yezidi Man.jpg

He greeted us warmly and introduced to another man who said he would be happy to show us around.

A small conical monument sits in a courtyard in the center of Lalish. It represents heaven and earth. The round knob at the top is the sun. Inside the cone are seven layers. Supposedly there are seven layers in the earth. “Science proves this,” my Yezidi guide said. A candle representing the life force of the universe burns inside.

Center of Lalish 2.jpg

Candles are placed in wind-protected altars all around Lalish. The Yezidis keep the flames burning forever. Without fire, they say, all life would be extinguished. I supposed they were right. (I wondered what they would do to a person who blew out the candles.)

Yezidi Candle Outside.jpg

Small buildings that I first thought were houses surround the central courtyard. These small buildings are shrines. (Lalish isn’t a village. No one actually lives there.) The shrines are sacred places dedicated to various Yezidi prophets who are said to help people with physical ailments. There is a shrine where you go if you have a back ache. There is a shrine where you go if you have a tooth ache. And so on. The soil inside and under the shrines is supposedly magic.

Yezidi Shrine.jpg

My Yezidi guide (below, right) asked me and Birzo (below, left) to take off our shoes before he led us into the temple.

Yezidi Temple Door.jpg

“Please step over the entryway,” our guide said. “Don’t step on it.”

I stepped over the entryway.

“Why can’t we step on it?” I said.

“It isn’t proper,” he said.

The temple was dark inside. I could hardly see a thing. So I took out my digital camera, turned on the flash, and snapped a picture so I could see what it looked like.

Inside Lalish Temple.jpg

Silk cloth draped from ropes as though it were laundry hung out to dry. Simple brick arches separated two long narrow sides.

In the far corner was a small chamber. You had to duck your head to get inside. Non-Yezidis were not allowed to enter.

Two young men entered the temple, ducked into the sacred chamber, and came out with small metal stands with what look looked like square cooking pans attached to the tops. They poured oil into the pans, brought them into the public space, and dropped in some lit matches. Small flames burned in the corners.

Yezidi Flame.jpg

My feet froze. Never in my life have my feet been so cold. I’ve taken my shoes off in lord-knows-how-many mosques, but mosques have carpeted floors. The temple at Lalish was open to the winter mountain air, the floor was made of cold hard stone, and I stood on it for a long time. Pain shot up my ankles through the balls of my feet. But I wasn’t about to complain. When would I ever be here again? I was honored that they let me inside their “Mecca,” their birthplace of the universe, only because I showed up and said hi.

When we went back outside the temple I put my shoes back on with tremendous relief. Birzo’s feet didn’t seem to be doing any better than mine, but the Yezidis were used to the cold.

Birzo and I waited on a small elevated platform above the temple courtyard while our guide went and summoned Baba Sheikh, the Yezidi version of a top imam or priest. Actually, he was more like their Pope.

Baba Sheikh greeted us warmly. He wore a white robe, sandals despite the cold, a tan shawl, and a black belt. His face, with its fiercely intelligent eyes, was framed by a long black beard and a one-inch thick headband.

“Sometimes translators do not translate correctly for me,” he said to me in Kurdish through Birzo. He then squinted just slightly at my innocent translator before nodding at me as though he trusted me more, as though we shared some sort of a bond.

“Please,” he said. “Ask me anything you like.”

I wanted to ask about the accusation that the Yezidis are in cahoots with Satan, but it probably wasn’t the best thing to lead with.

“Are you married?” I said. “Can Baba Sheikh take a wife?”

Baba Sheik must be married before taking the job. Only men from his tribe can be sheikhs. It has always been thus.

I also wanted to know about prohibitions. I knew tobacco wasn’t a problem because there were several Yezidis around, including my guide in the temple, and they were chain-smoking Marlboros.

The Yezidis borrow from the three main monotheisms in the region. As it turns out, alcohol is prohibited. So is pork. So, of all things, is lettuce.

“Why do you not trust translators?” I said. “Do you think they misrepresent what you say on purpose?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “A journalist came and spoke to me twice in two years. He had a different translator each time. I was shocked the second time I saw him because his first translator told him so many things that weren’t true. There was no way I could know this until he came back with somebody else.”

“Are you friends with Satan?” I said. “Some Muslims have told me Yezidis are friends with Satan.” I didn’t tell him that my driver, who was standing right next to me, had said this only a half-hour ago.

