The view from the ground.

My Mesopotamian Getaway

Fishing with handguns and touring ancient ruins in post-American Iraq.

Emma Sky
Emma Sky
Emma Sky

I was supposed to celebrate New Year's Eve in Kurdistan, but the fates conspired otherwise. My flight was delayed leaving London, so I missed my connection in Istanbul. Along with dozens of other passengers flying on to Middle Eastern destinations, I approached the Turkish Airlines desk seeking a hotel room. Only one person was at the desk, so it was not long before the queue disintegrated into mayhem, with everyone yelling. A Syrian man pointed at me and shouted at the man at the desk: "She is pregnant and sick -- she urgently needs a hotel room." Another Syrian, standing behind me, piped up: "Yes! And I am the father of the baby!" The Iranian and the Turk beside me burst out laughing, bonding over the outrageous ruse of the Syrians.

I was supposed to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Kurdistan, but the fates conspired otherwise. My flight was delayed leaving London, so I missed my connection in Istanbul. Along with dozens of other passengers flying on to Middle Eastern destinations, I approached the Turkish Airlines desk seeking a hotel room. Only one person was at the desk, so it was not long before the queue disintegrated into mayhem, with everyone yelling. A Syrian man pointed at me and shouted at the man at the desk: "She is pregnant and sick — she urgently needs a hotel room." Another Syrian, standing behind me, piped up: "Yes! And I am the father of the baby!" The Iranian and the Turk beside me burst out laughing, bonding over the outrageous ruse of the Syrians.

And so it was that my "group"– formed around the pretense of my being pregnant — was assigned hotel rooms. Oh, how the Middle East is changing, I thought! As we were being driven to our hotel, the first Syrian told me that he was heading back to Syria to participate in the demonstrations, after receiving treatment in a hospital in Vienna for recent injuries. He assured me that Syrians would overthrow the regime and bring about democracy in the country — even it if took 100,000 lives. Millions died in Europe, he told me, to bring about democracy. We also will have to fight — and die — for democracy.

After a day exploring the secrets of Istanbul, I managed to get a seat on the night flight to Iraqi Kurdistan. My fellow passengers all appeared to be Kurds. No one rested during the 2 ½-hour flight. Adults chatted and laughed with friends and strangers alike. Babies cried. Children ran around. For years, Kurds living in Europe had made the long and often difficult journey overland through Turkey and across the border into northern Iraq. Today, international airlines fly directly to Erbil, the Kurdish capital.

We landed at Erbil’s new international airport. I did not recognize where I was. For years, Kurdish friends had described their plans for the international airport and taken me to see the site. They had done it! A new 16-gate facility, with one of the world’s longest runways and a capacity of up to 3 million passengers a year. The service was superb. My details were registered in the computer. Welcome to Iraq, the passport controller said to me; we see from our records that this is your first visit to Iraq. I smiled. I had visited the country many times before, working for the U.S.-led coalition — but this was my first visit to post-American Iraq.

Seated in my luxury suite at the five-star Rotana hotel, I sent out text messages to Iraqi friends wishing them a happy new year. Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, was also sending out texts marking the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq, saying: "All of us are for Iraq glory and pride in the nation. I congratulate you and our Iraqi people on this historic day." CNN reported that the Iraqi government was calling it "Fulfillment Day," while certain armed groups were referring to it as "Victory Over America Day."

Oil-rich and stable, Kurdistan has the feel of a gold rush. Anyone with initiative can take ideas forward. It is the land of opportunity. Foreigners are flocking in to invest — from Middle East, Asia, and Europe. I was fascinated to find so many different nationalities in Kurdistan. Hotel workers came from as far afield as Ethiopia, Albania, Egypt, Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh. Iraqi Arabs were learning Kurdish. Kurdistan was booming — and investors sensed it. Kurds could not be more welcoming. As I drove around, I saw new houses everywhere, painted in crazy colors, that shout out: We are here; we are alive. Everywhere I looked there was construction, bright lights — and often alcohol.

