February 16, 2006

“This is Your Country”

ERBIL, IRAQ – Iraqi Kurdistan has an official tourism board, but that doesn’t mean the region gets many actual tourists. Despite the fact that it’s by far the safest and (almost certainly) the most pleasant place to visit in Iraq, it has a long way to go before it becomes a holiday destination.

Travelers (rather than “tourists”) who don’t like running into other travelers, who yearn to be “off the map,” and who would rather learn about the world than take a break from it, might appreciate Kurdistan, though, as long as they don’t expect too much modernity or too many Western amenities.

Entertainment culture doesn’t really exist there yet. Don’t go and expect to have fun. Egypt, for example, is far more grim and depressing than Kurdistan, but it’s easier to have a good time if that’s what you’re looking for. Guatemala is much poorer and more dangerous and more politically dysfunctional, but it’s still a better place to go as a typical tourist if you want good food, hotels, and attractions.

I don’t mean to criticize when I say this. The Kurds have been through decades of fascism, genocide, and war. They suffered more than any other group of Iraqis. Northern Iraq endured more recent hardship than any other place I have ever been in my life. Scratch just beneath the happy veneer of Iraqi Kurdish adults and you’ll find people with family members murdered by Baathists, who experienced unimaginable oppression by a regime that wanted to completely erase them, and who fled to the mountains during the uprising in 1991 when the cities of Iraqi Kurdistan were emptied of people. They still have no sewage system, and they still only have a few hours of electricity each day. Having a good time just isn’t a priority for them right now.

But they do what they can with what they have. I went to a Turkish restaurant for dinner after sunset on the outskirts of Erbil on the way to the Christian suburb of Ainkawa. The entire neighborhood was dark. Not even a street light was on. The place had an eerie end of the world feeling to it. When I stepped into the restaurant, doubting it would even be open, a sharply dressed waiter led me upstairs to a room full of tables lit by candlelight. The restaurant was half full even in the dark, and the kitchen was serving hot food. Each table was draped in a white tablecloth. European-style mouldings framed the windows and the tops of the walls. Beautiful chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The place had class even in darkness. The waiters all spoke Turkish amongst themselves. They were Turkmen – in other words, Iraqi Turks who speak a slightly different dialect of Turkish than is spoken in Turkey. Dinner was amazingly good, much better than anything I expected to eat in Iraq. The food tasted all the better because it seemed so unlikely in a place that didn’t even have any light.

It’s impossible not to admire these people. Their attitude is go-go-go, build-build-build. They won’t let a little thing like a permanent power outage get in their way. They are the last people in the world anyone dare call lazy or apathetic.

Getting to know the people is the best reason to travel to Kurdistan, actually. Every Middle Eastern country I’ve been to has a tradition of hospitality that can’t be overstated. But the Kurds are even warmer than usual. Several Iraqi Kurds said “This is your country” when they first met me. How could I not love people who greet me this way? Especially when I know very well that it isn’t a polite (and culturally compulsory) cover for quiet anti-Americanism.

Iraqi Kurdistan is more pro-American than America. People there refer to George W. Bush as “Hajji Bush” (meaning he made the Muslim pilgrimage, the hajj, to Mecca), an incredibly high honor for a Christian from Texas whom most people hate. Bill Clinton may have been America’s first “black” president. But people in at least one part of the world say Bush is the first “Muslim” president. Weird and amazing, but true.

Thomas Friedman once described Poland as “a geopolitical spa,” a great place to visit if you’re tired of reactionary anti-Americanism. Iraqi Kurdistan may be a better “spa” than even Poland.

Before I went to Iraqi Kurdistan I asked a friend of mine who has been there about politics, economics, and security in the region. She thought my questions were a bit strange and not what she expected. She said that, for her, Kurdistan is a place to connect to through the heart. I first thought her response was “girlie.” I don’t so much anymore.

UPDATE: I wasn’t as clear above as I should have been. At least one liberal reader (in the comments) was put off by what I wrote about George W. Bush and Kurdish pro-Americanism.

