Kurdistan’s capital has old and new, rich and poor, modern and traditional. Photo: Farzin Hassan/Rudaw
The Kurdistan Region's capital Erbil is a city whose contrasts are frequently highlighted: from the gap between rich and poor to the relative security and stability of the city compared to chronically unstable neighbouring regions.
Generally journalists love a good contrast. The squalor of totalitarian North Korea, for example, is often compared to South Korea's modern and bustling capital Seoul, which is situated approximately 40 miles south of the so-called demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas.
The same has been true of Erbil over the course of the last decade. During the Iraq War journalists frequently highlighted the stark contrast between this stable and peaceful pro-American city to the instability and violence of Iraq. Also, during the economic boom in the region, when Erbil was nicknamed “the new Dubai,” western investors visiting the Kurdish capital could not quite describe where they had been. They were technically visiting Iraq, but not.
After ISIS overran Mosul, journalists visiting Erbil would often highlight aspects of the city while almost always pointing out that it's a mere 50 miles from the largest city the militants ever captured.
Many of these pieces in a sense write themselves, invariably opening with the close proximity of these two cities before then focusing on just how modern/pro-West/safe/stable etc. Erbil is.
Take the story of the Mr. Erbil men's fashion club in the city that went viral last February.
"Less than an hour’s drive from war-torn Mosul, a group of young Iraqi men have started a fashion club, to show the world another side of Iraq,” opened a piece on the subject in Quartz that was echoed by France 24, which opened by saying Erbil “often makes headlines for being the backdrop to battles against Islamic State group militants. But this time, the city is in the spotlight for a group of young men with a difference.”
In The Times on August 23 the title of a piece about Erbil described the Kurdish capital as "the super-rich city 50 miles from Mosul." Unlike some of the other reportage from the city this piece did a good job providing a more nuanced picture of life there.
Other pieces often highlight one aspect of the city and in doing so draw an incomplete picture. Voice of America (VOA), for example, in the introduction to an interview with Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in July 2016 described the city's upscale Empire area, observing the expensive cars and relaxed care free locals in the area's Tche Tche cafe as well as the sushi bar in the posh nearby Divan Hotel.
Bloomberg, on the other hand, chose to focus on the incomplete buildings in the same area, where construction was brought to a standstill as a result of the economic crisis just months earlier and showed Yezidis sheltering in an unfinished hotel siting directly between Divan and the very cafe that VOA reported from, which they overlooked.
The contrast between these reports show just how easy it is to focus on one aspect of the city and end up overlooking another in plain sight.
The Times reporter, Helen Nianias, correctly observes that, “It's true that there's a stunning contrast between life in the Erbil bubble and what's going on down the road, but the people I meet point out that they can hardly be blamed for the fact that they don't live in one of the world's worst war zones.”
She also notes that Kurds are “acutely aware” of their own past sufferings in times of war, which leads to another striking contrast between Erbil's past and present. In recent years, the city and the wider region have become a sanctuary for many of those currently persecuted in Iraq, not a city from where locals are persecuted and forced to flee and seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries, as they tragically had to in recent decades.
Nianias' concluding paragraph includes this telling statement: “I wonder whether people [in Erbil] think it's strange that they are so physically close to the destruction of Mosul, but so far away from it in lifestyle.”
Hemin Hawrami, senior assistant to Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, likely had a similar contrast in mind when he once described Kurdistan as "a villa in a jungle,” before adding that a desert might be a more apt word to use.
That is perhaps the enigma of Erbil and how it has increasingly become a city of many contrasts. It is cosmopolitan yet quite conservative and traditional. It is very rich but at the same time is home to many people struggling to make ends meet as a result of the economic crisis. And of course it is a world away from cities in neighbouring regions. Yet all these contrasts make the Kurdish capital quite hard to adequately encapsulate, which makes it all the more interesting.