500 Greeks run for Halabja

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Reband Khoshnaw - BasNews, Athens

Hundreds of Kurds and Greeks have competed in a commemorative run in Athens on the 26th anniversary of the Halabja chemical attack.

The 5K Run for Peace was organized by the Iraqi embassy and opened by Burhan Jaf, the Iraq Ambassador in Greece, who spoke about the importance of this day in Kurdish history.

“The Run for Peace aims not only to strengthen the long-lasting ties between our two civilizations, but also aims to raise awareness and awaken the value of peace  our society,” said Ambassador Jaf. “And what better means to do this, than through a marathon that finds its origin in this great Greek civilization.”

The Ambassador spoke of the numbers of dead and wounded in the Halabja on March 16, 1988, and pointed out that the massacre has been recognized as an act of genocide by the Federal Parliament of Iraq and several European parliaments.

“The Run for Peace is an important event as it supports and promotes unity and solidarity, peace and democracy, under the umbrella of friendly Greek and Iraqi cooperation,” he said. “To me, such activities are the ones that point to the future – definitely a peaceful one!”

The course of the morning run took participants around the Acropolis, one of Athens’ most famous sights. Three Greek Olympians were among the 500 participants, and the event was won by Panayotis Dimopoulos in 18 minutes, 52 seconds.

Source: http://www.basnews.com/en/News/Details/500-Greeks-run-for-Halabja/15423

An Australian/Kurdish joint venture since 2009, Kurdistan Adventures combines local knowledge with Western tour operating management. We pride ourselves on immersing our small groups of travelers in Iraqi Kurdistan culture with safety, security and professionalism. Our 8 day escorted tour includes the 3 major cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulymaniyah. A dedicated local guide will take you to key historical sites, explain local customs, dine with you in traditional restaurants and allow you to experience this amazing culture. Citizens of many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Canada, the UK and the USA are granted a free visa on arrival.

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Kurdistan to invest USD86m in tourism sector

The General Board of Tourism in Kurdistan has allocated around IQD 100 billion (USD 85.9 million) to develop the region’s tourism sector until 2025. Mawlawi Jabar Wahab, chairman of the GBT in the Iraqi autonomous region, told Zawya he expected a 20%-30% increase in the number of tourists in 2014 as Erbil gets set to host several events to mark it being named this year’s Arab tourism capital.

Q: What is the investment volume in tourism in Kurdistan?

A: According to official board statements, total investment in the region since 2006, when the board was formed, reached USD 6.34 billion; 40% of which are foreign investments with the UAE being the primary investor, followed by Turkey. In 2012, total investment in tourism stood at USD 1.8 billion. Government loans were given to more than 100 small and medium tourism projects. And we have allocated IQD 100 billion for over 400 projects until 2025.

Q: What plans has the board put in place to boost the tourism sector?

A: Now that Erbil has been chosen as the Arab Tourism Capital for 2014, we aim to promote tourism investment in the region. There is a strategic plan that includes implementing more than 400 projects in two phases; the first ending in 2015 and the second in 2025.

QAre there plans to increase the number of hotels and tourism establishments?

A: There is an ongoing program to build more hotels in the region, and the number of hotels increased to 250 establishments in 2013 from 106 in 2007. The occupancy rate runs at around 60% and rises to around 90% during peak season.

Permits have been granted to build 12 international hotels, including a Kempinski hotel that will be constructed in Erbil over a land area of 10,000 square meters and at an estimated cost of USD 153 million, as well as a Hilton and a Sheraton hotel. This comes in addition to several hotels that have already been launched, such as Shary Jwan in Sulaymaniyah, which was built at a cost of USD 250 million and has a capacity of 250 rooms.

Q: Do you expect an increase in the number of tourists visiting Kurdistan?

A: The number of tourists stood at 2 million in 2013 and is expected to increase by 20% to 30% in 2014. The board hopes the number will rise to 4 million by 2015. We plan to launch several projects that promote winter tourism in Sakran Mountain and Halgurd Mountain within the borders of Erbil, where seasonal snow lasts 10 months of the year.

Q: How would Kurdistan benefit from Erbil being named as this year’s Arab Tourism Capital?

A: Being chosen as the Arab Tourism Capital gives Erbil prestige and paves the way for a strong launch for the region as an international tourist destination. The recognition also serves as an incentive to accelerate tourism activities to attract major investors to the sector.

There will be many festivals and cultural events this year, especially in March to correspond with Nowruz [Iranian New Year] and to celebrate Erbil as the Arab Tourism Capital. Erbil has hosted events with Arab and international groups, including ballet performances and an ice skating festival on Cork Mountain in the district of Rawanduz. Many of these events are being held for the first time in Kurdistan, and in Iraq, and this is only the beginning.

Source: http://www.zawya.com/story/Kurdistan_eyes_4m_tourists_in_2015-ZAWYA20140309083523/

An Australian/Kurdish joint venture since 2009, Kurdistan Adventures combines local knowledge with Western tour operating management. We pride ourselves on immersing our small groups of travelers in Iraqi Kurdistan culture with safety, security and professionalism. Our 8 day escorted tour includes the 3 major cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulymaniyah. A dedicated local guide will take you to key historical sites, explain local customs, dine with you in traditional restaurants and allow you to experience this amazing culture. Citizens of many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Canada, the UK and the USA are granted a free visa on arrival.

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Amna Suraka

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Between the arrival of the first political prisoners in 1986 and the prison’s liberation by Kurdish Peshmerga on March 9th 1991, Sulaymaniyah’s Amna Suraka, or Red Prison, functioned as the headquarters of the northern division of the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s secret intelligence agency. The Mukharbarat used the location for the state’s torture and imprisonment of Iraq’s Kurdish population.

Between 1986 and 1989, the Iraqi state conducted the al-Anfal Campaign, considered to be genocidal in intent, against the Iraqi Kurds. Conducted by Ali Hassan al-Majid under the direction of Saddam Hussein, al-Anfal utilized bombing, firing squads, mass deportation and forced relocation, ground offensives, settlement destruction, torture and imprisonment, and chemical warfare in an attempt to destroy the Kurdish population.

The chemical gas attacks on Halabja, part of al-Anfal, earned al-Majid the nickname of “Chemical Ali.” A Human Rights Watch report documents the “systematic and deliberate murder of at least 50,000 and possibly as many as 100,000 Kurds” as a result of al-Anfal. Thousands of Kurds were tortured and executed at Amna Suraka.

During the first Gulf War of 1991, the Kurdish guerilla army called the Peshmerga conducted an uprising in northern Iraq with the intent of liberating the country from Hussein’s control. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the uprising did see the capturing of  of the Amna Suraka by Kurds. Due in part to the efforts of Lady Hero Talabani, the wife of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, Amna Suraka is now a national Museum of War Crimes.

Visitors of the Amna Suraka today may explore the multi-story administrative building. It’s been left largely as it was the day of its capture by Peshmerga: structurally intact but gutted and studded with holes from warfare. The basement, lit with deep, dark red, contains haunting photographs from the chemical attack in Halabja. Among the images is Ramazan Öztürk’s iconic image Silent Witness. School children on class visits to the museum climb about the various disused tanks and helicopters which sit in the courtyard outside the administrative building.

