Iraq through a different lens

February 2024

 

While sipping a cup of sweet tea, a Christian priest in Iraq once told me that war in his country is like a box of tissues. Each tissue represents a war and when you pull out one tissue, another has already appeared.

The story of war in Iraq is, tragically, an all too familiar one. Scarred by decades of conflict, the country has become synonymous with violence and unrest, marred by ethnic, religious, and political tensions, often manipulated by and for the gain of foreign powers. But this, of course, is not the full story of the country that became my home away from home.

I fell in love with Iraq. A country full of contrasts and contradictions, enriched with a layered and fascinating cultural and religious heritage, exceptional natural beauty, and a diverse people who personify grit and resilience. It’s also the place I serendipitously met the love of my life at a “beach party” inside the Australian Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone. But that’s another story…

In December 2016, I traveled to northern Iraq where the military operation was underway to retake the city of Mosul and the surrounding area after several years under the control of the so-called Islamic State. I headed to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and an entry point to Mosul. What was initially intended as a two-week photojournalism project turned into almost three years of living in northern Iraq covering the country’s struggle to defeat ISIS and recover from decades of conflict.

From 2016 to 2019, I shared a house with five housemates from Europe, the US and Indonesia, located in a Christian neighborhood called Ankawa in the city of Erbil. The house – fondly known as ‘the Castle’ – became a hub of social activity for locals and expats alike, with frequent rooftop gatherings, often around a campfire. During that time, I got to know the Iraqi and Kurdish people, whose unending hospitality cannot be overstated and whose unwavering determination to pursue a path towards peace is a source of continuous admiration.

Beyond the conflict, I’ve documented stories and images that offer a different perspective of the country that exemplify its grit, fortitude, and captivating beauty. After victory was declared over ISIS in Mosul in July 2017, mainstream media attention diverted to other issues, prompting many reporters and photojournalists to leave the country. I decided to stay at the Castle and continue covering the equally important post-conflict story of recovery and rebuilding.

In the summer of 2019, I bid an emotional farewell to the Castle and the country, but I continue to return to Iraq as frequently as I can.

Below is a selection of stories and images that highlight a different perspective of this beautiful and fascinating country.

Inside the bazaar at the Erbil Citadel, or Qelat, the historic city center of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, February 2024.

The Ancient City of Erbil

Traveling light but unintentionally loaded with misconceptions of the place I knew little of besides its reputation of being a frequent flash point of conflict, the first time I arrived in Erbil in December 2016 I immediately – and quite unexpectedly – felt at home. With a 30-day visa granted on arrival at Erbil airport (valid only within the semi-autonomous region of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq), the colorful city seemed a world away from the intense battle taking place just over an hour’s drive away in East Mosul.

An Iraqi man serves tea inside a traditional tea house inside the main bazaar at the Erbil Citadel.

A short drive from Ankawa lies the historic center of Erbil with its cheerful bazaar and popular tea houses tucked into the Citadel’s walls. Although the clientele in some of the tea shops is predominantly Kurdish men, there’s always a warm welcome for women and foreigners alike, and of course a delicious cup of traditional ‘chai’.

A Kurdish man sells spices, dates and other food products at a stall inside the Erbil bazaar.

For almost three years, I felt proud to call Erbil my home. Despite its proximity to the war against ISIS, Erbil remained a relatively safe place to live. Once the bloody battle against ISIS in Mosul was over, Erbil – and most of the Kurdish region of Iraq – enjoyed an elevated state of security, with low crime rates and a welcoming atmosphere that enabled expats to explore with relative ease the city and region’s many natural and cultural attractions.

A view from a tea shop in the Erbil Citadel.
A young man works inside a gun repair shop owned by his father at the Erbil bazaar.

Motorbikes and Horses

During my time living in Erbil, I decided to learn how to ride a motorcycle, something I’d wanted to do for years. With the help of my friend and fixer Makeen Mustafa, I bought my first motorcycle at Erbil’s main bazaar in June 2018.

One of the main reasons I wanted and needed a motorcycle in Erbil was to travel more easily to the luxurious Erbil International Equestrian Club, located approximately 30 minutes’ drive from where I lived in Ankawa. There, I photographed the club’s regular racing events and glamorous showjumping competitions.

Horse racing at the Erbil International Equestrian Club in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region.

The Erbil International Equestrian Club, established in December 2014 and the first of its kind in Iraqi Kurdistan, has been hosting horse races at its international standard racetrack since March 2017. While spectators could previously place bets for the chance to win prizes such as phones and refrigerators, on December 1, 2017, the club held the first professional racing event where cash could be won.