Kurds aren’t Republicans. Not once did anyone say “I thank George W. Bush for freeing us from Saddam.” Thanks were always given to America as a whole. I never heard a single disparaging remark about the Democratic Party, John Kerry, etc.

Anyway, Kurdish pro-Americanism goes way beyond mere thanks for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Kurdish people think like Americans in ways that surprised me again and again. Admiration for American values and culture is ubiquitous in that region. Even the Islamists I met were weirdly pro-American in some ways – and again it’s not just because the US destroyed Saddam Hussein. It goes deeper than that, and I’ll get into it in detail in future posts.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:18 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 15, 2006

The Dream City of the Kurds

Dream City Children.jpg

ERBIL, IRAQ – Kurdistan is a place of the mind. It doesn’t exist on any maps unless the maps are made by the Kurds. Southern Kurdistan is known to the rest of the world as Northern Iraq. Northern Kurdistan is described as Eastern Turkey. Southwestern Kurdistan is Northeastern Syria. And Southeastern Kurdistan is Northwestern Iran.

In no country are Kurds closer to realizing their dream of freedom and independence than they are in Iraq. They are wrapping up the finishing touches on their de-facto sovereign state-within-a-state, a fact on the ground that will not easily be undone. And they’re transforming the hideously decrepit physical environment left to them by Saddam Hussein – a broken place that is terribly at odds with the Kurdistan in their hearts and in their minds – into something beautiful and inspiring, the kind of place you might like to live in someday yourself.

The heart of the new Kurdistan is soon to be known as the Dream City, a massive construction site going up on the outskirts of Erbil.

Dream City Construction Site.jpg

Dream City Model.jpg

The Baath regime’s agoraphobic totalitarian urban planning model will be replaced with a cityscape fit for human beings. Neighborhoods will be built for people, not cars. Tree-lined streets will be pleasant to walk along. Open public green space will beckon people outside their homes and into their community. Restaurants and shops will add the perfect grace notes. Erbil, as a city, is a hard city to love. That may not be true for very much longer.

Korek Tower.jpg

The Korek cell phone company is building a tower near the Dream City that will be the tallest building in all of Iraq when it’s finished. It certainly will be the country’s most aesthetically pleasing tall building. The sleek modern design looks more “Dubai” than it does “Baghdad.”

Dream City Towers.jpg

Not everyone in Iraqi Kurdistan can afford one of the nice houses being built at this time. They cost around 150,000 dollars apiece, and they have to be paid for in cash. The banking system is still in shambles, and mortgages are not available. But lots of people want to live in the Dream City. So a series of more-affordable apartment towers are already partly constructed.

American Suburban House in Iraq.jpg

One already-completed house next to the Dream City is a dead-ringer for a house in the American suburbs. It came complete with a garage and even an oversized yard.

Several Dream City Houses.jpg

Dream City House 1.jpg

The “Sheraton” hotel hosted a Dream City exhibit while I was a guest. 3-D models of the urban plan were set up on tables. Sketches of soon-to-be-real houses lined all four walls.

Dream City Kitchen.jpg

Two fully-stocked kitchens, the kind that will be installed in the houses, were set up in corners.

Nice Houses in Erbil.jpg

Some lovely new parts of Erbil are already finished.

Row Houses in Erbil.jpg

And the Dream City is only one massive construction site among hundreds. Reconstruction in Iraqi Kurdistan is absolutely explosive. These photos are only a miniscule sample of what’s going up right now as you read this.

It goes without saying that none of this was possible when Saddam Hussein did everything he could, with the fourth largest army in the world, to destroy these people. Even though Kurdistan has been free of Saddam since the Kurdish uprising drove out him and the Baath in 1991, real reconstruction wasn’t possible until 2003. When the embargo was lifted, and when everyone knew that the bastard could never come back, the Kurds finally had the nerve to build their dream country in earnest.

