Erbil woke up this morning to news of a major Islamic State attack on the Peshmerga line defending the city, about 28 miles away, in villages along the road to Mosul. According to CNN, the attack began at 9pm last night, and the fighting was so close that coalition aircraft couldn’t bomb IS positions: the risk to Kurdish forces was too great. According to reports, had the thin defensive line broken there would be “little standing between ISIS and the Kurdish capital,” though it does seem the attack was less an offensive on Erbil and more of a diversionary provocation to draw the Peshmerga away from Mosul.
I came to Erbil more to get a sense of how a national identity coalesces after a period of trauma (basically the Kurds have been under attack for decades; they were famously gassed by Saddam Hussein amidst a genocidal eradication campaign after Operation Desert Storm, but also fought their own civil war in the 90’s and have been repeatedly persecuted by Turkey) than to learn about the effects of the emergence of the Islamic State. But the proximity of last night’s attack naturally made that more of an issue.
I couldn’t tell much from my hotel window, so I got online to see what the expats were talking about in an Erbil Facebook group I’d joined. Within 30 minutes of someone posting a link to the CNN article (CNN was ultimately the most authoritative source on the attack), there were more than 60 comments in the discussion. The mood was tense. First, there were several frantic requests for more information, and better sources. Then a plea to remain calm, mixed with some information via someone’s colleague who talked to a colonel on the front line basically confirming the CNN report. Then, I thought, the conversation took a strange turn. A few people started berating those who were posting information, saying that merely discussing the attack played into the IS propaganda machine; instead the narrative should be “the Peshmerga are attacking IS positions!” The conversation eventually reached a sort of equilibrium in which a few people shared false information (including one woman who claimed that planes couldn’t engage IS because the fighting was too close to Erbil – clearly untrue) and were quickly rebuked, most seemed to be more curious than concerned, and others continued to express general support for the Peshmerga and disapproval for sharing even objectively accurate news.
I’d had enough of that, so I went out and made for the center of Erbil, where the citadel – claimed to be the world’s “longest continuously inhabited urban area on earth [sic]” (Lonely Planet) – stands surrounded by Erbil’s bazaar, which yesterday was completely packed when I walked through just past noon. When I returned today just past noon, it was…packed. In fact, in no discernible way did today feel any different than before, somehow more disquieted, or subdued. Men sat together and drank tea, women browsed through book shops… at one point a couple of young kids walked by me and made it about 20 feet before they realized I was a foreigner and they could practice their English with me. “Hello!” they shouted. “How are you?” I turned and waved. As I continued around the citadel, I heard behind me perhaps the remaining extent of their English. “Thank you! I love you!”
So what is it like to be in a city 28 miles away from attackers the likes of IS? It’s hard to say, because it doesn’t seem to make sense to consider Erbil through that lens. Though it’s clear the Kurds in Erbil feel emotionally tied to their Peshmerga fighters (below, a picture of a Dodge Charger in a camo paint scheme and bearing the Kurdish flag, in honor, says the owner’s nephew, of Kurdistan’s militia), there’s no sense of hardship or of living under threat here. The normalcy is striking. I felt the same when I was in Sarajevo in 2010. Just 15 years after the city had been held under a choking siege while throughout the country Bosnian Serbs committed genocide against their Muslim neighbors, the dominant imagery of contemporary Sarajevo was that of young people hanging out in cafés, drinking coffee and watching soccer with friends, while others shopped for handbags in the city’s shiny new malls. I suppose the lesson here is: what else should you expect? I finished my walk thinking that Erbil today is yet another affirmation of the indomitable human spirit, a spirit that says “Thank you Peshmerga, fuck you ISIS,” and goes on about its day.
When I returned to the hotel I went back online to check the Facebook discussion. The attack had been definitively repulsed, but I was curious to see how things settled down, and if there was any new information. But when I logged on, the whole post was gone, erased in favor of a “Keep calm and support the Peshmerga” poster. On Facebook, just as on the street, it was as if the attack had never happened.