"Boringly Safe" in Kurdistani Iraq! Part 1

by Alina l'Ami
12/25/2013 – The ever adventurous and fearless globetrotter Alina l'Ami has recently finished a tournament in... Kurdistani Iraq! Specifically the tournament was the second Kurdistan Chess Festival held in Erbil, Iraq. Several strong players were not put off by rumors of danger zones or by the unusual location and enjoyed a magnificent and unique experience. Alina brings us a beautiful report.

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“So what is your next tournament on the agenda, Alina?”
“2nd Kurdistan Chess Festival, in Erbil”, I reply with enthusiasm.
“And where exactly is that?”
“Well, in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
“Iraq??? Are you completely out of your mind?”

Years of experience have taught me that being a true globe-trotter requires a multi-faceted preparation before any new trip. In the beginning I thought things were simple: you step into the airplane and after arriving at your destination, you let the place unfold its own and unique story. This approach was not out of laziness; I was convinced this is the best way of perceiving the reality without being influenced by the others’ (travellers, friends, columnists) opinions.

My flight to Irbil is ready for boarding...so many emotions I had, what should I expect, will it be safe, will it be as nice as I imagined?! For now, it seems I did my homework well enough: 2 degrees at destination, so my warm coat will be of good use:)

Gradually, I understood that so many times I didn’t get any wiser by using this kind of “system”. It is advisable to do some preliminary research before departing to a remote and unknown place; otherwise you might just look at things without really seeing or hearing anything important. You will not get the story the place is telling you without a bit of earing in and a gram of loving... And to get ready for it, you definitely need to know a bit of what you should expect and what to be focused on when looking around.

My recent travelling to Irbil, in the Iraqi Kurdistan, is an excellent proof that doing your homework before departure actually helps you avoiding prejudices!
The process started somewhat under the pressure of my self-preservation instinct, which proved a fair counter-weight to my usual pleasant creeps whenever I feel there is some challenge involved. But maybe my adventurous spirit would have prevailed had it not been  for  the members of my family, who under no circumstances would have let me go without proving them I was going to be safe...

The view from my room - typical for such destinations: endless number of antennas! The entire region is developing very fast and in fact, we were not really in Erbil but in Ankawa, in the outskirts of Arbil

. You will see in the upcoming photos the contrasts - fascinating life style!

More carpets displayed in a rather unorthodox manner but much easier to decide: you can touch, you can look, you can easily find what you want to bring back home.

Kurdistan enjoys a certain degree of autonomy. For instance, I would have needed a Visa for Iraq, but I was not required one for the Kurdistan region! Still, it is not a country of its own, being part of Iraq; moreover, it is placed not really far from the border with Syria and rather close to the area of conflict between Turks and Kurds, not to mention several other issues within the neighbourhood... From far, it sounds like trouble!

Wholesale district

All these determined me making a more thorough research than ever before stepping into this new adventure. I checked and double-checked every detail and the result was simply astonishing!

I was and still am amazed by the beauty of the Kurdish culture! 

Kurdistan enjoys enviable safety; over the last ten years there was almost no terrorist attempt, no bomb exploding or suspicious cars... This is quite different in Baghdad especially or Mosul and Kirkuk, where dozens of bombs fall daily… In some parts of Iraq it is customary that people go to work in the morning without knowing whether they will return home safely in the evening, but although Kurdistan belongs to the same country, what Kurds have accomplished here is a model worth following.

Alina l'Ami in an outdoor exchange office... would anyone leave their money unattended in any European City, or displayed like that?

At first, I was a bit confused about the numerous spellings of the name of Kurdistan’s capital: Erbil, Irbil, Arbil, Hawler. But later, this became a revealing detail: the former three are explained by the different Arabic languages, while the latter, used by the Kurds, speaks about the individuality of the place and its people.
Indeed, there are millions of Kurds of Turkish, Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian provenience, who don’t have a proper state of their own; Iraq is the only country where there is a clearly defined, although not completely independent, Kurdish territory.

Tobacco sellers were abundant in the streets

Street food: delicious! Not to mention that if I was looking at it just for one second, I was inevitably invited to taste...such several stops in the market and soon I would get myself into trouble! This one is some sort of vegetable which is eaten with salt; and the juice is very good for your throat, which was more than welcome in my case, since I got a terrible cold.

