Kurdistan | Temporary Autonomous Zone

Seven years after the American invasion, Iraq’s Kurds have weathered an influx of Arabs and Turks and established an enclave of prosperity

A boy walks past a model home at the American Village on the outskirts of Erbil, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Philip Cheung / Corbis
01 December, 2010

IN 2003, Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, felt like a city preparing for a siege. Its residents, nearly all Kurds, were proud of having built a poor but functioning Kurdish homeland. But on Iraq’s northern border, the Turkish military stood ready for Ankara to order an invasion. To the south, across the imaginary line that separated Kurdish Iraq from Arab Iraq, violence was simmering, and Erbil’s residents were steeling themselves for the moment when it would spill over their own borders. In the centre of the city, the magnificent citadel—round, brown and layered, very much like Bruegel’s ‘Tower of Babel’—looked ready to repulse a medieval invasion, as if the city’s Kurdish majority could crowd in, pull up the ladders, and watch the waves of Arabic- and Turkish-speakers wash away the Kurdish dream.

Seven years later, Erbil is still Kurdish land. But the invasions have happened, and the Kurds could not be happier. Arabs are everywhere. Where once I had to hunt for a suitable hotel, they are now ubiquitous and filled with Arabs who have fled the violence of the south, and perhaps found work up here as well. The Kurds earn a strong business off housing and feeding them. The Turks are in town, too. Here and there one sees the telltale undotted i’s on the sides of trucks, showing that they’re loaded with the building equipment of Turkish contractors. One of them, Makyol, just built a new Kurdish airport, a futuristic terminal designed by the UK firm, Scott Wilson. The Turks have come to conquer not with tanks but with cranes.

New signs of prosperity are everywhere. I stayed in a large housing tract called Italian Village (Shahr-e Itali), so freshly built that most of the doors and windows still had plastic film on them. In the middle of the subdivision, which consisted of luxurious identical houses, like a suburb outside Miami or Tel Aviv, was a mosque whose dome appeared to have been built to look like the Cathedral of Florence. Just outside Italian Village, I found a Dairy Queen fast-food restaurant, filled with Kurds talking rapidly on Bluetooth headsets.

A spokesman for Dairy Queen told me his company had no restaurants in Erbil, and he suspected another Dairy Queen operator in West Asia had gone rogue and set up shop there as a freelancer; just as a mushroom cloud in North Korea bears the marks of the influence of AQ Khan, an ice cream cake in Kurdistan implies the assistance of someone with mastery of Dairy Queen technology in Istanbul or Bahrain.

When formerly oppressed people begin to control their destiny, they follow a familiar script. They start off hapless and beleaguered; this was the Kurds’ position 25 years ago, when Saddam Hussein was pounding their villages into a fine powder and nerve-gassing their children. Then they achieve a measure of autonomy (protected in this case by US and UK militaries) and begin to work toward separation, the creation of an ethnic homeland, a Kurdistan. Finally, secure in their dominance over their land, they loosen up and try to cash in on their neighbours.

On my first trip to Kurdistan, I was stopped at a checkpoint by Peshmerga—Kurdistan’s armed militiamen—who policed the invisible border separating Kurdish territory from the Arab lands to the south. When I spoke a few words of Arabic to another passenger, one of the guards said “Aha!” and I endured two hours of interrogation to determine if I was an Arab agent scouting for suicide bomb targets. (At the time, the Kurds reported about a dozen thwarted car-bomb attempts each month.)

In the last seven years, the Kurds have moved decisively from this worried, penultimate phase of coping with ethnic oppression into the final and most lucrative one. When I went in October with an American friend to Abu Shahab—the best kebab house in the city, according to a Kurdish friend—the entire enormous, thumping dinner complex buzzed with Arabic conversations. There was no evident discomfort, just three storeys of Arab diners, gleefully parting with their money. We ordered a Kurdistan Flag Pizza—with peppers, tomatoes and white cheese to represent the Kurdish tricolour, with a slice of pineapple in the middle to represent the sun. The Arab families seemed to be sticking to the kebabs. Nearby was a large speedway where families and youngsters could finish the night by strapping into bumper cars and driving at exhilarating speeds around a closed course.

Only one subject was conspicuously absent in this Iraqi Kurdish wonderland: the fate of the region’s other Kurds. The detente with Turks and Arabs in Erbil had gone so well that the pan-Kurdish cause—long the ultimate hope of oppressed Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran—was simply never mentioned. If the Iraqi Kurds felt solidarity across national boundaries, they expressed that solidarity privately.

One morning, in hopes of discovering what rump elements of the still-fighting Kurdish opposition looked like, I drove to a rural area near Koye, about an hour outside Erbil, past shopping centres and car dealerships and a cinema boasting ‘8D’ screens (as if three dimensions were not enough). There I met Mustafa Hijri, who as the secretary-general of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) is a man who has a hard time buying life insurance. Assassins from Iran murdered two of his predecessors (in Vienna in 1989 and in Berlin in 1992), and now he lives in permanent exile out here—15 kilometres from Iran, in a room that gives no hint of the grandeur to be found in the big city nearby.

In the old days, the loudest voices for Kurdish independence came from shrill, driven members of groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. I visited their mountain hideouts, an extraordinary network of huts and bivouacs hived into the Qandil range, and listened while guerrilla fighters droned on about revolutionary Marxism. Iran and Turkey have jointly fought these groups to the point of extinction in Qandil, dropping a firestorm of artillery and aerial bombardment on their camps. I saw one former guerrilla years later in Paris, and he told me everyone one else I had met in the camps was now dead.

Hijri, by contrast, was not at all fanatical. Rather, he was measured and dignified. “We are trying democratic means, not armed struggle,” he said, citing the Swiss model as a rough approximation of what Iran would look like if it adopted the PDKI platform. He responded evenly to questions about other opposition groups, gently chiding each one that wavered in its commitment to democracy and human rights. After spending several days in the hypercapitalism of Erbil, to come out to this humble political office and hear a man earnestly talk about principles was like trekking to meet a guru. Who knew there were still idealists hidden away in the hills of Iraqi Kurdistan?

For now, the Iraqi Kurds have something less than democracy. The leaderships of the two major Kurdish parties remain wildly popular and continue to lead the regional government, but they have not yet faced a serious challenge at the polls—unlike the dominant parties in Baghdad, which only just resolved the deadlock of an election that took place eight months ago. But that’s no matter. The Kurds have their money, and this is indisputably Kurdish land. The Arabs just come to ride go-Karts.