By Iraqi standards, Sulaymaniyah is a very young city. It was founded in 1784 by Ibrahim Pasha Baban, a Kurdish prince to be the capital of his principality. Since then it has been Iraqi Kurdistan’s cultural capital and home to philosophers, poets and writers. Its importance is not limited to Iraq, but for the whole of the Kurdistan region, which also encompasses parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran.
Slemani, as it is also known, attracted many Sorani-speaking Kurdish linguists and writers, and here Sorani literature was developed. These writers and poets are today revered with statues and busts in many parks and squares around the city.
The local population are known for being more open-minded and tolerant than in the rest of Kurdistan, and this is something I could perceive in the few days I spent in the area. Something that surprised me in Kurdistan, especially in Slemani, is that women seem to be more independent. In the Arab world women tend to seem quieter, overshadowed by their male relatives when in public, and never start a conversation with a stranger. Here, for the first time ever, I had local females starting a conversation with me on the street and in restaurants.
The city is described on the Lonely Planet guide as a “cosmopolitan gem” and “a place to be discovered”. It is quite nice, I totally agree, but to me those words are an overstatement. From a visitor’s perspective, while it still has many places of interest, I found the city short of landmarks. The heart of the city is the old town, which despite the name, looks rather modern and it is deliciously chaotic as any medina in Morocco, for inistance. The old town is dominated by a large open bazaar, which occupies several blocks. It is a market place selling mainly food, vegetables and clothes, and is buzzing from early morning to late afternoon. Right in the middle of all this is the Grand Mosque, which is open for visitors. In the area I found many small family run restaurants serving simple, tasty and inexpensive food.
There are a few museums, two of which should not be missed. The first, and most disturbing one, is Amna Suraka, the War Crimes Museum, based in the building with same name, used by Saddam Hussein to torture Kurds suspected of being a militant. Visits are guided and most guides speak excellent English.
The other one, more on the lighter side, is Slemani Museum, with an exhibition of archaeological artefacts, some dating back to 100,000 years. This is Iraq’s most important museum at the moment, as Iraq National Museum in Baghdad is currently closed. Entrance is free in both museums.
I also had the chance to visit the city’s largest park, Azadi Park, which is just a few minutes walk from the bazaar. It is huge and has a giant mast with the Kurdish flag fluttering. Here you can enjoy amazing views of Azmar mountain and there are some small olive groves, playgrounds, artificial lakes and a lot of young couples doing things their parents would not be too happy about, like hugging in public.
My favourite park, however, was the small Bakhi Gishti, just outside the old town, near Sulaymaniyah University. It is full of tea drinkers, youngsters killing time, musicians and has an avenue of heads, with busts of famous poets.
Unfortunately few people in the city speak English – and even Arabic, for that matter -, which made my trip quite lonesome. On my last day, however, I met Hozhar, who at the age of 18 walked all the way to Greece in search of a better life. He spoke perfect English and showed me many places I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. The most intriguing of them was a bar. A simple bar. Who would have thought there are proper bars selling alcohol at daytime in Iraq? The place was fine, not a pick-up joint or anything to be wary of, and I had a beer while he told me about the time his family, like many others, ran away to Iran, escaping Saddam’s persecution of Kurds. I tend to find interesting, genuinely hospitable people in most places I go and meeting him really helped me wrap up my visit to the city on a high note.
Tasting local food, visiting markets, museums and parks are a way to discover and understand a place and its culture. But to me people take the travelling experience to a whole new level. And Hozhar and everyone else I met along the way, despite the language barrier, helped to enhance my Sulaymaniyah experience. After all, people is also culture. Right?