I sat with a Kurdish friend and reminisced about our shared experiences in Kirkuk, the city in northern Iraq that the Kurds sought to incorporate into Kurdistan back in 2003 and 2004. There was one night that we both remembered well: the cultural evening at the museum, when we had brought together Kirkuk’s different communities to imagine the Kirkuk they wished to live in. Each community had put on a show — some with dancers, some with singers. At the end, everyone had gone up on the stage to dance the dabke together — Kurdish peshmerga hand in hand with Arab sheikhs and Turkmen Front officials. And each person had grabbed the microphone and taken turns to say: This is our Kirkuk; this is the Kirkuk we wish to live in — a place where we celebrate each other’s cultures, speak each other’s languages, respect each other’s religions, where we live together in brotherly tolerance. Almost a decade on, the imagined future Kirkukis yearned for looked as remote as ever.

But the talk these days was not about Kirkuk and internal borders, nor about oil, nor about the powers of the Kurdistan region. Rather, the discussion was about Kurdish fears. In several different conversations, Kurds told me that Iran had succeeded in driving U.S. forces out of Iraq, and that even before the last soldier had departed, Maliki had launched a political coup aimed at crushing the Iraqiyya party, his main partner in the national unity government. Kurds feared that if Maliki succeeded in destroying Iraqiyya, he would go after them next. The Kurds had become vociferous supporters of a federal region for Sunnis, which would provide the Kurds with "strategic depth" from Baghdad. Kurds asked me: Why does the United States keep calling Iraq a democracy, when it is heading back to dictatorship? Why does the United States pressure politicians to support Maliki and blame Iraqiyya for the crisis? Why does America supply Maliki with F-16s that he may one day use against the Kurdish people? The Kurds had openly called for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq. At every possible occasion, Kurds thank Americans for their freedom and even invite American military families who lost children while serving in Iraq to visit so that they can thank them for their sacrifices. But Kurds now view the United States as in decline, and the region as on the rise. They nervously watch the battle for influence between Turkey and Iran, the successors of the old Ottoman and Persian Empires, and debate whether to remain neutral or to take sides.

I took the back road from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah. It has less traffic these days, as the new Kirkuk bypass road to Sulaymaniyah is much quicker. Once out of Erbil, I saw that the familiar villages had changed little over the last decade. I passed old men in baggy pants and waistcoats with keffiyehs — those iconic black-and-white checked scarves — wrapped around their heads, their life experiences etched on their faces. And I saw women, some in black abayas, others in colorful dresses, going about their daily lives. I took a diversion to Taqtaq, passing camps for employees of oil companies. The town had grown. But the countryside was how I remembered it: the River Zab, the pastoral idyll, the back road that peshmerga and soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade took back into 2003 to liberate Kirkuk. As I saw how Kurdistan is today, it was hard to imagine how such a land and such a people could have been afflicted by so much war.

As I smoked lemon and mint shisha one evening in a cafe with Kurdish friends, we talked politics. Once it was Iraqi Kurds who fled to Iran and sought refuge there. Now it is Iranian Kurds who come to Iraqi Kurdistan seeking economic opportunities. The sanctions in Iran are biting, and people are already talking about the impact they might have on the Iranian people. In the 1990s, international sanctions on Iraq impoverished the people, made everyone dependent on the government for rations, criminalized trade, led to the deaths of half a million children, and tightened Saddam Hussein’s grip on society. Would sanctions in Iran succeed in undermining the regime, stop its nuclear program, and bring about its downfall? Or would the people simply suffer while the regime endured?

My friends also discussed the PKK, the Kurdish armed group that was fighting Turkey from bases in northern Iraq. While Kurds might disagree on some issues, they told me that support for the PKK among the youth is increasing because Turkish military action is viewed as an attack on the Kurdish people in general. The previous week, 34 Kurdish smugglers, ranging in age from 13 to 28, had been killed by bombs from Turkish F-16s that had mistaken them for PKK fighters.