“We are not friends with Satan. This is a common point of confusion. They mean Malek Taus. He is the King of the Angels, and the Yezidis follow his way.”

Malek Taus is some kind of celestial peacock. He supposedly said no to God, who did little more than create the universe from a pearl, when God asked all the angels to pray to Adam. “Adam,” he said (as in Adam and Eve) “was a prophet of God.” But Malek Taus later repented and has been in God’s good graces since.

What’s important about Malek Taus is that he (it?) was given the choice to follow good or evil, just as human beings are given that choice. Malek Taus chose the good path even though he did not have to. He sets the right example, then, for humans to follow.

“Can someone from another religion become a Yezidi?” I said.

“No,” Baba Sheik said. He shrugged his shoulders and cocked his head. “We are the original people,” he said and spread out his arms. “We can’t become a cocktail religion like Islam.” Everyone, including my Muslim driver and translator, thought that was hilarious.

They’re a bit like the Druze then, the fierce people who live in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon. You can’t convert and become a Druze either. Yezidis believe they will be reincarnated as Yezidis after they die, just as Druze believe they will be reincarnated as Druze.

Baba Sheikh apparently didn’t want me to think they were close-minded bigots. “We are a peaceful people,” he said. “We don’t interfere with others. We are the nation of generosity and kindness.”

He didn’t think that about everyone else in the region.

“72 times Muslims tried to conquer us,” he said. “Christians never once tried to conquer us. The Christians are wise, not like Muslims.”

I checked Birzo’s facial expression, body language, and tone of voice when he translated this for me. He didn’t seem offended at all, even though I knew he was a believing Muslim. He was almost certainly translating correctly. He’s a real professional, and I already trusted him anyway. If he was going to edit anything out, he probably would have edited that out.

“Can Yezidis marry people from other religions?” I said.

“No,” Baba Sheikh said. “We cannot intermarry. A Yezidi might want to convert to Islam or Christianity if he behaved badly as a Yezidi and needs a new beginning. Only then can he marry someone who is not a Yezidi.”

What about the significance of fire?

“Fire is from God,” Baba Sheikh said. “Without fire, no one would live. When Muslim Kurds swear today they still say I swear by this fire.”

“Do you think of yourselves as Kurds?” I said. They self-identify as Yezidis, but they speak Kurdish and obviously feel some kind of kinship with the Muslims.

“When there is politics, we are Kurds,” he said. “When there is no politics, we are Yezidis.”

He told me about their “Bible.”

“Our holy book is called The Black Book. It is written in gold. The book is in Britain. They took our book. That is why the British have science and education. The book came from the sky. If you go to the British Museum you can see it.”

Did they have any copies?

“There are no copies,” Baba Sheikh said. “The book is in our hearts.”

“Christians have churches,” I said. “Muslims have mosques. What do you call your temples?

“We call them mazars,” he said.

“Do you have any in Europe?” Hundreds of thousands of Kurds live in Europe, and tens of thousands of those are Yezidis.

“We have no mazars in Europe,” he said “Only in the Middle East and in Russia. We cannot make new ones. These are all originals. Muslims will build a mosque on top of a dump site after clearing the garbage. We could never do this.”

Birzo still didn’t seem offended by what Baba Sheikh said.

Lalish Courtyard.jpg

Night was coming soon and it was getting colder outside. Birzo and I started to get shifty. We needed to get moving.

“Thank you so much for meeting with me,” I said and firmly shook Baba Sheikh’s hand.

“All people in the world should be brothers,” he said. “You are always welcome here for the rest of your life.”

We drove away from Lalish and stopped in a field to watch the sun go down over the mountains.

Outisde Lalish.jpg

I asked Birzo if he found Baba Sheik’s comments about Islam and Muslims offensive.

“Of course not,” he said. “I understand his mentality and he understands mine. It’s okay. We are Kurds. Kurds don’t get upset about religion. We aren’t like Arabs. We believe in arguments based on reason, not emotion. If people don’t agree with me about something, I’m not going to get mad at them. We will just have different opinions.”

“I like the Yezidis,” I said.

“I do, too,” he said. “They are peaceful people, but they resisted Islam for so many centuries. You have to admire them.” I didn’t expect a Muslim to say that. Perhaps my expectations weren’t fair.