The central building of the Museum of War Crimes opens with the Hall of Mirrors. What was once the offices and canteen of ranking members of the Ba’ath party is now a hall covered with 4,500 light bulbs representing villages destroyed during al-Anfal, and 182,000 shards of broken glass—for every person killed during the operation. The Hall of Mirrors also contains a replica of a traditional Kurdish home.

Following the Hall of Mirrors are corridors and floors containing the prison cells where prisoners were held, tortured, raped and executed. Some cells are shadowed and empty, with Kurdish Arabic words written or carved out by the people who inhabited the rooms or visitors who followed them. Local artist Kamaran Omar was commissioned to cast five life-size statues of prisoners hand-cuffed to walls, being beaten and hanging from electrical wires. The latter prisoner is accompanied by a recording of an interrogation. Echoing from within these barren, graffitied rooms surrounded with barbed wire, the effects of the recording are chilling. One cell contains a statue of Atta Ahmed Qadir, a Kurdish school-teacher lauded for his courage. Qadir was held in that very cell before his transfer to the Abu Ghraib prison, where he was executed in 1990.

The Amna Suraka shares features with Cambodia’s Tool Seng prison of the Khmer Rouge: both buildings were used not just to imprison and torture, but as weapons for genocide. Both are urban prisons, with residences very nearby. Both have been preserved by the nations of the forces which liberated them to be correctives of history. And both leave the traveler stricken for having walked the halls and rooms where humans caused so much suffering and where humans suffered so much.

Source: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/amna-suraka-prison

An Australian/Kurdish joint venture since 2009, Kurdistan Adventures combines local knowledge with Western tour operating management. We pride ourselves on immersing our small groups of travelers in Iraqi Kurdistan culture with safety, security and professionalism. Our 8 day escorted tour includes the 3 major cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulymaniyah. A dedicated local guide will take you to key historical sites, explain local customs, dine with you in traditional restaurants and allow you to experience this amazing culture. Citizens of many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Canada, the UK and the USA are granted a free visa on arrival.

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Online Erbil Guide Helps Visitors Explore Emerging Travel Destination

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“After a visit to Erbil I was absolutely in love with the city,” said Kashefi, explaining why he created discovererbil.com. Photo: Ahmed Najat

BARCELONA, Spain – With the Kurdistan Region promoted as a travelers’ destination and Erbil nominated the Arab Tourism Capital of 2014, anything that helps visitors explore the city’s attractions is much welcome.

Starting this week, visitors can find all the information they need about the Kurdish capital at one stop: www.discovererbil.com.

“Discover Erbil is a complete online travel guide that shows you in an informative way all the tourist attractions of Erbil,” said 27-year-old Benjad Kashefi, the Kurd behind the travel guide, which went online this week.

“Tourists can find here the best deals, the latest attractions, restaurants, shops, bars, cultural events and much more,” Kashefi told Rudaw.

The website goes online as the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) focuses on drawing more tourists. It envisages luring an ambitious seven million visitors, according to a strategic plan for 2013-2025, with earnings of $2.17 billion in tourism revenues.

The number of tourists visiting the Kurdistan Region has already risen by 30 percent and among them are more Europeans and Americans, according to data from the Kurdistan Board of Tourism. But for now, the Westerners traveling to Kurdistan are only those with a sense of adventure, and the rest come from other parts of Iraq and from neighboring Iran.

“After a visit to Erbil I was absolutely in love with the city,” said Kashefi, explaining why he created discovererbil.com.

“It had everything that a modern city is supposed to have. After I visited the luxurious restaurants, hotels and shopping malls I came to a conclusion: It is missing tourism,” said the developer, who lives in the Netherlands but originally comes from Urumiyeh, in Iranian Kurdistan.

“The first time that I ever visited Erbil was in 2012. I was really happy to see what my people had achieved and how beautiful the city was, with the combination of ancient architecture mixed with all the gadgetry of modernity,” added Kashefi, a designer and Internet developer who enjoys creating visuals and web designs.

“I was really impressed. Erbil was developing so fast. Everywhere you looked you saw constructions being done. The most amazing thing was to see Kurds being free and see our beautiful flag waving everywhere. I felt immediately at home. But the big problem for me was that I didn’t know what I could do or explore in Erbil, because there was no travel guide,” he said.

Now, visitors will more easily find the Kurdish capital’s archeological gem, which lies in the heart of the city: The Erbil Citadel. It is recognized as the world’s longest continuously-inhabited city, dating back some 8,000 years. Efforts are underway to have it included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. In addition, Kurdistan has a rich heritage of 3,000 known archaeological sites.

And alongside the ancient city, is rising a new one.

Last October, the KRG kicked off the nearly $3 billion “Downtown Erbil” project, which is set to transform the Kurdish capital with five-star hotels, apartment towers, shopping malls, schools and healthcare facilities.

The project is led by Dubai-based Emaar Properties, which hopes to finish it in five years.

The same steam that put Dubai on the map is now at work in Erbil, say many observers, including Kashefi.

“It is the fastest growing region in Iraq and some say that it is the next Dubai. If you saw Dubai 20 years ago you wouldn’t think that the Dubai of now was like that. This is right now happening in Erbil.”

Kashefi said that his online travel guide offers businesses a place to promote their companies online. “This is a good thing for the companies who are located in Erbil.”

For the time being Discover Erbil is only in English, but in the near future Kashefi expects to include Kurdish and Arabic. If things go as well as he hopes, he also wants to develop a phone app.

This year is definitely the year of Erbil.

Highlighting the citadel, a landscape of mountains and authentic Kurdish dishes, the prestigious Washington-based National Geographic Traveler magazine has named the city one of its “Best in the World” destinations for 2014, promising it will make visitors forget everything they have heard about Iraq.

Kurdistan remains an anomaly for its security, stability and economic boom, as the rest of Iraq writhes in an unending cycle of violence and devastation.

Source: http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/06032014

An Australian/Kurdish joint venture since 2009, Kurdistan Adventures combines local knowledge with Western tour operating management. We pride ourselves on immersing our small groups of travelers in Iraqi Kurdistan culture with safety, security and professionalism. Our 8 day escorted tour includes the 3 major cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulymaniyah. A dedicated local guide will take you to key historical sites, explain local customs, dine with you in traditional restaurants and allow you to experience this amazing culture. Citizens of many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Canada, the UK and the USA are granted a free visa on arrival.

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The World’s Oldest Kurd: A Beloved Rabbi in the Heart of the Holy City

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In a humble apartment in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, about a mile south of the walls of the Old City, the world’s oldest living Jew goes about his daily ritual. As he has for over a century, the rabbi rises in the morning, puts on his tefillin, or prayer phylacteries, with the help of one of his students, and says his morning prayers. Then, he sits to learn the Torah, Talmud, or kabbalah, examining it with the same fervor and passion he did when he started learning as a teenager.

