ERBIL, Iraq — The commute from Israel to Iraq is actually rather manageable.
You just cross the border into Jordan and hop on a two-hour flight from Amman to Erbil.
I made the trip on Thanksgiving weekend and spent three days traveling around the Kurdistan region with my brother — using our American passports, which are filled with Israeli border stamps.
Both of us are interested in the Middle East and we figured it would be a unique way to scratch our annual travel itch.
Immediately upon our arrival, I was struck by how calm the country felt.
I should stress: We stayed in cities controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), staying well clear of areas overrun by the Islamic State, as well as places under the authority of the Iraqi government, where those Israeli border stamps would likely have caused problems. But the northern part of the country has had its share of recent turmoil, with Baghdad imposing a six-month flight ban on the semi-autonomous KRG’s airspace after a September 2017 Kurdish referendum on secession from Iraq.
Nonetheless, I felt about as safe in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, where we spent most of our time, as I have meandering through the West Bank as The Times of Israel’s settlements correspondent.
The comparison came to mind particularly during the shared taxi rides we hitched from city to city, in which drivers appeared to be under the impression that traffic laws were merely suggestions.
We also had to pass through quite a few checkpoints set up along the inter-city highways. While apparently confused to see Americans traveling through what not too long ago had been a war zone, the KRG soldiers let us pass without difficulty each time after scanning our passports.
Temples of Lalish
On our first day, we took a ride to Lalish, a small mystic village nestled into lush green mountains two hours north of the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
The hamlet is believed to be 4,000 years old and houses the holiest temple in the Yazidi faith. While Lalish has no permanent residents, members of the religious minority frequently pay pilgrimage to the site.
Dozens of Yazidi worshipers were roaming through the conical-roofed shrines when we arrived on a cold and rainy Friday morning. So holy is the village to those of the small monotheistic sect that visitors are asked to remove their shoes and socks upon entrance.
This did not seem to faze the locals, who walked along the muddy stones nonchalantly; but for us tourists, it took quite a bit of time getting used to and we often lagged behind those who graciously showed us around the temples.
With no official guides on site, we were reliant on the Yazidi pilgrims to provide us with some context for what we were seeing.
Since neither of us speaks Kurdish, we communicated using a combination of our rudimentary Arabic — a second or third language for most people in Kurdistan — and a little bit of English.
Conversations were rather basic, but enough to convey the majestic stature Lalish has for those of the Yazidi faith.
Toward the conclusion of our four-hour visit, a group of locals invited us for tea at one of the village’s many vacant homes. The refreshments quickly turned into a full meal as several older women brought out trays of bread, rice and vegetables.
The half a dozen middle-aged men there probed us on our backgrounds and on what we were doing in Kurdistan; we opted for circumspection, saying that we were Americans and journalists. And we took the opportunity to ask them about IS, which captured and killed tens of thousands of Yazidis in 2014.
One of the men quickly pulled out his cellphone to show us videos of Kurdish fighters beating captured IS militants. It was surprising to see how matter-of-factly they were able to discuss such a dark and recent period of their history.
After returning to Erbil, where we were staying at the home of a journalist colleague, we visited the city’s famous citadel and the bustling bazaar nearby.
The market felt similar to other Arab ones, but we noticed that there was a much smaller degree of interest in tourists. On a visit we made to Cairo a few years ago, we were constantly stopped in the street by young locals intrigued by the presence of Americans. This was far from our experience in Kurdistan where, as much as we stuck out, natives paid us little attention.
Saddam’s torture museum
After Erbil, we were told that the next must-see Kurdish city is Sulaymaniyah, four hours southeast of the capital.
Our first stop there was the “Amna Suraka” — the Red Security Prison. This was where the regime of Saddam Hussein detained, tortured and killed thousands of Kurds as well as other Iraqis and Syrians from 1979 to 1991, when Peshmerga fighters liberated the compound.
The site was turned into a museum in 2003, with much of the prison preserved exactly as it was. The tall, red brick outer walls remain riddled with bullet holes and the only changes made to the torture chambers were the addition of life-sized mannequins to demonstrate the cruelty endured by the prisoners.
The museum’s first exhibit is the Hall of Mirrors — a labyrinth completely covered in 182,000 shards of glass, representing the number of people killed in Saddam’s al-Anfal genocidal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds between 1986 and 1989. On the other side of the mirrors are 4,500 light bulbs, corresponding to the number of villages destroyed during that offensive.
I was struck by how similar the exhibit looked to the Children’s Memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, which also infuses a dark cavern with countless small lights to commemorate lives lost.
Much of the museum is picture-based, with photos of victims plastered on the walls and ceilings of several rooms.
One such hall honors the fighters against IS, in what the curator described as the first such exhibit in the world. Noticeably included in the pictures of fallen fighters are women — something that would likely surprise Western tourists walking through the exhibit.
Similar to the Israeli narrative (and Palestinian one, for that matter), the museum places a heavy emphasis on Kurdish victimhood as well as the justness of the cause.
The search for synagogues
Sulaymaniyah was also once home to one of the few Jewish communities in Iraqi Kurdistan. The neighborhood where they lived is called Jewlakan, or the Jewish quarter.
While just about all Jews were forced out of the country after the establishment of Israel, the guide books we studied in preparation for the trip said a number of synagogues had recently been renovated by the KRG in Jewlakan.
We walked through the narrow alleys of the neighborhood looking for the houses of worship, but found no signs of any.
The locals that we approached assured us that we were in Jewlakan, but said they were not familiar with any synagogues.
Just about ready to give up on our search after over an hour, I asked one more passing resident if he had any idea what the guide books had been referring to.
He excitedly pointed us toward a building at the end of an alley that appeared too residential to be a public house of worship. But feeling that we had nothing to lose, I opened the gate and knocked on the door.
Thirty seconds later, a middle-aged woman wearing a Muslim chador appeared. We asked her in Arabic if she was Jewish and she excitedly nodded her head, ushered us in and began pointed at the ceiling.
Not entirely convinced of her Judaism, especially given her garb, we continued asking her questions. However, she spoke just about no English or Arabic and seemed intent on pointing incessantly at the ceiling.
Realizing that we weren’t getting anywhere, she went into another room, woke up one of her children and urged us to talk to him. I followed her and proceeded to ask the young man if he was Jewish. Confusedly rubbing his eyes, the teenager said he was a Muslim but that the home used to be a synagogue. He then turned over and went back to sleep.
Not wanting to bother the family any longer, we thanked the woman for her hospitality and were on our way.
Maybe this was one of the “renovated” temples that the guide books had mentioned. Or not.
The experience was a fitting summation of our short trip in Iraqi Kurdistan — a small glimpse, nothing more, of a storied region that, from Israel, isn’t as remote as one might think.