Contrary to what many westerners believe, the region known as Iraqi Kurdistan is a relatively safe travel destination.
Although it is inside Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region that differs greatly from the rest of Iraq. While certain areas in the region are dangerous, cities like Erbil, Duhok, and Sulaymaniyah are safe. Nevertheless, Iraq is torn by territorial disputes and sectarian violence, and even in the safest cities foreign travelers will encounter signs of the conflicts that exist in the surrounding areas.
I am an aspiring freelance journalist; I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to gather material for some projects I’ve been working on. I hired a professional fixer, Samad Rashid Hasan — a fixer is a local who works as a translator/guide for foreign journalists — to help me search for stories. Being a fixer is the social equivalent of the Jack-of-all-trades: a good fixer will help you navigate the social, political, and cultural landscape of the region, while giving you access to a wide range of stories.
Being a Canadian in Iraqi Kurdistan has its perks. Since Canadian Forces helped the Kurds in the war against ISIS, many Peshmerga (Kurdish) soldiers have deep respect for Canada. This benefited me a few times. For example, upon arrival at a military barracks in Erbil to speak with some Peshmerga soldiers, a commander explained to me that they weren’t allowed to speak with journalists. However, since I was Canadian, he made an exception. If I was any other nationality, he claimed he would have rejected the interview.
In some areas, Iraqi Kurdistan is stunningly beautiful. However, as you drive through the region, an abundance of checkpoints contrasts the beauty and serves as a reminder of ongoing conflicts. At the checkpoints, soldiers are looking for anything unusual: a foreigner, for example, might attract attention. At one of the checkpoints a soldier looked at us and asked, “where are these two men from?” Samad quickly explained we were locals, while I sat there quietly, avoiding eye contact. I have darker features, so I blend in. They waved us through, and Samad burst out laughing: “they all just think you’re Kurdish!” This is part of what a fixer does — they “fix” uncertain situations to ensure things go smoothly.
Samad’s career as a fixer corresponded with the rise of social media and the Kurdish war against ISIS.
“I’d like to thank Mark Zuckerberg,” he once excitedly told me in a taxi, “because Facebook made my career as a fixer!”
Indeed, most of Samad’s gigs come through his Facebook page, which is how I got in touch with him prior to making the trip. However, Samad’s journey as a fixer has been no simple task; it’s been a life altering adventure that’s left him with many stories and a dark sense of humor.
One of Samad’s favourite stories is working along the frontline with Danish journalists in Mosul while the Peshmerga reclaimed the city from ISIS: “we were attacked by mortars … I had never [experienced] anything [like that] in my life…it was really scary.”
However, amidst these dangerous and dark moments in his job, Samad seems to always find room for humour. In his living room, as I became engrossed in the story, he explained to me that amidst the fear of imminent death, he panicked and jumped inside the nearest trench.
“But,” he continued, with the momentum of the story building, “there was uh…you know, uh…‘human remains’…so, I just sat down.”
It took me a moment to realize what he meant before we both burst into laughter: that he had accidentally jumped into the frontline toilet.
There’s a lot I’d like to say about my trip, but I’m already well above the word count for this piece. In short, traveling with a fixer in Iraqi Kurdistan was an incredibly interesting experience. In a conflict zone a good fixer might mean the difference between life and death, and a unique friendship can develop between a journalist and a fixer. In my experience, you journey with your fixer through strange and eerie experiences. You develop a dark sense of humor together, and you get on each other’s nerves. You become close.
But of course, linguistic and cultural barriers still get in the way: as our friendship grew, I offered to act as a “wingman” for Samad in his quest for love. I told him I could talk him up to the locals. “Yeah … well,” he responded, “the problem is that I’ll have to translate for you.”
Brandon Kornelson is an aspiring comics artist/freelance journalist with a degree in History and Sociology from VIU. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org