I visited the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah. Last time I had seen it, it had been a skeleton. Now it looked exactly like the computer images I had once been shown. I walked round the state-of-the-art campus, built on an expansive 418 acres. I went into the classrooms, the computer labs, the library. Already, around 500 students were already studying business management, international studies, information systems, computer technology, and engineering. Their numbers would continue to grow.

We drove out to the foot of the mountains behind Sulaymaniyah to see the park, Hawary Shar. Looking across the valley, I could understand how Jalal Talabani, the longtime Kurdish potentate who is now Iraq’s ceremonial president, had once sat for an hour at the observation point admiring the view and no doubt contemplating how many changes he had seen in his lifetime and the progress that the Kurds had made. When we passed Talabani’s house, my Kurdish friend repeated a story that the president liked to tell. Once, when returning home, Mam Jalal, as he is fondly known, spotted a man sitting on his own by the side of the road drinking alcohol. Mam Jalal told the driver to stop the car, and he got out and went over to the man. Mam Jalal asked the drunk how he was and what he was doing. Then Mam Jalal asked the drunk whether the latter recognized him. The man did not. Have you never seen my picture? Have you never heard of Mam Jalal, the president of Iraq? Nope, the drunk responded. Have another drink — soon you will tell me I am President George Bush!

Yet despite all the excitement and optimism in Kurdistan, I heard the worries of Kurdish politicians, businessmen, civil servants, and youth that all their gains are now at risk due to the poisonous politics of Baghdad.

A Sunni Arab sheikh phoned me from Kirkuk. It rained all day yesterday, he told me; very good for the fields. We had been waiting for rain. The sheikh told me he would try to come visit me in Kurdistan. I could not believe my ears. For years, he had refused to visit. Now he told me he had come to Kurdistan twice to participate in training organized by the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-funded NGO. I don’t like going there, Miss Emma; I feel strange there, he told me. They look at me as if I am strange.

You are strange, sheikh, I joked back. And we laughed. He had toned down his rhetoric about Kurds taking over Kirkuk. He had bigger worries now: Iran taking over Iraq. The Americans left us with nothing, he complained, but I hope they bomb Iran. I told him that there was probably more chance of the Israelis than the Americans bombing Iran. It doesn’t matter who bombs Iran, he responded, as long as someone does. And soon, inshallah.

On the plane from Sulaymaniyah to Baghdad, I bumped into two well-known Sunni Arabs who had been visiting Kurdistan to meet with the Kurds to discuss the current political crisis brought on by Maliki’s decisions to sack his Sunni deputy prime minister for calling him a dictator and to accuse Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi of terrorism. They had also met with Hashimi, whom the Kurds were providing with sanctuary. One of the Arabs was a Sunni Islamist who had been influential in 2007 in persuading Sunni insurgents to switch sides and form so-called Awakening movements, working alongside the U.S. military to fight al Qaeda. The other was a Sunni nationalist, the former governor of Diyala province. They were pleasantly surprised to discover that I was in Iraq on holiday and hopefully inquired whether the U.S. military was in fact still around and had only pretended to leave! The former governor informed me that the situation in Diyala was very unstable. Before, we could tell all our problems to the Americans, he told me; now we have no one to tell our problems to. Could I take your new phone number?

My Shiite friends collected me from Baghdad, and we headed south. The land was flat, with desert as far as the eye can see. We drove past poor villages that lacked basic services. Pools of sewage stewed by the sides of the road. We passed a line of pilgrims, making the long walk toward Karbala for Arbaeen, the religious observation that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. For some, the journey would be hundreds of miles. Tents at the side of the road provided them with food and beds. Thousands of Shiites were making a pilgrimage that had been forbidden in Saddam’s time. Men carried Shiite flags. Women dressed in black abayas. Children walked alongside. How I longed to get out and walk with them. Next year, inshallah.

