Somewhat surprising this morning, the Kurdish bodyguard and driver greeted me in English with an excellent Portsmouth accent! His family had fled the violence in Kirkuk to the safety of the Kurdish enclave, but he and his brother went to the UK. He chose to go to Portsmouth. There he saw the sea for the first time and went to see it most evenings after work in a factory in Havant.
Eleven years later he has returned to an unrecognisable city: buildings are going up everywhere. He misses the sea, the rain and the greenness.
There is certainly money and optimism for the future underpinned by a feeling of safety, tinged with worry what the new year will bring when the American troops withdraw from Southern Iraq.
Seeking safety, this place is full of refugees from all over Iraq, as well as others seeking better wages and conditions than they have at home from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Biafra, Egypt, India, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Albania. The barista in the coffee shop spoke no Kurdish and little Arabic – his English was good though.
Near the centre around the base of the Citadel and the side streets are small shop units and a covered souk selling everything needed for the home and life – no tourist tat here. The active fruit and vegetable market bustles with men and women buying from barrows, a scene replicated all over the Middle East – but no burqas or niquabs anywhere. Men sit in the central square café with Hookah and coffee in the late autumn sun.
There is no sense of any personal security issues, I attracted no attention at all. A good measure of the safety of a place anywhere is whether women and children are around. In Erbil, apart from the cafe, they fill the souk, the street market, the shops and the pavements.
Older men wear blouse type shirts and wide trousers tucked into narrow bands at the ankle. A wide piece of embroidered material catches the shirt and trouser top in the middle. Now the days grow cooler, a dark jerkin is worn atop. Younger men adopt casual styles similar to ‘the West’, though I note that drainpipe ultra tight trousers tend to be shiny. Women wear black full length gallibeya, but with bright notes and designs and all wear headscarves.