“You like Donald Trump?”
“No,” I embarrassedly responded in an awkward tone.
“You like Clinton?”
“Better than Trump,” I offered.
“So Clinton is better than Trump?”
“Trump is a stupid man.” I was embarrassed by Trump’s broad anti-Muslim statements.
“We are all brothers. Muslim, Christian. All brothers.” He smiled.
I lightly touched my right hand to my heart, and dipped my head. “Spas.” I said thank you in Kurdish, the one word I knew. Smiled and walked away.
I am in Erbil. The capital of Kurdistan, the northern most province of Iraq. Kurdistan is an autonomous region of Iraq. And it is the polar opposite of any preconceived notion you might have of a dangerous and chaotic Iraq.
Iraq is my 100th country that I have visited. I am on a quest to visit all 193 UN recognized countries.
The Department of State warns: “U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq. Travel within Iraq remains very dangerous given the security situation. U.S. citizens in Iraq remain at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence. ISIL controls Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.”
Mosul is only 50 miles from Erbil. An hour’s drive. ISIL’s black flag flies over Mosul. Beheadings, executions, kidnapping. Maybe this was not a smart idea.
As of three weeks ago I was not planning on visiting Iraq. I had planned on visiting Djibouti, an east African country that had been on my radar screen for several years. I was intrigued and excited to visit Lake Abbe and Lake Assal, two magnificent natural wonders. But I was so alienated by the 5 star prices for the 1 star amenities; that I ended up canceling my tickets to Djibouti. I then needed to find an alternative, that was served by Fly Dubai (whom I had a credit with), was visa on arrival, and was a new country for me to visit. I had four options: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uganda, and Iraq. After cycling through all four choices, I eventually settled on Iraq.
My three and half hour flight from Dubai to Erbil was uneventful. I landed at Erbil International Airport, a spacious airport constructed in 2010.
Immigration took only minutes with a stamp gingerly placed by an attractive Kurdish woman. My luggage was already spinning around in the carousel. And a taxi driver greeted me with a $30 price to my hotel. I was bracing myself for a $50 ride, which I had read about online. Everything was coming up Millhouse.
Two hours later, I was sitting in a trendy café, finishing up lunch with a friend of a friend. A gracious Kurdish doctor. After lunch we puffed shishas, sipped tea, and spoke about politics. After lunch we stopped by his office, and surreally started battling each other on his PlayStation via FIFA Soccer 13. He kicked my ass. I heard the announcer scream “yella, yella!” It was difficult to imagine I was in Iraq.
We parted ways, and I started to explore Erbil on my own. Erbil is anchored by the Citadel. The Citadel is an elevated fortified settlement that dates back over 6000 years. It is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Surrounding the Citadel is the Qaysari bazaar. This dark maze of paths is one of the oldest bazaars in the world.
Within two hours, I had acquired 8 new friends on Facebook. I was warmly welcomed by many in the covered souk. Handshakes and pats on the back. Smiles and thumbs ups. The locals bought me tea and fed me baklava. I sampled marinated olives and fresh fruit juice. Men posed for pictures and asked to connect on Facebook.
“What country?” a man asked.
“America,” I offered.
“Welcome to Kurdistan.” He smiled.
My 100th County – Kurdistan, Iraq