In addition to being the world’s oldest Jew, Rabbi Zechariah Barashi, 114, is also the world’s oldest Kurd.

Barashi, still sharp and gregarious in his old age, remembers details from events 80 years ago with surprising clarity. He gives exact dates, names, and even prices of bus rides as he recounts his time growing up in the Badinan region of Kurdistan, and his journey to the British-controlled territory that would soon become Israel.

He was generous with his time to sit with me for three hours to answer questions and tell his story.

Born in Barashi in 1900, Zechariah was the last child born to Rabbi Eliyahu Barashi and his wife Simchah. Six of his siblings died in their childhood, leaving him with two older sisters, Sarah and Reichana.

We had excellent relations with the Muslim Kurds, like brothers. His parents worked in traditional Jewish trades, including farming vineyards, dates, and nuts. Jews, Barashi told me in his home, also sewed Kurdish clothing, which were seen as especially well-made by their Muslim neighbors.

His family left Barashi six months after he was born, and settled in a small village four hours from Atrush. At the age of eight, Zechariah moved with his grandfather to Atrush itself. His father eventually joined them, becoming the rabbi of the Jewish community there, which only numbered about 100 people.

His family continued to move from village to village as Barashi’s father served the Jews living in the region’s small communities. “He would leave the house on Sunday and return on Friday,” Barashi recounted. “Sometimes he would come home after two weeks.”

Life was not easy for the Barashis. He remembers a difficult three-year famine after the First World War.

“The Turks looted whatever they could after the war,” he recalled, “and whoever survived the war died of hunger.”

It was also difficult for Jews to study Torah and Talmud, as there were no yeshivas, or study halls, in the region. However, the larger communities, like Duhok and Sindor, enjoyed large synagogues with opportunities for study.

But, as opposed to many other Jewish communities across the world, 90 percent of the Jews in Kurdistan could not read or write. Less than one in ten even knew how to pray. “Despite this,” Barashi emphasized, “the Jews kept the Sabbath and the holidays, family purity, a strictly Kosher home, fear of heaven and parents, and respect for their elders.”

Because of the lack of education, the rabbi had to explain the meaning of the Hebrew prayers in Aramaic or Kurmanji at the end of the service so the community would understand.

Despite the challenges, Rabbi Barashi has fond memories of his childhood. When he wasn’t studying the Torah with his father at home, he was out playing with the children of his village, Muslims and Jews together. “We had excellent relations with the Muslim Kurds, like brothers. We almost never fought. If there ever was a fight, they would quickly inform the Agha, who would warn the parents that if their child acted up again, he would expel the entire family.”

It was like the Garden of Eden there, He sees no comparison between today’s tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and the relationship between Jews and Muslim Kurds in Kurdistan. “It was like the Garden of Eden there,” he said. “Today, everything is madness.”

Barashi remembers a man named Mirza as the Agha of Meriba, the town his family was living in. He was as “an important man, one of the greatest governors in the mountains of Kurdistan.”

Mirza’s wife saved Barashi’s life at the age of 11. It was after the Passover holidays, and not one speck of food remained in the house. For two days, the family did not eat, and Zechariah fell sick. His father was away trying to buy meat on the black market. After having lost so many children, his mother was determined to save him. She went to the Agha’s wife, and begged her for food. The wife hesitated at first, saying she was afraid her husband would find out, and be angry that he would now be forced to give to everyone who asked. Barashi’s mother persisted, her only son’s life was at stake, and assured her that she would hide the food under her dress, and no one would know. The Agha’s wife agreed, and the boy recovered.

The Agha was very committed to the Jews in his region, Barashi remembered. His family used to visit the Agha on Friday nights. But when his sons got older, they began to smoke while Barashi’s family visited. Eventually, Barashi’s father told the Agha that his family can no longer come by, as smoking is forbidden on the Sabbath, and they wished not to be around it. The Agha’s decision was swift. “You are forbidden from smoking in this house on the Sabbath,” he told his sons, thus ensuring that his Jewish guests would feel comfortable during their visits.

Having seen how difficult it was to support a family as a rabbi, Zechariah decided he did not want to become one. But his father insisted, and Zechariah began studying as a young man with a rabbi in Akre.

At the age of fifteen, Barashi convinced his father to move the family to Sindor, the only town in all of Iraq that was entirely Jewish. His father became the rabbi in the town.

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At the age of 18, Barashi met the woman who would become his wife.

“I met her the same way people meet their wives today,” he said with a smile. “On the dance floor. On Friday night, after the festive meal, all the youths would go to the big plaza in the middle of the village and we would perform Kurdish dances until one o’clock in the morning. The next day, after the meal, we would meet again and dance until the third Sabbath meal. Her older brother was my friend, and her grandfather, Yosef Arbaya, and I asked my father to talk to him and ask for her hand in marriage.”

They got married two years later.

He still speaks of his wife, long since deceased, as if they were both teenagers in love on that dance floor in the middle of Sindor.

“You can’t buy love, and no one except God knows what draws a man to a certain woman and not another one. In the village, there were dozens of beautiful and good girls, but I fell in love with her, and good that it turned out this way. There was no bad in this woman that became my wife. Modest and quiet and determined and pretty.”

They were poor at the beginning, but they partnered in weaving Kurdish suits, and with time, the young couple started to make a name for themselves. And in the meantime, the couple had three children, the youngest of whom, Moshe, died of sickness at a young age.

Changes were underway for the family. Barashi could not get the idea of moving to the Holy Land—making the aliyah—and seeing Jerusalem, out of his head, and when he began receiving letters from relatives in the Jewish town of Zichron Yosef inviting him to come, he decided to start working on acquiring a passport. The British strictly limited Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine in those years, and it took him two years to get his passport. All his savings went to paying for forms, and of course, bribes.

“It was harder than the exodus from Egypt,” he joked, “since dealing with the exodus took only one year, and everyone got out.”

He finally received his passport in 1933, but still awaited the permit that would allow him to move. In 1934, the British halted Jewish youth immigration under Arab pressure, and his relatives in Jerusalem suggested he write that he is a rabbi on his passport, since they were the only ones who the British allowed to enter.

Still, he waited. Finally, he caught a break in 1936 when Dr. Moshe Zamura, a representative of the Jewish Agency, an international organization helping Jews to move to the Holy Land, came to Kurdistan. Barashi was selected as his translator since he knew Hebrew.

Zamura told him he needed to head to Baghdad to receive his permit, which Barashi did immediately, securing his entry papers at long last.

Unfortunately, he was unable to do the same for his parents. Barashi was crushed, and thought of giving up his dream in order to stay with his parents. But his father was insistent. “You are forbidden from delaying the inevitable. You must make Aliyah, and God will forgive you. He will find us worthy, we will come too, and if not, you merited to do so, so go without regret.”

And so, after saying goodbye to friends, and arranging for an exemption from Iraqi military service, Rabbi Barashi, his wife, and children headed out from Mosul toward Damascus, a journey that usually took four days.

