A Kurdistan City of Fountains. There is one exception to the rule that “things are worse” outside Baghdad: Kurdistan. In the northern part of Iraq, Kurdistan is generally considered “safe.” It is also where the water is. Filled with mountains and cascading waterfalls, Kurdistan is home to people who were once persecuted by Saddam Hussein and so truly felt “liberated” by Americans. For these reasons, I thought that water companies might have had better success there.
Kurdistan City of Fountains
The first thing I did upon my arrival in Erbil was check the tap in my four-star hotel to see if the water was running. It was. The second thing I did was run downstairs to ask the hotel staff if I could drink it. Three people shouted at once, “NO!”
Of course, I already suspected this would be the case, but I also knew Ifraz water treatment plant had been supplying the city of Erbil since 2006. So where was the clean water? It turned out I would spend the rest of my time in Iraq looking for this water as if chasing a rainbow’s end. From the air, Erbil had looked like any Middle Eastern city, with roads spread out in radials from the old city, giving it the appearance of a dartboard.
But on the ground, Erbil looked a bit more like Las Vegas than like the dilapidated south of Iraq. In fact, it appeared to be a brandnew city full of fountains. Following the second Iraq War, an enormous amount of money flowed into this American-friendly region, creating a bit of a gold rush feel in a city perpetually under construction. There were car dealers everywhere, advertising Hummers, Cadillacs, or any luxury car you wanted. There were giant spa complexes advertising “women only.”
There were restaurants that looked more like amusement parks or indoor malls. The city was expanding, clearly signified by the rising numbers on its concentric roads. “Roads are named for their distance from the city. Now we are on 100 Meters Road,” my taxi driver said. “The numbers keep getting bigger.”
But the main thing I noticed were the fountains. “This one shoots waves of water,” my driver bragged. “It’s bigger than any fountain in all of Europe.” Below the old fortress city built on a mesa, called the Citadel, fountains, shallow pools, and walkways decorated the city’s center. One city park had cascading water pouring out of what looked like Greek columns that traversed its entire length. Beneath the waterfalls, pools of water cascaded down terraces through the park. Across the street, yet another park had a house-sized plastic replica of the Citadel with water shooting out the top, creating elaborate waterfalls, pools, and rivers around it.
In short, Kurdistan did not look like a war-torn or water-scarce. Water-rich and bustling downtown Erbil but don’t drink the water region. Only gradually did I realize that behind the thin veneer of apparent wealth was a “party-till-you-die” kind of fatalism. The region is surrounded by enemies: Iran, Turkey, and even Iraq, which the Kurdish seemed to view as a separate country. “This is Kurdistan,” I was repeatedly corrected whenever I talked about “northern Iraq.”
Along the highway into Erbil, men gathered in groups from noon onward, sitting in the dirt and drinking. They seemed to be there every day, all day long. To me, it looked like a terrible place for a drink, but I was told that religion prevented them from drinking at home. Over time, I came to realize that the roller coasters and amusement parks were there because this was the only moment of peace the region had seen in decades. Everyone had suffered untold horrors.
Men drank away their PTSD. Further south, the country was still fighting. But Erbil, which was relatively isolated, was the wealthiest and the safest—city in the country. The city’s residents had a moment of reprieve from violence, though still no clean water.
During my stay, Halwest Shekhani, who happened to be friends with the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, was my guide and translator. In another county, Halwest might have been a movie star or politician; he The Citadel park in Erbil provides a Disney-like setting for family outings was a handsomely energetic young man with dark curly hair and a beautiful smile. But in Kurdistan, he was a guide and diplomat, showing American researchers, tourists, and politicians his country.
At twenty-three, Halwest seemed incredibly well educated, more knowledgeable about American politics than most Americans. But he showed his age with his obsession with Angelina Jolie and Avatar, a movie he had seen from a bootleg copy from Thailand. He peppered me with questions about both the 3-D version and Angelina, though his reasons for loving her seemed more political than lascivious. “She came here,” he told me, “and said she did not want the Americans to leave. And she would not go to an Obama dinner.” Indeed, I remembered Angelina Jolie had once said that Americans should not leave Iraq until the refugee crisis had been solved.
She had been a tireless advocate for Iraqi refugees, which included two million externally displaced and two million internally displaced people since 2003. But the Obama comment surprised me. “Obama wants to pull out of Iraq,” Halwest explained, “and then we will die. You can’t just put all the chess pieces in place and then knock the table over and say you’re going home.” Another time, Halwest shocked me by saying he missed Saddam Hussein.
I gradually realized that he missed making fun of him, especially his laugh. “Heh . . . heh . . . heh”—he did a spot-on imitation. Halwest seemed to miss Hussein in the same way that some Americans missed Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, or Will Ferrell as George W. Bush. He was a joke. Of course, the reality was that Hussein had destroyed Halwest’s life.
After the Gulf War, called the “Uprising” in Kurdistan, Halwest was forced to flee home on foot with his mother and six siblings. He was five years old. His family followed an enormous exodus of Kurds into the mountains, where they survived on wild onions mixed with yogurt and milk from their goat. Sometimes, he said, Iranians would throw bread to them from trucks on the border. The water made him sick, but he said, “The yogurt and herbs would calm my stomach.
I can still taste that flavor in my mouth today.” Halwest’s father had gone to fight, and when the Uprising failed, he was taken to Saddam’s Abu Ghraib prison and tortured for years. Today, he cannot walk properly and still suffers health effects from the water he drank while at Abu Ghraib, which Halwest said was untreated salty water from the Tigris River. Halwest said, “I could talk for ten years and still not tell you all the terrible things that happened under Saddam.”
So we changed the subject. I asked Halwest about the water situation in Erbil, and he confirmed my suspicions. “Only poor people drink tap water,” he answered, “because they have to. But they get sick.” The rest drink bottled water from Turkey or the United States.