Friendly faces in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq (but where are the women?!)

Iraq, Kurdistan

Kurdistan is a region that covers parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, and where the population, culture and language is mostly Kurdish.  Kurds  are “the largest national, cultural group that has never been able to achieve a national territory”, says Noam Chomsky. I am still travelling with my Norwegian friends, Mats and Robert, and we are given a ten day visa-on-arrival for Iraqi Kurdistan.

Our first view of Kurdistan!



Walking over the Iraq border

Although not its own country, Kurdistan has its own regional government. The invasion of Iraq has had vastly different consequences for Kurdistan in comparison to the rest of the country. Whilst the majority of Iraq has faced devastation because of the invasion and occupation, Kurdistan has served a different purpose. In a 2008 interview, Noam Chomsky states that “the relatively autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq is providing support for the US goal of ensuring that Iraq remains a client state and a base for US forces in the region, and that it will privilege US investors…”

If your definition of a “developing” region is shopping centres, corporate capitalism, private investors, advertising and a growing gap between rich and poor,  then Kurdistan certainly falls into this category. When we arrive in Sulaymaniyah, I am shocked to be suddenly surrounded by consumerism. I look back fondly at my time in Iran! But at the same time I am excited….I can now walk without a headscarf on. I can drink alcohol. I even guiltily eat chinese food! Sulaymaniyah is a mixture of traditional and modern, rich and poor. Its beautiful, old, crumbling bazaar, heaving with people, is just a few streets away from  the brand new shopping centres visited by people in expensive 4×4 cars.

Sulaymaniyah bazaar – far more interesting than the massive, new shopping centre


We visit Amna Suraka, a complex where Saddam Hussein’s regime incarcerated, tortured and murdered thousands of Kurdish people. We see old torture chambers and solitary-confinement cells. The complex was closed in 1991 when an uprising by Kurdish fighters forced out Hussein’s forces and took control of Amna Suraka.

Amna Suraka

We are also told about the Halabja massacre in 1988, which the US and Britain turned a blind eye to. “While [British politician David] Mellor was being entertained by Saddam Hussein, his host ordered the gassing of 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja.” (John Pilger). Between 1986 and 1989, up to 182,000 Kurds were killed by the Hussein regime in the Anfal genocide campaign.

Journalist John Pilger describes Hussein as a “thug whose Ba’athist Party was brought to power by the CIA in what the CIA official responsible described as “our favourite coup”. Moreover, he was sustained in power during the 1980s by Ronald Reagan, George Bush Senior and Margaret Thatcher, who gave him all the weapons he wanted, often clandestinely and illegally.”

Sulaymaniyah is a city of men. Men on the streets. Men in the parks. Men at the bazaar. There are literally no women anywhere! Because of this, I am happy to leave this city.

Hitchhiking is really easy in Kurdistan, and unlike in Iran, locals are not surprised when we want to travel without contributing any money. Like in Iran, Mats, Robert and I are local celebrities and everyone wants a photo with us. We are shown so much hospitality and generosity.  One of our drivers, a policeman, even insists on paying for a two-bedroom apartment for us for a night! Another day, a military man insists on paying a small fortune for a taxi to drive us for one hour.

Hitchhhiking! We can stick our thumbs up, unlike in Iran (where it is offensive)

New friends

Hitching with Mats and Robert – always a wonderful experience with them

Happy in the back of a pick-up truck

Being surrounded by consumerism, my urge to dumpster dive is awakened, and I find it easy to find good discarded vegetables. But locals are shocked when they see the only tourist around rummaging through the waste! They point and stare at me. They ask me, “what are you doing?!” I dumpster the food and Robert and Mats cook it in our hotel. We make a good team!

Robert cooks a dumpster dinner in the hotel shower!

Iraqi  Kurdistan is a region of uniformed men with guns, and there are checkpoints, checkpoints and more checkpoints.  Our next stop is Arbil, which is a pleasant city with super-friendly locals. But once again, where are all the women??!

Arbil has a huge citadel which towers over the city. In 2007, 840 families were evicted from the citadel, and the project of restoration by UNESCO began. I send an email to UNESCO, asking why the evicted families can not move back into their homes once renovation is complete, and why a notice in the citadel states that some buildings have been promised to countries for cultural centres. I receive no reply.

The beautiful, crumbling citadel in Arbil

We also visit Amadiyah, a beautiful town perched high on a mountain ridge. Within five minutes of arriving, we are pounced upon by a nineteen year old boy who tells us, “my name is GW. Grand Wolf”! Grand Wolf insists on giving us a guided tour of the town.

Mats and Robert in Amadiyah

Vegetarians note that in some towns, I go from restaurant to restaurant, asking for veggie food. The conversation goes like this:
“Do you have rice?”
“No. We have Kebab.”
“No. Kebab”.
“I don’t eat meat.”

We aren’t brave enough to venture more south, where we would see the real effects of the invasion. We reach the Iraq/Turkey border and accidentally walk over to Turkey without being border-checked or  stamped! We walk back again for our Iraq exit-stamp. Officially, no-one is allowed to walk across the border, and taxi is  the only way to cross. We ignore this official advice and successfully walk over to Turkey (for the second time, but with official passport stamps!). We smugly laugh at the drivers who tell us, “by foot? Impossible! Taxi. 50 euros!!”

9 thoughts on “Friendly faces in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq (but where are the women?!)

  1. wow… I soon will be there too! thanks for all the descriptions.. definitely I´m intrigued 🙂 also great for all the “awakening” about politicshits going on there… a place to see, feel and learn! * Ka


    1. we got invited into a home as soon as we crossed the border into iraq, but we wanted to get to Sulaymaniyah so refused the offer. i don’t think we were invited any other time (or maybe we were but for some reason or another said no). we were only there for a week and didn’t extend our visas to stay longer and really experience the country thoroughly. i asked some of the men “where are all the women?” and i got replies like, “they’re here…you’re just not in the right area”, or “you’re here in the wrong season. in the summer time you see lots of women!”….very vague answers!


  2. A fascinating travelogue…Lisa, you really bring your times in Kurdish Iraq to life – you’ve got to be a brave woman, with all your wits about you: a female dumpster-diving food in a place where you only see males around, and then, bringing it back to cook in the shower – an intriguing read!
    Steve B


  3. Sounds like Azerbaijan, most towns my friend and i went to, we were the only women to be seen on the streets and tea houses!
    what’s your take on KRG? A friend just went there to teach for 5months! i told her if she gets bored, she can always cross into IRAN ;D, (My humor was wasted on her)


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