Spectators enjoy an afternoon of horse racing at the Erbil International Equestrian Club in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

“This is the first race on a professional track with cash betting,” explained Godar Ibrahim, the Club’s former Finance Manager. “They’ve been held in the countryside before but not officially. It gives us pride for Kurdistan to have such a professional place. The club doesn’t have a lot of income so we want to make some money and many people here love horses and want to get some profit from them.” The single largest bet placed at the December 1st event was $100. “He didn’t win in the betting, but he won a heater in the lottery,” said Ibrahim.

To find out more about this story click here.

A Kurdish woman competes in a showjumping competition at the Erbil International Equestrian Club in Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Aside from photographing the events, I seized the unexpected opportunity to participate in showjumping competitions at the club, something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager.

Dukan Lake, the largest lake in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

A Scenic Gem

Less than 3 hours’ drive from Erbil lies Lake Dukan, a reservoir on the Little Zab River created by the Dukan Dam, which was built between 1954 and 1959.

The lake is a popular spot amongst Kurdish families, particularly for weekend picnics.

A Kurdish man walks along a trail through the Rawanduz Gorge in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

Iraq – in particular the country’s northern region – is endowed with immense – and often overlooked – natural beauty and diversity. From hiking to horse riding to tubing and snowboarding, Iraq has a lot to offer for nature enthusiasts and anyone who loves the great outdoors.

A view of the Zagros Mountains that surround the city of Rawanduz in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Rawanduz Canyon in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
A view of Chavi Land amusement park and the surrounding mountains from a cable car in the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
The mountainous town of Akre in northern Iraqi Kurdistan.

A Horse Named Taj

No matter where I go in the world, I seem to be a magnet for horses, or vice versa…

In June 2023, I came across an initiative called ‘Horses for Hope’ that’s offering equine-assisted learning and psychological therapy to survivors of ISIS captivity and genocide, as well as orphans, less abled people and anyone affected by war and displacement.

Part of the Springs of Hope Foundation, the equine project is run by two young Yazidi men who were themselves captured by ISIS and forced to join the terror group’s ranks as child soldiers.

When I first visited the stables, located in the picturesque countryside near the Yazidi village of Shariya in the Duhok Governorate of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, I was immediately mesmerized by the unexpected sight of a beautiful grey stallion named Taj.

Director of the Horses for Hope program, Daoud, stands with a stallion named Taj at the Horses for Hope stables located near Shariya village in the Duhok Governorate of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Twenty-four-year-old Daoud rides a horse named Taj near the village of Shariya in the Duhok Governorate of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. A member of Iraq's Yazidi ethno-religious community and originally from Sinjar in north-western Iraq, Daoud was captured by ISIS militants when they invaded Sinjar in August 2014 and was subsequently forced to join the terror group's ranks as a child soldier. After escaping, he fled to a Yazidi displacement camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. In 2022, Daoud began working as the Director of the Horses for Hope part, part of the Springs of Hope Foundation, providing equine therapy to survivors of ISIS captivity and genocide, and vulnerable people affected by conflict.
Senior Trainer at Horses for Hope, Barzan, holds foal Sapphire while Yazidi survivor Hadia gently pets him.

To find out more about this extraordinary initiative and how it’s helping Yazidi survivors, click here.

Baghdad: A Historic City with a Bustling Book Street 

With brightly painted mosque domes, bustling streets and bazaars, and an iconic historic center, Baghdad is a fascinating and engaging city. Attracting visitors both Iraq and international, one of its highlights is the intellectual and literary hub of Al-Mutanabbi street. Named after the 10th century classical poet Al-Muntanabbi, the famous street is lined with book shops and outdoor book stalls, interspersed with cozy cafes where some of the great thinkers of the past would gather to share and develop ideas.

People walk along Mutanabbi Street in the old quarter of Baghdad, Iraq.
Two men chat on Al-Mutanabbi Street in the old quarter of Baghdad. The street, named after the 10th century classical Iraqi poet Al-Mutanabbi, is famous for its bookselling and is lined with bookshops and outdoor bookstalls.
Inside a cafe on Al-Mutanabbi Street in the old quarter of Baghdad.
A brightly painted mosque on Al-Rasheed street in downtown Baghdad, Iraq.

Underground Night Life

In February 2019, I was assigned to photograph a party at a nightclub in Baghdad on behalf of the Sunday Times. For the culturally conservative society, night life – particularly where alcohol is served – has been largely absent or hidden until recent years, and remains part of the underground rather than mainstream society. It was great to see young Iraqis enjoying a night of dancing at a packed club along the Tigris River.

Young Iraqis enjoy a party in a nightclub on the Tigris River in Baghdad.
Young people enjoy a party in a nightclub on the Tigris River in Baghdad.

Glitz and Glamour: Kurdistan Fashion Week and a Booming Beauty Industry

Fashion and beauty are big business in Iraq. In September 2018, the city of Erbil hosted the first international standard fashion week to take place in the country.

