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 04:09 AM
Comments

Seriously, you have to make all this into a book!

I would love to have a book with colour pictures I could show to people who preferred the old Iraq.

I would pay a lot of money for a book with your articles and your pictures!

Posted by: Andrew Brehm at February 21, 2006 04:40 AM

I can't wait until the day when all of Iraq can look and feel like this. Good job Michael.

Posted by: Christine at February 21, 2006 05:58 AM

A reminder: Dohuk was the Kurdish "safe haven" set up by the Western Allies after Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Thus, Dohuk has had a "jump start" on the rest of the country.

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.

Good job, MJT. I'll be hitting the tip jar soon.

Posted by: Solomon2 at February 21, 2006 07:31 AM

Sure you didnt end up in Henderson Nevada? Amazing.

Posted by: Mark Buehner at February 21, 2006 07:56 AM

“Kurdistan God’s Heaven on The Earth” Saddam Hussain.

Posted by: hiwa at February 21, 2006 08:45 AM

Hey Michael. Great article on Dohuk. I served in Kirkuk from 2004-2005 and I heard a lot about Dohuk and Suleymania. We had a lot of translators who went there on the weekends to party. In fact, I knew Kurdish American translator who moved his whole family from US to Dohuk. Now, I understand why. Awesome job. I wish mainstream media focused on this kind of story more. I believe that's what the rest of Iraq will look like in the future.

Posted by: Zack at February 21, 2006 09:47 AM

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

That's sounds like an excellent opportunity to ambush some jihadis. Put a Western-looking man into a car with Kurdish tags. Make sure it's well armored, and that there is plenty of help within easy reach. Then run around Baghdad for a couple of hours.

Posted by: crow at February 21, 2006 10:17 AM

Its so Colorado or Utah. Its also what Iraq will look like in ten years given the oportunity.

Posted by: Rey at February 21, 2006 11:19 AM

How do people earn such a fine living? Are there factories, tourist hotels, ski resorts, a financial services industry, fields of corn? Government handouts?

Such a pretty place, but no visible means of support.

Posted by: Fred at February 21, 2006 11:52 AM

Okay, Michael. This Jayson Blair stuff has to stop.

You can't go to rural Utah, take a bunch of pictures, photo-shop in some Kurdish writing, and claim that you were in Iraq. It's just not right.

JK :)

Posted by: lebanon.profile at February 21, 2006 12:29 PM

I hope one day we can all visit Iraq and not just this beautiful place, but the entire country in relative safey. I pray for this. Thanks so much for the story and especially the great photos.

Posted by: Autumn at February 21, 2006 03:31 PM

Being a retired English teacher in Toronto, I teach ESL to a diverse group of people. One fellow is an Iraqi refuge from Kurdistan.

This says it all: He named his son "George."

He and I are the only pro-Bush people in the entire school, so we get along rather well.

Tomorrow I shall present a hard copy of your article to my Iraqi friend. He will be deeply moved--and the other folks there will get a view of an Iraq they didn't know.

His English reading skills are quite low. No doubt your story will be a powerful incentive for him to work on his English.

Thank you.

Posted by: JSturm at February 21, 2006 05:02 PM

Thank you again for the wonderful reporting from the Middle East. I don't know where else I could find this type of report from Iraq/Libya/Cyprus/etc. anywhere else. I've hit the tip jar for another $100. Keep the posts coming!

Posted by: markytom at February 21, 2006 05:32 PM

WONDERFUL! As usual you have transported me to another place and I am eternally grateful. Tip jar will be hit again eventually. :) Keep it up!

Posted by: Megs at February 21, 2006 06:23 PM

Reminds me, in a way, of the richer areas of northern Mexico -- Monterrey, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas. Some of the same drivers for the architecture: little if any timber suitable for building, lots of rocks and the like about; semi-mountainous or mountainous terrain, or else desert, or both together; hot in the summer, relatively mild in winter.

Pretty. I'm happy they have the chance, and hope other Iraqis can follow. From your accounts it seems the Kurds aren't jealous, just stubborn :-)

Regards,
Ric

Posted by: Ric Locke at February 21, 2006 07:11 PM

""Okay, Michael. This Jayson Blair stuff has to stop.

You can't go to rural Utah, take a bunch of pictures, photo-shop in some Kurdish writing, and claim that you were in Iraq. It's just not right.""

SHUT UP; stop wasting web space with your rubish. FUCK YOU, FUCK ARABS and FUCK MUSLIMS!!

P.S.
I will send you some money for your great work Mihael.

Posted by: ARAB KILLER at February 21, 2006 07:30 PM

""Okay, Michael. This Jayson Blair stuff has to stop.

You can't go to rural Utah, take a bunch of pictures, photo-shop in some Kurdish writing, and claim that you were in Iraq. It's just not right.""

SHUT UP; stop wasting web space with your rubish. FUCK YOU, FUCK ARABS and FUCK MUSLIMS!!