After a couple of hours driving, we pulled off the main road and stopped alongside a rudimentary workshop 100 meters back. We had received news of a new discovery and wished to see it with our own eyes. I watched mesmerized as Abu Ahmed, a technician, confidently demonstrated how he was able to increase the power generated by a motor through use of a hydraulic system. Back in the car, we expressed amazement that a poor engineer, living in the middle of nowhere, had come up with such an invention! We discussed how successful Iraq would be if it could find ways to encourage and harness the initiative and creativity of its citizens.

After five hours of driving, we passed Nasiriyah and drove through small villages in the marshes. The villagers had placed reeds across the roads so that cars would crush them when they drove over them, turning them into carpets. From the road we could see men — and sometimes young girls — propelling the traditional boats, mashuf, with long poles, just as in Oxford or Venice.

We finally stopped the car at a prearranged place and climbed into a mashuf. Off we sailed, past floating mudhif, the traditional houses built out of the reeds, through the narrow channels between the bulrushes in the marshes. We spotted jamoos (water buffalo) on the banks, and on one occasion they swam across the marsh in front of us, much to our delight. The marshes were full of birds. I spotted ducks, herons, egrets, lapwing, and sandpipers. Birds of prey hovered above us.

One of our guides explained how fighters from Dawa (the prime minister’s formerly outlawed party) had once hidden in these areas and fought against Saddam. Where is Jaish al-Mahdi, I asked, inquiring after the militia of Moqtada al-Sadr? One of my companions put up his hand, saying: I am Jaish al-Mahdi! And the man behind me is Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the boatman is Kataib Hezbollah. Everyone roared with laughter as the names of Shiite militias that had once caused such problems in the country were bandied around.

After a couple of hours on the water, we parked up on a bank. A large plastic mat was placed on the ground, and out of nowhere appeared dishes of food — masgouf (barbecued Iraqi fish), loads of flat bread, and some pickles. We removed our shoes, and sat cross-legged on the ground. Bismillah, mumbled each Iraqi, beseeching God before tucking in to the feast with their fingers. The Iraqis were quick to direct me toward the tastiest and less boney parts of the fish. It was the best masgouf I had ever tasted. As we were packing up to leave, a poet arrived and started dancing on the spot, waving an arm in the air and singing a welcome to "the guests from Baghdad."

We were invited the next day to Dhi Qar University in Nasiriyah and arrived to discover big banners with our names on them, welcoming us. Slightly disconcerting was the discovery that I was being described as an Oxford University professor who was an expert on the marshes. While fear of public speaking is second in the West only to fear of death, the same is certainly not true for Iraqis. They could win Olympic medals and Guinness World Records for their ability to talk at great length without notes. Finally, I was invited to the podium to speak. I stood up and said: I will give a short speech — only for one hour! So I spoke about how I had once met Wilfred Thesiger, the British explorer who lived in the marshes in the 1950s and wrote about the wonderful culture of the marsh Arabs; and how I had always dreamed of visiting the marshes. I described the wonderful day yesterday on the boats, and eating masgouf. And I told them I had been scared to visit as I was worried that Shiite militias might kidnap me. This received many laughs. I then sat down. One sheikh shouted out: That was only five minutes; you promised to speak for an hour!

The previous day, we had gone out on the marsh flooded by the Euphrates. This day, we went to another marsh flooded by the Tigris. It was deeper, and the channels were broader. One of my companions passed me his 9 mm pistol so that he could take a photo of me pretending to shoot fish! I quickly put the photo up on Facebook, and they all roared with laughter when I told them an American friend immediately commented on the photo, asking why I was not using dynamite to catch fish — the famous Iraqi way of fishing!

We parked up on a bank for lunch. A large mat was rolled out, and masgouf presented before us to delve in to. The weather was colder than the previous day, and there was a sharp wind. Seeing that I was shivering, one of the sheikhs took off his large brown cloak and placed it over my shoulders. You are my new husband, I told him, much to everyone’s amusement. When we came to part an hour or so later, I handed him back his cloak. My new wife, he exclaimed, as he kissed me on the cheek! The others shrieked with laughter and requested to take a photo to show his wife. No, no, no, he warned them. That will get me into serious trouble with my wife!

