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Kurdistan, First Impressions

This whole week I’m in Kurdistan, or Iraqi Kurdistan, or northern Iraq, or whatever you want to call this nation-region within a country. There is not one speck of my being that fails to thrill to the prospect of a self-determined, democratic, pro-West, thriving Kurdistan. My preliminary impressions — and that’s all they are so far — have worked, however, to temper the romance ever so slightly.

For starters, there was the stark reminder of how difficult it can be to thrive, or even function, in this region. Around the time our plane was supposed to land in Erbil, the pilot informed all the passengers that “due to a political situation between Iraq and Turkey,” the airport at Erbil was closed for two hours. He assured us that we had enough fuel to hover or to land in Aleppo if need be. After the full two hours, we landed in Erbil, where everyone was tight-lipped about the details of the “political situation.”

Two flags stood side by side in the airport waiting area: the Kurdistan flag with its bursting sun and the Iraqi flag with “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic script. This is as one would expect. But the room’s other adornments revealed a certain incongruity. Two walls bore framed heroic portraits of Massoud Barzani, the Kurdistan regional government president, and Jalal Talibani, the president of Iraq and a revered Kurdish political figure. Images of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were conspicuously absent. Take that for what it’s worth, but the uneasy question of Kurdistan’s allegiance and independence is certainly a fundamental one.

When I saw yet another framed heroic portrait of KDP founder, Mustafa Barzani, in my hotel lobby, I was reminded, unfortunately, of earlier travels elsewhere. The ubiquity of leaders’ benevolent visages is a sure indicator of a personality cult. Hasn’t the region seen enough of those?

On the way out of the airport, there were definite signs of a booming nation: billboards advertising Nissan Maximas, Land Rovers, and a “New Iraq,” as well as construction sites, were everywhere.

Let’s hope for more billboards and fewer flattering portraits.



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