Erbil wins battle for peace and progress
Just a few weeks ago, the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) were at the gates of Erbil, the capital and gateway to the autonomous Kurdistan region - one of the few success stories in the post-Saddam Iraq.
The city had been declared "Arab Capital of Tourism" by the Arab Council of Tourism, due to city's light-speed ten-year transformation from desolate mountain town into a sparkling metropolis. It could now rival, in terms of aesthetics and wealth, any of the cities of Asia and the Gulf built on oil money.
IS was within striking distance of the Kurds' dream city, bringing with it memories of the genocidal Anfal campaign unleashed by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds, and the nightmare of the southern invasions. The Kurds of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran were shaken when this black shadow edged closer to this symbol of Kurdish pride and success - the citadel of their first taste of independence in the modern age.
Connecting to the world
Within just a few years, we witnessed the emergence of a modern city from the remnants of a dusty and sleepy town covered by the ashes of wars and forgotten by history. Erbil replaced 19th century mud-brick homes and Baathist-era military barracks with aluminum and glass offices, chintzy apartment blocks and huge shopping malls.
When I first visited Kurdistan in 2006, as part of a group of writers and artists, we were amazed that Erbil had its own international airport, as well as a Sheraton hotel, specialised taxi service, and a central bank with branches reaching to all corners of the Kurdish region. At the time, the city boasted four satellite and five terrestrial television channels, eight radio stations, a daily newspaper, and a whole host of other weekly publications and magazines.
"Erbil really does have everything it needs to establish an independent state," we thought to ourselves.
|We witnessed the emergence of a modern city from the remnants of a dusty and sleepy town covered by the ashes of wars and forgotten by history|
Upon arriving at the small airport, the signs in Kurdish and their sun-emblazoned flag waving colourfully above the terminal announced with pride that we had arrived in the land of the Kurds. The people evidently had great pride in their increasingly stable political system. However, Erbil's progress did not stop there, but continued to develop and expand. A larger international airport was built in 2011, and the city tripled in size in eight years. Plush housing developments were built to cater for the new and wealthy middle class.
Our delegation of Arab writers, artists and journalists were gleefully received in Kurdistan, with our hosts loving that we had come to witness their success in providing security and development in their cities. Kurdistan was the only part of Iraq that was capable of hosting an Iraqi–Arab cultural festival without any serious security concerns.
Since then, the city has sought the help of a British company in its urban planning and things have improved even further. On our second visit in 2009, we could hardly believe that we were in the same city, with the dilapidated marketplace and the city's dirt tracks gone, along with the sight of people at the side of the road selling yogurt coated with flies.
All signs of poverty and neglect had disappeared, replaced by a park that boasted extravagant water fountains and surrounded by shopping malls stocking expensive designer products. We could not believe that Erbil had become a destination for young people and well-to-do families to shop and socialise, as well as a hub for business and investment.
We had noticed the city's four large public parks, and other projects under development that included a forest on the site of one of Saddam's haunting military bases. The plan is to create a stunning natural landmark for the public to enjoy here, on a site once associated with horror and death. The picture that Kurds want to project to world is that Erbil is a green city, with an abundance of public parks and flowers, catering to a people infatuated with colours and the beauty of spring.
Zest for life
During our first visit in 2006, the owner of the Erbil Hotel, an Iraqi-Armenian businessman, told us that the real-estate sector in Kurdistan was worth billions of dollars, and that the infrastructure projects under construction would transform Erbil into a prosperous and modern city. He envisioned Erbil becoming a top global tourist destination, with luxury hotels, restaurants and night clubs.
"Kurdish society will easily accept the terms of liberalism and the free market, especially given that the middle class is growing in record time," he predicted.
Everyone we met said the same thing: "Erbil will be beautiful in five years."
Predicting that the city could replicate the success of Dubai, Kurds are in a hurry to forget the memories of the Anfal and Halabja massacres - yet the memories of these horrific events were refreshed when the Islamic State militants marched on Erbil.
This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Al Araby Al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.