Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 7)

December 30, 2010

Did not get much sleep. There is construction going on right outside the hotel and it went through the night. This morning I woke up to the sounds of birds singing just outside our window. It was about 6am, but I was ready to go. Preston was still sleeping, so I decided to take a shower. No water. Again. I haven’t showered since the hotel in Mardin. Preston got up and we headed out. The square that was so deserted last night was once again crammed with people and the area right outside our hotel was now a book market.

Wanting something different than a sandwich for breakfast, we stopped by one of the street carts for honeycomb and yoghurt. Delicious. We were walking towards Amna Suraka and also half-looking for a new hotel. We were only paying about 20 USD per night per room, but thought maybe we would find something a bit more upscale, but gave it up after stopping into just one hotel. It was full and we decided not to waste our time. Our room was basic and small, but clean and in a good location and we had places we wanted to visit.

Amna Suraka was the Northern headquarter of Iraqi Intelligence Service under Saddam Husseins’ regime. The buildings have been left exactly as they were following the uprising and liberation by the Peshmergas in 1991.The windows are busted out and the entire facade is riddled with countless bullet holes. Before the liberation, thousands of people, mostly Kurds, were imprisoned and tortured and killed there. It is now the country’s first museum of war crimes. Rusted barbed wired and deserted watchtowers give the place an ominous feeling.

Upon entering the compound, we were first escorted to the Hall of Mirrors which is a 50 meter long room with walls covered in shards of mirror. 182,000 shards, one for each Kurdish person killed by Saddam’s regime. On the ceiling are 5000 small, white lights, each one representing a Kurdish village that was destroyed.

We walked out and into the courtyard which houses old and rusted military vehicles. We walked past them and into the first of the actual prison buildings. There was quite a bit of debris. Pieces of rock and broken tiles from the walls were scattered on the floor. We walked from cell to cell. There were drawing and carvings in some of the walls, not sure if they are from vandals or prisoners. There was such heavy sadness in the air and as I stood inside one of the cells and looked out at the nice, middle-class houses just across the street, I wondered what must have gone on in those rooms and what the people who lived just across the street thought about it. The view from the roof also struck me. It was surprising to suddenly walk onto the sun-drenched roof after experiencing the sadness and depression inside. The view of the gorgeous mountains and a deep blue sky from the roof of this place of torture and murder seemed out of place and almost inappropriate. But now, thinking about it a bit later, perhaps that is what hope is, the vision or promise of something beautiful while in the midst of something terrible and unimaginable.

We went to the next building and on one floor, there are walls covered in hand prints in red paint. There is nothing or anyone to explain what they mean, but it is pretty easy to come up with your own interpretations. To me, they represented the blood of people who had died there, many of which are perhaps no longer remembered by anyone, their memories exist only in those hand prints.

Preston and I didn’t speak much to each other while we walked around, each of us in our own thoughts. We knew where we were going, but I think we were both a somewhat overwhelmed by the impact of it all. We stayed there for just over an hour before deciding it was time to leave and head to Halabja, about 60 kilometers of so away.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 6)

December 29, 2010 – Continued

After a morning exploring a very small part of Erbil, we decided we should head to Sulaymaniya, a city just a couple hours drive away towards the Iranian border and also towards Halabja, where we will go tomorrow. The journey started out easy enough. We got a taxi to the Sulaymaniya garage and once there we quickly secured a car to take us. We agreed a price of 15,000 Dinars, or about 12 USD, loaded our things into the trunk of the car, got inside and then the problems began. Suddenly, they wanted 45,000 Dinar, but they could not explain why. We got out of the car and decided to find an alternative. It wasn’t so much the money, it was the fact that we hadn’t even left yet and were already having problems. I was scared we would get half-way there and then they would try to get even more money out of us. We saw some minibuses a few meters away and within a couple of minutes, we were loaded up and crammed inside. I was stuffed in the front seat between the driver and another passenger, which was great as a I had a great view and Preston was a few seats behind me on a little stool in the aisle of the bus. And all for the price of 8,000 Dinar per person. We were soon on our way.

The landscape on the drive was beautiful with rolling hills covered in golden grass, the occasional trees and small herds of goats and sheep in the distance. It was all so calm and peaceful and I just wanted to get out of the bus and go for a long walk. The sky was the most perfect blue and sun was warm and gentle. It was a perfect day. I watched the land roll by, wondering what adventures lay ahead of us and already wishing I had more time to explore. It was then that we passed a sign that said “Welcome to Kirkuk.”

