Drive to Sulaymaniyah
After a few busy days in Erbil we drove south to the city of Sulaymaniyah, considered to be the cultural capital of the region. There are two routes to Sulaymaniyah, the most common is the more direct route through oil-rich Kirkuk, which is outside of Iraqi Kurdistan’s border and a contested city between the Kurds and the Arabs. We opted for the scenic way through the mountains, which remains inside in the boundaries of the autonomous north.
We undertook the trip with our friend and driver Himan, along with the artist Jamal Penjweny who was returning home for a brief visit. Jamal, part of the younger generation of Iraqi artists, works primarily with photography and film. Iraq is Flying, one of his recent projects addresses the uncertainty of life in an area of conflict, depicting individuals in Iraq suspended mid-jump.
Image from the series Iraq is Flying by Jamal Penjweny
Another project of Jamal’s, Saddam is Here, depicts a cross-section of people from Iraqi society each holding up a picture of Saddam Hussein which covers their face. The gesture alludes to the lingering effect of the previous regime on individuals and Iraqi society as a whole.
Image from the series Sadaam is Here by Jamal Penjweny
Jamal is currently working on two projects; one addresses the frequent honour killings of women by their families that still occur in the north of Iraq; the other follows an arms smuggler who runs guns from the south of the country up to the Kurdish area. Evidently handguns can easily be obtained for $100 while US Army assault weapons will set you back over $2,000, however guns are more rare in the north than the south. Neither Jamal nor Himan or anyone in their family owned a firearm.
We passed through a number of checkpoints manned by Kurdish soldiers and occasionally fierce-looking dogs. They seemed more concerned about passports and ID cards than what we might have been carrying. Jamal explained that immigration is a problem as there are a large number of Iranians and Iraqis from other parts of the country who are trying to come and work in the north of Iraq.
The open road
Midway through our journey we were in need of petrol. The different grades of gasoline, Super unleaded 89% or Premium 92%, in Iraq are known colloquially by their regional origin, for example Basra or Iran. We stopped at a number of stations in search of “Baiji” named after a town between Mosul and Baghdad that has the cleanest petrol in the country. We finally found Baiji at a station perched next to the road which consisted of a shipping container, a pump and an elevated tank. Underneath the tank was a pigeon coup which the attendant happily obliged our curiosity and led us into the cage to show off his different types of birds.
Pigeon coup under the tank at the petrol station
Himan, Jamal, Jason and the attendant admiring the pets
We passed through one village which was historically known for its Catholic inhabitants and still has a church and many Christians residing there today.
Driving in through the country side, the slow rolling hills rose over the arid plains which eventually gave way to more jagged peaks. The rugged mountains near Sulaymaniyah was home for many of the local Kurdish fighters called Peshmerga as they fought Sadaam and Iran for the right of self-determination. Nowadays many of the fighters have laid down their arms and are part of the Regional Government of Kurdistan, both the head of the region Massoud Barzani and the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani are both veterans of the struggle.
Mountains near Sulaymaniyah
Finally we descended on Sulaymaniyah, a new five-star hotel in the shape of the “sail building” in Dubai was under construction and punctuated the sprawling city that seemed to blanket the slopes in an endless array of buildings.
Sulaymaniyah and the new five-star hotel