“We were five families that left that day,” he recalled. “There was a man named Gedaliah, and I don’t remember his wife’s name, but she was about to give birth. The men got off the bus, and the women, including my wife, helped her give birth. Three hours, in the middle of the desert.”

The rest of the journey to Damascus was full of challenges. Their driver, a Catholic man named Yacoub, abandoned them for days in Deir a Zour, a city without a Jewish community where they could find Kosher food to eat. In Damascus, finally, they spent the Sabbath with the Jewish community, before getting on the train to the Holy Land. “And on Thursday, the 12th day of the month of Cheshvan 1936, we arrived at our destination, the holy city of Jerusalem.”

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The early years in Jerusalem were difficult for Barashi, and his family once again fell into poverty. He signed up at the Histadrut, the Jewish labor union, as a worker, but jobs were given out on a points system based on family size and the family’s needs. Barashi was low on the list, and his wife decided, against his will, to go to work as a housekeeper.

Barashi did manage in the end to bring his parents to the country in 1938, three years before they passed away, within five months of each other.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, there was suddenly plenty of work to go around. The British needed laborers to build military bases and airstrips, and paid much better than the local bosses. Throughout World War, and three years later the 1948 War of Independence, Barashi toiled paving roads, laying out runways, and digging trenches.

Eventually in 1950, two years after independence, the Jews of Iraq and Kurdistan came to the young state of Israel. “They built beautiful villages across the country,” said Barashi. Dozens of these agricultural communities still exist across the country, maintaining their Kurdish flavor three generations later.

With his community scattered across the country, Barashi began traveling to each town, instructing the Kurdish Jews on religious practice. He would attend weddings, circumcisions, and funerals, and made sure the community continued to use the old customs of Kurdistan’s Jews.

He is an example of rabbis as they once were, With time, Barashi came to be seen as the spiritual leader of Israel’s Kurdish community, and became well known across the country as chacham, or especially learned rabbi. Pictures of the rabbi with presidents and prime ministers fill his living room.

The two most prominent chief rabbis of Israel’s Sephardic- or Middle Eastern- Jewish community, Eliyahu Bakshi Doron and Ovadia Yosef, both saw him as a senior figure, and wrote prefaces for the books he wrote.

Barashi authored four books on the Torah and mysticism, and was in the middle of a fifth when his failing eyesight forced him to stop at the age of 111. He lives an independent in his apartment, save for the company of his two students during the day, and one of his five remaining children at night.

He has lost two of his children to old age, but continues to enjoy the presence of his four generations of offspring. His great-great-grandchildren are now serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Mention Chacham Barashi’s name to a Kurdish Jew, and you will hear effusive praise of their beloved long-time religious leader.

“He is an example of rabbis as they once were,” remarked Yehuda Ben Yosef, chairman of the National Organization of Kurdish Jews in Israel, whose grandfather was a teacher of Barashi’s. “Humble, with a smile for every person, sharp memory, a sense of humor.”

“His value to the community is greater than gold,” Ben Yosef continued. “He is an example to all rabbis today. He is above the politics, does not just follow the flock, and is not influenced by money. He says what he thinks.”

I have had the fortune of living in Jerusalem for 75 years. I’m in heaven. A recent example of Barashi’s independence was his blessing of Nir Barkat, the secular mayor of Jerusalem, during his reelection campaign against the candidate supported by the Sephardic religious community.

“This is where our love and respect for him comes from.”

Last year, a Kurdish journalist came to Barashi’s apartment to film an interview with him for a Kurdish TV. The reporter, stunned by the purity of Barashi’s Kurdish, stayed for hours. He wrote down words that he had never heard before, and looked them up when he got home, discovering that they were old Kurmanji words that had fallen out of use.

Barashi is happy to share a blessing with his visitors, and is always ready to share his secret to a long life. “There are three things,” he says. “Always be happy, never jealous. Stay active. And never overeat, always leave the table a little hungry.”

But does he ever wish he could go back to the old villages in Kurdistan?

“No,” he says, smiling. “I have had the fortune of living in Jerusalem for 75 years. I’m in heaven.”

Source: http://rudaw.net/english/world/10022014

An Australian/Kurdish joint venture since 2009, Kurdistan Adventures combines local knowledge with Western tour operating management. We pride ourselves on immersing our small groups of travelers in Iraqi Kurdistan culture with safety, security and professionalism. Our 8 day escorted tour includes the 3 major cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulymaniyah. A dedicated local guide will take you to key historical sites, explain local customs, dine with you in traditional restaurants and allow you to experience this amazing culture. Citizens of many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Canada, the UK and the USA are granted a free visa on arrival.

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Kiev Ballet celebrates Erbil as Arab Tourism Capital

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Ukrainian dancers of the Kiev Ballet perform during the Erbil Festival on February 18, 2014. Erbil set to host numerous cultural and artistic events over 2014.

Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—As part of a series of cultural and artistic exhibitions planned this year, the world-famous Kiev Ballet performed in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, to celebrate the city being chosen as the Arab Tourism Capital for 2014.

The Kiev Ballet, also known as the National Ballet of Ukraine, performed to Tchaikovsky at Saad Abdullah Hall in Erbil on Tuesday. The performance was attended by Iraqi Deputy Minister of Culture Fawzi Atrsuhi, in addition to a number of senior Kurdistan Regional Government officials and foreign diplomats.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Atrushi said: “The selection of Erbil as the Arab Tourism Capital for 2014 was not for nothing,” adding, “Erbil secured victory over several other cities that have a long history of tourism.”

“The title will help attract artists, intellectuals and investors to the region,” he said.

The ballet’s “routines were specially choreographed for Erbil,” Lebanese stage director and producer Marwan Rahbani toldAshraq Al-Awsat.

“I personally asked the ballet company to choreograph a special routine for the city, and the show that was seen in Erbil has not been performed anywhere else in the world,” Rahbani added.

The Kiev Ballet is one of Europe’s oldest and most famous ballet companies and is based out of the National Opera of Ukraine. The company is made up of around 150 dancers and stages around 16 productions per month at the National Opera, but took special time out of its busy schedule to perform in Erbil.

Rahbani said he was pleased with the Kurdish audiences’ enthusiastic response to the ballet, “particularly as there has never been any similar show in the city.”

“This proves the culture and sophistication of the Erbil audience,” he added.

The Kiev Ballet also expressed surprise at the warm welcome they received in Erbil. One of the male dancers told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I did not expect such an overwhelming response, particularly from a city I knew very little about.”

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Governor of Erbil’s media director, Hamza Hamid, said: “The ballet attracted a remarkable turnout and impressed ballet fans in Erbil. This demonstrates how enthusiastic people in Erbil are about this sophisticated art.”

Hamid confirmed that there will be more artistic activities during the feast of Nowruz in March, including a major concert. He added that the Nowruz concert will feature bands from across the world.