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 1:54 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 14, 2006

Photo Gallery Coming

I'm trying to upload a series of photos that I think will surprise quite a few people. But I'm having technical difficulties here. As soon as this problem is resolved (hopefully it won't take very long) I will show you pictures of things you have never seen. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The problem is with my ISP. I can't upload anything. Internet infrastructure is better in Iraq than it is in Lebanon. (Yes, I am completely serious.)

I'll have to go to Starbucks tomorrow and use their wi-fi connection. Then I can show you the cool stuff.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:11 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 13, 2006

Iraq Without a Gun

ERBIL, IRAQ – Until just a few months ago, Iraq was one of the last places in the world a normal person would want to fly into. Baghdad had the only international airport in the country, and you risked your life just taking a taxi to the kinda-sorta half-way “safe” Green Zone from the terminal. Today you can fly directly to Erbil (known as Hawler in Kurdish), the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north, where the war is already over.

Erbil Skyline 1.jpg

So I took a charter flight on Flying Carpet Airlines and flew there directly from Beirut. I paid as much for that ticket as I would have paid to fly home to Oregon, but it beat the logistical pain of driving in over the border from Turkey.

Erbil’s tiny international airport – with its tiny little customs booth and its tiny little luggage rack – doubles as a military base. Civilian craft only started landing there a few months ago. A kiosk called “Tourist Information” was set up by the main entrance next to an office that rented “phones for tourists.” I had a hard time believing many tourists actually went there on holiday unless they were visiting from other parts of Iraq. As I later found out, “tourist” simply meant visitor.

Civilian cars weren’t allowed anywhere near the terminal for security reasons, so I had to take a bus to a checkpoint a mile or so away where my pre-arranged driver Mr. Araz picked me up.

Driving to the center of any city from an airport rarely leaves a good first impression. The only exceptions I can think of are the trips into Tunis and Istanbul. But my fifteen minute ride to the Erbil International Hotel (aka, “The Sheraton,” even though it isn’t really a Sheraton) was particularly unpleasant. The city didn’t look like anywhere I wanted to be. Few things in this world are uglier than totalitarian cities. And while Erbil isn’t totalitarian anymore, Saddam Hussein left his stinking thumbprints all over the place. Erbil desperately needs an aesthetic makeover. (As I later found out when I could explore the city properly, it is getting one.)

Erbil Water Tower.jpg

Erbil Sidewalk.jpg

“Today is Friday,” Mr. Araz said. “The city is more quiet than normal.”

Friday is the Muslim holy day when almost everything closes. But I had a hard time believing Erbil could ever look like a place with much activity. Such are rides from the airport. I hadn’t seen downtown yet, though, and I tried not to make too much of the first things I saw.

A perimeter of thick concrete bomb-blast walls was set up around the hotel in a 50-yard radius. I would have taken a photograph, but I decided not to help Googling terrorists with any logistical plans by publishing what the place looks like. Armed security guards made me get out of the car while they opened the trunk, rifled through everything, pulled out the spare tire, and checked under the chassis for bombs.

“Is it safe to walk around here?” I asked Araz.

“No,” he said. “I do not recommend it.”

Great, I thought. What the hell am I doing in this country?

“Why, exactly, isn’t it safe?” I said. I hoped he would say that I might get lost or be menaced by crazy drivers.

“I don’t personally know of any incidents that have happened,” he said. “But I never see foreigners like you walking around without a local person.”

I didn’t plan on spending much time alone anyway. I had already decided to hire a driver and translator. But it’s always best to explore foreign cities on foot when it’s possible, and I certainly wasn’t happy that Araz was telling me that I shouldn’t.

There was something fishy about the man, though. Sure, Erbil is Iraq. But it also is Kurdistan. The war is over in Kurdistan. He was the guy who was going to supply me with a driver and translator, and he wanted 350 dollars a day for that service. The Kurdistan Development Corporation told me I shouldn’t have to pay anywhere near that much. I suspected Araz was trying to scare me so I would pay his exorbitant fee.

After I checked in at the desk I asked Araz if he would lower the rate.

“I will have to see about that and get back to you later,” he said. I quietly decided not to hire him. All I had to do was call the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Public Relations office and ask them to set me up with someone more reasonable.

