Walk through the streets of Erbil and you won’t believe you’re in Iraq. Not because of the danger, but for Iraq, how remarkably modern it is.
I remember a conversation with a friend of mine in Istanbul, Turkey. We sipped tea, discussing our travel plans for the following year while locals around us gurgled into their water pipes and slapped their domino tiles together in that smoke filled coffee shop.
“What do you think about going on vacation in Iraq?” he asked. Was he kidding? Who in the world would think about going to a country in perpetual war?
It turned out it was a light joke after all. Neither of us thought much of the conversation on the walk back to our hotel. We would never think about stepping into Iraq, not the way it is now.
Four months later, I arrived in Iraq’s Erbil International Airport in the Kurdish north. It’s a part of Iraq that not many young Americans know; the part where Saddam Hussein gassed scores of his own people after the Iraq-Iran war.
Today, it’s the most prosperous part of the country after the US-UK-led invasion. Iraqi Kurdistan, as it is known, is fully autonomous with its own militia.
But I was still nervous stepping out of the airport. I didn’t know what to expect. After all, every time I see Iraq mentioned on television, it’s accompanied by an image of a car shell by a building laid to waste.
My first day in the city of Erbil assuaged those fears though. I walked through the local market and quickly found out that I was the tourist attraction, not the market. A boy runs up to me, “Hey mister! Hey! Where are you from?” “America,” I respond. He smiles and says “Ahh, America. Welcome!”
In my many conversations with various shopkeepers, imams, and bakers, I couldn’t help but notice how positively the locals spoke about Americans. I told them that back at home, Iraq is a country whose name evokes only mentions of political failures, violence, and for some, even memories of painful experiences.
But in Iraqi Kurdistan, the tone is different. People here are extremely grateful to the Bush administration for supporting the region against Saddam Hussein for decades and helping them establish their autonomy.
After only ten days through the region, it was time to go back home. I’ll be honest. The nervousness of being there never left me and I was glad I was leaving. But I left with the comforting feeling that among all the noise about the mess in Iraq, if one thing was done right, it was Iraqi Kurdistan. – PHILLIP KOO