As we drove off, I could not help but remark to my companions how similar in humor and culture were the Shiite sheikhs of Nasiriyah to those in the Sunni heartlands of Hawija and Fallujah — and how different from the religious Shiite Islamist politicians in Baghdad.

Before heading back to our hotel, we went to Nasiriyah hospital to visit those wounded in the attack on pilgrims the previous day. The wounded took up two floors of the hospital. Some were badly burned; some had bomb fragments in their heads. One injured child could not speak as he was still in shock. One of the wounded told us that he knew the Army officer who had tried to tackle the bomber, a Sunni from the north. He described how the officer had grabbed the suicide bomber and tried to drag him from the crowd, putting his whole body around him. But the suicide bomber had blown himself up, killing the officer along with 45 others. More pilgrims would certainly have been killed if not for the officer’s actions.

Another injured man also described the heroic act of the Sunni officer. "He is a Muslim from another a sect," the patient told us. "A true Muslim. Please do something for his family." My friend sent a message to the prime minister. We heard the next day that Maliki posthumously promoted the officer two ranks so that his family received extra compensation. Many of the wounded spoke about their faith and how suffering was part of their tradition. No one spoke about revenge. No one blamed Sunnis. My friend told the wounded: "This is not about Sunni and Shiite. This is about terrorists who have no respect for human life or Islam."

We set off the next day for Ur, an important city-state in Sumerian times. We met up with an international archaeological team that brought the sites alive. The professor described the Sumerians who had inhabited the area. Here is where civilization began, she said, the first settlements, the first writing, the first law. Pointing in various directions, she conjured up images of different eras, their ways of life, their social patterns. The rich history of Mesopotamia, the pre-Islamic past — the uncontested heritage of every Iraqi. I raced up the steps of the Great Ziggurat, which had originally been built in the 21st century B.C. and was restored in the sixth century B.C. The massive step pyramid measured 210 feet in length, 150 feet in width, and more than 100 feet in height. From the top, I could see for miles across the barren desert. On one side was Tallil Air Base, which had once served as the U.S. Army base Camp Adder, until handed back to the Iraqi Air Force.

I remembered reading about Ur of the Chaldeans as a child. Having visited Abraham’s tomb in Hebron, I was now visiting his birthplace. The site had been restored in the 1990s by Saddam’s order to encourage the visit of the pope — and to break sanctions. In the end, the pope decided not to go.

On the way back to Baghdad, we stopped off at the shrine of Ahmad al-Rifai, the founder of a Sufi order. The shrine is looked after by a Sunni family, Sufis themselves, living among Shiites. We were welcomed into the reception room and sat on the floor cross-legged on cushions. I was confused at first due to the pictures of Imam Ali hanging on the wall and was informed that the Sufis put them up to make the Shiites feel welcome. The old sheikh told us he was 100 years old and had gone through 11 wives in his life. He still looked fit and active!

As we walked over to look at the shrine, I took one of the Sufis aside and asked him in a whisper: Do you whirl? Yes, he responded excitedly, telling me that last summer, up to 5,000 Sunnis who were Sufis had descended on the shrine and all whirled together. We both made whirling movements. (I did not dare ask him whether they put knives through their bodies, as I was not sure of the Ahmad al-Rifai tradition.) I told him that I had visited Sudan last year and had seen the Sufis in Omdurman whirl. Next summer, when all the Sufis come to us to whirl, we will call you, he promised me. Thank you, I told him, I will fly all the way from London to witness this.