P.S.
I will send you some money for your great work Mihael.

Posted by: ARAB KILLER at February 21, 2006 07:30 PM

Iraqi ATM's.

The only ATM I ever saw in Iraq was in Zakhu, a bank had one if you get there it was right beside the small bus station where you could get transport into Turkey (cabs or buses). I didn't try it.

I know the US started paying Iraqi locals in Dinar checks drown on local banks a few months ago to help the banking industry to get started and I read on the Iraqi Central Banks website that a couple Turkish banks were opening in Iraq (probably in Kurdistan). I think one or two Kuwaiti banks had already been given the ok to open in Baghdad. So I believe ATMs are headed to Iraq. I know cell phones and satllitte TV was everywhere and a young kid on my base had a high speed internet connection in his home. They are coming along well in Iraq. If the security situation was just improving I know that economy would bust wide open.

Posted by: john beard at February 21, 2006 08:26 PM

Aha. Government handouts. And I thought it was gasoline smuggling that built this Utah on the Tigris. Ethnic cleansing might have helped as well: http://www.aina.org/reports/avod.htm

Posted by: Fred at February 21, 2006 09:11 PM

Your site just keeps getting better and better, Michael. This perspective on Iraq, or Iraqi Kurdistan at least, is unlike anything else I've read. The rest of the media always seem so gung-ho on either trying to paint all of Iraq out to be this vastly improved paradise or a literal hell-on-earth, depending on their ideological biases. They never, ever, under any circumstances, actually go to the trouble of showing the country and its people in all their incredible diversity unless it only goes to serve their pre-established partisan-based narratives.

You didn't go with an ideological narrative already in mind. That's what makes this blog so indispensable, I think. In so much as it's possible as a white American visitor, you don't oversimplify things. You're actually acknowledging that diversity and the fact that life in one part of Iraq can be totally different than life in another. If and when I actually have money to donate, I will. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Posted by: Grant McEntire at February 22, 2006 01:05 AM

Arab Killer: SHUT UP; stop wasting web space with your rubish. FUCK YOU, FUCK ARABS and FUCK MUSLIMS!!

P.S. I will send you some money for your great work Mihael.

You're talking to a friend of mine, and I'm not taking money a racist prick like you. Get the hell out of here.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 22, 2006 01:36 AM

I didn't know "JK :)" needed to be translated, but "ARAB KILLER" doesn't seem to have much command of the English language, let alone online jargon.

It looks like there's no place for moderates when it comes to the Middle East. I write about the good things Condi Rice is doing on my blog and get attacked from the East. I exist (not being religious or Arab - there's a lot of us in Lebanon who don't identify with that term), and am threatened with death from what I suppose is the West.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at February 22, 2006 06:26 AM

I exist (not being religious or Arab - there's a lot of us in Lebanon who don't identify with that term), and am threatened with death from what I suppose is the West.--LP

I don't know where that particular idiot(AK) comes from. Could be anywhere with virtually any agenda. You just never know on the Net,home of the clinically insane, among others.

I don't think he represents the West or the East --- just the STUPID. Not to say that he does not have a BIG constituency, but it is not really Western-centric. I'm sure you have a fair amount of his 'friends' in Lebanon. Stupidity seems to know no geographic/ cultural boundaries.

Sigh

Posted by: dougf at February 22, 2006 07:10 AM

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Michael. Wonderful stuff.

My first impression was of how colorful their houses are. Guess that means I live in a boring city. ;-p

That tip jar is gonna get whapped as soon as my transfer to PayPal goes through (so I have enough in there to make a decent contribution).

And one day, I hope to be able to visit there.

P.S. - to HELL with the MSM.

Posted by: Barbara Skolaut at February 22, 2006 11:57 AM

The pic here: This is what it looked like, a typical middle class neighborhood in Dohok, Iraq feels just like some spot along 19th in San Francisco. So much so it's not even uncanny. I suppose it'd be uncanny if I were there. :)

Posted by: Nortius Maximus at February 22, 2006 12:09 PM

The pic here: This is what it looked like, a typical middle class neighborhood in Dohok, Iraq feels just like some spot along 19th in San Francisco. So much so it's not even uncanny. I suppose it'd be uncanny if I were there. :)

Posted by: Nortius Maximus at February 22, 2006 12:09 PM

Michael, I had a similar reaction when I was in Kuala Lumpur in 1997. It wasn't the differences--I expected those--but the similarities that I found most striking. Although I ate plenty of satays and experienced the native culture in full, I felt a curious draw to go to the mall and eat some Pizza Hut pizza. Weird.

It was even stranger when I first got there. I couldn't sleep (12-hour time difference--egad), so I watched one of the English language channels after midnight. I cannot tell you how surreal it was to watch Vietnam movies (e.g., Platoon, Uncommon Valor) while sitting in a hotel in Southeast Asia. Almost as weird as watching a psychic on World CNN the next morning tell me how the Hong Kong switchover would go. On CNN!