Watching the sunset after being welcomed at the birthplace of the Yezidi universe, there was nowhere else in the world I would rather have been at that moment. Hippies would love the Yezidis, I thought. I felt lucky that I was able to meet them.

When we got back in the car it hit me: Oh that’s right, I’m in Iraq. For the first time since I got there I had completely forgotten.

Twenty minutes later we passed the turnoff to Mosul.

Postscript: If you enjoy my posts from Iraq, please don’t forget to hit the tip jar. I can’t do this for free. Thanks!

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:07 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

The Utah of the Middle East

I have a new (short) article published today in The Bulletin, the Australian edition of Newsweek. I wanted to call it The Utah of the Middle East, since that’s what much of Kurdistan looks like, but they changed it to The Kurd Way.

UPDATE: Lebanon.Profile writes in the comments:

Once again, the blogosphere beats the MSM. However, it's somewhat odd that the blogger Michael Totten took on himself.

Okay, that's a bit disingenuous. You were restricted to the MSM rules, which detracted from your reporting instead of benefiting it. The article is good, and I can't help thinking that I would have liked it more had I not read your original post. It just doesn't compare to what we get here.

Left to your own devices, what we got was superb without any rules, regulations, or editors.

He is absolutely right. I, too, prefer what I can self-publish without any restrictions on content, style, and length. That's why I'm publishing the lion's share of my material on the blog. (I am able to do that thanks to you hitting my Tip Jar.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:30 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 21, 2006

The Safest City in Iraq

DOHOK, IRAQ – Everyone I talked to in Erbil said the city of Dohok, near the border with Turkey, was both safer and prettier. So I made the three-hour drive through the mountains, partly so I could see the spectacular scenery and also because I didn’t want to drive through Mosul. Mosul is part of Iraq’s greater red zone, so to speak. The scumbags of Al Qaeda still operate there.

It shouldn’t be a big deal to just drive through a place for ten minutes where Al Qaeda hides out. But a brief conversation I had with a driver and translator in Erbil made quite an impression on me. After driving around the city for two hours, my translator said “If we were doing this in Baghdad we would be dead by now.”

The driver nodded vigorously.

“It’s that dangerous?” I said.

“With your face,” my translator said, “and with our Kurdish license plates on the car we could not last two hours.”

Mosul isn’t as bad, although it is bad enough. I don’t know if Baghdad is really even that bad. But I didn’t want to test one of the hot spots with my life. Not without a security detail or at least some weapons of our own. We didn’t have any, and we weren’t going to get any. So we took the back roads to Dohok even though it added an hour of driving time.

I could see that Dohok was different from Erbil even from a distance. Erbil is south of the mountains, in the plains. Dohok is surrounded by mountains on all sides.

Dohok from Distance.jpg

Driving into the city we passed nice house after nice house after nice house. The photograph below isn’t cherry-picked. It is fairly representative of what driving into Dohok looks like.

Driving Into Dohok.jpg

Not everyone who lives there has a house as big as these. But I saw no squalor and no slums. I’m not saying squalor doesn’t exist, but if it does it’s well hidden. Dohok isn’t like a city in Latin America (or Egypt) where poverty is everywhere even if some areas happen to be prosperous at the same time. Dohok is objectively a nice place by international standards.

It’s not an opera house and art museum kind of city. Not by a long shot. Dohok is more like a suburb in Utah. It’s boring, in other words. But it’s pleasantly boring, and that’s the worst thing I can say about it. Considering that Dohok is in Iraq, it’s doing just fine.

Whenever I was out and about in Erbil I couldn’t get it out of my head: I’m in Iraq I’m in Iraq I’m in Iraq.

In Dohok everything changed. There I kept thinking: This is Iraq? It doesn’t look like Iraq at all. (But it is Iraq, so I guess it does look like Iraq.) More important, it doesn’t feel like Iraq. There is no terrorism and no fighting – none whatsoever – in Dohok. There are too many Peshmerga checkpoints between the war zone and the city. You could go there on holiday (if you want) and feel just as relaxed as you would in a medium-sized city in Canada. The people are friendlier, though, so you might even feel more at ease.

My American friend Sean LaFreniere recently emailed me from Denmark. “Is it true that they have laser scanners in supermarkets in Kurdistan?” he asked me.

Well, yeah. Iraqi Kurdistan has serious problems that will take a long time to fix. (Very little electricity unless you own a generator, no ATMs, corruption in government, etc.) But most Americans would be shocked, I think, to discover just how prosperous, modern, and normal it is, at least on the surface.

