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.

Miran.jpg

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 February 28, 2006 09:50 AM
Comments

The photos, Michael. They really are the key - and the things they convey are so very dramatically different from what we usually see that it's jarring.

sometimes they really are worth 1,000 words. Or even several thousand.

Posted by: Joe Katzman at February 28, 2006 10:20 AM

I now want to go. Seriously.

Posted by: Rusty at February 28, 2006 10:34 AM

Michael,

Good stuff. I have a question though, if these places are in Kurdish controlled Iraq, which has been Kurdish controlled since the end of Gulf War I, then haven't these places been thriving like this for at least a decade since they were out of Saddam's influence? Or are these vibrant and healthy communities just a recent development? and if so, why?

Thanks again for the great writing,

John Mc

Posted by: John Mc at February 28, 2006 10:44 AM

The sincerest form of flattery is plagarism.

Posted by: frank martin at February 28, 2006 10:44 AM

What would not bore you? Time Square or Las Vegas neon?

Posted by: cowboy at February 28, 2006 11:24 AM

I live in Utah (the boring part)was the Utah jab made in jest? Most people here a blondes.

Posted by: UtahScott at February 28, 2006 12:39 PM

Michael, the hits keep coming. You're on Andrew Sullivan's website, today. Go look.

Posted by: Grant McEntire at February 28, 2006 12:47 PM

Northern Iraq is invalid .

please update your brain it is Southern Kurdistan.
ERROR 013
the word, "Northern Iraq" is only used by the enemy of the Kurds ,If you are an enemy, please contact the nearest American Marine and ask for the directions to Saddam's palace.
http://northerniraq.info/

Posted by: hiwa mahmmud at February 28, 2006 01:07 PM

One thing, which I can't quite tell from the photographs. When I was in Riyadh last year, what struck me most (tripped me, actually) was that even in a city which is being built with the intent of being modern, the sidewalks were a mess.

As far as I could tell, each building built their own sidewalk, and if they were the same height from one building to the next it was an accident. A step up or down wouldn't be too much of a problem -- but having a centimeter or two of difference was asking to trip anyone innocently walking along. A small thing, of course. But a reflection on whether people are trying to do any systematic urban planning.

Posted by: wj at February 28, 2006 02:26 PM

The Kurds are cool. Arabs need to follow their example.

Great pics Michael. Where do the Kurds get all this prosperity? I know they have oil, but I doubt they all work in the oil fields.

Posted by: Carlos at February 28, 2006 02:33 PM

Given what's going on in Baghdad and Salahuddin province it does seem that the idea of "Iraq" is quickly coming to an end. Why would the Kurds want to remain part of that fictional and disfunctional state?

Posted by: Vanya at February 28, 2006 02:44 PM

Michael's travelogues are interesting, all this prosperity is wonderful and I wish the kurds all the best.

But before they are collectively being recommended for sainthood, it should be allowed to mention that the kurds were profiting from smuggling Saddam's oil for years, thereby actively undermining the sanctions and directly benefiting the dictator.

The rivalry between the two KDP and the PUK was at least partly based on differences about how to divide up the profits of this illegal smuggling and led Barzani to actually invite Saddam's army into Kurdish territory in order to defeat the Iran backed PUK.

Kurds also ran for decades a mafia-style terrorist organization called the PKK, which might be somewhat excusable due to the fact that the turkish military was known for its oppressiveness and brutality towards the kurds, but it was still an organization that was involved in such activities as extorting protection money, drug smuggling, torture, killing of innocents and, yes, even suicide bombing.

So the kurds have had their fair share of dysfunctionality, treachery and violence,
maybe they've learned from it and will do better, but it's still part of their history.

Posted by: novakant at February 28, 2006 03:25 PM

It reminds me of cities in Iran.

Posted by: chester at February 28, 2006 04:03 PM

Novakant!
what do you expect from a nation been deprived of every single right a human should have! and that is not for one day! not for a year but for many many years and still you want them to behave like an Europian or as an American!!!
for god sake! come on! wake up!go and read the history of other nations and then decide who is the real terorist! Kurds like a white blank sheet their arms are open for anybody willing to write whatever words he/she would like!

