“We’ve been in Erbil for eleven years now”, Gunter Voelker tells me. “I didn’t know anything about Iraqi Kurdistan but we said, let’s go check it out. We checked it out, and stayed here.”
Gunter is the owner of a German beer garden, the Deutscher Hof, in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital Erbil. The hugely popular drinking hole has kept its doors open for over a decade through economic boom, the 2014 Oil Crisis and the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in their de-facto Iraqi capital Mosul. Gunter explains that “when they [ISIS] got as close as the town Qaraqosh, it was shit.”
The Autonomous Region of Iraqi Kurdistan is an anomaly when considered in the context of its geographical region in the world. Predominantly composed of Kurds, the region is remarkably safe for a continent fraught with terrorism and civil war. Governed by President Masoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish region makes up one of four parts of Kurdistan, a geo-cultural region where Kurdish people make up the majority. Steeped in history, it is also rich in both oil and culture. The citadel at the centre of Erbil is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the city itself lays claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
Hidden within the winding backstreets of Ainkawa, the Christian quarter of the city, is the Deutscher Hof, a popular German-themed drinking spot for foreigners and locals in the city. Black, yellow and red adjourn the long benches under its trees while mist cascades down in the summer months in which temperatures can reach 50 degrees. Sporting events are broadcast live almost daily, and when the German national football team is playing free shots are passed out when the team scores. Beer and ingredients imported from Gunter’s native Germany prove hugely popular with both foreigners and local residents wishing to escape the routine of Heineken and Tuborg. German dishes are made to order, and all in all the leafy green enclave is a welcome oasis in the heat and bustle of Erbil.
“2016 for us was quite a strong year, we saw a small increase in sales” Gunter explains, but how did the German come to establish the Deutscher Hof in Erbil? “It is a long story,” he elaborates. “I have over thirty years’ experience as a chef, I started in the German army where I was responsible for food and recreation.” Gunter worked throughout wars in Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia and it was here that he began to formulate an idea of what he could do next. He tells me that “all the local NGO staff were coming into our place to eat and relax – this was the essential idea of the Deutscher Hof.”
However, the Erbil Deutscher Hof was not Gunter’s first attempt at establishing a drinking spot for people working and living in a component country of what George W. Bush infamously called “The Axis of Evil”. Gunter explains that “In 2003, in Kabul, Afghanistan, we set up the first Deutscher Hof.” The bar was relatively short-lived; amidst a Taliban government and the continuing US invasion of the country, the situation in Kabul deteriorated. “After 2005, we realized the situation in Kabul was too dangerous”, Gunter says. It was at this point that he looked to Iraqi Kurdistan to the West.
“We very quickly found out that Kurdistan is a free country, everyone could come in, not just the expats but also the locals of Erbil”, Gunter describes. But it was far from a successful start for the second Deutscher Hof. “It was very hard at first, the first five years were very up and down. It was a very tough time as no one knew where, or what, the Deutscher Hof was. Sometimes we would only get two or three customers a night and only occasionally would we get a full house.” This was soon to change however.
“2013 was an amazing year,” says Gunter, “the place and the whole city were booming.” Erbil, it seemed, was bursting into life. Erbil International Airport, a brand new facility with the least expensive aviation fuel in Iraq, started to engage with flights across the globe. Flights would arrive from European cities such as Munich and Vienna while daily flights to Istanbul and Dubai connected Erbil with the business cities of the Middle East. The airport is one of the region’s busiest terminals.
The political situation in Iraq, once a warzone, had begun to ease to the extent that the Kurdish Region was now a shade of green on the FCO website, signaling it as being “safe to travel to”. Tourism to the city spiked, tour companies and local guides began to welcome visitors eager to see the ancient region for themselves. Oil in Iraqi Kurdistan, estimated at around 45 billion barrels if President Barzani is to be believed, began to be extensively drilled as multinational oil companies started to establish themselves in the region, bringing with them a large workforce. Erbil, after a hugely successful 2013, was named as the Arab Tourism Capital of 2014.
The newfound success of the city and the Deutscher Hof was short-lived however. “2014, again, seemed tough as the oil price crisis saw people and money moving out of the country. But our position was strong enough then to remain successful.” The crisis, which saw the price of a barrel halved, was not the only crisis to hit the region that year as that June, ISIS took control of nearby Mosul, on the doorstep of the Kurdish region and only a 90-minute journey from Erbil. “The oil crisis and ISIS in Mosul in 2014 saw both come together,” elaborates Gunter.
The region has its borders protected by the revered Peshmerga, meaning “those who face death”, so even with the close proximity to Mosul many in Erbil felt secure. Yet Gunter explains that “when ISIS took over Mosul, no one really seemed to care. It was only in August when they got to the Mosul Dam and when they got as close as the town of Qaraqosh when the severity of the situation dawned.”
I visited the region last summer and visited the Deutscher Hof frequently. Security, as was the case throughout the entire city, was paramount. A guard would check your possessions before entering, while big nights at the bar such as the France vs Germany Euro 2016 Semi-Final were protected by increased surveillance, as guards would keep a careful eye on the area from nearby streets.
Gunter is optimistic about what the future holds for the region and the Deutscher Hof. “We all have a good mood about 2017, everyone is happy.” he tells me. “Thanks to the recent liberation of Mosul and an improving security situation in the area, at the Deutscher Hof we expect a huge increase.” The election of Donald Trump in the United States, much-hated in many circles, is met with enthusiasm by some in Iraqi Kurdistan. Gunter clarifies that “the election of Trump is a good thing for us, everyone is happy about it, it is a good chance for the area to get peace.” Iraqi Kurdistan’s support for Trump, and the Republican Party as a whole, stems from Bush’s actions to invade and oust the then-dictator Saddam Hussein. The Halabja chemical attack in 1988, conducted against the Kurdish people by the Hussein regime, killed around 5,000 Kurdish people in the east of the region and injured many more. The removal of Hussein by Bush has thus led his party to become popular in the area.
The Deutscher Hof is by no means just a standard expatriate bar; it is unique in both its geographical position and its theme and quality. Gunter believes that even after eleven years, the success of the Deutscher Hof will continue to grow. “People like us because we are faithful, we bucked the trend in 2014 and stayed in Erbil, it was a brave but ultimately good decision.” Gunter also claims that the kitchen and bar staff are a key component to the bar’s success: “My staff are like family.”
When I asked Gunter why his bar is so popular, he laughed and said “our regular guests are involved and we make it feel like home. That is the big point of the Deutscher Hof. What makes my bar such a great place? That is a question you have to answer.” I think back to moments last summer. Sipping a pint of imported beer under the coolness of the mist watching France cause an upset knocking Germany out of the Euros… all taking place in the safety of an ancient city despite danger only a short drive away.
For me, it is not a question I will have to think on much to answer.
Featured Image: Gunter Voelker