Yes, they have laser scanners in supermarkets. A supermarket in Northern Iraq looks more or less like a supermarket anywhere in North America.

Outside Mazi Mart.jpg

Dohok is weirdly unexotic, in fact. It doesn’t even look or feel Eastern, let alone Iraqi. The Iraqi Kurdistan cities of Dohok and Suleimaniya are the most Western-looking places I have seen in five months. And I’ve been to two countries in Europe (Cyprus and Turkey, if Turkey is to be considered “European,” which is debatable) since I started this six month trip to the East.

Whatever food and beverage item you might want to buy (including booze), the Kurds have it.

Mazi Mart Grocery Store.jpg

You want Red Bull? They got it. They also have Blue Ox, whatever that is.

Mazi Mart Red Bull.jpg

People looked at me funny when I took these pictures. Why on earth is that guy taking pictures of the Red Bull? He’s American, hasn’t he seen this shit a million times already back home? What I think they don’t understand is that what’s normal in the Middle East somehow amazes (and comforts) people who have never been here. So I took pictures of the grocery store. It’s not all burkhas, camels, and caves out here.

You want a giant plasma screen TV? No problem. You can get whatever you want in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Plasma Screen TVs.jpg

Mazi Mart Shopping.jpg

Behind the Mazi Supermarket is an amusement park called Dream City. (The Kurds do like that name.) The park was closed, but I wanted to take a look and the groundskeeper let me in with my camera.

Dohok Amusement Park.jpg

Mazi Restaurant.jpg

Dohok Scene.jpg

I asked my driver and translator to take me to a typical nice residential neighborhood, and specifically not a neighborhood where the elite live. I just wanted to see an average middle class area in Dohok, off the main streets, so I could show Americans and Europeans what it looks like.

We pulled off the main drag and into the neighborhood closest to where we were when I asked. We didn’t cross the city to get there. It’s just where we happened to be when I said I wanted to get out of the car and take pictures of where we happened to stop. This is what it looked like, a typical middle class neighborhood in Dohok, Iraq.

Colorful Houses in Dohok.jpg

Dohok Rowhouses.jpg

Dohok Street.jpg

PS: Don't forget to hit the tip jar!

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:09 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 20, 2006

“Our Jerusalem”

Kurdistan Map with Kirkuk.jpg

Map copyright National Geographic

ERBIL, IRAQ – Iraq may not survive in one piece. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurds are packing their bags. Most have already said goodbye. Erbil (Hawler in Kurdish) is the capital of the de-facto sovereign Kurdistan Regional Government. Baghdad is thought of as the capital of a deranged foreign country.

In January 2005 the Iraqi Kurds held an informal referendum. More than 80 percent turned out to vote. 98.7 percent of those voted to secede from Iraq. Not only have the Kurds long dreamed of independence, when they look south they see only Islamism, Baathism, blood, fire, and mayhem.

If Middle Easterners had drawn the borders themselves, Iraq wouldn’t even exist. Blame the British for shackling Kurds and Arabs together when they created the new post-imperial and post-Ottoman map. The Kurds do. They call the W.C. (the “water closet,” i.e. the toilet) “Winston Churchill.” Several times when my translator needed a bathroom break he said “I need to use the Winston Churchill.”

Arab Iraqis who want to “keep” Kurdistan ought to thank the heavens for Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s new president and the party chief of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. He belongs to the 1.3 percent of Iraqi Kurds who want to stay connected to Baghdad. The Kurds love Talabani, whom they affectionately call “Mam Jalal” (Uncle Jalal), for leading the militarily successful fight against Saddam Hussein.


Jalal Talabani

Meanwhile, Masoud Barzani, President of Kurdistan and party chief of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, is playing the “bad cop” role. While Talabani is busy in Baghdad trying to hammer out the best federalism bargain the Kurds could ever hope for, Barzani broods in his mountain palace and openly threatens secession.


Masoud Barzani

Not one Iraqi flag is flown in Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil, which doubles as the stronghold of Barzani’s KDP. Only maps will tell you that Erbil is part of Iraq. The Iraqi flag is flown on government buildings in Suleimaniya, the stronghold of the PUK. But it’s the old Iraqi flag, the pre-Saddam Iraqi flag, the one that doesn’t have Allahu Akbar scrawled across the middle of it.

