London black cabs in Iraqi Kurdistan? Absolutely. Kurds can now hire newly imported Hackney Cabs for weddings and photo-ops in the city of Duhok. Kurds love classic British brands in this beautiful, Western loving near-nation where I have just spent two months working and exploring in several cities and its expansive countryside.
Kurds also know what they hate after decades of resisting genocide and tyranny from Saddam Hussein and Isis. Unlike federal Iraq, whose government struggles to contain terrorism and pro-Iranian militia groups, the Kurdistan Region is a proud beacon of religious pluralism and is generally very safe.
Kurdistan is a dream destination for travellers seeking adventure, history, nature or just a luxury break but it is almost completely off the tourism map. The scenery is stunning. My trip took me hiking in snowy mountains in Choman and lush green hillsides around Shaqlawa. I enjoyed the spiritual and environmentally protected Barzan village (the spiritual home of the Barzani tribe) and the gushing Bekhal waterfalls in the largest Canyon in the Middle East.
Kurdistan sports a plethora of sites spanning biblical, ancient, and medieval history, along with locations of more recent interest. Within hours, you can see where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire at the Battle of Gaugamela, view carved-rock reliefs inscribed in 690 BC by Assyrian King Sennacherib, and explore the eerie, harrowing prisons used by Saddam’s regime to detain, torture, and execute Kurdish dissidents. You can inspect the Erbil Citadel (Earth’s oldest continuously occupied human settlement for about 6,000 years) and visit Pira Delal, the Roman-era stone bridge in Zakho. The panorama of human history is breath-taking.
Journeying through rural villages allowed me to spend time with local people whose authentic hospitality was constantly pressed upon me for no gain. Even in the centre of Erbil, the region’s capital city, the goodness of everyday Kurds was always evident. Every morning I would walk from my bedsit to Iskan Street, a popular neighbourhood filled with restaurants, shisha bars and teahouses.
Car drivers would often ask if I needed help or a lift. They regularly insisted on taking me to my destination, buying food for me, and then going on their way. My local Kurdish friends were unsurprised. ‘It is our culture’, they would remark. If a car pulled over to stop me in the UK, I would more likely leg it.
Kurdistan also has a vibrant café culture and nightlife scene, with a huge range of bars, tobacco shops, clubs, and restaurants offering all kinds of local and international cuisine. The attractions are many, but Kurdistan’s tourism sector is rudimentary. British travellers get a free 30 day free visa on arrival and can extend it for £50. But it was a painfully slow process that pointlessly wasted three hours in 11 offices. Shared taxis between cities are cheap and easy but public transport is almost non-existent. Many hotels and food places are not advertised on the internet and museum opening times are unpredictable.
I befriended inspiring young Kurds who were well-educated, ambitious, and patriotic, but despise a traditional system that stymies those without ‘wasta’ (connections). A good friend who recently started a business gave the latest iPhone to an official to jump the paperwork queue.
They’re going to have to stamp this out to encourage entrepreneurs to create new businesses, especially in tourism, that can help overcome recent years of severe economic hardship due to fighting ISIS, hosting two million refugees, declining oil revenues, COVID-19, and Baghdad withholding budget payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Whether solo or as a family, whether you’re seeking adventure or a restful break, you will receive a welcome so warm that it’s humbling. From colourful and lively bazaars to ancient treasures, delectable food to untouched nature, vibrant cities to ancient villages – Kurdistan is a truly stirring place. Their old icons and our new ones blend well together.
Gideon Benedyk After studying International Relations with a focus on the Middle East at Cambridge University, Gideon went on to work in UK politics before working and travelling in the Kurdistan Region.