Some of the most delicious recipes one can find not in the fancy restaurants but...right on the streets! This is called "Kuba" and it has meat inside; but to be honest, I was more interested in the warm hearted locals, who were rewarding me with their contagious smile

Erbil/Hawler is reported to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with more than 6000 years of existence. In 2014, it will be the capital of tourism in the Arab World, overtaking such popular destinations as Dubai! I only wonder if the European tourists will manage to win the inner psychological battle with their stereotypes and fears...
I know this is not simple and I confess that convincing my family about the safety of my endeavour was easier than... getting peace of mind for myself! Even after collecting all the encouraging information, I spent two sleepless nights (or maybe more): could I be sure I was not heading straight for trouble?

the heart of Erbil: very modern, isn't it?! Certainly not what I expected

Souvenirs, it is hard to come back empty handed from this place

Soon after making up my mind, I discovered how tiring it was explaining again and again to my friends how safe it was going to be. I could feel the disbelief and well-intended worry in their eyes and voices, as well as the conviction that I was the same irresponsible girl hunting dangerous adventures!
Therefore, I started avoiding getting into detail; words like Iraq or Syria became taboo and I was just telling to my friends that Kurdistan is somewhere near Turkey! Later I found out that some of the participants of the Second International Kurdistan Chess Festival went even further. They told their families that they were going to play a tournament in…Istanbul Well, I am sorry if this article will spoil their under-cover strategy!

The Kurdish flag's day: I was very very lucky to get this photo and the previous ones as well, with the overview of the center. Normally, because of the restoration works, this part of the citadel is closed to the public. But the guards simply allowed me to enter!

Can you guess what is the white stuff the man is selling? I bet you won't... It is Kurdish chewing gum!

A group walk in the parks of Erbil, which are surely better in summer time.

There was another, not essential, but still important, prejudgement which I felt sorry to dismantle. I was hoping to trick the European winter once again, but I found out that the temperature in Erbil was lower than in many parts of the old Continent! But, as I mentioned before, I did my homework: I knew it was going to be cold, so I was ready;)

The Kasparov family: "you are my queen" - say the eyes of Sergey!

My first morning walk on the local streets was enough to make all the fears vanish and prove in the most concrete and suggestive way that within the clearly marked territory controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government and guarded by the Kurdish Security Forces life was absolutely safe. Well, it would be better not to say 100% safe, things might happen to you, such as a slip on the stairs, but you are not safe from it in day by day European life, either; at least here you would get a multilingual warning, including highly non-conformist English!

Adriana Nikolova and Sarunas Sulskis

A meal for...one! Kind of intimidating if you ask me!

Good luck Georgi Zhivkov (our International Arbiter from Bulgaria), in finishing that! Everyone was surprised by the quality and the size of the plates...here he is with Adriana Nikolova and one of the organizers from the Khanzad Chess Club - Bakhtyar.

To some visitors the numerous police patrols, military uniforms, safety control points at the entrance in the very modern shopping malls and other buildings or simply on the streets, would create an undefined feeling of danger. Security measures are necessary, though, in the surrounding generalized tragedy. And the result is outstanding! As a European woman I didn’t feel any shadow of danger, harassing or insecurity! On the contrary, I would define the place as...‘boringly’ safe!!

We have been spoiled in Kurdistan...

For the first time in my life I felt that I didn’t need to worry whether I forgot my purse open. The species of pick-pockets and thieves seem to have been exterminated here. Big bulks of money (summing up to the equivalent of more 100.000 Euros) can be seen on tables placed in the bazaars or straight on the street. It is also quite common that the owner of these improvised exchange offices leaves the money unguarded while taking a tea break in the neighbourhood. Would you try such an experiment in any of the European capitals?!

Fellow globetrotter Sergey Tiviakov is not shy to get what is his

My scarf didn't serve any religious purposes, it was simply very cold, despite the delusive sun.

Interesting architecture for a church, Babylonian style. In the foreground Dutch players Sergey Tiviakov and Alina l'Ami

A beautiful mosque, which I didn't have time to visit. But I promised to return!

The next part of the report will focus on the tournament and will include many more experiences by this globetrotter in Iraq!


Alina is an International Master and a very enthusiastic person in everything she does. She loves travelling to the world's most remote places in order to play chess tournaments and report about them here on ChessBase! As chance would have it Alina is also an excellent photographer.


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