The Kurdistan Regional Government has its own ministers. They report to no one in Baghdad. The Kurds have their own military. They have their own economy. They have their own internal border, and they are its only policemen. The Kurds even have their own foreign policy. Their government is internationally recognized. When Masoud Barzani travels to foreign capitals he is recognized as the President of Iraqi Kurdistan. The only thing the Kurds don’t have is Kirkuk.

The city of Kirkuk sits bang on top of one of Iraq’s biggest oil fields. It was always a Kurdish-majority city until Saddam Hussein ethnically-cleansed a good portion of the people who refused to change their ethnicity to “Arab.” When Kurds were forced out, Saddam moved Arabs, Stalinist-style, into the Kurds’ former homes.

Today the city is approximately 40 percent Kurdish, 30 percent Arab, and 20 percent Turkmen. The remaining 10 percent are composed of smaller minority groups. It’s a little Lebanon, in other words, where no one makes up the majority. It’s one of the worst tinderboxes in all of Iraq. Two violent incidents, from terrorism to kidnapping to sniping, occur every day in that city. And it’s getting worse.

The Kurds want it back. They don’t want to leave Iraq without the city they call “Our Jerusalem.” Nor will they tolerate a federal Iraq that doesn’t include Kirkuk in their autonomous region.

I asked KDP Minister Falah Bakir what “Our Jerusalem” was all about. Is Kirkuk some kind of cultural capital? Is there a historic significance to the city that I’m not aware of?

“No,” he said. “Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan. But it isn’t ‘Jerusalem.’ Kirkuk is Kirkuk, just as Erbil is Erbil and Mosul is Mosul.” It’s just another Kurdish city, in other words. It was dubbed “Our Jerusalem” by Jalal Talabani as part of a PR campaign.

The Peshmerga can militarily take Kirkuk any time the order is given. But they’re holding back. The Kurds want to take the city peacefully and with honor.

The trouble with taking the city honorably is that they first want to kick out the Arabs moved there by Saddam Hussein. They don’t want to evict all the Arabs. As I’ve mentioned before, Iraqi Kurds have no interest in creating an ethnic-identity state. They only want to reverse Saddam’s Arabization campaign and make the city safe and secure as Erbil, Suleimaniya, and Dohok already are. Those Arabs who lived there before, those who are actually from there, are welcome to stay.

The Kurdistan Regional Government wants to financially compensate those Arabs who are asked to leave. Simply reversing one unfair population transfer with another isn’t right, and the Kurds know it. They might not even care about this at all if Kirkuk weren’t a playground for terrorists. But it is a dangerous place and there are no easy answers. The aftershocks of Saddam’s divide-and-rule strategy are still explosive.

Guardian report Michael Howard knows the city well. “Many of the Arabs I’ve spoken to in Kirkuk are aware that they are in someone else’s territory,” he told me.

At the same time the Kurdistan Regional Government is trying to push one dangerous population out of what they say is their area, they’re actively recruiting a safe population to move north and settle in Kurdistan.

Arab Christians from the south and the center of Iraq are actually given money and housing by the KRG if they move north. Insisting on a purely Kurdish region or a purely Muslim one is the last thing on the establishment’s mind. What they want is geographic federalism or sovereignty. And they need as many well-educated, competent, and trustworthy people as they can find. They don’t care about race, and they don’t care about religion. They are concerned strictly with numbers and security. It's just that some groups are more trusted than others. Arab Christians will never join an Islamist jihad, as everyone knows. And the Kurds trust Arab Christians not to join the Baath either. Arab Muslims can and do move north to Kurdistan as well, but they need approval from the KRG and they are not given incentives.

Michael Howard thinks independence may be inevitable, but it’s a long way off. “This place has potential, but it’s not yet ready to stand on its own. It’s a work in progress, and it’s at the very beginning of that process.”

Masoud Barzani seems to know this, as well. But he won’t let anyone forget the end game: “Self-determination is the natural right of our people,” he said. “When the right time comes, it will become a reality.”

Postscript: If you like what I write, please don’t forget to hit the tip jar. Trips to Iraq don’t pay for themselves.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:28 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 18, 2006

Northern Iraq: A Photo Gallery

Kurdistan Water.jpg

Birds take flight over a river flowing south from the Kurdistan mountains toward the Mesopotamian plains.


A refurbished castle along the road between Salahadin and Erbil.

