To get into Iraqi Kurdistan from Turkey by car, as I found out a few years back, requires no visa but two cups of tea with border guards on both sides, about a $100 in taxi fare, and lots of patience.
After a short drive we reach a line of lorries backed up for miles. It’s pitch black and cold outside. We wait for a few minutes until another car arrives. Words of Kurdish are exchanged and I’m told to get into this new car. OK, I think. That sounds good. I get into the backseat and the car speeds off down the wrong way on the highway, bypassing the line of trucks.
When our taxi reaches the border, a customs official eyes me suspiciously. The other passenger in the car—an older Kurd who I found out through his limited Russian is a chauffer—keeps telling me “problem,” then makes the international sign with his fingers for money. Translation: Please bribe this official so we can all get on our way. That’s how things work around here, kiddo. I smile at him politely and correct him, “No problem.”
We finally make it through, only to find out that the next guard is out to dinner. Back in an hour. So we cluster around the car, smoking cigarettes. My driver is a dead ringer for Sean Penn. When he smiles, it seems strained. The guy who speaks Russian and I go inside a lobby and share some tea. I ask if there is beer and he flashes me an angry stare. “No beer in Kurdistan,” he scolds me. Only chai, or tea. So we drink and talk about what’s better, Ankara or Istanbul? Turns out Ankara is better, he informs me. They treat their Kurds better.
We head back out and are finally waved through. I am motioned into an office by a burly border guard clutching a Kalashnikov. I explain my business. I’m a journalist. He nods but seems unconvinced, as I have no press credentials or proof of lodging. Then he pulls out a picture of a mustachioed man wearing what looks like a fez. “Who’s this?” he asks. “Ataturk,” I respond. “Yes. Ataturk is number one,” he beams. With that he escorts me out into the cold.
The next checkpoint is manned by Iraqi Kurds. I’m shown into a squat office and offered tea again. The guard likes America but is not buying my story. To pass the time, we drink tea. He then signs a flurry of paperwork, before asking: “Who are the best—Turks, Arabs, or Kurds?” Hmm, I think, the Kurdish sun-kissed tricolor flag staring me in the face. “Kurds,” I say. “Kurds are the best.” He smiles and stamps my passport. With that I am whisked back into the car.
If war is what makes the state, then, in Iraqi Kurdistan’s case, an absence of war is what makes its statehood even a prospect, however distant.
By now, it’s very late. We drive through a few more checkpoints before Sean Penn hands me off to another driver. I tell him the name of my hotel. “OK, no problem.” Every request in Kurdistan is met with either a “no problem” or “problem.” You don’t want the latter. We drive along an eerie highway with no light. My driver has a cold. When we arrive at my hotel, I am relieved to see a bevy of go-lucky Kurdish journalists who offer me, yes, more tea.
Getting out of Iraqi Kurdistan is remarkably much easier. You can literally walk through a hole in the wall in a dusty border town in the northeast of Iraqi Kurdistan and find yourself in Iran. There are no border guards, no customs officials barking for your passport and visa. You will likely be given to someone smuggling cigarettes across the border, as I was.
Iraqi Kurdistan finds itself on the precipice of possible statehood. No, nobody is handing Erbil a UN seat just yet. But its role as a stable buffer state and lucrative trading partner with Turkey has made its semi-autonomy semi-permanent. Political scientist Tanisha Fazal holds up buffer states between two rivals as the most vulnerable to “state death.” A case in point might be present-day Ukraine. But what about one’s buffer status as a cause for state life?
After all, Iraqi Kurdistan has been spared most of the violence that has raged across Iraq in recent years. The vast majority of Turkey’s $12 billion in annual trade with Iraq, its second largest trading partner (after Germany), is with Erbil, not Baghdad. And Kirkuk, and its vast energy reserves, is now in Erbil’s hands. If war is what makes the state, then, in Iraqi Kurdistan’s case, an absence of war is what makes its statehood even a prospect, however distant.
Even tourism is beginning to blossom. I met retirees from Middle America, a young Brit bent on biking across Iraq, and a Cheech-and-Chong-like pair of Swedish hippies. I met religious tourists and history buffs, anthropologists and archaeologists. A number of Western travel agencies offer guided tours of Kurdistan and say they cannot keep pace with growing demand.
Kurdistan is a region teeming with cultural treasures, such as the mud-caked ruins of ancient hilltop fortresses and former palaces of Saddam. The scorched-earth plains where Alexander the Great tamed the Persians calls to mind the setting of a “Mad Max” film. And the hiking east of Sulaymaniyah rivals the Rockies.
There are also incongruent oddities, like giant Ferris Wheels, 18-hole golf courses, and even a roller coaster. There are New Urbanist communities, glitzy new shopping malls, and a women’s-only swimming pool. When Iraqi Kurds talk about being the next Dubai, they mean it. And the people here are remarkably pro-American (despite being betrayed by the Nixon administration). When I told a barber I was from New York, he practically hugged me. A popular destination in Erbil is a ratty row of kiosks that hawks U.S. army surplus combat gear.
Still, it is not an entirely safe region to roam as a backpacker. The electricity in my hotel in the border town of Zakho went off after Turkish warplanes shelled a nearby town and refugees poured into town. The fancier hotels are wrapped in concertina wire, like a federal penitentiary.
But the threat of war between Ankara and Kurdish separatist rebels has receded after being overtaken by the threat of Islamist militancy to the south and of Iraq coming apart. The Kurds may never get the full statehood promised them by Henry Kissinger and countless others. But, compared to the rest of the region, their status quo is not looking half-bad.
Lionel Beehner is formerly a senior staff writer at the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, where he was a term member. He has reported from over two-dozen conflict or post-conflict zones, including Iraq, Sri Lanka, and the Balkans. He is a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors and is a PhD candidate at Yale, focusing on nonstate actors and the use of force. He taught oped writing for seven years at Mediabistro. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Slate, The Atlantic, and The New Republic, among other publications. He is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post’ Monkey Cage and Political Violence @ A Glance blogs. He lives in Harlem, NYC with his wife and two children.