On the 7th of September 2017 I moved to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. I loved living in Istanbul but I did not love my job there, so I (temporarily) gave up pursuing a career in diplomacy and went back to research. I am also a firm believer in working+living in the region you study, so it was always my intention to move (back) to the Middle East.
This was a very exciting opportunity and I was fully committed to my two year contract. However, less than three weeks into my stay, Iraqi Kurdistan held a referendum for independence. The results were overwhelming, with over 90% of the votes in favour. The Iraqi government responded immediately, and amongst other things we spent some fearful days watching the news, watching friends and their family flee Kerkuk. Another consequence was that the airports in Kurdistan were closed. And another, I would find out later, was that my Kurdish work permit and residency permit became invalid.
So, my exciting new job in Kurdistan lasted less than three months in the end. On my way to a wedding back in Cambridge, I was not-so-politely told by armed guards in Baghdad that I should not bother coming back. Of course I will though, some day. In the meantime, here is some advice if you want to (and succeed to) move to Erbil as well:
Getting around was by far my biggest struggle in Erbil. The city was basically plonked into the middle of the desert, and then surrounded by increasingly larger, giant, terrifying, roads (40m road, 60m road, 80m road, 100m road, you get the idea). It is quite difficult to cross from one district to another; and even then, it is not a nice walk through historic alleyways, it is a fight for your life along dusty roads. So, what everyone does here, is a) stay at home b) get a car or c) take a a taxi. Taxis are much more expensive than in e.g. Istanbul and almost every ride will cost about 5.000 dinar, if not more; especially if you are a foreigner. I have managed 3.000 and 4.000 as well but still, that means a return trip to anywhere is over 5.000 dinar and over 10.000 if you are unlucky.
P.S. the airport taxi charged me 30 dollars in the middle of the night. Try and negotiate 20, if you can. And then if you did, let me know how. They seemed quite happy to just leave me at the airport. /Foreigner
There is also a vague bus system for only 500 dinar per ride, but the district do not connect; they just converge in the centre, which means switching busses wherever you want to go – and these busses are not exactly timetabled or anything. Being Dutch, I eventually opted to buy a bicycle; but these cost on average 60 – 80 dollars, which is not cheap either in my book. Also, everyone told me I was going to die. I did however ride it to work successfully for an entire week (give or take two flat tires) before the fateful journey to Cambridge. Turns out no one walks on the enormous pavements so it is easy to cycle around, staying out of the way of cars. I cycled Ankawa to Dream City and it took around half an hour. There was just the big dual carriageway crossing into Ankawa that was an issue, so there I would get off and walk/run across with the pedestrians.
Finding an apartment
Before I arrived everyone told me to just come to Erbil and then have a look around for a place. Contact a few people, do some networking. I can vouch that this is indeed the best way to find good accommodation. However, moving to a new city and not knowing where you will live is very frustrating, so I can appreciate you will want to tackle the problem beforehand.
Everyone I messaged on The Internet offered me fancy expat places (with fancy rent) and I could not convince anyone that this was not the type of lifestyle I was looking for. Eventually I started asking only about one neighbourhood (Ankawa) because I knew it had normal-ish houses, as opposed to giant skyscrapers. Ankawa is still full of expats, but the less business-suit-y ones anyway. I posted in Facebook groups like Just Erbil, EPIC, Expats in Erbil, Expat Women of Erbil, etc. It is old-fashioned, but as a woman, I might recommend that to start with you try to mainly contact women… I received about two dozen messages from men who were either overly helpful or creepy or both, and it was a frustrating test of my trust in people. Eventually I just got really lucky, and I found a girl who knew a place… et voilà.
Rent in the nice places can cost up to 600-800 dollars per month, especially if you do not share a room… but in cheaper places you should really not end up paying more than 300 dollars a month. Make sure you ask what the water and electricity situation is like, because a lot of places do not have electricity 24/7. Power outages are common either way though, so just be ready for that. I arrived in Erbil in a 50 degree Celsius heatwave, and there was no aircon for three days straight. I celebrated my new home and job with a glass of whiskey, and had the worst hangover I have ever had in my life the next day due to dehydration.
For big items such as a duvet (I was still optimistic about the aircon then) and kitchenware we travelled down to the Family Mall. In the basement section there is a store that sells everything, at pretty reasonable prices. Upstairs, there is a big Carrefour, where you can buy ‘international’ groceries. This is pretty handy for a once a week or once a month haul, if you share a taxi with friends. Do check the dates on items there though, because they have often travelled (too) long and (too) far!
For regular vegetables and staples I went to a nearby shop around the corner. It is always country-dependent, what you can buy and what tastes good, I find. I still really miss the tasty tomatoes from my Istanbul greengrocer. However, in Erbil I finally taught myself to make delicious homemade hummus from dried+soaked chickpeas! Paired with little cucumbers and amazing, freshly baked, super cheap bread, that was my lunches sorted. Although at work we also did Falafel Thursdays – a brilliant concept which I never managed to re-introduce anywhere else after.
