Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—Although Iraq has hit the headlines across the globe again this week, the country’s northern Kurdistan region remains more peaceful.
Life in the rest of Iraq continues under a shadow of violence, with the specter of the sudden explosion of a car bomb making a visit to a public place a nerve-racking experience. But the cities of the country’s Kurdish regions have been able to maintain a veneer of normality in most cases. This is especially true, at least for now, in the case of the region’s capital.
As soon as the sun sets on the city of Erbil, residents head to its many lively streets to enjoy the nightlife, with some venues open until the early hours of the morning.
Over the past few years, Erbil residents have gotten used to spending most of their evenings in the city’s coffee shops and popular restaurants—especially in the ones offering wireless internet access.
Omar Farhadi, a well-known Kurdish journalist, explains that “Erbil has always been a safe place, and people never feared staying in the city’s streets and cafés until early morning hours.”
“Kurd and Arab intellectuals, journalists and writers have been meeting in the city’s cafés for years, despite the curfews imposed by the former regime during the Iran–Iraq War,” Farhadi continued.
Our first stop to explore Erbil’s famous nightlife was Al-Iskan Street, meaning “Housing Street” in English, which got its name from the polished apartments built there for middle-class families in the 1970s.
One of Al-Iskan Street’s most popular cafes is named after Umm Kalthoum, the iconic Egyptian singer. The café’s owner, Shahin Jamal, 58, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he opened shop in September 2010 and that it is very popular with Arabs visiting the Kurdistan Region’s capital.
“Seventy percent of our customers are Arabs coming from Baghdad and the southern provinces of Iraq. Most of them are attracted by the name of the café, whereas others simply come to enjoy Umm Kalthoum’s music,” he explains.
“Many Arab tourists from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia make the café an essential stop during the tourist season,” and it has earned a good reputation abroad in the few years it has been open, Shahin added.
Another attraction on Al-Iskan Street is the market, which is known for the many kinds of food being sold, ranging from popular Iraqi and Kurdish dishes to Western specialties.
Food trucks selling sandwiches are especially popular among residents, according to a young truck owner named Sirwan who spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat.
Quite a few young Syrian Kurds who had to flee their country and work in the cities of the Iraqi Kurdistan region also end up working and relaxing on Al-Iskan Street.
“Many of them work in the city’s cafés and restaurants, or sell Levantine sweets from their own food trucks,” said Kofand, a 31-year-old Syrian Kurd.
Our second main stop was at the city center’s main market, historically known as the Sheikh Allah market. This decades-old venue has been radically renovated and is today a “large square where the fountains at the center are surrounded by chairs intended to welcome hundreds of Erbil residents and tourists,” explains Farhadi.
The square, still illuminated by Christmas and New Year’s decorations, has been a major attraction for the residents of the city over the years, as they gathered to enjoy traditional music and entertainment.