Living in Iraq is not exactly the thrill a minute adrenaline surge you might think. Frankly, it can be a little boring, especially when it comes to finding something to do in you free time. Drinking is fun, and many expats certainly indulge on a rather frequent basis, but there must be more to life. In Erbil, there are no cinemas. There are go-karts... at $20 a lap. There is bowling... at $10 per person per game. There aren't any sports clubs, like Hashers, found in other expat heavy cities. There are no theatres or regular philharmonics, and the 3 museums are quite ordinary. Plus lack of buses, or general public transport, make weekend excursions very expensive. So when pressed for something to do, I asked a co-worker. "You should go to the park" he replied. So that's what i did.
Erbil seems to have a disproportionate number of parks. Although, they are often more concrete than greenery. Even still, this is where the locals come in droves in the early evening as the numerous fountain do seems to drop the localized temperature by a few much appreciated degrees. The city's 1-2 parkland punch comes a short (though sweaty) stroll from the central Citadel. Shanidar Park has the most bang for the buck. Along with the ubiquitous children's playground and mandatory lame fountains, there is a man-made mountain/castle hybrid smack-dab in the middle of the action. Housed in the 'mastle' is a gallery/art store with a rotating exhibition. Most certainly more than you'll see anywhere else in the city. But the main draw is the death-defying ariel tramway. The best part is getting on and off as it hardly slows down, forcing you to dive on in a frantic embarkment procedure for which you pay 5,000 IQD for the pleasure. Priceless!
Shockingly, for a city with 50C+ temperatures and relentless desert sun,
Directly across the street from Shanidar, is Minaret (minare) Park.
Smaller, though equally concrete, the parks' claim to fame is the roughly 800 year old Mudhafaria Minaret. The secondary symbol of the city (after the Citadel) the minaret is one of the few old things in town. While yo may not expect it, most of Erbil would age around 100 (though the citadel mound is an estimated 6,000-8,000 years old). So this minaret is about as close as you'll get to historic sites in the city. Recently renovated and well fenced off, i quite like the drunken tilt the minaret has taken, rivalling that of the Tower of Pisa in Italy. But other than the minaret and the tramway exit/entrance, there isn't really much else to see/do. There are a couple of simple cafes serving tea and nargile (hukka/shisha) and the always comical Chinese style exercise equipment which the locals can never really figure out quite how to use properly.
But if size matters, and i am here to advocate it does not, than Sami Abdul Rahman Park is your place. A taxi ride out of the centre, it is unquestionably the citys' largest and perhaps most 'park-like' park. Large grassy areas house impromptu dance parties, birthdays and general merriment. There are even love-boat rentals on the somewhat pungent artificial ponds.
The good news is the parks are all free. And they are ideal places to not only people watch, but people interact. It is almost a certainty that if you sit on a bench that a friendly local will start a chat within a few minutes. These are generally not people looking to sell something or scam you in some Machiavellian way, but simple curious locals looking to chat with a foreigner. I always get questions about "what locals do". Well, this is your answer.