Erbil: Life on the doorstep of ISIS

Alexi Demetriadi

Erbil city centre is deserted. Restaurants and teahouses are locked and bordered up while the streets are clear of much traffic and pedestrians. A lone figure can be seen in the main square, resting under the shade of a small tree.

ISIS are little more than an hours drive west of the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where they are holed up in their de facto Iraqi capital, Mosul. But this is not the reason for the scarcity of midday life in Erbil.

For many local Kurdish people living in Erbil, the oldest continuingly inhabited city in the world, the searing heat of the summer sun and the exhaustion of fasting that comes with Ramadan are of more concern than the close proximity of Mosul. During the hours of the day, it causes life in Erbil to ground to a standstill. Many flights to and from Erbil are scheduled for the early hours of the morning and so the trepidation of the intrepid traveller can be understandable when you touch down and set foot in ‘The Axis of Evil’ at close to 2:00 AM.

But this trepidation is misplaced when you take into consideration the hospitality and kindness of the Kurdish people.

Havi, a 30-year-old father from the north of the region, is journeying home after finishing his masters in international law in Cyprus, while Ahmed is returning to Erbil for the summer having completed half of his medicine degree. Together, they take me under their wing as we disembark onto Iraqi soil and as Ahmed and I exit to find the waiting car of one of his friends, Havi lifts his 4-year-old daughter into his arms, embracing.

Regardless of the sleepy afternoons during the heat of Ramadan, life in Erbil continues on and at night during the summer months, the energy of the city changes and the streets burst full throttle into life.

Iskan Street, the Erbillian equivalent to Soho but without the copious amounts of alcohol, has television screens outside every one of the teahouses and restaurants.

As it is everywhere, football is massive. The European Championships are followed closely while Barcelona and Real Madrid are feverishly supported.

Haval, a local guide and father of two young sons, corrects me over the issue of whom the Greece national team manager was when they triumphed at Euro 2004. He kindly explains to me that he is an expert on European football, he is not wrong. Haval’s eldest son, four year old Abdullah, revels in the atmosphere of the late kick offs; waving and shaking hands with those that pass by and poking and prodding my face. He tells me he wants to be a Peshmerga soldier or, if not, Batman.

The Peshmerga, the unifying pride of Kurdistan, are the Kurdish regional fighting force. They are approximately 350,000 strong and, along with the coalition’s airstrikes, are allowing Erbil to remain free and safe from the clutches of ISIS.

Professor Sherzad Aeez Sulaiman, dean of the college of politics at Erbil’s Salahaddin University, tells me that the “martyrdom of the Peshmerga” is the reason for the level of safety currently enjoyed in Erbil. “The bravery of the Peshmerga”, he explains, allow for this ancient city to remain ISIS free.

The use of airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, which have split public opinion, are welcomed unanimously here in Erbil.

The professor, when asked whether air strikes have been of help exclaims that “yes, absolutely”, describing them as “imperative and very useful for the Peshmerga”. Without them, when for example the ISIS front line was less than 10km from Erbil as recent as two years ago, it would have been very hard for the Peshmerga to safeguard Erbil.

Haval describes to me seeing the smoke of American strikes when guiding a Polish journalist to meet with Peshmerga generals on the front line while military personal can often be seen relaxing and drinking in the bars in the Christian quarter of the city, Ainkawa.

A young Masters student staying in my hotel managed to flee from Mosul little over 3 months ago. He describes to me escaping from Mosul by travelling within an empty gas tanker for 12 hours.

The ordeal he and many others have faced fleeing from, and at the hands of, ISIS puts our anguish over England’s struggles against Iceland into perspective.

Signs to nearby Mosul can be seen on all the road signs across the city, a constant remainder of the close proximity of the violence and bloodshed that has plagued Iraq but, thankfully, yet to spread to the Kurdistan region.

There is a lot to be struck by in Erbil and it is easy to see why the city was named as the one of National Geographic’s Best Trips in 2014. The Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is magnificent while the Bazaar, situated at the foot of the Citadel, is a hive of colours and activity when dusk descends.