Kurdistan Fashion Week 2018 kicked off with musical performances by well-known local artists while models glided along the catwalk displaying a range of clothes designed by local talent, from traditional to casual wear. Seventy models took part in the well-attended event – fifty women and twenty men, including Iraqis and internationals who travelled to the Kurdish city from Ukraine, Turkey and Iran.

Click here to see more photos from Kurdistan Fashion Week 2018.

Women prepare for the catwalk at the 2018 Kurdistan Fashion Week in the city of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Beauty treatment is a fast-growing industry in Iraq, with cosmetic centers across the country opening their doors to men and women exercising a renewed sense of freedom and empowerment post-conflict. From lip fillers and Botox to breast implants and liposuction, cosmetic treatment is becoming increasingly popular and accessible, attracting many young Iraqis to go under the knife to alter or enhance their appearance.

Amid the devastation of the city of Mosul, where wearing make up was once a punishable offense, several beauty centers have appeared in the aftermath of the bloody battle against the Islamic State, which controlled the city from June 2014 until their defeat in July 2017. Home to a culturally and religiously conservative society, such centers are a relatively recent feature of the city’s war-torn streets. “Now it’s become a trend for young women,” says Bashar Alani, Manager of the Shahrazad Beauty Center in East Mosul, which opened in June 2018. “Having beauty treatment is not just acceptable in society now, it’s becoming a trend.”

Thirty-one-year-old Saja receives Plasma Skin Tightening treatment at the Shahrazad Beauty Center in East Mosul, which opened in June 2018.

Click here to read more about Iraq’s burgeoning beauty industry.

Spectators enjoy a fireworks display in Erbil ahead of the Kurdish independence referendum in September 2017.
A Kurdish man sells carpets from a stall at the Erbil Citadel in the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The Referendum for Kurdish Independence

On 25 September 2017, Kurds went to the polls to vote in a controversial and unprecedented referendum for Kurdistan’s independence from Iraq.

In the days and weeks leading up to the referendum, hundreds of thousands of people attended pro-independence rallies across the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

While the referendum inspired hope amongst many Kurds seeking an independent Kurdish state, the vote was condemned as unconstitutional by the Iraqi Central Government, which subsequently imposed sanctions against the Kurdistan Regional Government, including the suspension of all international flights to the region’s airports.

On September 22, 2017, approximately 100,000 people attended a pro-independence rally in Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, ahead of the Kurdish referendum on independence held on September 25, 2017.
A Kurdish woman dressed in a Peshmerga uniform attends a pro-independence rally in Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, ahead of the Kurdish referendum on independence, which took place on September 25, 2017.
Former President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, casts his vote at the Presidential Palace near Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, in the historic and controversial referendum on Kurdistan independence from Iraq on September 25, 2017.
Traditional Kurdish scarves on sale at the main bazaar at the Erbil Citadel.

Clowning Around: Bringing Joy to Displaced Children

The children were visibly eager to get a closer look at the peculiar looking visitors. Bursting with excitement, and perhaps a little trepidation for some, the children ran around laughing and playing with the group of clowns who came to visit them.

The entertainers are Danish and Swedish and form a humanitarian collective called Clowns 4 Care, which travels to crisis areas around the world with the goal of creating positive experiences and happy memories for children.

Children are delighted by the arrival of a group of clowns visiting a camp for internally displaced people in northern Iraq.

In September 2017, the clowns visited a camp for displaced people located between Erbil and Mosul, bringing joy and a momentary escape from reality for the children who live in the camp.

A member of Clowns 4 Care draws face paints onto children inside a displacement camp near the city of Erbil.

Mosul: A Troubled but Resilient City

As the battle raged to retake the remaining pocket of ISIS-held territory in West Mosul, just a few blocks away children dressed in brightly colored dresses and wore ribbons in their hair to celebrate Eid al-Fitr in June 2017.

Still close to the aerial bombardments and ground fighting but within the liberated areas under the control of the Iraqi Army, I was amazed to see how quickly the city’s residents resumed their daily activities, exemplifying their resilience and determination to return to some sense of normality and put the conflict and years of ISIS occupation behind them.

Children visit a makeshift playground to celebrate Eid al-Fitr in West Mosul as the battle to oust the Islamic State group rages just a few streets away.
A little girl eats an ice cream in a recently liberated neighborhood of West Mosul during Eid al-Fitr as the intense battle against ISIS rages a few blocks away.
Children play on a trampoline set up outside abandoned stores amongst the ruins of Mosul's historic centre, which was devastated during the war against the so-called Islamic State, June 2018.

One year after ISIS was defeated in northern Iraq, I returned to Mosul for Eid al-Fitr. With large areas of the city still in ruins, children played in makeshift playgrounds and rode horses into the Tigris River as part of the holiday celebrations.

