Jack Serle

A tale of two cities, the best English service in Iraq

In Kurdistan on November 5, 2011 at 12:45 PM

After a three legged, 17 hour journey my arrival could not come soon enough. Lights spread out beneath me in pattern-less sprays of colour. The plane hit the tarmac and the night around our fetid little tube was suffused with sodium orange. My EgyptAir flight had touched down in Erbil. Capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region, fourth largest city in Iraq and my home for the next three months.

The brand new international airport, all marble and glass, was not quite what I expected though a pleasant surprise it was. That I was met at the airport was something special. That I was taken to a half built house with no lavatory, shower or working lights was also special.

It is said there are two Iraqs. There is the country of suicide bombings and sectarian murderers. And there is the land of massive foreign investment and growth.

Kurdistan Region is the latter and its capital city is leading the development charge. Thursday night at the expat haunt Sky Bar it was described to me as Dubai in 1997 – on the cusp of a headlong charge into black gold lubricated prosperity.

Security makes this possible, assured by the benign seeming, Kalashnikov toting Peshmerga. These camouflage clad troops are essentially reflagged freedom fighters from the Kurdish resistance. It was they who fought the ill-fated fight against the brutality of Saddam Hussein in 1991.

Erbil is a paradox. It is littered with the skeletons of half built buildings, chickens scratch through churned up empty plots and traffic fumes can be choking. Yet it is host to five star hotels built of polished marble, those noxious car exhausts are produced by sleek new quality cars and the Erbil stock exchange is the most successful in the world, up 45 per cent on last year.

Although streets may be half built and the gutters choked with rubbish the people walking and talking are sharply dressed and seemingly well heeled. New buildings are popping up everywhere. Erbil’s citadel was up until a few years ago one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, rivalling Damascus.

With this boom time glut of construction and cash there is a danger that Kurdish culture will be lost in the dust. The Bazaars are hotch-potches of corrugated iron and mingling smells good and bad, as any souk should be. They appear to be still the soul of Kurdish commerce but not for much longer.

Everywhere you drive you either see a gleaming new shopping mall or a banner across a half built shell proclaiming a new mall is coming soon. As my new Kurdish friend muttered under his breath as we drove past yet another shopping centre to be: “Come on Erbil, tell us something else.”

*****

After my chain of flights and bumpy landing into a house with fewer amenities than a Philippino prison it was with some doubt directed at my judgement that on Tuesday noon I went to work.

AKnews, Kurdistan’s news agency and purveyor of independent news about Iraq – according to the website’s masthead at least – is my employer for this three month stay.

I am here to edit the English language service, I think it is safe to say the finest English language news service in Kurdistan Region. I am the junior of my latest German friend, the hirsute CU and together we are taking the good work of my predecessors from strength to strength.

A modest newsroom for a national organisation, it does generally hum with industry, sometimes odour. The occasional power cuts aside – cushioned by a battery supply – it is rather like any other news room really. Computers, broken desk chairs, taciturn and unwelcoming staff: not a novel experience besides the lingua franca being Arabic and English taking third place.

News comes in from the reporters to CU and me through some hard working translators and sometimes Google’s electronic equivalent. We sub it into shape and send it out for the world to read. Not the toughest job in the world but someone has to do it.

After my first day’s toil safe-guarding the truth for the world’s readers I made for home in CU’s company. We walk out the building, he turns left and I turn right. We were meant to be sharing the same house; mercifully the driver had deposited me in the wrong abode.

With bags collected from the shell of a home CU took me to the palatial by comparison gaff he has occupied for the past forty days. Carpets, lights, air conditioning, furniture, a toilet – such luxury.

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