Source: http://www.aawsat.net/2014/02/article55329269

An Australian/Kurdish joint venture since 2009, Kurdistan Adventures combines local knowledge with Western tour operating management. We pride ourselves on immersing our small groups of travelers in Iraqi Kurdistan culture with safety, security and professionalism. Our 8 day escorted tour includes the 3 major cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulymaniyah. A dedicated local guide will take you to key historical sites, explain local customs, dine with you in traditional restaurants and allow you to experience this amazing culture. Citizens of many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Canada, the UK and the USA are granted a free visa on arrival.

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Ten Reasons Irbil Is The Place To Be

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Erbil’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park is not only the largest city park in the Middle East, but also among the largest in the world.

Always wanted to visit Iraq, but were too afraid to go because of the security issue? Erbil, in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq, makes a holiday in ancient Mesopotamia possible.

Known for its good security, low crime-rates and rich oil fields, the secular and pro-Western capital of Kurdistan Region has been named the 2014 Arab Capital of Tourism, beating out sexy Beirut, conservative Sharjah and little-known Taif.

If that’s not convincing enough, three million people have already visited Iraqi Kurdistan in 2013, and Erbil regularly welcomes a-list visitors: from Hollywood icon Angelina Jolie, to Arab sex-bombs and divas Haifa Wehbi, Nancy Ajram, Nawal Al Zoghbi and Maya Diab.

A favorite among the globe’s many glossy travel magazines and other media, Erbil also caught the attention of the National Geographic, listing the city among only a few spots in the world in this year’s “Best Trips,” claiming Erbil “will make you forget everything you’ve heard about Iraq.”

But what’s there to do and to see? Let’s check out the city’s top 10 Attractions.

1. Erbil Citadel
Rising about 30 meters from the surrounding area, the city’s heart is the 8000 year-old (some claim, 10,000) Erbil Citadel, sited on a naturally defendable 10-ha plateau, which explains why the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Sassanids, Medes, Romans, Abbasids, Ottomans and others have all based themselves here, in the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. The citadel is undergoing massive renovation with assistance from Unesco, ahead of a World Heritage Site listing, but parts remain open to visitors. Once work is finished, it will be home to several boutique hotels, cafes, art-galleries and museums. Today, the citadel’s main attractions include an ancient mosque, a hammam (public bath-house), an antique and souvenir shop, the Kurdish Textile Museum, and gorgeous views of the city from both its gates.

2. Ainkawa
On the way to the airport is the sprawling suburb of Ainkawa, often described as one of the largest Christian enclaves in the Middle East. Famous for its many churches, including the Babylonian-inspired, ziggurat-styled Mar Yousef (Saint Josef) Church, Ainkawa has a predominantly Assyrian Christian population who speak neo-Aramaic (although, a growing number of expats in the area might outnumber them in the near future). Visit the Assyrian Museum, and relax later at one of the many trendy cafes and bars frequented by both expats and locals.

3. Korek Mountain
In a recent report, CNN called Erbil “the Switzerland of the Middle East.” To believe that, take a 2-hour ride north via the famous Hamilton Road (named after the New Zealand architect who built it a century ago) to Korek Mountain. Passing through some of the most beautiful natural sights in the region, including Gully Ali Beg (the “Grand Canyon of the Middle East”) and at least a dozen waterfalls, you’ll arrive at the recently-opened Korek Mountain Resort and Spa, where you have to take the breath-taking teleferique ride to the top of the mountain, home to Iraq’s first ski resort (and, you can still see parts of the Iraqi National Astronomical Observatory, placed at the top of Korek mountain by the Saddam-regime in the 1980s). Complete with luxurious villas and chalets, restaurants and cafes, and a soon-to-open hotel, this high-end resort could become a top Middle Eastern winter attraction in the near future. This year it hosted the inaugural Erbil Winter Festival. In the future, one hopes, it could host the first Winter Olympics in the Middle East.

4. Choly Minaret
Iraq’s answer to the leaning tower of Pisa, is the locally nicknamed Choly Minaret (originally called Mudhafaria Minaret) built in the early 12th century – the only remaining structure of a once-grand mosque. Today, it’s located in the beautiful Minara Park and is together with the citadel one of the city’s few remaining historical landmarks. Don’t miss the cable-way ride from here to the adjacent Shanidar Park, where an art-gallery is one of the highlights.

5. Erbil’s nightlife
One surprising discovery for newcomers is how the nightlife in Erbil is rapidly becoming one of the best in the region, not very far behind Dubai or Beirut. Not only has the city very relaxed alcohol policies (or lack of them rather) – even by Western standards – buying liquor in one of the dozens of liquor stores in the city (there’s even one on the highway to Masif Salahaddin, perhaps explaining the high number of road accidents) is also very cheap. Popular bars and lounges are usually concentrated in Ainkawa or in one of the many five-star hotels in the city. Highly recommended in Ainkawa are RJ’s, TBar (which also has the city’s first slot-machines), SkyBar (at Nobel Hotel) and Deutscher Hoff (a German Biergarten). The Marina restaurant, on the outskirts of Ainkawa, is well-known for its good food, drinks and live-band. Divan hotel, currently Erbil’s most luxurious hotel, offers great Japanese dishes and expensive drinks at QI21 (the city’s top Sushi Lounge), with majestic views of Erbil and its surroundings. For real glitz and glamour, in the coming weeks, the hotel will also see the opening of the Lotus Nightclub and Lounge, the first of its kind in Iraq, and the owners claim it “will be competing with international top places to be seen at.”

6. Gulan Road – Iraq’s Dubai
Take a ride on the smooth Gulan Road, and see with your own eyes how Erbil is rapidly turning into a top Middle Eastern business hub. Home to many five-star hotels, business towers and the city’s most expensive real-estate properties, the area around Gulan Road (and 100M Ring Road) is often dubbed “Iraq’s Dubai”. And Dubai took notice too; its famous real-estate developer Emaar is currently building a dynamic and inspiring new city center on Gulan Road. Named “Downtown Erbil”, the US$3 billion project is spread over an area of 541,000 sq m (over 133 acres), and promises to deliver the world-class project development competencies of Emaar, which has created global icons such as Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and The Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping and entertainment destination. Modeled after Burj Khalifa, Downtown Erbil will include the city’s largest mall, iconic twin towers, superb hotels, a central business district, and luxurious homes – once completed by 2017.

7. Qaysari Bazaar
No visit to Erbil is complete without seeing the 12th century Qaysari Bazaar, one of the world’s largest and oldest souqs. Located near the ancient citadel, it’s currently being restored. As it accommodates all types of sellers – including different parts for gold, spices, textiles, foods and meat – the bazaar is huge and has many alleyways. Look for stores selling local produce and souvenirs. Buy Kurdish honey (regarded as one of the best in the world) or sweets like baklava. “Kalash” – hand-made Kurdish shoes – are popular gift items, along with decorative Kurdish rugs. While at the Qaysari, don’t miss Mam Khalil’s chaykhana (teahouse). In 1948, Mam Khalil (now 76 years old) began as a worker in the tea house which was owned by his father; today he owns and runs the little treasure – covered with old and new photographs – that is hidden in the maze of small paths in the bazaar.

