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 February 21, 2006 4:09 AM
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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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