Posted by: hiwa mahmmud at February 28, 2006 04:48 PM

i wrote a long comment but changed my mind and write a short one instead.

its always great to hear good things about your people and country.

but kurdistan has been going through things unimaginable for endure.

sure ppl working on rebuilding infrastructure etc...but our social and culturell structures also been devasted and suffered tremendously after more than a century of wars and genocides and ethnic cleansing etc...in its most cruel and bloodiest way.

what im tryin to say is. we will need time to lick on our wounds. we have deep deep wounds we need to heal, like everyone else in mideast. armenians, jews, iranians, turks..we all been exposed to war and devestation. we need time to heal our wounds.

spas

Posted by: seattle kurd at February 28, 2006 05:40 PM

Wow. These pictures are great. This is nothing like I would have imagined Kurdistan/Northern Iraq to look like. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Ms. M at February 28, 2006 05:53 PM

Riddle me this...why in the world did Saddam ban maps? How nuts is that??? I guess in his warped way he didn't want people to have any kind of knowledge, including geographical??? Any other explanation?

Posted by: Megs at February 28, 2006 06:38 PM

Well, this is apocryphal, so take it as you will, but I heard a story once of an Iraqi schoolbook which had the countries of Iraq and the US laid side by side... but without any sense of scale, so the US didn't look big or dangerous.

Ban maps and you can mess with perception pretty well. Heck, ban anything and you're messing with people's view of the world.

Posted by: B. Durbin at February 28, 2006 08:45 PM

just wanna add that we will make the greatest come back in history with help of our ally and friend america.

we just started this jorney. 15 years ago when the allies created the safe heavens for us in the first gulfwar made all this possible. without america and the brits none of whats going on today wouldnt even be possible in our dreams.

without america this would be utopia for kurds.
thats why i always defend and even lost costumers and acquaintance becouse of my support for america AND bush. i dont wanna sound like cuban exile groups in florida buttering up for bush but the safe heaven over kurdistan in north iraq was created during bush seniors administration with help of james baker and brit MP john major.

kurds will build up kurdistan and remain strong allies of america. pax americana.

Posted by: seattle kurd at March 1, 2006 05:07 AM

Beautiful pictures Indeed.
I am from Hawler (Arbil, Erbil or Irbil, a city closed to Suleimaniya). My grandfather used to say “we Kurds are Europeans, we are behind now because we are dominated by Arabs, Arabs have oil and therefore the power, and they don’t want us to progress, but one day when we become free, we will be just like Europeans”. My grandfather died in late 1960s and today his words are coming true.
Thank you Michael.

Posted by: Rebaz at March 1, 2006 05:33 AM

Are there any signs that the Kurds are battening up the hatches, manning the baricades or otherwise preparing for a civil war (primarily between Shia and Sunni)?

Posted by: Steve M at March 1, 2006 06:23 AM

"Would you know Northern Iraq looked like this if I didn’t go there with my camera and bring back these pictures?"

It is outrageous that Michael’s pictures are about the first I’ve seen of the Kurdish areas. Where is the MSM? Have I been missing something? They have far more people and financial resources? Obviously, they don’t give a damn unless the photos will hurt the war effort.

Posted by: David Thomson at March 1, 2006 06:58 AM

Please David. Are you just one of those people who loves to be outraged? First of all, National Geographic just did a big story on Kurdistan in January. That's not "mainstream" enough for you? More people in the heartland read that than read the NYT. Second, you don't think the real story is how badly things are going in what's left of Iraq? What kind of responsible journalist can ignore that? The liberation of Kurdistan is a collateral benefit in the bigger picture but it does nothing to improve America's standing in the Arab world. Arguably liberating Kurdistan only inflames Arab (and Turkish) moderates against us. Unfortunately if George Bush had declared that we were going to war to liberate Kurdistan we would have lost the support of most Americans immediately.

Posted by: Vanya at March 1, 2006 07:14 AM

to this fucker pig Novakant:kurdistan and kurdish people will not see so fucker pig as like you becasie I think you suck of turksh donky and Arabe and in kurdistan people see like Clown and forgien pig so shut up you munn and get lost.

Posted by: kurdish natinalist at March 1, 2006 10:05 AM

come mon lets be alittle more decent. i'm happy to see that mike is doing what the rest of the western media is afraid to do. the kurdish story is one positive outcome of this war and hopefully in a few more years more great things coming out of this region.