Night fell as a storm came in. Rain lashed against my hotel room window. I heard a solitary boom of thunder and, later, a jet that sounded distinctly military flying over my head.

Erbil, like the rest of Iraq, does not have a functioning electrical grid. Residents of the city get two hours of power each day if they’re lucky. I stood at my window and looked out over the dark and quiet city. I felt okay, and I was oddly happy to be there. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind: I’m in Iraq I’m in Iraq I’m in Iraq I’m in Iraq.


I met the Guardian reporter Michael Howard in the lobby. He and I have a friend in common, and he kindly gave me a solid welcome and introduction to Iraq and it’s politics. He has spent most of the past three years in the country, and he knows it better than most Westerners do.

There was more than enough time for me to get a grip on the politics. That’s what I would spend much of my time doing. What I needed to know right up front was how safe (or not) Iraqi Kurdistan really is.

“Realize that this hotel is a primary target,” he said. “Last year a bomb went off only 100 meters from here. Dozens of people were killed. Chunks of flesh were picked out of the garden near the front entrance.”

“What about kidnappings?” I said. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but to my knowledge not a single person has been kidnapped in Kurdistan.”

“That’s true,” he said. For the first time since I arrived in the country somebody said something that made me feel better.

“So can I walk around by myself?” I said. I’m not afraid of terrorist bombs that explode once a year. In some parts of the country they explode every day. But when kidnappers target Westerners, and when I’m one of perhaps 100 Westerners in a 50-mile radius, I can’t afford to be naïve or stupid. “I need to know how to behave in this country, and right now I’m not sure. What do you do? Do you walk around by yourself?”

“I’ll walk the main streets,” he said. “But I don’t walk any side streets. You don’t have to worry much in Sulaymaniyah or Dohok. I’ll go anywhere in those cities. But Erbil is a little more dangerous.”

Last year’s attack near the hotel wasn’t the only terrorist incident in the city. In 2004 Sami Abdul Rahman, the Deputy Vice President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, was assassinated by a suicide bomber along with dozens of other people.

“I lost five friends that day,” Michael told me. “I missed that explosion myself by only five minutes.”

Just a few days after I arrived a memorial to the dead in that attack would be dedicated in the city park. I had plans to meet Bayan and Vian Rahman, the daughters of the murdered deputy prime minister, for dinner the next day. I hadn’t even been in the country for 8 hours and already the violence felt perilously close. It didn’t take long to become friends with people who recently had lost loved ones. But I tried not to let it frighten me too much. More people were killed by terrorists recently in Madrid than were killed in Erbil. And who is afraid to visit Madrid? Nobody I know.

My logic didn’t make me feel better, but I did what I could to relax. The bloody city of Mosul was just down the road. Any time I wanted I could hail a taxi and be within easy reach of the head-chopping killers in a mere 45 minutes. The Syrian assassins lurking in Lebanon’s shadows are one thing. But Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda jihad in Iraq is terrifying to think about when you’re in Iraq, whether or not the Kurdish armed forces, the Peshmerga (“Those Who Face Death”), stand in the way.

Later a man from the Kurdistan Regional Government rescued my nerves when I told him what Mr. Araz said to me about the dangers of walking around by myself.

“He told you what?” he said.

“He told me it wasn’t safe to walk around Erbil by myself,” I said.

He was literally taken aback – he flung himself ramrod straight against the back of his chair. His face flushed red. “Who is this man?” He pulled out his notebook. “What is his name and what is his phone number?”

I told him. “He also wanted to charge me 350 dollars a day for a driver and translator.”

How much?” he said. “He is lying to you. He is lying to you so you will pay him more money. I can’t believe he is scaring visitors like that. I am going to report him.” To whom, I wondered? “You are safe here. You are as safe here in Kurdistan as you are in any American city.”

