Drinking and Dancing in Kurdistan: 48 Hours in Suli

The most boring country on Earth

The road to Suli was long, very long. I pretty much crossed the entire country that was passable, simply because I could. Actually, truth be told, I crossed it because I had nothing else to do. I was in what was effectively the most boring country on Earth; Iraq. I take full responsibility for the weight of that statement, I understand it’s an oxymoron but I stand by it. I was heading to Sulaymaniyah, the youngest city in the oldest country. I was looking for adventure, fun and excitement and given I had 48 hours left in the country, the clock was ticking…

I left the bustling Northern city of Dohuk by share taxi in the early morning. There’s no public transport here – no buses, no trains – only taxis. Shared taxis are usually filled with big burly men, or women you aren’t allowed to sit next to. Private taxis must be hired for the more remote towns or along the more obscure roads. The latter is expensive, but that’s the price you pay for travelling in a country where tourism is almost nonexistent. One town I visited didn’t even have a hotel. This was Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous state in the North of Iraq. To compare, it’s like Scotland (or Quebec if they ever won succession), part of the motherland but with their own flag, identity, parliament and a damn big shot of ‘YOLO bitch’ attitude.

Kurdistan is fiercely independent, having won autonomy from Saddam during the first Gulf War in 1991. Seizing the moment better than an Oscar performance, they saw George Bush Senior roll in, picked up their guns and wrestled their freedom. It was costly but while the rest of Iraq wallows in insurgency and death, Kurdistan is peaceful and progressive. It’s unwaveringly democratic and also steadily moving forward with business and investment. It’s like that child from a difficult family who excelled in school, to everyone’s surprise.

One of the most dangerous cities on Earth

My share taxi passed dangerously close to Mosul, long regarded as one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. It straddles the ‘grey area’ between Kurdistan and Iraq, the buffer zone where no one is entirely sure who controls what. But we skirt by safely and I change taxis in Erbil before taking the next leg via the beautiful mountain road of Dokan. Onwards and Eastward we drive, not arriving until dusk where the falling sun lights up a surprisingly large city. Students mill about the car park and I smile, it’s young and hip (whatever that means in Iraq?) and I check into the Pasha Hotel whose garish foyer would make an impressive porn movie set.

Suli was founded in 1784 but is now inhabited by 1.5 million people (with a sizable university population) and is considered the cultural capital of Kurdistan. I quickly head out to explore my new home as fashionable young men walk around with their slicked down hair, sharp shoes and starched shirts. There is barely a woman too be seen, let alone impress. I have a shot or two of super sugary tea and suck down a cigarette before finding a beer store. “Let the good times roll” I mutter so I buy some cans and go find some homeless men to drink with. Language barriers quickly deposit us nowhere so I found a chicken shop for dinner but it was empty and despite the smiles (Kurdish are famous for being hospitable) I ate defeated of adventure.

Tourist highlights in Suli include a grand total of two things: the Amna Suraka, otherwise known as the Red Intelligence Museum and the actual History Museum. There may or may not be a lookout on a hilltop somewhere. My first stop was the prison.

Saddam despised the Kurds and built this ‘death star’ to exercise that hatred. It spoke whispers in its halls of unfathomable pain. There is a free guided tour through rooms that carefully depict methods of torture from stress position electric shocks, to cells where groups of women would sleep with one blanket under the constant threat of rape. When liberation came, it came in the form of war. A massive battle was fought here and the building has been left exactly as it was when the last bullet left its mark. That blanket lies exactly where it was last dropped, blood and all. A series of corridors illuminated with lights and mirrors represent the dead. One light for each village, one mirror for each person – 182,000 people divided over 5,400 villages. The corridors are simply enormous and now form a scar in Suli, both physically and emotionally.

My saving grace

I walked across to the Suli Museum which I was strangely excited about. It was supposed to showcase the history of Kurdistan all the way from the first civilization of Ur to present day. Sadly, it fell short somewhere between the fourth and twelfth centuries. Its most redeeming feature was the abundance of beautiful female university students who were on a field trip taking selfies.

With most of the afternoon left to run, I was fresh out of things to do so I walked back through town to the bazaar, and tried photographing people without getting beaten up or yelled at. Kurds don’t like being photographed so it was a bit of fun as I drank my carrot juice.

A date was arranged with a friend of a friend and I got myself to the City Star Tower for dinner. This was my saving grace, my last night in Suli and my last night proper for this holiday. I wanted to redeem Iraq for all the boredom and expense, to save a journey with one last hurrah of excess and silliness.

I met my wonderful new Canadian friend and together we joined a half drunken rabble of expat English teachers at a surprisingly well-run Chinese restaurant. Ruling the table were two bottles of whisky, and the evening carried on with cigarettes, good conversation and numerous plates of tasty Chinese food. I had to play the catch-up game as the new guy in town, but they were fun-seeking people and I was overwhelmed at the joy of being social and drinking again.

We moved on to the Chalaks nightclub where we were quickly ushered into the VIP section. I have time-lapse memories of excitement, whisky, karaoke and poor attempts at belly dancing. There were Arabic pleasures swirling like smoke in a dimly lit cavern as we rode out the biggest party in Kurdistan this night. The beginning of dawn saw me cross-legged on an apartment floor drinking a completely unnecessary last pint before sleep. The roller coasters at the newly discovered Chavy Land amusement park started for the day and I awoke to a joyful yet horror-filled sunlight reality. It was a long flight home.

My 48 hours was up and I thank you amazing English teacher friends for helping me find my redemption. Kurdistan is a beautiful yet underdeveloped place. It’s only really worth visiting if you have nowhere else to go. But like most up-and-coming countries, it’s best to watch this space…

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