ERBIL, IRAQ — Kurdistan is a place of the mind. It doesn’t exist on any maps unless the maps are made by the Kurds. Southern Kurdistan is known to the rest of the world as Northern Iraq. Northern Kurdistan is described as Eastern Turkey. Southwestern Kurdistan is Northeastern Syria. And Southeastern Kurdistan is Northwestern Iran.
In no country are Kurds closer to realizing their dream of freedom and independence than they are in Iraq. They are wrapping up the finishing touches on their de-facto sovereign state-within-a-state, a fact on the ground that will not easily be undone. And they’re transforming the hideously decrepit physical environment left to them by Saddam Hussein — a broken place that is terribly at odds with the Kurdistan in their hearts and in their minds — into something beautiful and inspiring, the kind of place you might like to live in someday yourself.
The heart of the new Kurdistan is soon to be known as the Dream City, a massive construction site going up on the outskirts of Erbil.
The Baath regime’s agoraphobic totalitarian urban planning model will be replaced with a cityscape fit for human beings. Neighborhoods will be built for people, not cars. Tree-lined streets will be pleasant to walk along. Open public green space will beckon people outside their homes and into their community. Restaurants and shops will add the perfect grace notes. Erbil, as a city, is a hard city to love. That may not be true for very much longer.
The Korek cell phone company is building a tower near the Dream City that will be the tallest building in all of Iraq when it’s finished. It certainly will be the country’s most aesthetically pleasing tall building. The sleek modern design looks more “Dubai” than it does “Baghdad.”
Not everyone in Iraqi Kurdistan can afford one of the nice houses being built at this time. They cost around 150,000 dollars apiece, and they have to be paid for in cash. The banking system is still in shambles, and mortgages are not available. But lots of people want to live in the Dream City. So a series of more-affordable apartment towers are already partly constructed.
One already-completed house next to the Dream City is a dead-ringer for a house in the American suburbs. It came complete with a garage and even an oversized yard.
The “Sheraton” hotel hosted a Dream City exhibit while I was a guest. 3-D models of the urban plan were set up on tables. Sketches of soon-to-be-real houses lined all four walls.
Two fully-stocked kitchens, the kind that will be installed in the houses, were set up in corners.
Some lovely new parts of Erbil are already finished.
And the Dream City is only one massive construction site among hundreds. Reconstruction in Iraqi Kurdistan is absolutely explosive. These photos are only a miniscule sample of what’s going up right now as you read this.
It goes without saying that none of this was possible when Saddam Hussein did everything he could, with the fourth largest army in the world, to destroy these people. Even though Kurdistan has been free of Saddam since the Kurdish uprising drove out him and the Baath in 1991, real reconstruction wasn’t possible until 2003. When the embargo was lifted, and when everyone knew that the bastard could never come back, the Kurds finally had the nerve to build their dream country in earnest.
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