8. Khanzad Castle
Built for the Kurdish princess Khanzad in the 18th century, this imposing castle (located on top of a hill), is a mere 20-minute ride outside of Erbil, reached from the main Masif Salahaddin Road, overlooking beautiful mountains and vistas.

9. Sami Abdulrahman Park
Erbil’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park is not only the largest city park in the Middle East, but also among the largest in the world. Once a detention center under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) turned it into an oasis of tall trees, rose-gardens and lakes. Local and expat families come in droves to picnic or exercise here. Others come to see its many monuments and statues. The park takes its name from the former KRG Deputy Prime Minister, Sami Abdulrahman, who was killed in the February 2004 terrorist attack that claimed around a hundred innocent lives. The Martyrs’ Monument is dedicated to the victims of the blast, and provides a sad reminder of Iraq’s bloody history, which with the exemption of this attack and two smaller ones in the past ten years, has largely avoided Kurdistan Region. At the monument, one plaque reads: “Freedom is not free”.

10. Shopping Malls
Just like the nearby Arab Gulf states, Iraqi society is increasingly becoming shopaholic, with large, Dubai-esque malls springing up like mushrooms. Hungry for the latest international brands, American cinema-culture and fast-food, Erbil’s residents and visitors have the choice of around a dozen malls – and that number is growing by the day. Popular malls – with sometimes, odd names – include Family Mall (the city’s largest) on 100M Ring Road, Majidi Mall on Kasnazan Road and Royal Mall on Shoresh Street. Take a seat in one of the malls’ cafes, order a cappuccino or mocha, and watch this multi-cultural country empty its wallets in Iraq’s shopping capital.

Source: http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/travel/10-reasons-to-visit-erbil_21206

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Mariwan is a Dutch-Iraqi freelance journalist and photographer who is currently based in Kuwait. His writings have been published in media outlets such as The National, Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Rudaw, The Kurdish Globe, and Internazionale.

Follow him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/MarwanQ8

An Australian/Kurdish joint venture since 2009, Kurdistan Adventures combines local knowledge with Western tour operating management. We pride ourselves on immersing our small groups of travelers in Iraqi Kurdistan culture with safety, security and professionalism. Our 8 day escorted tour includes the 3 major cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulymaniyah. A dedicated local guide will take you to key historical sites, explain local customs, dine with you in traditional restaurants and allow you to experience this amazing culture. Citizens of many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Canada, the UK and the USA are granted a free visa on arrival.

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Kurdistan Looks for a Slice of Tourism from Europe

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BARCELONA, Spain – Despite limited infrastructure – but a wealth of history that includes the world’s oldest inhabited city – the Kurdistan Region is ready to take up the challenge of attracting more travelers from Europe, with an eye to cashing in on revenues from tourism.

For the first time, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is taking part in the January 16-19 “Ferien-Messe-Wien” in Vienna, Austria’s largest annual tourism exhibition, where the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq is billed as a wonderful, adventurous and exciting destination.

“Given that the Kurdistan Region is not very well known in Austria, our aim is not only to inform visitors about the region, but to overall attract people looking to embark on individual and adventurous travelling,” said KRG representative in Austria, Dr. Mustafa Ramazan.

“One of the main reasons to participate this year was also the fact that Erbil has been chosen the Tourism Capital of the Arab World in 2014,” he toldRudaw.

The Kurdish capital, Erbil, is believed to be the world’s longest continuously inhabited city, dating back some 8,000 years. Kurdistan has a rich heritage of 3,000 known archaeological sites.

Ramazan said he hopes that attending the fair, which attracted some 148,000 visitors last year, will promote Kurdistan’s “diverse, fascinating and unique history  and landscape.”

The number of tourists visiting the Kurdistan Region has risen by 30 percent and among them are more Europeans and Americans, according to data from the Kurdistan Board of Tourism, which wants to attract more foreign tourists by offering greater facilities to tourism companies.

Until now, most tourists visiting Kurdistan come from other parts of Iraq and from Iran.

According to the manager of the Kurdistan Association of Tourist Companies, Rebwar Azad, only five foreign travel agencies from Europe, the United States and the Middle East organize tours to the Kurdistan Region. Only 1,000 tourists come annually from those parts of the world, he added.

Daniel Gonzalez, a Spaniard who accompanied the first group of tourists from Barcelona to Kurdistan early this year, said the visit attracted only the more adventurous travelers.

“We left for Erbil with 20 people mostly in their 50s, who had a lot of experience in traveling and a lot of cultural, political and social interests,” said Gonzalez, who works with the Baalbech Sama Tours company in Lebanon and Barcelona’s Orixa travel agency.

“Average people don’t travel to these types of places,” Gonzalez told Rudaw.

“Tourism in cities and resorts is very high class. Kurds or Iranians who mostly are the ones traveling in Kurdistan don’t visit the mountain sites, but Europeans like to travel around the region and we discovered that roads are terrible. Nevertheless, Europeans like the adventure,” he said.

Ramazan stressed that “investment in infrastructure is high and also the international interest in the Region as an economical destination continues to grow.” He noted that several luxury hotels like Marriott and Sheraton are under construction in Kurdistan.

“From year-to-year, the number of commercial sites grows and the public transportation system improves as well. These developments highlight the strong security situation of the Kurdistan Region, as well as its political and economic stability,” Ramadan added.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, noted that the Spanish tourists had “felt very secure. There are many police controls all over the country.”

Kurdistan remains an anomaly for its security, stability and economic boom, as the rest of Iraq writhes in an unending cycle of violence and devastation.

However, Gonzalez said there was a lot of room for improvement, if Kurdish authorities are indeed serious about promoting mass tourism.

Tourist and historical “sites are not properly marked, and people don’t know what they are looking at,” he said.  There is no travel guide for Kurdistan, he lamented.

This last issue has recently improved for English-speaking visitors: Last year eBiz Guides published a book about Kurdistan. Also, Dutch writer and photographer Yvonne van der Bijl will soon publish her travel guidebook for visitors, compiled after two years of traveling in the region Gonzalez recalled that the group of Spanish tourists was received at the airport in Erbil by officials from the Ministry of Tourism.

“Kurdistan is very interested in promoting European tourism,” he said.

Kurdistan  offers entry visas at the airport to European nationals – among others — and soon will offer the same to some of the oil-rich Arab Gulf states.

With the help of foreign advisers, the KRG has drawn a strategic plan for 2013-2025, aimed at attracting an ambitious seven million tourists and $2.17 billion in revenues from the tourist industry.

Source: http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/16012014

An Australian/Kurdish joint venture since 2009, Kurdistan Adventures combines local knowledge with Western tour operating management. We pride ourselves on immersing our small groups of travelers in Iraqi Kurdistan culture with safety, security and professionalism. Our 8 day escorted tour includes the 3 major cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulymaniyah. A dedicated local guide will take you to key historical sites, explain local customs, dine with you in traditional restaurants and allow you to experience this amazing culture. Citizens of many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Canada, the UK and the USA are granted a free visa on arrival.