Posted by: Pro Libertate at February 22, 2006 01:53 PM

Michael, excellent, insightful reporting. The comments section is raising issues and eye-brows. I am presently visiting Malaysia (Muslim) where I have many friends, and have lived previously. Malaysia also provides a different "take" on Islam, because Malaysia is a multiethnic country with freedom of religion. Not homogenized by any means, but they all "get along" extremely well (Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians). Noteably there are no Jews in this mix, and I wonder at that ... but, then, there are also no "Semites" or Arabs here. Is the ME cauldron really about religion? And if so, whose?

Harmon wrote:
And yeah, I know some Moslems. Nice people, like most people you meet one on one. But their religious view is entangled in a political view which is antethical to the Western idea of individual liberty.

The exact same thing can be said about Judaism (and pre-Renaissance Christianity). So, what's the point? The point is that, as was at least intended in the USA, you need to make the political superstructure of liberty strong enough to withstand competitive (intolerant) monotheistic religions. That has "sorta" worked with Christianity. It hasn't yet been made to work with either Judaism or Islam. Well, not so far anyway ....

Ardsgaine wrote:
Christianity in the West was liberalized--paganized, if you will--by the Renaissance, and that is all that allows it to co-exist with freedom.

The problem is that the Renaissance was internal, not imposed externally ... yet any attempt to develop that kind of evolution inside of Judaism or Islam meets with great resistance (is meeting with resistance as we speak, just as the Christian Renaissance was not welcomed with open arms by the Christian institutions). This could take a few centuries ... please standby ...

hiwa wrote:
No! Please! No! you Should never ever let islam to be the religion of west! It will be a disaster if you do that!

Well, good point and all, but same in regard to any other theocratic, monotheistic religion, eh? How about making liberty the "religion" of the west, and all "other" religions subordinate thereto? (Hard to do because religions do not like being subordinate to anything, not even, as it were, "G_d's law.")

Michael, did you anticipate such debate? Or were you expecting more questions on Kurdistan? I would like to ask a few, specifically about visiting there ... actually, I would like to rent an apartment in Dohok for a few months ... another comment here has explained that the economy is much like Israel: foreign aid (an Iraeli friend told me that, wryly) ... so I am wondering about the cost of living. Is it elevated to meet the aid coffers, or does it have any kind of natural base? Note that in S.E. Asia, the cost-of-living is very low (I can rent a simple apartment here for $30/mo.), but it has a local economy with deep roots. Dohok seems to have an inflated economy built by the allied military for strategic reasons, will it be able to sustain this on its own? (And I do understand that this is part of the reluctance of the locals to Americans leaving; just as Germans are still very upset whenever an America base closes in Germany, because it has a devastating effect upon the inflated market.) What are the prospects for actual tourism at this stage? Or the backpacker type travelers of yore? Are there cheap hotels or do you "have to" stay at the "Sheraton"? What other routes fly into Erbil besides Beirut? Is there a bus (local transport) between Erbil and Dohok? Could you have done that? Well, actually tons of questions ... guess I'll just have to keep reading your excellent journal to find out more! Good luck and good journeys.

Posted by: declarlib at February 24, 2006 03:17 AM

Those houses remind me of Miami Beach which is something I never thought I would say about a city in Iraq. It looks lovely; shame about neighbours to the South.

Posted by: Andrew Ian Dodge at February 24, 2006 11:27 AM

Nortius Maximus beat me to the point about the brightly colored houses being just like certain sections of San Francisco. So I'll just say that the pictures are invaluable and I love that you post them.

Posted by: B. Durbin at February 25, 2006 08:14 PM

Congratulations Michael,
I am a Zoroastrian and I have great regard for the noble Kurds.
After all the Kurds have a magnificent heritage from the Medes.
Remember? In ancient times, it was the law of the Medes and the Persians. King CYRUS the great was a Mede.
Most of the noble traits of the Kurds stem from their Zoroastrian ancestry.
Biji Kurdistan!
Norroozetan piruzbey!

Posted by: Hormuzd at March 6, 2006 05:24 PM

Micheal,

I just wanted to thank you for the breathtaking photographs and for presenting a look into the real lives and real issues faced daily by the people of Iraq. You are doing a wonderful job. God speed!

Posted by: Witty at March 12, 2006 12:13 PM

I'm glad you got to see my city! i'm from that city, I grew up there and went to high school. Iove your photos! it's a very nice town, but it needs good management and care for the environment. people are building all over the city like crazy and there is no plan or respect for the landscape and nature! as far as safety, it's very safe. I love my town.

thanks

Posted by: Kurdo at October 20, 2006 08:11 AM

I'm glad you got to see my city! i'm from that city, I grew up there and went to high school. Iove your photos! it's a very nice town, but it needs good management and care for the environment. people are building all over the city like crazy and there is no plan or respect for the landscape and nature! as far as safety, it's very safe. I love my town.

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