At the first checkpoint, they wave us through.
The sun is setting, and the PA systems in the minarets of the mosques are piping out the evening call to prayer. It shouldn’t be much farther now. The struts on the green Toyota SUV creak as we roll over a rift in the pavement, and a guarda Kalashnikov slung over his shouldersizes us up as we pass his station. We’ve just crossed over into the Ainkawa neighborhood of Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, 200 miles north of Baghdad. Huge blast walls skirt beige cinder-block homes. Around every corner, it seems, is another post of the local peshmerga militia, whose members wear camo uniforms with red berets and carry assault rifles. We head down a deserted side street, but it’s blocked by a concrete barricade. A guard motions for us to turn around, but there’s no room, so my driver puts the Toyota in reverse.
“This is some bullshit,” he says. Finally we see an opening and head for it. “I think it is just here,” he says, pointing. And it is. Our destination is hidden behind a wall on the left side of the street. A crowd of Kurdish men with thick moustaches amble around out front, smoking cigarettes. My driver says he can no longer accompany meto do so would go against his religion. So I step out of the car, bid him farewell, and walk through the gates alone. Though I had some idea what to expect, I wasn’t fully prepared for what I seea scene that must easily rank among the most mind-blowing spectacles in a country full of them: a polka band.
It’s Friday night at the Deutscher Hof restaurant and beer garden. The Iraqi waiters are wearing Bavarian felt hats, and the picnic tables are packed with expats, locals, aid workers, mercenaries, and contractors. A dirndl-clad woman with a garlanded scepter leads a procession. Then the proprietor, a gregarious former German soldier named Gunter, takes the microphone.
“Eez zomebody here a leetle bit thirsty?” he asks. “Anyvun need a beeeer?” The crowd goes nuts. Then the pointy-hatted waiters get to work passing out frothy mugs of Wernersgrüner Pils as the Edelweiss brass band fills the bar with staccato bursts of tuba. Glasses are raised. A sing-along ensues.
The first night of Oktoberfest is under way in Iraq.
For the past six years we’ve seen nothing from Iraq but the images of a failing wara seemingly endless litany of bad news that suggested the country was descending into chaos. But in the north, the picture is different. Kurdistan got a head start building its democracy here when the United States, Great Britain, and France declared the area a no-fly zone in 1991, essentially removing it from the control of Saddam. The Kurdistan Autonomous Region has its own prime minister, a functioning government, and a militia that has secured the border between it and the rest of Iraq. Since then, with the help of prominent American Republicans and Christian Evangelicals, the Kurds have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress, running ad spots, and directing P.R. campaigns to brand themselves the “Other Iraq.” Their efforts appear to be paying off. Foreign investors are flooding in, lured by the promise of free land and 10-year tax breaks. Seas of construction cranes have materialized, ushering in an era of rapid growth. Lately, the Kurds have even embarked on a once-unthinkable endeavor: selling Iraq as a tourist destination.