It is emasculating to board a plane to a war zone, for a flight that you’re convinced will be the most perilous of your life, only to find the cabin crammed with well-groomed businessmen of various nationalities and an entire polka banddrunk on the in-flight winewho inform you that this is their third Oktoberfest in Iraq. But then, that is just one of the many surreal aspects of being a tourist in the safest part of the most dangerous place on earth.
The Pank Tourist Village & Resort is a collection of nearly 60 identical vacation homes with bright tile roofs and postage-stamp lawns, high above the Rawanduz valley two hours northeast of Erbil. The homes are numbered, and they line a sleepy U-shaped street that could easily pass for a thoroughfare in suburban Tucson, Arizona. The brainchild of a Kurd who made his fortune in Sweden importing rice, the resort also has six VIP vi llas, three helicopter landing pads, and an amusement park with a big white Ferris wheel and a ride that features fiberglass swans.
I arrive on a cool Friday afternoon as Iraqi families wander around eating ice cream and picnic next to the “Shingelbana”a 1,400-meter-long toboggan ride that descends into the valley below. Up the hill a spinning UFO gains momentum and lifts off. Its mostly male passengers begin ululating wildly and stamping in unison. It’s certainly the closest thing Iraq has to Disney World. But to a foreigner, the idea of a thrill ride in Iraq comes across as a little . . . redundant. In a country this unstable and tumultuous, one wonders, who could possibly be thinking, What do I have to do to get some excitement around here?
As it turns out, the toboggan ride is something of a disappointment: On my way back up the hill afterward I notice quite a few cigarette butts and soda cans scattered about. This is not a good sign. Any thrill ride that’s accommodating enough to let you take drags of a Marlboro while sipping a Syrian Diet Coke is in need of some serious rethinking.
In 2005, Kurdistan launched 30-second ad spots in the West that touted the region’s splendors. “Have you seen the other Iraq?” a voice-over asks in one. “It’s spectacular. It’s joyful.” Kurdish kids run around in slow motion and wave American flags, saying “Thank you, America!” to the camera. In another, a little girl in a white gown clutches a glowing orb. “Share the dream,” she says, as the orb explodes into blinding white light to a crescendo of strings.
This marketing campaign was conceived by Russo Marsh + Roger, a Sacramento, California–based P.R. firm with strong Republican ties. (Its principal, Sal Russo, founded the pro-Iraq War organization Move America Forward.) But the biggest cheerleader for the Other Iraq isn’t just politically conservativeit’s also evangelically Christian. The man who produced and directed those commercials, a P.R. executive named Bill Garaway, was doing relief work in Kurdistan for Servant Group International (SGI), a Christian missionary organization. Among its goals, according to its website, is “to share the truth and beauty of Jesus with our Muslim friends.” Garaway, it turns out, was recruited by SGI’s founder, Douglas Layton, who later became the director of the Kurdish Development Corporation. After the Gulf War, the two men secured hearings in the U.S. Senate to expose Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds. They also wanted to establish an Evangelical outpost in Iraq. Now Layton and Garaway are starting the country’s first travel companyThe Other Iraq Tours. One of the packages they offer, The Other Holy Land, focuses on the biblical sites in the area.