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A Western Woman in Kurdish Iraq

September 29, 2016
Iraq, Kurdish, western, tourist

Kurdistan is a region made up of parts of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. You’ve heard about them on the news as the main group that’s fighting ISIS. So, what’s it like to be a western woman in Kurdish Iraq?

In August 2014, Kyle was starting on his dissertation, which focused on the Yezidi population. You’ve probably heard of the Yezidi people on the news in reference to the genocide that ISIS is inflicting on them as well as the Yezidi women and girls being taken for ISIS sex slaves.

The purpose of this trip was for Kyle to start making some contacts on the ground to help him with his research.

Our original plan was to go to Erbil. However, right before we left ISIS began moving in on Erbil. When we landed in Turkey most airlines, including the one we had tickets booked for, had suspended flights into Erbil.

So, after much thought and consideration about whether or not we should abandon the trip to Iraq altogether, we changed our flight to Sulaymaniyah, Iraq for 5 nights. This was a much safer option but still allowed Kyle to make some important contacts and allowed us to see the region.

We landed in the middle of the night, but as we began our descent the pilots turned off all interior and exterior lights on the plane. That was a bit jarring and I think I began my countdown to when we were leaving Iraq at that moment.

iraq, sulaymaniyah, kurdistan, kurdish

The city at night from our hotel balcony.

This was the first Middle Eastern country I had ever been to so while we were waiting in the customs line I was trying to peek at all of the women around me and catalog what they were wearing. All were very conservatively dressed, of course.

We stayed in a very nice hotel, complete with any and all modern amenities you would normally think of, with an added bonus of a guard outside with a machine gun.

I don’t think I can adequately describe the heat there. It took only a matter of seconds after stepping outside until you were covered in sweat. We did walk around mostly, because honestly there wasn’t much else to do there. But if we had somewhere to go taxi’s weren’t hard to find.

We returned to one mall several times to seek refuge from the heat. We knew there were bathrooms, water, air conditioning and it was close to the middle of the city.

Bathrooms are my biggest complaint about Suli. It was nearly impossible to find any at all, and when you’re trying to drink enough water to replace the gallons you’re sweating from just being outside, it’s not a very fun combination. But I survived.

Walking around the city I felt as though I was the only female in existence. Only men were out at stores or walking in the streets. The only women to be seen were either working in malls or begging on the street. I couldn’t tell if I was being stared at because I was a westerner, a woman, or just because I had short hair. Likely a combination of all of them.

There was only one restaurant we went into that noticeably made a big deal about a woman being on the premises. We were taken to the very back corner of the dining area despite the restaurant being nearly empty. Then, they promptly brought out a screen to separate us from the rest of the (empty) restaurant. I promise I was not dressed inappropriately at all. Perhaps it was my uncovered hair. Whatever the case, that was the only time I felt uncomfortable the entire trip.

On the other hand, Kyle, with his dark skin and hair and thick beard, was assumed to be Kurdish for the entire trip. If he had known more Arabic or Kurdish he would have fit right in. Everyone spoke to him as a native until he told them he only knew English.

Here are some of the highlights of the city!
Amna Suraka

They do have a really great museum called the Amna Suraka. It is housed in one of Saddam’s old torture facilities. There are very sad but moving displays about what the prisoners when through in those buildings. Bullet holes and shells are still scattered around. The Hall of Mirrors is also a beautiful memorial. Definitely a must see if you are ever in the area. Read more about this museum from Lonely Planet here.

kurdish, kurdistan, iraq, museum, saadam

One of the many displays of torture that went on in the prison.








We had to make two trips to this museum because the first time we went the electricity was out and we were only able to walk around outside on the grounds. Luckily, when we returned the next day we were able to complete the tour. Electricity regularly goes out all over the city, not just the museum.

iraq, kurdistan, kurdish, museum

Hall of Mirrors Memorial

There are a few parks with lakes and lots of greenery. We watched a wedding (from a distance) in one and the other had lots of people reading or napping under the trees near the bazaar.

iraq, sulaymaniyah, kurdistan, kurdish

Park near the Bazaar

 The Bazaar

The Suli bazaar remains to be the most old world bazaar that I have seen. This bazaar is one in which people go to on a weekly basis to obtain the things they need for the coming week. I have not been one to since with as many live or very freshly slaughtered animals. Not at all like the Turkish Bazaar which is mainly for tourists or home goods.

iraq, sulaymaniyah, bazaar, kurdistan

Birds at the Bazaar

Everything is very inexpensive. Bakers make delicious fresh flat breads on the walls of ovens on the streets and sell it by the pile. Fruits and vegetables are also found in abundance as are nuts, dates, and spices, as you would think of in most bazaars.

The Food and Drinks

We certainly ate well in Iraq. The hotel had a great breakfast each morning where the staff bent over backwards to make anything you could ever want.

In the streets the fresh bread and fruit were everywhere. There were also street food vendors with meat sandwiches and falafel. Alcohol is allowed in Suli and there are several bars, though none of them were crowded.

Tea is served everywhere – with 2 parts sugar cube to 1 part tea, and it’s served hot! There are also plenty of hookah cafes.

iraq, sulaymaniyah, kurdistan, kurdish, hummus

Fresh hummus. Please ignore my face. It was hot.

Lots of dips served with pita bread . . . although we did go to one “fancy” hotel for dinner at the only tall tower in Suli for what we though would be a nice dinner. It turned out to be the weirdest dining experience we’ve ever had. We were served a variety of at least 6 dips – hummus, labneh, baba ganoush, and several others with nothing to eat it with but a spoon. When we resorted to eating it with bread we pulled out of our salads we were met with very strange looks from our wait staff.

They also only accepted cash, which we asked about prior to ordering and they assured us that they had an ATM. However, when it came time to pay, the ATM was out of service. All in all I would recommend avoiding The Grand Millennium Hotel for dining purposes.

Cafe’s and juice shops were everywhere, as were barbers. All of the barber shops were packed just before the weekend.

We didn’t make it up into the mountains, although I wish we would have gone to one of the restaurants up there.

Kyle went to Erbil to complete his research for his dissertation in 2015. I’m looking forward to visiting Erbil sometime soon.

Don’t pass up an opportunity to see Sulaymaniyah. The Middle East is such a different area than most tourists frequent but there are so many wonderful things to see. And the people are always very kind.

iraq, sulaymaniyah, kurdistan, kurdish, park

Park in the middle of the city.


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  • Reply Vicki Msall October 14, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Great post! Would love to see the bazaar.

  • Reply Laura October 14, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    Wow! Thanks for posting and sharing your experience!

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