Young Iraqis ride horses and swim in the Tigris river in Mosul on the first day of Eid al-Fitr in June 2018 almost a year since the city was liberated from ISIS control.
Mosul resident Mohammed, 18, keeps pigeons on the roof of his mother's house in West Mosul. "He works sometimes but he spends half of the money on pigeons," explains his mother Mariam. "Even though he doesn’t have nice clothes to wear, he prefers to look after the pigeons more than himself."
Inside a new cafe in the Hammam Al Mangusha Quarter of West Mosul.

On my recent visit to Iraq in February 2024, I returned to Mosul to see how things have changed. Where gun fights and explosions were once commonplace, there are now museums, visitor centers, markets and cafes.

A lively fish bazaar in the Old City of Mosul, February 2024.

Yazidi Culture and People

With cone-shaped roofs and bright-colored pieces of silk tied around pillars, no trip to northern Iraq would be complete without a visit to Lalish, the holiest temple of the Yazidi faith and the location of the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a central figure in Yazidism.

An ethnoreligious group indigenous to the historical region of Upper Mesopotamia, the majority of Yazidis now reside in northern Iraq. Throughout their history, the Yazidi people have been the victims of multiple genocides, surviving several attempts of cultural and religious eradication. When ISIS militants seized control of most of northern Iraq in 2014, Iraq’s Yazidi population once again became the target of persecution, genocide, and the enslavement of their women and girls.

A Yazidi man visits the Holy Temple in Lalish in the Duhok Governorate of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
A cone-shaped roof in Lalish, the holiest temple of the Yazidi faith, located near the city of Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Inside the Holy Temple in Lalish, the holiest temple in the Yazidi faith.
Yazidis visit the Holy Temple of Lalish, the holiest temple of the Yazidi faith, located approximately sixty kilometers north of the city of Mosul in northern Iraq.
Young Yazidi women take part in a boxing session at Rwanga camp for internally displaced people near the town of Duhok in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The sessions are carried out by boxing coaches Cathy Brown and Greg Williams, who are training three of the women to become boxing coaches themselves so the sessions can continue.
Yazidis gather outside the Holy Temple in Lalish in northern Iraq to celebrate the first Yazidi New Year since victory was declared over ISIS in Iraq.

For centuries, Yazidis have gathered each April to celebrate the Yazidi New Year, or Sere Sal as it’s called in the Kurmanji language, at the Holy Temple of Lalish. Those celebrations came to an abrupt and brutal halt when Islamic State militants captured the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar in August 2014.

In April 2018, a few months after Iraq’s Prime Minister declared victory over ISIS following the recapture of areas that remained under the militant group’s control, Iraq’s Yazidis returned to Lalish to celebrate their new year together.

Women and children get ready inside a cave to celebrate the Yazidi New Year in Lalish in April 2018.
Yazidis gather outside the Holy Temple in Lalish to celebrate the first Yazidi New Year since victory over ISIS was declared in Iraq, April 2018.

Click here to see more photos of the Yazidi New Year celebrations in Lalish.

The green terraces of Sinjar Mountain in the Nineveh Governorate of north-western Iraq. Sinjar is the traditional homeland of the Yazidi people who suffered a genocide at the hands of ISIS militants when the terror group seized control of Sinjar in August 2014.
Yazidi women hold hands while performing a traditional dance outside the Holy Temple of Lalish.
A Yazidi man known as a "servant of the house" burns white string inside the Holy Temple of Lalish in exchange for donations. It is believed that burning the string helps cure the sick, bless the dead and bring good luck to the living.

Saving Panda: From the Streets of Iraq to the USA

One of my fondest memories from Iraq was the time I spent with this pup, who I named Panda because of her beautiful black circled eyes.

In May 2019, while walking home from the supermarket, I came across this young dog scavenging for food in the rubbish bins on a street near my home in Ankawa. Just a few months old and suffering from a hip injury, presumably from being hit by a car, she rushed over to me for a belly scratch. From the moment we met, she was an incredibly affectionate and gentle dog, and perhaps too trusting of people to survive the harsh street life of Iraq.

After following me home, it became immediately clear that she would be staying. Panda captured my heart and I knew I had to find her a safe and loving home. As I was leaving Iraq a few months later, and unable to take her with me, the time was tight to find her a forever home in Kurdistan. After multiple trips to the vet to get her vaccinated and microchipped, the search began, without any success.

Thanks to a compassionate and dedicated charity called War Paws and the incredible generosity of my friend Lyndsey, Panda was soon headed to the USA to begin a new life in her forever home with Lyndsey.

Tea is served on the roadside in the Kurdish countryside in the Erbil Governorate.
Me riding my Honda CB400 in Erbil.