Forget clubbing in Ibiza or partying in Thailand – turns out, Iraq has an expansive nightlife, and British women are even heading there on holiday...
While ISIS occupies Mosul and fighting continues in and around Baghdad, one corner of Iraq is remaining resolute against the onslaught of war that sprawls across the rest of the country. Erbil – also known as Irbil, or (curiously) Hawler – is still a cosmopolitan hub of expats, shopping malls and nightclubs. Women rarely cover their hair, short skirts don’t warrant the attention of the so-called ‘morality police’, and alcohol is easily accessed – costing about $10 a drink.
Even though ISIS got within 40km of the city last year, the largely Christian, Kurdish region was able to fend off the extremists – and remains largely safe. And despite the conflict elsewhere in their country, residents are still determined not to flee. And their presence means that increasingly numbers of nightclubs are popping up across the city centre – even drawing holidaymakers from the UK, keen for an alternative night out.
‘There are a few options here in Erbil for nights out,’ says Angelina Miran, 36, from Windsor – who’s been living in Iraq for five years now. ‘All the hotels have decent bars, and while the closest thing to a pub would be The German Bar, it’s everything you would expect, with huge glass pints of ice cold draft beer and huge screens for the football.
‘My favourite place to go for cocktails though would probably be Onyx, which is a quality restaurant with jazz music, and then downstairs there’s the Lotus Club which is pretty much a first here in Erbil. I went on opening night in August, and it was everything you could want from a nightclub. In fact, if it wasn’t from the stifling heat outside when we left at 3am, you could have thought you’d been on a night out in London.’
Dubbed the first ever ‘ultraclub’, with its UV lighting and ‘00s English dance hits, Lotus is already known for attracting travellers from all over Erbil – and even as far away as Iran. In fact, reports over the last few years suggest that thousands of young Iranians make the journey over the border into Iraq every weekend – ditching their hijabs upon entry and quite literally letting their hair down.
‘There are more nightclubs being built [in Erbil] than mosques,’ explains BBC reporter Jiyah Gol, who’s based in northern Iraq and compares the fastest growing city in Iraq to the next Dubai. ‘This place has become a mecca for fun in this region.’
‘On a night out, nothing is off limits here,’ explains Angelina. ‘Mini dresses, short skirts and spaghetti straps, or low cut tops are all normal. It’s actually quite liberating to have a night out at least once a month surrounded by expats and Kurds who have returned to the city. The only real differences from nights out in the UK are the tight security – and the male female ratio, which sometimes makes me feel a little out numbered. Sometimes when I’ve been out with my girlfriends, I do tend to find myself getting stared at in a creepy way by the men.’
‘I have always felt safe here even more so now even though we are surrounded by war,’ the radio presenter adds. ‘You can’t ignore the fact that everyday you see refugees who’ve been displaced asking for money on the streets, but not all of Iraq is the way you see it on the news.
‘My sister actually visited us for a ten-day holiday from London recently, and she loved it. We spent most nights together, eating sushi on the 21st floor of the Divan hotel, drinking cocktails at the Bond bar, whiling away the hours at wine and cheese nights at Onyx and dancing at The Lotus Club. It’s completely brilliant.’