The visas in our passports were only for Iraqi Kurdistan, which was fine with us as we had and have no intention (although I do admit a lot of curiosity) about going into the more dangerous Arab controlled part of Iraq. We went through a few security checks, two of which required us to get out of the bus, which due to the seating arrangements, required others to get out and then I would have to climb over people to the door. The soldiers were all very friendly, checking our passports and asking us where we were from and where we were going.  It never took long, it was just always a bit exciting not knowing if we would be let through or detained. So far, so good. Well, sort of. With the passing of the sign welcoming us to Kirkuk, we realized we were not in Kurdistan anymore.

Kirkuk is described by Lonely Planet as an oil-rich city, a “kaleidoscope of ethnic groups and a tinderbox waiting to happen.” It goes on to say “Apart from oil, Kirkuk has little to offer. Bombings and shootings are common, giving this dismal city a feeling of the old ‘Wild West’.” And it was in this area where we stopped for a break. We got out of the bus and some people had food while Preston and I had out-of-date fruit drinks and some candy he had bought earlier this morning at Qaysari Bazaar in Erbil, which I forgot to mention in my last post, is one of the oldest in the world. The combination of Lemon soda, candy and diet cola had my stomach doing little flips and I was just hoping I would not have any urgent requirements on the rest of the journey. Before long, we left Kirkuk, went though another checkpoint and there was Sulaymaniya in the valley below us. It looked a lot larger than Erbil.

The taxi dropped us and everyone else off in a field which was empty save for several taxis to take us to our destinations. As we had no hotel rooms, we scanned the Lonely Planet info, picked one and were soon on our way. Close to our hotel, which was on the main street, we ended up stopped in traffic and so got out of the taxi and started walking. We saw our hotel and decided to take a chance at another one we read about a short distance away in the middle of the Grand Bazaar. We decided it would be a more happening than staying in the in what seemed a pretty dull area off a main street. We walked up a bit and as we got into Malawi street the place was buzzing. People, stores, kebab stalls, stores selling clothes, spices, nuts, and electronics. Yes, we made the right decision. We were heading to Malawi Hotel, at the end of Malawi street, on a square in what seemed like the middle of everything. Lonely Planet described it as “ageing but clean… with Western toilets. We walked in and were welcomed by a sign declaring “no guns” and they were busy repainting. Or actually, re-splattering paint. We took a room, which is about as basic as they come, dropped our stuff and headed out to the bazaar. It was about :18:30 and we were ready to soak up some local culture. We left the hotel and the place was deserted. What had been crowded and happening just thirty or so minutes before was shut and empty. We walked down the streets looking for food, and all the places were either closed and locked tight, or told us they were closing the second we walked in. All we wanted was something simple, but there was nothing around.

We walked further down Malawi street, back towards the main boulevard and discovered a little places named “Pasha CafĂ©.” We were in the mood for a beer and or nargile, so we went inside. The place was small and a bit smoky, with small groups of guys all huddled around water pipes, drinking cola or tea and eating sunflower and pumpkin seeds. We sat down and immediately a small group of young guys strike up conversation. They were Iraqi but had grown up in London and spoke perfect English. They told us to get a “fresh” nargile.

Nargile, sheesha or hookah – depending on where you are in the world – is a water pipe through which flavored tobacco is smoked. The tobacco is put into a bowl, which is covered with aluminum foil upon which hot coals are placed. The pipe is shared and one will last from an hour to several hours. The tobacco flavors range from apple and mint (my favorites) to grape, rose and watermelon, which I have not yet had the desire to try. I had heard before that in some parts of the Middle East, they do not use flavored tobacco, but real fruit to add the taste. I had never seen it before. Not until tonight. We took the guys up on their suggestion. The nargile we ordered would have regular tobacco stuffed into half a fresh grapefruit and then put on top of the pipe, covered in aluminum foil and hot coals. We knew it was either going to be great or disgusting and so we dove in. It was by far the best nargile I have ever had. Not only was it tasty and fresh, but we did not get the weird buzzed feeling or slightly queasy stomach that can happen sometimes. So now we have a goal to figure out how to do it ourselves when we get back home.

After the nargile, we decided it was time to eat and the guys we met suggested an Italian restaurant up the street, near where our originally hotel was going to be. We walked and walked and while we didn’t find the restaurant they suggested, we did find an amazing little place and had piles and piles of salads, humus, olives, meat, chicken and bread, all for about 10 dollars for the both of us. It was amazing and we stopped just short of licking the plates clean.

