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.
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