Iraqi Airways’ designator code is ‘IA’ – that’s Insha’allah Airlines, whispers a Kurdistan Regional Government official with a smirk, because it’s God’s will whether the flight will arrive on time, depart on time, or even turn up at all.
Jihad, the blight of modern-day airline scheduling. Iraqi Airways flight-something-or-other (the indicator board at Kurdistan’s Erbil Airport enigmatically declares no number) is 90 minutes late departing to Baghdad, but the punters appear content that their shabby green Boeing 727-200 – belching soot and bearing a Sierra Leone registration which would send the European Commission apoplectic – at least has a wing on each side. Its pilot, waving from the cockpit window, is remarkably cheerful for someone heading for an airport whose arrival pattern features a corkscrew dive to improve your chances of dodging a SAM-14.
To this otherworldly place, far removed from Viennese order and comfort, Austrian Airlines has returned. It’s barely three weeks since Saddam Hussein was shown the gravity of his crimes (much of that gravity suddenly appearing beneath an open trapdoor) but so far there’s no evidence of resurgence in the violence that stalled Austrian’s earlier attempt to restart flights to Iraq.
Kurdistan’s capital is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world but don’t believe that 50 centuries has been nearly enough time to agree on a name. The airport says ‘Erbil’. Immigration stamps my passport ‘Arbil’ and the breakaway GoogleMap faction insists on ‘Irbil’. The Kurds call it ‘Hewler’, and you’d think they’d know, but their opinion doesn’t seem to count.
Whatever. The KRG insists the place is safe, shortly after our press corps disembarks from Austrian’s A320, but our token, low-key security detail nevertheless includes a police car, close-quarter escorts with shades and earpieces, and half-a-dozen peshmerga troops riding shotgun. We couldn’t be more conspicuous if we were travelling by tank.
Passers-by look initially bemused, but then break into spontaneous beaming and waving with an infectious friendliness which seems to permeate Kurdistan. Downtown Erbil is a chaotic sprawl of cheerful bartering, taxi horns, peace murals, low-hanging phone wires, and labyrinthine bazaars where everything brightly-coloured that isn’t edible is covered in sequins. Under a kerbside tree an elderly gentleman, cross-legged on a rug, is selling mobiles while from a narrow entryway an industrial clothing-iron vents steam into the street. One shop’s facade is tiled with a selection of framed presidential portraits. For those who aren’t feeling particularly deferential, the commercial district contains dozens of other stores with wall-to-wall paraphernalia which manage to blend Middle Eastern mystique with all the strategic consideration of an eBay fire-sale. If sir cares for a brand-new copy of last year’s diary, sir has come to the right place. Welcome.
Kurdistan has a tourism minister. Don’t expect to see him on TV holiday programmes until the US Army stops parking Humvees in the market square. When a tourist’s guide to Erbil is finally written it will probably mention that the city has neither a postal system nor any cashpoints. Credit cards prompt apologetic shrugs. Even electricity is a luxury. Intermittently during the evening the grid hiccups and extinguishes every light in the hotel. On the bright side, a sign on the restaurant next door says the management has adopted a ‘no guns’ policy. So that’s all right, then.
Outside, the night air carries the whirr of generators powering kebab-and-chi cafes. Busier streets are lit. Those which are off-grid, and therefore pitch-dark, seem to have gaping drainage points in the middle of the pavement. Any residual concerns about being ambushed give way to genuine fear of spending the last ten seconds of my life falling into a Kurdish sewer, which would probably involve the same amount of swearing but with more bubbles.
Neither I nor my colleague could pass for being local. In parts of Iraq being so clearly foreign gets people shot. In Erbil it gets us an invitation to speak at the local English-language college and makes us fair game for a posse of giggling kids bent on charming us out of a few dinars. Their chief hustler is about six years old and in exchange for a crisp note from the Central Bank of Iraq he gives me enough Turkish sticky bandages to mummify a camel.
Northern Iraq nudges a ridiculous 50°C in summer. Which is why, as I wait outside President Massoud Barzani’s official residence in the Zagros mountains, it feels oddly novel to be sculpting a snowball. Briefly I wonder how high I’d score on the scale of diplomatic faux pas by lobbing it at the head of state, although interests of cultural exchange, I suspect, won’t stand up as much of a defence in the case of Kurdistan vs Kaminski, and the last journalist to find himself on the wrong side of Barzani was given 30 years.
That’s not to say the top man doesn’t have a sense of humour. Between questions on oil prospects, US troops’ storming the local Iranian consulate, tension in Kirkuk, spats with Turkey and even the likelihood of a Kurdish airline, he finds a moment to address the pressing issue of Iraq’s chances in the upcoming football match with Bahrain. If you care, it finished one-all.
Barzani delicately steps around the subject of independence, but public sentiment is reflected in the Erbil skyline. Notably absent from every building – from the brand new Jalil Khayat mosque, opened the day before our arrival, to the ancient raised Citadel which dominates central Erbil – is the Iraqi flag. In its place flies the sunburst on the Kurdish tricolour. Saddam Hussein changed Iraq’s flag in 1991, decreeing its three green stars to represent his Ba’ath party’s principles and scripting the Arabic takbir ‘Allahu Akbar’ across them.
“It’s no longer the Iraqi flag,” an official from the KRG says sombrely, effortlessly reeling off the ghastly statistics from Anfal, Hussein’s campaign to exterminate the ethnic population, and the notorious chemical massacre at Halabja. “It’s a Ba’ath party flag. We won’t fly it unless it’s changed.”
Erasing the former dictator’s appalling legacy is part of the impulse behind the $300 million reconstruction of Erbil International Airport. Once a launching point for Iraqi Air Force strikes against the Kurds, it’s being transformed into the region’s commercial gateway. An extensive new passenger terminal will replace the present cramped building, but the most prominent feature is the extraordinary 4,800m runway, one of the longest in the world: simple preparation for any eventuality, says the airport’s director. Erbil has to deal regularly with Il-76s and similarly-sized freighters – today there’s an An-12 performing lazy circles overhead – but it’s tricky to imagine what eventuality the architects had in mind, besides a premature Shuttle landing. Even the A380 can stop in less than half that distance.
In the business section of the terminal a glass of tea is mercifully complimentary, because I’m out of change and Turkish bandages, it turns out, are non-negotiable currency. From the doorway a few of us are watching passengers boarding a 737-200 of Lebanon’s improbably-named Flying Carpet. It’s the only aircraft here, but it’s here, and that’s the point. Beirut, Amman, Baghdad, Istanbul, Frankfurt and Vienna are tentative connections but connections nonetheless. No means, no market, goes a Kurdish saying. The new airport will be the means. If it stays quiet here above the 36th parallel – and that’s still a big ‘if’ – then the market might not be too far behind. Insha’allah.