Flying into Kurdistan and out of Dubai highlights perfectly the extremes of the Middle East. I won’t really go into it here, but leaving one for the other is a wake-up call, a reminder of how neighbouring countries can change so much and grow apart in so many different ways and also how the region has become such a paradox. My story isn’t about Dubai however nor should it be; Dubai offers little in the way of self-expression and little adventure. I hope that what follows will.
Our adventure began just after transferring from one terminal in Dubai to the next. From the new, gilded Emirates hub to the provincial rundown building across the road, that services passengers travelling to those ‘other’ countries.
I was curious about something as we entered. Who else was travelling to Iraq? Who else was choosing this way. It looked to me like a motley group of contractors, soldiers, spies, budding filmmakers and intrepid explorers (ourselves). At first we all exchanged only the occasional polite smile or covert glance, but when a few hours later we were being thrown around in a cramped plane, united by a sense of trepidation and excitement we had become best of friends.
Two hours after leaving Dubai and soon after passing over Baghdad we began our descent into Erbil. The turbulence was atrocious; the plane was rickety, loud and old. The pilot kept dropping altitude rapidly every time we turned, and he thundered down at a hell of a pace. Whether or not this would confuse an insurgent I don't know, but it certainly had the passengers holding on for dear life.
From far above, the Iraqi landscape looked scorched. Black lines streaked across the brown earth and through the haze all we could make out were fires that peppered the landscape. We’re not sure what these were: rubbish dumps or oil wells. Suddenly in the distance two bright flashes erupted upwards, again we don’t know for sure what they were.
To be honest the whole scene from above was somewhat haunting: this was the land ravaged by Saddam, the land which had ignited some of the worst conflicts and atrocities of recent times, and a land also in which we were about to arrive.
Armed however with an invitation from the First Lady of Iraq, a bag of Imodium, and a bottle of whisky (which we smuggled across the continent on the advice of John Simpson) I was sure we were equipped to handle what lay ahead. As I sit here now at the end of our first 8 hours, in a room with a gaping hole where the balcony should be, having chased bats around, having narrowly avoided death on the roads, and having being ripped off - I believe we still are. This is on its way to becoming everything I had dreamed of, everything I hoped for. AK47s, check points, angry soldiers and a feeling of the unknown are proving me right. These are people who are warm, welcoming and proud. I cannot wait to continue. Benji.