I believed him, partly because I wanted to believe him, but also because it lined up with everything I had heard and read about Kurdistan before I got there. Yes, it’s Iraq. But the war is in a different part of the country. There are no Kurdish insurgents. The Peshmerga guard Kurdistan’s de-facto border with ruthless effectiveness. Those who attempt to cross away from the checkpoints and the roads are ambushed by border patrols. Anyone who doesn’t speak Kurdish as their native language stands out among the general population. Iraqi Kurds, out of desperate necessity, have forged one of the most watchful and vigilant anti-terrorist communities in the world. Terrorists from elsewhere just can’t operate in that kind of environment. Al Qaeda members who do manage to infiltrate are hunted down like rats. This conservative Muslim society did a better job protecting me from Islamist killers than the U.S. military could do in the Green Zone in Baghdad.

I did what I wanted and needed to do. I threw myself into their society, without a gun and without any bodyguards, and I trusted that they would catch me. And catch me they did. I trusted the Kurds with my life. No trust in the world is greater than that, especially in an extraordinarily dangerous blood-spattered country like Iraq.

Postscript: Comments are turned back on, at least for the time being. Everyone is welcome to argue with me and with others, but comments by trolls will be purged.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:13 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 12, 2006

Comments Are Back On

Comments are back on - for the moment. Argue with me all you like, but please be civilized.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:58 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 10, 2006

Back from Iraq

I just spent two weeks in Northern Iraq and have arrived back in Lebanon safely. Sorry for misleading everyone about my travel schedule. For those of you who forgot...a few weeks ago I said I was beginning my Iraq trip today.

At least one organization on the U.S. terrorist watch list already monitors my Web site, and a Lebanese friend of mine convinced me that it would be smart not to advertise to the entire planet when I would be in that country. That’s why hardly any new material has been posted on this Web site lately.

Once I arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan and spent a little time there, it didn’t seem like the ruse was actually necessary. I kept it up anyway, though, because I had almost no time to write in any case. Northern Iraq isn’t particularly dangerous. There are occasional terrorist attacks against the Kurdistan Regional Government. But the anti-Western head-chopping kidnappers aren’t able to operate there. The Kurdish defense forces, the Peshmerga (“those who face death”), do terrific work keeping their part of the country safe and secure.

Now that I’m back I can spend the next couple of weeks writing about what I saw, heard, and experienced while I was there. Before I get started, I will say right up front that my trip was every bit as interesting and rewarding as it possibly could have been. I hope that, whatever your opinion of the Iraq war and the situation there now, you’ll find some value in what I’ll have to say.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:32 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 8, 2006

The Enemy of Our Enemy is Still Our Enemy

No one should be surprised to read an article like this one by Lee Smith blaming the Syrian Baath regime for the recent violence in Lebanon. What else is new, right?

Perhaps a few Americans of the conservative so-called “realist” persuasion will be surprised to find “our pal” Hosni Mubarak in Egypt also had something to do with this. He isn’t our ally, people.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:34 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

February 5, 2006


Once again, I apologize for not blogging much. I have my nose to the grindstone on a project that I'll explain in a few days when I have a chance to come up for air.

I will say, however, that I am extremely dismayed by the despicable behavior of the Lebanese mob that rampaged in one of Beirut's finest neighborhoods over a freakin' cartoon published months ago in a Danish newspaper.

My mother took one look at that Achrafieh neighborhood and said "This could be San Franscisco" when she visited me in November.

"Don't be fooled by that," I told her. At the time I worried my response might have been unfair to Lebanon, but apparently that wasn't the case. It should be noted, however, that the people who live in that neighborhood had nothing to do with this. Most of today's mobsters don't even live in the city at all. They appear to be poorly educated reactionaries bussed in from Tripoli and Hezbollahland.

Beirut, once again, looks like yet another Middle Eastern Fallujah. It isn't, but the photos...these are not pretty to look at. All the good press I have been giving this country for the past year was destroyed today by goons who would surely be happier living in Saudi or Syria.

I strongly suggest the civilized people of Lebanon, Muslim and Christian alike, stage a counter-demonstration downtown where flags are not burned and where buildings are not set on fire.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:31 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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