I left Cezre, Turkey and headed south to Silopi (pronounded sloppy). This was the last town before Iraq. I was still unsure whether I would go any further south and set my mind on staying in Silopi for a night; I was hoping to find other travellers here who could hold me as we crossed the border. My search was, however, limited to walking into the nearest hotel, asking if there were any tourists about, having no idea what they were saying, then walking out and getting in a taxi to the border.
Like so many others I am naive as to what is actually going on in the world. Iraq was no exception. There is no doubt that Iraq is a place that no one wants to be right now. There is simply too much going on there that we don't want to think about. But our view of the real world is blinded by what we see and hear through the media. Not all of this country is a terrible place. It is not all dangerous, as many of us think. It is for these reasons that for the rest of this entry I will call Iraq, 'Kurdistan', the northern autonomous region, for this is where I went and had a fantastic week.
Kurdistan is a fantastic place, so different from the status quo image of this Middle Eastern nation. Though there is not much in terms of natural beauty, there is a plethora of humanity. It is for this reason that I came to love Kurdistan; it is one of my favourite countries ever in, like, the history of ever. The people I met changed my life.
And the first person was Khalid. I had just met him yet he was so eager to help me out. In Dohuk he introduced me to Cem (pronounced Jem), a Turkish-Kurd, here to help with the rebuild Iraq programme. Cem was an immediate miracle man. He offered me a bed for a couple of days with his construction workers (not all in the same bed) and also took me out for pizza on my first night!
Dohuk was a beautiful city also, and I enjoyed my time there. Khalid loved going to the local theme park, Dream City, and that's where we went on our first night. This was not what I was expecting on my first night in a "war zone."
A couple of days later, having established that Kurdistan was actually quite safe, I ventured to the next big city, Arbil.
Arbil was nice, but more so was meeting a German-Kurd (Dinal) and his cousin from Baghdad (Enis) who helped me get settled into my hotel. 5 minutes after I had checked into my room, they came by and asked if I wanted to come with them around the city. Why not?
We headed to a nice park, and it was nothing of what I would have expected from "Iraq." We stayed there for a few hours and then Enis had an urge for some nargila. Nargila is like hooka. Actually I don't know what the difference is between the 2. It's a flavoured smoking thing. And the 3 of us sat in a bar called "Happy Times" whilst we indulged in this Middle Eastern tradition - this was definitely not what I would have expected when I first came to Kurdistan. What an experience!
The next day Enis and I hung out together. He was a fun guy, and I tagged along with him to another city, Sulaymaniyah. Now this place was beautiful. The roads were clean, there were shopping centres (or malls!), they even had cornflakes! It was just like any other Western City.
I only stayed in Sulaymaniyah for one day but I regretted leaving so early. Not just because my hotel "room" was actually a bed on the roof (it was amazing!) but because I wanted to hang about with Enis and his friends some more.
Ater Sulaymaniyah, I stayed in Dohuk for another 2 days, and then made my way back to Turkey.
Kurdistan was really something else, and not just because of the niceties of the locals. My eyes were opened somewhat by what I saw and heard. Enis was only 20 and had only just left the hell that was Baghdad 2 months earlier. He was now living in Sulaymaniyah, trying, with difficulty, to transfer universities to finish his medicine degree. As we talked and he told me horror stories, (the ones we only hear on the news as we eat our dinner in the safety of our homes), he said that there was nothing left to do but get on with life. Another person we chanced upon in Arbil had, like Enis, recently fled the capital. His family had been killed and all his possessions destroyed, just before he was to finish his engineering degree - now he was a waiter...and he was laughing about it - "what else was there to do?"
Though we hear about this in the news, almost on a daily basis, it was eye-opening hearing these stories first-hand. To be told that "things were better in Saddam's time" was unnerving. I sat silently, not knowing what to say, as Enis told me of people murdered in the street for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As Enis said to me, as we were watching a simple tennis match between a Baghdad school student and a local school student, whatever happens, life must go on as normally as possible.
Having visited this part of the world I have really come to realise how insignificant my one year adventure is. As such, I do not know what my future travel plans are. I always wanted to travel for a year, but now this doesn't seem so important. I have not been home for several years now, and there is much I miss, like kebabs and gravy, and my friends and family. So from here onwards, I'm not really sure what I will do. I will still continue to head south, but I don't think that I will be travelling for a whole year. Whatever happens though, I will never forget how lucky we in the West are, and how precious life really is.
Life is short.
P.S. Just to finish this entry I want to say a big thank you to Khalid, Cem, all the other workers in Dohuk (especially Ivan, the amazing cook and the guy who kept calling me David James) and of course Dinal and Enis. Here's hoping that the situation in Iraq, and Kurdistan, improves sooner rather than later.