by Nergiz J. Abi
Over spring break, three friends and I embarked on a road trip across the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in a loaned Monica, otherwise known as a Toyota Land Cruiser. (The Kurds name their cars after famous U.S. figures — a Lincoln Town Car, for instance, is an Obama.) Although this was not my first visit, on this trip I discovered a Kurdistan I had never known before. We didn’t know what to expect, but what we experienced surpassed anything we could have imagined.
Whether we were watching a caged football match among the vast emptiness of rugged terrain, learning the fine art of Persian carpet weaving or listening to an Easter sermon delivered in Syriac at one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world, we did not experience a dull moment. Everywhere we went we were welcomed with open arms. Being Kurdish myself, I had known Kurdish hospitality, but not like this.
Here we were, four strangers walking through their streets and invading the peace of the morning hours — but that didn’t stop the residents from inviting us in to share breakfast, and they were rather upset if we declined. The Kurds opened their homes to us, providing us with shelter and food, treating us as if we were part of their families. We soon realized that we wouldn’t need to spend a dime; due to Kurdish hospitality, it was the cheapest trip I had ever been on.
Upon learning that we were tourists from Austria, a smile would grace the locals’ faces, followed by utterances of “Vienna” or “Danube” and shared insights on places we must visit before leaving. Someone even mentioned a new nightclub in Erbil, Club Aura, but we didn’t think much of it, having already enjoyed a few lounges and traditional music cafes along the way. However, upon entering Club Aura, we were flabbergasted.
I had never seen anything like it. It was a real, Western-style nightclub — but with a good DJ and lighting effects. It seemed like such a paradox. Here I was in Kurdistan, watching women and their boyfriends, all dressed up, dancing as if it was no one’s business. We took in the scene around us, the owner explained that the club was the first of its kind in all of Iraq since Saddam Hussein increased oppression on the Iraqi people following his defeat in the Gulf War.
It opened as a result of the growing international and expat community, but there weren’t just diplomats and interns here. Twenty-somethings had travelled here from Baghdad, Syria and even Iran to escape the harsh realities of their life. They frequently travel to the Kurdistan Region to drink, dance and are free to wear whatever they want without scrutiny. It wasn’t a sight I was used to seeing here, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. This was just another part of the ever-evolving Kurdistan. Before we left, the owner told us that he would frequently employ female DJs, and he even invited us to catch a show by Russian Playmate DJ Sexation, Olga Ryazanova. And at this point we couldn’t help but laugh.