Kurdistan Mountain Hotel.jpg

View from the lobby of the very well-guarded Khan Zan Hotel overlooking the front range of the Kurdistan mountains. Security guards damn near took the car apart before letting me get anywhere near it. Two guests are shown logging on to the wi-fi connection on their laptops.

View From Kurdistan Hotel.jpg

Looking out the window from the hotel.

Mountains Near Suli.jpg

Mountains on the outskirts of the city of Suleimaniya as seen from the parking lot of the Kurd-Sat TV station. Kurd-Sat broadcasts to Kurds inside and outside Iraq on the Hotbird satellite.

Hills Outside Suli.jpg

Suleimaniya is surrounded by mountains on all sides, some which are partly covered in evergreen trees.

The Road to Halabja.jpg

On the road to Halabja, the city where Saddam Hussein massacred thousands of people in one day with chemical weapons. The countryside is mostly empty of people. 5,000 villages were completely destroyed by the Baath during the genocidal Anfal campaign. There is no evidence that some of the villages ever even existed.

Above the Clouds on the Road to Biara.jpg

Above the clouds on the road to Biara, one of the villages occupied by Al Qaeda (Ansar Al Islam) before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Looking Into Iran.jpg

Looking into Iran on the road to Biara.

Iran from Biara.jpg

Biara is exactly, precisely, on the border between Iraq and Iran. If you walk twenty feet beyond the last house you’ll be outside Iraq. I took this photo, facing into Iran, from the center of the village.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:55 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 17, 2006


ERBIL, IRAQ – A Western journalist I met in Erbil, who has been in Iraq for some time, told me the place challenges almost every liberal idea he has ever had in his head. I don’t know what he was like, ideologically speaking, before he got there. But he certainly doesn’t have orthodox left-wing opinions today. (Some right-wingers, especially those who think of the entire Islamic religion as a totalitarian death cult, would likewise get a crash-course in reality if they ever bothered to hang out in Iraq and meet actual Muslims.)

I was only in Iraq for two days before I had to face the sort of thing my journalist friend was talking about.

Omar and Mohammad, the two brothers from Baghdad who write at Iraq the Model, were supposed to meet me in the “Sheraton” hotel lobby.

They emailed me from Kirkuk and said they would be there in a few hours. I waited. And waited. And they never showed up. Considering this was Iraq, I was worried. What if they were killed on their way to meet me? They would not have been on their way to Erbil if I had not invited them.

I checked my email again. They were back in Kirkuk. The Peshmerga turned them away at the “border.” They had been to Kurdistan only two weeks before (they went to Suleimaniya last time) but the Pesh told them Arabs were not allowed to enter Erbil without a Kurdish escort.

Gack! I was pissed off. These guys are my friends. So what if they’re Arabs? They are two of the last people in the world who would ever blow themselves up or kidnap anybody. This was racial profiling at its worst. They did nothing – nothing – to deserve that kind of humiliation. Two fine upstanding citizens were not allowed to visit a city in their own country for no reason whatsoever except that they are Arabs. And Iraq is an Arab-majority country.

I didn’t like it one bit. But I had to be honest about what was happening. I was in Iraq without a gun and without any bodyguards. The only reason that was possible is because freedom of movement – one of the most basic freedoms in the world - doesn’t exist in Iraq. Without hard internal borders the violence in the center could not be walled off from the north. The very policy that allowed me, a foreigner, to enter Erbil while my Iraqi friends couldn’t was the very policy that kept me alive. I had no choice but to be grateful for that policy, for my own sake as well as for the sake of Kurdish Iraqis, even though some of the results were deplorable and blatantly unfair to the majority of Arab Iraqis who will never hurt anyone.

One of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s deputy ministers agreed to help me get Omar and Mohammad across without a Kurdish escort. He phoned in their names at the “border” and gave them permission to pass solely because I asked him to. He trusted me more than he trusted his fellow Iraqis, which made me feel profoundly uncomfortable and embarrassed. But it took four days for him to make this happen, and by then it was too late. Omar and Mohammad had to be back in Baghdad for work. (I’m sorry, my friends. I wish it could have worked out.)

Arabs are allowed in, though. Not only are they allowed to visit Iraqi Kurdistan, they are allowed to move to Iraqi Kurdistan if they have the right connections and can prove that they aren’t a security threat. At least four people who work at the “Sheraton” are Arabs who recently resettled there. Two told me they are Arabs (I didn’t ask), and I heard two more speaking Arabic to each other.