During the trip, my companions discussed the political crisis facing the country. It appeared that the Shiites in general were content with the situation in Iraq today; they did not fear that Maliki was turning into a dictator. They were pleased with his crackdown on "Baathists" and "terrorists," including Iraqiyya leaders, but were concerned at rising sectarianism. While Kurds and Sunnis say it was Iran that pushed the Americans out of Iraq, the Shiites take credit for it themselves. The Dawa Party boasts that it was Maliki, while the Shiite militias insist that it was them. My traveling companions described Maliki as a strong and capable prime minister who might well stay in power for 20 years or so like the prime minister of Malaysia. They thought this would bring stability to the country, not dictatorship. My friends believed that the Kurds were only pretending to get close to the Sunnis to extract further concessions from Maliki. As for the Sunnis, they said that Sunnis would never accept Shiite rule in Iraq and were constantly scheming how to overthrow the Shiites and grab power. First they had tried insurgency. Then they tried elections in 2010. And now they were trying federalism. My companions explained to me that the Shiites may be the majority in Iraq, but Iraqiyya had the support of all the Sunni countries and even the Western media. The Shiites fear that Saudi Arabia and Turkey are plotting to overthrow the Shiite regimes in Syria and Iraq.

In Baghdad, I took a drive around the Green Zone. It appeared spruced up. Many of the protective T-walls had been removed, and curbs had been painted. The Republican Palace was back in use for cabinet meetings. Apartments were under construction on the patch of land that had once served as a parking lot. But there were checkpoints all over, as well as military vehicles. A tank was positioned pointing down the street toward the house of the Sunni finance minister. Across the Green Zone were Shiite flags on government walls, at checkpoints, and even on some of the military vehicles. These flags had never before been so prominent in the Green Zone. And Sunnis found them threatening.

I met up with some Sunni friends who described the pressure on their community.

They told me that Maliki’s targeting of Sunnis through threats against their leaders, arrests of "Baathists," use of force against those calling for federalism, and dismissal or "retirement" of Army officers was pushing the Sunnis to the breaking point. They warned that Iraqiyya politicians would not be able to control the street for much longer. A Syrian defector was claiming in the media that Maliki was funneling funds to Syria’s embattled Baathist leader, Bashar al-Assad, to sustain the Shiite regime. They feared that Maliki’s policies were pushing Iraq toward civil war again. They asked me: Why did America give Iraq to Iran? Everything in Iraq is now controlled by Iran. How could America leave Iraq in such a state?

Would you recommend people to visit Iraq, Iraqi friends ask me? Oh yes, I assure them — foreigners will have the holiday of a lifetime in Iraq. And I will be back year after year — for the richness of the culture, the warmth of the people, the beauty of the landscape. To sit on the ground sharing food from the same plates as complete strangers, to be greeted with generosity and gifts on every occasion, to share jokes as with old friends, to hear such tales of resilience. This is how Iraq should be defined — not by the depravity of violence that inflicts it. But unfortunately, Iraq’s politicians are once more playing on people’s fears and taking the country to the brink of a sectarian conflict that this time might not be contained within the country’s borders.

As I wandered through a building that had once housed the U.S. military, I wondered how history would judge the American era in Iraq. It is still too early to tell. It will depend on the direction Iraq goes over the next decade. Will Iraq head forward toward democracy or back to dictatorship? Can a state whose income is almost totally dependent on oil rents, rather than on the productive labor of its citizens, ever be free? Or is it inevitable that any group that takes power in Iraq will use those oil rents to build up the military and then buy or force people’s consent? Iraqis have confined the American era to history. The Americans cannot even understand things that are known to Iraqi children, a friend told me. A number spoke to me about injuries inflicted on them or their families by U.S. soldiers. One showed me his hand, which he said had been crushed by U.S. soldiers who thought he was Jaish al-Mahdi. He had never been outside Iraq. I asked him which country in the world he would most like to visit. He responded: America.

Emma Sky is traveling the Middle East exploring the Arab Spring. She was a spring 2011 fellow at the Institute of Politics of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and served as political advisor to U.S. Gen. Ray Odierno in Iraq from 2007 to 2010. 

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