Benjamin Kweskin, 32, raised in Charlotte and now in Atlanta, lived in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, for 10 months. He and his wife, Whitney, moved to Erbil in August 2013, five days after they were married, to teach English and social studies at a private school there.
Most people tried to talk us out of it, but when we were living there it was a period of tremendous calm. Kurdistan was a tremendously hospitable place for foreigners, especially for Americans, and we never feel unsafe. It was comfortable and easy to travel throughout the region.
The fighting didn’t begin until nine days before we left; even then, it was much farther south from where we were living. The so-called Islamic State took over third-largest oil refinery in Iraq at that time, so there was more a fear of oil shortages than anything else; there were long lines at gas stations and gas rationing.
At the same time, it’s extremely ancient – consistently inhabited for at least 7,000 years. It has been conquered and ruled by many different empires: Assyrian, Persian, Greek and Roman to the Arabs, Ottomans and Mongols. A famous battle was fought in the western suburbs of Erbil between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. Many scholars say that was a turning point for Alexander’s decision to expand his empire to the east.
The center of the city is the Citadel, a circle-like fortress on a small plateau; the four neighborhoods up there had mosques, synagogues, churches, schools and public baths. The Kurdistan Regional Government and UNESCO have been revitalizing that area for several years. There’s a great deal of of history.
The main bazaar – market – begins at the base of the Citadel; a lot of older neighborhoods surround the Citadel and there are beautiful parks throughout the city. The largest park was used as air force base in Saddam Hussein’s era; after 2003, it has been transformed into what’s considered the largest park in the Middle East. The park is so immense people get lost there. It has restaurants, gardens, a couple lakes and playgrounds.
Along the way, you go to a building that holds important deceased people; it’s decorated with brightly colored cloths – reds, greens, oranges – tied in knots. People who pray for something there tie a knot when they’re finished. When someone else comes along, they untie the knot, releasing the prayer, and then pray and tie their own knot.