When we were in Turkey last year, Aaron decided to go to Erbil, a relatively conflict-free city in the north of Iraq. We were so close, and there were direct flights from Antalya to Erbil. I decided to stay in Turkey – we had just come from the Gulf states and I was done with the Middle East for awhile. We debated whether he should stay in an Airbnb or a hotel. The Airbnb had great reviews and would be in a shared space with the host. I thought it would be good for him to have a local contact.
Quoted are Aaron’s texts to me from Erbil.
About the Airbnb
“They said they don’t want to host. That they prefer not to and that it’s weird to have strangers in their house. And I said yeah, I much prefer to stay alone. But that you wanted me to have a local contact. And they got that. So, after covering that we basically both need each other….. We’ll live. Probably roughly summarizes the entire US Iraqi relationship at large.”
Aaron was the only person on his flight arriving as a tourist. He said it wasn’t the warmest welcome, more like a grilling of – what on earth are you doing here? He just kept saying, “I’m a tourist.”
He refused to pay the airport rate for a taxi (about $30 for a 5 minute ride), so he walked instead. It took him 40 minutes, but he had a very light pack, having left most of his things with me in Turkey. On the way back to the airport, the taxi was only $5. Only coming from the airport is a racket, which Aaron was determined to protest in principle.
In order to leave the airport, he had to go through a checkpoint with armed guards, who seemed curious but not totally unfamiliar with the concept of walking off the airport grounds, though they did send him back inside for additional screening. Along the walk, there were German military planes and Humvees.
As soon as he was off the airport grounds, he saw highway signs pointing to Mosul and Baghdad. “That’s how you really know you’re in Iraq.”
Immigration & Visa on Arrival
“$70. What a rip off. Pretty sure the internet said free for Americans but it was vague. If you claim you’re working for an NGO it’s free. He kept asking me are you sure you’re not working. I guess that’s how they decided the taxi should be $30. Because that’s the change I now have. He gave me change in Iraqi and I said no I’ll take USD instead. He also kept asking if I was military. Rather insistently. And if I came on the Lufthansa flight. Then upon exiting just now there were a few German soldiers waiting for someone.”
Erbil is in Iraqi Kurdistan, a wealthy, oil-rich region. The Airbnb was in a high-rise condo building. On his way there, he passed lots of mini mansions and nice cars too. It was clear people had made a lot of money off the war. Not everyone was rich though. At the market, there were boys with wheelbarrows who were paid to follow you around and tote your things.
Aaron popped his head into a bakery where he was warmly welcomed and got to try his hand at shaping dough. There were five men working at the bakery, ranging in age from about 8 to 65. It was incredibly hot, as if the entire store was an oven. The bakers were effusively welcoming and gave him free bread, and the owner of the bakery took him around the corner to show him his antique American car collection of Cadillacs and Buicks.
First Day Out
“The park was pretty good. Then the Arab district. Then a market. Giant. Never ending. I changed my tattered $20 that other places wouldn’t take. But the money changers in the market take anything. Then I ate. Watermelon is really cheap. I had one small chicken schwarma. 1 small falafel sandwich. Served with unlimited cucumber. A small salad and a bottle of water. $1.33. I sat at lunch with a German man who really didn’t speak English. From Trier. Who is here just to see and then going to Damascus. I went to the UNESCO citadel, the Kurdish gemstone museum (very random, tiny, $1) then came home. So that was the whole day. 11 miles walking. Taxi – which I’m going to start taking – $2-$3. It doesn’t quite make sense to walk these long distances from site to site. It’s hot but not sunny. It’s like a mini, more livable, cheaper version of Riyadh. You probably wouldn’t love it.”
He also went to the most expensive looking baklava shop he could find and apparently had the best baklava he’s ever had for $10.50 a kilo. A more pistachio based mix was $13.50 a kilo. For $2.50 he got a box of 8 pieces. Then he went to the Christian district, where he spoke with a priest and ate at a fancy Lebanese restaurant.
“Do you need me to buy Iraqi menswear? They wear a military pantsuit. Mono color with a flounced pant. I’m getting beef kebab. Apparently you get free unlimited tomatoes.”
“Now I’m at the Kurdish textile museum. Tons of celebrities and dignitaries have gone to the museum. Demi Lovato. Stephen Segal. Ambassadors. John McCain.”
“The kids here are very easy going and running around playing. They’re in the shops, buying candy and stuff. Girls and boys alike. They play soccer in the street.”
He got a haircut from a 21 year old barber named Mohammad who was about to marry his first cousin. Aaron asked him if he was worried about having children and Mohammad said they would do genetic testing.
“I’ve never met someone actively planning to marry a relative. Without hesitation. He says they have very good relations and always have since they were young. He really believes this is the right person for him. I asked if they’ve secretly kissed. He said no. But he did kiss a Russian girl. He said he’d like to go to a couple countries each year. But that he can’t. I’ve heard that many times. That they’re kind of stuck, regardless of financial means because their passport isn’t welcome. I just looked. Iraqis can go to 4! countries visa free.”
While it didn’t feel particularly unsafe, Aaron was relieved to get back on Sun Express to fly back to Turkey.
On His Way Back
“They do a full car pre screen about a mile from the airport. Even their own police vehicles are subject to it. Dogs and everything. Then another screening at an off-site terminal building. Then you’re put on a bus to the actual airport. Then another screening to enter the actual airport. So, that’s 3 so far just to get to the check-in desk. I will say, I’m happy that I came, but I’m also happy to be leaving. It was a nice stay, but I wouldn’t live here. Worth a visit. And the people were very friendly. But it’s not like a luxury experience or even particularly scenic. Another security screen. That’s 4 so far.”
“I spent $130 on my room here, $70 for the visa, $200 for flights/bus and $40 on the ground = $440. Sure, good to have come for that price. $1000, no.”