The north of Iraq is everything the rest of the country is not: safe, prosperous and tolerant—and it could be independent within a decadeby Martin Fletcher / July 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital—“a brash, sprawling metropolis that aspires to be a ‘second Dubai’” © Jane Sweeney
On the eve of Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, in March, a fireworks display crackled over the city of Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq. Tens of thousands of Kurds had packed into Salim Street, the city’s broad central boulevard, to celebrate the festival. Kurdish musicians performed on stages. Men wearing traditional baggy-trousered Kurdish costumes, and women in sequinned dresses, danced and promenaded. Parents bought kebabs, spiced broad beans and roasted sunflower seeds for themselves, and ice cream or candy floss for their offspring. The mood was carefree, exuberant.
I had been to Iraq many times before, but usually to Baghdad or Anbar province to report on the brutal sectarian conflict that erupted after the US invasion of 2003. I always went with flak jacket and helmet, and relied on armed bodyguards or the US military for protection. I came to associate Iraq with mutilated bodies floating in the Tigris, the aftermath of suicide bombings, and days of apprehension followed by relief as my plane took off for Amman at the end of each assignment. The only “festival” I had seen was the sombre one of Ashura in the city of Karbala where Shia Muslims flagellate themselves to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, in 680 AD.
Never before in Iraq had I witnessed joyful scenes like those in Sulaimaniya. Never before had I, a westerner, been able to walk safely through a vast throng of Iraqis, or experienced such tolerance, friendliness and absence of fear or religious stricture. Women with uncovered heads wore make-up and golden jewellery. Teenagers discreetly flirted. A few obviously gay men, and the odd drunk, wandered uncensured through the crowds.
That night was just the start of the celebrations. The next morning seemingly the entire population piled into cars, vans and minibuses and decamped into the green valleys carpeted with spring flowers that surround the city. For two days they played and picnicked in the sun. Families ate roasted lamb and chicken, on mounds of rice, onions and tomatoes, and piles of flat Iraqi bread. They performed shuffling, rhythmic line dances to music from their car radios. They hung hammocks from trees, and ropes for their children to swing on. They played football and flew kites,…