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Dutch Traveler Working on First Guidebook to Kurdistan Region

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“Every time I travel to Kurdistan people ask me why I chose Kurdistan,” said the writer, who has been coming to Kurdistan and researching Kurdish culture since a first visit in 2007. Photo courtesy of Yvonne van der Bijl

By Kani Helebceyi

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Soon, the Kurdistan Region could have its first travel guidebook for visitors, thanks to the efforts of Dutch writer and photographer Yvonne van der Bijl.

“Kurdistan the Friend,” to be published by London-based Gilgamesh Publishing, is the culmination of two years of travel in Iraqi Kurdistan during 2011 and 2012, during which van der Bijl collected information for her travel guide.

“Every time I travel to Kurdistan people ask me why I chose Kurdistan,” said the writer, who has been coming to Kurdistan and researching Kurdish culture since a first visit in 2007.

“I got to know the Kurds from two Kurdish musicians, Baban Kirkuki and Munir Goran. They helped me learn about the Kurdish and other Middle Eastern cultures,” she said in an interview with Rudaw.

“Later, I began to interact with the Kurdish diaspora. The Kurdish ‘Halparke’ dance attracted me the most about Kurdish culture. Kurdish dance is something very special to me personally. It is a beautiful feeling when men and women hold hands and dance shoulder-to-shoulder,” said the intrepid traveler, who has worked on guidebooks to Bolivia, Guatemala and Morocco.

Another Kurdish music group in the Netherlands helped her learn more about Kurdish music. At her mother’s funeral, it was her Kurdish friend, Munir, who strummed a guitar.

It was in 2007 that Van der Bijl first came to Kurdistan to make a documentary about the condition of the deaf people in Sulaimani. It was her stay with a Kurdish couple, Ako and Sham, that gave her the first real taste of Kurdish culture and hospitality.

“This opportunity helped me learn a lot about the traditions and culture of a typical Kurdish family,” she recalled, “I have never seen as many people in two weeks. The Kurds are very hospitable to their guests.”

In 2010, she decided to investigate the Kurdish identity, and interviewed more than 50 Kurds in Holland and Kurdistan for the project.

“I had a long and outstanding interview with the iconic Kurdish poet Sherko Bekas, who passed away several months ago. This interview will be the introduction for my book,” she said.

In 2012, Van der Bijl gave a presentation about European tourists in Kurdistan at the second tourism conference in Erbil.

Later, she participated in a women’s conference, where she presented a lecture comparing two women, her own grandmother and a Kurdish lady of roughly the same age. She chose them, she said, because they both lived during the same period and both fought for women’s rights. “I intend to write a book about them,” she told Rudaw.

Source: http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/090120142

An Australian/Kurdish joint venture since 2009, Kurdistan Adventures combines local knowledge with Western tour operating management. We pride ourselves on immersing our small groups of travelers in Iraqi Kurdistan culture with safety, security and professionalism. Our 8 day escorted tour includes the 3 major cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulymaniyah. A dedicated local guide will take you to key historical sites, explain local customs, dine with you in traditional restaurants and allow you to experience this amazing culture. Citizens of many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Canada, the UK and the USA are granted a free visa on arrival.

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Iraqi Kurdistan: Open for Travelers

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Iraq’s booming Kurdish region offers historic sites, a temperate climate, and new luxury hotels. But will Western travelers come?

It’s a Thursday, the beginning of the Islamic weekend—and $25 endless pizza and beer night at the Rotana hotel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. A moody jazz band plays as I chat with business consultant Jeremy Oliver, a Texan who has lived here since 2009.

The familiar Western atmosphere is appropriate for the largely expat crowd, hailing from the U.S., Canada, the Czech Republic, and Lebanon. Oliver has invited me to this weekly gathering to meet residents and hear their stories, some of which involve Americans’ misplaced perceptions of Kurdistan. For example, says Oliver, “People at home think I’m dodging bullets every day.”

It’s an impression that Kurdistan is eager to change. A world apart from Iraq’s violent south, the history-rich Kurdish autonomous region (about the size of Scotland) is the most stable and attractive part of the country. And it’s booming, driven by oil exploration and reconstruction after decades of neglected infrastructure development. The Arab League has taken notice, crowning Erbil the 2014 Arab City of Tourism; it beat out contenders like Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and Beirut, Lebanon.

It’s an admittedly odd designation. After all, this is still Iraq, which few associate with tourism, and Kurdistan isn’t even Arabic. The Kurdish language is similar to Iran’s Farsi—a vestige of the Persian Empire’s rule (look, too, for Ottoman-influenced architecture and local food). This green, mountainous region has a long tradition of being dominated by its neighbors. So the Arab City of Tourism designation presents a rare opportunity for Kurds to introduce themselves on the world stage.

About 4.7 million Kurds live in Iraqi Kurdistan, and combined with brethren in Iran, Syria, and Turkey, they number 26 to 30 million—the largest ethnic group without an independent country. Already, Erbil flaunts a skyline that includes the $2.3 billion Empire World complex, where a Marriott will open in 2015. Hiltons will follow in other parts of the city. There are already five-star hotels like the Rotana and the Turkish Divan, whose intricate rooftop makes it queen of the nighttime skyline.

It’s a vastly different city from my last two visits, in 2007 and 2009, when there were fewer places to stay and far fewer expats. In both cases, I came as a volunteer photographer for cultural diplomacy projects organized by friends at American Voices and Musicians For Harmony that brought together musicians from Kurdistan and Southern Iraq. Erbil’s 2014 designation piqued my interest once again, inspiring a return visit in September 2013 to investigate how far the city has come as a travel destination—and how far it still has to go.

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I’d been sending Sherwan Hamadameen, Erbil’s general director of tourism, emails for several weeks without a reply and calling numbers on the Tourism Kurdistan website that no one ever answered. My arrival, therefore, was a surprise to the tourism officials. But in Middle Eastern fashion, Hamadameen welcomed me into his cluttered office, paperwork on his desk brushed aside to make room for tea.

Hamadameen says his dream is “to make Erbil the best city for tourism in the region. We are trying to be just like Dubai, just like Istanbul, in the image of the world.” He tells me of a proposal for a ski resort and a master tourism plan created jointly by the Austrian company Kohl & Partner and the Lebanese company Team International. Visitors, he says, will find more than 3,000 archaeological sites in Kurdistan, and special events planned for 2014 that range from an American Idol–style singing contest to sports and cultural programs. (The website ErbilTourism2014.com promises details coming soon.)

Seventy percent of the city’s tourists currently come from the south of Iraq, escaping the heat and violence amid the mountains, waterfalls, and lakes of the Kurdish region—scenery that defies Middle Eastern stereotypes. Most others are Iranian shoppers attracted by the cheaper prices and greater variety of available products. Western tourists, primarily from the U.K., Germany, and America, tend to be business travelers; the goal now is to convert them to leisure.

