A booming city of coexistence and tolerance
It’s also a hub of business
Volatile situation in Baghdad and everyday prowl of soldiers left him with no better choice than leaving his home and settling down with his two sons and wife in Erbil.
Laith Selman, people call him “Abu Ali” meaning “Ali’s father” in English. The sectarian tensions, political strife and violence in 2006-2009 in the central and south of Iraq pushed many people to flee for safety and seek a better life; for thousands Kurdistan became a safe haven. Abu Ali is one of them and his family is one of thousands.
Abu Ali opened his barbershop in Erbil in 2011. His customers are mostly Kurds. He is quite happy with the job and his customers. Though, sometimes language is a difficulty for communication.
One hour before the sunset, an Arab in the Kurdish capital city of Erbil tries to understand a Kurdish customer who wanted just wanted to have a blowout. After they made it through their communication, both surprisingly, though with difficulty, started chatting on various interesting social topics. This makes the barbershop the last civic forum in Kurdistan for: socializing, strengthening Kurd-Arab social relations, discussing latest political and economic updates and even doing some business during the haircut-time.
In just one hour, the doe-eyed barber, not very tall and, his youngish movements doesn’t cope with his grey hair, cut the hair of four people; all were Kurds. As you get in the barbershop, you immediately see posters of several Kurdish pop music singers. Everything around the shop is Kurdish. An Arab owning a Kurdish style barber shop in the heart of Kurdistan makes a perfect contrast and a sharp point telling Kurdish and Arab leaders, who are at loggerheads now, that people at the grassroots level are living side by side comfortably.
When asked if he would let his son marry a Kurdish girl, he smiled, patted his colorful shirt to remove hairs from all over his body left from the previous haircuts, cleared his throat and said “Sure, why not? They aren’t bogeywomen” and continued with a barking laugh “even if I could make it two, my second wife would be Kurdish!”
Kurdistan received 60,000 IDP (internally displaced people) families, out of which only 20,000 have so far returned home.
People in Kurdistan see the influx of Arabs in their country differently. Some think the influx is good, some have no problem with them and others say they are here for no good.
When asked about Arabs in Kurdistan, he sat with a shrug on a wooden chair in an Erbil based café where Arabs constitute most customers. “Well, Arabs are everywhere in Kurdistan: every turn, every mall, every shop and every café,” Karzan Fekhraddin, a business graduate student, while enjoying a chat with his friends, mostly Arabs, said after he had one deep inhale of his apricot Sheesha.
The influx of thousands of Iraqis to the Kurdistan Region from central and south of Iraq is unprecedented. Besides holidaymakers, Arab dwellers in Kurdistan reach tens of thousands.
Iraqi immigration minister, Dindar Nejman Doski, said 198, 000 families have been displaced inside Iraq. The figure means one million and 177 Arab people. And according to the Kurdistan Regional Government more than 150,000 (from 40 thousand families) are in Kurdistan now, most from Mosul, Diala, Baghdad and Anbar.
They do different things from both private and public sectors: business ownership, civil servants and they are all entitled to buy and sell properties. Arab tourists for sure soar the figure, as the flow of Arab tourists to Kurdistan is increasingly at rife.
Many Kurds complain about having such a big influx of Arabs in Kurdistan. Zana Ahmed, 29, a high school teacher said “they buy our properties and if the Arabs invade us that could have disastrous consequences.”
Others point out that the influx of Arabs in the region has economical benefits to Kurdistan as the Arabs “have brought many job opportunities with them into the region” because many of them have started big businesses here and they hire local people.
According to the Kurdish chamber of commerce, hundreds of Arab-owned companies work in Kurdistan. Jabbar Shahban, owner of a building company, said he has been in Kurdistan since 2006 and has started his general contracting company in 2007. “I have more than 100 local people working for me.”
Bestun Akram, on-site project manager of the company said he’s doing great with the company and learned a lot from it: language, culture and etiquette of business.
Economists say such a big influx of Arabs in the region serves the economic infrastructure of the region. Khalid Ashad, an independent economist, said Arabs as tourists and as dwellers in Kurdistan bring economic good to the region as they create more jobs by starting new businesses. He further said that one can hardly find a hotel to stay in, especially during the holidays. “That’s one big boom!” he said enthusiastically.
Besides tough security measures at the Kurdish main gates of Erbil, Sulaimani and Dohuk cities, Arabs still flow in, buy houses and settle in the region. They mostly settle in the newly built housing units such as Engineering Group, Aynda, Komalgay Lawan in Erbil city, and many more in the other two provinces.
Security is relatively good in Kurdistan but there are some cacophony voices demanding reconsidering the tough security measures, especially at the checkpoints.
Up to 370 hotels, 180 motels and 45 tourist villages operate in the three provinces of Kurdistan; plus a large number of tourist restaurants, facilities, markets and modern malls, all of which depend mostly on tourism. All this receives tens of thousands of tourists and the KRG has to provide security and safety and fix prices to ensure the comfort of citizens and the Arabs, Ashad suggests.
According to the KRG ministry of tourism Kurdistan received over one million tourists from central and south, mostly Arabs, in just the first nine months of 2011. Half a million more added to the figure in 2012.
The reaction of people in Kurdistan fort he influx is good but a former Peshmarga thinks differently. Hasan Hamad, 43, a former Peshmarga, said Arabs are destroying this region because of “them prices of everything have flown.
Many others thought the same except Ashad who optimistically stated, “high prices have nothing to do with the large number of Arabs in the region but it’s due to an increase in demand and high incomes of people.”
Abu Ali was also upset with the unfixed prices. He complained like the locals do here as if he was really one of them. He criticized businessmen who “have no conscience” as they bring “crappy goods” and sell them very expensive.
Amongst the Arabs who settled down in Kurdistan, many wish to go back one day to where they came from while others can’t think of bettering the situation in the central and south in the perceivable future and prefer to stay in Kurdistan for now.
“If Baghdad’s condition would become like Erbil, of course hopes of having Baghdad to be better than Erbil are not possible for now, then I would decide to go home, until then Erbil is my home,” concluded Abu Ali with a tender smile and mixed feelings of excitement and sadness.
The influx of thousands of Iraqis to the Kurdistan Region from central and south of Iraq is unprecedented.
Pedestrians walk by the ancient Citadel in the centre of Erbil City.