Lucy travelled to Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, with the British Council for the second Erbil Literature Literature Festival. She wrote about her experiences for the British Council.
“It was the exclamation mark that said it. In the days before I left for Erbil, my emails invariably included an exclamation mark, in parentheses, after the word Iraq. ‘I can’t next week because I’ll be in Iraq (!).’ ‘Let’s meet up when I’m back from Iraq (!).’ I’m pretty sure there was an exclamation mark in brackets when I spoke about the Erbil Literature Festival, too, translating as, ‘Can you believe it?’ and, ‘I know!’ and, ‘Aren’t I intrepid – or maybe foolish, haha!’ A sort of nervous laugh-cough, which I didn’t realise I’d been doing.
I noticed only this morning, reading an email from my publisher that ended with Iraq, bracket, exclamation mark, bracket. They’d emailed to double-check something, and, dashing off a holding email in a brief patch of wi-fi, I’d written, ‘I’ll get back to you at the end of the week when I’m back from Iraq.’ It was the first time, I suddenly thought, scrolling back up through the email chain, that I’d written it straight, as an uninflected place-name, no need to anticipate or acknowledge or defuse a reaction.
It was odd arriving in Erbil. The road signs show that it’s 87 km to Kirkuk and 81 to Mosul, an only slightly-more-reassuring 320 to Baghdad; placenames that have become synonymous with conflict, car-bombings, hijackings and all the rest of it. Notorious, freighted names; and the nearest of them less than an hour’s drive away. But on patches of wasteland at the sides of the road young boys played football; girls with plastic Disney backpacks giggled as they walked home from school; mothers pushed their toddlers on brightly-coloured swings in playgrounds.
Hoardings along the side of the road advertise new business centres and prospective developments, and our hotel rises sleek and shiny and new, like any hotel in any city in the world. It shouldn’t be surprising but it is, how ordinary life goes on, and just how ordinary, in many ways, much of that life is.” Read more here