Maher Talaat and his two friends sat on the grassy mountainside, toasting bottles of beer and gazing at the pastoral scene â€” and at the girls.“Do you see how pretty the girl looks today,” said Talaat’s friend Ibrahim Salah as a young woman walked past.
Talaat and a third friend, Alaa Hamed, smiled in agreement.
All three were enjoying a quiet afternoon in the refuge of the secular, Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq â€” far from the chaos of Baghdad. Here they can enjoy the pleasures of life denied them in the turmoil sweeping the rest of the country.
“I have become addicted to this kind of life. I was buried alive back in Baghdad,” said Talaat, who settled in the Kurdish north several months ago.
“At least there is no curfew here. They can hang out anytime they want, without fearing anything,” Talaat said of his two friends, who had come from Baghdad for a visit.
The contrast between life in the three Kurdish-controlled provinces and the Arab-dominated rest of the country is stark.
In Baghdad, few people venture far from the safety of their houses and neighbourhood for fear of bombs, ambushes or death squads of the rival Islamic sect. Even in areas that are less violent, religious zealots enforce a climate of austerity and intolerance that many Iraqis find suffocating.
But in Kurdistan, as the Kurdish region is known, both Iraqi Kurds and Arabs can get their lives back on track, enjoying parties, restaurants and picnics in the safety of Iraq’s oasis of peace.
According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees, about 822,810 Iraqis have been uprooted from their homes by the recent violence to new areas in search of basic security, a figure far higher than an estimate of 600,000 individuals released by Iraqi officials in the ministry of migration and displacement.
Anita Raman, a UNHCR official, said nearly 23,888 families, about 143,328 individuals have settled in Kurdish areas after fleeing central and southern Iraq. That’s about a 69 per cent increase in the number of displaced Arabs in the Kurdish north since early February.
Some critics have cited alleged corruption and political favouritism in Kurdistan, which has been dominated by two Kurdish parties since the US and Britain established a self-governing region for Kurds after the 1991 Gulf War.
On May 9, a suicide truck bomber struck a government building in Kurdistan’s largest city, Irbil, killing at least 14 people in the first major attack there in more than three years.
For many Iraqis â€” Kurds and Arabs alike â€” all that pales in comparison to the anarchy and tyranny of fear gripping the rest of the country.
“It is much better here. If you are not a troublemaker, no one kicks in your door in the middle of the night and throws a hood over your head,” said Hamed, 20, who was on vacation from his home in Baghdad’s Bab Al Sheikh neighbourhood.
Kurds are Muslims like their Arab countrymen. But a secular political climate tolerates bars and liquor stores.
Elsewhere in Iraq, merchants who sell alcohol risk death at the hands of Islamic extremists.
Women in Kurdistan are free to dress in Western clothes if they so choose, and men and women mingle freely at cafes and nightspots. Parents can take their children on outings without fear of sudden, violent death.
On a recent spring day, the road winding through the mountains near Suleimaniyah was jammed with cars filled with families heading for picnics in the cool hills.
Along the roadside, vendors sold chocolates, potato chips and soft drinks. Shepherds tended herds of sheep and goats grazing aimlessly along the rocky slopes.
Among the crowd was Saman Othman, who parked his borrowed SUV at a quiet spot and asked his wife and children to help set up a barbecue grill.
A few yards away, a group of young men were dancing to Kurdish folk music blaring from a recorder. Other families were setting up their own small tables and chairs for a picnic lunch.
“I adore coming up here,” Othman, 47, said as the women in his family sat on straw mats, chewing sunflower seeds and exchanging news of friends and neighbours.
“My kids love it too so I have to bring them here often,” Othman said as he fanned the coals. “This is the only safe place in Iraq.” Othman’s 10-year-old daughter Daliyah said she loves hiking in the hills with her sisters and friends.
“We like picking flowers,” she said. Her older brother Diyar chimed in: “And we also like volleyball.” In Suleimaniyah, an Arab woman who gave her name only as Um Iman, or Mother of Iman, was shopping for a party. As she filled her shopping bag with candies, pastries and fruit, she was phoning friends on her mobile, inviting them to her home.
“Of course we are happy here,” she said. “It’s all coming back to us â€” the life we used to live before.” Um Iman moved to Suleimaniyah several months ago with her husband and two daughters after they “miraculously survived” a car bomb attack at Mustansiriyah University, where her children were studying.
At least 70 people, mostly students, were killed in the January 16 attack.
“I am having a tea party tonight, which I would never think of doing if I were still in Baghdad,” she said.