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     Volume 6 Issue 34 | August 31, 2007 |

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A Respite from Reality

Lally Snow

Graveyard near Kirkuk.

The Kurdish region of Iraq has had a difficult history. Now it is trying to establish itself independently from the South. This is not with out ramifications. Prices and population both have risen but as one woman said, 'at least here we can all be free'.

A game of cards is a good distraction.

Kurdistan (or Northern Iraq, depending on which way you look at it) is a world away from the bedlam of the south. Every one knows of Saddam Hussein's attacks on Hallabja and his cultivation of a kind of mistrust and misunderstanding between Iraqis and Kurds. However today, Kurds, Iraqis, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Yezidis… everyone in Northern Iraq is equal; everyone is 'in it together'; perhaps this mutual tolerance is the only positive product of the continuing war in the south.

So Kurdistan is the safe bit of Iraq and draws families from all over the country for holidays; they have nowhere else to go. But when the price of petrol, food and accommodation alone are factored in, a holiday there is not cheap. Having just arrived from Baghdad, the father of a small family holidaying in the waterfall resort of Bekhal had to sell personal belongings in order to fund well over $1000 for a week off. But he moves his hands quickly and nervously when he describes the capital city and says it is worth it, 'just to be able to breathe'.

When asked if he would ever consider relocating to Northern Iraq he says that he has to go where there is work. With so many people moving he would not be confident of finding employment and he runs his own car work-shop. He shrugs his shoulders philosophically, 'people always need cars in a place like Baghdad'.

Teenagers from Baghdad enjoy a ride at the fair.

About five miles from the resort of Bekhal a new assortment of yellow brick houses is underway. They are identical and have neat grassy lawns, flower beds filled with pansies and petunias and all have their own patio area. They are the very epitome of suburban living but on the edge of craggy mountainous plains. In the same way that one might rent an apartment near Aqaba or a villa in Europe to get away from hectic urban life, in Bekhal urban normality and mundanaity is the dream while Baghdad is the nightmare. When these houses are completed, they will be rented out by the week as holiday homes.

A tour bus from Baghdad arrived to look at the new housing project and two women stood looking at the half finished houses hand in hand. They live in different neighbourhoods in Baghdad and barely see each other. The journey is too dangerous. 'Next year, habibi', says one, 'Next year we will be neighbours and can see each other whenever we like for our holidays'.

Irbil Souq

Similarly, the hypermarket in Dohuk sells everything from clothes to make-up to paintings to gym equipment. Ordinary urban middle class families are able to be ordinary urban middle class families. Mothers can buy washing powder and branded makeup remover, fathers can look at quad-bikes and stereos with their sons. 'Holidaying here, we can pretend our lives are normal. In Mosul you can't buy what you want, when you want, where you want,' says one man with a shopping trolly filled with electrical appliances, imported cosmetics, instant coffee and socks. 'Prices have risen a lot in the last few years but we don't really mind,' a local woman says, 'It is nice that we can all live together and that people like coming back. I feel very proud to live here'.

From the mini fair ground in Erbil to the brand new roller coaster in Bekhal, to a park next to one of the old prisons used during the first gulf war, to Dream City in Dohuk, there are endless opportunities for adrenaline infused enjoyment across all ages at any time of day; Teenagers pumped and grinded to the latest R'n'B hip hop song belting out from the disco ride and onlookers cheered; Parents waited patiently for younger children on the ethereally lit merry-go-rounds; Young couples hand in hand sharing popcorn and candyfloss queued for the ferris wheel. No one judges, no one cares, no one fears for this, finally, is the longed for normality.

Not everyone holidaying in Northern Iraq is from the south; There was Jimmy, a restaurant owner from Lewisham near London, back for two weeks to see his cousin get married; there was Hassan from Birmingham visiting family for ten days; and the elderly Ahmed from Vancouver, over for a month; the eternally cheerful Mohammed from Quebec; the young family from Denmark; Hussein and his wife from Australia. The list goes on. Some had family living in Kurdistan, others were meeting their relatives there from the south. As Jimmy said, 'Iraq is my country, I am just thankful that I can still come back for holidays'.

In Shaklawa, a leafy town 50 miles from Erbil, a voice drawled cheerfully as it walked passed, 'Hey where are you from? I am from Vancouver man'. Catching up with the owner of the voice later on I asked him what he does in Vancouver and what draws him back to Northern Iraq for a holiday.

His eyes narrowed, his cheer disappeared and he lowered his voice, 'I am not really from Vancouver but the people I was with don't know that.'

Prompted, he continues, 'I am a translator for the US CB's (Combat Battalion) in Mosul. Apart from my father and fiancé no one knows that I work there. They think I am a student in Canada back on vacation if they knew, their lives would be in danger. As far as insurgents are concerned, anyone seen to be supporting the West in any way is considered a threat'. Suddenly aware of my own presence causing trouble should anyone be caught talking to me, we part company.

In an Iraq rife with political and religious difficulties going back a long way, the north is the one place where the future is bright and the reality of that future close at hand, regardless of old wounds and grievances. At the supermarket's exit is a Kurdistan Airways poster. Rather appropriately it proclaims, 'Finally a dream has come true'. Finally.

Photos: Lally Snow


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