It was time to head back to the hotel. It was barely 9pm and it was like a ghost town. A bit creepy and odd, but we didn’t feel in danger or scared, it was just the whole desolation of a place that we imagine would be a beehive of activity. Not sure why everything is shut and so deserted at this hour, but it was the same last night in Erbil. Yes, there were a few people out, but nothing at all compared to what you would expect in the middle of the second largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Now it is time for bed. Tomorrow, we will be up early to explore Amna Suraka and visit Halabja. It promises to be a pretty heavy day.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 5)

December 29, 2010

After a night of barely sleeping due to the excitement of it all, I decided it was time to get out of bed and start exploring. I could hear the people in the market below getting stores and restaurants ready. It was just before seven and I was ready for action! Preston decided to sleep in a bit longer so I went for a walk alone. In spite of all the noise coming from the market, which turned out to be actually coming from the one or two restaurants across from our hotel prepping for the day, it was pretty deserted, so I took a long stroll along the empty streets of the still sleeping city and wound up walking around the base of the citadel, snapping pictures every three or four steps.

After walking around the base, which took me about 30 minutes given all the pauses, I decided to take a peek inside. I was going to wait for Preston before actually walking around inside, but it isn’t often that I find myself standing outside a seven or eight thousand year old town. I couldn’t wait. But it turns out I was a bit too hasty as it was only 7:30 or so and it doesn’t open until 9:00. I contented myself with wandering around a bit more.

Beneath the main entrance of the citadel, there is a sort of town square, dominated by fountains which had been running the night before, but like everything else in the city, were sleeping at that time of the morning. I wandered around to see what interesting places I would discover and soon found myself lost in narrow, run down streets with old buildings and crumbling walls semi-covered in graffiti. It was at once exciting and scary. I realized I was in Iraq, and while what I was seeing and experiencing had nothing to do with the imagery on TV or the things that I had been “taught” about the country for decades, I realized that nobody on the planet had a clue where I was. There was also nobody around to tell me anything, and there were no signs warning of danger. At least none that I could read. Everything is in Arabic. I wandered around the streets, turning this way and that, getting lost and hoping that nobody was going to come out and rob me, or worse.

After about 10 minutes of walking around, I was almost back at the main square when I came across a man with a little tea stand and the biggest smile you have ever seen. He asked me to take a picture and have some tea. I love those kinds of unexpected moments.

Then it was time to meet Preston, have breakfast and do some serious exploring of the citadel. I got Preston out of bed and as there was no water and no towels, we headed out without showers. As the citadel was still closed, we had some breakfast and headed to Minare Park, a medium sized park dominated on one end by the slightly leaning Mudhafaria Minaret, which was built in around 1190 AD and the top part of which had broken off long ago. The park was still closed, but we asked the guards if we could go in and they opened the gates for us. While I can imagine the park must be beautiful in the spring and summer, with all the rose bushes, today it was a bit brown and sad looking. We saw there was an aerial tramway going from Minare Park to an unknown destination off in the distance, but when we got to the ticket counter, we discovered it only opens at 3:00 and so we were out of luck. Done with the park, we headed to the citadel at last.

The Citadel of Erbil rests about 30 meters above the rest of the city and it is arguably the oldest continually inhabited town in the world, with evidence dating back to at least the 5th millennium BC. In recent years it has been inhabited by refugees who fled the violence in other parts of Iraq (at least from what I have read). It is in a horrible state of disrepair, but is currently undergoing extensive restoration and renovation in partnership with Unesco.

Due to the renovation work which began in June 2010, most of the area was closed off, but we managed to spend an hour or so walking through the old town. While it was run down and crumbling in many places, there were also some gorgeous areas and pieces of buildings and residences lingering here and there. Walking through the twisting and confusing lanes, it was easy to imagine what it must have looked like so long ago. I hope to visit it again after the restoration.

After the citadel, we walked to the big bazaar that lies just off the town square. It was amazing. Like being back in India, only everything was in Kurdish or Arabic. Stores crammed with everything imaginable. Carts carrying eggs, toys, candy, sweets, clothes and anything else you could want. We walked along the market while everyone asked for photos to be taken. People waved and smiled and sometimes asked us where we were from. It was amazing. Nobody asked us for money or tried to hassle us at all. It was busy and chaotic, but we were not bothered at all. After about thirty or so minutes of walking around and taking pictures, I was approached by a group of men who told me not to take pictures. I didn’t know who they were, so I asked why. From what I could make out, one of the men was the manager of the market. Fortunately for me, I had basically al the images I wanted and we were pretty much done by the time he came around.

It is early afternoon and time to head to Sulaymaniya.