For clothes, it is the Langa Bazaar. They have lots of second hand items. I even spotted a pair of ice skates? Personally I favour this bazaar over the central bazaar at the Citadel, which is a little more touristy… as far as anything gets touristy in Erbil anyway. Helpful tip: practice your Kurdish numbers (esp. 1, 5, 100, 500, etc.) to properly participate in the haggling.
I moved to Erbil thinking I would finally get to practice my Arabic, but that hope went out the window as soon as I landed. I rapidly learned how to communicate with taxi drivers and the owners of my local shop and bakery, but seeing how I was planning to stay for two years I thought it better to take up some lessons too. I found these via Facebook. I paid in cash, per month, I believe. I really wish I could remember how much but I don’t dare to say.
There were two 2-ish hours lessons per week in the Italian village, and a classmate very kindly picked me up and dropped me off each time. I had a few American expat classmates, one from Turkey, one from Turkish Kurdistan who was just brushing up on his Sorani, and a few from Eastern Europe. It was a really great mix, with lots of different levels, which meant different questions and perspectives. We practised a new set of letters every week so although my Arabic speech is still next to nonexistent my reading has improved a lot (Kurdish uses a couple of extra letters but it is roughly comparable). While I only had lessons for about two months, I made enormous progress. I really wish there was some way to keep up with this now, because I have to say, it is hard to practice outside Kurdistan (when you do not desperately need a taxi driver to understand where you are going).
I had also been planning to try Assyrian, as Ankawa is the Assyrian neighbourhood of Erbil and at the very least the guys at the little shop on my street spoke some… but sadly I never managed to get around to it.
We had a lot of rooftop parties, which is my favourite kind of party, and also one of my favourite things about living in Erbil. I am not sure how this works now – you have to know someone who knows I suppose – but I often bought coronas from under the counter at a local shop. However, Ankawa also has at least two good bars that sell pretty reasonably cheap alcohol (but mind that they do not add extra to your bill, they can be sneaky like that!) and there’s even a couple of clubs. I am sorry if I sound surprised, but I had no idea what to expect of the nightlife when I moved there; I just figured it couldn’t possibly compare to Istanbul. Also, I shouldn’t recommend it (do bring a friend if you can) but I always felt safe walking home by myself at night – much more so than in London or Amsterdam. Ankawa was a very quiet and friendly neighbourhood to live in.
There are a bunch of restaurants where you can order Greek salads for too much money, and hipster coffee places where breakfast costs the same as in the UK, but if you manage to break away from expat life and befriend the locals there are also so many amazing bakeries to try, and hundreds of great places to have tea. Having tea is a really nice activity around the ancient Citadel in the centre as well. There are many restaurants where you can have a proper Kurdish meal too, but perhaps not necessarily as a vegetarian. That said, there is always rice and vegetables, and often beans, so I have no complaints about Kurdish cuisine.
Work and residency permits
There are a couple of different ways in which work and residency permits can be arranged. Worst is probably coming to Kurdistan as an Iraqi and trying to go through all the steps by yourself. Then there’s working as a foreigner for a Kurdish company, as I did, which means they arranged my appointments and transport, and had someone come with me for translation. Lastly, I am pretty sure that you can turn up as e.g. an American working for an American company, where they just arrange everything on your behalf and if you’re lucky even before your arrival.
In my case, I had to go to a hospital to have my blood tested. When that was approved, I had to go to the Permit Office and was lead around to see what felt like a dozen different people in different offices. I was not asked any difficult questions, and everything got stamped fairly quickly. I am pretty sure they had me skip the queue a couple of times, which must have been very unfair on everyone else endlessly waiting there.
I still have my permit as well. As well as, accidentally, my house keys. When I left, I did not know I would not be coming back. I had a pretty good idea of course that it would be difficult, so I packed all my belonging bar the bicycle in case it would take a few months, but I had no idea my trip to the UK would be rather more permanent.
My flight had been re-routed Erbil-Istanbul-Manchester to Erbil-Baghdad-Istanbul-Manchester, and in Baghdad the guards demanded a 500 dollar bribe to let me through security because of my ‘invalid’ Kurdish visa. I refused. I tried to convince them I was press (as some friends with press cards had managed to get out without paying) but they would not have it. Eventually, after many hours in a little office, with men very certainly discussing in Arabic how much money they could get off me (because I know that much Arabic) and otherwise if they could send me back to Erbil (why?!), they let me get onto my flight. They’d already closed the doors and had to re-open them to push me on. To my surprise, I was faced directly with the Dutch Consul General to Erbil sitting in business class! Oh how I wonder if seeing her in the airport would have made any difference to the situation.
It made for some story at the wedding in Cambridge anyway. And on the bright side, stay tuned for a few more blog posts on my adventures in Iraqi Kurdistan! It may have been a short stay, but it was very sweet. Coming up: a girl’s weekend away in Sulaymaniyah, and a road-trip to Lalish!