Immigration goes smoothly, as Americans get a free 30-day visa here. It must be noted that by “here” I mean “Iraqi Kurdistan." Not Iraq. If you fly into Baghdad, you will need a visa. Iraqi Kurdistan maintains a certain autonomy, however, and gets to form their own visa policy which means generally being hospitable to Westerners. Culturally, Iraqi Kurdistan is less of a culture shock for Westerners compared to, say, Algeria or Saudi Arabia. Women often do not wear the hijaab here, and many Kurdish fighters in the Syrian Civil War are female. Gender politics aren’t the only thing that separates Kurdistan from Iraq, though. In late September the air is a breezy 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and actually gets cold in the night hours. It is a little chilly when I deplane, and that makes me smile. I had some dread about coming to Iraq, but the welcoming weather and friendly immigration authorities make me feel more than at home.
Due to anti-terrorism measures, cabs must get searched before coming within a two-kilometer radius of the airport, and so rides from the terminal are expensive. Thankfully, a free shuttle takes arrivals to a meet-and-greet area where a sole cab company takes people to downtown. Hardly any haggling gets them down 30 percent in price, and we are on our way to a kebab place I found online for lunch. The driver knows it, but is surprised that I know it. When we get there I know why. None of the staff speaks English and the only beverage on the menu is a sour-tasting yogurt milk. I have a glass, but say no to any more for fear it will make me lactose intolerant once again.
My hotel for the night is nearby, so I walk there and am greeted by Yousef, a young Syrian man from Damascus who is here on a six-month visa. He checks me in and invites me to have a cup of tea with him later. I agree and, after a shower, meet him downstairs to talk.
Yousef wants me to hear his story, but above all else he wants to just get out of the region to somewhere that will help him realize all of his dreams. He wants to know how to get to the United States, and I tell him that right now it is impossible for him as a Syrian. I tell him that Canada is accepting refugees, and many places in Europe but I admit that I don’t know any of the details. He refuses to believe there isn’t a way into the United States, and I assure him that there is no legal way to emigrate to my country until the travel ban is lifted. He has degrees in chemistry and English, and speaks almost fluently in English and French, in addition to being a native Arabic speaker. He has worked and studied, and gets angry when he talks about his country. Bashar al-Assad took the lives of many of his friends and tried to take his. The only reason he avoided the war was by a college deferment, but now the government is withholding his degrees until he does his military service. This traps him in Iraq for the time being. If he goes back, he goes to the military and fights for a dictator. When I’ve finished my tea, I urge him to go to the Canadian Embassy or call and try to seek asylum. I want to do everything I can for him. I want to have some close relative in the Department of State who can get him residency in the United States despite the travel ban. I want him to find a job and continue his studies somewhere he can contribute to the world. I want to save a life from a vicious tyrant.
But there’s nothing I can do.
Evening in Erbil
Erbil differs from America most in that the streets go dark at sundown with nothing to illuminate them. As I pass the ramshackle homes, cats and near-silent passersby sends me into a panic for the three blocks to the main bazaar. When I get there, though, lively music plays, fountains dance, and couples bustle around cheerily. Restaurateurs light the streets with hanging lamps and shisha smoke obscures trays of baklava while children play in the public fountain. My fear melts away and I snap pictures of the citadel while sipping a perfectly purple pomegranate slushie. I stop by a baklava place before bed and decide to get a few for dessert. There are three types, so I point to each type and hold up my finger to indicate I only want one of each. The cashier nods his head and takes out a tray.
One, two, three.
He looks at me and nods. I smile and give my approval by nodding and saying “shukran.”
Four, five, six.
He adds more and I say 'ok, that’s enough.' I might as well give Yousef some. He’s been working all day.
Seven, eight, nine, ten.
“No that’s too much. Laa. No.”
“Stop!” He makes eye contact with me, smiling.
He closes the box. It is now full. Tonight, I am to find out if one truly can have 'too much of a good thing.' I discover it after my third honey-smothered piece of baklava, which somehow feels like a meal in itself, as it takes a cup of juice just to wash it down. When I accept defeat, and give the rest to Yousef and one of his friends, I feel like a curse has been lifted. Fortunately all that baklava only costs me a couple of dollars, but Yousef acts like I bought him a week of groceries. I sleep well despite the honey coursing slowly through my veins.
Erbil and Out
It’s another morning before a flight, and I go into loiter-mode. There is no doubt in my mind that there is much more to see in Erbil, but the heat coupled with my, shall we say, traveler’s stomach has made it so walking outside too long in the Kurdish sun (so famous that it is stamped on their flag) gets me a little dizzy. I stumble into a mall where the guard searches my bag, apologizing the entire time. I get it, this is his job. And even if it isn’t, and I am being profiled for being non-Iraqi, there would be a truly fantastic irony to that and I would have no option as a writer but to approve. When he finishes searching I tell him “shukran." I’ve noticed my words carry a certain amount of weight here, and I desperately want everyone to like me in this country that my people invaded for no reason. The fact that I am liked here is surprising but fills me with hope. If Iraqis can treat an American with respect, then I can’t see why world peace isn’t more or less achievable.
At the mall, I have two more benevolent interactions with a Kurdish man who runs a cafe in the mall’s center. I am drawn to his shop because, despite drinking a quart of water this morning, my throat feels like coarse wet sand and he has a Erbilian selection of six different flavors of slushie. If there is only one reason to travel to Iraq (and I assure you there is more than one) it is to get a slush/slushie/slush puppy from any of the vendors around town. The flavors are somewhere between exotic and quotidian, like blueberry or cantaloupe, but here they really know how to make these cool semi-solid drinks. My favorite flavor is pomegranate, so I first order a blueberry and then come back later for the piece de resistance. When I ask about the flavors, though, the cashier doesn’t know how to say them in English so I give him my phone to translate. Not being understood turns his face red and sends him chuckling nervously. Eventually it all gets straightened out and I smile as he gives my my slushie. He asks where I am from and gives me a big smile and a welcome when I say “America.”
Fifteen minutes later, after snapping some pictures of a nearby mosque, I am feeling like a stiff sponge and I have to get another drink. Thankfully, there is another mall two blocks away where I can sit in air conditioning and replenish my hypotonic body without fear of fainting. At the the only restaurant with WiFi, the waitresses both come to take my order because I am the only one there and I guess they’re bored. When I demonstrate that I have no clue what they sell, one of them gives me a menu and run off before I realize it is entirely in Arabic and Kurdish. Thankfully, nearly everything on the menu is an English word transliterated into Arabic, so I just order a “Kuka Kula” and a “burgur." I get an admirable mall meal and WiFi access, and the opportunity to watch two Kurdish women work just like any restaurant staff in America, chatting with fellow mall workers and messing around on their phones as a fan-made Justin Bieber playlist plays for over an hour on screen. Iraqis: They're just like us.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.