Forget the city’s war-torn past, this ancient capital is bursting with Kurdish history, hospitality and hope – and tourists are welcome, if a little unexpected.

“Why have you come here?” I was asked countless times on the streets of Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan. The question was not to be mistaken as any sort of threat though, but rather a genuine inquisition that was always solicited with a wide smile. Most assumed that I was either a news reporter or an aid worker, as the concept of a foreign tourist visiting the bazaar alone seemed a far-off likelihood.

I could understand that the idea of visiting the region as a tourist seemed almost ludicrous, or perhaps just too soon, with the battle against Isis only recently declared over in Iraq and ongoing conflict across the border in Syria. Yet, there I was convincing young Kurdish locals in the middle of the bazaar in Erbil that I was a real tourist, even toting a camera around my neck, which in many other countries would have been a dead giveaway.

I found myself in Erbil, admittedly an unusual tourist destination, after having spent time in the little-visited province of Kurdistan in Iran, which had sparked my curiosity of the Kurdish people. Within days, I had changed my plans and headed towards the Iraq border with an overjoyed taxi driver who was ecstatic that I was going to Iraqi Kurdistan or Bashur (south of Greater Kurdistan), as they preferred to call it.

I wasn’t exactly sure what I expected to find there. What should one expect of a place where the dominant narrative portrayed to the rest of the world is of war, terrorism and religious fanaticism? I had an inkling, however, that that would not be what I would find at all.

Kurdistan is often referred to as the “other Iraq” by the international community who toss the region’s complex politics into the too-hard basket. In reality, it’s a semi-autonomous region in the north of the Republic of Iraq.

The years following the fall of Saddam Hussein were full of optimism and anticipation for the region’s Kurdish population, who are the world’s largest ethnic group without their own nation. However, after an attempted independence referendum in 2017 which reignited clashes with Iraqi forces, the Kurdistan Regional Government was forced to sign an agreement accepting semi-autonomy under an Iraqi system. Nevertheless, Iraqi Kurdistan has emerged as one of the safest and most secure areas in the region and I heard it being described by locals as a sort of oasis in the often barren and conflict-ridden landscape of the Middle East.

Upon arriving in Erbil, I was eager to hit the streets on foot to explore the city. I passed tea shops with men crouched on low stools in deep discussions, their weathered faces telling me that they had seen far too much in their lifetime. I saw young boys pushing wooden carts of fresh dates and juicy pomegranates up the middle of the road, while the latest Mercedes was parked on the pavement, likely belonging to an oil-industry mogul.

I soon reached the ancient, fortified settlement known as the citadel, marking the city’s centre, which sits on top of a man-made hill with the urban sprawl drifting outwards from it. The imposing fortress seems to act as a kind of magnet, drawing people and activity towards its walls and making the immediate area surrounding it the most lively of the metropolis.

In fact, Erbil’s citadel has been a hub for human activity for an estimated 7,000 years and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Most of the current walled structure, however, is from the 19th century as invaders have spanned from the Romans to the Ottomans. Its historical and geographical dominance make it easily the city’s main tourist attraction, if guidebooks were to include travel recommendations in lieu of warnings. It’s been recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2014 and the revitalisation project underway is set to restore the interior so people will be able to wander its grounds once again.

I noticed a small cluster of souvenir shops below its main gate as the only hint at a budding tourism industry. I made a quick stop to pick up a Kurdish flag fridge magnet, but it only startled the staff who had been curled asleep on top of traditional carpets meant for sale. Much of the central square in front of the citadel seemed sleepy, however, until the golden hour of the day when families, groups of men and students filled the space to enjoy the cooler air of the setting sun.

On one particular evening the square was visibly more crowded than usual and loud Kurdish music was piercing the evening mood. As I got closer, I could see a stage set in the middle with speeches being spat into a microphone with intense but jubilant fervour. As happened on so many other occasions in the city, I soon made a new friend, a university student who spoke near-perfect English, and he was able to inform me that it was the two-year anniversary of the failed independence referendum.

To my surprise, I sensed a more festive atmosphere rather than a day of mourning. An older man, in traditional wide-legged pants and chequered scarf, bought me and my new friend a cup of chai from one of the young vendors scouring the crowds, a hallmark of Kurdish hospitality.

“We want peace. We don’t want red blood in the streets. We want to live in a peaceful country,” he declared impulsively, as we seemingly made a toast to a future Kurdistan with our hot brews. Although most of the international community would assert that any future prospects for an independent Kurdistan are unlikely, I was witnessing a core element of Kurdish culture, hope in the face of adversity.

On another, much quieter evening near the main square, I stumbled on an open-air marketplace where men were selling antique watches, jewellery, old bank notes adorned with Saddam’s face and the ubiquitous prayer beads that Kurdish men carry with them everywhere.

It was visibly a man’s space, as the dominant culture is still one in which women play more of a behind-the-scenes role. However, as a foreigner, I garnered attention and was welcomed by the friendly inquisitions I’d become accustomed to in Kurdistan. Many of the vendors jovially posed for photos, delighted whenever I lifted my camera, as though they were trying to single-handedly reverse the narrative that the country was just a place for misery and devastation. Before I left, one vendor presented me with an old bank note from the Saddam era as a gift. As I walked back to my hotel, as on every evening that I spent in Erbil, I had a smile spread across my face; perhaps an unexpected consequence of travelling in Kurdistan.

When it came time to leave Erbil behind, it wasn’t the sights that I reflected on so much, but these memorable encounters with people and the experience of being so openly welcomed in an ancient city and culture that so many of us know so very little about.

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