Surprisingly cool and cosmopolitan Kurdistan

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.

Q. Living in Kurdistan? What in the world were you thinking?

A. I had been studying the region for many years academically and professionally, so it was a place I have always wanted to go to. I had the opportunity when a Kurdish-American friend contacted me and said there were openings at a school where she taught.

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.

Q. What does Kurdistan look like?

A. Colorado in summer or California is very similar to Kurdistan in the spring. It also looks like the Pacific Northwest in some parts. It’s not all dry and dusty like west Texas. There are some parts like that, but there are hills and there are snow-capped mountains year-round. Spring has trees and flowers blooming; that’s a beautiful time to be there.

Q. What is Erbil like?

A. It is an expansive, bustling city of more than 1.5 million people, replete with skyscrapers, fancy restaurants and streets filled with the nouveau riche driving the most expensive cars I’ve ever seen.

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.

Q. Did you get to explore the area?

A. We did a lot by ourselves, with expat or local friends. A particularly meaningful highlight for my wife and me was Lalish, about two hours northwest. It’s the holiest city of the Yazidi minority and was different from any place I’ve been anywhere. It has sacred, conical buildings – much like church spires, but shorter and stouter – where many of their religious leaders are buried. Before you take a tour through the village, you have to take off your shoes: You walk through in your socks or barefoot, as a sign of reverence. The village is swept and cleaned frequently; there’s nothing to step on that could hurt you in a major way.

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.

Q. How Kurdish is Erbil?

A. Extremely. Roughly 90 percent of the population are ethnic Kurds. There are four provinces in Iraqi Kurdistan; most people are ethnic Kurds. The largest ethnic minorities are Arabs; Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac Christians; Armenians and Turkmen.

Q. Would you go back to Kurdistan?

A. Absolutely. There are beautiful and fantastic places named by and known to locals that are just becoming known to the outside world. There are caves in the area that were home to Neanderthals; there are gorgeous waterfalls next to places where people found sculptures of Nimrod the king (the biblical great-grandson of Noah). The (ancient Mesopotamian poem) “Epic of Gilgamesh” mentions a mountain about three hours east.