The many large parks in Erbil provide a welcome relief to the heat downtown while small fountain parks spring up around the city centre and are often frequented by locals. Tall, Dubai-esque hotels hug the skyline in the outskirts of the city. It is far removed from the pictures and perceptions of Iraq that are easy to come by.

However, the thing that most strikes you about Erbil is the kindness and humanity of it’s people.

Lost on my way to Salahaddin Univeristy, a young Economics student guides me by foot in the 45c heat to the university’s other campus, the walk takes about 40 minutes and he refuses to take the equivalent of £1 in Iraqi Dinar to take a taxi back.

Muhsin, the owner of the iconic teahouse on the walls of the Citadel where Boris Johnson once visited, and his staff prove fantastic hosts and refuse to accept my dinar for a bottle of water. A guard to the Citadel, sitting a few meters away, asks my opinion on Brexit and he agrees “the UK has shot itself in the foot.”

An English Literature graduate, from the now reclaimed Iraqi war zone city of Ramadi, tells me he is a big Arsenal FC fan and I tell him I can offer him a tour of Fulham’s Craven Cottage, my team, instead. His choice of football club is debatable but Facebook names are swapped and promises made.

At Shar Garden Square, the main square of the City, coffee and water sellers float through the masses of bodies enjoying the cool evening air. All of them herald from Bangladesh and say that Erbil has always been a great place to live.

Most are from the capital Dhaka, but one who works at a popular Ainkawa bar is from Chittagong. Incidentally I am in Chittagong next month and I promise to take a gift over from him to his young son. I mention that I am an off-spin bowler by trade, he is a right arm batsman, although I neglect to mention it is very poor quality off-spin bowling.

Azhad is a Syrian Kurd from Rojava and sells crepes from a small cart under the lights of the Citadel, full chef clothes and all. The pay here in Erbil, he tells me, is far superior to that he got when in Turkey. He enjoys the atmosphere and people, “there is a calmness here,” he says. It is what drew him to, and keeps him, in Erbil.

Sipping imported German beer in the Deutscher Hof Erbil, the most popular drinking spot for expats, a former British soldier has made a living and a life in Erbil. His three children are fluent in English, Arabic and Kurdish and are all highly bright. The youngest daughter cannot stand the heat and, like millions of others across the globe, is a big fan of One Direction, with or without Zain.


Adel, a Lebanese from Beirut, was educated at LSE and spent 8 years in London before establishing a bakery in one of the large shopping malls in Erbil. Business from 2012 to 2014 was, according to Adel, booming but he has since seen a marked dip in customers but is planning to dig in as he expects business to fully kick off again in the coming years as the Iraqi and Peshmerga forces continue to push back and reclaim land from ISIS.

The war in Iraq and the struggles of the Kurdistan region are far from over yet. However safe it is in Erbil, ISIS still control large swathes of Iraq while the relationship between the central government in Baghdad and the regional government in Erbil is strained at best.

However, progress is being made. Fallujah has just been reclaimed by Iraqi forces while visitors, once even more often in Kurdistan, are starting to return and it seems as if the hope of independence is too returning to the region and to the city.

Erbil and its melting pot of people and ethnicities are working; rearing and ready to welcome the world to the city once more.

Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Iraqis, Syrians, Bangladeshis, tourists, businessmen and tea sellers all become intrinsically entwined in this ancient city. Coexistence and cooperation, in an area of the world where there is a distinct lack of it, thrives here. It is one of the essential factors of Erbil.

If you are to one day venture out and visit Erbil and the wider Kurdistan, I encourage you to forget your initial perceptions of Iraq. There is danger, no doubt, and the barbarity of ISIS must soon be defeated for the sake of all within Iraq.

But in Erbil, sipping tea under the roof of the bazaar or watching a football game with thousands of others within a mist of shisha smoke, there is a unique atmosphere of peace here.

In Erbil, life has and continues to go on.

About Alexi Demetriadi 4 Articles
Alexi is a History, Politics and Economics BA student at UCL, but has taken a year off prior to this to learn more about international politics. Recently he has; worked for the Thai Committee for Refugees, written for The New Internationalist and visited North Korea. He is an active Labour Party member and ran for the party in the local elections in May. You can follow Alexi on Twitter @ADemetriadi