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Renovating The Past

September 15, 2009
by Gail Bensinger
photograph of a rug shop in Iraqi Kurdistan

Behind barriers, Iraqi Kurdistan beckons.

Getting into Iraqi Kurdistan was a lot easier than getting out. On arrival, my suitcase passed through an X-ray machine that no one seemed to be monitoring, a man in a glass booth gave a perfunctory stamp to my passport, and that was that. To leave, however, we first had to weave through a labyrinth of blast barriers, then submit to three separate passport checks, complete with luggage scans and body scans and even hand searches. As a woman, I was taken to a bare room to be frisked.

Since we were leaving, I can’t exactly call this our introduction to Iraqi Kurdistan, but the heavy security on the way into Erbil International Airport—and out of the country—did seem symptomatic of the slightly schizophrenic reality that dogged our group of American tourists to the region.

The tourism ministry declares Kurdistan open to visitors, but aside from a few hotels with Western-style amenities, there is practically nothing to accommodate foreigners. Iraq still isn’t integrated into the international banking system, so there are no ATMs, no credit cards, no travelers’ checks. There is no mail service anywhere in Iraq, thus no postcards and no stamps. Of course, these are mere nuisances—the real worry when traveling to this part of the world is bodily harm. Yet in two weeks of travel, we never came close to any violence, despite the ongoing insurgency just down the road, across the regional border. The most dangerous thing that happened to any of us was getting stuck in the elevator during one of the frequent electricity failures.

Iraqi Kurdistan lies within the historical land of Mesopotamia, and its capital, Erbil, vies with Damascus for the distinction of being the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the cradle of civilization. But little of that history is on view. A drive through the crowded, dusty city reveals a flat, monotonous landscape with an undistinguished architecture. The Erbil International Hotel, known erroneously but universally as the Sheraton, is a high-rise that serves as Oil Central. The dominant feature of official Erbil, center of the Kurdistan regional government, is all the blast barriers incongruously painted with scenes of children playing or flowers growing. Iraqi Kurdistan may not be anyone’s idea of a tourist mecca, but it is open for business, as evidenced by a building boom in all three provinces.

The Citadel, which occupies the highest point in the city and has been inhabited for 8,000 years, is one place where the past is still accessible. The site is in the first stages of restoration that will ultimately include refurbished residences, businesses, restaurants, art galleries, and other amenities appealing to both city residents and the hoped-for busloads of tourists. Built atop a man-made hill, the Citadel is unusual among fortresses in that its outer perimeter is formed by the walls of dwellings rather than fortified battlements.

Dara Al-Yaqubi, an architect and engineer who taught for 20 years at Baghdad University, is overseeing the preparation of a conservation plan for the Citadel. He says that despite the site’s age and historical significance, the ground remains mostly unexcavated, and he hopes that eventually foreign universities will enter into archaeology projects jointly with the restoration commission.

In addition to its security function, the Citadel was once the center of trade in cloth and rugs for which the Kurds are justly famous. The stability that fostered the traditional weaving industry, however, was largely wiped out during the anti-Kurdish campaigns of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. At the Citadel, the Textile Museum, founded by Lolan Sipan, an Iraqi Kurd who moved to Sweden during the hard years, strives to preserve the dying art. Sipan, whose excellent English can be traced to his college years in Minnesota, has personally collected many of the old rugs, costumes, pillows, travel bags, and other woven objects on display at the museum. On the day we visited, the first session of a women’s embroidery class was underway, under the tutelage of a nomad with tribal tattoos on her forehead and chin. In other rooms of the museum, two people were sitting on the floor weaving a rug, while a young man was setting up a floor loom. In addition to preserving the skills involved, the Textile Museum’s sewing and weaving enterprises provides a rare place for women to socialize.

Many women go bareheaded and wander freely through the shops, but commercial Kurdistan is a man’s world—all the bazaar stalls are operated by men, even those selling cosmetics and lingerie. Cafés are also men’s province, especially at the convivial late-afternoon hour, although some ice cream parlors and tea shops cater to women. As foreigners, we were welcomed everywhere—Kurdish hospitality is so all-encompassing that we had to watch how we worded our compliments, for fear that an admired piece of jewelry would be whipped off by the wearer and presented to us as a gift.

The greatest potential for tourism in Iraqi Kurdistan is probably in the magnificent mountain ranges along the borders of Iran and Turkey. The jagged, cave-riddled hills, alive with flowers in the springtime, have been a natural fortification over centuries of Kurdish history. Cooler in the summer than most of flatland Iraq, they remain a magnet for day-trippers and vacationers. But beware: Parts of the mountains are still heavily land-mined.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s most sophisticated city is Suleimaniah (or Slemani, as transliterated into English by the locals). Here, young men with spiky hair glimmering with gel, and young women wearing jeans and toenail polish stride confidently along the broad avenues of the gracious downtown. A fine archeological museum can be found midway down Salim Street, where displays are organized chronologically and labeled in English as well as Kurdish. On view are unusual collections of such artifacts as carved animals dating to the seventh millennium B.C.; a pottery coffin holding a female skeleton from the fourth millennium B.C.; 4,000-year-old treatises on economics and mathematics, carved in stone; and jewelry, sculpture, and tools from a long-inhabited seat of civilization. Some of the most important specimens are replicas; the originals are in major Western museums including the Smithsonian and the Louvre.

Sadly, the recent history of Iraqi Kurdistan tends to overshadow Suleimaniah’s rich past. The Red House, once a Baathist torture center, is open to the public as a memorial to the scores of thousands killed during a vicious campaign waged by the Iraqi government against the Kurds. Blankets and bedrolls on the floors of claustrophobic cells give a sense of the terrible crowding, and white statues depicting prisoners—a mother comforting her small child, a man manacled to a stair railing, guards beating the feet of some poor soul suspended from bars—infiltrate the viewer’s imagination.

Saddam’s loathing of the Kurds took many forms, but undoubtedly the worst was the use of chemical weapons on the civilian population of Halabja. The town’s cemeteries are filled with memorials to the victims. On the outskirts, a museum and an abstract monument honor those who were gassed, and heartbreaking photos of the victims are on display. Nariman Ali, deputy director of the memorial, was only 8 at the time of the attack. His father and a cousin were killed. Of the rest of his family, he says only, “How we survived, I don’t know.” But survival is a trait the Kurds have mastered over their long, rich history—a history they are eager to show the rest of us.

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