Posted by: ako at March 1, 2006 10:18 AM

Looks an awful lot like (or better than) any little city in New Mexico, actually.

Posted by: brucewayne at March 1, 2006 12:27 PM

Wait, wait, wait.

You say Saddam Hussein banned maps?

Maps?

Unreal.

Posted by: TallDave at March 1, 2006 12:39 PM

He got that idea from Stalin. Maps were hard to find in the Soviet Union as well, and were often purposely innacurate when they were available. Ostensibly to slow down any invaders.

Posted by: Vanya at March 1, 2006 04:10 PM

Wow, reminds me of my time living in Macedonia, Muslims included (we have a lot of Turks and Albanians there - the Turks are wonderful, the Albanians, eh...).

Posted by: Rudolph Carrera at March 1, 2006 04:50 PM

Interesting pictures. But:

"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?"

Methinks Mr. Totten has fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in a fantastical world populated only by the readers that leave gushing praise in the comments.

Posted by: Bye.Nova at March 1, 2006 11:06 PM

to this loser buy.nova what it is your point frist learn you to talk leater talk becasue,in western country verytime I see manye psyco loser like you,

Posted by: kurdish natinalist at March 2, 2006 05:25 AM

Thanks, Michael. Your reports educate. My local newspaper seems like the National Enquirer in comparison.

Agree, David Thomson. The major newspapers have decided their primary responsibility is to 'speak truth to power' rather than to educate (and if it's Republican or Centrist power that just makes it sweeter). It's hard not to miss what we've lost in the war in lives and $s (nor who 'authored' the war) but you have to actively seek news of what has been gained (ex-the made more/made less terrorists argument, and other 'remains to be seen' issues, that at this point are truly unknowable, and may always be such).

Posted by: Sweetie at March 2, 2006 02:28 PM

Novakant, anyone's "history" might be cloudy if they had to endure the likes of nutcases like Saddam. Some people in the Middle East claim they just want to be free, but when freedom tries to come their way they keep on fighting. But look at what these Kurds have done in such a short time!!! I really admire these folks, and these pictures/articles of Michael's really show the truth about these Kurds. Freedom is being offered to them, and they can't get there fast enough. :-) Excellent. Honestly, the MSM needs to tell their story more. Hiwa is right......"Northern Iraq" doesn't do them justice. Long Live Southern Kurdistan!!!

Posted by: Renée C. at March 2, 2006 07:21 PM

Something I just thought of looking at those photographs is that with all that glass frontage this strikes me as a city that is not assuming violence to come, but is expecting prosperity.

Posted by: PlainBill at March 3, 2006 02:23 PM

the person that has bin really hash n rude to the other guy, is not a kurd, but a turk, tring to give kurds a bad name by swearing n saying he is a kurd. we r more civilized than that. cheers

Posted by: shvan at July 27, 2006 07:26 PM

Hi Mike,

nice pics! I'm kurdish from Duhok, a town north of Erbil, I don'k know if you had a chance to visit it. it's more mountainous and cooler temps. It's amazing how kurdistan has transformed but there is a cost to that, I think we need people who know how to plan a city, so we can balance between builing and the environment, we dont have sewage systems yet we have shopping malls! it's very peaceful and safe, I hope it stays that way and I hope we can get rid of the the political corruption we have in our government.

thanks,

Posted by: kurdo Azad at January 24, 2007 02:10 PM

nice pics! I'm kurdish from Duhok, a town north of Erbil, I don'k know if you had a chance to visit it. it's more mountainous and cooler temps. It's amazing how kurdistan has transformed but there is a cost to that, I think we need people who know how to plan a city, so we can balance between builing and the environment, we dont have sewage systems yet we have shopping malls! it's very peaceful and safe, I hope it stays that way and I hope we can get rid of the the political corruption we have in our government.

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Posted by: yelete at May 17, 2007 04:27 AM

Thank you very much for opening our eyes that of how this great region really looks. Sadly most of us in this world are in the dark as to the way much of the world really looks. I am tickled to see that "even if they dont have sewers yet"...they are moving ahead and modernizing their city. Inshallah they will continue and other citys will follow their example. I think they are doing great and I wish them the best. Thank you for the education :)

Posted by: Joee at August 23, 2007 01:13 PM
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