A celebration of Arab and Kurdish cultures in Arbil (Part I)
Hassan Daoud - 18/07/2007
As we disembarked from the airplane in Arbil, the Kurdish woman who had accompanied us from Amman told us that her country was beautiful and that she loved it. It was an expression of her delight with her home, or rather, with her return to it after an absence of little more than a fortnight. Everything was familiar to her. In the small arrivals hall that looked more like a train station in a small country town than part of an airport she acted as if the men stamping her passport were close relatives.
She wished us a pleasant stay in earshot of a security official identical in every way to his counterpart in the airport I had traveled from, though perhaps a little less grim and unsmiling. The airport was tiny, something we guessed from a glance at the arrivals hall: a modest sized space in which four security officers sat, cocooned in little kiosks and stamping passports. Four or five steps away from the kiosks lay a faintly squeaking revolving belt where everyone stopped to pick up their bags. In this small building dedicated to new arrivals any individual, even one whose passport had not yet been approved, could simply stroll past the kiosks and find themselves, as is the case at all airports, inside Arbil.
Despite the sign that read “Arbil International Airport” over the entrance to the building, it is a domestic airport, a pleasingly ambiguous term that implies both a local airport as well as a sort of housebound domesticity. Yet this is almost certainly a temporary arrangement. In Arbil, where things change more rapidly than other growing cities, it will surely become local once more. As the school’s headmaster, Professor Lutfi, took us on a tour of the town in his BMW, he showed us the site where the vast new airport was to be built. We could have guessed as much ourselves: everywhere in this far-flung town they were rushing to create what hadn’t existed before. Journalists who visited Arbil a year ago noted that construction work was going on everywhere and that the city resembled a workshop. As we drove around in Lutfi’s car I tried to guess which building had been built since then. They are rushing to erase the image of old Arbil, the city that labored under poverty that you still see all around you. Confronted by wide highways surrounded by little shops and outlets, the mind can’t help imaging scenes of destruction and demolition, anticipating at any moment the bite of the bulldozer’s blade. Something is needed to make sense of these highways, to bring them into harmony with their surroundings. They are constantly at work “paving” these roads (the word they use for terracing or surfacing). As we passed by their unfinished struts and stanchions, Lutfi told us there were (or were to be) four bridges in Arbil. It occurred to us that there can’t have been much need for these bridges as long as there was such a noticeable lack of vehicles to use them.
The congestion and traffic of the Al-Mada cultural week seemed inexplicable, extraordinary, in a place with so few buildings and inhabitants. It seemed as if the bridges were bridges to nowhere, connecting the passing cars to nothing, no place. The cars clustered round the riverbed the bridges were built to avoid, as if they preferred places they knew and were familiar with. The bridges must have been built, therefore, for the future: a future growing ever closer, laden with the promise that Arbil will never again be how it is today. Now it is concerned with building, not demolition. By this I mean that new constructions are not raised on the ruins of the old, but rather moved to locations where no buildings have ever existed. The building is expanding this happy little town, most of which can be seen from the second floor of the hotel which is still, and somewhat dubiously, called the Sheraton. The new town is banished to the outskirts leaving all that was built before where it stands. It has no need of replacing one building with another, of erasing the old with the new. Of course there must be exceptions. Whenever we asked various residents where Downtown was, they pointed us to the same spot. So perhaps rackety old buildings were knocked down, just a few, cleared to make way for the mall whose ground floor was open to business even as its upper reaches were still under construction.
The move to the outskirts and suburbs is not motivated by constriction at the center: the visitor is always astonished by the quantity of empty land at the center of town like the football pitches one sees in poor neighborhoods elsewhere. Rather, it appears to be an attempt to make the homes and neighborhoods of the different social classes similar to, and more integrated with, one another. In one district, full of identical and cheaply constructed tower blocks, we reckoned we were in a middle class neighborhood. Yet there was also a neighborhood full of more luxurious dwelling, even villas and palaces. It resembled certain villages in South Lebanon whose architectural make-up has been completely transformed in a few short years, as if the change was driven by internal factors such as the return of those who left to work and live abroad.
Thus is Arbil, a home not only to its original inhabitants but also (because it is one of the few remaining safe cities in Iraq) to Kurds from other regions of the country, laborers and investors from across the region and the world. A salesman in an antiques store we visited, informed us that prices had shot up due the American tourists. Although we saw very few of these Americans ourselves, everyone here is talking about them. Maybe they were cooped up in the palaces and villas, or even in some special nightclub whose existence remained a mystery to Lutfi, who took us, after many miles of driving around, to a restaurant that had managed to create a calm atmosphere, if only by turning the lights down. We think that the low lighting was more likely due to the regulation of the electricity supply than any desire to give the place an air of romance. Anyway, we’ll find out one day (I mean, of course, about all the nightclubs we didn’t manage to find this time around).
It will be a future that will come swiftly and dramatically and glamorously. However, we did note that the lack of electricity for all but two hours a day suggested that the power grid has yet to figure on Arbil’s modernization agenda. Nor, for that matter, has it extended to organizing the sale of gasoline. We saw gallons of the stuff piled up by the roadside, while the petrol stations themselves (some of which were modern and well-equipped) were completely free of the cars that constitute their main line of business. The electricity and gasoline situation here was like that in the rest of Iraq. Yet whatever was missing now would be delivered by this onrushing future that we saw in everything the people of Arbil did. We caught the bug ourselves: when we saw a folkloric singing troupe composed of lots of girls dressed in glittery decorated dresses we remarked that they were the strangest traditional troupe we had ever seen. Our guide informed us that Arbil’s citadel resisted Holako, conqueror of Baghdad. Today, surrounded by the crumbling houses of local residents, it waits for a new history to begin, where it figures as a tourist site and a source of pride in Kurdish architectural history. Sellers of handicrafts have decided to test the water, transforming some of citadel’s old homes into shops, showing off what remains of their ancient charm: dishes, coffee cups, clothes, carpets, and photos of weddings, parties and certain Kurdish individuals of great renown. The letters are Arabic, but they are almost impossible to read here, scattered across shop fronts, street signs and on the covers of magazines and newspapers. Indeed, reading Arabic letters in Kurdish is even harder than making sense of words in Persian and Turkish. We spent the first week of our stay wandering around trying to divine some system or meaning from the jumbled letters.