The opportunity exists, as there’s no shortage of sightseeing opportunities, according to Mawlawi Jabar Wahab, a tourism official. Kurdistan has religious sites important to all three major Abrahamic faiths, including a ziggurat-style church in Erbil’s Ankawa district, one of the Middle East’s largest remaining Christian enclaves. Archaeological wonders, many still unexcavated, date back to the Babylonian Empire. The challenge is making such sites more tourist-friendly—and, of course, spreading the word. But the plan is in motion, and it’s working. Kurdistan saw more than 2.2 million visitors in 2012, a 30 percent increase over 2011, with 433,711 from outside of Iraq.

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Those visitors have generally received a warm welcome. According to Harry Schute, a retired U.S. Army colonel who runs the tour company The Other Iraq, “Travelers are pleasantly surprised when they meet and interact with the local people, who are especially friendly to Americans.” He explains that, in contrast to the south, “folks here consider the war a liberation, not an occupation,” because it eliminated Saddam Hussein, who had slaughtered 180,000 Kurds. Schute’s company runs about 8 to 10 group tours a year and arranges day tours for people who contact him once in Erbil.

The verdict is still out on whether U.S.-based tour operators will follow suit. Dan Austin of Austin-Lehman Adventures has looked into Kurdistan and decided to hold off, given the state of much of the region. He said he has also been disappointed by some countries, like Colombia, that have recovered from dangerous reputations yet haven’t become as popular as expected, given the buzz. He added, however, that Kurdistan could follow Croatia—“an unknown, which was near a lot of civil unrest, and now is an extremely popular destination.”

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If Kurdistan does attract more Western tourists, almost all will get there by plane, in contrast to the many Southern Iraqis and Iranians who often arrive in Erbil by bus or car.

Talar Faiq Salih, Erbil airport’s general director, is ready for them. The airport was completely rebuilt in 2010 and gleams with duty-free shops. Salih says airport passenger traffic has averaged 30 percent growth each year since 2006; some 950,000 passengers used the airport in 2012, with 23 airlines connecting Erbil to 15 countries.

“Erbil is a peaceful place in a sea of trouble in the rest of Iraq,” Salih says. We’re sitting in her office, whose white furniture imparts a 1970s Space Odyssey feel—a luminous contrast to the drab offices I’ve visited. “It’s a woman’s touch,” she says. “The reality is that women are taking charge as well. You can see a lot of women directors on investment boards.”

And the country’s change extends beyond Erbil. I want to see for myself, so I head to Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan’s second-largest city, where a Ramada opened in June. The general manager, Izzettin Yurtsever, a native of neighboring Turkey, meets with me in the sun-filled lobby overlooking the street. Yurtsever views his hotel as a training ground of sorts for a new generation of Kurds as the hospitality industry expands.

Yet the very development spurring business tourism threatens Sulaymaniyah’s leafy beauty. A skyscraper has sprouted blocks from the historical bazaar and casts dark shadows over a sculpture-adorned park, an example of a lack of organized urban planning. This incongruous development concerns Azzam Alwash, an American of Arab heritage who heads environmental group Nature Iraq. “I am worried with the economic improvement and the standard of living that nature will suffer,” he tells me. Still, Alwash acknowledges, “we live in a global village. It is inevitable that people will want what the West has. The alternative is to live in an isolated society, and we tried that from 1968 to 2003.”

Empire City, Sunset, Erbil, Kurdistan

Even if Kurdistan is increasingly connected, its travel industry remains disjointed. Travelers can choose from a growing lineup of luxury hotels, most ranging from $200 to $400 a night. But it takes advance planning to coordinate a tour of Erbil’s 8,000-year-old Citadel and its Kurdish Textile Museum, a potential UNESCO World Heritage site in a historic area of Ottoman palaces, bazaars, and alleyways. The concierge at the five-star Rotana hotel tells me that while drivers can take guests to the Citadel, there are few, if any, available trained guides (it’s not a common request from the oil and construction clientele). I mention this to hotel general manager Thomas Touma.

A Lebanese born in 1975 at the start of that country’s civil war, Touma becomes emotional at the presumptions of someone from a developed country pondering a former war zone’s disorganization. “This country was founded only 10 years ago,” he reminds me. “What can you accomplish from scratch in only 10 years? There were no houses, no roads, no services, no electricity. They came from so much oppression,” he tells me, a view of construction cranes through his office window. “Suddenly, the regime fell in 2003, and they had the opportunity to put together a state.”

I ask if Erbil’s City of Tourism 2014 designation will help. “No, there are priorities more important than tourism,” he replies. “But at least it puts Erbil on the world map.”

He looks out the window, musing, “Dubai was not built in a few years,” something he says most Westerners don’t appreciate. They may be familiar with travel magazine spreads of Dubai, he says, but not with the history and cultural changes behind its development.

Yet, ready or not, Kurdistan is on its way. Just after I landed in September, I met 32-year-old Lithuanian-born Emilis Michles, a freelance Internet security engineer who travels the world, working anywhere there’s an Internet connection. Coming to Kurdistan was a way to push his limits and add a new stamp on his passport. His trip was entirely self-arranged, from finding a room in Erbil on Airbnb.com to booking Austrian Airlines with frequent-flier miles.

“It’s very exotic,” he says, clearly excited to be in Erbil. “I put on my Facebook I am going to Iraq. It gets attention.”

Empire City, Sunset, Erbil, Kurdistan

How to Go

Air Travel

For most travelers from North America and Europe, no visa is necessary for Kurdistan for visits lasting up to 14 days. The most convenient connections for North Americans to Erbil are through Europe. Lufthansa flies from Frankfurt and Austrian Airlines from Vienna, both bypassing Baghdad.

Tour Operators

Various companies can arrange package tours that combine land connections, tour guides, hotel stays, and flight arrangements. Among them are the American-owned The Other Iraq (theotheriraqtours.com); Kurdistan Adventures (kurdistan-adventures.com); and British-run Hinterland Travel, which also covers Southern Iraq (hinterlandtravel.com).

Hotels

Noble Hotel: A five-star hotel in the Ankawa Christian district, known for its popular and sometimes rowdy rooftop Mamounia Sky Bar; $180 a night and up; noble-hotel.com.

The Rotana: Part of the Abu Dhabi–based chain, the Rotana is in the developing Gulan Street business district, including several restaurants popular with expats, an outdoor pool, a spa, and fitness center; $300 a night and up;rotana.com.

The Divan: Part of the Turkish hotel chain, this five-star is also in the developing Gulan Street business district and features several luxury shops, a spa, and a rooftop sushi restaurant overlooking Erbil; $280 a night and up;divan.com.tr.

An Australian/Kurdish joint venture since 2009, Kurdistan Adventures combines local knowledge with Western tour operating management. We pride ourselves on immersing our small groups of travelers in Iraqi Kurdistan culture with safety, security and professionalism. Our 8 day escorted tour includes the 3 major cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulymaniyah. A dedicated local guide will take you to key historical sites, explain local customs, dine with you in traditional restaurants and allow you to experience this amazing culture. Citizens of many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Canada, the UK and the USA are granted a free visa on arrival.

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