The Kurds aren’t trying to build an ethnic-identity state. They just want to build a secure one. And they’re doing a good job, such a good job in fact that hardly any U.S. troops need to be there. I saw a handful of off-duty soldiers in the lobby of the “Sheraton” when I was checking in. But I never saw them again and I never saw any others. Only 200 are stationed in the entire region.

I later spoke to the Minister of the Interior in Suleimaniya for ten minutes (he’s a busy man) and he laughed out loud when he was asked how well the Kurds are getting along with the American military. “Ha ha ha, our relationship is very good,” he said.

(I went to see him because I was trying to get permission to meet the terrorist Qays Ibrahim in his prison cell. Ibrahim tried to kill Barham Salih, then-Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He says he will try to kill Barham again if he ever gets out. Meanwhile, Barham refuses to sign the man’s death warrant. (Liberalism does exist even in a crazy place like Iraq.) Unfortunately the Interior Minister couldn’t get me access. I was slightly surprised, though, that he did not find my request odd or disturbing.)

The Peshmerga are completely responsible for security in the region. The Iraqi army doesn’t exist up there. The Kurds will not allow it. The Pesh take orders from no one but their own semi-autonomous government.

Paul Bremer once referred to them as a “militia.” This did not go over well. Both sides have a point here. If Iraq is supposed to be one sovereign country, the state must have the monopoly on the use of force. Right now it doesn’t, just as Lebanon’s government doesn’t have a monopoly on the use of force because Hezbollah has its own state-within-a-state.

There are differences, though. The Kurds think of the Peshmerga as their own national guard. That “national guard” is necessary to protect them from the Iraqi army which has been partly infiltrated by Baathists. Also, the Peshmerga report to an actually existing autonomous elected government. Hezbollah doesn’t. Hezbollah reports to the deranged dictatorship in Iran.

More important, the Peshmerga’s primary job is to keep the peace in Northern Iraq. Hezbollah’s primary “job” is to keep Lebanon in a state of hot war with Israel. The Peshmerga are a bulwark against violence. Hezbollah is an instrument of violence.

Whether the Peshmerga are a “militia,” a “national guard,” or a blended third category, they do terrific work keeping their part of the country secure. Even so, it’s not quite enough for some people and organizations.

I met a Palestinian-American from Beirut who works as a private sector aid worker of sorts. I’ll call him J. He’s there with a company to help Iraqis get their agriculture sector back up to speed after the Oil-for-Food program demolished it. (Agriculture products – wheat, etc. – were brought in from outside the country and distributed socialist-style for free to every Iraqi through the UN while Iraq was under sanctions. Locals farmers, then, had no reason to grow any crops. Their market was almost completely destroyed, and so was their business.)

J’s company does not allow him to walk the streets of Iraq, not even in Kurdistan. He lives behind concrete bomb-blast walls. The entrance is guarded by men with guns.

He kindly invited me to have dinner with him and his lovely roommates at their house. When I stepped out of the car at the gate he pulled me into the compound by my arm and said “Let’s get off the street.”

It seemed a bit much to me. But I wasn’t so sure. Was he being paranoid? Or was I being careless? He had spent a lot more time there than I had. But he also lived under a strict security regime ordered from above. His firm had kidnapping insurance policies on all its employees. Kidnapping insurance! I had never even heard of such a thing. What a country, Iraq.

“I love my job,” he told me. “But you better not come here to work unless you really love your work. Would you accept even 200,000 dollars a year if you had to live in a prison? This would be a terrible place to live if you were only here for the money.”

He had spent time in Baghdad before coming to Kurdistan. “Baghdad is easier to take in some ways. There, you’re happy to be locked up with guards. Here it’s hard. I can’t help but think it would be perfectly fine if I went out to a restaurant or to a store, but I can’t.”

After dinner we watched Southpark on DVD, the episode where Cartman and the rest of the gang end up in Afghanistan and do battle with Osama bin Laden. It was one of those weird Middle East moments. I never thought I would laugh my ass off at Osama bin Laden with a Palestinian friend in Iraq (of all places) behind bomb-blast walls that didn’t seem necessary.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:50 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 16, 2006


Stephen Spruiell interviewed me by phone yesterday for National Review Online.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:46 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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